No boring introduction. Let's dive right in shall we?
26. The Lonely Island - Turtleneck and Chain
First impressions of any Lonely Island record are generally 'Why is this so damn catchy?' Most likely you are hearing The Beastie Boys in comedic form, over the top of 'only money can buy' production. Turtleneck and Chain continues the rich vein of funny that these SNL boys transferred from skit to album on 2009's Incredibad. This record see's them dig even deeper in to the well of celebrity, enlisting Akon, Michael Bolton, Beck, Snoop Dogg, Rhianna, Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj and the lovely Santigold to supplement their unique brand of funny. Tracks like Jack Sparrow smack of high end production values, whilst Motherlover coaxes the not so often seen sense of humour that rests within Timberlake. Even on their solo efforts they induce uncontrolled mirth. Rocky is boxing hilarity, whilst their accents on Japan avoid any annoyance factor because their lyrics are just so ridiculous. Comedy records are few and far between, and let's just keep it that way. But these boys have perfected the art, with their musicality going much deeper than the tradition which ensures a lasting product.
25. The-Dream - Love King
Have you ever seen The Dream? He's a slightly overweight, quite short man who's past achievements include Nivea and Christina Milian. He's also the man behind some of the BIGGEST tracks ever written. Single Ladies, Holy Grail, Mariah Carey's Touch My Body, Umbrella, and of course, Jesse McCartney's brilliant (yet gramatically flawed) Leavin. Yet he's never achieved solo success. Love King is a sexualised romp through modern RnB that takes the odd detour in funk and early 90s electronica. It's the consumate crooner album. The movement between Yamaha, Nikki Part 2 and Abyss informs future brilliance like Pyramids by Frank Ocean. He is downright devilish on Panties To The Side, he's the most egotistical on Sex Intelligent and the casual aplomb that he and T.I. treat their romantic indiscretions with on Make Up Bag is inspiring. 'If you ever make your girlfriend mad, don't let that good girl go bad just drop 5 stacks on a makeup bag'. See fella's? You too can be a Love King.
24. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Arcade Fire have been building to a statement. Their previous three records were timestamped in the 2000s, they created and then enhanced that indie rock informed by it's influences but never overcome by them that also launched a plethora of Brit-Rock bands as well as guys like Fleet Foxes and The Killers. But Arcade Fire always seemed to do it better. More polished, more professional. They needed a Kanye moment, and Reflektor, a double disc featuring the most sounds they've ever crammed in to a recording session, was that. From the disco inspired opener to the final cache of noise Supersymmetry, the band went about setting their creative minds free and the result was staggering. There are standard indie kid anthems like Normal Person and We Exist, but there are also periods of pure insight, such as the desperation of Afterlife. 'Afterlife, oh my god what an awful word'. The way the time structure disintegrates in to a funked groove on Here Comes The Night Time, or the pure 70s rock god thump of Joan of Arc prove that these people have stupid amounts of undisclosed talent. Their statement was just that, hopefully it becomes one of intent.
23. Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels
The opening track thumps so hard I picked up a nasty case of whiplash the first time I cranked it. I mean Killer Mike over the top of the most futuristic production known to man (EL-P you god), what could go wrong? When Killer Mike drops lines like 'Marijuana hanging off my breath / Blowing smoke and I'm coughing like I'm damn near death / If I died right now I would be so fresh to death / They would have to say that fat motherfucker coffin fresh'.. EL-P may not be able to match him lyrically, but he drops in to a dysrhythmic flow that suits his space-like beats. Of course, as with all Killer Mike projects, a conscience is shoved directly down our throats till it enters our hearts, yet his precision attempt on other emcee's lives is more exciting. With each lash of the tongue he strikes a peer down, and it takes some of Big Boi's most dextrous work to keep pace with the Southern legend. Run The Jewels is pure rap pornography, well before Rap God.
22. The Caretaker - An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
You go to sleep one night after indluging a touch too much in some rather strong Stilton. Immediately, you enter a nightmarish existence, rooted in history but mired in incredulity. A sepia tinged 1930s sitting room, a scratching record player, and this record blasting at you via BOSE speakers. It's like A Clockwork Orange: you're rooted to the spot, your ear canals forced open. It's so disquieting, yet so intriguing that you peruse it further and further, slowly but surely losing your mind as the stuttering sounds engulf you. This may be a record of samples, but it feels like they were taken from every single psychological melt-piece ever created. The way he plays coolly with your sense of dread is masterful, and it's hard to sit with this record from start to finish, yet it's almost impossible not to.
21. Radiohead - The King of Limbs
The world's most overrated band returns unexpectedly with a stunning piece of math rock. It doesn't inform future releases, it doesn't cherry pick the past, it doesn't even resemble Kid A or Amnesiac or anything that has come before it. It's a stuttery piece of magic that is so diverse it can be remixed by the best electronic minds in the game ande incorporated in to the greatest live music event of the last 2 decades. Yorke is stunning, his dad dancing persona rolls through each track, imposing itself without ever requiring force. Each song stands individually, yet each is perfectly in harmony with the rest of the record, and each sounds almost as if you've heard it before, millions of times. Separator is downright common, and Feral fuses that jittery early 90s production with ghost-like vocals. The bassline on Lotus Flower turns in to an organic being when played life, a writhing snake that causes havoc inside whatever Stadium is lucky enough to house it.
