The 2012 Remix Report Card, Vol. 9

Monday, December 31, 2012
"Bandz A Make Her Dance (Remix)" by Juicy J featuring French Montana, LoLa Monroe, Wiz Khalifa and B.o.B
Now that the first remix with Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz has been effectively instituted as the 'original' version and the (superior) solo Juicy J mixtape track forgotten by time, we get another, more overstuffed remix. After I spent the last few months tying "Bandz" and "Pop That" together as part of the 'horror movie strip club' rap radio trend, there's some kind of singularity happening when French shows up to recycle the flow from his own single. LoLa Monroe flows ok (and is still the video chick GOAT, props to Los for knocking her up) but her style is embarrassingly Nicki-lite. Wiz has his moments, B.o.B tries to turn the clock back on his crossover days after Taylor Swift duets weren't working but it's all just sad, and once again Juicy J has the best verse on any version of this song.
Best Verse: Juicy J
Overall Grade: B-

"Diamonds (Remix)" by Rihanna featuring Kanye West
I will stan for StarGate as the most consistent producers in top over the last few years, to the point that even when they make a song I hate, my beef is more with the vocals/lyrics than the track (see also: "Firework"). Still I was a little shocked at how much this beat is transformed when you hear a voice besides Rihanna's on it -- turning on the radio I was like "damn this new Kanye is fire, I don't remember anything from Cruel Summer being this good." Plus the whole Roc/"Diamonds From Sierra Leone" angle, while on the nose, works. Even with some really cringe-inducing lines and that Fresh Prince tangent (and that mask he wore while performing this the other night), Kanye just brings the perfect energy to redeem this track.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: B+

"Die Young (Remix)" by Ke$ha featuring Wiz Khalifa, Juicy J and Becky G
I'm not sure who this Becky G person is, but putting her on tracks with more established white girl kinda-rappers like Ke$ha and Cher Lloyd doesn't really work, and having the remix with her and with Wiz and Juicy seems like trying to do two things at once and failing at both.
Best Verse: Juicy J
Overall Grade: C

"No Worries (Remix)" by Lil Wayne f/ Rick Ross and Detail
Just a Ross verse tacked onto the original, absolutely nothing to see her, notwithstanding gross line about dick-biting.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: C

"Sorry (Remix)" by Ciara featuring Future
"Promise" is an all-time classic and this song is OK but Ciara really just shouldn't have tried to shamelessly to rewrite her greatest song. But that blueprint is corroded enough by the Future version that it becomes its own thing and it's pretty tremendous -- even Ciara's vocal is just ten times better and more engaged.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: A

"Turn On The Lights (Remix)" by Future featuring Ciara
I'm not mad at the rash of Future thug love R&B duets the last few months -- Rihanna's "Loveeeeeee Song" is great and the Kelly Rowland single version of "Neva End" is a good way of flipping a song that would otherwise be too similar to "Turn On The Lights" to function as a good follow-up single. But this Ciara/Future combo, while not as bad as the Weezy remix of "Lights" a few months ago, just doesn't work nearly as well as the "Sorry" remix. That weird midrange voice she's doing is just bad.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: D

"Who Booty (Remix)" by Jonn Hart featuring French Montana
It's bad enough that IamSu! got pushed further out of the spotlight in that LoveRance song by the 50 Cent version, but now he's on another up-and-coming hit and east coast radio's been stealing a west coast cat's shine in order to get another terrible French verse on the radio.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: F

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Baltimore band J. Roddy Walston & The Business recently made their first national TV appearance, performing on VH1's Big Morning Buzz Live, and I wrote a post about it on the City Paper's Noise blog and linked the footage.

My Top 50 Albums of 2012

Friday, December 28, 2012

This year my listening habits were dominated by Spotify, which I fell hard for in late 2011 (and which I don't feel great about -- I'm aware of the ramifications of listeners like me using streaming services that pay pitifully low royalties to artist, and want to go back to buying my favorite music someday when I'm not horribly poor, but for now this is an imperfect but legal compromise). And one pretty direct result of living in the cloud, streaming most of the music I listened to this year from Spotify as well as sites like Bandcamp and DatPiff, is that I heard a lot more full-lengths than in most years previous. The flipside of that, of course, is that I listened to each of those albums, even my favorites, less than I would've in other years. I've never been a big repeat listener, though -- I've kind of taught my brain to savor and remember things from individual listens because I don't really like hearing a record more than once in the space of a week, whereas a lot of music listeners I know will play a new and/or beloved record several times a day, which I generally hate to do unless under a tight deadline. 

