Eclectic Picnic’s Top Ten Albums of 2012
Welcome back for the annual jostling session for aural bliss. Hopefully, this will be a well balanced and reasonable reflection, rather than the Gorilla Vs. Bear competition for the years most obscure under the radar release. This actually took quite a while to put together, so by the time it is ready for publishing, I’ve learned that the Guardian and I have agreed on No. 1, but little else…. there will be no Taylor Swift or Lana Del Rey up towards the dizzy heights. This is also a Gangnam Style free zone, thankfully.
Compiling a top ten this year was much more difficult than last years task, mainly due to the embarrassment of riches that were on offer… On the whole there was no comparison, with 2012 kindly making us spoilt for choice across so many genres. There were plenty of quality albums that just failed to make my final grade here, namely Jessie Ware’s powerfully mature and classy Devotion, or Chromatics moody and atmospheric Kill For Love, or Matthew Dear’s ‘Beams’. As ever, there was plenty of hype too. Grimes supplied much of that, but two or three good songs and ubiquity a great album do not make, and I could not be convinced. Beach House’s Bloom was a disappointing step back after their ‘Teen Dream’ brilliance, while Flying Lotus also faltered compared to previous efforts. Much hyped, Alt J’s slightly cold and lifeless An Awesome Wave may have won the Mercury Prize, but did little to capture my heart and mind. As one enlightened ledgebag said, it was merely music custom made for Miller ads.
But alas, on to the cream of the crop. So after all those near missed and eliminations, a definitive list became a bit more clear cut. So now you have it, what’s below met the tough but simple rationale: These are the albums that were 2012’s most engrossing, enjoyable, enlightening and above all, rewarding. Maybe you’ll agree, maybe you won’t, see what you think and decide if I have a rashers as to what I’m on about…
10. Bob Mould: Silver Age
Funny that I mentioned an almost futile search for a heavy(ish) guitar album was in vain when I sang the praises of Sugar’s classic ‘Copper Blue’ recently. Little did I know that I wouldn’t have to look too far from the tree for a freshened up slice of muscular and clean riffs, through Mould’s late 2012 effort ‘Silver Age’. Given a shot in the arm by hitting the road to play the Copper Blue songs, and rocking out in a newly formed power trio, ‘Silver Age’ found Mould in absolutely buoyant form. The amps are cranked up to 11, and the melodic surges of power pop that Sugar pioneered so well are audible again with just as much glistening lustre. As a solo effort, it is poles apart from 1989’s Workbook (nothing could ever really match that) and lyrically it can be a bit lacking at times, but in terms of a return to form for clean, heavy guitars with bucketloads of energy, this was exactly what I was in the market for this year. Silver Age showcased a liberated, lean and utterly content Mould letting loose and rocking out to the strains of what is consistently tuneful and powerful record. It’s funny to think that countless young American bands are probably trying to aspire to this level, but just come out with awful, bubblegum emo, despite all their youth, energy and clamour. For Mould, he made it seem easy here. Silver Age breathes freely and freshly as a record. With a youthful vigour, he’s shown them all how it’s done. Not bad at all, he’s 52 this year.
9. Django Django: Self Titled
I always felt the Beta Band broke up too soon. Their career had been marked by a cantankerous experimentalism, and an annoying quirkiness that only served to make their listeners admire them more. However, ‘Heroes to Zeroes’ was a benchmark, and their own admission that when they made their music more compact and accessible, it evolved into a slice of brilliantly innovative and very radio friendly pop. And then of course, just to be even more difficult, they broke up, leaving that sound on ice. That is, until Django Django came along with their confident debut at the turn of the year, and unmistakebly revived that Beta Band sound, so much so it seemed like one very faithful homage. It should hardly be that surprising that The Beta Band’s John McLean is a brother of Django Django’s keyboardist David. But we can’t allow ourselves to be cynical. Django Django should be credited for not only adopting that template, but building on it impressively with the right amount of art rock intelligence to pull off the mish mash of daring harmonies, jangly and jerky guitars and quirky bleeps. Sounds like it could all go awry, but this melting point turned out to be one of the most consistently enjoyable and upbeat set of songs that endured all year. Guitars, experimentalism, in the same sentence as pop and radio? That was a triumph in itself that got 2012 off to an auspicious start. Its playful bounce and natural flow was a marked contrast to Alt J’s overrated, cold and mechanical ‘An Awesome Wave’, and if they were looking to give to give the Mercury Prize to a guitar/kerboard toting combo, surely this was the logical choice.