20. Cloud Nothings - Attack On Memory
Dylan Baldi is not an odd fellow. Just because one of his earlier incarnations was titled Cat Killer, and involved short sharp bursts of noise, doesn't mean a single thing on Attack On Memory. His ear for melody is staggering, and each song aggressively pursues a path towards a musical heart that is pure enjoyment. The way Wasted Days builds like the best orgasms before exploding in raptures of screaming, the way Stay Useless starts like an early 2000s radio hit before descending in to punk fervour. It's all very forthright, even if he takes the scenic route. Each track feels like an extended jam session, as Baldi indulges in strains of conscious thoughts. It's disarmingly listenable.
19. Alt-J - An Awesome Wave
A friend said to me one day in 2012 'Hey man have you ever heard of Alt-J?' I thought he was talking about some sort of new emoticon. Searching my memory banks, I remembered a local hipster radio station had been prattling on about them for some time. My mate, who has excellent musical taste, told me An Awesome Wave was the record of the year. He was almost right. A sweeping vista of indie rock tempered by electronic trickery, it was defined as much by it's tender moments (Interlude II, Matilda, Taro) as it's absolute thumping high points (Fitzpleasure, Breezeblocks, Tessellate). Call it an under-appreciated instrument, but a serious bass guitarist can transform any kind of music in to dance-able funk. That throb is present throughout, underpinning Fitzpleasure with a dirty funk groove, turning Something Good from something the xx may write in to a 2 step delight, and charging Breezeblocks with energy. Lead vocalist Newman's quirky tones are used as an extra instrument, as he groans what is basically jibberish in a delightful tone. The harmony's are even reminiscient of Fleet Foxes, but it is safe to say that An Awesome Wave, whilst informed by some well decorated peers, is one of a kind.
18. Hot Chip - One Life Stand
Hot Chip had already perfected the formula before this record. They'd dabbled in early funk, they'd invested in a set of steel drums, and they'd crossed over in to total dance. What has always struck is their ability to write music. To craft a song. On One Life Stand it was beautifully resplendant.Opener Thieves In The Night is reminiscient of their previous classic Out At The Pictures, but it takes it further as the intro bleeds in to the funked out slap of synth and open ended bass. By the time Hand Me Down Your Love hits you're in full dance mode, it's 1am at your favourite dance club, all the regulars are drunk and it's time to cut fucking loose. That piano riff is lifted straight from old Western saloons, before some well chosen strings open the scenery up in to a lovely grassy field. There's so much electronic ability in this single record that they'd never be out of place at the local drug-fest EDM concert. One Life Stand, I Feel Better, Take It In. They all throw hands! The message is never lost though, and that is the lovely part about a Hot Chip record. These are love songs. I Feel Better, 'This is the longest night, we're meeting arms to arms'. Alley Cats and Brothers grab that mateship and solidarity that exists only in England. One life stand. Think about it..
17. Brian Eno - A Small Craft On A Milk Sea
There are more sides to Brian Eno than a.. Dodecahedron. This record takes his ambient work to an entirely new level, utilising his insane pedigree to create something as beautiful as The Pearl, as disquieting as Nerve Net and as stupidly catchy as Before and After Science. The movement of Flint March, Horse and 2 Forms of Anger is just pure aggression, which is then completely thrown off course by Bone Jump, which sounds like he allowed his 4 year old to make merry with the xylophone. Paleosonic could've been created by Aphex Twin or Autechre, and Written, Forgotten has this that dusty desert, high picked Bryan Adams sound drawn under the salt lake by the most ominous bass line I've heard in years. There are no bounds for Eno, and this record is proof of a musical genius. Why do you think everyone in the music industry wants him to produce their next project?
16. Gil Scott-Heron - I'm New Here
Much of Heron's work is snippets of sage observation, of disarming insight in to the world and those around him. Often it's been difficult to listen to, more like spoken word political messages than musical endeavours. He's been a shining light, a modern day philosopher (without the food stamps). Richard Russell dug him up, after he'd been mired in drugs and whatever else happens to brilliant minds. There's been a history of this kind of think. Bobby Womack and Rocky Ericksen come to mind, but none of them delivered something as stunning as this. A piece of work from a man who had all the wisdom he'd ever need at 21, now with a lifetime of hard living under his belt. The production is stellar, the way that Me and the Devil canvases his blues growl, that way those haunting strings free him on Your Soul and Mine. 'Standing in the ruins of another black man's life'. 'I am death, cried the vulture'. 'Long ago the clock washed midnight away, bringing the dawn, oh god, I must be dreaming'. 'Where did the night go?'. This is a memoir of a genius delivered via music. His constant pleas to the youthful who probably won't ever hear his guidance. 'If you've gotta pay for things you've done wrong, I've got a big bill coming'. Just listen to Running and learn. It's all we can do now. RIP.
15. Bad Meets Evil - Hell: The Sequel
When Eminem made his comeback, there were a few undergound dwellers who bemoaned his apparent descent in to pop mush. His lyrics were nowhere near as focused anymore, his sense of humour seemed forced, and his delivery was just not on par. Then this came along. A collaboration between long time friends Royce Da 5'9" and Em, this record blew the lid off both artists careers. Eminem was snarling, aggressive, hilarious. Royce was Royce, a technical genius who could match Eminem's sadistic streak stroke for stroke. What began as a simple comparing of notes and favour for a favour turned in to a full blown recording session, where song structures were forgotten and the focus was on delivery, technical ability. We can see how that bled in to MMLP2, but for Royce it was a huge shot in the arm. His talent is never under question but his success has been. With Lighters, featuring Bruno Mars, he gold plated the record. The rest is just mastubatory material for Eminem fans. A pure piece of hip hop.
