Another year has gone by (insert tired apocalypse joke here), and while my life has undergone some major changes, my taste in music has remained virtually unchanged. Surprise, surprise. I voluntarily listened to over 3000 new songs this year, and not one of them was by a cute guy/gal power-pop duo, a hair metal revival band, the newest hot rapper on BET, a country-but-too-hipster-to-admit-it indie folk band, a 3-chord chug-chugga hardcore band, a mosh-metal/pop-punk hybrid with growled verses and teen-pop choruses, or the dicks with the 5-hour makeup job that meld nu-screamo with R&B. Nope, this codger stuck by the old standards that haven’t done me wrong yet. My tastes are narrow and deep. I have no use for acoustic singer-songwriters (or even acoustic albums by my favorite bands) or cookie-cutter pop-punk bands who think New Found Glory is the be-all end-all. I also make no claim for accuracy of the descriptions and band comparisons below. Sometimes I can nail who a band sounds like, but other times it evades me or I fall back to well-used comparisons or overuse the same adjectives. I guess it can’t be helped when the people making music I love were inspired by the same bands/artists that inspired me….to have a horrible vinyl addiction. My actual spending has decreased, but the fiending for it hasn’t. It didn’t exactly go down how I would have preferred financially, but I did finally secure a copy of Hum’s Downward Is Heavenward, one of my favorite albums of all time. I also got the repress of Quicksand’s Slip, which is pretty much my version of what Nevermind was to the rest of the teenagers in my era. It was pretty much the album that changed everything and gave me new direction after hair metal died and Pearl Jam wasn’t really doing it for me.
Overall I wouldn’t call it one of the best years of music in recent memory or anything, but there were still plenty of releases worthy of your attention. As I said last year, I really only write this one blog every year just to help the few friends of mine who actually still care about music to find some new stuff that suits them, since most of their precious time is tied up by family obligations these days. Anyone else reading this is just an unanticipated bonus, so thanks if you’re randomly stopping by. If you’re the type who usually communicates via Twitter and has the attention span of 2 lines of text at a time, you may want to bail now because brevity is not my strong suit. I put a shit-ton of obsessive work into this thing, so your attention is greatly appreciated. If you missed any of my lists from the previous three years, 2009, 2010, and 2011 are just a click away.
As a matter of decency, I should probably credit the three blogs I get most of my new music leads from: Circling The Drain, Sometimes I Get Drunk, and Beatbox Radio Show. I’m going to try to provide links to stream the entire album if possible, but might have to just find youtube links or song clips for a few songs. I don’t have any use for Spotify or Pandora, although you will likely be able to find most of this on there and make your own playlist. In any event, hopefully you find something that at least catches your attention. If you’re a child shaped by the 80’s like me, perhaps it would help if you imagined my words being read to you by Adam Curry as he counts ‘em down (I guarantee you I was watching that day). Most importantly, please support good music and buy what you like. And if you’re going to buy it digitally, use BandCamp before iTunes. BandCamp supposedly doesn’t take as big of a cut as Apple and lets you pay with PayPal or credit card.
To start out, here are a few honorable mentions that weren’t quite good enough to make the countdown.
Ghost Ocean – The Places We Know
Slightly less engaging than their previous EP, this one refines and (regrettably) takes a bit of the edge off their take on post-hardcore. It’s still a solid effort though. I believe I called these guys a good mix of Your Best Friend, Polar Bear Club, and Name Taken before.
The Life and Times – No One Loves You Like I Do
This is the third full-length from the post-Shiner band of lead singer Alan Epley. It’s more consistent than the previous one, Tragic Boogie, but doesn’t really have any standout tracks for me. I guess I would categorize it as shoegaze/post-rock/space rock.
Animal Faces - Anomie
This is the most hardcore-leaning thing you’ll find on this year’s list, mostly due to the vocals being pretty much all scream/shout. The music is fairly aggressive and angular but with a certain groove to it, in an At The Drive-In/Shiner/Weatherbox way. I’m guessing most people who dig Touche Amore (and yet somehow I can’t get into them) and Pianos Become The Teeth (LOVE them) would also dig this.
Tangled Hair – Apples
Jazz-influenced poppy math-rock with emo flourishes. Let me emphasize the math part, which indicates lots of odd time signatures, such that one reviewer call them “an epileptic wet dream”. If you like This Town Needs Guns, you should like this. I’d also recommend fans of Minus The Bear give them a listen, although they’re not necessarily all that similar. And while they’re not the first to do it, the Big Lebowski reference in the first song title earns them props.
Sean Price – Mic Tyson
This was probably my most anticipated hip-hop release of the year. It generally failed to deliver due to an unexpected shortage of good production. There’s too much synth crap and many beats were just dull and boring, but at least there was no bounce rap or any other trend-hopping bullshit. Still, it’s Sean P (P!) and it’s better than most of what came out in 2012. His rhymes are almost always entertaining, if not clever, in that tongue-in-cheek thug bullshit way only Sean can do. Check out “Pyrex” first.
Spraynard – Exton Square
Here’s yet another young band that bit the dust too early. I was lucky enough to catch a set of theirs in a dingy basement in Kalamazoo on their final tour earlier this year. Their sound on this EP is similar enough to their past stuff, primarily constructed on a jangly pop-punk base (musically more of the Ramones/Screeching Weasel vibe but with some parts reminding me of what I still like about old Blink-182) with some new elements thrown in, like the Elliott-esque intro to the highlight track “Can I Borrow A Feeling?”. The third track, “Trembling”, offers hope and support for a survivor of childhood sexual abuse with lines like “You may find it hard to believe/But you’re more than what he did to you that night”. The theme kind of contrasts the bouncy feel of the track, but it definitely works overall and adds some weight to the tune.
