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My 15 Favourite Albums of 2012

15. JJ DOOM – Key To The Kuffs
The latest DOOM collaboration project features producer Jneiro Jarel creating an ever-changing sample-heavy soundscape that’s a fitting backdrop for DOOM’s brand of intricate wordplay and surreal humour.
Essential Tracks: Guv’nor, Rhymin Slang, Wash Your Hands

14. Richard Hawley – Standing At The Sky’s Edge
Hawley changes up his style from retro-50s crooner to wall-of-sound heavy rocker, managing to make every track on this short album an epic, elemental storm of noise.
Essential Tracks: Standing At The Sky’s Edge, Leave Your Body Behind You

13. Future Of The Left – The Plot Against Common Sense
Still furious, still filthy, still brilliantly funny, still face-meltingly loud – we need Future of the Left more than ever, and they don’t disappoint.
Essential Tracks: Failed Olympic Bid, I Am The Least of Your Problems, Notes On Achieving Orbit

12. Smoke DZA – Rugby Thompson
DZA enlists some top-notch production from Harry Fraud and hits the expansive, cinematic beats hard, contrasting ice-cold aggression with luxuriant smoothness.
Essential Tracks: Ashtray, Kenny Powers, Rivermonts

11. Action Bronson – Blue Chips
To be honest, Bronsolino’s other mixtape released this year, the Alchemist-produced Rare Chandeliers, could also be in this position. But I’ve had most of the year to listen to this one, and  Party Supplies’ heavy-on-the-funk-samples production is appropriately scuzzy backing for Bronson’s down-and-dirty rhyming about crime, food and women.
Essential Tracks: Steve Wynn, Expensive Pens, 103 and Roosy

10. Santigold – Master Of My Make Believe
Pop music in 2012 looks a lot more like Santigold than it did in 2008 when she released her debut album. But while she may be less of an outlier than before, she’s still mixing styles to great effect. Master takes elements of hip-hop, orchestral pop, electro and more, making them into propulsive dancealong numbers or melancholic ballads. Genre-hopping doesn’t usually look this easy, or this fun.
Essential Tracks: Go!, Disparate Youth, The Keepers

9. Nas – Life Is Good
Nas as elder statesman – comfortable without being lazy, unafraid to try, digging into his past without being self-indulgent. It’s the best he’s been in years.
Essential Tracks: A Queens Story, Accident Murders, Back When

8. P.O.S. – We Don’t Even Live Here
The Doomtree crew member delivers another dose of polemical rap and hard-hitting beats, sounding like a war report from a lost generation.
Essential Tracks: Fuck Your Stuff, How We Land, They Can’t Come, All Of It

7. Bob Mould – Silver Age
Mould deploys heavy riffs and his often-overlooked gift for a hooky chorus to mine a string of pop-punk gems.
Essential Tracks: Star Machine, The Descent, Angels Rearrange

6. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
El-P and Killer Mike were always going to be an uncompromising pairing, and this album fulfills that promise. El’s bone-rattling crunchy beats give the album its shape, and offer a perfect fit for Mike’s Southern drawl. The lyrics are righteously angry and fiercely intelligent. It’s a perfect representation of the best that rap can be.
Essential Tracks: Big Beast, Reagan, Butane (Champion’s Anthem)

5. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Anointed as Compton’s next great hope, Kendrick Lamar does a lot of playful self-mythologising on his major label debut (not least on the Dr Dre-featuring closing track). After a string of excellent mixtapes and features, good kid feels like something he’s been building towards for a while; an atmospheric concept album about his younger self struggling with temptation. Lamar excels at complex rhyming and crystal-clear storytelling, and the moody, downbeat production mirrors the album’s journey through introspection, depression, darkness and recovery.
Essential Tracks: Sherane (Master Splinter’s Daughter), Money Trees, good kid, Swimming Pools (Drank)

4. Silversun Pickups – Neck Of The Woods
Like a soundtrack for an unrealised film, ominous and abstract post-rock guitar patterns build to shattering crescendos.
Essential Tracks: Busy Bees, Simmer, The Pit, Dots And Dashes

