THIS IS NOT A TOP TEN LIST. I have nothing against ranking-style lists; my brain just doesn't work like that. This is just a handful of stuff from 2012 that's stuck with me so far. Here we go:
THE "THAT RARE MOMENT WHEN THE CONSENSUS FROM BULLSHITTING MUSIC WRITERS/FANS JUST HAPPENS TO BE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT" AWARD: FRANK OCEAN
"Everyone" seems to think that Frank Ocean had the best album of the year, and "everyone" is usually on some bullshit, but I think they hit it on the head this year. Channel Orange is a singular listen-- I think you could nitpick about some production choices, but for the most part I like the minimalism (which also makes the "big" moments in "Sweet Life" and "Bad Religion" hit that much harder). And his songwriting is the best in R&B right now. A nice encapsulation of the depth of the songwriting and poetry on the album is the line "why see the world when you've got the beach?" It's just brimming with alternate interpretations and nuance. And the whole album is like that. And it's beautiful on top of it. "Bad Religion" in particular is my favorite song of the year, maybe the last few years.
THE "UNDERGROUND INDIE RAP KIDS MIGHT BE IGNORING YOU AND YOU MAY BE THE BANDWAGON CHOICE FOR HIP HOP-IGNORANT HIPSTERS BUT YOU REALLY DID PUT OUT THE BEST RAP ALBUM OF THE YEAR" AWARD: KENDRICK LAMAR
When you consider pure technical virtuosity, songwriting prowess, conceptual cohesiveness, production choices, meaning/substance, originality/creativity, and flat-out ambition, no one did it like Kendrick. There are other artists who did one or two things as good or better, but no one topped him in all seven, not this year (at least not that I heard). I liked GKMC more than Section 80, mostly because of the ambition and depth of the storytelling. Kendrick can actually write good hooks too, which seems to be increasingly rare in both underground and mainstream hip hop. Even if you didn't personally like the album, I just can't fathom people fronting on songs like "The Art of Peer Pressure," "good kid" and "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst." Usually, when people start throwing the word "classic" around, I shut down a little. But in this case, I don't think that's a stretch.
One thing about GKMC that turned a lot of people off is the frequent, casual use of the word "bitch." I'm trying to wrap my head around this. On one hand, it's part of the storyline; the more offensive songs are at the beginning and the whole project is a concept/storytelling album about growth and realization. On the other hand, they're still there. Is that a brilliant subversion of sexist attitudes, or just a convenient excuse to showcase them? I'd welcome any thoughts in the comments. This addendum definitely applies to the next point too:
THE "BEST MUSIC FOR WHOMPING ZOMBIES WITH A SHOVEL" AWARD: KILLER MIKE & EL-P
Both "R.A.P. Music" and "Cancer 4 Cure" had incredibly brilliant moments, though I didn't love either album without reservation. On the positive side, El-P really knocked it out of the park this year in terms of production; both of these albums are monstrous on a sonic level. I don't think Killer Mike is quite as good as everyone wants him to be (too many filler lines, awkward punchlines, etc.), but you really can't deny the pure power of songs like "Reagan" and "Anywhere But Here" and "Don't Die." As for El-P's rapping, I thought ISWYD was a better distillation of everything I like about him, but C4C has its moments: I really appreciated the storytelling on "For My Upstairs Neighbor" and the concept/hook of "Works Every Time."
THE "IF YOU CLAIM TO LOVE HIP HOP BUT SLEPT ON THIS ALBUM YOU'RE A BAD PERSON" AWARD: B.DOLAN
"House of Bees volume 2" (just like his last album "Fallen House, Sunken City") is absolutely brimming with creativity, substance and skill. It's right up there with GKMC for me, and surpasses it in some respects. Political songs like "Film the Police," "Which Side Are You On" and "Tin Soldiers" hit harder than any other political songs this year, and more personal joints like "Still Here" display a ton of heart. Seriously, if you like hip hop, you need to go get this album.
