I review albums for a living, and that means two things. One, I’ve heard a great many albums this year, and I have a lot of stuff to choose from when making my top ten. Two, when I write about music for a magazine or a blog, I have to be impartial, balanced, and informed. Here, I’m under no such obligations. I’ll attempt to tell you why I loved these albums, what made them stick with me and rise above the rest. I’ll be as completely biased and judgmental, or sycophantic and gushing, as I care to be. Hope you enjoy reading - this was an INCREDIBLE year for music in my opinion, and I had a ton of fun putting this list together.
10: SINKANE - MARS (DFA / CITY SLANG)
This was a late entry, bumping out a fantastic record (Lorn’s Ask The Dust, on Brainfeeder) to occupy the hallowed number ten spot. Ask anyone that knows me, and they’ll tell you I’ve been going around since 2009 proclaiming that I “don’t like funk” and that “happy music just isn’t my thing.” Not only have I had to eat my words upon being faced with this exuberant, sexy, spiritually warm collection of funk-infused, exotic songs, I also feel completely indebted to Ahmed Gallab, aka Sinkane, for helping me rediscover my inner Curtis Mayfield. It happened on a rainy night in France, headphones in, drunk as a lord - I found myself listening to the awesome Runnin’ six times in a row, screaming the words along in a drunken, cracked falsetto. There’s something in the deceptive simplicity, the brevity of Sinkane’s tracks that makes them perfect. Singlehandedly doing away with notions of ‘world music,’ Sinkane borrows and steals from South American, African and Caribbean ‘roots’ music without ever sounding coffee-table or predictable. Shit, he even made me love vocoders. Put simply, this record makes me happy where it counts - in my pants, and on the dancefloor. My interview with Sinkane is forthcoming in The Skinny Magazine.
9: THE GASLAMP KILLER - BREAKTHROUGH (BRAINFEEDER)
Where to start with this one… is it because it’s one of the only albums my notoriously difficult-to-impress girlfriend really rated, impressed by its wonky stagger through psych-rock, jazz, hip-hop and lo-fi folk? Was it our rambling, epic, psychedelic interview, where GLK convinced me of his Shamanic powers? (Also incidentally, one of my most-read feature of 2012, with 103 ‘Likes’ - maybe he IS a Shaman…) Or was it just that the album was a who’s who of the LA Brainfeeder / Low End Theory / New Beat movement, with contributions from Samiyam, Daedelus, Computer Jay and Gonjasufi? Nope, I think it was all down to the fact that GLK made an album with heart, with stories to tell, with narrative. It had narrative depth, possibly more than any other record I heard this year. Reviews elsewhere that called it excessively dark must have been written by twee, sun-dwelling, mono-brain-celled twats. What this record has, in spades, is dynamics and atmosphere. It’s a journey, best enjoyed in full, in one sitting. Basically, a fucking masterpiece. There you have it.
8: PURITY RING - SHRINES (4AD)
Let me start by saying: I can totally see why people hate this record. The excessively sidechained synths. The saccharine, FX-drenched vocals. The candy-sweet post-dubstep rhythms. The fact that many of the songs follow a pretty similar formula. But for me, it endures, even more now that I’ve seen the band live. It’s all about Megan James’ twisted, Burtonesque lyrics; her subversion of that sweet pop core. It’s all about Corrin Roddick’s home-made MIDI devices, making the duo seem like the futuristic house band from one of the Disco Planets in ’70s Battlestar. Okay, so it’s not as inventive as Grimes (although it does have lyrics, natch), nor is it as transgressive as a dozen or so female-fronted bands to emerge from the post-witch house miasma in 2012. But what it does do, very effectively, is reinvent pop as a dark, mythic secret wrapped up in sugary, childlike sweetness. It is fucking irresistable - a record designed to appeal straight to the heart of cute goth girls who grew up reading Gaiman. I have tried to hate it, I have listened to your criticisms. But you are wrong, and Purity Ring are fucking awesome. I only wish I could have interviewed them without being on a crappy mobile phone, with them standing somewhere windy… If you’re reading this guys, I have some more questions.
