Patrick Wall’s skills are as varied as they are impractical.
KNEE MEETS JERK: In Which a Beleaguered Music Journalist Attempts — and Fails — to Identify Ten Records Released Between December 2011 and December 2012. That Were Better Than All Other Releases in the Same Time Period. Listed in alphabetical order. Results subject to change.
Daniel Bachman, Seven Pines (Tompkins Square)
It’s easy to get lost in Daniel Bachman’s engrossing instrumental compositions, sounds piling upon each other in deliberate phases and creating a strangely meditative tension. Rooted in the American Primitive style of acoustic guitar — comparisons to Jack Rose, another American Primitive stylist who, like Bachman, split time between Virginia and Philadelphia, are both easy and earned — Bachman is one of the young virtuosos furthering and redefining the school, his long-form works ghostly and pastoral, familiar and known but buzzing with fresh experience.
Converge, All We Love We Leave Behind (Epitaph)
Converge, some twenty-two years into its career, is the Webster’s definition of American hardcore, delivering cyclonic, mosh pit-chaotic punk and blistering, unrelenting thrash in brutal, bloody two-minute bursts. But All We Love’s lengthier cuts — the surprisingly melodic “Coral Blue,” the doom-metal-imbued “Glacial Pace,” the meticulously architected “Sadness Comes Home” — display a remarkable complexity, setting the band apart from its innumerable imitators and supposed peers.
EL-P, Cancer 4 Cure (Fat Possum)
I was halfway through a street fight metaphor of my own — about how if Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music was the knockout punch, El-P’s Cancer for the Cure was the crushing, gut-loosening, guard-dropping body blow that made the haymaker hit that much harder — when I saw that Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene made the same connection. Damn it.
Brian Eno, Lux (Warp)
Here’s the thing about Brian Eno’s Music for Airports: It doesn’t really fit Eno’s definition of ambient music, laid out in the album’s liner notes. (“Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular,” Eno wrote in 1978. “It must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”) Simply, Music for Airports is too interesting, its elemental drift too fascinating to be ignored. In the same way, Lux betrays Eno’s definition: Each of its four just-under-twenty-minute sections fades and disappears as the next emerges, quietly and unobtrusively, tonally and texturally different and containing only the faintest hints of what transpired previously. There’s too great a reward in Lux‘s lush, absorbing ambiance, too vast a musical adventure lurking just underneath its restrained, dulcet palette.
Flying Lotus, Until the Quiet Comes (Warp)
Steven Ellison could have gone bigger, could have pushed his firmly calm but furiously knotted and infinitely complex beatworlds toward total atomization. But compared to his body of work — most especially the brilliantly byzantine Cosmogramma — Until the Quiet Comes tightens the reins, peeling away layers from his maximalist instrumental hip-hop and organizing its tracks into a gracefully flowing sequence. Ellison’s hallmarks — a fractal, spidering cascade of starry, phantasmal melodies and prickly, feverish rhythms no human hands could play over a hip-hop’s bedrock knock-and-thump — still factor heavily into the equation, but Ellison’s restraint is key in the Quiet’s maniacal balance of elegance and turbulence. Though the laptop and sampler are his instruments of choice, Quiet still possesses improvisatory, loose feel of jazz, a connection to his august lineage. Like his great-uncle John Coltrane, Ellison is moving his medium into new places by detaching it from traditional mores and splintering it into new forms — and creating a sound and genre entirely unto himself.
Ab-Soul, Control System (Top Dawg)
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city (Aftermath)
Schoolboy Q, Habits & Contradictions (Topdawg)
“Y’all actin’ like that TDE don’t run L.A.,” Q boasts on “There He Go.” Surprisingly, that was an undersell. In a year where rap’s established superstars stumbled— Rick Ross’ God Forgives, I Don’t was wildly uneven; Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music was just plain B.A.D.; Big Boi’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumours was an absolute mess; Nas’ Life Is Good was an out-of-character, puff-chested bitch session — under its own music-for-the-one-percent duress, the leaders of the new school rose to the top. But the Southern California Top Dawg Entertainment-endorsed Black Hippy clique shone the brightest, three of its crew members — Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar — releasing three of hip-hop’s top four records of the year. (Only Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city bests Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music.) Ab-Soul’s Control System is the headiest and most sonically expansive of the bunch, the anything-goes Soul both the most mystical and most grounded emcee of the crew, doling out brawny beatdowns and belly laughs in equal measure. The exciting, risk-taking Q’s Habits & Contradictions is the most fun of the bunch, mixing bud smoker’s party anthems (“There He Go,” the A$AP Rocky-starring “Hands on the Wheel”), spirited trunk rattlers (“2 Raw”) and socially conscious gangbangers (“Raymond 1969”), steeped in hardcore and wholly lacking in irony.