Glocca Morra – Just Married
This is one of those bands that does a stylistic take on emo revival that generally clashes with my eardrums (others would include Snowing, Coping, and Dowsing…maybe they should be called Glocca Morra-ing), but somehow the execution of it on this particular album is something I can listen to and enjoy quite a bit. Their other releases are different enough from this that I can’t get into them though. The first track is the only one I don’t like on this, so I would recommend starting out at “My Black Dog/Cosmic Being”.
Athletics – Who You Are Is Not Enough
These guys are closely linked to Moving Mountains as far as their overall sound, primarily thanks to MovMou vocalist Greg Dunn producing and/or engineering everything they’ve recorded so far (to the best of my knowledge). They follow more of the brooding, slower MovMou sound and incorporate more of the post-rock aesthetic with shimmering, crescendo-bound guitars a la Explosions In The Sky. The songs have Roman numerals rather than names, and I would consider “II” to be the highlight here.
OK kids, now let’s get into the countdown!
15. Citizen/Turnover – split 7”
These two young bands both show solid growth from the 7”s they put out individually last year while still maintaining their core sound. Turnover is the more traditional pop-punk band laced with early-00’s emo. They made my list last year with their self-titled debut, whereas Citizen’s Young States regrettably didn’t. Based off this split, I’d have to say Citizen’s more brooding, rock-based sound (reminds me of Balance & Composure and Daylight with cleaner vocals sometimes) gives them the edge for me. I’d definitely have to say Citizen’s “Drown” is my highlight here. Also worth mentioning is that Citizen is yet another young band representing Michigan music to the fullest.
14. Pentimento/Young English – split 12”
Here’s another split featuring two newer bands on the rise. I have in the past and will probably always compare Pentimento to Polar Bear Club, and I mean that in the best way possible. In fact, both of the bands on this EP are fairly derivative of the bands/styles I’ve loved for the past 10 years. Neither are all that punk, although Pentimento occasionally crosses over in the more beardy vocals. Each band includes a cover here, with Pentimento doing Dashboard Confessional and Young English doing Smashing Pumpkins. I found neither cover to be particularly compelling and felt their original songs had more to offer. “L’Espirit De Escalier (The Stairs)” is my favorite of the Pentimento side, while Young English’s “Woke Up Under Water” is an absolute emo-rock slobberknocker. Sadly they played their last show with the primary singer/songwriter this year, and although the rest of the band is apparently going to try to move forward, I’d guess their best days are behind them. Pentimento, on the other hand, has only begun their ascent, and people really seem to be taking notice as evidenced by the reception to their debut full-length (see below). I should also mention I thought long and hard about including their debut EP Wrecked on this list because I discovered it in early January. My decision not to do so should not deter you from checking it out, as I find it even more pleasing to the ears than this split.
13. The Swellers – Vehicle City Blues 7”/Running Out of Places To Go
The career of Flint’s The Swellers has taken some interesting turns in the last 5 years. After putting out my favorite album of 2007, their debut My Everest, they signed on with pseudo-major label Fueled By Ramen and put out the also awesome Ups and Downsizing in 2009, which I believe they had recorded before securing the deal. Their next album, 2011’s Good For Me seemed to bear the mark of record-label meddling/demands to me. This band has always mixed pop-punk, skate-punk, and 90’s pop-rock, but the punk influence was noticeably all but absent and some of the songs seemed to be catering to the lemmings of your average radio audience. It was still decent and had a highlight song or two, but it wasn’t quite the same Swellers I loved. After that album underperformed, the band and label parted ways, and I was delighted to hear lead singer Nick Diener tell the crowd at BledFest 2012 how happy they were to be independent and in full creative control again. They’ve since started their own label, Snowbird Sounds, first putting out the Vehicle City Blues b/w Red Lights 7”. Those two songs were b-sides from Good For Me that the label thought didn’t fit. The label was right, but it was because these songs had the punk energy that was missing from the album. I couldn’t have been more pleased, especially with “Vehicle City Blues”. Later in the year, they dropped Running Out of Places To Go, which goes back to encompassing sounds from their aggregate of influences. I have to admit that despite the straight-ahead pop-rock approach of “Hands”, that song gets me every time thanks to the killer chorus with the gang vocal “OH”s. The title track is my favorite on the EP though.
12. Weatherbox/Person L – split 7”
If I have my story straight, these songs were recorded before Weatherbox’s 2011 EP Rattle of the Afghan Guitar, but apparently there were some difficulties with the release that pushed it back to this year. Let me first say this regarding Weatherbox: There will never be another American Art, so stop hoping, expecting, or comparing. It’s a masterpiece that needs to be left alone, and frankly the band would be fools to reproduce or try to top it using the same style. That said, I still think The Cosmic Drama was an unfortunate bump in the road, and I think the band has once again found their groove with the two subqequent releases. Give their two songs on this record a chance, and I bet you’ll be singing “My body is a bomb, ahhhaahhh aahhhhaaahhh” like I did to myself for weeks after getting it. That’s the refrain from “Kickflips For Weeks”, which is definitely the better of the two. I should also mention that despite my having no interest in Person L (the decidedly non-pop-punk post-Starting Line project of Kenny Vasoli) before or after this, I find their lead-off track “OK” to be quite enjoyable. It’s much less quirky and more engaging than anything else I’ve heard by them.
11. Worship This! – The Nard Years
Man oh man. That cover art is so bad I almost considered leaving it out. But alas, I’m a completest. Don’t let these old dudes’ questionable artwork choices deter you from checking out their music. It was only a matter of time before we got to something heavily influenced by the Hot Water Music/early Small Brown Bike “beardcore” sound (although the music is a little more straight-ahead mid-tempo punk rock here), and these guys from Cleveland do it wonderfully. I also get a Samiam vibe from them. The opening track, “Michigan Ocean” is definitely my favorite. The drum/bass breakdown toward the late middle of the song is killer. You can tell from that video and the recording quality of the 7” that these guys probably all work shitty 9-5 jobs with minimal pay and throw whatever little money they can into this band. What then comes out of the speakers is a type of pure, untainted passion and love for creating this kind of music that can only come from old sages who know their endeavors will never earn them any money. There’s not even any youthful spirit with notions of “let’s try this out while we’re young and see where it takes us”. Nope, just some old dudes who love this shit as much as I do and can’t keep it from spilling out of their spirit and onto the vinyl.
