10) Bruno Mars – Unorthodox Jukebox
Plagued by a December release, I doubt Bruno Mars’ second album will appear on many critic’s end of year lists. It deserves to though, refining the elements of his debut and perfecting his throwback style. Gorilla is a massive worldwide hit waiting to happen, possibly even more dramatic than Grenade, whilst Locked Out Of Heaven sounds just enough like The Police to make it a killer lead single. Jeff Bhasker and Diplo bring unique sounds to the production, I wasn’t prepared to be so taken aback by the sound of such a radio friendly artist’s album. That’s the magic of Unorthodox Jukebox, at once sonically relevant and daring it’s an album that lives up to the early promise seen on Bruno’s breakout hit Just The Way You Are. A brilliant way to kick off the top 10.
9) Sleigh Bells – Reign Of Terror
When I tell people to listen to Sleigh Bells, I always find it difficult to explain what they are. A duo comprised of producer/guitarist Derek Miller and singer Alexis Krauss, noise-pop is often a worthy description of the sound they create. Here there’s still plenty of the former, clattering drums and ear splitting guitar riffs are common themes across all 11 tracks, but the latter is what makes Reign of Terror a brilliant album. Alexis sounds like she could be in a girlband on songs like End of The Line and You Lost Me, the most lyrical songs the duo has produced yet. Then she’s back to screaming her way through album standout Demons, though still with expertly crafted hooks along for the ride. It’s not as immediately jarring as their debut release, but this is a stronger album, especially given it includes possibly the best song the group will ever produce, the near perfect Comeback Kid.
8) Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid M.A.A.D. City
Last year we had Drake’s Take Care, the year before was Kanye’s masterpiece Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but the Hip-Hop opus of 2012 is Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. It’s an honest record, the narrative believable whilst Kendrick’s unique delivery takes you deep into his home of Compton. The narrative is so evident throughout this is like The Wire the album, high praise from me indeed. Swimming Pools (Drank) isn’t just made for the clubs, it’s one of the many points where the production genuinely astounds, the album is full of those big production moments I love so much. It isn’t a problem that it isn’t a hit heavy record like the ones mentioned above, it’s the sort of album you simply couldn’t listen to in any other way than intended. Good Kid M.A.A.D. City continues the trend of introspective hip-hop, a theme continued in our next entry.
7) Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
It was obviously going to appear on my list, much like it has on just about every reputable music critic’s list of 2012. Channel Orange is an ‘album’, a complete listening experience where Frank Ocean delves deep into his own emotions, whilst delivering incredible double take moments that you can’t help but be impressed by. Opening with the most personal song on the album, Thinkin Bout You showcases Ocean’s expert use of simple lyrics to explain the sort of things it takes less talented writers minutes to convey. The early tracks continue this, the opening line of Sweet Life being my personal favourite on Channel Orange, ‘The best song wasn’t the single, and you weren’t either.’ That lyric is so clever yet so simple in both execution and Ocean’s delivery. But Channel Orange develops into so much more, soon you are 4 minutes deep into the epic Pyramids which seemingly transitions between 5 different songs, the central masterpiece in the most promising RnB debut in recent memory. Channel Orange is a journey of sound, grand in scale, yet introspective and emotive throughout.
6) Scissor Sisters – Magic Hour
I wasn’t expecting much from Magic Hour, I have always enjoyed Scissor Sisters’ singles but other than their debut I never really got the fuss with their albums. The brilliance of Magic Hour is in its simplicity, this is the Scissor Sisters doing what they do best with spectacular results. Baby Come Home is as catchy as I Don’t Feel Like Dancin and Only the Horses hands production duties to Calvin Harris with brilliant results. Shady Love and Let’s Have A Kiki are ridiculously fun but the best moments feature when things are less frantic. Inevitable is one of those mid tempo production heavy album tracks I love so much, whilst the throbbing dance beats that hide beneath Somewhere build to an incredibly euphoric finale. Magic Hour is one of 2012’s great pop albums, and takes a group that many had dismissed as old news to new heights.
5) Lana Del Rey – Born To Die
I wasn’t on board with Lana Del Rey during the hype surrounding her in late 2011, I never really gave Video Games a chance to grow on me, and she seemed a bit too indie for me. How wrong I was! I gave Born To Die a listen and was dumb founded by the album it actually was. Who was this weird red head, and how could she produce a pop record as refreshingly downbeat from seemingly nowhere. She’s such an instantly iconic star, both in terms of her classic look, and her unique vocal. I often explain to people that the main thing I love about Lana Del Rey is that she can’t really sing. This is a compliment mind, as the way she sing speaks her way through tracks like National Anthem and the incredible Blue Jeans turns these great songs into iconic moments in Pop. The Hip-Hop elements of the production thanks to Jeff Bhasker are striking against Lana’s voice, the same sounds echoing across the whole of Born To Die to make it sonically consistent. This is an album that lived up to its own hype, defining Lana as one of the most exciting female acts in recent memory.
