Top Ten Albums of 2012

Steven Casimer Kowalski and Neal Christyson

Neal's Pick: 10. Future "Pluto"

Neal: At first I wanted to disqualify this album solely based upon the presence of Drake. As it turns out his appearance comes on what is, not surprisingly, the most cringe-worthy song on the album in “Tony Montana”. I also almost disqualified the album just because I know I am going to have a hard time describing why I think it is worthy of a top ten spot. I can tell you that the production is great, despite the fact that many of the songs on the album feel the need to remind you at the very beginning that Mike Will Made It made it (I had a hard time with how to finish that sentence because his actual working name is “Mike Will Made It” so it’s not a typo). I can tell you that Future’s auto-tuned delivery sounds like a wino desperately getting out his last few words before he passes out. I don’t know. Just listen to “Magic”, “Truth Gonna Hurt You”, “Neva End”, “Same Damn Time”, “Turn On The Lights”, and don’t you dare forget “You Deserve It” in which Future is rapping to himself, about himself. And R. Kelly (R. KELLY!) kills it on “Parachute”. It’s such a good album even Drake can’t ruin it.

Steve: First things first, “Same Damn Time” is a GREAT song. It is boastful and cocky and not all of that braggadocio is serious which makes it all the better. And if there is one thing about Pluto that I like it’s that this record doesn’t take itself too seriously. On talent alone, Future isn’t going to blow anyone away. Certainly his use of autotune and 14+ producers is to mask some of that lack. But he also cultivates a ‘who the fuck cares? can we party?’ vibe from track one to fifteen. While autotune and these singles may go out style that attitude never will which I think is going to give this record lasting power beyond its 2012 peers. “You Deserve It” is unbelievable because yeah, this is Future just hyping himself up on behalf of himself. There is certainly precedent in hip-hop for claiming stardom is yours by virtue of your hard work. It works when you’re Nas releasing this year’s “Life is Good” which is both yet another Nas record AND his best in a decade. But Future tells me about all the dues he’s paid and I’m not so sure. Is Future just going through the motions from time to time? Maybe he is. But the high’s are SO high that I don’t mind the lows(Drake).

Steve's Pick: 9. Swans "The Seer"

S: The Swans were the best live show I saw this year. And part of the reason The Seer made this list was on the strength of that show. So my apologies if this record isn’t your cup of tea. You might find it bloated, dramatic, too serious. Yes, it is all of those things. But it can also be aggressively gorgeous which is an achievement for a Swans record. I might even go so far as to say there are moments of, well, beauty...between the bashing and gnarling percussion. “Avatar” is as good a song as any band wrote this year. But it is also a Swans song which means the lyrical theme is tied to the chanting of “Your eye is in my eye” which isn’t nice talk for the dinner table. More than any record I selected for my picks this is the most aquired taste. I would beg anyone who suspected this pick doesn’t deserve #9 overall to go see Swans perform. They put a steady curse on me.

N: All the negative things you said about this album, I support them completely. The first thing I need to say is that “Song For A Warrior” is haunting and pretty in it’s simplicity. It’s far and away the best song on the album. There are moments in other songs which are really pretty and chaotic, like you said. The problem is so much of it is bloated, pretentious, and frankly, boring. The thought of sitting down to listen to all 119 minutes and 13 seconds of this album just one more time makes me cringe. Most of the time the lyrics just come across as silly. The repetition isn’t doing any favors either. In “The Seer Returns” I started to smirk during the chronicling of light and life pouring into mouths, and then “Put your light in my mouth” was repeated 8 times (I counted) and I actually laughed out loud. My issue here is that, being quite generous, there may be 30 minutes of a good album in The Seer. But because this thing is so absurdly long that means only 25% of it is good. It shouldn’t be on this list.

Neal's Pick: 8. How To Dress Well "Total Loss"

N: On the surface there are a lot of things not to like about this album. It’s incredibly sad. At times the production is so blown out you can barely hear what’s going on. There are times when the music sounds like he just recorded it from an ambient noise alarm clock. This is not an album you would recommend in that “just listen to it, be sad, and at the end you will be better” way. There may be a little optimism in there, but you have to really create some of your own conclusions to find it. This album is a bottle of wine and your bedroom floor, and not in a sexy way. What ends up happening is all of those things combine to create an absolutely stellar album. The seering falsetto, the blown out strings. It all forms something so great and cohesive and wonderfully crafted. The album peaks with upbeat swing of “& It Was U” which will hit you like the saddest dance party ever and slowly dissolves in itself from there on in. As a whole, it is just so very good.