10. Arrows In Her – Leaving
Does it get any more emo than that band name? I think not, and I love them for it. I only discovered them the week of Xmas, so I don’t have a whole lot to say about this after only having had time for 3 listens all the way through. What I do know is that this is a beautiful takes on 90’s emo with some punk flourishes. I definitely hear some Casket Lottery, Burns Out Bright, Braid, and early Get Up Kids in there. This is one of those debuts that warrants close attention to their next record because it shows immense unrealized potential. “Sunlit Hallways” is my favorite so far off this one.
9. Lowtalker – The Marathon
I first checked this band out when they released their first EP, People Worry About Everything, back in 2010. It meant nothing to me that the band featured members of Misery Signals and Comeback Kid because those bands were never on my radar (not my kind of heavy), but I liked the EP a fair amount. When I started seeing press for this EP and saw that Stu Ross, former lead vocalist for Living With Lions (the guy who sang on Holy Shit but not the earlier records), was involved, I started paying closer attention. I really enjoyed that LWL album and was sorry he left them to join Comeback Kid (after leaving Misery Signals for LWL), and I think he does a swell job here as well. The music is more driving mid-tempo punk/post-hardcore than LWL. The opening song, “Tension”, is undoubtedly my favorite of the bunch.
8. Quartermaine – Quarter Life Crisis
Hip-hop really came into my life at about the same time as post-hardcore and punk did, and my love for all of them is still the same. You’ll see much more vidence of that later, but the world of hip-hop doesn’t produce many EPs. Back in 2003, however, a group by the name of Critically Acclaimed put out an EP called Circa ’88 that had some good jams on it. Based on their loose affiliation with Little Brother, I became aware and kept an eye out but nothing ever surfaced beyond a few guest appearances here and there. Finally 9 years later we get an EP from ½ of that group, and it sounds so lovely it probably would’ve been one of my favorites whether this was 2003 or 1993. He’s now affiliated with one of the best labels/collectives in hip-hop, Redefinition Records, as well the Low Budget Crew with likes of Kev Brown, Kenn Starr, Kaimbr, and Cy Young. The production is fantastic, and the dude rhymes about pretty relatable shit, like this: “Mad aggravated at how my life turned out/I push a paper daily, hoping my job burn down/My education failed me 'cause I gotta learn now/A new skill that pays me the same I make already”. My standout tracks are “Ducats” and “Get Me Down”.
7. Clockwork – Clockwork
Remember what I said above about Arrows In Her as far as potential was concerned? This Michigan band is a perfect example of that, albeit with a different sound. They dropped a self-titled 7” back in late 2011 (with the greatest god damn artwork ever) that was decent and showed some promise. Then they signed with dude from Less Than Jake’s label, Paper & Plastick, and put out this hot fuckin’ slab of melodic hardcore punk… also self-titled. That head-scratcher doesn’t change the fact that is worth a listen if you dig bands like Strung Out, A Wilhelm Scream (although it’s less metal than those two), Shook Ones, or Strike Anywhere. Hell, if you think Polar Bear Club’s “Most Miserable Life” is an awesome song, you’ll probably love this. Don’t be a dick and listen now. My favorite track is “Worrywart”. It’s such a shame they didn’t press this as a 7”. Frig off, P+P.
6. Reservoir/Bicycle Ride - Split
This is a late entry in the countdown that I sadly slept on and am not familiar enough with, save for a few listens when I occasionally remembered it existed, until seeing Reservoir live in a basement in Lansing and practically having my brain rocket out of my skull from pure enjoyment. It never came out on any format other than cassette to my knowledge, which totally sucks. I am vehemently against cassettes after growing up in the 80’s on them and having many a favorite tape eaten by my boomboxes. It’s a wholly inferior medium. The day my Def Leppard - Hysteria (undoubtedly my favorite album as a kid) tape got eaten was maybe the most crushing moment of my youth. Can you tell I’ve been obsessed with music for a long time? Anyway, further inducing my slumber on this split was the fact that you could only stream it (no buy) from the band’s bandcamp. I have only now discovered that the label bandcamp is where you can buy/download it and am about to rectify my slumber by listening to these two songs on repeat a few times. Their previous 7” made last year’s list, and these songs are a nice improvement/diversion from their previous stuff. They’ve delved even further into the late-90’s Midwest emo sound with splendid results. If you ever fell hard for the more brooding moments on Jimmy Eat World’s Static Prevails or the Get Up Kids’ Four Minute Mile or heartwrenchers like Mineral’s “If I Could” or Hot Water Music’s “Minno”, you would be a fucking moron not to check this out. The drummer has the energy of a young George Rebelo, and their triple vocal attack really helps keep things fresh too. I’ll probably post the live videos I made from their set on my youtube “channel” later this weekend or early next week if you’re interested.
5. Muscle And Bone – Muscle And Bone
In the music blogs I mentioned above, they tend to have a “shoutbox” where anyone can leave comments. Usually it’s some dickweed with his screamo band that sounds like someone butchering cats with a cleaver over a backdrop of somebody dropping a bunch of instruments down the stairs, all recorded to cassette on a boombox, but one day somebody posted this lovely gem. These guys have the best of the late 90’s and early 00’s emo interwoven into a gorgeous tapestry that’s both refreshing and familiar. The definitely borrow from American Football (like many, many, many other bands these days) but also really remind me of what I loved about Benton Falls, early Further Seems Forever, and maybe even Blacktop Cadence. “No Return” and “Bones & Muscles” are some of the best get-sad jams of the year. This another one that needs to exist on vinyl but is only available physically as a cassette. Somebody buy a bunch of tapes so they have money to press it. Hurry up.