8. Killer Mike: RAP Music:
It’s a generation or two ago since Public Enemy were changing lives left right and centre with their incendiary brand of politically charged hip hop, which indiscriminately genre hopped, and inspired all that came into contact with it. Following hot on their heels, Rage Against the Machine invented rap metal to vent political bile in the most spectacular style, with Zack De La Rocha probably responsible for cultivating more left wing political views than any elected US Official ever. But since then, politically charged music with feeling has dried up, and is almost a bit taboo, or at the very least, lacking the necessary punch of its forebearers. You could say, until Killer Mike’s RAP Music made it seem like a rising Phoenix From The Flames. With R.A.P. music standing for ‘Rebellious African People’s’ Music, Killer Mike doesn’t hold back from the get go, and with the muscle of El P’s brilliant and varied production driving the album, it’s a heavy and uncompromising synergistic tour de force between the two. Mike is lyrically on fire, spouting impossibly sharp blasts on all manner of subjects, with all the necessary delicious rhyming to wow the aficionado’s. Politically, ‘Reagan’ is the standout, a brutally forceful educational lesson with an explosive impact due to the duo’s sparring, while ‘Untitled’ is far more subtle, but just as impressive with its intelligence. El-P’s ‘Cancer4Cure’ also came out this year, to critical acclaim, but it’s a testament to the surprisingly sparky and unpredictable chemistry between the two that R.A.P Music easily outshone it as one of the year’s most powerful, persuasive and inventive albums.
7. Lone: Galaxy Garden
Matt Cutler’s previous effort ‘Emerald Fantasy Tracks’ made it onto my Top Ten for 2010 (even though it was actually released in very early 2011, a faux pas on my part)At the time, I described it as a release where Cutler ‘takes the best of Boards Of Canada, combines that with early 90’s acid house and 808 State vibes, basically ‘puts a donk on it’, and makes it one of the most mindblowingly euphoric and dancefloor friendly long players of the year’. This time, the follow up can claim to have massively expanded beyond those horizons. You just know Cutler painstakingly ventured outside the box here. This year’s opus shows his previous ideas being stretched to new boundaries, and a producer who is comfortably at ease with the confidence to produce a much broader palate of sounds. He’s still frenetic and not for the faint hearted at points, the prime example being shameless early nineties rave up ‘Crystal Caverns 1991’. But this isn’t brash. Its sheer fun, nice and gleeful, and wonderfully energetic without being intense. He’s also clearly too ambitious with his soundscape to be saddled with a tag of just being mindless ‘neo rave’. The over compensation is welcome, for the new territory of collaborations are the album’s superb points, with vocals adding a whole depth and range of emotion to ‘As a Child’ and the Aphex Twinny ‘Cthulhu’ with Machinedrum. Just to round off the vocal element, the beautifully pleasant ‘Spirals’ is brought to life by unknown quantity Anneka. For a ‘ravey’ track, ‘Lying In The Reeds’ is incredibly soothing, yet was perfectly at home in DJ Sets by DJ’s such as Tim Sweeney and Todd Terje over the course of the year. Overall, his production nous is infinitely more polished and refined compared to this record’s predecessor. Galaxy Garden ended up being so much more mature and complete. But perhaps the best achievement of this album all lies in a bit of irony. There is always so much going on in each track, produced in Attention Deficit Disorder manner, and with such a diverse range of energetic and cathartic soundscapes, this is ultimately where Cutler has managed to instil as much order as he ever has on record. It’s a musical paradox. It may be manic at times, and swing in mood, but it completely energising and accessible. In terms of this year’s electronic outputs, it was a wonderful showcase in blending old and new like never before.
