Five Years Later: The Best Music of 2012!

Five Years Later: The Best Music of 2012!

Five years is an eternity in the life of a record.

5. Grimes – Visions [4AD]

Grimes (a.k.a. Claire Boucher) probably doesn’t give a single fuck about how she’s perceived. She’s in her own little world, and once in a while she lets the rest of us in. In 2012, she called this fever-dream world Visions, the most appropriately titled record of that year—maybe even the decade.

In the simplest (read: reductive) of terms, Visions is a delightful synth-pop record. It pulses and throbs and twinkles and ripples and dances around uncomplicated beats. Sometimes it all happens on the same song, as on “Vowels = Space and Time,” and it’s somehow not overkill. That’s her gift as a producer. It’s a fun record, at least on the surface.

What sets Visions apart from being just a synth-pop album is Boucher’s willingness to incorporate subversive elements below the top layer. She uses her mousey wisp of a voice to propel playful melodies forward while hiding the dark undertones of her lyrics, like bitter dismissiveness towards an ex (“Go where you want to go/ When you get there, you’ll be wishing you were by the phone”) or one’s state of mind after a physical assault (“‘Cause someone could break your neck/ Coming up behind you/ Always coming and you’d never have a clue.”

You might be able to get away with calling Visions an IDM record, if only because that’s true in a literal sense: this is dance music that is intelligent, yes. But it’s so goddamn much more than that. “Being myself makes me feel like I can’t touch the ground,” she sings. “Here on the Earth makes me feel like I can’t get the sound.” Perhaps that’s because her world isn’t ours. – Steve Lampiris

4. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music [Williams Street]

Over the last five years, Run the Jewels has dropped three commercially and critically successful projects, but the genesis of that union begins here. Up until this album, Killer Mike was an underrated MC putting out unsung material on the outer edges of the Dungeon Family’s orbit, largely operating in a distinctly Southern wheelhouse. R.A.P. Music wasn’t as impressive as the 2011 release PL3DGE, arguably his strongest album to date, but what it lacked in overall quality and inventiveness it more than made up for in zeitgeist-creating potency. Whether or not the Killer Mike who emerged from these 12 tracks was more skilled on the mic or better overall is irrelevant, but his tag-team run with El-P is what made him a household name.

It’s that shared chemistry that propelled R.A.P. Music onto so many best-album lists in 2012 and why it’s endured since. Entering his boisterous polemic phase, El-P’s pugilistic production, all sci-fi synths, heavyweight samples and serrated record scratches, made the perfect backing track for the Killer Mike who would go on to be Bernie’s bro and a regular talking head on the news. From the opening of “Big Beast,” an intro that sounds like post-apocalyptic Run-DMC, to the clever crime fiction “JoJo’s Chillin” on through to the pissed-off leftist anthem “Reagan,” Mike and his co-conspirator travel back to the hip hop of their youth and breathe new life into their influences with the bellyfire of the present. It sparked a partnership that shows no signs of slowing down soon and still holds up over their future collaborations for sheer brashness. – Dominic Griffin

3. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…. [Epic]

It should come as no surprise that, after five years, we still don’t have a follow-up to The Idler Wheel…; Fiona Apple in 2017 is still an easily-spooked creature that moves at a glacial pace creatively. Whenever we get lucky enough to hear a new album from her, it’s easy to wring it dry for wisdom, joy, sorrow and honesty.

Every single night’s a fight with my brain,” Apple sings at the beginning of The Idler Wheel…’s opener, “Every Single Night.” From the get-go, it’s obvious that something is different about how Apple has chosen to make her record. After the lush, densely-packed sonic territories of Extraordinary Machine and When the Pawn…, it’s almost shocking to hear her with everything stripped away—each song features little more than just Apple and her piano. It forces us to confront her humanity without the ability to hide behind anything. Lucky for her, she’s got a psyche worth exploring.