4. Gates – You Are All You Have Left To Fear
There are two bands making music right now that are perfecting the meshing of post-rock with 90’s emo. One of them is New Jersey’s Gates. This is their second EP in as many years. I was absolutely in love with their debut, and while this one didn’t quite hook me in the medulla oblongata like that one did, it’s still something to behold. The instrumental “To Those Who Fell…” leading into “…And To Those Who Carry On” is particularly fantastic. I had the pleasure of finally seeing them live at a tiny bar in Detroit (see? see?), and it was every bit as awesome as seeing Moving Mountains for the first time (when Pneuma and Foreword were all they had out) or the original Elliott lineup. DO NOT miss them if they ever come near you.
3. Vasudeva – Roots Of The Tree
Despite regrettably not being able/prepared to get any video during their set, I caught these young chaps (also from New Jersey) at the Gates show. I went to that show completely alone and knew no one, but the awkwardness was outweighed by the sheer amazement and satisfaction I felt after seeing both bands. I had one of those outstanding moments of being completely blown away by a live band I’d never heard before, which is something that almost never happens to me. The rest of the crowd felt the same and gave them rousing applause, and I’m sure not many if any of them had heard the band before either. Their music is entirely instrumental but never even comes close to boring me. It definitely is heavily influenced by old Minus The Bear, with the finger tapping and occasional dance-ish beats. The musicianship is on point for sure. The drummer is definitely what ties the band together and gives the sound its form. All four songs on this EP are worthy of your attention. Don’t be a dick. Even my mom loves these guys (and Gates too). Give ‘em a chance.
2. Prawn – Ships
I know I say this a lot from year to year, but it seems like in any other year this would have been #1. And guess where Prawn is from? Did you guess New Jersey? Way to go! This band continues to meet my lofty expectations with every new release, going back to False Institutions in 2009 when they friended me on MySpace. Yup, that’s when I was King Shit and every band wanted to be my friend. These blokes are the other band besides Gates that is perfecting this emo/post-rock sound to me. “Donald Domesky” is a 5-star song in every sense. “Costa Rica”, “Grass & Bones”, and “Two Ships” are also great. Not bad for a 6-song EP. I really hope this band stays around for a long time and just tweaks things a little bit each time like they have so far.
1. The Cabs – Recur Breath
Major, major props to Sometimes I Get Drunk for bringing this truly incredible band into my bubble. The blog’s comparison to math-emo-pop wizards This Town Needs Guns with the genre description of “screamo/emo/math rock/post-hardcore” was intriguing enough to make me look past the point that this appeared to be a Japanese band who I assumed was probably going to ruin their music by attempting to sing in English. When I previewed it, I had another one of those blown away moments (sadly not live though) where the music was so incredible that they could’ve actually slaughtered cats over it and I still wouldn’t be able to stop listening. Fortunately, despite the lyrics being in Japanese, the vocals seemed to fit the music fairly seamlessly and become part of the song if you let them. I’ve actually found myself singing along to god knows what while listening in the car (ask my wife, she loves it), while of course playing air drums. The way the parts in these songs are arranged, it feels like the perfect roller coaster ride, like it was designed by the best amusement park engineer in all of Japan. You’re having the time of your life and out of nowhere there’s a wicked left turn and a steep drop with excessive speed. Your neck hurts but you’re smiling and laugh-screaming the whole time. I think that perfectly sums up how I feel when I listen to this. It is, without a doubt, the one single release I listened to most this year, so really it’s my overall #1. It’s a god damned crime that this thing doesn’t exist on vinyl. I swear if I wasn’t draining my savings for the sake of education, I’d make it happen. That’s how serious I am. Listen and let these fine young Japanese men take you for a ride, and don’t be thrown by the screaming on the first track. There’s not much more of it.
25. Substantial – Home Is Where The Art Is
I’ve always dug this dude’s voice and flow, but on this album he finally has consistent production I enjoy. This is thoughtful grown-man hip-hop right here. I haven’t given this the spins it deserves, but if I had to choose a highlight right now it would be “Make Believe” produced by Oddisee.
24. Wu-Block – Wu-Block
This is a loose supergroup project featuring members of Wu-Tang Clan and The Lox aka D-Block. I was reluctant to get optimistic about this album, since I don’t like most of the production the Lox guys tend to prefer (I usually keep 3-4 songs at most off their solo stuff), plus Wu-Tang guys have often had the same production woes of late outside Ghostface’s, Raekwon’s, and Masta Killa’s solo albums. That attitude made this a very pleasant surprise, because despite the unknowns that provide the bulk of the sonic backdrop (save for one Erick Sermon song that’s somewhat lame and the fantastically subdued “Drivin’ ‘Round” done by Moose and Termanology, who I didn’t even know did production), the production is generally really good and doesn’t really incorporate current commercial mainstream norms at all. By and large, it’s the gritty and soulful stuff you’d hope for from a well done Wu-Tang project. Sure, the subject matter of guns and drugs can get tiresome, but honestly there’s nobody I’d rather listen to when it comes to that stuff than Ghost and Rae. They comprise the bulk of the Wu part of this, with Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck, GZA, and Method Man peppered throughout. Ghost is on all but one song, which is fabulous. I would recommend checking out “Crack Spot Stories”, the aforementioned “Drivin’ ‘Round”, and “Different Time Zones”.
23. Beneficence – Concrete Soul
I have no idea who this dude is or where he came from, but I am surely glad to have found this sublime slice of piano-driven minimalist soulful boom-bap. This is a stupendous reimagining (not just rote regurgitation) of the ’93-’94 sound I love so dearly. The guest list is notable for featuring old school vets like A.G., Grap Luva, Masta Ace, B-1, Chubb Roc, El Da Sensei, and even Rampage The Last Boy Scout (formerly of Flipmode Squad – where’d they pull him out of mothballs from?). This is put out by label Ill Adrenaline Records, which seems to be the new go-to for this type of classic hip-hop. Production comes from respected legends like Buckwild and Da Beatminerz as well as my favorite new producer by far, this dude Confidence (who you’ll be seeing later). This is more grown man hip-hop right here.
