One year ago DZI: The Voice made a bold prediction that 2011 would be a bellwether year for contemporary popular music. Much like the American presidential elections, every four years the public makes a decision about the direction the culture will take, and if 2011 was the primaries for the musical mood of the country it seems like fans have decisively voted for artists who use their voice to display their talents rather than just their personalities in the general election of 2012.
Our champion and runner-up for best of album of 2012 are perfect examples of this movement by the populace to truly appreciate (and purchase) quality projects. Both relative newcomers ignored the prevailing trends of their genres by creating LP’s that focused more on telling compelling stories instead of making singles strictly for Top 40 radio. The result was both artists took over the radio anyway, and still had critics singing their praises.
And number 1 & 2 were just two of the leaders of the new school. Our top 10 list also includes a couple of breakout bands that stepped into the spotlight this year, a hip hop savant that helped his crew lay claim to being the best in the business, a R&B crooner whose second LP sparked his crossover success, and a genre-bending musician who assisted in the revival of a undervalued style of music. But the veterans didn’t sit idly by while a new generation rose to the top tier. Three 90’s era artists also made our list with new albums that continued their respective runs of releasing classic material.
Check out DZI: The Voice‘s list of the 10 best albums of 2012, and let us know your favorite albums from the past 12 months by sharing your voice in the comments section.
Top 10 Albums of 2012
10. Ab-Soul ~ Control System
Ab-Soul’s Control System, the California emcee’s second full length album, contributed to the 2012 takeover by West Coast indie label Top Dawg Entertainment. The self-described genius of his Black Hippy crew (made up of fellow TDE rappers Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, & ScHoolboy Q) created an LP that stimulated the mind and tugged at the heart. Listening to songs like “Terrorist Threats” is the equivalent of taking the red pill from The Matrix. While extremely personal tracks like “The Book of Soul” reveals the many painful experiences Ab-Soul has already had to endure in his young life including battling Stevens-Johnson Syndrome and coping with the suicide of his longtime girlfriend.
To connect with Ab-Soul follow him @abdashsoul
Check out the video for “Terrorist Threats” featuring Danny Brown & Jhené Aiko:
9. The xx ~ Coexist
Coexist is an album written by two lovers, but it’s as if vocalists Romy Medley Croft and Oliver Sim composed their lyrics in the same method Ridley Scott directed American Gangster. Scott shot the stories of the main characters as separate movies and combined the tales together at the end. Similarly, Croft and Sim seem to be conveying the pain of distinct failed relationships but still connect their narratives even without heavy use of harmonizing or contributing individual verses to every song. Jamie xx’s sparse, minimalist production enhances the sense of separation, and his use of non-traditional song structure builds tension that accurately reflects the feeling of wanting to leave a complicated situation, but something keeps pulling you back.
Check out the video for “Chained”:
8. Alabama Shakes ~ Boys & Girls
After only one full length album the southern rock quartet from Athens, Alabama is already one of the most celebrated bands in the US and the UK. Their debut album, Boys and Girls, opened high on both nation’s respective album charts (8 on the Billboard 200 and 3 on Britain’s tally). The immediate success of the blues-inspired LP may have a lot to do with lead singer Brittany Howard’s heartrending vocals. Howard has a tone and delivery that seems to be tapped directly from the same well as rock/blues legends like Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, and Amy Winehouse. The pain, hope, fear, and love expressed through Howard’s voice in songs like “Hold On”, “You Ain’t Alone”, and “Be Mine” can stand up right beside classics like “Cry Baby”, “A Fool in Love”, and “Love Is a Losing Game.”
To connect with the Alabama Shakes follow them @Alabama_Shakes
Check out the video for “Hold On”:
7. Robert Glasper Experiment ~ Black Radio
Hip hop and jazz have a long history as musical cousins. Gangstarr, A Tribe Called Quest, and Digable Planets are just a few rap acts that incorporated elements of jazz into their hip hop-centered sound. You can go back even further to the late 60’s to see the beginnings of jazz rap in The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, but a classical trained pianist from Houston named Robert Glasper updated the musical blend for the 21st century. For Black Radio, his fifth studio album, Glasper invited some of the biggest names in hip hop and R&B to the lab for his latest experiment. Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Chrisette Michele, and Yasin Bey all tag along as Glasper’s genre crossing LP produces original cuts (“Black Radio”), jazz standards (“Afro Blue”), and inventive covers (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”).
To connect with Robert Glasper follow him @robertglasper
Check out the lyric video for “Black Radio” feat. Yasin Bey (Mos Def):
6. Miguel ~ Kaleidoscope Dream
For the last 3 years mainstream R&B had shape shifted to some kind of EDM/pop hybrid as traditional soul music was forsaken to only album cuts and the underground. But this year singer, songwriter, and producer Miguel Jontel Pimentel helped usher in a R&B renaissance on radio stations that had previously only reinforced the new wave of dance oriented music. Supported by the Top 20 hit “Adorn”, Kaleidoscope Dream took listeners out of the club and put them back in the bedroom. With a soundscape that includes psychedelic rock, power pop, funk, and soul, Miguel’s tales of love, romance, and sex liken to Prince in his prime. And like soul great Marvin Gaye, Miguel takes time from singing about the joys and pains of relationships to use his platform to also address societal problems on “Candles in The Sun”.
