by Seth Colter Walls
Hello and welcome, once again, to “End of Year List” season. Are you ready to hear from all of the critics you can even moderately stand to hear from during normal months? There will be pride, understand. There will be brand-management. It will feel a little obtrusive and overmuch. It will be natural to respond with some weariness — with a flick of the wrist as if to say “check please” and the concomitant desire to call the whole thing off and tune back in at some point during 2013.
You should resist the urge to unplug until 2013 — when the world will be not quite so followish-ly Gangnam in nature, or until it becomes hopefully permanently free of the news of Chris Brown’s Twitter leavings, or arguments over why Lana Del Rey’s lips matter — not because critics are awesome to listen to, but for this reason alone: You have not heard all the beauty that was loosed into the world this year. And now is the season when critics are most liberated (by editors) to just talk about the art itself, rather than the raging effluvia of controversy that surrounds cultural production these days. (Hah: “these days.” More like: ’twas ever thus.)
Oh, I have some ideas about the best stuff. Nicki Manaj’s “The Boys” has a cut-up aesthetic sufficient to make any John Zorn fan sit up and take notice — except all the parts are pop-memorable. That’s kind of new. Neneh Cherry’s cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” recorded with Scandinavian avant-jazzers The Thing, was pretty near perfect on their joint project The Cherry Thing. But then Four Tet came in and made it dance-floor worthy on the remix album, an 8-minute dream where the gradual introduction of house-y squeals all serves as a prequel to a big sax freakout that Angelo Badalamenti would have liked to have written for David Lynch’s Lost Highway. (Merzbow and Lindstrom also contributed remixes to that Cherry/Thing project, take note.)
And you can skip to that now, if you just want my album list and a Spotify-tracks playlist. But as I said in this space last year, to try to make a blanket argument about the best albums and tracks, and then to issue it like holy writ is to ever so slightly miss the point.
If you’ll allow a brief anecdote-y moment: last night on the subway I was reading Paul Nizan’s enjoyably pissed-off old book The Watchdogs: Philosophers and the Established Order, in which he rails against professional “thinkers” of France between the wars. (It’s also important to know that my on-headphones soundtrack was Nicki Minaj’s “Come on a Cone” at this point.) Rolling into the Classon Avenue station, I underlined and starred the following, in which Nizan recounts his childhood dreams of serving “mankind” through his rarefied thinking:
Because I stayed up late reading and could comprehend, more readily than a mechanic ever could, the “divertissement’”of Pascal and the “reign of reasonable wills,” I no longer regarded myself as an anonymous individual; docile creature that I was, I believed the worker on the street and the peasant on his farm were indebted to me, since I had dedicated myself — in a noble, pure, and disinterested manner — to the life of the mind, for the benefit of Man-in-general: a genus which includes, among its diverse species, workers and farmers. My instructors did everything they could to strengthen my attachment to this comforting illusion, so flattering to them. Whoever practiced a philosophy — its content did not matter very much — was in my eyes (why should I have thought otherwise?) a sort of physician or priest who periodically saved the world through the power of his headaches alone.
The reason it was fun for me to get to this particular part while “Come on a Cone” was playing in my ears is because I was simultaneously realizing I had been very wrong about the Nicki Minaj album for most of the year, and sort of prideful about my wrong position in a “I think about music very critically!” sort of fashion. My old boring argument went like follows: I like Minaj better as a rapper than as a pop star. (Sophisticated, I know.) The second version of Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (helpfully subtitled “The Re-Up”), which frontloads some new tracks, some of which feature more rapping induced me to give the earlier tracks another listen, last night, while on the subway, when I found out I was wrong about them, despite my supposed service to musical matters by thinking and writing about them, etc/kill yourself/zzzz.
This was a nice, all-around “get over yourself” moment. I am grateful for it. And, following the example set by NPR’s Ann Powers — who posted a year-ending atonement instead of chest-thumping the other day — I figured I should talk it out. It’s freeing, really. (Every critic should take ten deep breaths every afternoon and remember that the world is not saved through the power of our egotistical headaches alone.) I will posit that the most difficult listening isn’t premised in finding the noisiest thing — or, like Taylor Swift’s ex, in locating an “indie record much cooler than mine” — but in recognizing our own inescapably conditional experience of the world. Put another way: I bet you heard something good that I haven’t yet. There is no single philosophy of the year that can bear up under much scrutiny.