22. Casual & J. Rawls – Respect Game Or Expect Flames
The Hieroglyphics crew represented pretty well with unexpectedly dope new music this year. Casual has always been my least favorite member of the crew, mostly because his albums are often downright terrible thanks to gimmicky chintzy sounding typical West Coast funk beats. J. Rawls comes from the group Lone Catalysts, who are one of those underground boom-bap groups that I’ve never been able to really get into despite their longevity, mostly because of dull production. Yet somehow these two dudes got together, with Casual providing the rhymes (along with some Hiero crew guest appearances) and Mr. Rawls providing the soundscape, and their combined strengths outweighed and offset their weaknesses. There aren’t really any songs that stand far above the rest, but I would recommend not paying too much attention to the first track since I find it to be the worst one by far.
21. Further Seems Forever – Penny Black
Outside of two songs on How To Start A Fire, I never gave a shit about anything this band did after The Moon Is Down, their only album with original vocalist Chris Carabba. Likewise, I haven’t cared about anything Dashboard Confessional-related for at least 10 years. So it was a feeling of reluctant optimism combined with nostalgia that accompanied my finding out that the band was reuniting with Chris back on the mic. When they released “So Cold” and “Rescue Trained”, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked them despite the completely annoying, obtuse, and unnecessary effects they used on his voice. Then the ridiculous video for “So Cold” came out and I recoiled in horror at the embarrassment I felt for them. However, I still decided to give the whole album a chance, and I’m glad I did. Of course it’s not TMID part 2, but there are enough familiar elements of the 90’s emo they did so well back then to keep me listening and enjoying. I’d recommend you go for “Penny Black” or “King’s Canyon” first, but stay the hell away from “Janie” and “System of Symmetry”.
20. Apollo Brown & O.C. - Trophies
I can’t even tell you how long I’ve been waiting for an entire O.C. album with good production…oh wait, yes I can. It has been since his Jewelz album, all the way back in 1997. That’s why I was ecstatic to find out he would be doing a whole album with the heir apparent to Jay Dilla’s King of Detroit Boom-Bap throne, Apollo Brown. His production can tend to get a little overly repetitive to me and he often seems stuck on the piano/string notes being exactly on ½ or ¼ beat with the drums, but this is probably his best work. Plus it helps to have O.C’s top-notch rhymes skills providing the vocals. I love the overall theme of the album and meaning behind the title too, which is pretty evident from the intro. Once again, Mello Music Group has blessed the hip-hop world with something lovely. This is another one that is a great album as a whole but is tough to pick individual songs from. I guess I’d have to pick “The Pursuit”, “Options”, “Anotha One”, or bonus track (that only came on a bonus 7” with the deluxe vinyl) “The Biggest Loser”.
19. Nas – Life Is Good
I have a very on again, off again relationship with Nas’ music. I think he’s a smart dude and businessman though (well, except for the divorce cleaning him out). He seems to understand that he has to cater to the lemmings to a certain degree to stay relevant in the overall music world, but I think he’s also a true-school boom-bap head at heart, knows his original fans still want that from him, and is willing to deliver that when the time is right. Go listen to “Loco-Motive” and you’ll understand what I mean. “This is for all my trapped in the 90’s niggas”, he says. That describes me to a T…well, despite the racial implications. Still, I was truly surprised as I was compiling my nominees for this list, looking at the ratings I had on the iPod and recognizing that I liked way more of this than I remembered or had thought possible of a major label hip-hop release. Shit, I even dig the song with Amy Winehouse (I have a hard time sticking it out through the overwrought chorus) and can get past one of the dumbest people alive, Rick Ross, trying to ruin “Accident Murderers”. The only ones I really don’t like are “The Don”, “Summer On Smash” (fucking terrible), and the one with Mary J. Blige. My favorites are “Loco-Motive”, “A Queens Story”, “Nasty”, and “Daughters”. I really love his honesty and transparency about his life on the latter as well as “Bye Baby”.
18. Certain People I Know – Certain People I Know
I gather from how little I’m hearing about this (and the fact that the first pressing of this record is way too available months after the release) that people aren’t all that stoked on this side project of Bob Nanna (vocals/guitar) and Damon Atkinson (drummer extraordinaire) of Braid and Hey Mercedes, and I really don’t understand why. It’s certainly not their greatest work, but I find it highly enjoyable nonetheless. It really doesn’t differ that much sonically from either of those two bands, save for the occasional female vocals courtesy of Lauren LoPiccolo. “Strongsuit” is my jam here.
17. No Trigger - Tycoon
These Massachusetts chaps’ debut album Canyoneer came out way back in 2006 and easily became one of my favorite melodic hardcore/punk albums of all time. Due to life getting in the way and lineup changes that didn’t pan out, they didn’t return until 2010 with the Be Honest 7”, which showed promise but lacked some of the bite of their previous work. They got some of that back with this one, a very cohesive album that can be listened to front to back with no skip-worthy tracks. I don’t really have favorites here, so just start at the top on this one.
16. Sean Born – Behind The Scale
Do you want another hip-hop record about how great selling drugs and helping destroy the community are? Me neither. That’s why this Mello Music Group/Low Budget Crew affiliate’s debut album is quite refreshing. He tells the other side of the game that you don’t hear about in typical thug rap. He talks about feeling like a total loser being stuck dealing dope in his hometown while he has buddies studying to become doctors and goes into how his sister’s struggles with addiction have affected his family and his mother’s health in particular. THIS is what “keepin’ it real” was supposed to mean. The production is provided entirely by Kev Brown, who I thought had fallen off in the past couple years but fully redeems himself here. There are a few songs where the loop he uses gets a little nauseating, but things like the absolutely neck-snapping drums of “Grandeur” make up for it. Besides that joint, “DrugsAlcoholSex” is my other favorite.