S: Sad music just doesn’t do it for me anymore. And once upon a time I loved it. In 2009 you tried, admirably, to bring me around on the Antlers’ Hospice and I was not having it. HTDW doesn’t go quite as far down the sad-hole but this is some bleak shit. There is an audience for this and none of them can kiss or dance. HTDW aka Tom Krell built his house on R&B. And for me, R&B is music for living. There isn’t a genre on the planet that is tied more strictly to sensory pleasure. I think How to Dress Well has done a fine job on previous releases walking the line between innovation and genre convention. 2010’s Ready for the World is a great example of Krell’s ability to work with R&B. Total Loss is a step in a new direction. A new, wrong direction. Maybe Krell is working to carve something out for himself. Perhaps this is a transition? Still, all the blood and body is removed here. The record is nothing but spirit. It is drifting, bleak, and cold. This could just as easily be upside for some folks but for me, once you get past the prettiness of it, there isn’t much left.

Steve's Pick: 7. Kendrick Lamar "good kid, m.A.A.d. city"

S: 2012 was a terrible year for hip-hop. Kanye churned out piles of bullshit all over the place. We all met 2 Chainz. And I think Jay Z is a Senator or Stockbroker or something now? Plus Drake, gross. Anyways, even in a great year, good kid would blanket headphones and car stereos. Where Kendrick is really coming from still intrigues me. His raps focus on the street, on the crime, on that life like you might expect. But his perspective feels far removed. Maybe not beyond or above but like he is seeing things moments before they happen. That superiority, that confidence is what makes this is record an achievement. There is a maturity well beyond Kendrick’s 25 years displayed throughout good kid. But he’s still young and definitely wrote the line, “I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower so I can fuck the world for 72 hours”. Someone I work with LOVES that line. He is also in his early twenties. Obviously there is a certain appeal. Dre did some work on this record. It is GREAT to hear his beats working to put Compton back on the map. Lets us all bow our heads to pray about our dicks.

N: While I wouldn’t go as far as saying 2012 was a terrible year for hip-hop, it certainly was not at it’s best. And our Kanye West argument will enjoyingly continue until the end of time. This, however, is not about the greatness of Kanye. This is about the greatness of good kid, m.a.d. city. What sets this album above and apart from the others is Kendrick’s ability as a storyteller. He creates a world and you get very easily pulled into it. It’s in “Swimming Pools” in the way you want to just own that chorus as a party song, but feel conflicted because it’s actually really depressing. “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is a 12 minute epic which stays engaging the whole way through. I also have to mention that the production on this album is great. The “Backstreet Freestyle” beat is one of my favorite beats of the year. “Poetic Justice” is a perfect example of a wonderfully executed slow-jam which unfortunately has to put up with 54 seconds of professional beat-ruiner Drake. The Just-Blaze produced “Compton” is a monster jam in every regard, and an excellent closer to an excellent album.

Neal's Pick: 6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!"

N: I was hesitant at first. Not because I worried it would be bad. I was hesitant because this band has such a significant and specific impact on a time in my life. I was worried about dealing with the mental and emotional exhaustion of having to adjust their canon and what it means to me. That may sound overwrought or unnecessarily grandiose but this band carries serious emotional weight. I lived for years in a bedroom with a crappy mural based around the “Kiss me, you’re beautiful. These are truly the last days.” imagery above my bed. The opening six-minute track is just that, an opener. While a bit boring, it was preparing me for the emotional gut-shot which would follow—a sort of orchestral/emotional decompression chamber. It made me feel small, but I mean that in the best way. The two 20 minute tracks in the middle carry the album in a typically epic and triumphant fashion. It all culminates in a six-minute track which eases you out of your brain. It made me want to call an ex-girlfriend and dig up my old messenger bag with GY!BE scrawled across the front. In short, it is perfect.

S: Well. Yeah. I can’t believe I didn’t pick this. I should have. Though I am happy you did because it is much better to hear you talk about your GY!BE mural than to have me tell the tale. I guess if there is a flaw to be found it’s that, really, this record is 2 songs and 2 interludes which makes it feel a bit underdone. Also, bits and pieces of this music have been around for over a decade. So, this isn’t new so much as another GY!BE record. Still, after so long without one and after wondering whatever became of these talented people I am so relieved that, in 2012, they put out anything it all. It almost seems unfair to everyone else on this list who had to do a fair bit of work to get my vote that Godspeed just had to put SOMETHING out. I wonder how many other year-end-list makers have these kinds of records selected but don’t just come out and say, “I’ve loved them for 15 years. They were essential in my musical and emotional development and I’m going to praise their work and that’s that.” I could say the same thing about Failed States, the 2012 release by Propagandhi. There was just no way I wasn’t going to love it. And if could carry this list out to #12 we would all be reading more about it.