3. El-P – Cancer 4 Cure
As our world gradually turns full sci-fi dystopia (Drones Over BKLYN, anyone?) El-P seems more and more in step with the times. The production is a warzone where every electronic sound is broken apart and hastily repaired, as the lyrics plumb depths of self-loathing and paranoia. It’s dark music for dark times; in other words, essential.
Essential Tracks: The Full Retard, Oh Hail No, For My Upstairs Neighbour (Mums the Word)

2. Ab-Soul – Control System
It’s been a good year for the Black Hippy crew, and Ab-Soul in particular outclassed the competition. His latest album is a stack of back-to-back classics, with a stable of producers responsible for jittery Dre-influenced beats that never let the listener get comfortable. Soul’s lyrics range from conspiracy theorising to sharp dissections of gender relations. The album closes out on The Book of Soul, a masterful, moving story of personal tragedy.
Essential Tracks: Track Two, Double Standards, Lust Demons, ILLuminate, The Book Of Soul

1. Aesop Rock – Skelethon
Trickily verbose wordplay and darkly witty lyrics stand out against beats that stutter and glitch like malfunctioning machines or corrupt digital artifacts. Every line is so densely packed with meaning that it takes a series of listens to decipher. It feels like a coded transmission, or a Rosetta Stone that will give up all its secrets with only a little more digging. It’s an album to get lost in, a soundtrack for feeling lost and trapped inside your own head. In terms of depth and staying power, it’s an epic achievement.
Essential Tracks: Leisureforce, Zero Dark Thirty, Cycles To Gehenna, Crows 1, Racing Stripes

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My 21 Favourite Albums of 2011

Because fuck a Top 20, that’s why.

21. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
An album that speaks to our times, with unsettlingly delicate orchestration and vocals illustrating lyrics that speak to the blood-soaked reality behind the bucolic image of English history.
Essentials: The Words That Maketh Murder

20.Kanye West/Jay-Z – Watch The Throne
Could it ever have lived up to the hype? Probably not. But in among the filler are a decent amount of straight bangers.
Essentials: No Church In The Wild, Gotta Have It, Murder To Excellence

19. Big K.R.I.T. – The Return of 4Eva
Up-and-coming Southern rapper Big K.R.I.T. delivers a mixtape with the tightness and cohesion of an official album, varying from bass-heavy trunk anthems to perceptive trips down memory lane.
Essentials: Rise And Shine, Dreamin’, American Rapstar

18. Dum Dum Girls – Only In Dreams
Classic girl-group garage-pop that rises above pastiche.
Essentials: Bedroom Eyes, Just A Creep

17. Danny Brown – XXX
This year Danny Brown gave us hilariously filthy lyrics, woozy drugged-up beats, grim tales from post-industrial Detroit, and a compelling portrayal of a post-twentysomething afraid they’ve missed the chance to make something of themselves. All on one mixtape. One FREE mixtape.
Essentials: XXX, Pac Blood, DNA

16. Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness
The riotous chroniclers of youthful indiscretions age (dis)gracefully into an indie band heavy on the heartbreak.
Essential: By Your Hand, Songs About Your Girlfriend, To Tundra

15. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Expansive, glittering dance-pop magic that sprawls but never bores.
Essentials: Midnight City, Reunion

14. British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall
The deliberately archaic British Sea Power turn their attention to modern times with an album of squalling guitars and lyrics that form a perfect soundtrack to this year of protest.
Essentials: Who’s In Control, Mongk II, Living Is So Easy

13. The Roots – Undun
The Roots expand their scope further on this concept album, taking cues from jazz and classical orchestration to tell the story of one man’s life and death.
Essentials: Make My, Kool On, Lighthouse

12. Tom Waits – Bad As Me
The mad genius returns with an album that feels like a showcase of all his greatest successes, from gravel-voiced barroom stomp to eerie fairground tunes.
Essentials: Chicago, Hell Broke Luce

11. Doomtree – No Kings
A furious blast of insurrectionary punk-tinged hip-hop, railing against the established order.
Essentials: No Way, Beacon, Gimme The Go

10. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
Expansive, anthemic rock incorporating everything from electronica to country.
Essentials: Victory Dance, The Day Is Coming, Wonderful (The Way I Feel)

9. Random Axe – Random Axe
Black Milk, Guilty Simpson and Sean Price trade their differing but equally versatile mic skills over classic boom-bap producation.
Essentials: Random Call, The Hex

8. Girl Talk – All Day
Mixtape king Gregg Gillis mashes up another disco-friendly masterclass in pop.
Essentials: The whole thing.