As a critic, confidence in a stance can be a professional necessity: you have to sell ideas and feel good about them. And, less selfishly, it can prove hard to endure to bad parts of media-world life if you don’t think you do something for an over-arching “reason.” (For the “discourse,” man.) But pretty soon this stance curdles into a Jesus Christ Pose not so dissimilar from the one Nizan describes in philosophy above. You think you’ve got causes, ideals that you’re riding for, and certain tenets that amount to a philosophy. Maybe you do. Most likely you have a zone of passions and a zone of received wisdoms, and an unconscious Venn diagram that tells you which of the ideas that fall within either zone might be sellable in your time and (market)place.
But right now, that’s mostly over for 2012. There will be new memes and debates galore for 2013, but now comes the season when we get to show our work and say: right or wrong, this is what I listened to, or read, or saw. My all-genres-included Top 50 albums of 2012 is below, with some notes and asides. After that comes the 100 favorite tracks I could find on Spotify. (Seven records from my top 10 weren’t available there, so it’s filled with stuff that would have put in places 51–100 of an albums list that long, if I’d been willing to do that.)
Like Nicki Minaj, I endorse the following strippers.
THE AWL’S DIFFICULT LISTENING HOUR 50 FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2012
50. Gangrene — Vodka & Ayahausca
49. Esperanza Spalding — Radio Music Society
48. Converge — All We Love We Leave Behind
47. Keyshia Cole — Woman to Woman
46. Roc Marciano — Reloaded
45. René Jacobs / Freiburger Barockorchester — Mozart: La finta giardiniera
44. Bob Mould — Silver Age
43. Neneh Cherry & The Thing — The Cherry Thing
42. ZZ Top — La Futura
41. Mario Diaz de Leon — Hypnos
Gangrene is on the bubble here, just in case Kid Cudi doesn’t ruin Big Boi’s album for me on Dec. 11.
I liked Channel Orange OK, though much prefer the committed intensity of the title track on Keyshia Cole’s Woman to Woman (or its official single “Trust and Believe”) than I do the studied enervation of “Thinkin Bout You.” The best songs on Cole’s album make you rather willing to overlook the patently boring appearances by Lil Wayne and Meek Mill that spoil its opening two songs. (Blame record company obviousness.) And the duet moments between Ashanti and Cole on the last half-minute of Woman to Woman are to die.
ZZ Top still does their schtick quite well. Not even sure they needed Rick Rubin, but the sound is right.
Mario Diaz de Leon writes arpeggios to suit doom-noise and dark ambient moods just as well as he writes them for music to be played by chamber ensembles.
Turns out Mozart wrote some other cool opera that basically no one’s ever heard and that Rene Jacobs finally got around to recording.
40. Baroness — Yellow & Green
39. Keiji Haino / Jim O’Rourke / Oren Ambarchi — Imikuzushi
38. James Ilgenfritz — Compositions (Braxton) 2011
37. El-P — Cancer 4 Cure
36. Rufus Wainwright — Out of the Game
35. Mariel Roberts — Nonextraneous Sounds
34. DJ Rashad — TEKLIFE Vol. 1: Welcome to the Chi
33. Taylor Swift — Red
32. Christian Wolff / Larry Polansky / Kui Dong — Trio
31. Patti Smith — Banga
I tried to read as little as possible about Taylor Swift’s Red before getting a chance to hear the record in full. It’s a fun record! Lots of pop styles, well executed! A little something for most everyone, though maybe not enough for everyone’s favorite pop-related hobbyhorse issues. And yet, now that I’ve heard it, I find that I’m still not terribly interested in reading a lot of overwrought pieces arguing for or against. Please don’t tell me anyone’s said anything too dumb about it.
By various laws of longevity and creative practice, Keiji Haino doesn’t have any right at all to still be finding interesting new things in his toolkit, like, on his 250th record. But dang if he doesn’t keep discovering new approaches: after lessons learned from his Black Blues and Seijaku projects, he’s almost a crooner at some points on the fourth track of his latest thing with Jim O’Rourke and Oren Ambarchi. But then there’s always the screaming.
Tristan Perich’s piece for cello and electronics — “Formations” — needs to be heard to be believed. You can hear it on Mariel Roberts’ Nonextraneous Sounds.