But then there’s Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. City, the most important major-label rap album in a decade, an art-rap opus on par with rap’s all-time great debut records: Illmatic; Ready to Die; Doggystyle. (Last year’s Section.80 was more a mixtape manifesto — albeit an incredible one — than a proper album, in hip-hop parlance.) “Highly anticipated,” in fact, doesn’t begin to cut it; the last of the Black Hippy crew to release purist-appeasing solo discs (Jay Rock released his last year), and a Pitchfork- and XXL-driven media push accelerated the hype machine to Large Hadron Collider levels. But even stripped of its luxurious guest spots (Drake, Dr. Dre) and production credits (Just Blaze, E-40, Pharrell), good kid, m.A.A.d city succeeds, mostly on Lamar’s lyrical strength alone. Though largely gone is Section.80’s prevalence of Lamar’s polysyllabic machine-gun rat-a-tat vocal juggle, it’s replaced with an impeccable eye for storytelling and detail, navigating the still-mean streets of his native Compton with a fly-on-the-wall, documentary style. The singles — the woozy “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and the radiant “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” — are worth the price of admission, but the real artistic richness is in m.A.A.d city’s suites: the steeped-in-soul “The Art of Peer Pressure”; the closing one-two gut punch of the sprawling “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and “Real.” Lamar’s elevated, educated gangsta rap is as pimp-connectable as the most vicious N.W.A. tracks, yet potent poignant enough, filled with enough rich detail to blow the dust off any cracked soul — speaking both picturesquely and honestly of Lamar’s darkly storied hometown and genre. It’s not entirely without fault — closing track-cum-coronation “Compton” feels tacked on; the SoundCloud masses too often murder the “Backseat Freestyle” beat; Drake is still, well, Drake — but even without the hype, this one is still potent and smart enough to rise to the top of the pile.
So it turns out Q wasn’t exactly right. TDE doesn’t just run L.A. TDE’s running the whole game. Everyone else is just playing catch-up.
Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music (Williams Street)
Much hay has been made about the political — or apolitical, depending on how you choose to look at it — side of Killer Mike’s agit-rap. But to focus solely on R.A.P. Music’s political affectations — Reagan, the War on Drugs, Obama, prison privatization — is to do it a disservice. While Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city is greyscale and dour, R.A.P. Music is freewheeling, fly and fun, a perfect balance of playful, powerful and persuasive. At heart, it’s a love letter to not just hip-hop, but all black music as religious experience, a concept-less concept record stretching from slave calls to Ellington to Nas. A vital piece of work, R.A.P. Music captures fully the richness of all black musics. (Or, as Mike says, “every music that’s been born on this continent from a group of people that were brought here in chains.”) It is, as the man says on the stellar title track, jazz, funk, soul, gospel. It’s sanctified sex. It’s player Pentecostal. It’s what his people need — the opposite of bullshit. This is church — his church. Front pew. Amen.
Kowloon Walled City, Container Ships (Brutal Panda)
A BRIEF LETTER TO MY TWENTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD SELF ON KOWLOON WALLED CITY’S CONTAINER SHIPS WILL BE HIS FAVORITE RECORD OF 2012.
There’s no easy way to say this. You’re going to have a rough year, dude. At the end of it, you’ll be 30 and still poor, your career still stalled, your psychic wounds of the previous twelve months not yet healed. Worse, you won’t really be sure if you learned anything, if you really grew up at all.