To connect with Miguel follow him @MiguelUnlimited
Check out the video for “Adorn”:
5. Fiona Apple ~ The Idler Wheel…
Singer-songwriter/pianist Fiona Apple burst onto the music scene as a barely legal 70’s throwback when her first LP, Tidal, become one of the biggest selling albums of 1996. Since then the polarizing performer has turned off and turned from the industry, only to make several musical comebacks to critical acclaim. Apple’s most recent return was just as well received as her previous works. The Idler Wheel… is definitely a reflection of it’s creator. The avant-garde project is bold, contradictory, eccentric, and brilliant. Apple has always had an adverse opinion about labels, and she made it extremely difficult to classify her fourth album in any particular genre. You could call it alternative, soul, art rock, classical, or jazz and you’d be right- and you’d be wrong.
Check out the video for “Every Single Night”:
4. NaS ~ Life Is Good
In his 20 year career Nas has released numerous classic projects, but none of his previous works have been as personal as his 10th studio album Life is Good. After a very messy public divorce from singer Kelis and an unfortunate social media faux paus by his daughter, the Queens rap king clearly needed to vent about the recent events in his life. But despite those difficulties, life is still good, so Nas’s latest LP also celebrates his own legacy as well as that of hip hop culture in general- signified by the inclusion of a boom bap production style reminiscent of rap’s Golden Era. Since Nas and hip hop are both approaching their 40th birthday it’s timely that Life Is Good will most likely go down in music history as the first adult-themed rap masterpiece.
To connect with Nas follow him @Nas
Check out the video for “Bye Baby”:
3. Jack White ~ Blunderbuss
Ever since the White Stripes’ hiatus/break up, rock fans hoped that lead singer Jack White would eventually bless them with a solo project. Not even turns with The Ranconteurs and The Dead Weather appeased their hunger to hear what Jack would do with complete creative control over a project. Well, this year their craving was finally satisfied with the release of Blunderbuss, and listeners ate it up. White’s first solo LP debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200. What’s surprising is that the blues-rock album crossed-over to rap audiences as well, but after listening to Blunderbuss it becomes more clear why. White mixes tastes of hip hop into tracks like “Freedom At 21″ and ”Weep Themselves to Sleep” while songs like “I’m Shakin'” is a tip of the cap to Rock god Bo Diddley and “Sixteen Saltines” is straight Nirvana-esque alternative greatness. Also, White’s lyrics about intricacy, jealousy, and apathy are universal themes that anyone who’s suffered heartbreak can relate to.
Check out the video for “I’m Shakin'”:
2. Frank Ocean ~ channel ORANGE
Frank Ocean made headlines back in July when he posted a message on his Tumblr page admitting that his first love was with another man. Being the first established male artist from the hip hop/R&B world to share his attraction to the same sex is undeniably a historic moment, but with the changing attitudes about homosexuality in American culture, the Odd Future member’s legacy will be more defined by the groundbreaking channel ORANGE than the revealing of his sexual preference.
Long time R&B fans may not fully understand the impact that Ocean’s debut will have on modern music. “Thinking About You”, “Pyramids”, and “Pink Matter” sound like updated versions of the type of songs you’d hear from R. Kelly, Maxwell, or John Legend, but in case it’s gone unnoticed none of those legendary soul performers have been able to make a crack into a modern mainstream dominated by pop singles from R&B-lite singers Usher, Chris Brown, and Ne-Yo. That’s what makes channel ORANGE so powerful. Frank Ocean made a real R&B album that both the critics and the public gravitated toward. He proved you can still pour your soul out in a song without having fist pumping production and still craft a hit. For a generation raised on EDM-influenced R&B, Ocean has introduced them to one of America’s greatest music genres that previously was on life support. channel ORANGE just may have revived traditional R&B/Soul for another 10 years.
To connect with Frank Ocean follow him @frank_ocean
Check out the video for “Pyramids”:
1. Kendrick Lamar ~ good kid, m.A.A.d. city
It only took Kendrick Lamar 12 months to go from our runner-up for album of the year in 2011 to standing in the winner’s circle in 2012. Yes, that’s right, the Compton emcee has released 2 classics in 2 years. The only difference is good kid, m.A.A.d. city, his first official LP on a major label, is not only a musical masterpiece like it’s predecessor Section 80, but it also broke K-Dot into the mainstream. An accomplishment that, like channel ORANGE, may transform the landscape of an entire genre for a generation. No gimmicks and GKMC still went gold. No stripper references or guest appearances, and lead single “Swimming Pools (Drank)” was still a Top 20 hit.
Kendrick Lamar completely rejected the current course of what made a rap star this past decade. Instead, he directed a sonic film that skillfully explains the story of an inherently good-natured kid trying to survive in a turbulent environment. In what can only be described as a masterful role reversal, the Black Hippy member presents his movie with the music as the screenplay and the hilarious, potent interludes as the soundtrack. The characters of “Sherane”, “momma”, “Kenny”, and “the homies” revealed in the album breaks are now just as famous of Kendrick himself. Like Illmatic before it, good kid, m.A.A.d. city will become the new standard that every future hip hop album will have to live up to. In other words, it’s a game changer at the highest level.
To connect with Kendrick Lamar follow him @kendricklamar
Check out the video for “Swimming Pools (Drank):
Azealia Banks; 1991
Harlem’s hip-pop star-in-the-making channels Chrystal Waters and Missy Elliott on this 4 track EP.
Cloud Nothings; Attack On Memory
Founder and frontman Dylan Baldi dropped the pop sensibilities of the band’s earlier LPs for a darker neo-grunge sound.
Flying Lotus; Until the Quiet Comes
While Nu-Jazz has been around for almost 2 decades, few projects have represented the genre better than the electronic producer’s 4th studio album.
Joey Bada$$; 1999
This 17-year-old emcee’s first mixtape pays homage to 1990’s hip hop and introduces the world to his Pro Era crew.
Melanie Fiona; The MF Life
The Roc Nation vocalist proves that R&B has a new female voice to pick up where the late, great Whitney Houston left off.