7. Gang Of Four – Content
Just when we need them, Gang of Four deliver more spiky, bass-heavy tunes that dissect the rot within our consumerist cargo cult.
Essentials: She Said “You Made A Thing Of Me”, I Party All The Time, A Fruitfly In The Beehive

6. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
Billy Bragg-style singalong acoustic ballads with a progressive-yet-traditional concept of identity, community and remembering where you’re from.
Essentials: Peggy Sang The Blues, I Am Disappeared, Wessex Boy

5. TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light
Rich, textured songs that frantically race from contemplative noodling to get-down funk jams.
Essentials: Keep Your Heart, Will Do, Caffeinated Consciousness

4. Drive- By Truckers – Go-Go Boots
The quieter cousin to last year’s raucous The Big To-Do, this album indulges the Truckers’ storytelling side, from Southern Gothic to Modern Americana.
Essentials: I Do Believe, Used To Be A Cop, The Thanksgiving Filter

3. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See
Alex Turner and co continue their journey to songwriting geniuses with this impeccable collection of British pop soon-to-be-classics.
Essentials: She’s Thunderstorms, Black Treacle, Suck It And See

2. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
US fem-rock supergroup delivers blasting guitar-heavy love letters to the transforming power of music.
Essentials: Romance, Boom, Glass Tambourine

1. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
Impeccable songwriting and musicianship combined with country/Americana roots give this album a timeless quality.
Essentials: Don’t Carry It All, Down By The Water, This Is Why We Fight

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Gil Scott-Heron (1949 – 2011)

I’ve tried and failed to write something about Gil Scott-Heron’s life and career since I heard the news of his death. It’s been hard, simply because I want to do his story justice, even if I don’t command a huge audience. I want everyone to know what his music meant.

The first time I heard his music was his early recording “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” A cliché, I know, but listen to a best-of compilation and that’s what you’ll get. It was angry and funny all at the same time. Looking at Scott-Heron’s career, that’s what stands out to me – his wit, his forceful intelligence, and his ability to find humour in the darkest of places.

He did not by any account have an easy life, and even in the latter phase of his career as an elder statesman of music, there was every indication that his demons were still with him. Nevertheless, just last year he produced a stunning comeback album. I’m New Here is a document, a record from a man who has been through hardship and despair, and has come out of it hardened, but still sensitive. In its fusing of plaintive blues vocals with minimalist hip-hop beats, it becomes a synthesis of black music through American history.

There is also the irony of an artist whose early spoken-word work is credited with influencing the birth of hip-hop sampling a hip-hop track for the opening and closing tracks of I’m New Here. The spoken-word segments of the album become as important as the songs: Gil Scott-Heron switches effortlessly between talking, singing and declaiming. His message is primary, the manner in which he gets it across is secondary.

And he remains a wonderful storyteller, able to come up with turns of phrase that leave you stunned or smiling. I saw him perform at London’s Royal Festival Hall in the spring of 2010, on one of his late-period world tours. With a band of three, and that voice of his, he kept a packed venue enthralled. He had a comedian’s gift for the well-placed joke, and a preacher’s gift for making a congregation hang on his every word. It was a privilege to see him in person.

He’s gone, but his music and writing remains. If it inspires one more person to look at the world they live in, and decide to make it a better place, then he will have achieved his goals. And if this piece of writing inspires one more person to listen to his work, then I will have achieved mine.