7: COM TRUISE - IN DECAY (GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL)
I don’t know why I’m being defensive - it’s my list and if I want to include a b-sides and rarities collection from Com Truise, then fuck you, I will. Perhaps it’s because I only discovered the sublime Galactic Melt this year, and I’m still in awe of the majestic Brokendate. Perhaps it’s because I am, quite simply, a complete sucker for anyone who knows their way around the Bladerunner soundtrack and sleazy ’80s electro beats. But no, I think there’s a deeper reason. Where Galactic Melt saw Com Truise refining and complexifying his sound with polyrhythmic basslines and more intricate drum programming, In Decay simply revels in its influences, from Joy Division-esque guitars to Italo beats, Vangelis synths, and sampled beach noise that always makes me feel like I’m reading Virtual Light. I just love this collection - it’s Com Truise in demo form, and for me, that makes it all the more addictive. Stayed on my ‘pod for most of the year. He was an awesome, friendly guy too.
6: LIARS - WIXIW (MUTE)
I nearly fell out of love with WIXIW after seeing Liars perform bits of it live. Where the album was thrillingly complex, hinting at extended jam sessions where guitar and drums battled synths, samplers and 808s, their live show was punk rock with electronic knobs on, only the four-four tracks actually convincingly recreated by the band in a live setting. I guess what I wanted from Liars was more like what I eventually got from Doldrums, who convincingly nailed a set of mythic, expansive pop-rock using a bag of analogue gear, some drums, and nary a guitar in sight. And yet, and yet… the driving, Thom Yorke-in-a-disco of A Ring On Every Finger! The fragile alchemy of The Exact Colour Of Doubt! The dissolving, E-d up paranoia of No. 1 Against the Rush! This is, quite simply, one hell of an album - they just need to pull it off live to satisfy me. Ignorantly, I refuse to listen to their earlier, guitar-led albums, because fuck you, that’s why.
5: EL-P - CANCER4CURE
El-P has always been a hero of mine, way back to the moment the first Company Flow record Funcrusher Plus invaded my sixteen year-old, hip-hop obsessed brain. The man is my Bob Dylan - a voice of a generation whose thought processes, politics and lyrical style have always been so close to my own (or at least, what I aspired to) that I consider his work sacrosanct - beyond the reach of mere ‘reviews.’ The guy’s a fucking genius, and this is his masterpiece (so far, anyway). It’s the claustrophobic atmosphere of the record, bound in by tightly-arpeggiated synths, booming bass drums and kicks with an industrial, futuristic heft. It’s El’s acrobatic destruction of syllables and parallel rhymes on the head-crushing Request Denied. It’s the Year 3000 pimp swagger of The Full Retard; the BDSM hallucinations of Sign Here. True, I could have lost the tracks with other emcees and not been any less impressed with the record - El-P’s talent is gigantic, and he doesn’t need Killer Mike to back him on a track. Every moment he spends away from the mic is a moment wasted, IMO. Fuck Killer Mike, seriously.* Anyone who had that record placed above C4C needs their goddamn head examined. Seriously, are you hispter assholes kidding me? Basically, El-P is the founding father of alternative, expressionist, abstract hip-hop. Without him, no Aesop, no Doom, nothing but plastic gangsters and wannabe fashion-victims. He is the fucking daddy. My full-length interview with him dates back to 2010, but we did have a chat about C4C late in the year.
* Disclaimer: I actually really like Killer Mike, and his album, I’m just (badly) making the point that it can’t touch Cancer4Cure… yeah, I’m a dick, but I’m leaving that in.
4: DEATH GRIPS - THE MONEY STORE (EPIC)
Death Grips - what can I say about Death Grips that I haven’t already said? That they are the first band since Nirvana to truly make me feel involved, alive, part of something. That the meta-narrative of their rise and fall from grace in the mainstream music industry is the story of the year. That they embody the principles of free / net culture so completely that they could only have emerged fully-formed from a cultural place that had fuck all to do with the internet itself, but offered a new and authentic vision of how net citizens could approach / attack / infect reality. The Money Store was Death Grips going POP ART in a savage, nihilistic, brutal and uplifting way. It was Death Grips as “the next Rihanna.” It was, arguably, a fever dream, but perhaps the best realisation of their caustic, ruthlessly futurist take on musique concrete. You want proof, motherfucker? Listen to them shamelessly rip Salt N’ Pepa’s Push It a new asshole on the demented I’ve Seen Footage, which I’ve always thought of as hip-hop’s answer to Videodrome. Quite simply their best album, until their next one came out. Incidentally, this was The Skinny’s Album of the Year.
