Beck : Morning Phase
Though it doesn't have the same experimental spirit of some of his earlier releases, on "Morning Phase" Beck shows us just how talented a songwriter he has become throughout the course of his 21 year career, and presents listeners with a 47 minute master-class in song craft.
Jungle : Jungle
The lead up to this album almost overshadowed the actual release. The stream of fantastic singles Jungle released last spring left myself and several other music nerds I know highly anticipating the the full length that was to come in July. And though it's definitely clear those singles made up most of the album's prime cuts, the remaining tracks were no slouch by any means. Yes, you could pick this album apart and find some serious flaws – its lack of substantial lyrics or relatively simple instrumental parts – but doing so would be to miss the forest for the trees. This is an album that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Its style, the feeling it creates is what makes Jungle's debut so impressive, and what makes them a band to keep an eye on as they grow and evolve.
Museum of Love : Museum of Love
I came to this album to hear yet another display of Pat Mahoney's peerless drum skills, and while he absolutely does not disappoint, what I came away with felt more like a collection of beautiful love songs than the break-beat dance-punk I'd expected. A great first effort that left me ready for more.
Freddie Gibs & Madlib : Piñata
Collaborations are always a scary prospect. Not only is anything the musicians involved release going to be subject to comparisons to each member's individual output, but there is the huge risk that the members will bring out the worst in their collaborators rather than the best. It can be surprisingly difficult to find examples to find examples of collaborations that are even equal to each member's individual output, let alone ones that have brought out the best in every participant. All this explains why – despite being extremely excited for the album – I tried to approached Freddie Gibbs & Madlib's "Piñata" very cautiously. Though I love each artists' individual output, it would have been very easy for these two to bring out the worst in each other. Gibbs' astonishingly bleak outlook, Madlib's overly experimental tendencies. If either of these elements, or any of the other common critiques of these two artists, was used too liberally, the album could have quickly derailed, leaving us with an overly long, overly indulgent release.
Yet, both in spite of these issues, and to some of extent because of them, "Piñata" is overwhelmingly successful. Masterfully crafted, Gibbs and Madlib's tallents compliment each other wonderfully. Gibbs' intense yet laid back lyrics weave beautifully with Madlibs' almost unmatched skills as a classic, old-school beat maker. Though the album recalls 90's west-coast hip-hop in its content, beats, and lyrical style, "Piñata" never feels like an album from anther era. Rather, it's a distinctly modern album that is made with an old school attention to detail and craft, and though it's not without its problems, "Piñata" proves to be one of the strongest albums in each of Gibbs and Madlib's catalogues.
TV on the Radio : Seeds
If I had to levy one criticism at TV on the Radio – and I have a hard time doing so – it would be that their music often sounds to unobtainable. Tunde Adebimpe's awe inspiring voice. Dave Sitek's production chops. The way Kyp Malone's guitar almost never makes itself known, yet is completely unforgettable. It's occasionally difficult to imagine that humans were involved the creation of any of their albums. And though none of this changes on "Seeds" – an uncompromisingly beautiful album that deals in death and the feelings of loss that surround it without ever attempting to directly address them as some kind of universally understandable concept – I'm having a harder and harder time citing their almost inhuman skill as a problem.
Swans : To Be Kind
After setting a new standard of excellence with 2012's descent into hell, "The Seer," Swans returned this year with "To Be Kind," another 2 hour long assault on the senses. Though comparisons to "The Seer" are inevitable, picking a favorite between the two is a pointless endeavor. The two exist in tandem, as a one-two punch that knocked us on our ass two years ago, and then kicked us in the head just as we were starting to get back up.
To call this album a visceral experience doesn't begin to do it justice. It sucks you in and doesn't let go, dragging you to places you're not entirely comfortable with, and then pushing you out on the other side to deal with everything you just experienced on your own. You're going to come out the other side slightly changed, and there's no saying exactly how that change will manifest itself. None of this not an easy ordeal, especially since starting this album means agreeing to see it through to the end, but it's not supposed to be. Enter "To Be Kind" at your own risk, but trust me, to experience this album will be more than worth it.
Perfect Pussy : Say Yes To Love
A year after their fantastic release "I Have Lost All Desire for Feeling," Perfect Pussy proves once again that no one else is capable of capturing lightning in a bottle quite like they are.
St. Vincent : St. Vincent
Identity. Fame. Faith. None of these are simple topics, but Annie Clarke dives into all of them and more on her fourth album as St. Vincent (fifth counting 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, "Love This Giant"). Appropriately titled "St. Vincent," Clarke spends the album grappling with her personal and artistic personas, working out where one ends and the other begins, and finding that the lines between the two seem to blur more and more the further her career develops. With it's cultish overtones and always astonishing yet never showy guitar parts – with Clarke once again proving that her skills on the instrument are unmatched by anyone currently making music – "St. Vincent" asks us to evaluate how we self identify, and forces us question just how honestly we present ourselves to others.
The Juan MacLean : In a Dream
The urgency in this album is palpable. Constantly pushing forward without giving you much time to catch your breath, In A Dream tackles ideas of comfort and dependency, and sees MacLean and Nancy Whang fine-tuning and eventually perfecting the sound their collaboration has been moving towards since the two began working together. It's not a flawless record, but it builds a strong foundation for future releases, ones that could see the group improve on their shortcomings now that they've perfected their strengths.
Shabazz Palaces : Lese Majesty
Shabazz palaces got weirder and somehow more wonderful on their second full length, showing once again that they are masters of mood. The more electronic sounds of this spaced-out epic feel like a completely natural progression from their previous release, while Ismael Butler's lyrical prowess secures his place in a class occupied by peers such as Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt.
Run the Jewels : Run the Jewels 2
Killer Mike and El-P could have walked away from their Run the Jewels project after last year's fantastic self titled release – which seemed to exist solely to prove their superiority over the "fuckboys" that dominate so much of the modern rap game – and no one would have faulted them. Run the Jewels felt like a one off to begin with, a fun project for these two friends to tackle after releasing two of the most important hip-hop albums of 2012. Instead they returned with an album that not only solidified their place in any conversation about modern hip-hop, but also wowed any and all casual listeners, and floored hardcore fans who took time to dig into these open and emotional lyrics.
The fact that this album has been such success with mainstream audiences should not be overlooked. For years there has been a trend in the underground hip-hop world of artists releasing raw and emotionally honest albums. Mike and El are no strangers to this trend, their utterly fantastic 2012 albums "Cancer 4 Cure" and "R.A.P. Music" were part of what made your's truly take note of this trend to begin with. Releases like Earl Sweatshirt's "Doris" and Danny Brown's "Old" continued the trend last year, but with the possible exception of Kendrick Lamar's "good kid, m.A.A.d city," this trend hasn't carried itself into the mainstream hip hop. Though peaking at #50 on the Billboard charts is by no means a groundbreaking hit (though it's the closest thing either of these two has had since Mike released "A.D.I.D.A.S" in 2003), it's a sign that this trend is starting to catch on and work itself into the mainstream. Nothing is definite, it's impossible to predict how these things will play out, but with Killer Mike and El-P – two artists who have been at the top of their game for 3 years running – at the forefront, I'd say hip-hop's future is looking pretty bright.