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My Top 50 Tracks of 2010

It’s been an incredible year for music. And thanks to Spotify, and the internet in general, I’ve been able to take in more music than I ever have before. There have been so many excellent releases that I’m still struggling over the order of my Top Albums of 2010 list. But in the meantime, here are the 50 best tracks I heard this year. I’ll be editing as I go, to include links to listen to the songs so you can judge for yourself. Enjoy!

50. The Magnetic Fields – You Must Be Out Of Your Mind

49. Frightened Rabbit – Swim Until You Can’t See Land

48. Band Of Horses – NW Apt.

47. Lights On – Red Lights Flashing

46. The Futureheads – Heartbeat Song

45. Admiral Radley – I’m All Fucked On Beer

44. Broken Bells – The Ghost Inside

43. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Round And Round

42. The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio

41. The Fresh And Earlys – Waterfall

40. MGMT – It’s Working

39. Admiral Fallow – Squealing Pigs

38. The Fall – Bury Pts. 1 + 3

37. Laura Marling – Devil’s Spoke

36. Grinderman – Worm Tamer

35. Beach Fossils – Desert Sands

34. Civil Civic – Run Overdrive

33. Kings Go Forth – Get A Feeling

32. The Morning Benders – Excuses

31. Rohnert Park – Into The Wayside Part I/Sick

30. Two Door Cinema Club – Cigarettes In The Theatre

29. A Classic Education – Gone To Sea

28. Villagers – That Day

27. Local Natives – Wide Eyes

26. Jenny and Johnny – My Pet Snakes

25. Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar

24. The Soft Pack – More Or Less

23. Drive-By Truckers – Birthday Boy

22. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Back In The Saddle

21. Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeroes – Home

20. Magic Kids – Hey Boy

19. Holy Fuck – P.I.G.S.

18. Yeasayer – O.N.E.

17. The Tallest Man On Earth – Burden Of Tomorrow

16. The Gaslight Anthem – The Spirit of Jazz

15. Marnie Stern – Transparency Is The New Mystery

14. Tame Impala – Lucidity

13. Surfer Blood – Swim

12. The Roots – How I Got Over

11. Fang Island – Daisy

10. Best Coast – When I’m With You

9. Broken Social Scene – Art House Director

8. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – Even Heroes Have To Die

7. The New Pornographers – Moves

6. Big Boi – Follow Us

5. The Hold Steady – The Weekenders

4. Kanye West – Power

3. Janelle Monae – Cold War

2. Arcade Fire – Ready To Start

1. Superchunk – Learned to Surf

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More on releasing music online

Further to my earlier piece on the internet’s effect on how we engage with artists and discover new music, I’ve been thinking about whether there’s a new model (or models) for music distribution in the offing, and if so, who’s driving it.

Listening and buying to music via the Internet has never been easier. As well as iTunes and other online music stores, there are streaming sites and music blogs that offer first tastes of much-anticipated tracks from famous artists and promotion for up-and-coming acts.

And Twitter, as well as the usual stuff about engaging with fans, etc etc, has become an actual distribution channel for artists willing to make that leap, as well as a venue for spontaneous collaborations (Kanye! Raekwon! …Bieber?). While a quick and convenient option for less well-known acts trying to build buzz, it’s also been used by bigger artists. The most famous example is Kanye West, who has committed to releasing a track a week as a free download. And UK grime artist Wiley spontaneously gave away over 200 tracks via Twitter back in July.

These artists are the exception rather than the rule (Wiley in particular is a fasciating individual who clearly sees the business of labels, publicity and promotion as an active obstacle to what he really loves; making music), but there’s definitely a change in the air here.

While new methods of online distribution are impacting every genre of music, most of the really inventive tactics in this area seem to be coming from “urban” music (hip-hop, grime), and electronic music, with the remixes that have been part of dance music since it began, as well as the recent surge in mashups.

A reason for this could be that the first-single-album-second single model is much less locked in place in hip-hop than it is in rock. In its infancy, hip-hop was like rock in the 60s; singles reigned supreme, in large because most people heard individual tracks being mixed together by DJs.

