FEATURE: “I’ll Stick Around”: The Best Albums of 2012, A Year Later – Part 1
by Chad Jewett
It’s December, a jubilee month limited not just to the traditional holidays, but also for those of us who spend the whole year digesting music as critics and engaged listeners. We write our “End of the Year” lists, frankly, because it’s fun; it’s an excuse to indulge in the exercises of curating and collecting more often limited to our Facebook pages and iPhone syncs. We get to find our own themes for the quickly expiring year; we get to search for one final way of talking about the music that’s special to us; we get to try and prognosticate about what all of aural 2013 will mean in 2023. But here at Half Cloth, we also ended up asking a different question: what, after a full calendar year, has held up from 2012? In some ways, this gives us a change to discuss records we loved and didn’t get a chance to talk about, since we really just started in October. But on the other hand, it’s also a way of adding a grain of salt to the lists Trevor and I will be coming up with in a few weeks – who knows which of these albums will be speaking to us the most come the end of 2014? So we wanted to start off our month-long consideration of music in 2013 by a look back at the records that stuck with us from 2012, the albums that still stood out and beamed brightest, even amongst the gaudy distractions of Arcade Fire gargantuans and Kanye West punk records. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I’ve continued to enjoy records from Big K.R.I.T., Flying Lotus, and Joie De Vivre, amongst many others. Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange would obviously be on this list if Trevor hadn’t called it first, so look for that tomorrow when Trevor shares his list. For now, these albums are the ones that I’m almost hopelessly drawn to, even after twelve months of new distractions:
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Music writers are rivaled only by Queen Elizabeth in the game of coronation. There are always good records, and there are always bad records, which makes “excellent” and “terrible” novel; and makes “transcendent” exactly that: transcendent. So when that record comes along, we want to dub it something important, something superlative. We might have said Record X was worth a listen, but Record Y is the one you’ll tell your kids about. So it was an odd moment of responsible, adult music criticism when writers tried to find a way to point out that, yes, Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was a masterpiece, but that we should wait to call it one of the all-time greats, even if we all really wanted to. Well, a year has gone by, so the coast is clear: good kid, m.A.A.d city is likely the best hip hop album of the 2010s. I might be given pause by considering My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy but Kanye West’s greatest musical document is more about perfecting a style (think of Wilt Chamberlain) than making something shockingly new (no one had dunked quite like Julius Erving). And hell, the Julius Erving comparison might not be a bad one – Lamar is bright, brilliant, likable, cool, and mixes a humble, million-dollar-smile with the knowledge that, yes, he is peerless and not yet thirty. Now look up some Sixers-era Dr. J clips on YouTube. There have been rumors that good kid, m.A.A.d city may be adapted to film, an impulse at once understandable – it is incredibly cinematic, telling the story of one Compton kid’s journey through family squabbles, peer pressure, hopeless hopes, and lurking neighborhood dangers – but I like the movie in my head so much that I might be a bit shy about seeing someone else’s version. And then there’s the music, which I love enough to have a hard time talking about it: the buoy clangs that begin “Backseat Freestyle,” the Marvin Gaye-luminousness of the soul bed beneath “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” the phasing snares of “Sherane,” the enteirety of “Swimming Pools” (especially the echoed synths over the chorus, but especially the call-and-response “Drank” moments). And then there’s Kendrick’s story-telling, incorporating the changing voices of an ace read-aloud librarian, the detail collection of a card-counter, the sense of uneven priorities that every single teenager deals with. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is utterly perfect as a modern rap single, sporting an enormous hook and the smarts to only sound like a party song, when it’s actually the most incisive consideration of ego, performance of self, and the weight of expectations since, oh I don’t know, Kanye West? It’s on my hip-hop Mt. Rushmore, and it was well worth the year-long wait to say it.
Annabel – Youth In Youth
In a more just world there’d be a lot more fans of emo and its wider universe of earnest, suburban indie rock, speaking about Youth In Youth in the hushed tones of reverence. I can remember when Stay What You Are or Crimes or Lifted came out – they were the records where my friends and I would just throw our hands up, baffled, the way I tend to do when watching Kyrie Irving during a particularly “on” night. It’s the frustration of a record that isn’t just perfect, but desperately so. You picture the band tracking the album, piece by piece at some studio or loft-space, and hope that they had some excited diner-fed late nights where they were as giddy as this record makes me. I’ve written elsewhere about Annabel and just how salient and peerless I really think they are in this emo renaissance, and it’s a shame that the implication is under-appreciation. Not enough people talk about Annabel, and it worries me in the same way that I worried about Saves the Day after they weren’t rewarded for the brilliance of In Reverie. Youth In Youth is an incredibly smart pop record. It begins with a song called “Young American,” which has you thinking about Bowie’s theatrical (and theoretical) American young-ness before the first note. But instead of wry, bleary-eyed soul, we get wide-open bloom. We get the dull-roar of springtime. If you used the song as your alarm-clock every morning you’d probably fulfill the album’s destiny, if not act out it’s movie version, especially if you live in a suburb anything like Youth In Youth’s hyper-real cover image. The song ends with one of the best renderings of young adulthood I’ve ever heard: “In comfort and content / That’s when I’ll have my revenge / All at my own expense, but I don’t know how else / Oh to be young.” Notice all the contradiction and worry, notice how “Oh to be young” could either complete the preposition that comes before, or could serve as an ironic last thought on the conceptual “youth” we all value. Or maybe it’s deadly sincere. The album that follows is beautiful and bittersweet, following its cinematic opening into different channels of radiant young confusion the way Adventureland (“Anti-Decisions”) and Tomorrowland (“The Age of Possibilities”) branch off Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland. And wouldn’t you know it, “Main Street U.S.A” seems to be exactly where the pocket symphony of Youth In Youth is set.
Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind
There are a lot of ways to talk about the persistent playability of Converge’s seventh album. But let me put it this way; outside of “Family Holiday Party,” I can’t conceive of an iPod-shuffle situation in which I would possibly skip a single track on All We Love We Leave Behind. It’s the gift of being smart and calorie-dense at the same time – like Nutella on artisan bread. Though only slightly-less perfect than 2010’s Axe To Fall (if only because All We Love lacks the scorched-earth brilliance of the prior album’s opening-triad salvo), All We Love We Leave Behind is also somehow the definitive Converge album, ranging from the streamlined hurricane punk (it both churns and stampedes) of album-opener “Aimless Arrow” to the feral hardcore of “Vicious Muse” (I look forward to the forty South Shore metalcore bands using that name by 2017). It’s all there on an album that also finds ways of making the least palatable (for me at least) touchstones of metal (see: the Dungeons & Dragons wizard riffs on the awesomely titled “Sadness Comes Home”) not only bearable but infectious. All We Love also leaves a wide berth for Converge’s deepening yen for innovation, even if the more experimental moments on the record nevertheless always wind up sounding like Converge; seriously, there’s a party game in figuring out how post-rock, indie mope, and four-on-the-flour boogie can all end up at Converge. Never change, dudes.
Joey Bada$$ – 1999
In overtly stating, both in terms of sonics and album-title-choice, the 1990s feel of his debut mix-tape, Joey Bada$$ simultaneously set out a fairly prescribed way of living with this record. The fact that multiple tracks incorporate J Dilla beats is just icing on that 90s cake. Like a lot of chilled-out, New York hip hop from that decade, 1999 is mood music, though never boring, and never placid enough to paper over Bada$$’s impressive lyrical prowess, the facet he would definitely prefer you notice first, before any of the Tribe Called Quest and DOOM signifiers. The singles (“Waves,” “Survival Tactics”) are still On-The-Go mix gold, but 1999 hangs together as a record incredibly well, offering more value as a continuous listen – even if it’s atmospheric – than a handful of hits to be gleaned from a larger whole. The fact that Joey put out Rejex, a collection of tracks left off of 1999, is indicative of the careful curating involved in putting together this debut, and the tape’s vibrancy as an afternoon listener is proof of this selectivity. Put it this way – I can’t think of another mix-tape for which I’ve googled the tape’s title plus the word “Vinyl Reissue” more.
JJ Doom – Key to the Kuffs
To be honest, I didn’t even get around to this MF Doom side-project (a collaboration between DOOM and Jneiro Jarel, hence the moniker JJ Doom) until the beautifully packaged “Butter Edition” reissue came out in 2013. But boy am I glad I finally got around to it. Recorded in London (at least DOOM’s vocals) and featuring cameos from Brit-Pop mainstays like Damon Albarn and Beth Gibbons, Key to the Kuffs shows DOOM stretching out his concept-album obsessions beyond the now familiar comic-book character trope (which has been around since at least Afrika Bambaataa and has been picked up by Czarface and Ghostface Killah, as well as DOOM). This time DOOM keeps the theming, but devotes it to an obsession with all things Anglo, especially on the intro “Waterlogged,” a crazy-quilt of sampled cockney British voices as immersive as the cartoon samples of Madvillainy. It’s sort of like those Star Wars spin-off movies about Boba Fett and Yoda, except this time it’s something like a weird rap super-villain in the 1950s United Kingdom. That should sound awesome to you. Key to the Kuffs also features some of the heaviest, gruffest surroundings for DOOM’s jittery flow, especially on tracks like “Banished” and “Rhymin’ Slang” which bridge aural gaps between rap and punk in a way that both anticipates and feel more natural than the more stunt-casted analogous moments on this year’s Yeezus. I doubt DOOM even feels like this album is an attempt at “essential-listening” status, but it gets there, if only on the strength of it’s beautifully cohesive sonic palette (lots of distortion, lots of aggressive synthesizers, lots of skewed beats, lots of British people yelling) and some of DOOM’s best rhyming in years.