14. Swans - My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky
14 years. 14 long years.. When I discovered Swans I read that they usually played shows so loud that people in the audience threw up violently as a reaction to the volume. Gira self-funded this record and it set the band on a path of critical success unmatched by 80s rock bands, before or since. Gira is splashed aggressively all over this project. He detests liars, in fact he seems to detest most things. You Fucking People Make Me Sick is the catchphrase of the menstrual process, yet Gira throws it around with true disdain. Mostly what this record is, though, is cathartic release, in the most bloody of fashions. Jim re-introduces that halting, hypnotic way that Swans were able to cut through their audience, to turn their music in to a religious experience. The way it builds to an all out massacre is truly mesmerising. One odd thing about Swans is that no matter how brash, how abrasive their sound is, you cannot help but crank the volume higher and higher still. Pleasure is pain. The boil over at the end of No Words/No Thoughts is just a taster. By the time Eden Prison skips over all hell has well and truly been cut loose, and you are no longer on speaking terms with your neighbours. Fuck them.
13. Beach House - Bloom
Beach House reside in that special corner of consciousness also inhabited by Sigur Ros. It’s the moment after you’ve gone to bed, before you fall asleep, when you are still awake but already beginning a dream. A lucid reality of pure relaxation. Beach House had the ability, the potential to make an album full of this feeling. Norway was more heart rate raising than anything on this album, but it was their best offering yet. This album feels like a band reaching through the ground and the dirt and the nutrients and pushing through the earth in to the sun. They are blooming! Bloom was the culmination of the dream pop movement. It is the evolutionary peak of that brand of electronic music, and yet I still believe it is an unattainable one. It exists in a perfect bubble, yet within that utopia there are moments of sobering solidarity. Victoria's ethereal goddess mode can only hide so much. Lyrics like "My mother said to me that I would in trouble / Our father won’t come home, cause he is seeing double" only serve to enhance the feeling that you're on the brink of something special. The band seem fascinated with time, and I think Bloom will remain timeless, a piece of beauty they will struggle to match.
12. Kanye West and Jay-Z - Watch The Throne
Get two of the most wildly talented people ever put on this earth, give them absolutely no boundaries, an unlimited budget and a room big enough to fit both their heads in and you get a staggering masterpiece. So many buddy movies have died comical and painful death's. Jay-Z himself had the horrid Best Of Both Worlds project that managed to combine the very worst qualities of both artists involved, a pure cynical move. But Ye and Jay were at their peaks when this dropped. Both had nothing whatsoever to prove, and the calm disdain to which they show the rest of the hip hop world is a testament to both their skill and the hard work they'd put in before this record. Jay-Z is particularly decadent, throwing his most vicious flow on No Church In The Wild before just jamming on Niggas In Paris and Otis. His verses on Murder To Excellence are sublime, "And they say by 21 I was supposed to die / So I’m out here celebrating my post-demise" The way he connects "Tuxes next to the president, I’m present / I dress in Dries and other boutique stores in Paris" (Which is a stupid flow by the way) with the final line 'I'm all dressed up with nowhere to go" is why he is one of the GOATs. Kanye, of course, brings the power. He brings the noise, the funk, the downright fucking talent. His beats are just incredible. Otis is inspired, Lift Off is the jump off anthem of the decade, and Niggas In Paris is so ridiculously brilliant they play it 12 times every show! This could've turned in to a huge pissing contest. It could've been a who's penis is bigger competition. It could've even been an ego-athon. But, honestly? It could never have been those things. Jay-Z is the fatherly figure, he is the God of the game, and Kanye is every of his disciples as well as a few Roman Gods thrown in. This turned in to everything it could have been and more. Modern day masterpiece.
11. Destroyer - Kaputt
Mid 2012, I awoke one morning, rolled over and fired up the Coachella stream on my iPad. The 'Drunk Poet' Dan Bejar was beguiling a captive audience with the gentle rock of Kaputt, and cementing his status as the ultimate indie survivor, as contemporaries like J Mascis and Jeff Magnum became romantic foot notes in a genre plagued by authenticity qualms. With the seemingly careless switch of tone, that morning he could do no wrong, transforming from the ehtereal Da Da Dum of Radiohead to the cutting insight of Cobain. Kaputt is a piece of music so devilishly enjoyable you almost allow it to pass through you, infecting your spirit, rather than allowing it to really wash over you and drown in it's nuance and movement. From the opening pluck on Chinatown, this was a rainy day soundtrack for the ages. Kaputt is the stunning centrepiece, a mournful march of slow horns that evoke dusty back room jazz bars juxtaposed with the bustling activity of a New York morning. 'Wasting your days, chasing some girls alright chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world all night'. Is it a lament? Is it a celebration? Bejar's almost deadpan delivery allows you to interpret as you see fit. The staggering final movements, Bay of Pigs (Detail) and The Laziest River (which wonderfully channels that late 80s disco-revival sounds of Eurythmics and Peter Gabriel) open up Bejar's head and pick his brains more thoroughly than we've seen in years. The lovely thing about Kaputt is the way each song evolves in to itself, with no defined structure or rules. Each melody is given time to grow. Suicide Demo for Kara Walker starts slowly, tentative, before that lovely croon kicks in and the whole song starts rushing forwards.
Bejar has spoken of the 'pointlessness' of writing songs that are reflections of society and current culture. Kaputt is timeless and will remain so.
