Cancer 4 Cure
The genius behind one of the great hip-hop labels of all time (Definitive Jux), El-P keeps his impeccable solo streak going with this grimy, bruising sonic onslaught. With Cancer 4 Cure, El-P has created a menacing soundscape over which he uses his rhymes to paint a vivid and terrifying picture of the modern future. Songs like “Drones Over BKLYN” ooze with the violence of an inescapably warped, pornography-poisoned, war-obsessed society. Even in the midst of all of this terror, “Tougher Colder Killer,” one of the album’s many highlights, manages to shock with its violence as El-P opens the song with the declaration, “To the mother of my enemy: I just killed your son /He died with his face to the sky and it cannot be undone.” Here, El-P and the Big Beast himself, Killer Mike, prove that the best in the game can embrace the violence that has engulfed hip-hop while scaling intellectual heights.
From the opening notes of the sublime “We Can’t Be Beat,” it’s clear that New York garage kings The Walkmen have created something special. Perhaps the most aptly titled album of the year, Heaven is overflowing with joy and life, with a stream of heartbreak running throughout. The bright, jangly guitars of songs like “Nightingales” and the jaw-dropping title track create happiness crescendos, peaks that make the sparse, quiet moments chilling. This is an album of immense maturity and depth. It is a testament not so much to growing up, but to growing comfortable and finding joy even as the weight of years past continues to build.
The Flip Is Another Honey
Cover records are a tricky thing. It seems impossible to craft a unique record built out of already written songs, and to do it in a way that not only pays respect to the original tracks, but that also keeps your individual style intact. Mike Doughty, one of the most unique voices in music since the ‘90s, the man behind Soul Coughing, infuses an incredible list of songs with his hip-hop, beatnik delivery. Doughty is never willing to follow a single path. Songs like Thin Lizzy’s “Running Back” and Cheap Trick’s “Southern Girls” get transformed completely, creating entirely different feelings. The haunting, trip-hop reworking of the Stone Roses’ “Tightrope” and big, bouncy retelling of John Denver’s “Sunshine on my Shoulders” are more than pleasant surprises, proving Doughty is still an exciting, vibrant voice.
Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance
Drive-By Truckers co-founder and alt-country king Patterson Hood’s third album is a songwriting fan’s dream. Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance is a document of a life filled with sadness, loss and hope. The most arresting moments on the album — and there are many — come when Hood allows the roots of the past to wrap around the chords and words, like in the chilling “Depression Era,” which is about a father too hardened by life. It’s not all despair, though. Bright patches shine, like the gorgeous duet with Kelly Hogan, “Come Back Little Star,” or the wonderfully confused “Better Off Without.” Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance only reaffirms my suspicion that Patterson Hood may be the most important songwriter working today.
Sorry To Bother You
Boots Riley has made his name as one of the greatest storytellers in hip-hop, a lyricist of the highest order. On Sorry To Bother You, Riley drops the long, winding verses for concise word-punches to the face. Continuing the arc started on the Coup’s last release, Pick a Bigger Weapon, the music here is built on a live band that makes the record pop from the speakers. With incredibly varied instrumentation that includes kazoos and accordions providing the beats for Riley’s intelligent, razor-sharp rhymes, Sorry To Bother You is one of the most immediate and challenging records of the year.
Paul F. Tompkins
Laboring Under Delusions: Live in Brooklyn
Stand-up comedy isn’t often thought of as a medium that lends itself to repeated listens, but here “the famous comedian Paul F. Tompkins,” as his introduction states, delivers an intelligent and elegantly performed show centred on the various jobs he has held over the years and on his ever-present fear of getting yelled at (the driving force behind his enrolment in college). The subject matter has a near-universal appeal as most of us have had to work and avoid being yelled at. If he was the “gentleman bandit” when he was stealing from the video store he worked at, Tompkins has become the “gentleman comedian,” endlessly affable and hopelessly witty.
For more than 15 years, Corb Lund has been one of the most consistently great songwriters working, getting sharper with each subsequent release. Cabin Fever continues his mastery of country music. Each song on the record is unique, yet fits into the overall whole. The songs cover an array of topics with equal parts humour and insight. It takes an immense talent like Lund to string a set of songs together that cover cowboy wisdom (“Cows Around”), post-apocalyptic survival (“Gettin’ Down on the Mountain”), tricking law enforcement (“Bible on the Dash”), desperate heartache (“September”) and super-fast motorcycles (“Mein Deutsches Motorrad”). Cabin Fever is undoubtedly one of the best-written records of 2012 and proof that Lund’s star shines as bright as ever.