THE "OTHER PEOPLE WHO RELEASED ALBUMS THIS YEAR" AWARD:
I heard a lot of great music this year and also missed or haven't yet gotten to a lot of probably-great music too. Aesop Rock, Nas, the Coup, Big Boi, Sean Price, Lupe, Ab-Soul, Typical Cats, Dark Time Sunshine, Sole, Bambu, Homeboy Sandman and a million other people also released albums this year, and while I enjoyed a lot of them, I don't really have much to say about them. I guess the important thing to take away from this is that regardless of which releases you liked or didn't like, 2012 was one of the best years for hip hop in a very long time. A few highlights you may have missed:
THE "I KIND OF WANT TO HATE ON YOU BUT YOU'RE JUST TOO DAMN TALENTED" AWARD: MACKLEMORE
I haven't even heard his whole album yet; this is really just about "Same Love." Yes, there are other artists who address LGBTQ issues in their work. Yes there are artists who actually identify as LGBTQ who don't get nearly as much attention. And that's a problem. But "Same Love" is just so well-constructed, I completely understand why it blew up this year. I guess it boils down to this: Macklemore could have written a wack song about same-sex marriage and it probably still would have blown up. And that's maybe why part of me wants to hate on him. But he didn't-- he wrote a really GOOD song about same-sex marriage and it blew up. And that's a positive thing, especially considering his massive fan base/reach.
THE "UNEXPECTED GEOGRAPHICAL AREA MAKING SOME OF THE BEST HIP HOP IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW" AWARD: THE TWIN CITIES
I hesitate to point out local stuff, because there was just so much of it this year and so much of it was great-- I'm sure I'll miss something if I try to list off everyone. But this scene just continues to expand and release album after album of gold. Aside from the big releases (Ali and POS), there was I Self Devine, Toki Wright, Big Quarters, Greg Grease, TTxBC, Heidi Barton Stink, Kristoff Krane, the Chalice, Carnage (and Ill Chemistry), the whole Meta May series, Mally and SO MANY MORE. The scene here is deep and constantly pushing forward. Check out this "primer" I did to get a good (if incomplete) overview/starting point if you're not familiar. Here's a video from Greg Grease, who just released a new album:
ADDENDUM: A FEW THOUGHTS ON THE POS AND ALI ALBUMS:
While writing about other local people I know can be tough, I think both POS and Brother Ali are big enough where I can share a few thoughts. With Ali's album, I respected it more than I enjoyed it. I feel like he's really focusing in on who his target audience is and attempting to challenge them, which is cool. I'm just not sure that I'm that audience. POS, on the other hand, was an album I enjoyed more than I respected. Not to say that I didn't respect the content or execution; I just flat-out FELT the album on a more visceral than intellectual level. I think POS is a great songwriter; I don't always feel him bar-for-bar, but he knows how to craft songs with dynamics and solid hooks and propulsion (obviously, some of the credit has to go to his crew of producers). On a purely musical level, WDELH might be my favorite rap release this year.
ADDENDUM: I'M FOCUSING ON HIP HOP, BUT IT WAS A GREAT YEAR FOR LOCAL SOUL MUSIC TOO:
That's an imperfect genre label, but I think it captures the work of Chastity Brown, Claire de Lune, Mankwe, K.Raydio and others really well. All released full albums, singles or collaborations this year and all are worth a listen. Mankwe played our CD release show and is amazing:
THE "EVEN IF NO ONE ELSE CARES I KNOW WE ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING SPECIAL THIS YEAR" AWARD: GUANTE & BIG CATS
I'll share a few more thoughts in my personal year-end wrap-up, but we released one of the most substantive, unique, well-produced albums of the year, local or otherwise, hip hop or otherwise. And don't get me wrong, it got stellar reviews and continues to sell; I just don't expect it to show up on many year-end lists. But it should, haha. Check it out. "You Better Weaponize" is still available here.