Just three months into 2012, and already the year sounds promising for contemporary music, which—barring a few obvious exceptions—felt especially static in 2011. Last year saw the triumph of the solitary musician, armed with only a laptop and probably cloistered in some Brooklyn studio apartment. While the result made for consistently compelling music, each subsequent bedroom project tended to saturate the blogosphere with different takes on the same drugged-out electronica. In the process, certain records that stood out simply by virtue of sounding like nothing else around them—James Blake’s self-titled debut, tUnE-YaRdS’s w h o k i l l, The Weeknd’s House Of Balloons—often got obscured in the wash of down-tempo instrumentals and surfers of “chillwave.” Fortunately, at the same time, 2011 played host to an underground hip hop revolution, with emcees such as Danny Brown, A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamarr and G-Side assuming the mantle of mix-tape mastery laid down by the boys from Odd Future.
So far, the music of 2012 sounds like a fulfillment of the potentials introduced in 2011 while pushing forward into new territories that bode well for the upcoming year in music. Without further ado, here are five tracks released this year that testify to that promise. If you’ve heard them, perhaps you can relate to my excitement. If not, it’s time to give them a listen:
“Destiny” (Featuring Pional)—John Talabot
On the surface, John Talabot’s debut, ƒIN, fits right in with the numbed loops and synthesized haunt of contemporary “dark” electronica. The album consists mostly of instrumentals, making “Destiny” one of only three tracks with featured vocals, and, as such, the song wastes no time making full use of producer Miguel Barros’s (a.k.a. Pional) hypnotic voice. But what makes “Destiny” so immediately gripping is Talabot’s ability to cultivate the song’s shadowy atmosphere, building rhythms from all directions amidst the steady pitter-patter of synthesizers. Delicately painted in an ethereal glow, the song burns slowly, making its eventual pay-off all the more rewarding. As a result, “Destiny” somehow maintains its allure, even after the tenth listening, thus distinguishing it as the best track of 2012 so far.
“Keys To The Crib” (Featuring Styles P)—Rick Ross
I’ll put it out there: Rick Ross is not a very good rapper. His expertise lies in aesthetics, in painting lavish pictures of himself so physically and economically excessive that he hardly needs to back up his bark with much bite. Ross defines his music by luxury, and “Keys To The Crib” makes no exception. The brass-dominated beat feels bigger and more magnificent than anything else released this year. Ross commands the song with characteristic bravado but never overreaches. He steps back in all the right places, letting the cinematic production do most of the bragging for him. It works, and “Keys To The Crib” somehow fits right in with the best of hip hop hubris, and that’s saying something for a song released via mix tape.
Part of what defines the beauty of Internet music fandom is its immediacy—the thrill of listening to something new and spontaneous in real time with thousands of others. This happened early last month, when Usher self-released a jam with Diplo on production duties, earning the R&B star some serious web cred on the way. It also helped that “Climax” broke off from Usher’s more recent dance-heavy material, featuring the singer bemoaning a static relationship in uncharacteristic falsetto. The song never lives up to its name, however, deceptively ebbing each time its sedated beat swells with Usher’s voice. Tension builds, but never finds release, and “Climax” toys with the listener’s expectations in a way that defies what we previously thought Usher could do.
“No Future/No Past”—Cloud Nothings
It seems trite to grumble about contemporary indie music being “too soft” before throwing in an obligatory lament about “the death of punk rock.” However, when Cloud Nothings dropped Attack On Memory early this year, the album seemed to articulate exactly that point by opposition. Its opener, “No Future/No Past,” sounds nothing short of menacing, grinding along on the same three chords with a steady, yet manic intensity. “Give up,” lead singer Dylan Baldi pleads, his voice—underpinned by a monstrous growl—growing more and more desperate as the song spirals out of control. The bass line deserves some serious credit here, devolving from a steady pulse to an ugly groan with draining precision. The song feels convincingly nihilistic and about as brutal as anything found in contemporary indie music.
There never seem to be quite enough women crafting gloomy, synthesized dream-pop; and indeed, as a genre defined by delirium, it feels surprisingly alive. On her third album, Visions, Grimes—the musical moniker of Canadian musician Claire Boucher—sounds so self-assured in her approach that she manages to push the boundaries of her genre. The album’s single, “Oblivion,” coasts along a set of fat bass tones that oddly complement Boucher’s whispery lilt, layered to perfection amongst echoes of ghostly choruses. The song constantly bounds forward with a sense of robotic urgency, but Boucher’s vocals reach for the stars, making “Oblivion” an endlessly listenable piece of dream-pop.