15. Cain Marko – Show Me The Way To Go Home
Hot damn, it’s been a while since I referenced a punk band with glass-gargling vocals that would probably fit in perfectly at The Fest, but fear not because Grand Rapids’ own Cain Marko is here to rectify that. Their take on it is a bit more straight ahead rhythmically than other similar sounding bands I love and might be closer to Leatherface than Hot Water Music or Bear Vs. Shark (and there’s not much of any emo influence), but the execution and vibe here are damn near perfect. The energy always stays high, too. I hate describing music as “fun”, but this definitely qualifies considering the upbeat nature of the songs, the themes of which tend to be drinking, camaraderie, and brotherhood. I can get down with that. There are some killer gang vocal “whoa-oh”s here too. My top tracks are “Star-Crossed Strangers” and “Show Me The Way To Go Home”.
14. DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles – The KoleXXXion
When this album was announced, I almost literally shit my pants in anticipation. After Guru died and Gang Starr was gone forever, I never thought I’d get another chance to hear an album with one MC rhyming over nothing but DJ Premier production (I’m not even going to be reserved and say he’s just my favorite hip-hop producer – he’s the BEST hip-hop producer ever). For it to happen and for that MC to be Freddie Foxxx aka Bumpy Knuckles, the guy who closed Gang Starr’s classic “The Militia” with one of my favorite verses ever, was like a dream come true. I had the loftiest of expectations for this. When it dropped, I was fairly disappointed. Freddie can’t come up with a decent chorus to save his life in spots, and Premo seemed to have fallen asleep at the boards resulting in a few really boring beats. Beyond that, some of the songs were years old and were sort of tacked on. I still kept my favorite 4 or 5 songs in rotation but forgot about most of this for a while. After revisiting it, I can definitely say my expectations hurt my ability to take it for what it is and that it’s really a quality album that stands out as one of the top hip-hop releases this year. It’s still a little tough to listen to the Foxxx for an entire album (as further evidenced by his decent full-length Ambition with all Statik Selektah production), but jams like “Turn Up The Mic (DJ Premier Remix) ft. Nas”, “Ownit”, “WeAre At War”, and “The Life” (where Premo samples either a saw or a guitar pick slide – I can’t tell for sure which, but either is awesome) make me remember why Preem is the best around.
13. Lil’ Fame and Termanology - Fizzyology
Both of these guys have had some of their best moments over DJ Premier’s production. Fame (the only rapper with that height-related modifier that I’ll listen to) is better known as one half of Mash Out Posse aka M.O.P., whom I could possibly cross-categorize as the Hot Water Music of boom-bap with their throaty, energetic delivery. He also moonlights as one of the best kept secrets in hip-hop production under his alias Fizzy Womack. His work in that capacity really shines throughout this album. Termanology is a gifted lyricist who frequently does superb work with Statik Selektah. I knew this had to be a great album with them teaming up, and this time my expectations were exceeded. I do get tired of the gun and drug talk, but it can be forgiven when I hear Fame rhyme shit like “I don’t spit about hot whips, exotic chicks, or fashion” or both of them detailing how fucked up their childhoods were on “Family Ties” (including Term recalling his step-mom selling his brand new Nintendo that he got as an Xmas present for crack). Other strong cuts include “It’s Easy” and of course the Premo-helmed “Play Dirty ft. Busta Rhymes & Styles P”. Yes have some.
12. The Jealous Sound – A Gentle Reminder
I don’t think many people realized it, but the wait for this full-length turned out to be even longer than for Hot Water Music’s latest this year. Their primary LP, the outstanding Kill Them With Kindness, came out all the way back in fucking 2003. The Got Friends digital EP arrived in 2008 and was mostly a dud, except for the title track. I figured they were as good as done (and I was apparently not the only one according to their Wiki page) and got very, very stoked when I found out they had another full-length in store. This one seems to be a little more straight ahead to me, with less 90’s emo tendencies and more simplicity. One thing I can definitely say is these songs are definitely better live. I would call “Equilibrium” and “Beautiful Morning” the highlights. For those in the buying market, these guys just signed to Rise Records recently, who are reissuing this with bonus tracks including the Got Friends EP.
11. Del The Funky Homosapien & Parallel Thought – Attractive Sin
I like naked chicks as much any dude, but that cover art is terrible for this album. However, the choices they made for instrumentals for Hieroglyphics Crew President Del aka Sir D-zel aka Deltron to rhyme over are the best he has had in years. The last halfway decent thing he did was the collaboration album Parallel Uni-verses with Tame One (of Artifacts, who recently reunited) in 2009, and before that I’d have to go all the way back to Both Sides of the Brain in 2000. I really love listening to the dude flow but the production of his other projects hit my ear sideways. Parallel Thought is a collective of 3 dudes who all produce and apparently one of them raps. I don’t know much else about them but definitely need to look into their other work because I dug the way they flipped some of the funk and rock samples they used here. “Different Guidelines” and “Charlie Brown” are probably my top selections off this one.
10. DTMD – Makin’ Dollas
This duo concocted their name the same way Erik Sermon and Parrish Smith aka EPMD did, and the name stands for Dunc and Toine Makin’ Dollas. While I understand the desire for a tribute to some legends, I find the whole “makin’ dollas” mantra/concept to be an incongruous detriment to this otherwise bangin’ album. It’s good enough that I had to bend the rules for my list since this came out in 2011 and somehow I let it slip under my radar for a few months. I’m glad I woke up though, because this is a rewarding listen in the vein of A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul (when each was in their prime). And once again, it’s brought to you by Mello Music Group. I told you they know what they’re doing over there. The banginest tracks here are “Untitled ft. Oddisee”, “Been Trying”, and “Rainy Day”.