6. John Talabot: Fin
The successful dance album is a rare breed, and an achievement that’s difficult to pull off. In a market that aggressively demands 7 minute bangers custom built for a whopping sound system, the pressing need for an album is secondary, and when a producer often does come up with the goods, it can be a bloated or one dimensional affair, devoid of the feeling, range and diversity that makes any self respecting long player. A dance album that genuinely stands out is one that requires adventurism, individuality, a unique take on a sound and ideally, a underlying current of emotive appeal. If that was a reference guide, Barcelona’s John Talabot studiously devoured it in spades before methodically putting it into proactive action on ‘Fin’, an album which crossed over from the club friendly environment directly into the dinner party friendly homes with consummate ease, without sacrificing an inch of feeling. A producer who was saddled with hype due to some brilliantly received sets, remixes and manning the Spanish label ‘Hivern’, ‘Fin’ could have floundered under the expectation. Instead, it is a masterpiece of mood throughout, and a swirling mix of thinking man’s house, synths, dub and disco all in one. At times eerie, at times breezy, Fin never loses the run of itself, and across the board, the songs are a welcome slice of brevity in a game that often stretches into nothingness. Never bound by the banal and lacklustre in dance music, Talabot constantly thinks outside the box, with vocals and chants competing over each other on every track, and endless samples of oddities. Opening ‘Depak Ine’ evokes a more lacquered, 21st century of Leftfield’s seminal ‘Release The Pressure’, while Destiny, (with fellow Spaniard Pional) typifies what the Talabot raison d’etre is all about, triumphant builds and joyful releases, probably best served on the beach but equally as palatable in the joyful environs of a Club. Where Dance music can often be accused of being mechanical, soulless and heavy handed, (and that includes A LOT of house releases), Fin turned the other cheek. Across the entirety of the album, it offered a wondrously vibrant and clear sense of feeling very, very alive.
5. The Robert Glasper Experiment: Black Radio
Robert Glasper, a darling of Gilles Peterson’s affection, and in turn, the new school of contemporary jazz, should probably deserve far more plaudits for one of the year’s more unnoticed gems, the amazingly impressive and ambitious Black Radio. Under the guise of ‘The Robert Glasper Experiment’, and with his ridiculously talented backing band in tow, the ‘Experiment’ in question is a juggling act of jazz, r & b, hip hop (and an acute sense of what is now ‘Urban’) to map out a blueprint for a proposed future of black music. He didn’t make it easy either. Each track is a collaboration with a diverse and supremely rich cast including big hitters such as Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def. Most are originals, whilst some were concerned with some leftfield covers takes on classics. Generally, this kind of scope would end up as a sprawling mess of disjointed ideas and no rhythm, but Glasper guides the daring risk of the project through the unchartered territories with a calming and smooth subtlety. Sounds never before associated with jazz (Vocoders, Korgs, blips and bleeps) suddenly seem to be at consummate ease together, and the experimentalism of the ‘Experiment’ is soothingly delicate. Its a record driven by an adventurous and irreverent rhythm section, spacious production, Glasper’s ghostly keys, and vocals, although totally diverse, that ever stray too far from being deeply full of soul. The finale to the album is the piece de resistance. With Glasper’s obsessive ‘Kid A’ influence taking hold, the band take on an amazingly ethereal version of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Casey Benjamin’s vocoder vocals are bruised and fragile, making it become utterly unrecogiseable, before it evolves into an encroachingly eerie and captivating aural experience, defying all notion of structure before slowly erupting to a mesmerising and explosive finish. Suitably, its arguably the most daring track on the album, but contains all the elements from the rest of the album and the concept that encapsulates why the experiment was so wonderfully successful.
4. Grizzly Bear: Shields
The fermenting in the indie consciousness of just how good Veckatimest was, and the teasing of the individual band members offerings in between, put Grizzly Bear under immense pressure with the release of ‘Shields’. And after some initial frowning, head scratching and patience, it grew to become one of the year’s best, and firmly deserving of that much sought after tag of any ultimately quality album, ‘A real grower’. Not only was Shields a grower, it was a richly rewarding long player, and one that showed the band gaining a steely and aggressive edge. Never fear though, that highly charged chanty side, where the haunting harmonies echo impossibly aching vulnerabilities was retained in spades the size of those on the artwork. To balance this across a record, and have something to stand up to Yellow House and Veckatimest was hugely ambitious. But they certainly got there in the end, in what I feel, was driven by the true ‘Daddy Bear’, Daniel Rossen.