The long and short of it is that I've been doing a top 50 for a few years that often functions as a kind of 'yearbook' of the majority of what I listened to, ranked from best to worst. This year, I heard so much that it was easy to come up with 50 I feel pretty strongly about and cut everything I didn't actually like or had serious reservations about. It was also the first year I decided to include Baltimore artists in my main list of top albums. Around this time last year I had a conversation with a Baltimore label owner about why I didn't do that, and I stand by the reasons I had then, but it made sense to change up this year. I've always submitted separate 'local' and 'national' lists for the Baltimore City Paper's Ton Ten issue. But since this year I started a band and started collaborating and playing shows with local bands, and some of my favorite Baltimore records were by those collaborators or made at the same studio I record at, there was stuff I omitted from my City Paper lists because of conflicts of interest, and so it only makes sense to at least talk about them here. 

I also made a Spotify playlist of one of my favorite tracks from each of these releases (or, rather, the 42 of them that had tracks on Spotify): 

1. Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream
A year ago, Miguel was quickly becoming one of my favorite new artists in R&B with "Sure Thing" and the other songs from his sleeper hit 2010 debut, while the new critical narrative forming around the genre focused on a couple of guys who didn't have hits like Miguel and, more important to me, couldn't fucking sing like Miguel. He continued to rule 2012 R&B radio, while that narrative continued to congeal into a big ugly Jell-O mold of received wisdom and clueless generalizations, made more complicated by the fact that those other cats started making radio hits, and Miguel finally got overdue props from critics. R&B was exciting and yielded some great albums this year, but that was true last year, and the year before, and the year before that, and so on. Still, better late than never, because Miguel was in the fucking zone this year, first creeping in with those Art Dealer Chic EPs that, honestly, would've added up to one of my favorite albums of the year by themselves if this album hadn't poached most of its best jams (and let me be clear, I am repping for the Target deluxe edition which also inclues "...All" and "Gravity"). But then the full single version of "Adorn" destroyed everything in its path, and the album actually managed to live up to that lofty standard by sounding completely different and dizzyingly varied. The gleaming stadium rock guitars of "Use Me" and "The Thrill," the popping breakbeats of "Where's The Fun In Forever" and "Kaleidoscope Dream," the absolutely bananas stuttering reggae of "Do You," I'm just staggered by the way this guy is able to draw in all these sounds and make them all sound compatible with his voice. 

2. Dead Sara - Dead Sara
It feels like the number of straight-up rock bands, who are neither so indie that all the rock has been drained out of what they do, or so metal that heaviness for heaviness’ sake has taken precedent over things like songs and hooks, have taken up a smaller and smaller piece of the pie over the years, both commercially and critically. Of course, those bands still exist, there just aren’t many worth trying to buck that trend to champion, and in 2012 Dead Sara was the most exciting one to me. Not much on their self-titled debut rocks as hard as the killer single “Weatherman,” but then neither did much else by other bands. And the album surrounding that song is surprisingly well rounded, with the band’s formidable wind-tunnel dynamics blasting off even behind some fairly tender, midtempo stuff without ever turning into a corporate rock power ballad mush.

3. Future - Pluto
A year ago, I never would’ve guessed that Future would make one of my favorite albums of 2012 – “Racks” seemed like a derivative fluke hit (which it was, but has grown on me nonetheless) and “Tony Montana” was just lousy (and it’s still the worst song on this album). But the singles and mixtape that followed early in 2012 quickly won me over and I started to grant that, OK, maybe this guy whose AutoTune hooks and unimaginative ‘outer space weirdo’ rhetoric seemed beamed in from 2009 was actually more talented and unique than I’d given him credit for. And as the album spun off hit after hit after hit, and bigger and bigger stars started calling for guest appearances, it felt stranger and stranger that I’d ever doubted dude.