9. Pentimento – Pentimento
This is the follow-up to the split EP with Young English and their debut full-length. It was supposed to be released by Paper + Plastick/Black Numbers but the boys got themselves in some kind of a legal entanglement with Panic Records, who put out the split and the Wrecked EP. So instead they released it for free digitally to rave reviews, and rightfully so. This album shows the next step in refining their sound. Everything is more punched up, especially the hooks. It’s a great blend of post-hardcore, pop-punk, and beardcore. The only reason it’s not higher here is due to the inclusion of an acoustic version of previously released “The Bridge” (snore) and the overwrought “Subtle Words” which boasts a string section. My opinion seems to be in the minority on that one based on reviews though, so you may love it. “Circles”, “Days Away”, and “No One Lets You Know” are total home runs.
8. Title Fight – Floral Green
This is the record that the punk community collectively went gaga over this year. I mean, it was like a family gushing in loving awe over a newborn. I anticipated its arrival as much as everyone else, having gotten more and more into last year’s Shed after writing my 2011 list. I regrettably missed out on the pre-order version of the vinyl, one of the coolest variants I’ve ever seen. When they dropped the first video (“Head In The Ceiling Fan”) a couple months before the release, I was dumbfounded at the awesomeness of the Hum/Shiner/Failure influence they were exhibiting. The old-school VHS camera they used to shoot it added a nice touch. The second video, “Secret Society” left me underwhelmed. It’s still my least favorite song on the album (along with “Sympathy” – neither were iPod worthy) and just comes off flat to me. I was still assuming they’d kill it overall on the album though, and that notion was confirmed. Their popularity is well deserved but deeply confuses me. When has a band ever gone from fairly mundane pop-punk to a more brooding and aggressive punk rock band and gotten more popular for it? It’s like they’re swimming against the current and still flying by everybody else. Frankly, it’s fucking awesome. I just wish they didn’t attract so many kids who think walking on people’s heads and stage diving through the entire set is fun. (I’m old, remember?) I say hats off to what they’ve done so far, and I hope the pressures and spoils of success don’t get in the way of what could become a truly great, legendary band of this era. My most enjoyed cuts here are “Make You Cry”, “Head In…”, and “Lefty”.
7. Purpose & Confidence – The Purpose of Confidence
Here’s some more fine hip-hop brought to you by this dude Confidence, who has quickly become one of my favorite producers, courtesy once again of Ill Adrenaline Records. Much like with DTMD, like an asshole I slept on his 2011 album with rapper Rashad, The Element of Surprise, and really kicked myself for it when I finally listened to the sublime beats Confidence lays down consistently. Pretty much every beat here would’ve sounded perfect back in ’94 with Big L or O.C. rhyming over it. Luckily, Purpose does a solid job of MCing over these gems. Like I mentioned with Fizzyology, I appreciate honest rhymes, and this dude talking about being a kid and trying to dilute his dad’s drink so he wouldn’t get his ass beat (only to get his ass beat if he got caught) is a perfect example of that. He mostly comes from a stance of being a reformed dumbass thug who realizes his mistakes and wants to see the world be a better place for his kids. I can get behind that. “The Breakdown”, “The Way That I Sound”, “Unstoppable”, “Visions of Excellence”, and “What’s It Mean To You?” are all extra bangin’ cuts.
6. Homelife – Translation
There are a lot of talented bands making music in Michigan, but for my money nobody is carrying the torch for Michigan post-hardcore like Homelife right now. They really do an incredible job of paying tribute to the earlier material of their forefathers in Small Brown Bike, capturing both the melancholy and the throaty aggression. The meandering guitar lines make me once again think of my favorite emo/post-hardcore bands of my first college run, and the drummer comes up with some killer shit I would love to try to play along to if my set weren’t collecting dust. Seriously, just listen to the first track “Shapeless” and at about 0:17 he throws a fill right into the middle of the bar seamlessly that really helps the flow and crunchy feel of the song, like a sideways stutter step before Barry Sanders took off on a 92-yard touchdown run. I fucking love it. One thing that was added for this album (since their split 7” with Bike Tuff, which was my #1 Ep/single of 2010) is a new bassist who contributes secondary clean vocals, which helps flesh out the sound. My favorite cuts here are “Shapeless”, “Unsteady Hands”, “To Elude”, and “Lasting Impressions”.
5. Reks & Statik Selektah – Straight, No Chaser
Statik has probably been my favorite producer of the last few years (DJ Premier still holds the all-time crown, don’t get it twisted), and Reks has definitely been one of my favorite MCs thanks to his work with both Statik and Premo. This time out they got together for an entire album, and the result is just as enjoyable as I ever would’ve hoped. It qualifies as my favorite hip-hop release this year (fuck that Kendrick Lamar garbage everybody’s fawning over) thanks to only one song being just OK (“Cancel That ft. Wais P The Pimp” – man, do I fucking hate the whole pimping thing) and the rest being good to great. “Parenthood” (check that one for some honest rhymes), “Sit/Think/Drink”, and “Regrets” are the cream of this fruitful crop of songs. For the record, Reks put out a second LP this year with another producer that was decent and may also be worth checking out if you like him like I do.
4. Deftones – Koi No Yokan
I want my god damn record already! Holy living fuck! This already came out on CD in December, but as usual the vinyl is lagging behind. I can’t wait to hear “Leathers”, “Tempest”, “Entombed” and “What Happened To You” shaking the foundation of my house like a thunder clap. I can’t tell you how happy I am that this band regained new creative life when Sergio Vega (formerly of my beloved Quicksand) joined prior to Diamond Eyes, which I think I still slightly prefer to this. I’m also thrilled that the results have been good enough that even my old ass friends who used to see these guys in a disgusting, tiny shoebox venue called the Reptile House in Grand Rapids in high school are starting to pay attention again. There’s nothing better to me than enjoying good music in the company of good friends, so mega props to Chino and the boys for helping make that possible. I’m also thankful they managed to survive being grouped in with Korn (possibly my most misguided slip in tastes ever) and the nu-metal wave, only to prevail and make music this haunting, beautiful, and crushing all at the same time. May they make music together until they or I drop dead. One love to Chi Cheng.