30. Leif Ove Andsnes — The Beethoven Journey: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3
29. Black Music Disaster — Black Music Disaster
29. Roomful of Teeth — Roomful of Teeth
27. Ravi Coltrane — Spirit Fiction
26. Death Grips — The Money Store
25. Joyce DiDonato — Drama Queens
24. Dan Deacon — America
23. Jeanne Golan — Ullmann: Complete Piano Sonatas
22. The Bad Plus — Made Possible
21. Pierre Kawka & Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain — Boulez: Memoriale / Derive 1 & 2
You should not need any additional context to want to listen to a self-titled album by a group called Black Music Disaster, but here is some: jazz pianist Matthew Shipp and Spiritualized guitarist J Spaceman named this group after a scathing review of a Anthony Braxton/Cecil Taylor gig. Everything about it is great.
LOL: Pierre Boulez added another half-hour to Derive 2 since the last time he added a big chunk of music to it, over a decade ago. I’d take his long-rumored opera of Waiting for Godot anytime now, but more Boulez music of any stripe is a welcome development.
Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards (sorry for not spelling it rIg-hT) wrote two pieces for the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth — “Quizassa” and “Ansa Ya” — and they will feel familiar (in a good, exciting way) to fans of her rock style. But Judd Greenstein’s “AEIOU” is just as good a piece, as are some of the other compositions delivered to this exceptional new ensemble.
I miss Death Grips (as a major label act) already. But hearing the addition of electronics to the sound coming out of piano trio The Bad Plus restores my faith in the state of drum-machines used by improvisers with tunes.
20. Kendrick Lamar — good kid, m.A.A.d city
19. San Francisco Symphony — American Mavericks
18. Branford Marsalis Quartet — Four MFs Playin Tunes
17. Robert Glasper Experiment — Black Radio
16. Jeremy Denk — Ligeti/Beethoven
15. Killer Mike — R.A.P. Music
14. David Byrne & St. Vincent — Love This Giant
13. Steve Lehman Trio — Dialect Fluorescent
12. Esa-Pekka Salonen — Salonen: Out of Nowhere — Violin Concerto; Nyx
11. Mikel Rouse — Boost/False Doors
It took a tweet from Fluxblog’s Matthew Perpetua to articulate something I really love about good kid, M.A.A.D. city, which is that Kendrick Lamar tells stories in a way that will be appreciated by anyone who’s ever liked the Fiery Furnaces. Also, it’s very nice to have Pharrell and Dre doing well in public.
I remember thinking the horn arrangement on “The Forest Awakes,” by David Byrne and St. Vincent, was particularly good. Then I learned it was written by Ken Thomson, and was not surprised, given how frequently his own bands (Gutbucket, Asphalt Orchestra, Slow/Fast) deliver.
It’s a little obscene for pianist Jeremy Denk to be able to write so well about music and to have a fine solo album of Beethoven and Ligeti music out in the same year while also being the soloist in the San Francisco Symphony’s very exciting recording of Henry Cowell’s Piano Concerto. But really this is all for our benefit, so don’t be overly jealous.
Best tempo canon of the year: the competing beats in “Orson Elvis,” described in detail by the composer here.
I really thought Killer Mike had made the best rap album of the year (again), until I listened to Angel Haze’s mixtape Reservation (download here).
And see below…
10. Angel Haze — Reservation
9. Tim Berne — Snakeoil
8. Dawn Richard — Armor On
7. Miguel — Kaleidoscope Dream
6. Vijay Iyer Trio — Accelerando
5. Annie Gosfield — Almost Truths and Open Deceptions
4. 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
3. Henry Threadgill Zooid — Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp
2. Laurie Spiegel — The Expanding Universe
1. Wadada Leo Smith — Ten Freedom Summers
Not enough has been said about Dawn Richard’s independently issued album (it’s on iTunes and Rhapsody, but not many other places; a CD deal is reportedly in the works). Partly I think I’m placing it so highly because I regret not hearing Diddy-Dirty Money’s Last Train to Paris in time to celebrate it during one of these list-seasons past. But Armor On doesn’t need any sympathy points, either. Find a way to hear it.
If Mikel Rouse had the best tempo canon of 2012, the best basic “round” goes to the last minute of “Hot Knife” on Fiona Apple’s album, which was as great as everyone said.