Rossen’s guitars’ swarm this album, whether it’s the jangly, crashing urge of Sleeping Ute, or the frenetic bursts of ‘Speak in Rounds’. But the more you got accustomed to Shields, the more you realised he was balancing out the record beautifully as it progressed. “Yet Again” was a pinpoint single to represent the mid point of the album, with as I described upon release, a melodious sequence of pitch perfect notes, evoking some distinctly Beach Boy harmonies and a resulting state of pop nirvana. The finale of the record is more akin to the instant explosive impact of the beginning, but this time, the acoustic guitars were treated with more delicacy and finesse, resulting in the intense melodic beauty of a song like “Half-Gate,”. Probably my favourite overall, the very first listen of the chorus resulted in a pang like no other when the epic combo of Rossen’s vocals, the crying, strained strings and Chris Bear’s outrageously inventive drumming striking through my chest like a spear. In terms of all they’ve done so far, to me, Half Gate is one of their most singular emotive masterpieces. You get the sense that the only disappointment with Shields was that the surging momentum towards the end is over all too soon. When I originally waxed lyrical about Shields upon release, I pointed out that album closer (they love their sublime closing tracks) ‘Sun In My Eyes’ was ‘Epic, inventive, intelligent and evocative, which is a bit like the album as a whole, and very representative of one the finest bands out there today.’ With year end on our doorstep, that view hasn’t wilted one bit, affirming ‘Shields’ as one of the year’s finest releases, and a band who have very much risen to a whole new plateau of esteem.
3. Kendrick Lamar: Good kid, m.a.a.d city
Hip Hop should really be built for lessons of insightful intelligence, and wonderful story telling. The scope of what hip hop is completely allows for that, so thank god Kendrick Lamar is taking it to the next level. With ‘M.a.a.d city’, he released not just one of the best hip hop albums of the year, but one of the best, ‘period’. To me, this sounded like a post 2008, recessionary take on the genre. This is a stripped back and often insightful account about real life, distancing itself from the obscene materialism, gun toting gangsta attitude and shock factor mysogyny that has always plundered the mainstream. Lamar is a story teller, and an engrossing one at that. Not only that, he’s modest, reluctant and careful, issuing us with cautionary tales of real life and perils in modern day Compton A bit like a nouveau antithesis to that self proclaimed menace to society, Compton’s original trail blazer, Eazy E. Even with the most uninteresting ‘boy meets girl’ scenario, album opener ‘Sherane’, Lamar’s recounting of falling for this girl is riveting and compelling in its delivery, and so utterly engrossing, its abrupt ending comes like a shock to the system. The tone for the record is set from there on in, with killer after killer. ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’ is an instant anthem, while the wildly aggressive ‘Backseat Freestyle’ is a brilliantly humourous tongue in cheek take on the shamelessly boisterous Lil Wayne school of thought. The stand out is the mesmerising ‘The Art of Peer Pressure’. An impossibly mature and compelling account of what it’s like to be uncomfortable and immersed in gang culture and thug life, Lamar is uncompromisingly frank about past misdemeanours. But the humbly eloquent delivery of his real emotions, contrasted with the soundbites of his would be cohorts, is a more powerful lesson for a young teenager growing up in that environment than anything a school curriculum could ever teach. Not only is he telling stories, he’s teaching lessons, and they all have meaning. The production is nailed on, showcased best with a wonderful Beach House sample in ‘Money Trees’, while Swimming Pools, if a nod to that Purple Drank sound, completely blows it out of the water and takes it to new levels (puns wholly intended) M.a.a.d City shows Lamar being brave enough to be a rapper who is open, astute and honest with his feelings and observations. He is a young man who is clever enough to execute his tales in this stunningly diverse and fitting fashion. Because of this, the M.a.a.d City we experience is a voyage of discovery, coming across a slew of stories, lessons, downright entertainment and everything in between. A major talent has arrived. If this is the future of hip hop, lets go with it.
