Babe Ruth, as portrayed in “The Sandlot,” once said, “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Follow your heart, kid, and you’ll never go wrong.” This year’s slew of album releases feature heroes in the making, legends giving Father Time the finger, and others who followed their heart and didn’t go wrong. The album-reviewing portion of The Maine Campus staff got together to sort through the idols and the idle, and compiled their favorite releases from a busy year in music.
1. Alabama Shakes – “Boys & Girls”
Every track on “Boys & Girls” is caked with the soulful grime that make Alabama Shakes everything that’s good about music today. From the gut-wrenching wails of lead vocalist Brittany Howard to the solid riffs of guitarist Heath Fogg, their debut packs a punch that nobody saw coming. On “You Ain’t Alone,” when Howard pleads in her husky growl, “Are you scared to wear your heart out on your sleeve? / Are you scared of me?” the misery is clear. You can close your eyes and suddenly you’re in a dusty, smoke-filled Alabama bar. You’re right there with her, and you feel her pain.
2. Neil Young and Crazy Horse – “Psychedelic Pill”
Aside from his string of purposely bad, stick-it-to-the-record-label-man albums in the first half of the ’80s — see “Trans” and “Everybody’s Rockin’” — and 2010’s Daniel Lanois-produced wall of feedback that was “Le Noise,” Young has been one of the most prolific and consistent musicians since the late ’60s, so it would be understandable if he started to run out of gas. Instead, “Psychedelic Pill” is arguably his best collaboration with frequent backing band Crazy Horse. The album’s three longest songs clock in at an hour, but along with these epic jam sessions, Young comes back to Earth with some of his best conventional rock songs.
3. Death Grips – “The Money Store”
They leaked their second album of 2012, “NO LOVE DEEP WEB,” online despite their label’s wishes. They used a photo of a penis for the cover of that album. For alternate artwork, they used a picture showing a man’s socks that have “SUCK MY D—” printed on them. They were dropped by their label. Despite their apparent career suicide, or perhaps because of it, people can’t get enough. Their idiosyncratic brand of alternative hip-hop blurs the lines between rap, experimental indie music and a bad acid trip. Their volatile, abrasive sound can be hard to stomach and isn’t exactly accessible, but when — or if — the noise starts to make sense, “The Money Store” is a rewarding listen.
4. Kendrick Lamar – “Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City”
While Kendrick Lamar isn’t a newcomer — his mixtapes date back to 2003 — his latest studio album gave Lamar the throne to West Coast hip-hop. The Compton native gives a peek into his upbringing in a gang-riddled environment while trying to balance furthering his future and staying true to his hood and friends. In “Black Boy Fly,” Lamar eloquently raps about watching NBA star Arron Afflalo and celebrated rapper The Game make it out of Compton while Lamar sat back and rotted. Lamar’s innovative take on his upbringing makes for one of the best rap albums in a long time.
5. Bat for Lashes – “The Haunted Man”
Natasha Khan, better known as Bat for Lashes, moves effortlessly from sulky synthpop to sentimental piano ballads on her latest effort. Her hushed, sweet sound penetrates every song, transforming each track into a haunting ballad about love and lost innocence. From the stripped-down “Laura,” where she comforts a party-girl friend by singing, “Your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin,” to the poetic “Lilies,” Khan demands attention by giving you only what you need. Her hypnotic voice and bare melodies make for an incredible album.
6. Frank Ocean – “Channel Orange”
Ocean’s debut is a spectacular mix of subdued melodies and some of the best songwriting in the R&B world today. In “Thinking About You,” Ocean struggles with the obsession of young love. When he sings, “And though you were my first time / A new feel / It won’t ever get old / Not in my soul,” he is immediately relatable. It becomes clear what it feels like to be in his shoes. The album is the work of an incredible storyteller who loves with reckless abandon.
7. Metric – “Synthetica”
They started their career by winning Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy, in 2003, but maybe they’ll start to be considered for honors by their neighbors to the south. Metric wears many hats on this record, whether playing hard-edged alternative rock with menacing vocals from Emily Haines in “Youth Without Youth” or more anthemic, melodic, synthy rock with airy vocals in “Breathing Underwater.” With all the variety, this record isn’t disjointed. Instead it has enough cohesion to make it the year’s best Canadian album, save for Young’s “Psychedelic Pill.”
8. Dr. John – “Locked Down”
Most people his age have followed the birds south and nested in a Florida retirement community by now, but Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dr. John ventured onward and upward. Giving production duties to Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach proved to be a great decision, as this record incorporates his influence while staying true to Dr. John’s off-the-wall brand of bayou blues. The purple suit, feathered cane and gold chains he sported at his Collins Center for the Arts concert in November are similar to his music: classic and classy but with a unique flair that could only be pulled of by a confident, seasoned legend.
9. Bob Dylan – “Tempest”
The years have had an impact on the cultural icon’s voice on his 35th studio album, but his deep, guttural sound only adds to the complexity of his work. His impeccable songwriting only further proves his place as one of the greatest lyricists of all time. “It’s now or never / More than ever,” he sings on “Soon After Midnight,” and that’s never been more true for the living legend. The album represents the dark and brooding side of a man reflecting on a life of conquests and his own mortality.