3: MATTHEW DEAR - BEAMS (GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL)
I’ve actually only just bought Black City. There’s a confession for you. I came to Beams with little or no expectations - I had heard of Dear, had heard tracks in passing, but never sat down to listen to an entire album. When i finally did, I found myself immediately captivated. Okay, so perhaps it could be argued that I was predisposed to love Beams -Talking Heads are probably my favourite band, and Dear riffs heavily on both the Heads and Bowie throughout the album. In fact, the more I think about it, the harder it is to put my finger on what made me love this album so much. I think it’s to do with the fact that, like Purity Ring, Dear has made an album of unashamedly infectious and hook-filled pop music. The backing for these quite traditional ideas and song structures however are some of the most scintillating and inventive slices of electronica released this year. The way Dear multitracks his voice is just incredible, using slightly off-key registers to create brooding atmospheres of unease among the polished riffs and beats, and lending a depth of field to his non-sequitur-filled lyrics that makes them feel timeless and filled with significance. When he sings “Like burning underwater” I feel like I know exactly what he means. Same when he sings “Dismounting a love that has grown from beneath you, an ancient machine” - I feel like he is imparting some kind of Zen-like cosmic truth. So yes, in a slower year this weird, oddball collection of fractured electronic lounge pop would have topped the charts, mainly because I still can’t figure out why I love it so deeply and completely. Unfortunately for Matty-boy, he had not one but two Death Grips records to contend with, not to mention our number one spot’s slice of frankly Godlike genius. I am extremely excited about seeing Dear perform Beams live, and once more can assure you that he is a thoroughly nice chap.
2: DEATH GRIPS - NO LOVE (THIRDWORLDS)
Where were you when Death Grips got their collective dick out and waved it at the music industry? How did you react when you first saw the horrific, iPod-shaming cover for NO LOVE DEEP WEB? Because that, my friends, was the defining musical moment of 2012. Fuck the controversy. Fuck speculating about what their motives might or might not have been. Listen to the music. Listen to how fucking unhinged, how genuinely terrifying, MC Ride sounds on the first track as he screams: “SHIT’S ABOUT TO GET KAMIKAZE!” and later “I’M EPIPHANIC AMNESIA! I’M IN JIMMY PAGE’S CASTLE!” (a reference to the castle bought by Page, after a dark magic ritual was performed there by Aleister Crowley). And then there’s No Love itself, an excoriating, punishing howl of anti-establishment punk attitude, with its infectious refrain: “BEATDOWN! MADNESS! CHAOS IN MY BRAIN!” As far as I’m concerned, they are acutely aware of how good they are. Hill’s quote, given to me in interview, is the key: “…tent cities and so on, homelessness and poverty and violence, the crash of the American dollar – all those things that seem to be coming…” Death Grips are the only, and I mean THE ONLY band who portray the coming and inevitable power-shift from West to East, the subsequent downfall of economic systems and the fallout from this, in a realistic, thrilling and intensely visceral way. It’s in Ride’s contradictory, image-packed, collaged, unhinged lyrics. It’s in their magpie, feral approach to beats. It’s in Hill’s rabid, hardcore, tranced-out drums. Perhaps they’ve imploded. Perhaps we’ll never see them again. Regardless, they fucking OWNED 2012. Only to be beaten to the punch (in this list at least) by a shy, retiring young guy from Manchester…
1: HOLY OTHER - HELD
Held is not just my album of the year. It’s one of my favourite albums of all time. It is, to all intents and purposes, utterly perfect. The proverbial ‘heartbreaking work of staggering genius.’ It took me about three months, and three cracks at watching him live, to fully understand the technical complexity and devastating ambition of what Holy Other attempts, and succeeds, to do with dance music. In a thrilling inversion of the ‘rules’ - or perhaps better, dynamics - of all dance music ever recorded, HO does build-downs instead of build-ups. Aching descents instead of peaks. Where every single form of dance music so far has been predicated on drops or breaks, Holy Other’s music uses the peak moments of his tracks as still, isolated islands of contemplation, of descent, of sinking in. The tracks themselves are aching, throbbing, exquisite studies in emotion. I’ve seen grown men cry on dancefloors to this music.