People knew Miguel was capable of writing undeniable one-offs, but on Kaleidoscope Dream, he strung enough of them in and around two of the year’s best singles (“Adorn” and “Do You…,” duh) to make it the R&B; album of my 2012.
In the non-pop realms, it was a fantastically good year for jazz and classical releases that, as ever, rarely reach the audience(s) they deserve. Henry Threadgill remains a national treasure. Wadada Leo Smith completed his multi-decade, four-hour jazz/classical hybrid composition Ten Freedom Summers, and it has seemed to me for months like the most impressive achievement of the year.
Though the live premiere of all this music attracted notices in the LA and NY Timeses in 2011, the fact that the first CD release of this music did not get covered in any mainstream publications, this year, strikes me as a scandal. (I only wish it had been covered so I didn’t look like an obscurantist crate-digger for my #1 pick.) You’d think, in a year that saw widespread (and clearly stated) efforts to curb African-American turnout at the ballot box, a musical contemplation of the Civil Rights experience titled after the first voter-registration Freedom Summer would have been potentially topical enough to get some coverage. (I tried to sell that piece, but could not!) Still, I think it’s the music I heard this year that I could least do without.
Laurie Spiegel’s long out of print computer-music LP The Expanding Universe got its first issuing on CD this year, but with so much never-before-released material appended (over an hour) that I’m calling it a new release and ranking it in every poll I’m voting in this year. I did manage to place a couple of pieces on her in 2012: there’s a discussion of the use of her music in The Hunger Games in Slate, and this interview for The New Yorker website. (Some music from The Expanding Universe is available to stream at the latter link.)
Both The Expanding Universe and Ten Freedom Summers are not available on Spotify for streaming — following this year’s trend of less-commercial artists realizing that the promotional help one could attain through making music so easily available was actually cutting into their bottom line. No one gets rich off of Spotify royalties (obviously). But it might have become clear that, in 2012, giving it away for basically free online isn’t even a path to being written up or discussed more often — and that you should make sure your hardcore fans actually pony up for a proper digital download, or else a physical copy.
That’s a decision that’s hard to argue with, but as long as there is a fair diversity of music available on Spotify, I’ll be game for putting together my-year-in-listening playlists there. After all, it’s a backdoor way of supporting another few dozen of my favorite albums from 2012 that didn’t make the above list. That includes new music from the late Elliott Carter, jazz from the Elliott Sharp Trio, music from Kaija Saariaho, and a couple non-Taylor country songs.
THE DIFFICULT LISTENING HOUR TOP 100 SPOTIFY TRACKS OF 2012
• Neneh Cherry & The Thing — “Dream Baby Dream (Four Tet remix)”
• Nicki Minaj — “The Boys”
• The Bad Plus — “I Want To Feel Good Pt. 2”
• Joyce DiDonato — “Antonio e Cleopatra : Morte, col fiero aspetto”
• Mikel Rouse — “Professional Smile”
• Taylor Swift — “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
• American Contemporary Music Ensemble — “Future Shock: I. — “
• Keyshia Cole — “Woman To Woman”
• Brad Wells — “Quizassa”
• Solange — “Losing You”
• Elliott Sharp Trio — “The Grip”
• Converge — “Sadness Comes Home”
• DJ Rashad — “Feelin’”
• Nas — “The Don”
• Fiona Apple — “Periphery”
• Salonen, Esa-Pekka — “Salonen: Movement One: Mirage — Movement One: Mirage”
• Salonen, Esa-Pekka — “Salonen: Movement Two: Pulse I — Movement Two: Pulse I”
• Salonen, Esa-Pekka — “Salonen: Movement Three: Pulse II — Movement Three: Pulse II”
• Salonen, Esa-Pekka — “Salonen: Movement Four: Adieu — Movement Four: Adieu”
• Patti Smith — “Banga”
• Lindstrøm — “Vōs-sākō-rv”
• Big K.R.I.T. — “Yeah Dats Me”
• Branford Marsalis Quartet — “The Mighty Sword”
• Mario Diaz de Leon — “Oneirogen”
• Miranda Lambert — “Fastest Girl In Town”
• Jeanne Golan — “Der Kaiser von Atlantis, Op. 49b (arr. H. Brauel for piano): Der Kaiser von Atlantis, Op. 49b, Scene 2: Menuett, ‘Totentanz’” (arr. H. Brauel for piano)
• Bob Mould — “Silver Age”
• Frank Ocean — “Pink Matter”
• Mariel Roberts — “Formations”
• Killer Mike — “Big Beast — feat. Bun B, T.I., and Trouble”
• David Byrne & St. Vincent — “The Forest Awakes”
• Cassie — “King Of Hearts”
• Rufus Wainwright — “Montauk”
• Robert Glasper — “Afro Blue (feat. Erykah Badu)”
• Jesse Stacken — “Bagatelle No. 2”
• Lee Ranaldo — “Waiting On A Dream”
• Esperanza Spalding — “Crowned & Kissed”
• Roc Marciano — “Thread Count”
• Dan Deacon — “USA I: Is a Monster”
• Dan Deacon — “USA II: The Great American Desert”
• Dan Deacon — “USA III: Rail”
• Dan Deacon — “USA IV: Manifest”
• Miguel — “Adorn”
• Jessie Ware — “Running — Disclosure Remix”
• Death Grips — “Hacker”
• Cloud Nothings — “No Sentiment”
• Kendrick Lamar — “Compton”
• Anssi Karttunen — “Je sens un deuxieme coeur: I. Je devoile ma peau”
• Anssi Karttunen — “Je sens un deuxieme coeur: II. Ouvre-moi, vite!”