If your rubric for your favorite record is that it’s the one you really connect with, for whatever reason — and it is — then this Kowloon Walled City — named for the relatively lawless and dismantled Hong Kong burg that consisted of massive, interlocking buildings blanketing several acres — record, a sprawling mass of impossibly heavy bummer jams, will be it.
“Bad days come again after all,” you’ll hear Scott Evans howl over the din — an impossible amalgamation of Helmet and Low — of “’50s Dad.” God, you’ll think, ain’t that the truth.
Loincloth, Iron Balls of Steel (Southern Lord) (Jan. 17)
Loincloth’s Iron Balls of Steel shouldn’t be as good as it is. The combination of band name and album title evoke a sub-Metalocalypse yukfest. Further, Iron Balls of Steel — and I still cringe at that name — comes nine years after the band’s only other studio fruit, a two-track seven-inch. Further still, the pedigreed band — it features members of cult-favorite heavies Confessor and Breadwinner — in the meantime lost founding guitarist Pen Rollings, considered the most critical to the band’s crushing, technical metal. But Iron Balls of Steel proves it possible for metal’s essential caveman-ness to coexist with its brainier impulses, mocking both metal’s humorless façade — hence the shlocky titles — and math-metal’s numbing maximalism. But it’s no joke record, pairing brutal brain-scramblers that exhaust themselves in little over a minute with uncharacteristically patient longer works that strive for a narrative, even emotional, arcs, captivating motifs and glimmering textures. Dizzyingly nimble, Loincloth still cops power-of-the-riff underground tropes that limit it to a niche appeal. But for those tuned to that niche, Iron Balls of Steel is essential.
The Men, Open Your Heart (Sacred Bones)
Compared with the virulent, pulverizing Leave Home, Open Your Heart is relatively accessible, a muscular and dynamic cycle through barnstorming classic hardcore and indie rock (“Turn It Around”; “Please Don’t Go Away”), searing punk (“Cube”), beer-chugging country (“Country Song”) and muscular krautrock (“Oscillation”). (Though it lacks what might be the best and most accessible Men song, “Kyle Keays,” which appeared on a KEXP-filmed live set.) Open Your Heart imbues Leave Home’s raw power with more melody and structure, beefing up its rhythm section to really let the band’s twin-guitar attack rip. It’s not hard to imagine Open Your Heart sitting alongside the most essential of the SST, Touch and Go and Homestead catalogs, but The Men avoid stale classicism by weaving together their disparate influences with a nuanced touch.
Karriem Riggins, Alone Together (Stones Throw) (Oct. 23)
The final track on Alone Together is called “J Dilla the Greatest.” Pair that with Riggins’ Detroit background, the thirty-four-deep track list and that Stones Throw logo on the top left-hand corner, and, yeah, Alone Together bears more than a passing similarity to Dilla’s landmark Donuts. Like Donuts, Riggins’ Alone Together is an ostensibly happenstance sequence of alien, brain-wracking beat puzzles. But where Donuts carried an emotional weight, Alone Together is sprightly and playful, crisscrossing hip-hop and jazz (Riggins is an acclaimed jazz drummer), yes, but knuckle-dragging bicycle rock, flashy blaxploitation funk, prissy instrumental pop and experimental Detroit techno. Like Donuts, the funky and freewheeling Alone Together’s high points (the heavenly “OOOOOOOOOAAAAAAA,” the slick and funky “Because”) are affecting but brief, and its whole is absolute front-to-back joy.
Swans, The Seer (Young God)
Michael Gira has said that The Seer took 30 years to make. In a way, that’s true: The Seer encompasses all the places Swans have ever been, journeying through post-rock, electronic soundscapes, haunting acoustic beauty, punishing noise, and a Panzer tank division’s worth of percussion. At more than two hours long, it’s an endurance test that doesn’t feel like one. The Seer is Swans’ ecstatic, darkly beautiful magnum opus.
Bo White, Same Deal/New Patrones (Kinnikinnik)
Charlotte’s Bo White spent a year cobbling together this tribute to narcocorridos true-crime folk and Mexican banda singer Sergio Vega, imbuing Same Deal with startling nuance and awesome, if at times grisly, imagery. With expansive indie rock tempered by Afrobeat and David Byrne weirdo-pop, new treasures are revealed with every listen.