10. Jack White – “Blunderbuss”
White held nothing back on his solo debut. The album is chock full of the gritty guitar riffs, clever lyrics and that high-pitched howl the world fell in love with all those years ago. The honky-tonk twang can be attributed to the location of his studio in Nashville, Tenn., the country music capital of the world. It gives the album an unexpected edge and works great with his heavy rock riffs. From “Love Interruption” to “Hypocritical Kiss,” the album delivers on every level with full force.
11. Lana Del Rey – “Born to Die”
She describes herself as the “self-styled gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” but her clever lyrics and commanding voice are more theatrical than street. “Born to Die” is a melting pot of dramatic melodies and lyrical prowess. Love or hate, there’s no denying she’s a damn good songwriter.
12. Yeasayer – “Fragrant World”
Though not as experimental as previous albums, “Fragrant World” is far easier to digest while providing an interesting spin on modern pop. That’s not to say they’ve ditched their sense of adventure entirely, as this is a record crawling with variety in structure and tone.
13. Public Enemy – “Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp”
Public Enemy proves that you don’t have to be young to create a fresh sound. The album’s sharp political message and solid beats only solidify the group’s place as hip-hop royalty. They may have released their debut album 25 years ago, but their voice is as relevant as ever.
14. K’Naan – Country, God or The Girl
Somali-born rapper K’naan’s long-awaited follow up to 2009’s smash “Troubador” didn’t disappoint, as “Country, God or the Girl” picks up where K’naan left off, incorporating heavy drum patterns into heartfelt lyrics about trials and tribulations in war-torn Somalia.
15. The Men – “Open Your Heart”
Through and through, The Men are a punk group. They perform excellently in that area on their latest release, but they excel most on “Country Song” and “Oscillation,” a progressive-punk epic that starts with a single warbling riff and ends in maelstrom.
16. Bruce Springsteen – “Wrecking Ball”
Critics have claimed that The Boss has broken new ground here, and while that may not be true, he tried some new things and succeeded. He brought Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello on board for a few tracks, which shows a commitment to avoiding stagnation.
17. Trey Anastasio – “Traveler”
Phish member and jam-band legend Anastasio released his ninth solo studio album in October. Like most of Anastasio’s work, it features fantastic experimental takes. The standout of the album is a cover of famed Gorillaz hit “Clint Eastwood.” Jennifer Hartswick’s vocals give it a soulful feel, compared to the hip-hop-heavy original.
18. Lupe Fiasco – “Food and Liquor Part 2: The Great American Rap Album Part 1”
One of conscious rap’s kings, Lupe Fiasco rebounds well from his commercial flop of “Lasers.” While “F&LP2” as a whole lacks the type of flow you’d like to see in an album from someone with Lupe’s quality, a number of tracks stand out with Lupe’s outstanding vocabulary, including “Form Follows Function” and “Around My Way.”
19. Beach House – “Bloom”
Reverb can be a good masking agent to cover poor songwriting or performing, but here the effects add dreaminess to captivating, chilled-out tracks. The hazy atmosphere makes each song flow into the ones proceeding and preceding it, which can be disorienting if you fully let yourself get lost.
20. Murs and Fashawn – “This Generation”
Besides Kendrick Lamar’s drop, this was one of the year’s biggest surprises. Very little was heard from Murs since his last Felt album with Slug of Atmosphere; Fashawn is a relative newcomer. The album is a great blend of Murs’ deep baritone with Fashawn’s high-pitched, fast flow.
21. Alt-J – “An Awesome Wave”
Although relatively unheard of on this side of the pond, Alt-J’s debut won the Mercury Prize, a coveted British award. They reject the frequent Radiohead comparisons, even though they are similar, in that they create experimental rock unlike any that’s been produced before.
22. deadmau5 – “> album title goes here <”
Although he often wears one of his many “mau5heads,” Joel Zimmerman has become the face of electronic dance music. This time around, he tapped the vocal talents of My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, hip-hop legends Cypress Hill and a few others for an exciting digital romp.
23. The Casket Girls – “Sleepwalking”
This debut record has the right mixture of sinister melodies and sweet vocal harmonies that combine for excellent pop music. The dark undertones of Ryan Graveface combined with the eerie songwriting of the Greene sisters deliver a strong and surprisingly charming album.
24. Talib Kweli and Z-trip – “Attack the Block”
This release features some of Kweli’s strongest lyrics since his Blackstar days and a number of wonderful special guests — Blackthought and Killer Mike to name a couple. The highlight of the mixtape, which still features very unique beats, is “The Corner,” which samples R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” in a way that hasn’t yet been heard.
25. Zach Jones – “Things Were Better”
A local talent sometimes manages to catch lightning in a bottle, and Portland-based Zach Jones is the latest to do so. His soulful vocals sound fantastic on the Motown-inspired album that is both a look back and a step forward.