Steve's Pick: #5 Royal Headache "Royal Headache"

S: THIS RECORD IS A GODDAMN KILLER. The formula is to get a band of rippers to slay Buzzcocks riffs and then find some blue-eyed soulster to croon over the licks. How did it take so long for something like this to really click? I’ve heard plenty of bands try to put soul and punk together. But it usually feels like the players are taking the two styles and pushing them at each other and saying, “NOW KISS!” But here the band and the vocals and the writing all compliment one another. The songs stay simple and short. The vocals are powerful, the melodies catchy. And most importantly, Royal Headache doesn’t sound like they are imitating anyone. This is simply their sound. It may sound like another sound but it isn’t really another at all. You can play this thing 2 or 3 times in an hour and I’ve spent many hours doing just that. They’re Australian, so who knows when or how they’ll make it stateside. But, if they do I am going and I won’t even care if it’s on a school night.

N: This was completely off my radar before you picked it as number 5. My first reactions to listening to it were “That voice!” and “Why didn’t he tell me about this before?” I listened to the album probably three times in a row. Then immediately spent about an hour falling down an internet hole watching videos of them playing live. In one video the singer is bouncing around shirtless. There are pretty short-haired girls dancing in the audience. There is a guy wearing sunglasses. I want to be there. It all looks like everyone is having so much fun. It fits because this is a fun album. It charges hard and manages to sound like it was created in a time vacuum, sounding like it may have been found covered in dust in a recording studio vault, and at the same time, like it comes from the future. A future where everyone looks cool and is always having fun. This album is a Beach Party movie made by Jean-Luc Godard.

Neal's Pick: #4 Twin Shadow "Confess"

N: When I first heard this album I remember immediately texting you and you responded by referring to Twin Shadow as “Bruce Synthsteen”. Which is still awesome. I have probably listened to this album more than any other this year. Musically it reminds me of Prince or The Police, and at times, Peter Gabriel. Its songs are booming and driven. Its lyrics are earnest and the guy can flat out sing. “Five Seconds” is an anthem which will have you singing along and dancing like Molly Ringwald in the Breakfast Club on only the second listen. A lot of the songs are sad, and you will feel all of it, but the melodies will grab you and let you know it’s all going to be fine, and it can all be fun. This is pop music in all it’s glory. It’s just so damn pleasant to listen to. The opening lyrics to “I Don’t Care” just sum it all up so wonderfully. “Let me know you’re innocent and tell me all the things you’ve done. And talk about the parties and the boys that you got undone. I don’t care. I don’t care as long as you can dance me around the room while you lie to me.”

S: Awesome record. And yes, I stand by Bruce Synthsteen. The cover of the record, with George Lewis Jr. aka Twin Shadow pompadoured and mugging HARD in a leather jacket takes me straight toward Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Run My Heart” is the absolute pinnacle on this record for me. It is such a simple song. It has a massive chorus. It is catchy. I spend so much time craving difference and innovation each year I always welcome the one or two songs that just reveal themselves as great absent context or history. I don’t know if I would pay to go see Twin Shadow. Or if I will be eagerly awaiting his next release. I got the feeling from various press that they were all anticipating Confess after their experience with Twin Shadows first album, 2010’s Forget. I didn’t have an antecedent for this album. I had no idea who or what Twin Shadow was. Every year this happens. Someone comes from nowhere doing something I’ve heard done before so unbelievably well that I am reminded that this is going to keep happening, every year, for the rest of my life. It is a great feeling to have. It makes me look forward to next year.

Steve's Pick: #3 Cloud Nothings "Attack on Memory"

S: This record has 8 tracks and they are all good. That’s a 100% success rate. That’s rare. I like that there could easily have been 10 or 12 songs but they used 8 and the 8 are the good ones. I also can’t help but relate to the 1990’s vibe of the entire thing. Now, I don’t mean to say Attack on Memory is some kind of retread or nostalgia-scheme. It is not those things. What it is...what it does, is remind me a bit about my young self and how much I could feed off of just going straight ahead loud. As I’ve grown I’ve learned other things to enjoy about music. And as I accumulated a record shop education that guitar/drums/rock combination was replaced by like, I don’t know, girls and debt. Hearing Cloud Nothing draw and pull and pummel through this set is refreshing and, more importantly, interesting. This isn’t just another group of dudes grabbing their amps’ cocks. Or maybe it is, but it is really fun anyways.