4. Mark Lanegan Band - Blues Funeral
The idea of Mark Lanegan marrying his iconic grunge growl to eclectic, beat-driven production looked like a dicey idea on paper, at worst perhaps even a rerun of the Chris Cornell/Timbaland disaster. But Lanegan, whose set of collaborators has always belied a more diverse sensibility than you might expect from the guy from Screaming Trees, knew what he was doing, and Blues Funeral is ultimately a slightly more daring progression from the sound he was already putting forth on 2004’s Bubblegum, executed with more vision and even a better ear for hooks.

5. Melanie Fiona - The MF Life 
I fell hard for Melanie Fiona’s voice in 2011 on various singles and guest appearances, and was pretty primed for this album to be great, perhaps better than it ultimately was. But while The MF Life has its shortcomings, they’re largely cosmetic ones, like subpar guest rappers or less than ideal sequencing (both come into play when the album opens with a bland J. Cole collaboration). Fiona’s voice continues to seduce me, though, and material like “Wrong Side Of A Love Song” just lets it loose in the most heartbreaking, compelling ways.

6. Rufus Wainwright - Out Of The Game
Rufus Wainwright’s self-titled 1998 debut was one of my favorite moping albums as a lonely, lovesick 16-year-old. I realize now that the unrequited love and romantic frustrations of a gay man are poignant for reasons not shared by those of a straight teenage boy, but the fact is those songs transcended those differences and resonated with me. I’ve had trouble connecting with most of Wainwright’s subsequent albums quite as much, perhaps because I wasn’t as much of a sadsack later on, but Out Of The Game is either a return to form or just my return as a fan. In fact it surprised me to see that this was being marketed as his ‘danceable’ Mark Ronson-produced album, because it had struck me as pretty aesthetically close to that beloved debut. And it’s kind of nice now, as a father and husband, to hear songs from Wainwright about his own experiences becoming a father and husband, which I can appreciate have a much different context for him that’s still resonant. I'm still curious to know where Nels Cline plays on this album. 

7. Dwight Yoakam - 3 Pears
On his classic 1986 debut, Dwight Yoakam celebrated “guitars, cadillacs and hillbilly music,” and on his awesome latest it’s amended only slightly to “dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music.” In the decades in between, he became one of country’s biggest stars, then faded from view, and took off his hat and revealed an unflattering hairline for some impressively unglamorous acting roles. These days, he could probably do just movies and forget about the music, but he continues to rock harder and smarter than almost anyone else in country, while throwing in impishly absurd songs like “Waterfalls.”

8. Dev - The Night The Sun Came Up
When Dev entered the public eye singing about “sippin’ sizzurp” on pop rap group Far East Movement’s “Like A G6,” it was reasonable to assume she’d take the familiar role of obnoxious Fergie or Ke$ha-type white girl copping rap moves. But the album that she eventually released, in some countries in 2011 but in the U.S. and U.K. in 2012, is surprisingly twee: her opaque voice often dropping any pretense of swag and singing painfully earnest synth pop songs. Her production team, the brilliantly versatile The Cataracs, are best known for slick L.A. pop crunk in the vein of “Like A G6” and a handful of other hits, but their productions on The Night The Sun Came Up are sometimes such delicate toybox pop symphonies that I could easily mistake them for The Bird And The Bee songs.

9. Meek Mill - Dreams And Nightmares
It’s been a long time since an East coast mixtape shouter got anywhere near major label rap stardom, and even longer since one actually retained an aggressive sound once they finally got to release an album. Meek’s 2011 breakthrough mixtape Dreamchasers was my favorite rap release of that year, and while its 2012 sequel mixtape and the ensuing album didn’t contain any head-busters quite as potent as “I’m A Boss” and “House Party,” I’m still very satisfied that the guy got onto big box store CD shelves with a pretty hardheaded Philly rap record. The title track to Dreams And Nightmares, an incredible 4-minute tour de force often inaccurately described as an “intro,” may be his masterpiece.

10. Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet On Sky
The overwhelming majority of bands who reunite after a long hiatus just tour the old hits, and maybe do a one-off album of new material. A healthy number of others get out a second album. And a very small number ever get to a third. That third album being great is almost astronomically unlikely. And yet here we are, and the legendarily dysfunctional dudes in Dinosaur Jr. have now made as many records post-reunion as the original lineup did back in the ‘80s. More remarkable, their batting average is higher now than it was then (they’ll never top You’re Living All Over Me, but the other two have more attainable heights). I’m still heartbroken about the fact that I won’t get to enjoy a good-to-great new Sonic Youth album every 2 or 3 years anymore, but if Dinosaur is picking up the reigns I’d be happy about that.

11. Bruno Mars - Unorthodox Jukebox
For the last 3 years, Bruno Mars has been the most talented person in pop music that it’s really hard to root for or get excited about. The run of blockbuster hits that preceded and accompanied his debut album had at least one astoundingly annoying hook or corny joke for every undeniable melody and feat of pop craftsmanship. Unorthodox Jukebox isn’t totally devoid of bad idea jeans; one song is about “makin’ love like gorillas,” and the two best-sounding tracks are both surprisingly nasty odes to gold-digging

12. Among Wolves - This Is A Wave Goodbye
As previously mentioned, this was the first year since I think 2005 that I just integrated Baltimore artists into my big year-end albums list instead of just keeping them purely on a ‘local albums’ list (although there were lots of Baltimore people on my 2000-2009 decade list). And Among Wolves made my favorite Baltimore album of the year. They’re a band I’ve seen live around town and been really impressed by over the years, and they always seemed to have all these great unreleased songs in their set from an album that was in the works for the longest time. So it was exciting just to finally get studio recordings of those songs this year, which totally lived up to the epic drunken shows. And after having a bunch of mutual friends, and exchanging some online pleasantries, I finally met these dudes the other night because I unknowingly booked an opener at my show (Bryson Dudley & Downbound) that featured multiple members of Among Wolves. Baltimore’s always a small town like that.

13. Dawn Richard - Armor On EP
I’ve written passionately and repeatedly now about both Diddy-Dirty Money’s Last Train To Paris and the great solo projects Diddy’s groupmates have gone on to make since then. Armor On is very much post-Last Train To Paris, but manages to take that brooding, vaguely dancey vibe way out into its own territory where Richard further refines her voice and persona. 

14. Lee Ranaldo - Between The Tides And Times
For as long as Sonic Youth has been my favorite band, which is most of my life at this point, I’ve obsessed over every song written and sung by Lee Ranaldo on the band’s albums, snapped up his various solo projects full of spoken word and sound sculpture, and fantasized about what it would be like if he led the band for a full album, or made a song-based solo album. This year, I finally got to hear the latter, and in a way it just never would be able to live up to my imagination, but it was still pretty good, with an ace backing band including Steve Shelley and Nels Cline.

15. The Water - Scandals And Animals
The first time I saw The Water a few years ago, they blew me away like instrumental bands rarely do, just two guys setting off a bunch of loops and a homemade lighting rig and playing these huge dramatic tunes. I also knew almost immediately that my friend and producer Mat Leffler-Schulman of Mobtown Studios would love them, and sure enough soon after he discovered them independently of me and started working with them. And their full-length debut both lived up to my hopes for the band and resulted in probably my favorite album has produced to date (full disclosure in addition to the above: I wrote the press bio for this album, and invited the band to play my birthday party back in January).

16. Ichicuts - Filthy First Year
Another band that I got into just catching a show in Baltimore, although these guys are based in New York, also a duo that makes a big sound with help of loops and puts on an impressive show with some low-budget lighting. Totally different otherwise, though, these guys have kind of a funky, bass-heavy pop/rock sound, some of the songs are just tremendously catchy.

17. Elle Varner - Perfectly Imperfect
Elle Varner’s debut single “Only Wanna Give It To You” was so annoying and cloying and self-consciously retro, and the follow-up single “Refill” was so fresh and unique and perfect, that I kind of feared that her album would split the difference, or prove that the latter was a fluke. Thankfully, though, the production of Oak & Pop really brought out the best in Varner’s over-the-top vocal style and fitted her with one of the best (almost) front-to-back production jobs in popular music this year.