10. JJ - Kills
JJ have proven, although only in patches, to be a very suitable equivalent to Sigur Ros, Mum, and the plethora of 'touched' music that has been coming out of Iceland for the past decade or so. Music like this exists in its own bubble, completely removed from the stylings and 'bloggings' of the earth-bound world, and certainly their mainstream releases (with the exception of the stunning Ecstasy, a single sampling Lollipop) have peddled this formula. Kills was at first jolting. A mixtape that paired the most heaven-like vocals and production with some of the more hard-core gangster hip hop ever released. Samples include Still D.R.E., 3 Peat, Paper Planes, Empire State of Mind, Under Pressure (Dr. Dre), Angels (BIG) and 3 tracks by Kanye. It was like the anti-thesis, as if John Kerry turned up in a Russian nightclub at 4am shuffling to t.A.t.U. The shameless auto-tune, ethereal echoes and dreamy lyrics hide a much deeper musical knowledge that is exposed on the way they turn the dirty beat from Angels in to a spit-shined piece of pop purity. New Work begins with the ironic line 'I wake up every day feeling the same way: gotta go to work'. You'd swear Kastlander and Benon haven't done a day of heavy lifting in their lives, but why would they when they make stuff this good? Sampling Nicki Minaj's speech at the end of Believe is just an example of the gravity jump they've made from planet beauty back to the real world. They keep the portal open though, and unfortunately they haven't been able to replicate this duality on previous or subsequent releases.
9. The Knife - Tomorrow, In A Year
Ok, so we're going to make an opera, and we are going to enlist the help of some of the weirdest, most inaccessible electronic artists on the planet. And we are going to package it as an album, rather than explain to people that it is about the life of Charles Darwin. We're just going to.. release it. Well, my sister likes it. She is an Opera singer. Much was made of this being 'an opera' but it really isn't. It's an entirely conceptual take on the life of Charles Darwin, overseen by Andersson and Dreijer with heavy input from Planningtorock and Mt. Sims (the electronic moniker of Matthew Sims). Charles Darwin, in case you were living under a rock or in a Christian school, was the god father of evolutionary theory. He was the man who established that all species of life on earth descended from common ancestors. This is starting to sound like Mogwai writing a record about Zinedine Zidane.. At times, it is unlistenable. Variation of Birds begins with a shrill, undulating noise that gradually explodes in to an operatic backing track with various noises thrown at the listener. Minerals is industrial strength electronics with Kristina Wahlin giving her best Sutherland work. It's just so dystopic and wonderful! We see the storyline evolve forcibly, which is the only way The Knife know how to proceed. Geology sounds alien-like, in the way that someone from the future would travel back through time (via books and research, not a Delorean) and view the initial instances of life on earth via the study of Geology. Seeds, which comes quite late in the piece, is a discoteque number, extremely upbeat that mimmicks the break through nature of Darwin's work on seed dispersal, which was a particular passion of his. Why does this record deserve to be here? It's staggering. If you fully immerse yourself in it, like all Knife albums, it unfolds dramatically, revealing layer upon layer of noise and meaning. How does one go about musically documenting the life of Charles Darwin? Ask The Knife.
8. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
Damon Albarn is the modern day Brian Eno, although we do already have a modern day Brian Eno.. Maybe call him David Bowie without the front man swagger. He's a genius, but not since Parklife had he really made something complete and truly impacting. You can see his diversity littered across his own musical landscape, from 13 to Mail Music, and most of his work has a satisfying solidarity to it. There's little filler, there's very little pandering, it's actually quite German and workman-like. With this work ethic fuelling him, Plastic Beach arrived and slayed all electronic competition. Gorillaz had already outstayed their kitsch welcome by the time 2010 had arrived. There was little mystery surrounding the band, and they'd already performed Dirty Harry at the 2006 Brit awards. Albarn said of Plastic Beach that he wanted to make it the biggest pop record he'd ever done, but something that had depth as well. A quick perusal of the guest list ensures a healthy dose of both those pills. Snoop Dogg is juxtaposed with Bobby Womack. Lou Reed is pared off against Little Dragon and De La Soul. Mos Def vs Gruff Rhys. It's a bowl of M&Ms with a plate of Skittles mixed together. It is a concept album, with our favourite animated group escaping to Plastic Beach, an island that is both unreal and anchored in every day truths. Snoop Dogg welcomes us before Kano and Bashy remind us that whilst this place can be dirty and dangerous, the inhabitants are not to be feared. What follows is a romp through a twisted take on modern pop, fusing GaGa levels of lunacy with the ear worm toe tap of Terius Nash and The Neptunes. But it is so much more than that! This is an opus, a pop pedestal that Albarn has painstakingly crafted. His best work always seems to be done behind closed doors, and the virtual world of the Plastic Beach allows him the faux-anonymity that he craves. Melancholy Hill reveals the downward spiral, confirmed by Broken, that Superfast Jellyfish inherently promised. By the time Womack delivers his staggering performance on Cloud of Unknowing, the entire record has read like a travel guide to an unrealistic world of despair and middling highs. Albarn fulfills his brief.