2. Wild Nothing: Nocturne
Jack Tatum’s project Wild Nothing first came to the fore with ‘Gemini’ in 2010, a perfectly nice and breezy collection of inoffensive guitar pop. A pretty solid debut at least, but managed to raise indie eyebrows across the board at most. If ‘Gemini’ ticked boxes, Nocturne ventured further, passing with flying colours. At the time of release, I described it as ‘ evoking a very 80’s dreamscape, and essentially, the album makes a stab at claiming ownership of that ‘dream pop’ tag… It’s not background and meaningless, and it doesn’t veer towards the boredom of chillwave’.. Whereas Dream Pop is something that came out of the blocks very slowly, with initial bands like Joy Zipper disappearing without trace, and before Beach House trademarked their own blissed out sound, with Nocturne, Tatum has bumped a real sense of urgent happiness into it. In terms of production, he quickly developed a massive depth to the ‘dreamscape’, but by doing little but adding the most subtle of details, like a real, human drummer (essential), a healthy garnish of strings(stunning on ‘Shadow’) and perfectly judged guitar reverb exactly where necessary(all throughout). But for an album this good, it goes way beyond production. Nocturne is about real, tangible songs, and plenty of them. There’s a freshness and vibrancy to the nature of these tunes, and the hooks and melodies stand out in such an outrageously healthy fashion. The influences are a perfect blend of Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, The Smiths and Aztec Camera, and basically any guitar based pop from that golden era. With Tatum’s songwriting talent clearly grown, and become so much more discernible, the sound of ‘Nocturne’ is beyond just dreamy. This is a positively gorgeous and impossibly enjoyable album, all throughout. And when it came to the crux, it was a record that shone radiantly, and one which I just could not stop playing it from start to finish all year. That’s why it deservedly ranks so highly.
1. Frank Ocean: Channel Orange:
Yes. It really should be no surprise. Ultimately, there was only ever going to be one ‘undisputed champion’ for this accolade, and that was Frank Ocean’s mindblowingly impressive Channel Orange. The reception upon release was astounding, where Channel Orange became an outrageous receptor for critical adulation, to such an extent that shockingly, the buzz around the music ACTUALLY dwarfed the gossip column inches surrounding his ‘coming out’. Indeed, people don’t really know ‘what’ he is now, because they long stopped caring, with the lingering distraction of the year’s most stunning pop achievement still echoing soothingly in their ears. If Kendrick Lamar showed a young, black, highly intelligent observer setting out on a hugely ambitious musical project for hip hop, Ocean saw those cards, and raised them for R n’B and Pop, spanning genres with bold statements of inventiveness that fulfilled and delivered on the outrageous scope of the album. At his most simple, he doesn’t mess around, with ‘Thinkin’ Bout You’ straight up earnest R’n B at its finest. But what truly sets Channel Orange apart is its jaw dropping variety and intelligence. Much like Lamar too, Ocean assumed the mantle of the observer, dissecting in Bret Easton Ellis fashion the fabulous and bloated lives of the ‘Super Rich Kids’(with the brilliant Earl Sweatshirt driving it), and not to mention ‘Sweet Life’, which for me, with its soaring chorus was THE pop song of the year. Anthemic, and hung on the sharpest of hooks, it showed Ocean at his best, both simultaneously painful and triumphant, and dark and bright, all neatly packaged into an impossibly catchy 3 minute format. If that was his standard take on pop, he was unafraid to go for the bold and epic with ‘Pyramids’, a bizarre 10 minute concept based around Ancient Egypt as a strip club, and Cleopatra as the misused and abused dancer, with Ocean as the dejected, contemplative onlooker. Sounds unbearably ridiculous, but the execution is astonishing with its seamless jump between electro dancefloor 1st half and graduation to ponderous, downbeat ambience second half being an absorbing whirlwind. The scope of Pyramids summed up how daring a brilliant vision the album was as a whole, but that wasn’t the only reason for it to run away with the mantle of the year’s best. In a pop landscape where I’ve been long since exasperated, the idea of radio friendly chart music is now stripped down to Katy Perry singing over obnoxiously unlistenable Swedish House Mafia Dirge, or just One Direction/Eoin McLove mania. Basically, Pop has become taboo. In one, bold theatrical sweeping statement Frank Ocean dismissed this notion, and essentially reinvented the wheel. He single handedly showed that intelligence, ambition, risks are all things that can still go hand in hand with a keen sense of melody and amazing hooks. All of a sudden, he proved pop can again be hugely rewarding and its boundaries can be limitless. The best illustration of that all year were people’s tendencies to instinctively stick on Channel Orange on the iPod at a party or wherever, and play it start to finish, with consistently rapturous approval. Quite simply, for me, and countless friends, it was the most played and most enjoyed album this year, and that is once again the ultimate clincher. Well deserved. A landmark.