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