Sunday, December 9, 2012

The QH Blend's Records of 2012

Another year, another batch of records released into the world to soundtrack our lives. This year held several surprises and made the case that there is always something to discover under the surface. One simply has to look beyond what is provided. The QH Blend took to a simpler and all-inclusive approach for 2012.

Below the records of the year are split into five sections: "Hits," "Almost, but...," "Misses," "Honorable Mention," and "Considerations." For the latter, I buy all of my music legally and sadly I can't buy every record within the year of its release. See the mentioned category for a full listing of artists considered. For previous entries on The QH Blend for year-end reviews, see the following hyperlinks: [2008] [2009] [2010] [2011].

Record of 2012
Vows (Warner Bros.)
Finally making its (complete) global debut this year, New Zealander Kimbra’s Vows is the dynamo of 2012. Each song is its own mini-epic guided by the insanely adaptable voice of Kimbra, the featured vocalist of Gotye’s Stateside hit “Somebody That I Used to Know.” From the freestyle meets Motown zing of “Cameo Lover” to the power ballad “Old Flame,” Kimbra’s pop is all heart and art, accept no substitutes.

Listen/Watch “Settle Down” here

Return to Paradise* (Island Records)
Sam Sparro’s Prince influences are exchanged, with an exception to the acid cool of the titular cut, for a D-Train meets Deee-Lite pattern.  Return to Paradise takes the best from throwback disco heat and pairs it with early ‘90’s dance music with a modish pulse. Sparro is in fine voice throughout on “Paradise People,” the lovechild of Blondie’s “Rapture,” and the cruise ‘o’ funk of “Let the Love In.”

In Our Heads (Domino)
Hot Chip, England’s favorite acerbic pop outfit, is back with their fifth album, In Our Heads. If the title is correct, what is in Hot Chip’s head is a mesmeric brew of S.A.W., Zapp, and Daft Punk styles that combine pop, dance, and electronic music across eras. These genres, contrary to popular opinion, don’t always run together. Here however, they sashay and strut together on “Motion Sickness” and “Don’t Deny Your Heart” with sickening ease.

Listen/Watch “Night & Day” here

Covered (429)
Macy Gray continually defies the genre gravity of R&B that grounds her peers. Covered, Gray’s first covers album was a revelatory read into Gray’s own eclectic tastes. The material is performed with care, humor, and acuity that prove that Gray isn’t showing signs of slowing down. Read the full QH Blend review here.

Two Eleven^ (RCA/Chameleon)
Norwood's sixth LP Two Eleven is a fantastic interplay of contemporary and established aesthetics. La Norwood navigates soundfields of hip-hop aggression (“Put It Down”), sensual soul (“Paint This House”), and riveting R&B (“Wildest Dreams”) with her familiar peppered tones. Read the full QH Blend review here.

Listen/Watch “Wildest Dreams” here

channel Orange^ (Def Jam)
Stepping out into his own spotlight, Frank Ocean created the conversationalist music piece of 2012 with channel Orange. A difficult, but consistent medley of post-modern R&B, Ocean is strong as a singer and songwriter in his own right. Matching every ounce of hype generated, channel Orange is sure to be remembered as Ocean’s brave first moment in a string of accomplishments. Read the full QH Blend review here.

Listen/Watch “Pyramids” here

Push & Shove (Interscope)
Absent for 11 years, No Doubt’s sixth album Push and Shove was highly anticipated. The gang delivered on the promise of accomplished musicianship, if not acquiescing to the climate driving popular music in 2012. Their most personal album to date, Push and Shove isn't as racket ready as some of their punky past efforts, but a few rollicking numbers in the title track and “Settle Down” more than make up for the patient pace of the LP. Read the full QH Blend review here.

Listen/Watch “Settle Down” here

Words & Music by Saint Etienne*^ (Heavenly/Universal)
The pristine pop trio Saint Etienne returned with Words & Music, an epic tour de force that combined varying elements from British pop past, present, and future. Sarah Cracknell, the female vocalist of the outfit, is still the pink plush realness when handling the electro-acoustic fantasias of “Haunted Jukebox” and “Heading For the Fair.”

Listen/Watch “I’ve Got Your Music” here

The Spirit Indestructible^ (Interscope)
Striking a balance between the conformity of Loose (2006) and the expressive highs of Whoa, Nelly! (2000), Folkore (2003), and Mi Plan (2009) The Spirit Indestructible is a pop record that is proper due to its kaleidoscopic range. Whether cathedral cathartic (“Spirit Indestructible”) or knowingly placing her hip-hop-lite tongue in cheek (“Big Hoops”), Furtado is confident and in control.

Havoc and Bright Lights^ (Collective Sounds)
Morissette’s musical compass has consistently been set to her truth. That kind of uncompromising honesty is rarity in popular music regardless of the style. Havoc and Bright Lights largely picks up where 2008’s Flavors of Entanglement left off, dealing with fragile concerns of the human experience with gentle, but probing candor. Read the full QH Blend review here.