While there isn’t anything on The Idler Wheel… that Apple hadn’t already done in the three albums preceding it, the album’s power lies in the fact that she was able to deftly boil down everything great about her music into one uncomplicated package. Her voice is strained, but there’s power in the vulnerability. She’s the focus of each song, and she never restrains herself, but for Apple—who’s every romantic folly is a seismic event—even that can be boiled down: “How can I ask anyone to love me/ When all I do is beg to be left alone?

Human history has reached a turbulent point in 2017, and with the doom and gloom prevalent in everyday life, it’s easy to want to harden oneself. The Idler Wheel… helps teach us that the righteous path—the one where it’s okay to feel hurt and scared and lost—is worth keeping to, and emotional honesty pays dividends. – Hollister Dixon

2. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange [Def Jam]

Just listening to it is hedonistic. Channel Orange is sheer sensory euphoria, on par with the Stevie Wonder/Prince/Marvin Gaye pantheon of “every song sounds like I saw the face of god.” But just as impressive was how the comedown from this opulence was cocooned between perfect synths. Frank Ocean channels Freddie Mercury, both of them artists who searched for someone to love in the midst of debaucherous, gorgeous excess.

That has as much to do with Ocean’s innate talent as the subject matter he tackles. Ocean’s central theme has always been nostalgia; the visitation of not just happy times, but all magnetic emotions. It’s late-night music, from fever-dream visions, lovemaking and drunken anxieties that sink in as the hangover takes hold. Wonderfully illicit and wonderfully painful.

And just as important was Ocean’s admission of fear and confusion. He had “Dragon Ball Z” references slotted next to instances of mistaken paternity, making it all the more powerful when he went all-in for the emotional “umph.” The Elton John-biting “Super Rich Kids” includes a suicide attempt nestled in those heavenly harmonies. And, of course, album centerpiece “Pyramids” is a progressive-soul epic in the scope and sense of “Voodoo Chile.” It’s the easy, and perhaps correct, answer to “what’s the greatest song of the 2010s?”

There’s very little that isn’t Frank on this album. But the guests who do join bring their A game. Ocean broke André 3000 out of his Fortress of Solitude, turned John Mayer into a guitar shaman and freed Earl Sweatshirt from his Samoan prison. They had to come correct. After all, they were in a pleasure palace, a sensory overload and something so far unmatched, except from Ocean himself. – Nathan Stevens

1. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city [Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope]

When good kid, m.A.A.d city was first released to effusive critical praise, Kendrick Lamar added a careful caveat to those who referred to his major-label debut as an “instant classic.” “It’s classic worthy,” he said. “It has to stand with the time and have the years behind.” Five years later, it’s safe to say that the album has attained “classic” status. It’s an album that doesn’t sacrifice Lamar’s catchy hooks (“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, virtuosic flows (“Backseat Freestyle”), slick production (“m.A.A.d city”) or stellar wordplay (“Sing About Me”) in the process of crafting a complex and socially-conscious bildungsroman about growing up in Compton.

Lamar subtitled the album A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar, and such a comparison to cinema feels apt. The narrative outline of the album could be broken down into three-acts—the lust-driven and drug-laced lifestyle of Lamar’s Compton “K.Dot” persona, the realization of the dangers and violence of Compton, and the full transformation of K.Dot into Kendrick—but Lamar complicates the story’s chronology by making it nonlinear and circular, almost like a modernist novel. In fact, the album has been taught in college classrooms alongside novels by renowned modernists such as James Joyce and James Baldwin.

The album’s themes of lust, gang violence, poverty and faith haunt each track, just as the ghosts of West Coast gangsta-rap possess the grimmer edges of the album’s sound. It’s a sonic and lyrical film about the struggles of place and identity, loaded with characters and cut scenes equally as memorable as its hooks. Recent national conversations about race, poverty and violence can be routed through the grim realities of Lamar’s narrative, a point made all the more clearly by his politically charged VMA performances.

With good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar ascended to the highest rungs of the hip-hop pantheon, a position only made firmer with his subsequent releases. Lamar may very well be the hottest hip-hop artist out there today, but his rap genius was first revealed in spades on good kid, m.A.A.d city. – Ethan King

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