Great and/or overlooked records from the first half of 2012
More than halfway through 2012 things have seriously picked in terms of album releases. Below are a handful of records we couldn’t or otherwise didn’t review from earlier this year. Every one is brilliant and would have made the recommended list.
However, there are technically two entries in this feature that break the rules. One was a mixtape released at the end of December in the dead zone where music publications stop reviewing and write end of year lists, but it’s good enough to drag into 2012 just to mention it again.
The other is an album that has been covered by SKRBBLR, but the extent to which I praised it invites a second look. Not just to toss further buckets of acclaim but to revisit what inspired such an outpouring. And to say I still mean it.
Without further ado:
Billy Woods – History Will Absolve Me
Released within the blast range of both Death Grip’s The Money Store and Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music Billy Woods’ new record may have suffered from being the best aggressive, genre-blending hip-hop record with the lowest profile of early 2012.
Billy’s persona is unflinchingly direct with his tales suspended on noisy, electronic beats. In ‘Crocodile Tears’s “Thirty-two bars on how to rob and kill your neighbours / And still got the nerve to ask god to save you” indictment of rap’s worst excesses or the Nas sampling on ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ Billy has a way of making his subjects bigger and more urgent than the street. Aside from the inspired use of samples and occasional brutality in the production the flows and lyrics rarely drop beyond stellar, with Billy both swimming through and fighting against the tide of the instrumentals.
History Will Absolve Me is the perfect kind of hip-hop record to slip through the cracks, but one of the most cerebral and rewarding you’ll encounter in 2012.
Burial – Kindred EP
There was something about this year’s Burial EP and the way it was covered that made it seem like the his most important appearance since his last full-length, Untrue, in 2007.
Such praise wasn’t unfounded. Burial’s two albums are a lot of people’s central idea of what a dubstep record is yet they don’t sound quite like anyone else. Kindred equally doesn’t sound like anyone else, but it is a departure from dubstep and not in the SBTRKT or James Blake way.
The disembodied vocals, both in the ether and in your head, are still central and the EP still evokes walking through the city alone at night with the ghosts of humans and their activities lingering and beckoning. The four-to-the-floor beat on ‘Loner’ is a bit of change and along with the dominant synth loop is the closest Burial has sounded to the club, but if Will Bevan was walking a few streets away on ‘Archangel’ then in this case he’s still only putting his ear to the fire exit – Kindred is still a long way from being a dance EP.
While it does exacerbate the hunger for another album it’s a pretty complete piece, with all the development required, and unmistakable for anyone else.
Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
That the new Cloud Nothings release was produced/engineered by Steve Albini and sounds like a record thatSteve Albini might have recorded in the late 80s or early 90s raises a question or two about the past. Should it be the case that a record that replicates familiar sounds be considered a throwback, or is the case that we have a lot of different sets of sounds from then and from now and bands use one or the other, or a mixture of the two, or have a shot at something else? Throwback or just not trying to invent new colours?
Whatever the case Dylan Baldi sings and screams on Attack on Memory with the kind of sneering disaffection that saves that record from ever feeling like a relic. Albini’s production makes him fight his way into the mix while the rest of the instruments sound primitive and primal but never unclear. Like I said, it sounds like a record Steve Albini produced, but all the talk of sound and style is capped by the songs themselves being catchy and brilliant.
I’ve wondered if it’s aimed at “the kids” or twenty-somethings with borrowed memories of The Pixies, and the cleverest aspect of Attack on Memory might ultimately be the aptness of its title.
Death Grips – The Money Store ( review )
A lot has been said about the diary of a madman first of Death Grips’ two records out on Epic this year, and not least in my own gushing, spurting review for this publication. Whether or not you agreed with me about the quality of The Money Store, it’s difficult to dispute the record is pretty groundbreaking in its aggressive, immediate and catchy amalgamation of hip-hop, glitchy electronics and the urgency of hardcore punk.
The latter half of 2012 will veer toward their second full-length of the year, No Love, for which they cancelled a string of gigs. Whether it’ll be as good as this one, whether it’ll be any good at all, whether they’ll do a glitchy power ballad, whether it’ll repeat Natural Born Killers’ wonderful satire that to kill the demon you need love and whether or not it’ll be an album’s worth of Chris Isaak covers, but for the meantime The Money Store is in the bank.
Death Grips have released one of those records flawless in its vision, with barely a hiccup in consistency and despite being influenced by the past isn’t in its debt. If The Money Store is a perfect record it’s perfect on it’s own terms, not last year’s terms.
El-P - Cancer 4 Cure
Cancer 4 Cure was the second brilliant El-P associated released within a month, following his production and guest spot on Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music. Similarities with that album include pulsing, retro-futuristic synths and hard beats, but Cancer 4 Cure is another animal. There are too few MCs that can effectively pull off the kind of rhyme schemes El-P does and who give the same attention to their subject matter. Even aside from the pumping immediacy of ‘Request Denied’, ‘The Full Retard’ or ‘Drones Over Brooklyn’, ‘The Jig Is Up’, ‘Sign Here’ and ‘For My Upstairs Neighbour’ bring the kind of cynicism inherent in experience that someone on El-P’s level is entitled to. Whether he’s rapping an interrogation fantasy about relationship mistrust or telling an abused neighbour he’ll tell the cops nothing if she kills him El bleeds charisma and guile.
