As promised yesterday, here are the top two tiers of ATR music in 2012.
Aimee Mann – Charmer: This album and The Mountain Goats’ new album were linked in my mind this year. Both artists have ties to The Best Show on WFMU (Goats drummer Jon Wurster is part of the comedy duo Scharpling and Wurster and Aimee Mann often calls in or joins the show live). Both albums are somewhat more peppy and upbeat sounding than what the artists are known for, even if the lyrical content is still pretty dour. Don’t get me wrong: I still love sad bastard music when it’s done well (and Aimee Mann can do it well), but it’s nice to have something to tap your foot to as well. And The Best Show ties go further: host Tom Scharpling directed the video for “Labrador,” which also stars one Jon Wurster. It’s hilarious and the song is good, to boot.
Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself: I’ve only been to one live music show in the last several years (other than orchestral performances) and it was to Chicago to see Andrew Bird play. He played mostly music off of this album, and he filled the auditorium with swells of violin and whistling and beautiful noise. I believe he’s one of my generation’s finest musicians and this album is a great addition to his discography. Check out the uplifting “Near Death Experience Experience.”
CFCF – Exercises: This guy in Montreal makes some pretty cool electro-wave/chill-ass music. The album is called “Exercises,” but it seems more like brain training to me. I’m bad at explaining electronic music in general, so maybe go listen to “Exercise #3: Building” and imagine your life is a movie.
Fun. – Some Nights: I used to listen to ATR favorite The Format and think, “if only these guys were on pop radio, I bet they’d make it big.” And then the band broke up. And then the lead singer formed a new band called Fun. and released two albums. And somehow the second album got popular. Like REALLY popular. And some of their songs wound up on the radio. And something else happened: Those songs went to the top of the charts. Is pop music saved? Maybe not, but at least these three extremely talented, thoughtful guys helped get the revolution going. Since you’ve already heard the first three singles emanating from car windows and shopping mall speakers this year, try an acoustic version of one of the more heartbreaking songs on the album, “Why Am I The One.”
Guilty Simpson and Apollo Brown – Dice Game: Something about Guilty Simpson: His flow is somehow hard and smooth at the same time. Obsidian can be hard and smooth, but rap flows generally are one or the other. Guilty has had an ATR album of the year contender before, but this collaboration with Apollo Brown, who apparently also realized Guilty’s hard/smooth duality, is the best of his career so far. Brown’s beats form a hypnotic web for Guilty to play spider in from start to end. Check out “Truth Be Told” for a prime example of this.
Joey Bada$$ – 1999: The only mixtape to make the grade this year is teenage rapper Joey Bada$$ album-grade free release “1999.” The dude wasn’t even born when Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul roamed the earth, but he’s channeled the best of that era in his intelligent, conscious and melodic tracks. I’m hopeful Joey and the rest of his ProEra crew have a long and prosperous career. Check out the excellent “Waves” and try not to be floored by the fact that this was recorded while he was in high school.
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music: This album growls. It snarls and growls and thumps and stomps its way through your head. Killer Mike unleashes all his righteous indignation in his lyrics. El-P unleashes all his musical neuroses in his beats. Arguably the best work from both, combined into a single experience. The epic “Big Beast” was a great choice for a first single from this … beast.
Metz – METZ: This was the year I started getting into some heavier music. I’d dabbled in noise and black metal before, sure, but I never really GOT it. I didn’t often choose to listen to stuff that beat my head in with guitars and drums and screaming vocals. But then at some point I think I got under the surface of the noisier stuff and started to appreciate the good stuff for what it is. I heard Metz featured on the excellent Productive Outs podcast, which is mainly about baseball but also about heavy metal/punk/hardcore/grindcore/etc. music. I liked what I heard and found out later that this is the band’s DEBUT album (you might see surprisingly good debut albums as a theme on this list). It sounds like if Jesus Lizard got pushed in a really cold pool and then jumped out and played their songs faster and angrier. Try “Wet Blanket.
