The top ten, and maybe some more general discussion, still to come. Below are 16 highlights from the past year. As with previous lists, one song per artist, although admired albums etc. tends to push stuff up the rankings.
26. Rockwell - Tripwire
Before embarking on a Rustie-inspired, synth-slathered diversion into hip-hop, Rockwell released this impossibly detailed, propulsive, drum & bass barnstormer. Named ‘Tripwire’ because of the way it sounds like it’s tripping over itself, for me it feels more like being chewed-up inside the mouth of a beat-boxing android. Whole-heartedly committed to d&b’s drive towards inhumanly complex but irresistible body-tugging rhythms, ‘Tripwire’ also carries forward the sentiments in last year’s ‘Aria’: a hymn to the loneliness of digital living. “It’s the love you save” echoes through the masticating jaws of the drumbeat, the ghost in the machine.
25. Disclosure feat. Sam Smith - Latch
I was pretty dismissive of Disclosure’s initial output – it seemed to be a cleaned-up version of the rude squelchy bassline-affiliated UKG movement peddled by the likes of DJ Q and Mike Delinquent Project (both show up below). However ‘Latch’ ended up stealing my heart at the end of the year. A proper song, this. Sam Smith’s creeping (slightly creepy) loverman verses and floaty desire-addled pre-chorus leave you completely unprepared for the ecstatic yelping in the chorus, when he clasps his prize.
24. Swindle feat. Footsie & Nadia Suliman - Ignition
'Airmiles' and 'Spend Is Dough' were anthems, but sounded overly busy to these ears, which is why Swindle's embrace of space on tracks like 'Tongue Tied' and 'Ignition' was revelatory. The former is an accomplished piece of lechery from accomplished lecher Sam Frank. I’ve settled for the bouncier 'Ignition', because Nadia Suliman’s declaration that “It’s my time to shine” better encapsulates the lift-off Swindle achieved this year, and also because it features Footsie on the verses – another artist who had a particularly good 2012. Big fan of his '1 Spliff' single with Sukh Knight and the Zoot Break EP from earlier in the year.
23. Angel Haze - New York
Innumerable rappers before Angel Haze have declared their conquest of the capital of hip-hop, or have insisted on their own importance within the canon. Haze's lyrical skill makes her claim less than outrageous, for sure. But there’s something about the booming stomps that punctuate the clicking beat, especially the way they underline the swelling pride in the statement that she “made this shit in COVERT” – from the street she grew up in to blanket dominance of a city teeming with wannabe rap stars. You can’t help but be swept up in that narrative, oft-retold though it may be.
22. DJ Q - Brandy & Coke
An old idea, the U.K. Garage Remix of U.S. R&B, and when I first heard DJ Q’s version of Brandy’s ‘Best Friend’ it didn’t really blow a gasket in my brain. After all, what’s new here, really? What I didn’t register was the retention of the original’s understated tone, preserving its status as a quietly powerful declaration of undying companionship. Also included in recognition of DJ Q’s prodigious output this year – life-enhancing almost without exception.
21. Cassie - King of Hearts
Obviously this is a disco-ball of dancefloor delights (handclaps! strings!), but also interesting in that Cassie’s position as R&B's resident Aphrodite is flipped – a charming princess whose only vocation is to seduce, pedestalled and worshipped by hordes of bloggers, nevertheless pines for a King of Hearts to call her own.
20. Chronik - Man In The Boot
Fog everywhere. A shadow creeps along London’s dusky pavements. It lurks in the dark corners of the street, alone, bitter at unpaid dues and the ignorance of a pampered younger generation. Menacing whispers drift over the streets, about old feuds and verbal jousts and the buzz of radio battles, before television and the internet ushered in the present regime. War-cries echo through the gloom. Worked up by the invocation of a forgotten age (an age of blood and fire!) the shadow creeps out, a flickering streetlight gives it definition. It is Chronik, frothing with the memory of unspeakable deeds and glorious victories. He’ll take you on a drive haunted by the spirits of grime’s past. He threatens, lunges, splutters, slows, the memories fading. A final fond recollection of a favoured lyrical weapon issues out, before the light dies and Chronik disappears into the night.