18. Jeremih - Late Nights With Jeremih
Jeremih’s first two major label albums were, like Elle Varner’s debut, great overlooked full-length production jobs by a relatively known beatmaker and songwriter, Mick Schultz. Late Nights With Jeremih, by contrast, is a free stopgap mixtape full of collaborations with big name producers and guest rappers. And contrary to some of the enthusiastic but tonedeaf press this mixtape has gotten, it does not feature Jeremih playing catch-up with The Weeknd but simply continuing his already established persona and vocal style with some mildly new production sounds. But also great. I don’t really know why his label didn’t just fast-track this stuff for his 3rd official album or at least push one or two songs as radio singles.

19. ZZ Top - La Futura
People tend to take a dim view of millionaires staying in the spotlight as long as they possibly can, but longevity in popular music is still kind of uncharted waters that I find fascinating – we’ll never know how long a band can keep going until the Stones finally give it up or die off. Of course, the fascination rarely has to do with the new music being especially good, which is why it was so exciting to hear a band as old as ZZ Top, guys who have looked like wizened old sages literally since before I was born, turn up with a pretty kickass record that opens with an interpolation of a southern rap song that manages to not be embarrassing.

20. Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Sometimes the hyperbole around an album is so stifling that just placing it outside your top 10 amounts to a sacrilegious insult that must be explained, or at least that’s how I feel putting this here. It’s a good record, certainly kind of a miraculously uncompromised and timely one for a major label debut, much less an Aftermath release. But Kendrick has one of the worst voices ever possessed by an undeniably talented rapper, and said talent can be a bit overestimated when he rocks the same flashy triplet flow on almost any kind of beat and his earnest word salads sometimes shake out as eye-rolling nonsense if you actually think about what he’s saying. Still, some really impressive songs on here and the kind of sustained mood that’s hard to achieve on any kind of rap record.

21. War On Women - Improvised Weapons EP
I’d been a big fan of Shawna Potter and Brooks Harlan’s band Avec, who have been on a break the last few years, and when I was working on my record decided to ask Potter to record some vocals. After the session, she mentioned the new band she and Brooks had, War On Women, and I was looking forward to checking it out. But really I had no idea just how jaw-dropping incredible the band’s confrontational live show and thunderous debut record would turn out to be: both roughly 20 minutes of sharply worded, fiercely intelligent feminist punk that’s as heavy as ‘80s thrash.

22. Keyshia Cole - Woman To Woman
Love her or hate her, Keyshia Cole has a pretty impressive control over her sound compared to most other contemporary R&B singers; while others shapeshift and strain to meet producers halfway, every Keyshia album is full of different writers and producers who all end up making immediately identifiable Keyshia Cole songs. In that way she’s a little like ex-boyfriend Young Jeezy. That can have a deadening effect sometimes, particularly on her subpar last album, but on Woman To Woman she really hits all those predictable but effective emotional notes she needs to do with the right backing and the right hooks.

23. The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten
Major label debuts aren’t the minefield for rock bands that they once were, or still are for rappers. But the stakes can still at least feel high, especially for a band like The Gaslight Anthem, whose most obvious influences play arenas and stadiums, and who stayed on a little indie for one more album even after the majors came calling, as if trying to delay that moment when things could either get huge or go down the toilet. Ultimately, though, they made another Gaslight Anthem album, and even Brendan O’Brien behind the producer’s chair didn’t exactly turn them into Pearl Jam, for better or worse.

24. Farrah Abraham - My Teenage Dream Ended
Phrases like “outsider art” or “so bad it’s good” or “accidental masterpiece” are loaded terms, meant to put some kind of rhetorical spin on the simple fact that sometimes unique, compelling music isn’t made by a skilled artist who’s in complete knowing command of what they’re accomplishing. But I think there are larger and more interesting gray areas than those concepts usually make room for, and somewhere in there, a reality TV star like Farrah Abraham can make a wholly engrossing, emotionally harrowing album full of bent and broken tropes of modern AutoTuned pop music. I can honestly say that few, if any, albums have ever captured the existential terror and anxiety of parenthood as well as this album; it’s a bit like Eraserhead in that way.

