I’ve been sharing these lists online for about ten years now, and they tend to follow the same formula.
A) Compile a list of the best albums I’ve listened to so far this year (usually done right after Thanksgiving.)
B) Rush-listen to at least a dozen albums that I was either on the fence about or didn’t give a good enough listen to, under the assumption that they’re probably all good enough to make the list (first two weeks of December.)
C) Find at least two or three great albums released in between the time I make my initial list and the time I publish it (late November-early December.)
D) Say “fuck this ranking shit” and decide that I’m going to alphabetically list the albums that I enjoyed most over the course of the year (the day before I publish.)
…and here we are, folks. Just a selection of my favorite albums released in 2012. Some may get better with successive listens, some may get worse, but if I were to take a handful of albums from this year and put them in a time capsule RIGHT THIS MINUTE, here’s what I would choose.
Ben Folds Five The Sound of The Life of The Mind: My favorite piano geek (and one of my all-time mancrushes) reunited with the guys that put him on the map and put together an album good enough to make me (kind of) forgive Ben for Way To Normal and Lonely Avenue (not that they were bad, mind you. The law of diminishing returns was at play, though.) The Five didn’t reinvent the wheel on their first album in over a decade, but they did infuse their leader with enough variety in songwriting and musicianship that I really, really hope they stay together. Also-one of my top five shows of the year. Extra props to Robert Sledge for jumping around the stage like a puppy and adding an extra layer of joy to the music he helped create.
Big Boi Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors: I’ll admit-I don’t even own this album yet (the copy I ordered is still en route.) I have listened enough on Spotify to confirm that Big Boi is officially on some other shit. Space-funk? Indie rock? Ambient chillwave whatever the fuck you call it-Mr. Patton brings a musician’s ear to hip-hop (and Andre 3000′s amazing guest verses over the past twelve months have made an OutKast reunion perhaps the most highly anticipated happening in all of music.)
Big K.R.I.T. Live From The Underground: Amazing what you can get for two bucks on Amazon mp3. I would’ve gladly paid five times as much for this Southern emcee’s debut. I hate to be an obnoxious purist, but the art of storytelling seems to have been lost when it comes to a lot of modern day rap music, and K.R.I.T. (with assists from Devin the Dude, Ludacris and the always-reliable Anthony Hamilton) created an album that’s almost cinematic in its lyricism.
Bruno Mars Unorthodox Jukebox: Pop music’s renaissance man. He can write a hell of a song, sing his ass off, and perform it in any style you put in front of him. Doo-wop? ’80s-esque funk/pop? Reggae? Check, check and knocked it the fuck out of the park. If you can’t appreciate music of this quality but count Usher and Chris Brown among your favorites, you need to have your ears cleaned.
Dr. John Locked Down: So I’ll admit-I hadn’t listened to much Dr. John music beyond a few stray compilation tracks prior to this year. Popblerd’s own Dr. Gonzo got me started, and the New Orleans piano man did the rest with his Dan Auerbach-produced slab of swampy funk/rock Locked Down.
Donald Fagen Sunken Condos: I was super-psyched to see Donald Fagen, along with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald in concert this year. The Steely Dan frontman impressed me the most of the three with a vocal style a little throatier than its studio counterpart and an engaging storytelling style. He was the glue that held the show together, and seeing him renewed my interest in his solo work. Sunken Condos didn’t disappoint. While there’s not much in the realm of the unexpected to be found here, it’s as solid as any work Fagen has been a part of since his 1982 solo debut, The Nightfly.
Emeli Sande Our Version of Events: This British singer-songwriter was a late-year discovery. Her name had been on the lips of a few of my tastemaker buddies, but my curiosity was piqued when I found out that she was working with Alicia Keys on material that eventually wound up on Girl On Fire. After listening to the material she co-wrote with Alicia, and then listening to Our Version of Events, it became obvious that Emeli saved her best material for her own album. Sort of a middle ground between Adele and Marsha Ambrosius (who released two of my favorite albums in 2011) with a little bit of Beyonce’s vocal stylings thrown in, watch out for Emeli to break through in the new year.