7. John Grant - Queen of Denmark
You've heard the story before. Talented musician hits hard times, loses his battle with drugs and alcohol and sex and whatever else, drops off the map only for a rebirth sparked by a chance musical encounter. You can thank Midlake for this resurrection, and thank them you must, because Queen of Denmark is beautiful. I went and saw Grant shortly after this was released and walked out after three songs. I went home and sat down and thought about that cripplingly shy man, the one who spent 5 minutes discussing his local ice cream shop in a monotone, who bemoaned the meal he'd eaten the night before in a hotel because he believed it caused him to look 'rotund' on stage. He wouldn't even face us as he sung. Yet the opener is called TC & Honeybear, a love song intended as his 'coming out' moment, and it is desperately intimate. The way he almost slaughters his own preference on JC Hates Faggots with a confidence tinged with regret. Mostly, what Queen of Denmark displays is talent that does eventually bleed in to confidence. Once those flood gates open, all hell breaks loose and you begin to watch a man unravel, a man who spent too many years at the bottom, of a bottle and life, worrying about everyone else, what everyone else thought, how everyone else saw him, how he came across to the world. This is his NO MORE moment. Where Dreams Go To Die is a vicious attack on a past acquaintance dolled up to sound like a pop song. Silver Platter Club takes aim at the music industry, and the whole inside or outside culture, to which he found himself firmly on the outside. Of course he is desperately good at crafting some melodic moments. Sigourney Weaver is a spaced out intro that explodes in to an acoustic romp with the hilarious chorus 'I feel just like Sigourney Weaver when she tried to kill those aliens, and that one guy tried to bring them back to earth, and she couldn't believe her ears'. But even in this he laments his past, 'So I was taken or I went towards what was west, to where the ground was dead and struck out at the giant sky.' 'It was there with a frightened voice that I began to cry out loud'. It's so autobiographical in nature, the way he manages to put on wax his struggle within himself and the eventual overcoming of the most malicious mental race he was running. It soundtracks the moments when we truly find ourselves, and are no longer lost to the quirks of the outside world. When we look inward and find exactly what we are looking for.
6. Eminem - Marshall Mathers LP 2
Man, have I waxed LYRICAL about this record. In the true spirit of Rap God I will do this review off the top of the dome, just because. I have listened to this record hundreds of times since it was released. From the moment I put on Bad Guy and walked 7kms before the album finished, then turned around and walked 7kms back just so I could hear it again, to the moment 15 minutes ago when I finished my final set in a ridiculously hard gym session to the playful banter of Evil Twin, this has soundtracked my life since its release. Eminem, Marshall Mathers, Slim Shady. To be honest, it's Marshall who does most of the talking on MMLP2. From the very start of this trio, he was always the most lyrically dextrous, the most prone to mastubatory material when it came to rhymes. Remember the original track Marshall Mathers? It took me months to get that down but by the time I did I felt like a pro. And there is just so much firepower housed within this record. From the Stan throwback on the opener, the Rick Rubin infused time capsules So Far, Rhyme or Reason and Berzerk, the plain insanity of Rap God, the way he somehow murders Kendrick Lamar on Love Game and his ability to craft the definitive pop song on The Monster, this album hits every single note. It was interesting listening to him sit down with Zane Lowe and describe the process of the record. This is a man who doesn't appear to possess a sense of humour about himself, or if he does it is certainly on a level we cannot relate to, yet he manages to connect with us all through his music. When he shoots the dog on the Parking Lot skit and laughs? 'You done called every woman a slut but you're forgetting Sarah Marshall! Oh my bad, slut' or his crazy line after that 'And next time I show up to court I'll be naked, and just wear a law suit'. Back to his interview with Zane, the way he described the process of writing this record really resonates with the final product. On Say What You Say he spat 'But I'll suffocate for the respect 'fore I breathe to collect a fucking check', and he spoke on that, the idea that if Jay-Z or Nas would listen to one of his records and say it was dope, that was his ultimate dream. The fame is a monster for Eminem. It allows him to create masterpieces, it gives him the time and money to do what he loves and what he is gifted at, yet on the flip side he never wished for it, and his true dream is just to get that respect.That is littered all over MMLP2. Rap God was released with a video that won't win any MTV awards, Headlights is a slow, almost dull single compared to what the molly generation now demands. Instead, he digs deeply in to his influences, shouting out the Beastie Boys on Berzerk, giving game time to peer Kendrick Lamar but no-one else, and diving back in to his own catalogue 'sometimes I listen And revisit them old albums often as I can and skim through all them bitches To make sure I keep up with my competition (ha ha)'. Again, in that interview with Zane he describes the essential role his collaboration with Royce Da 5'9" was (Hell: The Sequel). It's influence is plastered all over MMLP2, the way he almost discards traditional hip hop song structure, the idea of 3 verses of 16 bars and 3 or 4 repeats of the hook. Nas once described the way he wrote as a huge bank of lyrics that he had to chop up in to verses to create a song. Eminem is so gifted that he no longer need to do that, he just raps, throwing pauses in every now and then, and the structure evolves around him. MMLP2 is like an Uzi loaded up with punchlines, equipped with a sniper scope. Every single spray hits you straight between the eyes. Genius.
5. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
Prince, David Bowie and Michael Jackson have a lot to answer for. Combined, they created this perfect storm of performer that everyone from Justin Timberlake to Justin Beiber has been hell bent on replicating in the decades since. Boy bands spawned from this dynamic, which then evolved in to the modern R&B singer; someone who was highly sexualised, minimally talented and willing to sing about one topic ad nauseum. The contemporary consciousness was beginning to reject this stereotype by the time 2012 hit. James Blake was making mainstream waves, Bon Iver had proven that shutting yourself in a cabin and writing about love could win you a serious female following, and John Legend had recorded thought-provoking material with The Roots to solidify his reputation. It wasn't truly until Frank Ocean dropped Nostalgia, Ultra though that this new form of pop star developed. Suddenly, we didn't need Usher singing about having sex in the club. We didn't need Chris Brown spreading misogyny across the airwaves, and Drake's double personality became a source of contention (finally). Channel Orange SHUT the internet down when it dropped. Those opening strings that gave way to the most dulcet of tones. Thinkin Bout You. Not Thinkin Bout Fucking You. Not Supersoakin You. Not Money Over Bitches. It was delicate, yet in that was an inner strength born out of not arrogance, which was commonplace, but talent, gift and hard work. The entire album became a timepiece, it was as if Ocean embodied the personalities of all his predecessors but puts a distinctly Frank spin on them. He takes aim at the silver spoon brigade on Super Rich Kids and Sweet Life, yet it never feels forced or malicious. He delivers a zen perspective, calmly observing the craziness going on around him. He can morph so effortlessly in to and out of these characters. On Pilot Jones and Crack Rock he dirties his suit, yet never gets mired in the muck. His sharp eye is devastating at times, 'your family stopped inviting you to things, won't let you hold their infant'. 'You're the junkie and the dealer'. He enlists the help of the genius Andre 3000 on the staggering Pink Matter, 'what is your woman? Is she just a container for the child', provoking an instant self attitude check. He funks it up with the very best of the 70s legends on Monks and Lost, and he slows it to a snail pace with John Mayer on White.
