We music writers at CityBeat have picked our favorite albums with great care, and only after listening to tons of other stuff—including some real junk. Here, in no particular order, we give you the five best albums of 2012.
Control System, Ab-Soul (Top Dawg Entertainment): While everyone's been busy anointing Kendrick Lamar the new savior of rap, fellow Black Hippy member Ab-Soul has gone from the crew's underdog to its secret weapon. Ab-Soul's second album, Control System, expertly balances the two sides of his personality: the ordinary everyman and the emerging, slightly crazed conspiracy theorist.
On the album, the Carson, Calif., rapper bounces all over the place—he criticizes the Internet-damning Stop Online Piracy Act, celebrates the psychedelic drug DMT, details his childhood fight with a rare skin disease and pays heartbreaking tribute to his girlfriend, who died earlier this year. He brings it all together with his technical rapping prowess and his elastic voice, which goes from a whisper to an intense, high-pitched squawk whenever he wants to turn up the energy.
Oh, and did I mention he calls for gangs like "the black KKK" to form and take over the White House? Yeah, he says that, and it's amazing.
Prophet, Ramona Falls (Barsuk): When Brent Knopf left Menomena last year, I was simultaneously crushed and elated: His departure, I thought, would leave the versatile Portland rock outfit as lopsided as a broken barstool, but it also offered a chance for the multi-instrumentalist to grow as a songwriter. Knopf's songs always stood apart from the rest—his were more sensitive, emotionally nuanced and far less bitter.
Prophet, his second solo album as Ramona Falls, contains a world of expression, with each track playing out like a clever, indie film short, communicating complicated feelings through rich arrangements (piano guitar and electronics) and dramatic songwriting. Energetic while also soothing, the album carried me through plenty of writing deadlines, kept me company on dog-tired walks home and set the pace while dishwashing.
It's not perfect—if Knopf were a novelist, he could've used an editor to rein him in just a touch—but its imperfections remind me that the album is the triumph of an honest soul.
Yellow & Green, Baroness (Relapse): In a year that spawned too many amazing metal albums to mention, the brightest revelation in heavy music came when Georgia's Baroness decided to scale back their most explicit metal aspects. Expanding on their roots as a sludgy foursome with a psychedelic streak, Baroness explores a much wider spectrum on this 80-plus-minute double-album, harnessing the same intensity and raw emotion beneath a veil of restraint and acoustic instrumentation as they do with their fuzz-pedals cranked to the max.
And more than ever, vocalists John Baizley and Pete Adams exercise their singing voices, which is as much a practical consideration as an aesthetic one—screaming had proven to be unhealthy for their vocal cords. Few ideas get repeated throughout the duration of the album, and it's to the band's credit that something so sprawling can feel so cohesive.
With the band making such a dramatic transformation, purists may argue whether or not this album qualifies as "metal," but it's still heavy as fuck.
channelORANGE, Frank Ocean (Def Jam): Choosing channelORANGE as the best album of 2012 is like picking the Chicago Bulls to win it all back in '97—a totally unsurprising and obvious choice. Here, Ocean is R&B's very own Michael Jordan, an undeniable hotshot who knows he's at the top of his game as he redefines his niche in electrifying ways.
It's no surprise that all elements of his fabulous 2011 mixtape, nostalgia, ULTRA, have been significantly upgraded for this major-label debut: Whether he's channeling Stevie Wonder through the eyes of a downtrodden drug addict ("Crack Rock") or skillfully weaving tempo changes and epic storytelling over a 10-minute jam ("Pyramids"), he's constantly moving the music forward in unconventional ways.
What's more, Ocean turned a traditionally homophobic genre on its ear when he wrote on his Tumblr before the album came out that his first love was a man. This added a new dimension of interpretation to these expertly crafted songs, and it established the 25-year-old up-and-comer as a genuine game-changer.
Bloom, Beach House (Sub Pop): You never know what you're going to get with Beach House: Their rich, gorgeous sound can brighten your day, but depending on your mood, it can just as easily send you tumbling down a chasm of sadness and heartbreak. That's why I kept returning to Bloom, the Baltimore dream-pop duo's fourth album, so often this year.
On it, members Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally perfect their craft, navigating complex emotional territory with precision and control. What's remarkable is that when I listened, their songs always resonated with whatever I was feeling at that moment: Happiness, anger, sadness, frustration—it was all captured in their shimmering synths, crystalline guitars, deep rhythms and Legrand's radiant vocals.
Indeed, Beach House did what few musicians can—they made an album that feels just right, all the time.