Radio Music Society (Heads Up International)
Spalding’s transition from an instrumental artist to vocalist has been completed with her fourth album, Radio Music Society. Building on the classical black pop of Chamber Music Society (2010), Radio infuses a healthier amount of jazz and adult R&B influences led by Spalding’s pretty and pleasant voice. Solid with its original fare in “Radio Song,” an understated cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” also makes Spalding a fantastic interpreter.

Listen/Watch “Radio Song” here

Not Your Kind of People^ (Stunvolume)
After the monotonous treading of Bleed Like Me (2005), Garbage seemed to be confined to the alterna-pop history books. While Not Your Kind of People isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, it does update their raucous power pop for a new generation and eye Garbage’s finest records Version 2.0 (1998) and (the underrated) beautifulgarbage (2001) in the metal dance floor filler “Automatic Systematic Habit.”

Listen/Watch “Big Bright World” here

Stages* (Red Girl Records)
For former Spice Girl Melanie C, Stages is her first records of covers. The concept behind this project is the songs of the stage, lovingly paid tribute to. The star of the album is Melanie C herself, in her subtlest voice she delivers astute and competent performances on classics like “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” and “Maybe This Time.” Read the full QH Blend review here.

Elysium (Parlophone)
One of the most hailed duos in pop music, the Pet Shop Boys effulgent and opulent music is again reimagined on their newest album. “Leaving” ranks as one of the Pet Shop Boys solid pieces of mood music committed to record thus far. Mirroring Yes (2009) in terms of its clarity, if not tone, Elysium is self-deprecating wit and pathos played to the nines.

Listen/Watch “Leaving” here

Little Broken Hearts (Blue Note/EMI)
With The Fall (2009), Jones began shaking the sleepy time jazz-pop that had become her calling card. Little Broken Hearts may appear calm on its surface, but the quiet riots that readily rear their heads in “Happy Pills” and “Take It Back” suggest that heartbreak does Norah Jones good for inspiration.

Roses (Downtown Records)
The Cranberries dreamy alternative pop-rock may be from a period bygone to some. For others, their first album since 2001’s Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, Roses is a comforting reach around to the sounds of their groundbreaking debut Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? (1993).Thankfully, there are a few colorful detours that break the monotony and echo the experimental reaches of Bury the Hatchet (1999) and the mentioned Wake Up.

Strangeland^ (Island Records)
Dogged by comparisons to Coldplay since their start, the gentlemen of Keane have tried their best to beat back the criticisms without appearing too self-conscious. After the misunderstood Perfect Symmetry (2008) and Night Train EP (2010), Keane regrouped and took a slightly back to basics feel with Strangeland. Not a complete rewrite of Hopes & Fears (2004), the album deals in meditative ballads and (some) unexpected moments.

Almost,  but…
Almost, but...of 2012
MDNA^ (Live Nation/Interscope)
The Queen Mother of Pop Madonna returns with MDNA, her 13th album overall, a welcome earwash to the aural mess of 2008’s Hard Candy. Not to state that MDNA is perfect, there are several blunders that make navigating the album perilous, but the salt (“I’m a Sinner”) and sugar (“Masterpiece”) contained within the album more than make-up for the mistakes. Read the full QH Blend Review here.

Listen/Watch “Give Me All Your Luvin’” here

Glassheart*^ (Syco/RCA)
Lewis courts the same kind of sound expansion that helped Will Young shake off his reality television inception curse. Much like Young's junior effort Keep On (2005), Lewis' Glassheart is an intelligent and sensitive appropriation of contemporary and (surprisingly) classic adult-pop bathed in Lewis' vocal restraint versus overindulgence. Her need to please the charts at times impedes her ("Stop the Clocks"), but with compelling entries like "Trouble," "Fireflies," and "Colourblind" the lady shows that she's more than just a voice, she's a person with a story to share.

Listen/Watch "Trouble" here

Perfectly Imperfect (RCA)
Not a pin-up for alternative soul, nor a lemming for contemporary R&B, Elle Varner’s appropriately titled debut is an album that concerns itself with finding a voice between the two extremes black music has found itself caught between. Excusing a few unnecessary numbers (“Oh What A Night”) sexy boasts (“Sound Proof Room”) collide with self-confessionals (“So Fly”) with electric after effects.

All of Me (Warner Music/Atlantic/Homeschool)
“Freak” and “Fall In Love” preceded British rapper/singer Estelle’s third album by two years, unfortunately neither song appears on the general version of the album. Despite this, All of Me is a great stride forward, tempered by a cool mood that lends even the Mary J. Blige swag attack of “The Life” a head bopping gravitas. Only bogged down by several pleasant, if unneeded, narrative interludes, Estelle’s third LP is great modern soul (“Love the Way We Used To”) and hip-hop music (“Speak Ya Mind”) done right.