A handful of well-timed guest spots bring colour to Cancer 4 Cure without breaking the flow. Danny Brown does what he does on ‘Oh Hail No’ while Mr Motherfucking Exquire chews the scenery. Fresh from R.A.P. Music Killer Mike wraps himself around El-P’s beats better than anyone, but would be worth a shout-out just for the lyric “How I know your mama? / Bad motherfucker / Double entendre”.
Loma Prieta – I.V.
Though the production can seem muddy at first, a couple of listens reveal all the elements are adequately recorded but smashed and forced into each other. It guarantees a chaotic and violent delivery, even by the standards of “proper” screamo, as guitars, bass, drums and vocals all crash and tumble through the mix. Every sound feels shredded to pieces and spat out. This is the kind of imagery thrown around all the time with punk and metal, but it’s difficult to describe how immediate and intense I.V. sounds. It makes the emotion seem real even if you don’t know what the feeling is.
Aside from the production and performances the album works because the songs are full of memorable riffs and tasteful breakdowns. It goes beyond the cut and paste, breakdown goes here, shredding goes here, hip bone’s connected to the leg bone, approach that too-often makes genre music predictable.
The melodic elements, like the chiming harmonic guitars, are contained within the aggressive bits (which is basically all of it, alongside a bit of broodin’ and frownin’) not separately, like a diamond in the rough or how it might look if an abscess could smile.
Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It
The second album from singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas stepped-up the recording quality while maintaining the sadness, intimacy and stark lyrical brutality of his 2010 debut Learning. Hadreas mostly continued to build his songs with simple melodies and piano arrangements, adding strings and percussion to complement and enhance where necessary.
Though the songs are still mostly minimal and brief in duration the smudgy ambient quality of the previous record has been cleaned up. There have been few songs in 2012 to capture the same ascending, majestic beauty of ‘All Waters’ or the naked wish of ‘Dark Parts’. ‘Hood’ crammed more pretty melodic ideas into two minutes than a lot of singer-songwriters can into an album while contemplating the fear that if one partner truly knew everything about the other they would leave.
Put Your Back N2 It did a lot with a little, held it all together with Hadreas’ damaged delivery and no amount of absurd controversy with Google overshadowed it.
Soap&Skin – Narrow
This brief, piano-led, melancholy album from Austrian singer-songwriter Anja Plaschg isn’t scared of drama and heightened emotion, but it’s the consistency of tone that seals its worth. The fact that the lyrics are sung in German, French and English confirms Narrow‘s strengths are more than skin-deep. Album highlight ‘Voyage Voyage’ is performed in French but lives by what’s behind the words. The lyrics contain a lot of references to travel and faraway lands but not to a clear reason for why it sounds quite so solemn. It sounds like a song about someone leaving – it sounds like being forced to accept an absence though this is never explicit.
Plaschg allows hints of industrial to colour other elements of the record while a balance between plaintive and soaring piano ballads is the most frequent approach. The instrumentation and performances are mostly modest, her vocals stop short of theatrical and, for an album with so much drama and so many underpinning touches, Narrow shows an incredible amount of restraint, preferring to live by its underlying elegance.
The Weeknd – Echoes of Silence
Though technically a 2011 release, the concluding mixtape of The Weeknd’s trilogy stands as his second best and delves into more varied textures, adding a slightly sympathetic edge to his character on tracks like ‘Montreal’, as well as drawing the sex and drugs saga to its logical conclusion on tracks like ‘XO / The Host’ and ‘Initiation’.
It might not have the initial punch of anonymity and quite the same abject nihilism introduced by first release House of Balloons, but it moved away from the murky dirges and shallow content that made some of second mixtape Thursday underwhelming.
The industrial-tinged ‘Dirty Diana’ cover was always going to be a winner not just because it fits into Abel Tesfaye’s world but because it was a more-than-competent shot at a Michael Jackson song.
Since the veil has fallen, gigs played and the possibility of a label debut this year Tesfaye’s final mixtape showed he can get by on quality rather that just assumed notoriety. There is no one in RnB doing what The Weeknd is doing.
Young Fathers – Tape One
It’s familiarity, alienation and the mixture of genres and influences that make Young Fathers at once accessible and undeniably forward-thinking. You could call it a hip-hop record, but the mixture of dub and African music is more central to its character. Each track tries a different approach but the record ends up consistent across its brief duration.
The group cover family, relationships, loss, friendships and culture all within faithful but newly distorted and mashed together renditions of recognisable styles. And though Tape One isn’t particularly dense with lyrics there’s something very human when the they do rise to the surface and a line like “Don’t you turn my home against me / Even if my house is empty” shows up.
It’s only a taste and it would be nice to have a little more, but when they bring the goods in a full album format it could be something really striking.
There you go. Check out the recommended list for more.