Evitan Speed of Life: Hip-hop’s most enduring collective, the Native Tongues Posse, spun off one of this year’s most essential hip-hop records. Andres Titus (AKA Dres from Black Sheep) and on-again off-again Tribe Called Quest member Jarobi White joined forces and created a mature, occasionally poignant and always dope album with Speed of Life. No trendy beats, no stunt-casting, just real, thoughtful hip-hop for those of us who grew up with and respect the art form.
Fiona Apple The Idler Wheel Blah Blah Blah Long Ass Album Title-Oh Fiona, you will always be my crazy pretend girlfriend. I just wish you made albums more than once every five years. Still, your music is so good it’s worth the wait…almost.
Frank Ocean Channel ORANGE: The consensus pick for Album of the Year, it seems. Frank’s got the singer-songwriter pop smarts of a Bruno Mars or a Ne-Yo, but he’s also got a daring streak a mile wide. Bruno would never attempt a 10-minute track like “Pyramids,” and a Ne-Yo record with Andre 3000 would likely contain OutKast’s best-known member rapping, not playing guitar. So, even though it’s easy to lump Frank in with all the other pop/R&B cats out there, Channel ORANGE has as much in common with, say, a Joni Mitchell album as it does with a contemporary R&B record. This is a good thing. The world needs more Frank Oceans.
Gotye Making Mirrors: Unfortunately, Gotye will probably forever be known as the “Somebody That I Used To Know” guy. That one song, good as it is, doesn’t scratch the surface of how talented he is. A one-man band that takes cues from Sting and Peter Gabriel (but doesn’t ape them,) Making Mirrors is an accomplished meld of pop, rock and world music. I bet if you played someone “Easy Way Out” or “Bronte,” they wouldn’t even know that they were from the same guy who ruled pop radio for the first half of the year.
Jack White Blunderbuss: After not really feeling The Raconteurs or Dead Weather albums, I thought Jack and Meg had a chemistry that Jack was going to be unable to replicate anywhere else. While Blunderbuss is a step below the White Stripes catalog in quality, it’s still a memorable effort. It’s like every Jack White-rockabilly Jack, kinda-funky Jack, plain old weird Jack-came together and brought their collective “A” (or at least “A-” game) to Blunderbuss.
Jamie Woon Mirrorwriting: Another recommendation from a member of the Popblerd staff (in this case, Mike A.,) this British newcomer’s sound is haunting, yet danceable. The argument that electronic music doesn’t have soul has waged for nearly four decades ago, and if albums by everyone from Depeche Mode to Prince to Stevie Wonder haven’t shut that argument up yet, Mirrorwriting makes a good case for the end to that theory.
John Mayer Born And Raised: After sticking his foot in his mouth repeatedly and then making an album that fell well below his standards, John Mayer was on the ropes. Thankfully, he returned with the thoughtful, melancholy Born And Raised, and then his voice went kaput, leaving the music to stand for itself. You better believe it does. Quiet and reflective, with elements of country, folk and early ’70s pop like Joni Mitchell and CSN&Y (two of whom actually appear on the phenomenal title track and its reprise,) Born & Raised contains more of the identifiable lyricism, tasty guitar playing and warmth that fans have come to expect from John.
Miguel Kaleidoscope Dream: My most played song on last.fm (not just this month or this year, but all-time?) Miguel’s “Adorn.” This simple love song got played back so many times that if it was a cassette single, it would’ve popped by now. It’s so good that I’ve almost unfairly neglected the rest of Miguel’s sophomore album, Kaleidoscope Dream. Occupying a middle ground between the overly commercial likes of Usher and Chris Brown and the more esoteric stylings of Frank Ocean, Miguel’s catchy music and striking visual presentation gained him lots of new fans this year-including the Grammy voting academy-who gave “Adorn” a well-deserved Song of the Year nomination a month ago.
