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Top 50 Albums of 2012: 5 - 3

5. Alt-J - An Awesome Wave (alt-J (∆) – An Awesome Wave)

There is an award in the United Kingdom called the Mercury Prize. For the last 20 years it has been awarded annually to the best album to come from the UK, and for the last 20 years it's been pretty much spot on. Elbow has won it, The xx has won it, Portishead and PJ Harvey. Lusty company. In 2012, Alt-J have won it for their brilliant genre-defying debut, An Awesome Wave. 

It's a curious record, in that it seems to provoke widely varying reactions. Some (like myself) adore it. Personally, it is the freshest album I have heard in years. It immediately crawls under your skin and settles there, pleasantly vibrating through your body.
Some resent the 'new Radiohead' tag that the band has acquired, and find it hard to believe (or even stand) the hype. Others even claim pretention at the heart of the band's motives. In the critiquing community, pretention is akin to polygamy. It isn't well recieved.

I find such accusations perplexing. Yes, it is true that Alt-J took a significant amount of time to craft it. 5 years apparently. Yes, it is catchy. It blurs the lines between Elbow-like levels of alternative and Gaga-induced pop. And yes, the interview everyone has been quoting from is no misprint. Alt-J did say “We don’t try to go out of the box or be innovative. We just try to play music we like to hear.”. Somehow, though, they've created one of the most innovative records of the year.. 

If catchy can be understated, it is in this case. Think Carly Rae Jepsen levels. Even the Intro makes its mark. A simple piano riff bleeds in to an instant melody, conjured as if from nowhere. A thundering bass groove pops up as Joe Newman begins his album-long stretch of confusing, at times incomprehensible lyrics. Interlude I actually shines a bright light on exactly what role the vocals play. If viewed solely as an instrument in its most basic form, they support the music, create melody and serve to enrich the overall sound. Lyrical content is inconsequential, you won't be reading the linear notes in the hope to uncover some great meaning. Apparently there are litertary references littered all over. There are enough genre hops here to attract your attention away from the lyrics. The vast array employed includes but is not limited to jazz, electronic, psychadelic rock, folk, alternative, pop, alt-pop, downtempo, post-rock.. Well. You get the idea. 

The striking thing about An Awesome Wave is the way the album is delivered. It feels brilliantly put together, tight. You don't take a breath until track 5, a short acoustic piece. The entire thing flows brilliantly. There are 3 separate structure changes in the first track alone, and yet for the first 4 songs it's difficult to pick when the track changes. As the album progresses, the interludes become a key space. They don't denote any major changes or any new directions, they provide a relief point, they snap you out of your calmed haze and jolt you back in to reality. It's not conformity or repetition induced, believe me. Something Good sounds like a futuristic country track, and it gives way to Dissolve Me which could just as easily be played at your local nightclub at 2am. Then Matilda, a lovely ballad of acoustics and vocals punctuated by this half-frenetic drum sound that becomes a trademark of their sound. 

There hasn't been a better put together pop album this year. It took them 5 years to create, I am not surprised. That's how complex it is.

4. 2 Chainz -   Based On A T.R.U. Story (2 Chainz – Based On A T.R.U. Story)

Yeah I said it. 2 Chainz released the 4th best album of 2012. I do not fear the retribution I shall recieve, because this is a genuinely good hip hop record. I didn't think I'd like it, I thought it'd be a boring, mixtape-ish record somewhere in the vicinity of Meek Mill's debut. Yet 2 Chainz always possessed this weird charm. With his slightly off centre flow, his clear energy over the top of any beat, and his Southern accent, he has definitely given a good account of himself since switching monikers from the slightly crass Tity Boi. 

In the last 2 years he has spread himself across so many different tracks it makes Lil Wayne look lazy. Guest appearances on tracks with Ludacris, DJ Khaled, Lil Wayne, Juicy J, Young Jeezy, Meek Mill, French Montana, Rick Ross, E-40, Game, Akon, Jadakiss and Styles P, Nicki Minaj, and Common just to name a few highlight this machine gun attitude to rap music. Just start spraying guest verses all over the place and hope one takes. His appearances on E-40 records and the Minaj track Beez In The Trap showcased a rapper whose excitement and scattered delivery more than makes up for a lack of lyrical dexterity. Only slightly more than a punch line rapper, B.O.A.T.S. was always going to be a tough proving ground. He had the co-signs, he had the label, he had the star-studded production, could he deliver an entire album of consistency?