While hip-hop artists nowadays release albums by traditional routes, mixtapes given away for free online are an essential part of the discourse around a given artist, helping to build their profile before they take a step into traditional releases. (To give just one example, Wale’s free mixtapes outclass his debut album by a long, long way.)

This isn’t to say that non-hip-hop artists are completely hidebound. Radiohead garnered plenty of publicity with the online, pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows, due in large part to their high profile. More recently, Sufjan Stevens released an 8-track EP online with next to no publicity, letting the word spread through music blogs and social media. This, to me, is a very canny move; Stevens isn’t exactly a superstar, but has a devoted and vocal fanbase, a lot of whom are connected to each other through following the same blogs or Twitter feeds.

Anyway, the “drop a track when you feel like it” approach doesn’t seem to have filtered out to rock or indie artists (I could be generalising here; let me know if a well-known artist does do that on a regular basis). Maybe it’s an effect of the longstanding rock belief in the album as a discrete unit, with a playing order that has to be honoured. (There’s a school of thought that iTunes, digital music players and the shuffle function are bringing an end to this; I personally hope that’s not true. The best albums are the ones with a clearly defined structure, where listening to the songs out of order is as bizarre as skipping back and forth between chapters in a novel.)

My overall point is that the Internet is still changing the music business in ways that won’t even be apparent from our current perspective. But as every genre adapts, they all carry something of their original DNA into the future. This isn’t a revolution; this is evolution.

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Album review: Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid

It’s already been an incredibly rich and fertile year for music, with established acts delivering fine additions to their back catalogues, while newcomers crawl out of the woodwork to surprise us on a regular basis. The 2010 version of my personal Top Ten list of albums is already full, a little over halfway through the year. There will no doubt be some intense jockeying for a position in the list as the year wears on, but one album is already a dead cert to stay.

Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid is that rarest of beasts these days: a pop album that’s genuinely unafraid to push boundaries and take risks. The album’s influences are myriad and worn on its sleeve – Prince, Motown, Moroder/Summer disco, and a host of fearsomely theatrical divas from Bassey to Beyonce – but the near-omni-talented Monae mixes them into a concoction that’s all her own.

The concept-album weirdness of The ArchAndroid doesn’t detract one bit from its ridiculous catchiness, even as it segues from the infectious bangers “Cold War” and “Tightrope” to the downbeat-yet-beautiful “Oh, Maker”. Monae contains multitudes, and is as much at home with hip-shaking dancefloor jams as she is with jazzy vocal improvisation or impeccably arranged ballads. In that way, it’s almost a quintessential American record: building from the varied roots of its musical traditions a work that celebrates the past even as it looks to the future.

In an era where Lady Gaga-ish empty-calorie posturing is held up as the best pop music can aspire to, Monae combines a well-crafted image with genuine talent and an independent-minded spirit that takes her to wonderfully imaginative new places. This joy in invention is something that’s been missing from mainstream music for a long time. The ArchAndroid heralds its return.

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Paid In Full: the Internet, artists and money

Leading on from my last post, I recognise that as much as the Internet is opening up horizons and introducing artists to new audiences they wouldn’t have acquired otherwise, the issue of making sure artists get paid for their output is still there.

Spotify is an incredible service, and while I’m currently on the free, ad-supported version, I would gladly pay for it if my financial situation was better. There have been recent criticisms of the amounts it pays to songwriters, but there are many who see it as opportunity rather than a problem. For my part, I’ve bought tons of albums off Amazon and at my friendly local record store, thanks to hearing them on Spotify.

There’s another layer, though – artists that you may hear through MP3s posted on their blogs or MySpace pages, or shared through Tumblr sites, or through free downloadable mixtapes. I’d love to be able to pay even a token sum for this wonderful free entertainment. But Paypal is unwieldy, and a lot of smaller artists won’t have access to large-scale distribution channels like iTunes or Amazon’s MP3 store. Micropayments have been progressing in the last few years – there are a few promising options available. I don’t know how effective they can or will be, but I think it’s important for people to be able to earn money from the art they create. It’s a brave new world, but some things stay the same:

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