4) Ellie Goulding – Halcyon
2 years ago, Ellie Goulding found herself at the number 4 spot on my albums list with her debut Lights, interestingly alongside Sleigh Bells and another artist yet to appear. She equals that achievement with follow up Halcyon, which matures her sound even further away from her singer songwriter roots. The drama levels are increased from the get go, album opener Don’t Say A Word full of stomping drums and frantic vocals. Figure 8 feels like it’s about to explode into Skrillex dubstep any second and that infectious ‘Ooh, ooh, ooh’ hook in Anything Can Happen is simple yet tremendously effective. In contrast, I Know You Care strips back the sound to just Ellie and a piano; Halcyon is consistently full of surprises. Two incredible albums in a row, Ellie Goulding has fast become my favourite UK Female Artist.
3) The Weeknd – Trilogy
I know this is technically cheating, Trilogy is a compilation of the three mix tapes The Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye) released in 2011, but I didn’t include any of those on last year’s list so now is time for credit to be given. Yet another introspective Hip-Hop/RnB artist, fast becoming my artist genre of choice it seems, but The Weeknd is in another league to the rest. Opening mixtape House Of Balloons may as well be described as perfect. A 9 track masterclass in pacing, it teases you with brief moments of intensity before exploding into a grinding slow jam or a hook nicked from elsewhere. Comparisons with Kanye, Drake and The-Dream are obvious on paper, but when listening to Trilogy The Weeknd is an artist all alone. His vocal is soulful and emotive without forcing itself to the front of the sound when it isn’t the main attraction. Fully in control of his own sound, The Weeknd creates music rather than just a collection of songs. He warns you in the opening track that ‘You wanna be high for this’ and if you aren’t wen you start, you most definitely will be once that closing track comes around.
2) Loreen – Heal
If you had told me that the winner of Eurovision 2012 would release the Pop album of the year I would have laughed in your face, but the impossible has happened. Euphoria went on to become the pop dance anthem of the summer, but Heal is so much more than a replication of this. My Heart Is Refusing Me is an even more dramatic dance anthem, just as euphoric (pardon the pun) as the lead single. Sidewalk and Everytime strip everything back, with Loreen remaining as striking in vocal delivery over a mid tempo as she over throbbing synth. The Robyn comparisons are obvious, both in the way that Loreen mispronounces certain words in a similar way to her fellow Swedish female and high quality dance music on offer throughout Heal. As anyone who follows my blog will know, sounding similar to Robyn can only be good, this surely being the strongest Pop album since 2010’s Body Talk trilogy. I’m a sucker for excellently produced Scandi-Pop, and Heal is as good as it gets.
1) Plan B- iLL Manors
I knew the moment I finished listening to iLL Manors that I would be honouring it with the top spot on my list. It’s a brutal, disgusting, heart wrenching, honest depiction of a time, a place and 2012 in London. It’s as relevant today as it will ever be, which may be to its detriment in years when albums of the decade are decided. ‘We got an Eco-friendly government, they preserve our natural habitat. Built an entire Olympic villagearound where we live without pulling down any flats’ heard in the opening title track defines this mentality, as well as mention of David Cameron throughout the rest of the album. Outside of this intro, each of the tracks focuses on a character from Ben Drew’s film of the same name, though given that much of iLL Manors was recorded after the film had been released it’s a much more polished product. Drew knows how to tell a story more eloquently and effectively than anyone one else currently recording. His raps have a consistent flow to them, his harsh language and unflinching attitude towards the dark side of life make it often an uncomfortable listen, which is exactly the point. You should feel horrible listening to graphic depictions of rape, you should want to switch the CD off when you hear the an iPhone video sound start as you hear a character being beaten up in one of the excerpts from the film. The album is constructed to channel these feelings whilst retaining the strong soulful/hip-hop vibes that made Plan B’s last album such a success. Deepest Shame and Playing With Fire are some of the best songs to come out of the UK in the last decade, the former being one of the few songs that made me cry in 2012. They mark the high points in an album full of incredible moments, a record where John Cooper Clarke can open a song with a poem and then be followed by the sound of a teenager throwing up after being forced to ‘take care’ of one of his mates. It’s not for the faint hearted, but iLL Manors is an album that makes you feel something in an era where business nearly always comes first to spreading a message. For me, 2012 will forever be known as the year of iLL Manors.