The final part of our Top 40 Albums of 2012 runs down numbers 5 to 1 with Grimes, Alt-J, Death Grips, Frank Ocean, and our favourite album of 2012, Bobby Womack's 'The Bravest Man In The Universe'.
5. GRIMES ‘Visions’ (4AD)
From ephemeral DIY elf to pop chameleon and onto to binary dance nymph, Grimes, AKA Claire Boucher, has been honing her digital alchemy for some years but ‘Visions’ has launched her onto front covers and into fashion directories with equal propulsion. Now there’ll be no stopping this creative, sensual explosion of humanity called Grimes.
BEST BIT: Witnessing her almost unfathomable trajectory between the SXSW 2011 showcase and again in 2012.
4. DEATH GRIPS ‘The Money Store’ (EPIC)
Last year was marked by riots, uprisings, and change. Death Grips rode the wave and burst onto the scene. This year they have been humbled. Not just by context, but by their own doing. Speaking in April, Flatlander from the group boasted how they had found the “perfect label” to sign to. How Epic “understood where we’re at, and what we’re doing.”
The label muted the band. They put back their releases and cancelled their tours. When they were about to explode with a new record, the strategists and the bureaucrats bound them.
In part due to my animosity, in part due to their myopia, it’s hard to sympathise with a band who claim to be students of The Wipers yet sign to a major, then complain. It suggests they’ve not been paying attention in class. There’s a youthful arrogance to the group - which doesn’t flatter a trio beyond their teens, but does flatter the music. Theirs is a charging, weaving, vexed sound, of an energised punk band existing in paranoid, post-9/11 America. They are as much about gold rush territorialism as cyber terrorism. They can be both your worst nightmare and your scout leader. They’re rude, infuriating, and abrasive, who deserve championing for the very same reason.
BEST BIT: Vocals and beats fed backwards on ‘Blackjack’, for Break Ya Neck peaking.
3. FRANK OCEAN ‘Channel ORANGE’ (MERCURY)
It seems a painfully obvious statement to make, but it needs to be emphasised that ‘Channel ORANGE’ is an album. Sitting alongside the Trap rap giants such as Rick Ross who have dominated a large percentage of hip-hop’s airwaves this year - throwaway records void of meaning that can be picked up and dropped at any point - separating Frank’s offering kind of makes sense.
From the muffled sounds of laughter and an iPhone message beep that begin the album, to the murky distorted version of old demo ‘Voodoo’ playing through a car stereo that brings it to a close, everything sounds like it’s supposed to be there and like it’s a happy coincidence all at once.
Soaking up every element of Ocean’s world, the ambient noises of LA life mix with musical references and inspirations from such eclectic sources that it’s a wonder the songs blend together as effortlessly and seamlessly as they do. From Bowie’s ‘China Girl’ influenced riff that carries through the entirety of ‘Lost’ to the electro heaven that is ‘Pyramids’, Frank makes every genre he tackles feel like it’s brand new. He covers well-worn subjects such as love, sex and drug abuse and somehow turns them into poetry so fresh you think he’d just invented the ideas; singing them with such earnest it’s certain the girl’s voice echoing across the end of the album is talking to him when she says: “You’re special, I wish you could see what I see.”
BEST BIT: Before Frank, I only ever thought Donny Hathaway had that much soul.
HAYELY LOUISA BROWN
2. ALT-J An Awesome Wave (INFECTIOUS MUSIC)
As far as breakthrough artists are concerned, 2012 was owned by one band. In November, when Alt-J captured the Mercury Prize for their magnificent debut album ‘An Awesome Wave’, it capped a fairytale twelve months for four lads who originally began playing together while studying at Leeds University.
Clash featured Alt-J back in January, which, such is their meteoric rise, seems like an aeon ago. At the time, talk centred around a faintly silly name - they are officially called ? but we know them as Alt-J, which is the shortcut keystroke for the delta sign on an Apple computer - and the minimalist gorgeousness of debut single ‘Tessellate’.
Then, in May, two releases a week apart would cement Alt-J’s place as the year’s ‘most exciting new band’. Firstly, the snaking throb of the brilliant ‘Breezeblocks’ single would seduce a pantheon of punters, while seven days later, ‘An Awesome Wave’ unleashed an eclectic majesty. An endlessly fascinating album - from the series of short interlude pieces, in particular the acapella harmonies of ‘Interlude 1’ segued beautifully into ‘Tessellate’ - to the fistful of standout songs, ‘An Awesome Wave’ constantly explored textures, rhythms and unconventional song structures.
“We never really intended to be a band,” guitarist Gwil Sainsbury told us in January. “We were just venting and doing some creative stuff on top of our university course work.” And the four friends got seriously creative. ‘Something Good’ bubbled beautifully around Joe Newman’s intriguing singing style (which drew comparisons with Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe), the shimmering ‘Dissolve Me’ explored their post-rave leanings, while both the gentle lull of ‘Matilda’ and the metallic growl of ‘Fitzpleasure’ were deliciously odd and instantly gratifying.
In many ways it was tricky trying to explain the Alt-J sound. Part art-rock, part beats-orientated, much of ‘An Awesome Wave’ was hard to compartmentalise as it shape-shifted in front of our ears. Back in January, the band themselves had a view on why their sonic palette was so multi-dimensioned. “We all agree on Metronomy and Radiohead,” Gwil revealed. “However, three quarters of the band agree of certain hip-hop groups and while Thom [Green] the drummer has a metal background, [keyboard player] Gus [Unger-Hamilton] was a chorister and for a large part of his life was brought up in the classical section of HMV.”
It’s not all been a breeze for Alt-J. ‘An Awesome Wave’ didn’t meet with universal critical approval (Clash loved it, of course, awarding it 9/10 and a full-page lead review, the only debut artist of 2012 to grab that honour) as some found the album contrived and over-fussy, while the band weathered a mini-backlash in the form of some snarky griping at their Mercury win. The negative jibes felt partisan and unfounded - put simply, Alt-J are a hugely talented new British band who made an album that sounded unlike anything else released in 2012. Their success - amid a sea of chart-based shit - is to be both lauded and cherished.
When we first met them, Clash noted how nice the Alt-J boys seemed. At the time they were devoid of anecdotes about rock and roll excess. “We don’t have any stories at all,” Gwil admitted. “We are like old men; we are quite boring. The only story we had was when Thom had a migraine at a festival and he threw up in a Portaloo.” Twelve months on, and the opportunities for debauchery have undoubtedly increased exponentially, but what is genuinely exciting about Alt-J is to imagine just how far they can push themselves musically. In 2012, the UK fell for an album brimming with invention and exuding extraordinary promise. In the future Alt-J could well become truly awesome.
BEST BIT: That moment on the mighty ‘Breezeblocks’ when the bassline first kicks in.
1. BOBBY WOMACK The Bravest Man In The Universe (XL Recordings)