• Anssi Karttunen — “Je sens un deuxieme coeur: III. Dans le reve, elle l’attendait”
• Anssi Karttunen — “Je sens un deuxieme coeur: IV. Il faut que j’entre”
• Anssi Karttunen — “Je sens un deuxieme coeur: V. Je sens un deuxieme coeur qui bat tout pres du mien”
• Neneh Cherry & The Thing — “Cashback”
• Oh No — “3 Dollars (feat. MF Doom)”
• E-40 — “On the Case”
• Four Tet — “Ocoras”
• Leonard Cohen — “Darkness”
• El-P — “Tougher Colder Killer”
• Rick Ross — “Sixteen”
• Jeremy Denk — “Beethoven: Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111: Maestoso; Allegro con brio ed appassionato”
• Jeremy Denk — “Beethoven: Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111: Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile”
• Neil Young & Crazy Horse — “Walk Like A Giant”
• Calvin Harris feat. Ne-Yo — “Let’s Go”
• DEV — “Take Her From You”
• Killer Mike — “Reagan”
• Brad Paisley — “Southern Comfort Zone”
• Ravi Coltrane — “Roads Cross”
• Jeanne Golan — “Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 10: I. Molto agitato”
• Jeanne Golan — “Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 10: II. Andante (quasi marcia funebre)”
• Jeanne Golan — “Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 10: III. Adagio — Presto”
• Dinosaur Jr. — “Watch the Corners”
• Norah Jones — “She’s 22”
• Gangrene — “The Groove”
• Sleigh Bells — “You Lost Me”
• Matthew Shipp — “Raw Materials”
• Jeremy Denk — “Ligeti: Piano Etudes [Book Two]: XIII. L’escalier du diable”
• Rufus Wainwright — “Rashida”
• Big K.R.I.T. — “Praying Man”
• Henry Cowell — “Synchrony”
• Miguel — “Do You…”
• Bob Mould — “First Time Joy”
• Kendrick Lamar — “Swimming Pools (Drank) — Extended Version”
• Brad Mehldau — “Got Me Wrong”
• Baroness — “Take My Bones Away”
• Jonny Greenwood — “Alethia”
• Esperanza Spalding — “Radio Song”
• Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up — “Double Lake, Defined”
• Keyshia Cole — “Trust And Believe”
• Nashville Cast — “No One Will Ever Love You”
• Elliott Carter — “Two Controversies and a Conversation: I. Controversy 1”
• Elliott Carter — “Two Controversies and a Conversation: II. Controversy 2”
• Elliott Carter — “Two Controversies and a Conversation: III. Conversation”
• Patti Smith — “Amerigo”
• Nas — “Daughters”
• ZZ Top — “I Gotsta Get Paid”
• The Bad Plus — “Wolf Out”
• Mikel Rouse — “Orson Elvis”
• Azealia Banks — “1991”
• Third Coast Percussion — “First Construction (in Metal)”
• Brad Wells — “A E I O U”
Now you show me your lists.
Seth Colter Walls is a culture critic and reporter for Slate, NewYorker.com, The Village Voice, Washington Post, Capital New York, and lots of other places.