Holy Other uses the human voice as an instrument in an absolutely unique way - comparisons to Burial are redundant, ignorant, flat-out fucking wrong. He is NOTHING like Burial. His music is more like classical music. Or, as one friend put it, he does with the human voice what Miles Davis did with trumpets. He deconstructs R&B and dubstep into sonic sculptures of breathtaking precision and complexity. As another friend put it, if R&B stands for ‘rhythm and blues’ then every single other electronic musician to plunder the genre for material has focused on rhythm - witness the Rodney Jerkins moves of LuckyMe producers, or the glitch-y sub bass of much future garage. Holy Other takes the blues; he takes the sadness implicit in the songs of loss and abandonment which are the stock in trade of your Aaliyahs and Sades and makes something new from their polished, too-perfect pain. He is a virtuoso of the highest order. I can not heap enough praise on him as a producer, or on this enchanting, enthralling, utterly timeless album. Every time I listen to it (which is daily, usually more than once, ever since it came out), I am transported. I am taken away to a safe, warm place where I can contemplate my inner grief and marvel at it, admire it’s cold beauty.
It’s an album that is at once devastatingly cold and distant, and heartbreakingly warm and immediate. It is the sound of lost love and regret. It is the sound of remembered sex and tears down the phone. It is loneliness, remembered joy, nostalgia and dulled pain. I don’t care how pretentious all of this sounds, I really don’t - you can all fuck off. Put the whole album on, preferably on headphones, most definitely alone, and LISTEN. If you are not utterly transfixed by the atmospheres, narratives and emotions that Holy other evokes on Held, you are, quite simply, dead inside, and a piss-poor excuse for a human being. If however you agree with me, I’ll see you on the floor next time he plays, and you can bring the hankies. This album is a modern masterpiece.
Lorn’s ridiculously deep Ask The Dust (Brainfeeder), Jehst & Kashmere’s Hunter S. Thompson-inspired Kingdom Of Fear, Vessel’s improbably dubbed-out Order of Noise, BEAK> with their Krautrock-fixated miniature masterpiece », Dam Mantle’s jazz-inflected Brothers Fowl, Ogre’s ’80s SF soundtrack-pilfering 194, Young Smoke’s delightfully colourful space-age juke on Space Zone, the beautiful lo-fi pop of Ela Orleans’ Tumult In Clouds, Geoff Barrow’s DROKK, Small Black’s delightful, shoegaze-meets-hip-hop Moon Killer mixtape, plus… some new folk who dropped EPs or tracks that blew my mind: VS//YOUTHCLUB, Stumbleine, Fifty Grand, TWOS, Lakutis, Bruxa, Heems, Ian Curtis Wishlist, Blam Lord, Nattymari’s RON HARDLY and CURT CRACKARACH projects, AAIMON, UNISON, TEXTBEAK & DEFA, Pet Cemetery… as I said, it was a fucking good year.
I haven’t even included any of the great stuff that came out on Black Lantern (of COURSE I’m sick into it, otherwise I wouldn’t release it), and a whole host of hip-hop stuff that I absolutely loved, but just wasn’t at the forefront of my mind - Stanley Odd / Solareye, Loki, Jordan Butler, p.WRECKS, Joey Prolapse and a whole bunch of other artists I’m peripherally involved with or aware of released seriously dope shit this year.
I could link up all of the above, but my final thought for the year is this - in an era where EVERY FUCKER and his DOG makes music, the finding of it has become part of the fun. I’ve posted stuff about all these bands in various places over the year. If you’ve been following my writing, chances are you already know… if not, well, get Googling. Go discover. Find it all out for yourself, and then go tell the world. Why do you need a fucking journalist, or a magazine, or a Facebook group to tell you what’s up? I’ll tell you, mane - YOU DON’T.
I know I’m kind of talking myself out of a job here… but that’s what I believe. We are no longer consumers. We are all participants in a world-wide, ongoing musical conversation - one with a discourse so complex and far-ranging that no one outlet or media brand can give you comprehensive coverage. You need to explore for yourself, otherwise the most imaginative, interesting stuff you hear will be Django Django and Tame Impala, or fucking Seapunk. Which is, yknow, fine… but you could DEFINITELY be having more fun.
- Texture, Glasgow, Dec 2012
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- puppygrl said: agreed, held is fucking brilliant and i can never get enough
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