19. The Mike Delinquent Project feat. Lady Leshurr - Step In The Dance
Lady Leshurr is probably one of the most skilled MCs in the U.K. right now, and here she’s toasting over one of Mike Delinquent’s most confident and masterful productions, ranging from bassline-laced 2-step all the way back to jungle. A lethal combination.
18. Jubei feat. Flow Dan - Say Nothin’
A lot of drum & bass producers have been drawn to the ‘dungeon’ dubstep sound associated with Kryptic Minds and Youngsta. Jubei’s contribution is positively Dungeons & Dragons – that long roar grinding through the swinging lope of the beat. Flow Dan’s red-eyed lectures on navigating an environment cluttered with stealthy enemies and hidden traps only enhances the feeling that you’re treading though a particularly tense section of an RPG campaign, minimizing risks, conserving resources, thinking three steps ahead.
17. JoJo - Demonstrate
The song plays between two moments. The beat warping around JoJo’s yearning to “demonstrate” all that freaky shit in her mind – like time and space being bent by the force of frustrated desire, to the point where it actually seems possible that the object of JoJo’s affections could be summoned to the room. And the soaring vocal when this is (imagined to be) achieved. Back and forth, never resolving. JoJo continues to chronicle her fevered bed-bound internal dramas with the help of Drake producer Noah “40” Shebib, and long may she do so.
16. Lea-Anna feat. Lioness, Ce'Cile & Lady Leshurr - Murder (Remix)
Included in recognition of a trend in female-fronted grime to band together as a way of amplifying your voice, an interesting contrast to male-fronted grime’s declarations of standing apart (see Kozzie’s entry to come). This track actually reaches beyond borders to link up in solidarity with the cream of dancehall’s female vocalists, together murdering the mandem with their fabulousness. Which ties-up with a more personal reason to include this – a deepening interest in dancehall particularly from the early 2000s.
15. Usher - What Happened To U
Most of Usher’s album (even ‘Climax’) felt distant to me, as if he was acting out certain expected poses: using that voice mechanically rather than really feeling the emotions he is supposed to be expressing. That same distance is an asset in ‘What Happened To U’. Usher only seems to liven-up when he’s recounting all the money, clothes and fancy cars he’s accumulated. He’s a black, young and clever man trading in lovelorn croons while boasting of having “too many” women (sometimes two at a time!) Usher doesn’t really miss anyone, and I’m not sure he really wants to go back. But he has to try and convince you anyway. For the consummate showman, this is where the mask slips.
14. Nicki Minaj feat. Beenie Man - Gun Shot
Weirdly, I’ve ended up taking away more tracks from Pink Friday than I do from Roman Reloaded. Perhaps only ‘Stupid Hoe’ and maybe ‘Come On A Cone’ can stand beside monoliths like ‘Did It On'em’, ‘Blow Ya Mind’, ‘Wave Ya Hand’ and ‘Girls Fall Like Dominoes’. Of course, Minaj’s towering achievement thus far has been ‘Super Bass’, and it’s strange that Kane Beatz (its producer) only contributed once to her follow-up. ‘Gun Shot’ ends up being the best thing on the album, though. It’s just sad that everyone who fell so heavily for ‘Super Bass’ ended up dismissing the follow-up. Gains extra points because of the dancehall connection, and my newfound admiration of Beenie Man.
13. Rudimental - Deep In The Valley (Woz Remix)
YOU KNOW WE AIN’T FRIENDLY, YOU KNOW WE AIN’T PALLY! UK funky smattered with grime, and one of the best workouts of 2012.
12. Kendrick Lamar feat. Gunplay - Cartoon & Cereal
Haven’t invested nearly enough time in these two, which look to be 2012’s most well-respected rappers, but does seem like they will never top what they achieve here: Lamar’s serpentine nasal flow coming up against Gunplay’s straight-talking growl. One using his intelligence to plot his escape, the other relying on sheer force of personality.
11. Kozzie feat. Merky Ace - Yeah (Remix)
Preditah was everywhere this year, responsible not only for some of its best grime moments, but also for a couple of undeniable garage hits. This gothic monster is probably my favourite. Sinister strings and chimes are wreathed around a rock solid banger, which the tag-team of Kozzie and Merky Ace attack with a blinding ferocity. When Preditah pulls back the track during their second verses, the drops make the earth shake.
Top ten coming soon...