25. Mouse On Tha Track - Millionaire Dreamzzz
I always dug Mouse's Trill Ent. productions and was pleasantly surprised by his solo material on the Swagga Fresh Freddie mixtape, so it's good to hear that wasn't a fluke and he's still improving as a rapper and solo artist, smoothing out his vocal presence and connecting it more deeply to his camp's old style and all his Louisiana rap roots. "What A Good Feeling" is such a huge hook, shame about some of the shit he talks in the verses. 

26. Heartless Bastards - Arrow
I didn’t spend as much time with Arrow as I had the previous Heartless Bastards album The Mountain, but I got the distinct impression that was my problem and not the album’s, because as I listened to it while finishing this list I ended up bumping it up many spots, love their whole twangy apocalyptic vibe. 

27. Ken Stringfellow - Danzig In The Moonlight
Ken Stringfellow is honestly one of my favorite songwriters of all time, certainly my favorite who wouldn’t be on barely anybody else’s list – the guy just has a huge catalog of songs, both with the Posies and solo and with other projects (like The Disciplines, who were in my top 10 last year) that I feel in my bones. This album is a strange one for him, from the goofy title on down, and it’s interesting to see someone so closely associated with an ostensibly bland genre like “power pop” becoming so increasingly esoteric and unpredictable as his career goes on.

28. Nas - Life Is Good
Nas’s post-Illmatic career has been spotty and frustrating, but the inability of hip-hop fans to accept his post-Illmatic albums as neither masterpieces nor betrayals of his talent is more frustrating. He’s a major talent who often makes minor records, and maybe as they head into middle age it’s better to look at him as Dylan to Jay’s perennial blockbuster-factory Stones. And he’s never sounded more comfortable with that kind of legacy than he does on Life Is Good, for once having more of a story to tell about his life than just about whether he’s the greatest rapper alive or if someone’s challenging his title.

29. Pink - The Truth About Love
Pink doesn’t make a better album than her last every time out (she may have peaked with 2008’s defiant, heartbroken Funhouse, which this is in some ways merely a very effective retread of). But she seems to win over more skeptics and become a more accepted part of the pop firmament with each passing year and album cycle. Noone wants to put her on the level of Britney or Gaga or Clarkson, but she’s slowly, dilligently built a catalog that could trump or at least confidenty compete with any of them. And her latest album is no exception, with Greg Kurstin stepping in as an effective new producer and songwriting foil, and the unlikely phase of Pink the wise mother and wife fitting her better than one could expect.

30. Say Anything - Anarchy, My Dear
I intensely admire Max Bemis and Say Anything both for the world-beating catharsis of their best work, and the musical and emotional risks they constantly take to provide both those successes and the occasional cringe-inducing failure. Their latest album is a pretty even mix of that good and bad they always walk a tightrope between, but I’m always happy to get a few new additions to the canon if incredible Say Anything songs – “Overbiter” alone was worth the whole thing, really.

31. E-40 - The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil Parts 1, 2 & 3
E-40’s late career rally to become the most prolific and consistent (hard things to do at once) rapper over the age of 40 has been exciting and admirable, but 2012 was definitely the year that his outpour of new material started to hit diminishing returns – he released two albums a year in 2010 and 2011, but this year he released three solo albums, plus two duo albums with Too $hort where 40 Water was clearly the driving force. Still, the three Block Brochure albums were pretty damn great when they weren’t just overwhelming in their sheer bulk.

32. Von Vargas - World Famous Lexington Market
Von Vargas is a guy that had been lurking around the Baltimore hip-hop scene for longer than I’d been paying attention to it, and somehow I never really heard his music until this album dropped a couple months ago, and went and interviewed him and learned about his long history in the game. I love these kinds of smart, solid underground rap albums that can only be made with a lot of heart and experience.

