Saturday, January 5, 2013

Best of 2012: 20-16

20. Elle Varner: Perfectly Imperfect [RCA]

Finally. Something to shove in the face of all those who complain that top 40 contemporary r&b is boring, swanky, and robotic, something, that is, aside from Frank Ocean. If Varner's excellent debut sounds like a throwback, it's because this daughter of music bizzers has done her homework: older soul and even jazz seem to be the main pools she draws from. Her raspy voice, undeniably impressive without being ostentatious, is well-matched to the lyrics (also hers), which move seamlessly from sensual to shy to self-doubting, but are always refreshingly human, as is her voice. Her body-image issues, like her unsatisfactory sex-life, never seems artificial. These are realistic if fictionalized quandaries of a young twenty-something (a month older than yours truly): think Taylor Swift, unless you don't like Taylor Swift, in which case don't. "Sound Proof Room," about desire and loud sex, is my favorite, but its sense of unquenchable eros is accentuated the next track, which mourns her inability to speak to the man she wants. And when the lyrics seem maudlin and the production (again, hers) too pristine, an expert hook pulls you back in and you let style take the wheel. Before you know it, the substance returns.

19. Serengeti: C.A.R. [Anticon]

Goofy Chicagoan David Cohn is the best kind of weirdo rapper-- smart, funny, sincere, organic. If you aren't familiar with 2008's "Dennehy," the loving and hilarious tribute to his best fictional creation, blue-collar Southsider Kenny Davis, go and Youtube it immediately. Eclectic samples, great jokes, and vivid and carefully-rhymed details worthy of Ghostface render C.A.R. one of those heartfelt albums that you don't have to abandon your beloved irony or your sense of humor to enjoy. Just check out the aptly-titled Chitown lament "Cold," which yearns for "a simple life, where we milk cows and cobras." Anecdotes and one-liners pervade these sympathetic snapshopts of social realism so witty and so funny you know they had to be the work of someone clinically depressed.

18. Disappears: Pre-Language [Kranky]

Channeling such touchstones as Joy Division and The Fall is now a practice in indie rock as entrenched as irony, fuzzy guitars, and PBR. It's also one which I have been known to bitch about. Most of the time, 80's hero-worship is simply not done well: it doesn't move, or it incorporates bad verse, or it fails to register emotionally, or it lacks bite. With the help of newly enlisted Steve Shelley, these Chicago shoegazers have crafted an album that both grooves like The Fall (and yes, Sonic Youth) and reinvents Mark E. Smith's disdainful snarl. What's more, they've crafted an album that manages to stand out amongst so many of its nearly indistinguishable compeers. Maybe not at first, but play it a few times and realize that "Hibernation Sicknes" has one of the best guitar solos you've heard in months, that certain phrases of terse bitterness refuse to leave you, and that nearly every song has a hook that scratches an itch you forgot you had and a beat you can't help but move your body to.

17. Action Bronson: Blue Chips [Fool's Gold]

NYC's most famous Albanian rapper-by-day and chef-by-night hasn't altered his style too much since his debut, 2011's very solid Dr. Lecter, except for exchanging a pretty established producer for some punk who goes by "Party Supplies" and hails from, I kid you not, Williamsburg. It turns out Party Supplies not only has a damn good ear, but an eclecticism that leads him to sample everyone from Dean Martin and Aaron Neville to Iron Butterfly and Frank Zappa. Challenging samples, like the ballsy strings-only in opener "Pouches of Tuna" or the ballsier theft from Ghostface Killah (to whom Action is always compared, though I think Nas is just as accurate) in closer "Tapas," establish beyond all doubt that, at least on a strictly technical level, Action Bronson belongs to a very elite group of rappers. The culinary metaphors are witty, but, as this Feinschmecker should know, a great flow needs some meat as much as a great voice does (*cough* Christina Aguilera), or great guitar chops (*cough* Jeff Beck). And to be fair, there is quite a bit of substance here. His subject matter, though, is for the most part limited to drugs, hoes, and food-- or so a cursory listen would have you believe. Dig deeper-- as his verbal dexterity and apt beats will encourage you to do-- and you'll find poignant reflections on everything from his mixed feelings about his dad to his anger at an ex to his anxiety over his small penis.

16. The Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory [Carpark]

They can gripe all they want about how Steve Albini's production involved chilling out and playing Scrabble on Facebook-- reasonably so as Albini has become synonymous with hands-off production, giving equal volume (as in this album) to all parts and replicating the 'live' sound of a band-- but there was no good reason to pay attention to this band before this album. But really, who cares? This is a surprisingly exciting album, and such a step forward from their previous emo slag. This is emo gold, not beyond borrowing from post-hardcore and Sonic Youth or from 00's bastardization and Pete Wentz, whom I sincerely believe to be an underrated lyricist even if he is a shitty songwriter. The monstrous "Wasted Days" is the winner here, although "No Future/No Past" also represents a major step forward for the band. Does this album represent anything about 2012 or the future of music? I doubt it, but it warms your heart to know that a guitar-based band can still create exciting music. Really, if you don't like riveting rock and/or roll, well, there's always Bon Iver. A midwesterner myself, I can assure you Dylan Baldi speaks for far more of us.

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