Mint Condition Music @ the Speed of Life: Mint Condition is damn near the last R&B band standing. All of the albums they’ve recorded in their 20+ years in the game have been of a certain quality, but Music @ The Speed of Life is easily one of their best. Stokley’s emotional voice is equally adept at capturing the emotion in poignant ballads as it is at riding atop a nasty funk groove. Guest appearances by emcees Phonte and Brother Ali are the icing on the cake.
Nas Life is Good: Divorces, tax problems, kids wilding out-one would think that Nas would be wallowing in the doldrums on his latest album, Life is Good. Darkness does rear its head from time to time, sure, but there’s an overall hopeful, positive vibe to this album-even on the posthumous Amy Winehouse collabo, “Cherry Wine.” My favorite joint, though, has to be the throwback block-party anthem “Reach Out,” where Nas drops jewels while Mary J. Blige flashes back to the remix of New Edition’s 1986 hit “Once In A Lifetime Groove.” Old heads will lose their minds dancing to this one.
Nona Hendryx Mutatis Mutandis: After nearly fifty years in the industry, soul/rock icon Nona Hendryx still has a lot to say, and her first album in two decades and change was filled with more piss and vinegar than you would expect from an artist half her age. Nona touches on everything from oil spills to the Tea Party to the murder of Trayvon Martin on Mutatis Mutandis, and she does it without making it feel as though you’re listening to a lecture. Hell, even “The Ballad of Rush Limbaugh” is a winner.
R. Kelly Write Me Back: No, I haven’t forgotten that this guy is a world-class perv, but the fact that I can actually acknowledge that an album by a person I find completely reprehensible speaks volumes, doesn’t it? On his latest album, the musical chameleon revisits Philly soul and disco and treats it with the reverence it deserves. Sweeping strings, thumping rhythms and most of all, that voice! Where was all of this hiding in the late Nineties and early ’00s when R. was trying to be the R&B thug?
The Robert Glasper Experiment Black Radio: The veteran keyboardist infused his jazz with flavors of everything from hip-hop to space-rock on this accomplished album. With a guest lineup that included Lalah Hathaway (doing a sublime reading of Sade’s “Cherish The Day,”) Meshell Ndegeocello and Bilal (covering Bowie’s “Letter To Hermione,”) there was no way that Black Radio was going to be anything less than special. It lived up to, and surpassed, those expectations.
I could add quite a few more albums here-albums by Meshell Ndegeocello, The Shins, Steven A. Clark, Ne-Yo, and many others, but I’m pretty comfortable listing these as the cream of the crop-for right now, anyway. My opinion might change in a week, or in a month, and certainly will by this time next year, but here’s a snapshot of my favorite music at this particular moment in time-that’s the best any of us can do, right?
Favorite Movie of The Year: “Silver Linings Playbook.” I didn’t think Bradley Cooper had it in him, but his performance as a man dealing with bipolar disorder was amazing, and it hit home in many ways. Although I wasn’t crazy about the ending, I also have to be honest and say I wept through the last 20 minutes or so of the movie.
Favorite TV Show of The Year: “Happy Endings.” The writing isn’t always top-notch (the Christmas episode was beyond silly) but the chemistry of the six co-leads is amazing. When a group of people loves working together, it comes across on screen. Maybe it’s the presence of “Scxubs” alum Eliza Coupe on the show, but “Endings” has replaced that classic sitcom as my current fave.
Show of The Year: Um…there have been so many. I mentioned great shows by Ben Folds Five and the Dukes of September (Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs and Donald Fagen) earlier, but…I also got to see my first Springsteen show this year (and was duly impressed.) I got to witness the firepower of rock duo IAMDYNAMITE in an intimate setting, saw the Alabama Shakes tear shit up a week before the release of their album Boys & Girls, crossed Duran Duran off my bucket list, got to give RJD2 some dap after a scintillating DJ set (on a Sunday night, to boot) and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Nothing beats live music.