33. Gary B & The Notions - How Do We Explode
Gary B & The Notions are one of my favorite bands in Baltimore, just a good straight-ahead pop/rock band with a singer whose voice and viewpoint are just strange enough to keep the whole thing interesting. How Do We Explode was, appropriately, a little more bombastic and muscular than their previous records, and to some extent I wonder if they lost a little of their offbeat charm in the pursuit of a tighter rock sound, but I dunno, it still might also be their best.

34. Hammer No More The Fingers - Pink Worm EP 
Hammer No More The Fingers are a North Carolina band who are friends of Gary B’s and have been coming up and playing shows in Baltimore for a few years. This is the first time they released a record in a year that I was paying attention, and it was just an EP, but it was a really really good EP where every song hit pretty hard.

35. 2 Chainz - Based On A T.R.U. Story
Fun, as a virtue, as a guiding principle, is at an all-time low in mainstream rap these days; even the strip club songs tend to have a grim, obligatory air. 2 Chainz, suddenly in his mid-30’s a genuine unit-shifting star, is having the time of his life and totally fucking sounds like it. Based is no masterpiece, and could’ve used a couple less earnest tracks to really earn its role as hip-hop’s party album of the year, but I still feel like dude’s dumb-smart punchlines and irrepressible energy brought more to the game than most people give him credit for.

36. Gunplay - 601 & Snort
Gunplay, like 2 Chainz, is a gangly, weird-looking also-ran who’s been getting long in the tooth crewing with bigger stars for years before his recent, unlikely ascent – he’s just a little earlier in that rise than 2 Chainz at the moment, and it’s not clear whether his various legal troubles will keeping from continuing to thrive. But 601 & Snort, the better of his two buzz-cementing 2012 mixtapes, is probably the most fun I've had listening to an MC wreck other rappers' beats in years. 

37. Kalenna - Chamber of Diaries
The other girl from Diddy-Dirty Money may have gotten less attention than Dawn Richard this year, but it wasn’t because she wasn’t also making great songs – “Poison” and “Matte Black Truck” are as good as anything on Dawn’s EP. It’s just that Chamber of Diaries was a mixtape with some really inessential remixes and incredibly annoying guest rappers, and in general just lacked a sustained mood or thoughtful sequencing, things that Dawn excelled at.

38. Eleni Mandell - I Can See The Future
Eleni Mandell has grown into one of my favorite singer/songwriters over the last few years. I Can See The Future never got under my skin like her last two albums, Artificial Fire and Miracle of Five, but it’s possible I just didn’t spend enough time with it. Her soothing voice and dryly sophisticated lyrics sounded as great as ever, though.

39. Tate Kobang – The Book of Joshua
Tate Kobang is a rapper whose name I haven’t heard around Baltimore much yet, but I feel like it really should. His mixtape just stood out in a year when I really failed to pay attention to the scene as much as I had in previous years and had an even harder time finding new artists to get excited about.

40. DDm - Winter And The Tinman's Heart EP
I’ve known DDm and been a fan of his music for years and years, and it’s been great to see him come into his own artistically, in addition to coming out of the closet and being honest with the public about who he is, which couldn’t have been easy. This is another EP that’s basically as long and substantial as most EPs, and I’m pretty curious to see what he does next.

41. Dave Fell – Baltimore Backlog
Schwarz (producer of DDm’s “Click Pow”) put me onto this Dave Fell record, which I should’ve known about already since Fell played the killer basslines on one of my favorite Baltimore records of last year, White Life’s self-titled debut. This is really just a great collection of home recordings in various states of completion that feels more like an album than anyone could reasonably expect.

42. Donald Fagen - Sunken Condos
Donald Fagen sounded like a cranky old man at the beginning of Steely Dan’s career (think about this for a second: “Reelin’ In The Years” is 40 years old now), so to watch the guy actually become ancient has been as fascinating as with Bob Dylan or Tom Waits or any other formerly-young-old-man. And the funny thing is he actually sounds enlivened and funky on this record, still chasing waxy perfection while exploring songwriting territory that no true soft jazz smoothie would ever get near.