BONUS ROUND: Twenty-Four Great Songs From Albums Not on the Above List
A$AP Rocky, “Goldie”
Alpoko Don, “Get My Paypa Dog”
Fiona Apple, “Hot Knife”
Big K.R.I.T., “Boobie Miles”
Clams Casino, “Swervin’”
Dirty Projectors, “Gun Has No Trigger”
Four Tet, “Pyramid”
fun., “We Are Young”
Hammer No More the Fingers, “Lil’ Tifton”
Menahan Street Band, “Lights Out”
The Men, “Kyle Keays”
Pelican, “Lathe Biosas”
People Person, “Astoria”
Pussy Wizard, “Fazzze It Out”
Schooner, “Locked In”
Dylan Sneed, “Beautiful Noise”
Andy Stott, “Numb”
Sun Kil Moon, “Lonely Mountain”
Sharon Van Etten, “Joke or a Lie”
Y.N. Rich Kids, “Hot Cheetos & Takis”
HONORABLE MENTION/APOLOGIES TO: Action Bronson, Rare Chandeliers (Vice); Alabama Shakes, Boys and Girls (ATO); Oren Ambarchi, Sagittarian Domain (Editions Mego); Antibalas, Antibalas (Daptone); The Bad Plus, Made Possible (Eone); Baroness, Yellow & Green (Relapse); Big K.R.I.T., Live from the Underground (Def Jam); Blut Aus Nord, 777: Cosmosophy (Debemur Morti); Ravi Coltrane, Spirit Fiction (Blue Note); Deftones, Koi No Yokan (Reprise); Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan (Domino); Justin Townes Earle, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now (Bloodshot); Earth, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II (Southern Lord); El Ten Eleven, Transitions (Fake Record Label); Floating Action, Fake Blood; Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (Constellation); Heems, Nehru Jackets (Greedhead); Horseback, Half Blood (Relapse); Jealousy Mountain Duo, The Home of Easy Credit (Blunoise); Damien Jurado, Mariqopa (Secretly Canadian); Kaki King, Glow (Velour Recordings); Lambchop, Mr. M (Merge); Lost In the Trees, A Church That Fits Our Needs (Anti-); Maserati, Maserati VII (Temporary Residence); The Menahan Street Band, The Crossing (Daptone); Mono, For My Parents (Temporary Residence Ltd.); Bob Mould, The Descent (Merge); Narrows, Painted (Deathwish Inc.); Organos, Concha (Minus Sound Research); Pallbearer, Sorrow and Extinction (Profound Lore); Jeff Parker Trio, Bright Light in Winter (Delmark); Pinback, Information Received (Temporary Residence Ltd.); Pop. 1280, The Horror (Sacred Bones); Pussy Wizard, Fuck Jams Vol. 1 (Fork & Spoon); Ramphastos, Southern Gothic (Post-Echo); Roc Marciano, Reloaded (Decon); Savages, I Am Here (Pop Noire); Christian Scott, Christian aTunde Adjuah (Concord Jazz); Ty Seagall Band, Slaughterhouse (In the Red); Shearwater, Animal Joy (Sub Pop); Shovels and Rope, O Be Joyful (Dualtone); Solange, True (Terrible); Spaceghostpurrp, The Chronicles of Spaceghostpurrp (4AD); Sun Kil Moon, Among the Leaves (Caldo Verde); Sunshone Still, ThewaytheworldDies (Potato Eater); Those Lavender Whales, Tomahawk of Praise (Fork & Spoon); Titus Andronicus, Local Business (XL); Torche, Harmonicraft (Volcom/The Orchard); The Twilight Sad, No One Can Ever Know (Fat Cat); Sharon Van Etten, Tramp (Jagjaguwar); Zebras, Zebras (Secret Records)
CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED RECORDS I DID NOT CARE FOR: Bat for Lashes, The Haunted Man (Parlophone); Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory (Carpark); Death Grips, The Money Store (Epic); Grimes, Visions (4AD); Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (Def Jam); Japandroids, Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl); Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe (Atlantic)