As much as I enjoy reading the obligatory “Best Albums of the Year” lists, there’s something about them that I’ve always found off-putting. How can you quantify art? Music is not a competition. These lists showcase an asinine way of looking at things. On top of that, how can any one person listen to every release in all genres? The answer is: they cannot (for instance, punk and metal aren’t really on my radar these days). So, instead of pitting the albums I love against one another in a battle-to-the-death free-for-all, I bring you this, part one of my 12 Most Interesting Albums of 2012. These are the albums that I found myself drawn back to time and again. The ones I kept going on and on about to friends and family. And in the communal spirit of art, they are presented in no particular order.
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
On “Big Beast,” the opening track on R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike declares he and his people are White America’s biggest fears incarnate — “The readers of the books and leaders of the crooks.” Over the ensuing 45 minutes, Killer Mike proceeds to bridge the gap between the seemingly disparate lands of gangsta rap and conscious hip hop (which focuses on socio-political themes) as he pontificates about everything from the effect of Reaganomics to his love of strip clubs. With grimy, face-slapping production from one of the best producers in the game today, El-P, R.A.P. Music is one of the most consistently powerful and compelling records of the year.
Dan Bern – Drifter
Dan Bern’s music has always been filled with a deep sense of wanderlust, but on Drifter he takes it to a whole new level, guiding the listener on a trip that includes Haarlem (“Not that one/The other one/The one with two A’s/The Dutch one”), Cape Town, Madrid, Mexico and even the moon. Travelling tends to bring a deep pensiveness out in people, and this album is no different. Full of Bern’s signature humour and deep insight into himself, which can be extrapolated to an insight into all people, Drifter is a folk record for anyone suffering from the loneliness that is inherent to the modern human condition.
The Lytics – They Told Me
The second album from Winnipeg’s foremost purveyors of hip hop is a tour-de-force. Full of a warmth and depth not often seen in the genre these days, They Told Me gets the booty shaking while keeping the soul calm. While most of the album is brimming with thoughtful, reflective beats and rhymes, songs like “Toot Your Own Horn” and the incredible, rapid-fire “Charles Bronson” overflow with confident swag and bravado. An instantly indispensable addition to the Canadian hip-hop canon.
Todd Snider – Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Probably the least traditional guy in Nashville, Todd Snider delivers up another slab of liberal-slacker country. Though Snider covers traditional country fare like lost love and problems with women, the real meat lies in his all-out assault on the ruling elite. Whether he’s tackling the elite’s use of religion to hold people in line (“In The Beginning”), the white-collar robbers that inhabit Wall Street (“New York Banker”) or the simple plights of the working poor (“In Between Jobs”), Snider attacks with venomous humour and intelligent wordplay laid over loose country-rock. Snider mentioned in an interview on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast that the album was created by a group of guys loaded up on whisky, and that spirit echoes throughout the entire record. The album also contains one of the most stop-you-dead lyrical moments of the year as Snider ends “In Between Jobs” pondering, “What’s to stop me from killing this guy/And taking his shit?”
The Dyeing Merchants – Tempest Roar
My relationship with locally grown music is a strangely tenuous one. I just don’t possess the will to hunt it down, and I find myself (wrongly) quick to dismiss it. Luckily, the Dyeing Merchants’ second record has changed some of that for me. A dark, brooding rock record full of heavy, crunchy guitars and thunderous drums, Tempest Roar is a dense record that reveals itself upon multiple listens. Firmly in the raw, raggedy tradition of Crazy Horse, it’s an album that’s equally at home blasting your ears off through headphones or rocking in the background of any social situation in which you may find yourself.