There are two moments on Channel Orange that will define it, for me, for my musical eternity. The first is Pyramids. It's a staggering centrepiece that involves 4 distinct movements, a 10 minute opus that explores the relationship a woman has with her identity as a human, and how her job, her man, and those around her impact upon this. It's big and empowering without ever feeling forced or put on, which is standard for this kind of message. It takes a true genius to provoke this kind of thought process in a listener without forcing it down their throats. The second is Forrest Gump. He waits until the 2nd last track to reveal himself and his sexuality, and he does it in such a classy way as to remove all doubt about motive or truth. It's almost careless, yet it's so important to the record and the way he is now percieved.
At 24 years of age, most artists either have a needle in their arm, want people to think they do, or they're using the word bitch every 3 lines. Frank Ocean's humility and maturity is displayed in both his lyrics and his production, and Channel Orange is the kind of career-defining work that only the upper echelon can ever hope to achieve.
4. Lou Reed and Metallica - Lulu
It was the year 2000 and the musical world was a cold and desolate place for a band who had sold around 50 million records worldwide. 'Fans' were running in to online musical stores and running out with entire back catalogues on their hard drives, for free! Label executives were on the ledge, bands were scrambling to piece together tours and mums in the UK were being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Metallica, inexplicably, decided that it might be a good idea to sue Napster. To the tune of $10 million, around about $100,000 per pirated song. Alas, the Metallica legend was now just that, and their new reputation as sell outs took over. The removal of long time producer Bob Rock in 2006, and the installment of Rick Rubin only intensified this debate, and despite the fact that Death Magnetic was an insane piece of metal, the fact it went number 1 only served to feed the haters with more fuel.
So what do you do? Why, you enlist Lou Reed, the greatest mainstream weirdo in American music, and commission a spoken word version of an obscure set of plays written by German Frank Wedekind set to heavy metal music. What could go wrong?
Pitchfork gave it a 1 (although, pitchfork's grasp on musical integrity is slippery). It sold 13,000 in it's first week, chump change. Consequence of Sound, who is actually well versed in music journalism gave it 1.5 stars.
Well fuck them.
Opener Brandenburg Gate starts with a mournfully picked acoustic riff before Lou Reed hops in with.. "I would cut my legs and tits off / When I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski /In the dark of the moon" before a blistering thrash opens up the chorus before Reed swells to his full height, announcing "I was thinking Peter Lorre / When things got pretty gory as I / Crossed to the Brandenburg Gate".
The record progresses like this for it's entirety. Metallica, for their part, tone their instinctual noise down enough notches to allow Reed pride and place at the front of every track. Their melody on Iced Honey is, excuse the pun, delicious, something to seriously sink your teeth in. The desperate push and pull on Cheat On Me, as Reed works through a difficult relationship, either with himself, with a woman or just with the notion of good taste is masterfully controlled by Ulrich and co. The graphic nature of Pumping Blood actually made my girlfriend physically ill, and closer Junior Dad is a slow burn of staggering quality, reminiscient of early Anathema and worthy of any comparison with top shelf instrumental metal bands.
For the most part, Reed stumbles around like an old drunken Laureate, spewing lines like 'I am the table' and 'all money can do anything, tell me what it is you want', having conversations with imagined beings and his sub conscious. He's still a very sexual being. On Mistress Dread he gets dragged in to a power strum, wailing 'I'm a woman who likes men, but this is something else, I've never felt such stirring'. At times it is overtly sexualised, blatantly said to inflame and cause consternation, the trademarks of Lou Reed. At others it is just a stark stream of conscious thought set to aggression. For evoking feeling and provoking response this is the most satisfying kind of metal. Rather than turn it on and turn yourself off, you're forced to interact with every muttered line, every outlandish image that Reed's brain conjures.
Metallica had to do some serious damage control after their horrendous public relations of the 2000s. Instead, they created Lulu, something so brazen in it's disregard for radio, sales, critical success, and even their die hard fans that it is immensely brave and honourable. Don't like it? Join the queue, it's a long one.
3. Lil B - I'm Gay (I'm Happy)
Want to understand just what Lil B means to hip hop and his impact on black culture? He is shoving his influence down our throats monthly. His latest piece of genius, 'No Black Person Is Ugly' sees him spitting uplifting broken thoughts over a solemn, appropriate beat, continuing to push the message that is affixed to his twitter personality that we are all beautiful, that this world is beautiful, and that there is value in every single person.
On Neva Stop Me he partakes in a conversation with a second personality, and it not only encapsulates this project it takes a vivid snapshot of the man himself, "Why they call his album that?"
