2012 was an absolutely stellar year for rap music no matter how you slice it. Seemingly out of nowhere the variety and talent within the genre exploded, and it didn’t seem to be specific to any particular sub-genre or geographic region. I usually tend to favor hip hop that comes out of the NYC area, and it’s no surprise that the area is well represented on my list. The first two albums I reviewed for Thought On Tracks were from Brooklyn MC’s Ka and billy woods. I considered them album of the year contenders when I wrote the reviews back in May and they ended up fighting off a ton of tough competition to hold down the top two spots on my list. Check out my full top ten hip hop albums below, I’ve linked reviews for the albums I reviewed and wrote a few words about the ones I didn’t get a chance to review.
1. billy woods – History Will Absolve Me
Woods’ masterwork History Will Absolve Me was my most anticipated album of 2012 and it more than delivered. It’s the type of album that will only gain importance as the years go by. Woods’ style, while unorthodox, is brimming with intelligence, dark humor, creativity, and above all, pen skills.
2. Ka – Grief Pedigree
Ka’s self-produced classic Grief Pedigree is an album rooted in hip hop’s past, but with a modern sound and devoid of any throwback sentiments. Ka’s attention to detail and dedication to his craft allowed him to overcome the limitations of his monotone flow in a big way and helped him create a perfect album.
3. Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City
What can I say about Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City that hasn’t already been said this year? I’m not sure, which is probably why I didn’t review it. Its greatness is astounding and self-explanatory. Astounding in that he actually made THAT thorough of concept album and a major label actually allowed him to release it, and self-explanatory in that Kendrick’s rapping skill is indisputable at this point. Lamar’s album was perhaps the most anticipated hip hop album of 2012 and it turned out to be far better than it had any right to be. The back to back combo of “The Art Of Peer Pressure” and “Money Trees” is probably my favorite song transition of the year.
Roc Marciano had a big 2012. Even though his stellar sequel to 2010’s underground classic Marcberg wasn’t released until November, his name seemed to be everywhere throughout the year as he released well over another album’s worth of material through guest appearances and loosies. Reloaded was worth the wait though, it feels like a love letter to the genre, an album for the heads who love rhymes. His verses jump out of the speakers on tracks like “Emeralds” and display why many consider Roc to be the best rapper doing it. His subject matter may be limited, but Roc’s visual wordplay and raw rhyming ability make him an addictive listen.
5. Aesop Rock- Skelethon
6. Nacho Picasso & BSBD – Exalted
Habits & Contradictions was an album that I considered reviewing, but it was released so far before I began writing for Thought On Tracks that I thought its time had passed. While the time may have passed for me to review it, it stayed in my listening rotation all year long. Schoolboy’s performance on H&C is as versatile as any rapper’s performance on any album in 2012. There are a few songs I may skip from time to time on H&C, but its high points are really high and reveal an artist with boundless energy and unlimited potential. “There He Go” and “Hands On The Wheel” were amazing singles and show off Q’s fun side, but aren’t representative of the overall artistic depth and variety found throughout Habits & Contradictions. The Alchemist produced “My Homie” https://soundcloud.com/prince-k-frempong/09-schoolboy-q-my-homie and the Kendrick Lamar assisted “Blessed” https://soundcloud.com/topdawgent/schoolboy-q-blessed-ft show off another side of Q and help explain why the word versatile always seems to come up when discussing Schoolboy’s music.
8. Open Mike Eagle – 4NML HSPTL
9. Homeboy Sandman – First of a Living Breed
Nacho Picasso and Blue Sky Black Death might not have received the attention they deserved in 2012, but that’s certainly not because of a lack of effort. Lord Of The Fly was the first of their full length collabs released in 2012, and like Schoolboy Q’s album, it was simply released too early in the year for me to review it. BSBD and Nacho used Lord Of The Fly to hone and perfect the style they created on their debut album For The Glory from 2011. Their focus allowed them to craft an exaggerated concept album of sorts that established Nacho as a larger than life devious cartoon character. Ultimately I slightly preferred the level of introspection that Nacho brought to the darker follow up Exalted, but Lord Of The Fly was still good enough to crack the top ten, making Nacho the only artist to have two albums on the list. “Phantom of The Opera” and “Naked Lunch” are the standout tracks, but there’s not a bad song in the bunch.
Written by John Bugbee
As always, my year-end list comes with a disclaimer. I hate rankings in art, period. End of story. This is an exercise in figuring out which albums meant the most to me in 2012. Nothing more. Nothing less. Those interested may subscribe to my Best of 2012 Spotify playlist, but I strongly urge you all to go out and purchase these releases. They are all worthy of your buck.
Several trends have developed as I look back on my favorite releases from 2012. First, I lean heavier towards releases from the latter half of the year. This is unintentional, but it’s just a reality of what I’ve been listening to lately and what is on my mind. Time will tell whether these releases continue to have staying power. 2012 was a really strong year for singer-songwriters and debut releases. Of the 30 albums on this list, eight are debuts with four ranking in the top 10. I am heavy on the folk this year with Barna Howard, Jessica Pratt, and Hip Hatchet all receiving nods. It was also a good year for EP’s and I decided to expand this list from full-length album’s to include releases from Bear Hands, Daniel Rossen and The Antlers.