 Yes. It was the most entertaining record of the year. Starting off with the Wayne-infused 'Yuck', and firing all the way down to the Mike Will laced Wut We Doin?, the perfect Southern rap anthem, Chainz keeps the promise he made with all those guest appearances. Funny, cringe-worthy, thought-provoking, his lyrics were not the minutes of a mensa meeting but they more than kept the attention of the listener. 'Trigga finger itchin' like it's poison ivy / Going so hard Viagra trying to sign me'. His exchange with himself at the end of his second verse on Yuck is just funny. 'I'm so dope you could catch a fucking contact'. The whole release is littered with lines like these. The factor that elevates B.O.A.T.S. over other records who provide a similar spread of punch lines is Chainz enthusiasm, his ability on the beat. He keeps your attention even when he is saying absolutely nothing of any substance. At the end of No Lie he explains '2Pac without a nose ring / Thug Life, one wife, a mistress and a girlfriend / I did what they say I wouldn’t / Went where they say I couldn’t'. 1 million and ten other rappers have delivered the same type of line. None with the aggression that Chainz brings. It is an endearing quality, unquotable lines stick in your head until you know the words to every song. It's an astonishing ability.

Of course, having such a star-studded line up of producers and guests helps immensely. Drake kills Chainz on No Lie, Wayne provides the best hook of the year on Yuck, and Kanye West conjures the best verse he's laid down since somewhere in the middle of his last album on Birthday Song. The-Dream drops by for a production credit, as does the evergreen Bangladesh and StreetRunner. It's a big album, similar scope to a Rick Ross release. Laced with money and shrewdly put together. Yet it just feels FUN. It's entertainment, it's a guilty pleasure. For some reason I couldn't stop coming back to this. I stopped fighting it and spun it an insane amount of times. It still feels fresh.

3. Hot Chip - In Our Heads (Hot Chip – In Our Heads)

It is the consummate Hot Chip record. A band with a rare gift for melody, a clear talent at arranging electronic music and a front man who's lyrics were simple observations of life, Hot Chip always produced great music. Before this record, I felt that once they made the switch to up-tempo, dancey nerd electronica they shifted in to top gear, and happily stayed there through The Warning, Made In The Dark and One Life Stand. What In Our Heads did was prove that they had another level, they weren't running at full capacity. There is a sense of occasion that is maintained for the entirety. This is a special record.

The place to start may actually be the final track. The one weakness Hot Chip had was Alexis Taylor's slightly annoying penchant for the ballad. He spread them liberally across their last 2 records, Made In The Dark and One Life Stand, and frankly they were buzz-killers. Whilst Taylor's lyrics were strong and his themes relatable, the execution was off. They felt like asides, they took away from the energy and flow of the record. On In Our Heads, finally, Hot Chip have perfected an imperfect formula. Whether it has to do with Taylor stretching his musical legs away from the band or just a lucky strike, each slower song on the record is brilliant. The weakness has become a strength.

The album itself is a funk-infused, synth pop 80's throwback of the greatest kind. As others start loading their music up with more and more layers of synth noise, Hot Chip strip their sound back slightly. How Do You Do? introduces the simplest of bass and drum combinations, relying heavily on Taylor's lead vocal performance. These Chains has an energetic, breathless quality about it, and it begins a 3 track stretch of drum induced head banging, ending with the slow burner Flutes which has a similar structure to No Fit State, the best track off of The Warning. The final half of the album is actually the stronger. Ends of the Earth employ Calvin Harris levels of pop integrity to create another Taylor gem about the push and pull nature of love, the true nature of desire. Let Me Be Him is the crowning achievement, the ballad perfected. Joe Goddard delivers a hazy plea of longing, his voice drifts placidly along the surprisingly calm background music, which enlists the help of some natural sounding bird chirps to ensure the listener is planted entirely in this peaceful backdrop. 

Whilst Taylors intentions have always been to observe and comment on the nature of love and deliver his unabashed experiences with it, In Our Heads does not sound like a devotion to the emotion. In Our Heads is in the business of cheap, accessible thrills. It is fun, colourful, instantly relatable, yet there exists another level on which to connect with it. Tracks like Now There Is Nothing, Let Me Be Him, Always Been Your Love, they were the skippable ballads from records past. It would be easy to say all Taylor and Goddard have done is dress these songs in a new frock, but the truth lies much deeper. They're composed these complex songs, they've effected a tear-down and re-build of the sound. The result is an astonishingly, surprisingly great record.

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