And "How the fuck he feel?" / Bitch I do what I want / And the tracks is ill / Remember Lil B, bitch / That's that dude that's real". Calling your record I'm Gay is a recipe for all the wrong kind of press. They do say any press is good press but this was never designed to shine a light on a lightweight project, it wasn't a token title that was designed purely to cut through all the mush the youtube generation has spawned. It's intention was to shine a bright, harsh light on black culture and exactly what it is like for a young black man growing up in the hood, without all the trash about cars, deals, women and money. There is so much material on this record worthy of quotation it defies belief, and it keeps getting better the more you sit with it. The overwhelming feeling though is always one of hope, even when he is announcing like a street reporter the injustices that he and those around him are facing every day. On Gon Be Okay he opens with a slight piano riff and some choice words from Obama, before saying "Imma ask how you doing today, we gonna win some how some way" intoning that Jay-Z throwback anthem with real world meaning. "This song is depressing, but it's uplifting". On I Seen That Light he fuses a Kanye-esque soul moment with his most focused rap performance on the record, "Karma is real, and you gotta love it". Nowhere, though, does he allow complacency, "How much I work, it would make you stress, I work hard like I'm living cheque to cheque, I made my mind up I'm coming for respect".
There's a tendency with a Lil B project to assume he is a gimmick, something that is hopping on the absolute cutting edge of pop culture and then hopping off at the next stop, a sort of hip hop hired assassin, taking advantage of every opportunity without ever fully exploring himself as an artist or exploring his art. This could not be further from the truth. When he released Rain In England, an ambient spoken word record, it was to widespread disbelief, but it was pure genius. It was almost impossible to listen to, if you actually sat down and fully immersed yourself in it it was like dropping acid and then stumbling around your local shopping mall. It was an alternate reality to escape in to, but one completely devoid of creature comforts. I'm Gay is the sequel to this, or, the PG version. His production is staggering. In the mixtape culture that he has grown up in, the seduction of the latest hit single is too much for 95% of artists, hopping on whatever is hot and trying to outdo the owner. The only semblance of familiarity comes on the best track of the record, I Hate Myself, sampling The Goo Goo Dolls. It's just.. It's stunning. "When you black the media make you wonder why" "My skin colour automatic transaction" "Why can't I sag, when it's just the style?" "People judge me before they even know me, stare at me don't know I'm lonely". It is the summing up of the entire record. For the first 3 instances of chorus he claims that he hates himself, bemoaning the way his people is portrayed in the media and treated on the street, until finally "Everything I've seen was a lie, I'm not ready to die, I love myself".
"You know, we all free now man. Break that mental blockage, free your mind. It's real life man, I just can only speak for real, shit that really feel you know? We all human, we all got questions, I'm just honest I've got questions, but it's all love over here".
Before or since there has not been a piece of art so immediate, so cutting, aimed so sharply at your heart and your mind. It's a piece of pure brilliance that may never be surpassed.
2. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye met Zane Lowe in late 2013, after the fallout of Yeezus had a chance to settle and infect the critical landscape. Amongst many claims, including that 6 years before leather jogging pants came out he pitched the idea to Fendi (or Prada, or however you spell it) and that he was the biggest rock star on earth, he said an almost throwaway line. First, he said in 200 years no-one is going to remember MBDTF, but everyone will remember 808s and Heartbreaks and Yeezus. He then said 'I've already done perfect. MBDTF was perfect, I can't do that anymore'. It's almost a condemnable gesture to take anything that West says as gospel since his early days, but he was spot on. This record is pure perfection. From the alien-like opener, roping us in to his cruel, viscereal world, with the huge chorus, backing his question 'can we get much higher?' to the wonderfully 'Kanye' ending, sampling Gil Scott Heron to punching effect, the record will be remember as one of the most pure hip hop releases of all time.
It was always meant to be this way really. From the moment Ye started making Roc-a-fella waves he was destined to craft this. Imagine the disbelief when someone completely off the street drops by and signs off on This Can't Be Life, a beat that cemented Jay-Z's reputation as a street product when the world was beginning to question his heritage. Then, imagine just how crazy it was for that same kid to produce one of the biggest hip hop hits of all time, Izzo (H.O.V.A.) appearing directly after one of the hardest street thumpers Jay has ever graced on Takeover. Throughout his early career he built a gold-plated critical empire, based around the most inviting soul samples ever utilised in hip hop production. Here was a purist with an ambition that could not be doused. By the time he released MBDTF, people had begun to see 808s and Heartbreaks for the forward-thinking progression it was. Now, we were punched in the gut with pure hip hop, taking it back to the 80s and running through the decades like a marathon runner completing his final lap in the stadium. All the hangers-on, all the superstars who came out to see him jumped on board and ran that last lap with him.
"No one man should have all that power" almost sounds like a lament, a spoilt kid staring up at the shopkeeper who denied him a piece of free candy. It's something he would address in Yeezus, and a complex that has plagued his public career ever since early 2012. "Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it, I guess every super hero need his theme music". In that song he transformed his rap persona from that kid in the candy store to the shop keep. He was now the keeper of the keys in hip hop, and without challenging the reigning champ Jay-Z he was able to win them by sheer determination and willpower.
The production. Just staggering. The horns that breach All Of The Lights flip Just Blaze's best work in to an insane mess of over-achieving drums. And the roll-call begins. John Legend, The-Dream, Elly Jackson, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Elton John, and Rihanna. So Appalled features Jay-Z, Pusha T, Prince Cy Hi, Swizz Beatz (yep) and RZA. Rick Ross appears twice. Bon Iver is available, and Kid Cudi and Raekwon.. Nicki Minaj? Remember her from the Anaconda video? Her verse on Monster created her career. "Bad bitch that came from Sri Lanka" she slays, absolutely slays. It's a smorgasbord for hip hop lovers. Each clamouring to get a piece of these stunning beats. So Appalled see's the Chi-town hero No I.D. help chop up Manfred Mann. Runaway is built on the simplest of piano punch, and Blame Game samples APHEX TWIN!! I mean come on.
