Day Thirteen: A Brief List of the Best Albums of 2012 with a Much Longer Explanation of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city

by Tom Noonan

Best Albums of 2012:

1. channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean (Young, talented singer publicly struggle with sexuality, and, in the process (as well as other processes), becomes one of the best storytellers writing today.)

2. Celebration Rock by Japandroids (The only album that accurately captures rock and roll in 2012.  It is an album about what has been, what we’ve left behind, and what we can still hold onto.  It’s sneaky powerful and has one of the best love songs of the year in “Continuous Thunder” (my runner-up single of the year)).

3. good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar

In 2011, Kendrick Lamar released Section.80, a concept album that had come to him in a dream.  It was ambitious, sprawling, and particularly unfocused.  His lyrics were full of anger, aimed at those who hurt his characters, but his final message was awareness.  He wrote these songs for others, not for himself.

When good kid, m.A.A.d city was released, it was unanimously understood as something significant.  Section.80 was a collection of short stories held together by common characters, but his major label debut found Lamar composing a full novel.  Thematically relevant and masterfully crafted, good kid is an autobiographical tour-de-force of autobiographical story-telling.  Language serves as a backdrop, something for Lamar to chew on as he relates his story.

It’s like Kanye West’s College Dropout stripped of any “bulls*** ice rap” that would only serve to dilute the effect.  Each word is measured, important, and deliberate.  It’s an album written in prose with the thematic density of a much larger work.  One track, the twelve-minute “Sing About Me, Dying of Thirst”, begins with a spiritual crisis and builds to a powerful spoken scene about the healing power of religion.

good kid is less of a great album than it is a great piece of literature, telling a significant story with all the anger, moral-ambiguity, and, at times, razor sharp wit that such a personal work requires.  Lamar is not a hero, but a product of his environment, and this seems to be the point of his story: to embrace what you are rather than what you could be.  As he writes on the penultimate track “Real”, “You love your hood, might even love it to death/But what love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself?”  It’s a deceptively simple revelation, but within the story he’s just told, it seems resonates as highly important.

While listening to this album, I couldn’t help but recognize the influence of Amiri Baraka’s poetry in its lyrics.  Like Baraka before him, Lamar writes in colloquial and intermittently violent language that dresses his narratives in Compton clothing.  It makes the story tough to discern at times but is always exceedingly compelling.  More than this, both Lamar and Baraka are determined to remain in control of their own narrative, never allowing for its importance to be diminished as a result of racial politics.  good kid, m.A.A.d city is not just a great album because Kendrick Lamar is not just a rapper.  

4. Handwritten by The Gaslight Anthem (The rock and roll cartographers go for sounds that can fill an arena but lose little of the raw emotion that made them important in the first place.)

5. Gossamer by Passion Pit (A synthesized discourse on addiction, mental health, and, improbably, love that is dressed up in the pop songs of polished virtuosos.)

6. Local Business by Titus Andronicus (A follow-up to the best punk album of the decade that is more honest, immediate, and simple.  It is what happens when a great and self-serious band attempts to have fun.)

Honorable mention: Attack on Memory by Cloud Nothings

Best Single of 2012: “Pyramids” by Frank Ocean (and it’s not even close.)