Nas – Life Is Good: Being a day-one fan of Nas is a frustrating thing. I consider Nas the best storyteller in hip-hop history … when he wants to be. I consider Nas the best rapper in history … when he’s not mailing in bars over crummy beats. Based on his incredible debut album, "Illmatic,” it became easy to expect nothing but the best from Nas every time out. It’s a bit like being a New York Yankee fan or a Manchester United fan: Your team is expected to win, so anything less than constant victory is a letdown. So the discography of Nas is littered with letdowns. Lately, in fits and starts, Nas has started to rediscover his passionate lyricism, started to be more consistent with his beat selection, started to deliver the whole Nas package once again. “Life Is Good” is a perfect encapsulation of what Nas is great at and what he still struggles with. It’s a bit long at 18 tracks, but since the majority of the tracks are quality, it’s forgivable. He’s back to telling stories about growing up, but he’s still stuck on some of the rote materialistic stuff. But most of all this is a documentary album; a series of tracks where Nas is talking from his heart about the heartbreak of his divorce from singer Kelis and the process of spiritual recovery, learning to love again. He also talks about his struggles with being a good dad to his growing daughter in the excellent “Daughters.” These are actual human stories from a great storyteller finding his voice again.
Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse: I first heard about Ty Segall a couple of years ago listening to The Best Show on WFMU. Host Tom Scharpling is an enthusiastic booster of everything Segall does and after listening to some of his stuff, I am too. Segall’s got this style that he does really well, and so he does it a lot. I think he released four or five albums and EPs this year and they could probably all be combined into one mega LP because it’s all in the same vein. He crunches the strings on his guitar in an industrial shredder and sings through a tin can while banging on distortion pedals with an old-timey wooden mallet. Not really, but that’s how it sounds. And it’s amazing. Try “Wave Goodbye,” one of the more accessible tracks off “Slaughterhouse.”
10. Jack White – Blunderbuss: I’ve always known Jack White was a pretty interesting guy with a pretty interesting set of musical influences, but his debut solo album, “Blunderbuss,” was the most thought-provoking album of the year for me. What is this garage rock god truly capable of? This album is a veritable smorgasbord of different sounds, styles and attitudes. Compare, for instance, the stutter-step swagger and sexuality of “Freedom at 21” with the straight-ahead, crunchy blues cover “I’m Shakin’.” I’m amazed.
9. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – The Heist: The first time I listened to this album from Seattle-bred hip-hop party boys Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, I thought it was a little too cute. Too many goofy songs about buying clothes at thrift shops and making fun of hipsters (irony isn’t dead). But I couldn’t deny how damn catchy it was. And that song he wrote about GBLT rights, “Same Love,” really does give me goosebumps every time. And on subsequent listens, well, yes it’s cute sometimes but MAN these are some good songs. These are fun to listen to in your car, in your headphones, at parties, making peanut butter jelly sandwiches by yourself in your underwear. And isn’t that the measure of a great album? I listen to this like crazy. It deserves a top-10 spot.
8. Bob Mould – Silver Age: I’m too young (and probably too square) to have been a big Husker Du fan, but boy am I glad former frontman Bob Mould is still putting out what I imagine many 40- and 50-something American men would classify as “real rock and roll.” That’s not to say it’s dated, however; in fact, some of the stuff on the excellent “Silver Age” might be a bit too heavy, too progressive, too AGGressive for many in the classic rock set. Then again, what rock aficionado of any age could argue with the craft and tunefulness of “The Descent?”
7. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream: For all the talk about Frank Ocean this year (and I love that dude’s music), I sure listened to Miguel’s new album a LOT more than anything by Mr. Ocean. It’s cohesive, it’s funky, it’s sexy, it’s maybe the best R&B album by a male vocalist I’ve heard in the last several years. Of course, when D’Angelo finally drops his magnum opus, that title will likely change hands. If you don’t turn on the radio much, don’t miss his chart-topping, semi-psychedelic love anthem “Adorn.”
6. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city: I’m a sucker for concept albums. I’m a sucker for lyricists who are compared to my all-time favorite rapper, Nas. I’m also a sucker for rappers who are both compared to and cosigned by Andre 3000, who made arguably the best rap concept album of all time (though the list is admittedly pretty short). Kendrick Lamar hit all three sweet spots with “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” his debut (DEBUT!) album. Before this album hit, all I had heard from Kendrick were some decent freestyles and some mostly OK features on other people’s tracks. Now I see: This is a guy who needs his room. He needs space to do his thing. And what a thing it is. The hip-hop album of the year came out of nowhere as far as I’m concerned. Listen to “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” for a perfect example of K’s Andre 3000/Nas voice morphing/storytelling ability.
5. Tame Impala – Lonerism: This album sounds like what would have happened if all The Beatles were still alive and decided to take a little too much acid and record an album on a couple afternoons at a resort on Australia’s north coast. Tame Impala IS Australian, in any event, and the lead singer sorta does sound like a screechy John Lennon. It’s a trippy album and somehow also a coherently pop-conscious album. It’s about as wild as you can get and still be music that doesn’t turn off the great unwashed masses. If I was on mushrooms or DMT right now, this would be far and away the album of the year. As it is, the throbbing melodies and repetition of “Gotta Be Above It” is almost enough to trigger a nice sort of auditory hallucination.
4. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel …: I’ve been waiting a long time for Fiona Apple to release new music. She’s got such an incredible voice and her songs always catch my brain in a trap, it was almost a shame she went so long between releases. I say ALMOST because “The Idler Wheel” was worth the wait. It’s a grower, for sure, but around the fifth time I sat down to listen to the album, something clicked in my head and I listened to it all the way through without skipping any of the sleepier tracks. They all fit in. They work together. The first track, “Every Single Night,” is one of those somewhat sleepy tracks, at least at the start. Then it gets going and sets the mood. It’s kind of a bad mood, but I enjoy the music anyway.
3. Father John Misty – Fear Fun: For a guy who played drums in another indie-loved band, Fleet Foxes, J. Tillman a.k.a. Father John Misty sure has a great voice. I’m grateful to the Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast for having this guy on as a guest and introducing me to his revealing, funny, lovely tunes. Several of the tracks on his latest solo album grabbed me, but none quite so quickly as “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” which opens with a stomping drum, jangly guitar and J. singing “Jesus Christ, girl/What are people gonna think” in his dreamy, plaintive voice.
2. Vacationer – Gone: If this album was a cassette tape, it would have popped to shreds in my deck this year. Other than the No. 1 album, I didn’t listen to ANYTHING more than Vacationer’s debut album. This Philly-based sunny-day band packed this short album chock full of songs that could have, would have and should have lit pop radio on fire this year. Let the swelling strings and boom-bap hip-hop drums of “Good As New” infiltrate your synapses. Feel the sunshine on your skin as the soaring chorus of “Great Love” washes over your eardrums. Try not to sway as the album-opening track, “Everyone Knows” traipses across the sand on the beach in your brain. This album will take you someplace nice.
1. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits: Spoon (ATR’s No. 1 band), Handsome Furs and Wolf Parade had a baby, and it wound up sounding a lot like Spoon, but with some of the fuzz and buzz of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs incorporated in a pretty seamless way. Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner and Spoon’s Britt Daniel have, oddly, perfectly complementary voices, too, so there’s this effortless synthesis on this debut album that doesn’t at all suggest this is the first time these boys have been in a studio together. Tough to pick a favorite from this tight lineup of tracks, but the very Spoony (though it’s sung by Boeckner) “Baby Get Worse” always sticks out in my mind when I think of this album. Then I go and queue it up for the 249th time since it came out.