Listen/Watch "Back to Love" here

The MF Life^ (SRC/Universal Republic)
Canadian soultress Melanie Fiona is taking music matters into her own hands with The MF Life. Still cutting up in the retro lane, as heard on the roller boogie of “Watch Me Work,” Fiona spliced in a few “now” flavors on “This Time” with a feature from J. Cole. Mentioning duets, those are the only dull points on The MF Life, with a pass issued to the John Legend assisted “L.O.V.E.”

Magic Hour^ (Polydor)
That this album has wrapped on the somber note of an extended hiatus makes it that much more frustrating. Feeling like an extended hangover from 2010’s superior Night Work, Magic Hour does have several moments to cheer for. The tribal groove of “Keep Your Shoes On,” the "slippery when wet" vibe of “Let’s Have a Kiki,” and the irreverence of “Shady Love” evidence that the Scissor Sisters pop purity will be missed.

Soul 2 (Reprise)
Seal shares his second album of covers and only slightly improves upon the mistakes he made with Soul (2008): song selection and arrangements. In part, the return of his former principal producer Trevor Horn (alongside David Foster) helps give a better backdrop to Seal’s fantastic voice on a show stopping take of the Rose Royce classic “Wishing On a Star.” Seal will one day create the proper “covers album,” until then with work starting on his follow-up (with Trevor Horn), all one can do is wait.

Miss of 2012
Fortune^ (RCA)
Brown needs to find new roads to travel musically, as his electro-soul sneaks have worn thin on Fortune. Granted, from a production standpoint Brown remains unmatched as heard on the ear shattering “Bassline.” Yet, without a lyrical net to support the sonic structure, the songs collapse into mean, muddy murk. The likable and artistic Brown heard on Exclusive (2007) and Graffiti (2009) is long gone and if he wants his legacy to extend beyond the lesser fare here, he must return to putting his songwriting first.

Secret Symphony* (Dramatico)
With The House (2010), Katie Melua gave an awe inspiring face-lift to the sweet, if sagging jazz-pop that had defined her previous work. Instead of continuing in the forward momentum, she back tracked with the pretty, but pedestrian Secret Symphony. It is a covers record and Melua is in fantastic form (voice wise). The arrangements aren't terrible, but they've been heard on her first three albums, which is what makes it a slight decline following The House.

The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Sound)
Both darlings of their respective fields, alternative soul/pop icon Neneh Cherry teamed with the Norwegian/Swedish hipster group The Thing to create The Cherry Thing. This follows their 2011 effort Mono and Cherry’s Man from 1996. What sounds good on paper doesn't always translate and the album suffers under the pretensions that ersatz, erratic noise patterns equal expression. To be fair, this avant garde music has an audience and “Cashback” showcases Cherry’s fantastic pen. An acquired taste.

Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Part 1 (1st & 15th/Atlantic)
Lupe Fiasco has had a time handling the success of Food & Liquor (2006), the debut that placed him at the forefront of a movement that birthed B.o.B. and Kid Cudi. Along the arc that led to this, Fiasco’s fourth LP, Fiasco bravely handled an ambitious sophomore slump and a label assassinated third effort. It isn’t that Fiasco lacks ability; his intelligence and heart imbue “Bitch Bad” with a lost sense of communal responsibility missing in hip-hop. It’s the music, here reduced to mixtape flatness, that doesn't support his large lyrical precepts. With the proper accompaniment Fiasco will achieve a longer reach of greatness versus bursts of genius.

Listen/Watch “Bitch Bad” here

Honorable Mention
The Abbey Road Sessions (Parlophone)
Another highlight in the event marking Minogue’s 25th year in music, a collection of her reworked classics, and a castoff from ‘07’s X (“Flower”), performed against either orchestral or acoustic canvas’ is breathtaking. Minogue has long since been successful at reinterpreting her work in live environs, here she recreates “The Locomotion” in a ‘60’s soul-pop paean it finally deserves and delivers more poignancy (if possible) to one of her iconic ballads, “Finer Feelings.” Some of the song selections are a bit too predictable (“I Believe In You” should have been exchanged for “Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi”), but Minogue services almost every facet of her fan base with this fine piece.

Listen/Watch "Flower" here

Considerations of 2012
Christina Aguilera Lotus, Andy Allo Superconductor, Tori Amos Gold Dust, Eric Benét The OneCéline Dion Sans Attendre, Melissa Etheridge 4th Street Feeling, Vivian Green The Green Room, Alicia Keys Girl on Fire, Diana Krall Glad Rag DollMaroon 5 Overexposed, Mint Condition Music at the Speed of Life, Monica New Life, P!nk The Truth About Love, Angie Stone Rich Girl, Joss Stone The Soul Sessions Volume 2, Tamia Beautiful Surprise, Karyn White Carpe Diem, Robbie Williams Take the Crown

[Editor's Note: ^=Denotes expanded/alternate edition was reviewed. See respective social media outlets for each artist for further information. *=Denotes album is an import, not a domestic U.S. album. Special thanks to Andrew Bird, Darren Spence, and Frank Coleman Jr. for their tireless enthusiasm and help. Special thanks to Everybody's Records in Cincinnati, Ohio that made it possible to buy & own these LPs.-QH]