The best music of 2012 (so far)

by Ryan Snyder


Hot Chip — In Our Heads Nothing is more boring than consistency, which is probably why yet another sylvan electro-pop gem from Hot Chip feels just a little bit too underappreciated. Had they turned their focus back to cramming In Our Heads with more punchlines than a Big L record, at least the backlash would have allowed it to register. Instead, In Our Heads is Hot Chip maturing from lines like, “I’m sick of motherf**ers trying to tell me that they’re down with Prince,” to completely embrace the starry-eyed humanism that’s defined everything they’ve ever done. Sonically, it’s like flipping to the middle of a Billy Ocean or Eddy Grant song on the radio; it’s hard to do anything else until it’s all over with.

Bobby Womack — The Bravest Man In the Universe One of the best music headlines of 2012 came from The Onion A/V Club on May 24 when they printed, “Bobby Womack is now cancer-free.” In a year in which the passings of legendary artists has been endemic, this little bit of good news was sweetened in June by the fact that the cherished soul singer announced his recovery with his first original recording in 18 years, aptly titled The Bravest Man In the Universe. The long-idle Womack was brought back into music in 2010 for a vocal part on Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach, so its fitting that his comeback album be the brainchild of Blur frontman Damon Albarn. The result is the unlikely coalescence of the ever-adaptable Womack’s warm gospel-soaked voice and Albarn’s cold, futuristic production meshing into a dark, vulnerable work that snarls at the recollection of his addictions and weeps over his recovery from prostate cancer.

Louis Armstrong — Satchmo at the National Press Club: Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours The book on Satch was basically completed long ago, but there might never be enough on the most iconic, influential American musician ever to really sate jazz fiends and historians. The long, long awaited release of his second-to-last public appearance, however, comes one step closer to that realization. Satchmo at the National Press Club: Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours is the first widespread release since the initial vinyl pressing of only 300 copies more than 40 years ago, and it find Armstrong at his butteriest just months before his death, telling off-color jokes and romancing the black-tie crowd with an array of classics to include “Hello Dolly” and “Mood Indigo.”

Clams Casino — Instrumental Mixtape II The idea of hip-hop beats as dinner party music never seemed appropriate until producer extraordinaire Michael Volpe put out his first set of instrumentals last year under his handle Clams Casino. His dabbling in practically every emerging hip-hop scene in the 2011 thrust him into the emeritus post once rapper like Lil B and Mac Miller finally got over, but his work easily stands alone. Strip away lyrics from The Weeknd or Main Attrakionz, and Clams’ beats are sticker and richer than Grade A maple syrup. His distinctive, yawning synths are merged with hollowed-out breaks and cascading bass. The tape closes on his work for Lil B’s “I’m God,” where he smiths an Imogen Heap sample into a masterpiece of beat architecture.

El-P — Cancer for Cure When rapper/producer El-P tore up his spot on the awesome remix of Mr. Muthaf***in’ eXquire’s “Huzzah” last year, it was all but a given that eX would repay the favor on El-P’s then-forthcoming release. What wasn’t so certain was whether eX would be able to steal the track the same way El-P did. He didn’t despite some noble verses, but it’s hard to come back from the raw lyrical brutality that El-P exhibits all over Cancer for Cure. Both El-Ps rhymes and his production are as unforgiving as the album’s title suggests, insisting “we got ways to make you talk” on “Sign Here,” a menacing mindscrew that would be on The Wall if it were a hiphop record. El-P might permanently be buried in the underground, a Highlander-esque white rapper battle to the death would be pay-per-view worthy if Eminem wasn’t more afraid of El-P than David Haye is of Vitali Klitschko.

Killer Mike — RAP Music In one of the worst years for rock in recent memory, it’s poetic that the punkest thing to come out is a rap album from a Southern emcee. “I don’t trust the church or the government, Democrat or Republican, Pope or a bishop or them other men,” Killer Mike says on “Untitled” from RAP Music, an album that’s a no-holdsbarred, generational work from a pissed-off mid-career rapper.

Mike spews flames directed at police, politicians, choosing to pour gas on the fire rather than offers high-minded solutions, and eviscerates wack southern rappers and wack Northern rappers with impunity. The Outkast protégé finds room for the playfulness his’ mentors instilled in him on “Go,” adopting Big Boi’s rapid-fire flow and wordplay (“A flow so cold it a froze yo nose”). The album is carnage of ills from start to finish, but he cleans it up with the proclamation that what he just offered is the culmination of all styles and beliefs without discrimination. Who’s going to argue with him?

The Beach Boys — That’s Why God Made the Radio Given what we’ve learned about the Beach Boys over the last 20-odd years, suspicion was the only reasonable way to react to the Beach Boys announcement of That’s Why God Made the Radio. How do three guys who’ve spent the better part of that time in litigation with one another suddenly sound so chummy and breezy in each other’s company? How many times can they mention how great of a time they’re having on record before the BS meter tips? Better question: Why does it matter? From personal experience, the purpose of That’s Why God Made the Radio didn’t set in until “Isn’t It Time” was a month-old earworm and I had heard it as a beautiful and sparse live performance. The elegance of it and almost all of the other songs on it comes from the perception that it’s likely the final work of one of the two or three best pop groups ever. It’s a reflection of them coming to terms with that reality, an idea alluded to in the album’s closer “Summer’s Gone,” and playing the part as well as could be asked.

The kicker comes at the album’s conclusion, with three of the Beach Boys best songs since the ‘70s, and to paraphrase an Al Jardine quote from a Boys’ show with the Grateful Dead, “It sure was nice of Brian to write them.”