2012 was also a great year for hip hop, which my list does not reflect. I enjoyed a lot of material that John Bugbee covered for Thought on Tracks this year, with billy woods’ History Will Absolve Me and Ka’s Grief Pedigree ranking near the top. Unfortunately, I gave most of these releases cursory listens and didn’t feel comfortable including them on my list. It’s possible that we’ll create another list that takes into account the entire staff’s picks, in which case hip hop would likely be included.
A note on number one: I chose Dirty Projetors’ Swing Lo Magellan as my top album of the year. In reality, any of the albums in my top five could rotate into that position. For me, the Projectors album was the one release that I could say definitively felt like it was moving the possibilities of pop music forward. Much of that has to do with the album’s inherent and intentional cerebral quality. I believe David Longstreth is the closest artist that my generation has to Brian Wilson in terms of executing a vision and creating other-worldly vocal arrangements. In honor of Swing Lo earning the top spot, feel free to check out the short film for “Hi Custodian” from Pitchfork.tv featured in all of its pretentious glory at the bottom of the post.
Below, you’ll find my list with links to any of the albums that we covered this year. I really think there is something for everyone on this list. It’s been another great year for music, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed some of what we talked about this year. Thanks as always for reading. And thanks to the incredible minds that created the artwork listed below. Without it, I honestly don’t know whether I’d get out of bed in the morning. It really means the world to me.
Best Albums of 2012
- Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
- Matthew E. White – Big Inner
- Tame Impala – Lonerism
- Barna Howard LP
- Jessica Pratt LP
- Grizzly Bear – Shields
- Allah-Las LP
- Sleeping Bag – Women of Your Life
- Mac Demarco – 2
- Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
- Daniel Rossen – Silent Hour / Golden Mile
- Father John Misty – Fear Fun
- The Orwells – Remember When
- Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
- Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
- Bear Hands – Songs From Utopia
- Bobby Womack – Strongest Man in the Universe
- Ariel Pink & Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
- She Does Is Magic – My Height In Heels
- Dent May – Do Things
- Dusted – Total Dust
- Woods – Bend Beyond
- Here We Go Magic – A Different Ship
- Port St. Willow – Holiday
- Cat Power – SUN
- The Antlers – Undersea
- Hip Hatchet – Joy and Better Days
- King Tuff LP
- Jessie Baylin – Little Spark
- Sonny & The Sunsets – Longtime Companion
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Apache Dropout – Bubblegum Graveyard
Dr. John – Locked Down
Ty Segall – Twins
Angel Olsen – Half Way Home
TEEN – In Limbo
Helvetia – Nothing in Rambling
As is readily apparent, we are vinyl enthusiasts around these parts. As such, we’re excited about the annual Record Store Day 2.0, held as part of the retail behemoth Black Friday. Fighting off bloodthirsty mothers in search of 2012’s hot holiday toy may serve as an excellent exercise in shedding Turkey-day calories, but it proves dangerous and ill-advised. Instead, we recommend a stroll to the nearest record store for a friendlier Black Friday shopping experience. The holiday is marked by a slew of special, limited-edition releases that are sure to brighten any bookcase. Below, we’ve highlighted five can’t miss Black Friday exclusives.
Nirvana – Incesticide: 20th Anniversary Edition
Nirvana’s 1992 compilation release of demos, cover songs and radio performances has received a full remastering in honor of the album’s 20th anniversary. Incesticide is available on 180 gram vinyl at 45 RPM for the first time ever. The release features the Kurt Cobain’s artwork with lyric sheet art housed in a deluxe gatefold sleeve. Gold foiled, stamped and individually numbered. Watch a video for the album’s lone single, “Sliver” below.
Miles Davis – Miles Ahead
Miles Davis’s 1957 release Miles Ahead came on the back of his groundbreaking Birth of the Cool sessions, and represented the artist’s first foray into orchestral jazz in collaboration with legendary jazz pianist, arranger and composer Gil Evans. The duo would go on to record a string of veritable masterpieces for Columbia in the form of Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights. Listen to where the relationship drew its first breaths on 180 gram vinyl recorded in MONO. Both Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain are also receiving Black Friday reissue treatment.
The Velvet Underground & Nico – Scepter Studios Acetate
These rare 1966 recordings feature early, alternate versions of what would later comprise the legendary debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico. The sessions were recorded at Scepter Studios, housed within the warehouse space that would later play home to Studio 54. The album is available on limited edition, 180 gram vinyl, gold foil stamped and individually numbered.
Joe Strummer & The Mescalaros – Live at Action Town Hall
These recordings come from a 2002 live performance by the legendary Clash frontman and his backing band The Mescalaros. The concert – held as a benefit for striking firefighters – is notorious among Clash aficionados, as it featured Strummer on stage with former bandmate Mick Jones for the first time in nearly 20 years. By this time, Strummer’s musical tastes had ventured far from the Englishman’s punk rock roots, influenced heavily by the Afrobeat rhythms, jam bands and electronic music that had risen to prominence around the turn of the century.
Big Brother & The Holding Company – Cheap Thrills
Cheap Thrills was the sophomore LP from Bay Area psych-blues outfit Big Brother & The Holding Company and the band’s last with Janis Joplin as lead singer. In 1968, the album rose to number one on the Billboard pop charts, where it sat for eight weeks. The track listing features several of the songs that would define Joplin’s career, including “Ball and Chain”and “Piece of My Heart.” The album’s cover art was illustrated by legendary underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. Listen on 180 gram vinyl, recorded in MONO.
Written by Rob Peoni