3. Dikembe – Broad Shoulders
Here we have another band ascending to the top of the third wave of emo by seamlessly merging the sounds of their forefathers and adding twists to make it their own. 2011’s Chicago Bowls EP was another release that grew on me after I wrote last year’s list, and my anticipation for this was equal to that of Title Fight. Dikembe delivered just a little more on their promise in my opinion, unleashing truly triumphant songs like “We Could Become River Rats” and “That’s How What Works”. They keep the pace fairly frenetic for the most part, and their strength seems to be in knowing when to show restraint and when to spaz out. This one works great for you kids with short attention spans, with 10 songs clocking in at under 29 minutes. I hear some of the best elements of Braid, early Mock Orange, and maybe the janglier moments of At The Drive In’s In/Casino/Out, and like so many others these days they probably owe something to American Football for the guitar noodling.
2. Everyone Everywhere – Everyone Everywhere
OK, let’s get two things straight right off the bat. This is not the halfway decent Canadian pop-punk band that goes by this name (use discretionary caution when downloading, kids) but the 90’s emo/indie rock band from Pennsylvania. Secondly, this is the second self-titled full-length this band has released. The first one was a little further down my list in 2010. I liked it but it wasn’t something I went back to and listened to very much. However, when they started throwing up preview tracks from this one, I started paying some serious attention again. It’s hard for me to really compare them to other bands. I’d definitely consider it the most “different” thing from everything else on this list and more quirky than what I normally enjoy. I mean, they even employ a banjo at one part and I don’t hate it. Fucking emo banjo. I never thought I’d see the day, and I never could’ve dreamed I’d love it when I heard it. Part of me wants to compare them to a more complex mid-era Promise Ring, but I’ve grown to think Promise Ring is a little corny, and this band certainly is not that. I guess you’ll have to listen for yourself. One big cause for my falling so hard for this record was it becoming the default soundtrack to my summer vacation in the beautiful Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Something about if fit so perfectly with the sonic backdrop of nothing but the waves of Lake Superior hitting the shore and the crackle of the fire wood burning, and maybe the sizzle of a hot dog on a stick. “Big Hat” and “Turn & Go & Turn” are great songs, but “The Future” and “$1,000,000” are the big winners here. Yes, that’s right, kids. An old recluse in his basement with two cats wearing a Banner Pilot sweatshirt and track pants has declared this the best emo full-length of 2012. Go tell the world.
1. Such Gold - Misadventures
This incredible slab of melodic hardcore meets skatepunk being #1 shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been within shouting distance of me in the last 4 years. I’ve been onboard since they first put their demo up on MySpace, and I jump at the chance to tell anyone who likes punk rock how great I think this band is. Over the series of EPs and split 7”s they’ve released, they’ve never let me down. Their lyrics are some of the best in any band I listen to, and this record is one of the few for which I’ve had at least a little bit of time to study them. And let’s really get one thing clear about this album. This fucker RIPS from beginning to end. Just listen to the mastery that Devan Bentley, my favorite drummer to listen to currently, exhibits in the first minute of opener “Two Year Plan”. It never really lets up from there. They seem to incorporate my favorite parts of Strung Out (minus the corny solos), Propagandhi (a band I more appreciate than truly like), and Strike Anywhere. I guess you have to throw Lifetime in there these days as an obligatory too. And it pleases me to no end that the opening guitar riff to “You Are Your Greatest Threat” reminds me of Elliott’s “Calvary Song” big time. Like many bands that are as proficient with their craft as these guys are, you really have to see them live to appreciate the greatness, and I’ve been lucky enough to see them multiple times. They never disappoint. They inspire me enough to make me sometimes want to brave the pushing, shoving, and crowd surfing up front to shout along if my body could still handle it. I feel like I want to say more about how much of an instant classic this album is for me, but the burnout of writing this entire blog in 3 days is robbing me of the proper words. I guess the fact that I put it at #1 considering the volume of music I listened to this year should suffice. “Two Year Plan”, “Another Day”, “Tell Yourself”, “Higher Places”, “Understand and Forget”, and “You Are Your Greatest Threat” are all fantastic songs, but “Storyteller” is the one that really makes me feel 19 and invincible for a moment.
Phew, I’m almost done. There are just a few more things I need to lay out before I let my brain rest. My favorite hip-hop song of the year was on a compilation, so it wasn’t mentioned above. It deserves your attention nonetheless. Here you go. It’s a free download so have at it:
My second favorite hip-hop song also wasn’t on any of the above albums but also needs to be recognized. I had to create a video and upload it to youtube myself, so you better damn well appreciate it.
I assume some of you may have noticed that Hot Water Music’s first full length after their most recent breakup/hiatus/whatever is absent from this list. That’s because I truly and honestly thought it was a shitty effort that sounded mailed-in as far as the song structures, riffs, and rhythms (I guess they lost them…oh snap!) even if the emotion and Chuck’s fantastic voice are still there. I mean, the title kind of says it all. It just exists, and that’s it. Even the artwork is a letdown. They should’ve called it Disappointer, or maybe Merchandiser with all the shit they were hocking on facebook (fishing gear, a HWM watch, etc.) to coincide with the release. As much as most bands seem to hate it being done to them, it’s hard not to compare a band to its previous work, and I know they’re capable of something much more dynamic and nuanced than this straight-ahead rock n’ roll shit. The review on punktastic.com said it best: “It’s a no bullshit punk record that arrives with a folk and country twinge”. Puke. But seriously, who gives a shit when there are so many young bands taking influence from them and building upon their best work. That’s why I’m always searching for new music, folks.
Thanks for reading. I would love to hear if people find something new they like or share my feelings on some of these records, so if you know me hit me up on facebook/email/text and let me know. I don’t often get to have music discussions with friends anymore, so I’d invite that kind of interaction. As the great mess of a human being Artie Lange once said, “take care, brush ya hair”. I’m out ‘til next year. Peace.