43. Little Feat - Rooster Rag
Little Feat, like Steely Dan, are a band I grew up with on my dad’s stereo who I’ve grown to love as one of my own favorite bands as an adult, and have continued to be worth following even in the decades following the death of founder and songwriter Lowell George. Rooster Rag, however, is their first album since the more recent death of original drummer Richie Hayward (as well as since the departure of vocalist Shaun Murphy), and instead of dwelling on that loss they fall right back into the grooves he helped originate, a rich, idiosyncratic gumbo of southern styles. 

44. Loudon Wainwright III - Older Than My Old Man Now
While other old men were defying mortality this year, Loudon Wainwright III was contemplating it in the acerbic, light-hearted way only he can. Rufus may have made one of my top 10 albums this year with his considerably more melodious voice and sentimental pop smarts, but his old man that I’ve always struggled more to appreciate made an enduring statement on what it’s like to endure past your life expectancy.

45. Jumpcuts - Electrickery 
As I’ve already mentioned, I put a lot of records by Baltimore artists in this year’s lists, many of whom I know in some capacity, and Andy Shankman of Jumpcuts is the one I’ve worked and hung out with the most, as he’s playing guitar in my band Western Blot and sings a couple songs on the album I’ve got coming out next year. But the reason I had worked with him in the first place is I’d dug his band and felt some kinship with what Jumpcuts were doing, kind of a different approach to synth-driven rock music. I’d heard the unmastered Electrickery for a while before it was finally released this year, and “Singular” was always my jam and still is.

46. Ne-Yo - R.E.D.
It’s easy to be cynical about Ne-Yo making moves towards uptempo dance pop, after making his name with thoughtful R&B ballads, at a time when the commercial tide is turning that way and he seems to be just following in the footsteps of Usher and Chris Brown. But the fact is, Ne-Yo’s smooth, clean voice has always sounded good on those kinds of songs (“Closer” and the “Give Me Everything” chorus have always been career highlights, in my opinion), and his early interviews about this album featuring “six pop records and six R&B records” were actually deceptive – this is almost entirely an R&B album with occasional stylistic detours, which include not just dance pop but a Tim McGraw collaboration that’s better than it has a right to be. It may not be up to the heights of his first three albums, but it’s a solid return to form after the deeply forgettable Libra Scale.

47. Young Dro - Ralph Lauren Reefa
Shortly after this mixtape dropped, Young Dro announced that he was changing his name to 3Krazy or some bullshit like that; I think that’s a good point at which to say I’m done stanning for dude. There’ve been 6 good years of mixtapes and guest verses after his first and only major label album, and his music is still enjoyable, but it’s just sad now. Glad I was able enjoy one last mixtape, one of his best to date really.

48. Soundgarden - King Animal
It wouldn’t be fair to say Soundgarden went out on top, but Down On The Upside was probably their most experimental album and one that has aged well for me. So I operated under the optimistic assumption that if the band ever got back together, it would be because they wanted to continue that unpredictable creative path they were on. And I only really started to lose hope when that bland soundtrack single “Live To Rise” surfaced earlier this year. But even while the album could never live up to my lofty expectations, it’s still a Soundgarden album and it has some serious flashes of what I loved about the band, alongside some of the more generic aging hard rock band moves and Chris Cornell’s sadly deteriorated pipes.

49. Sara Bareilles - Once Upon Another Time EP 
2012 was a good year for middle-tier major label acts to drop EPs and mixtapes that revealed heretofore unexplored musical or emotional range, experimentalism or X-rated material. If you were an R&B singer that fit into a popular critical narrative, that is. If you were my VH1 boo Sara Bareilles, then your offbeat, intimate EP, featuring a gorgeous a cappella opening on the title track, the killer brooding pop song "Lie To Me" and the pottymouth novelty "Sweet As Whole," then no, nobody cared but me. 

50. Firewater - International Orange!
Firewater definitely peaked with their early ‘90s albums, but they’ve staged a bit of a comeback with the last couple records playing up their whole drunken international wedding band schtick more than ever and having fun with the contrast between that sound and Tod A’s seedy down-and-out wordplay. And, as with their last album, this one grew on me more after seeing them give one of the best live shows I saw all year.