Discovering awesome albums was not a problem this year. But when it came time to assemble a mix CD for a friend living overseas, I had a hell of a time finding an energetic track to kick off the compilation. Truth is, most of what appealed to me this year was on the down tempo side of the musical spectrum – songs that emphasized texture and small details over revved up rhythms. Even metal band Baroness, who can usually be counted on for roaring riffs start to finish, spent a big chunk of their new record playing delicate, noodle-y guitar lines. The upside to all of this restraint is the re-playability factor; my favourite albums of 2012 were the ones that gave me something new to focus on every time I put them on, whether it was a cool harmony buried low in the mix or a weird guitar effect.
Then there’s the story of R&B, a genre that appears to be having a creative renaissance at the moment. What’s going on exactly? Well, it’s clear the new guard are interested in looking outside the genre’s traditions and borrowing from other scenes and musical movements. Last year, we had The Weeknd sampling Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees; in 2012, we have Miguel re-imagining the 60’s rock hit “Time of the Season” by the Zombies. (You can hear this tag on the end of his song “Don’t Look Back.”) I’d say youth and technology are a big factor in this spirit of open-mindedness. Guys like Frank Ocean (age 25) and Miguel (age 27) grew up with the Internet, so the pop culture they consumed as kids and up-and-coming musicians was undoubtedly more diverse than previous generations, who came up on the strict formats of commercial radio. This new generation of artists isn’t concerned with categorizing things into “rock”, “shoegaze” or “rap.” If it’s good music, it goes into the blender. You can also hear this anything goes attitude in the work of Purity Ring, a couple of prairie-bred Canadian kids with heavy hip-hop leanings.
When someone like Frank Ocean references the classics, he does so in a way that never comes across as retro. Take his song “Pyramids”: the synth groove in the second verse could be straight off of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, but the club beats and overall production are right here and now.
But enough of my pontificating. Let’s just say I haven’t enjoyed R&B this much since the 90’s, when Mary J. Blige was searchin’ for a real love and Aaliyah was confessing her goody-goody/naughty-naughty duality to the backdrop of some sweet Missy and Timbaland beats.
Without further ado, here are my favourite albums of 2012 (in no particular order):
1. Purity Ring, Shrines (Last Gang Records)
Key Tracks: Belispeak, Lofticries, Fineshrine
2. Frank Ocean, Channel ORANGE (Island Def Jam Music)
Key Tracks: Bad Religion, Sweet Life, Pyramids
3. Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA Records)
Key Tracks: Adorn, Use Me, Where’s The Fun in Forever?
4. Beach House, Bloom (Sub Pop)
Key Tracks: Wild, Myth, Lazuli
5. Santigold, Master of My Make Believe (Atlantic)
Key Tracks: Disparate Youth, The Riot’s Gone, Pirate in the Water
6. Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music (Williams Street Records)
Key Tracks: Untitled, Reagan, R.A.P. Music
7. Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur (MapleMusic)
Key Tracks: Change the Sheets, Empty Threat, A Soft Place to Land
8. Deftones, Koi No Yokan (Reprise Records)
Key Tracks: Entombed, Graphic Nature, Tempest
9. Baroness, Yellow and Green (Relapse Records)
Key Tracks: Board Up The House, Take My Bones Away, March To The Sea
10. Twin Shadow, Confess (4AD)
Key Tracks: Run My Heart, Five Seconds, Golden Light
Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls (ATO/Rough Trade)
Tame Impala, Lonerism (Modular Recordings)