N: Initially I was worried that hometown pride was increasing my hype for this album. I also worried that what Cloud Nothings do musically, would be something that would hit me hard initially but I would eventually stop caring. This album was released at the end of January. In September I was sitting in a bar on a Sunday afternoon with three other former Clevelanders, all involved with music on completely varying levels. A portion of that conversation centered on how great this album is. The tone of the conversation is important. It wasn’t an overly excited “Oh my god it’s so good!” The tone was much more resigned. It sounded like a post-game interview with the MVP from the losing team. It carried that same sort of resigned acceptance of “we played our asses off but the other team was just better.” A lot of shoulder shrugs. A lot of brow sweat getting wiped away. This is important because it is the same way in which this album exists as one of the year’s best. It’s not all hype and early excitement. It’s just resigned acceptance that Cloud Nothings did the damn thing and they did it so much better than everyone else. It’s the type of defeat you can only accept and embrace, and I look forward to embracing this band kicking my ass for many years to come.

Neal's Pick: #2 Miguel "Kaleidoscope Dream"

N: 2012 was a good year for R&B. Frank Ocean was everywhere. Usher released what may be the best single of the year in “Climax”. R Kelly released more chapters of Trapped In The Closet. Miguel stands just a bit taller than the rest. “Adorn” is a monster of an opener. It acts as a mission statement for the rest of the album. It’s as if he is saying “remember why we all love Al Green? It’s because he’s just smooth. I’m going to do that.” And he does. The music calls in influences of the Beatles, Phil Spector, and slowed down versions of 60’s pop. “Do You” is a laid back jam you will find yourself humming and bobbing your head for days after hearing it and the titular track is unstoppable. Miguel continues to be effortlessly cool and his delivery offers up an amazing sense of intimacy with his subject matter and listener. A friend of mine told me that the song “Pussy Is Mine” is how she wanted to be proposed to. It takes a certain type of bravado to pull off a song like that. Miguel is that guy and he lets you believe that even if for only a brief second, you can be that guy too.

S: Well it was this or Channel Orange, right? I mean, everyone writing about music in 2012 got that Frank Ocean feeling at some point. We talked about it and I think we both squinted a lot and tried to figure people out. I believe you said, “I get why people like this?” Miguel’s record is better. And it is better by several degrees. They are both good, maybe both great. What is truly great is to have 2012 be a year that comes down to what R&B record you like best. When was the last time that happened? I want to also give shouts to Solange’s True and Keyshia Cole’s Woman to Woman which are both wonderful. I mean, that’s 4 bona-fide R&B albums with huge crossover appeal all doing different, radical things in 2012. Also there was R. Kelly too! “Pussy is Mine” is probably my least favorite song on the record. But I HIGHLY recommend that everyone go over to Spotify and listen to the censored version of it. The absence of the word is more profane than the word itself. For favorites here I am going with “Arch & Point” and “Don’t Look Back”. “Arch & Point” is yet another 2012 jam that references birthday cake. I wonder what the chosen confection of 2013 will be? Literal Twinkie’s? Cookies? Is 2013 the year America accepts savoury deserts in pop culture? Time will tell.

Steve's Pick: #1 Bobby Womack "The Bravest Man in the Universe"

S: This is Bobby Womack’s 27th album. It is an astonishing piece of music. The lead single, “Please Forgive My Heart” arrived in March and completely won me over. By the time the album dropped in June I was already prepared to declare it a masterpiece. And then I listened to it and was totally underwhelmed. It was, as a friend warned me it would be, derivative of Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 album I’m New Here. Another reviewer attacked it as another in a series of releases capitalizing on artist mortality. The choice of Lana Del Ray as duet partner on “Dayglo Reflection” seemed like a cash grab. The song, “Love is Gonna Lift You Up” was, well, awful. But, “Please Forgive My Heart” remained moving and beautiful. It brought me back to the record again and again. And soon I accepted Lana. Then I accepted the goofy, karaoke backing track on “Love is Gonna Lift You Up.” It just seems silly and fun now. The comparison to Scott-Heron’s final album is unavoidable. But now I think the derivative tag isn’t at all fair. This is a different man, and a different statement, one with tremendous soul and fever. It’s the only record that had to win me back this year. It succeeded because it is the best record of 2012.

N: I remember you telling me to listen to “Please Forgive My Heart” when it came out. It is a great song. For one reason or another I never ended up listening to the whole album until a month or two ago. The music on it sounds bright and compliments Womack’s weathered and worn voice so well. It may not seem so sonically but when Womack goes, he goes with everything he has. This ultimately will lead to some misses such as “Love Is Gonna Lift You Up”. I admire your ability to come around on a song which is just so cheesy and bad, especially when a song like “Jubilee (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around)” is essentially that song done much better. What makes this album work is that there is so much behind every song that it makes up for whatever negatives may exist. There doesn’t seem to be an ounce of posturing going on here. I don’t think I would say this is the best album released in 2012, but I’m not against it appearing on this list as such.