Kanye himself is omnipresent, like a puppet master controlling everything below him. When he does descend he provides his most focused performance on the mic of all time, and also his most personal, which is difficult because he hasn't left much off the table in subsequent releases. On Runaway he shows his hand, admitting wholeheartedly that he isn't a personality that is particular enjoyable to be around but he is what he is. On Blame Game he takes this further, openly challenging anyone who takes him on romantically, even describing the process where he attempts to reel himself in but is unable to "On the bathroom wall I wrote I'd rather argue with you than to be with someone else / I took a piss and dismissed it like fuck it and I went and found somebody else". His emotions run hot and cold, 'You ain't fin to see a mogul get emotional", "I had to take him to that ghetto university". It's the modern masterpiece, a myriad of broken relationships, stark self-truths, a total lack of humility that is, oxymoronically, humbly admitted and celebrated. No-one is outside of Kanye's aim, and yet his focus is dangerously insular, a precursor to Yeezus and a rare glimpse inside the mind of a true genius.
"What you gonna do now? Whatever I wanna do, gosh it's cool now!"
1. Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City
Lamar is a curious fellow. He resides within the Black Hippy movement formed in 2009 in California, a movement that is made up of even more curious fellows. A movement generally has a centralised sound, a touching point that each artist can refer to if they feel they are drifting off track. Kendrick Lamar stands out from his contemporaries, starkly. He employs this spacey, melodic delivery, that in a second can be replaced with a growl of aggression and a quickening of pace. It allows him to talk tough, so to speak, without inducing laughter. For example, imagine The-Dream writing an aggressive gang-focused record. Yeah.
It means that Lamar is a master of manipulation. It also means good kid, m.A.A.d city is the best album of 2012, and a rap record of the absolute highest quality.
good kid, m.A.A.d city feels like a day in Lamar's life, but not just a standard tuesday or an exciting friday. It feels like THE day in his life, the one we all have that is filled with events we thought we could control but we can’t, prompting introspection and re-evaluation of goals and life paths. The day where a certain chain of events stimulates a focused train of thought that then entwines itself with everything you do. This day houses the pivotal moment we’ve all been hit by, out of the blue. You stop and take notice. You observe and comment on rather than coasting through with no intellectual deliberation.
It’s a flawed record, no doubt about that. Viewed as a stand-alone project, if you were to encounter each track individually, I think you might lump it in with every other nearly there rap record, that has 4 or 5 really good songs, 1 or 2 passable songs, and the rest is filler. But when approached as a project it hits you in a complete way.
Maybe it is the interludes with his parents. His father’s unexpected and poignant life lesson. His mother’s entirely relatable progression from annoyed and frustrated mum to slightly more concerned to almost despairing. The humourous narrative that these two play at through the first two encounters with them that makes them instantly accessible as real human beings rather than made up fantasy characters.
Maybe it is Kendricks brutal honesty, his ability to be completely caught up in the moment of something but to provide such a depth in his commentary that each minute in his life feels like 10 minutes of music and dissection. At times he draws you in and takes you with him. The Art of Peer Pressure is a simple narrative, a first person account of an action-packed activity. The complexity lies within Lamar's ability to transport you right in to that car with him, sitting next to him. Standing behind him as he participates in a robbery. You can feel his sweat as the police pull in behind them.
There are times when he expresses his fears and concerns in such a way it is no stretch of imagination to put yourself firmly in his shoes, experience his paranoia and his prevailing attitudes towards himself and his surroundings. Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst is a brilliant strain of conscious thought in which Lamar walks us through his fears of being a nobody, not making it out of the ghetto, the struggles of people living in desperation, the consuming fear of death, and trying to deal with the loss of family members.
These moments of insight are punctuated by more contemporary, mainstream hip hop moments. Backseat Freestyle see's Lamar on his punchline game, 'I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower /
So I can fuck the world for 72 hours'. m.A.A.d city allows him to stretch his legs over some traditional Southern production from Sounwave and THC, and Poetic Justice has him trading verses with Drake, who promptly copies his flow and hops back on his misogynistic crusade. His gift for hooks keep the album flowing beautifully through these moments. Whilst they aren't contributing directly to the narrative, they provide momentary relief, you are able to relax and be entertained.
Real is the best track. You feel as though you've woken up with Lamar and shadowed him as he experiences the most important day of his life. By the time Real begins, he is lost, his location is unknown, his mind is blown and he has reached a point where he sits down and starts turning things over in his mind.
'But what love got to do with it when I don't love myself
To the point I should hate everything I do love
Should I hate living my life inside the club
Should I hate her for watching me for that reason
Should I hate him for telling me that I'm season
Should I hate them for telling me ball out
Should I hate street credibility I'm talkin' about
Hatin' all money, power, respect in my will
Or hating the fact none of that shit make me real'
We then hear the voices of his two parents, both sobered by worry, delivering their own pearls of wisdom. His father tells him in order to be real he needs god, responsibility, and he needs to take care of his family. His mother's words induce goose bumps. She sounds despairing, worried and scared like any mother would. She pleads with him to come back, that there is positives in his story, that he is real if he returns.
You find yourself hoping Lamar finds his way back to his parents, you hope he is unharmed and unhurt. His subtle classic reveals itself to you, how deeply you've been drawn in to this snapshot of his life. Absolutely amazing.