Backbeat writers sound off on the year's best national albums

This past year was another splendid one for music. Despite the fact that the music industry continues to teeter on its own fiscal cliff, creativity of the artists abounds. And while there were plenty of records that made us grateful for the advent of Spotify, so that we could consume without actually having to commit, there were just as many albums worth actually owning. As we do every year around this time, we asked our army of talented wordsmiths to give us a few words about each of their favorite releases. As expected, while there were some crossover conflicts that were resolved by a few friendly bouts of arm wrestling, for the most part, everybody's tastes completely ran the gamut, from EDM and death metal to folk, hip-hop and everything in between. Below you'll find the records that moved us the most in 2012.

See also: Moovers and Shakers 2012: Backbeat writers praise the year's best local albums

Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls (ATO). Seamlessly distilling rock and roll, R&B and blues back into whatever primordial truth informs them all, Alabama Shakes delivered one of the most refreshing records of the year. There are moments that are Rolling Stones-esque, but they're awesome, not derivative. The outfit synthesizes old and new in wonderful ways. — Patrick Rodgers


national year-end list

Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel... (Epic). Don't call it a comeback: Seven-year lapses between albums are nothing new for the notoriously stubborn Apple. Playing with more expansive, less hooky compositions, The Idler Wheel doesn't impress on first listen — yet with a bit of patience (as this proven songsmith deserves), it slowly soaks into your bones, revealing a treasure of provocative musical choices and characteristically vivid lyrics. — Josiah Hesse

Azealia Banks, Fantasea (Self-released). Although the single "212" put her on the map, it was the Fantasea mixtape that confirmed Azealia Banks was the most exciting new act in the game. Her flow slays on cuts like "Fuck Up the Fun," and she goes from attack to seduction mode in mere seconds on songs like "Luxury." Banks has a big, badass future ahead of her. — Cory Lamz

Bassnectar, Freestyle EP (Amorphous Music). Never one to miss out on the opportunity to showcase new music, Bassnectar caught some listeners by surprise with his Freestyle EP, which reflected a strong hip-hop influence. In fact, Lorin Ashton, the brainchild behind Bassnectar, has honed his heavy-metal sound by delving deeply into hip-hop, which laid the foundation for his popularity. — Britt Chester

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Beach House, Bloom (Sub Pop). Just when it seemed like things couldn't get any better than Beach House's 2010 release, Teen Dream, Bloom came along. But while Bloom is expectedly luminous, lush and brimming with emotion — the tenets of the band's sound haven't changed — it reveals even more facets of an already complex personality. — Sam Alviani

Beats Antique, Contraption Vol. II (Antique Records). Beats Antique, the EDM gypsies of our time, have found the formula for success: Create upbeat, danceable music and couple it with a live performance that does that music justice. Utilizing the vocals of Lynx again, tracks like "Crooked Muse" and "Skeleton Key" remind you why you fell in love with these belly-dancing multi-instrumentalists in the first place. — Chester

Big K.R.I.T., 4eva in a Day (Self-released). While waiting for Def Jam to drop his highly anticipated album, Big K.R.I.T. dropped a gem of a mixtape, narrating a day in the life of the Mississippi MC. K.R.I.T. raised the bar for his contemporaries and himself when he dropped this excellent project. — Antonio Valenzuela

Crystal Castles, III (Casablanca Records). Setting aside some of the cartoonish aspects of previous albums, Crystal Castles reveal more of the dark side of its music. From Samuel Aranda's haunting cover image to songs about the consequences of violence on the interpersonal and international levels, this third album is weighty but never heavy-handed. — Tom Murphy

Dan Deacon, America (Domino). Before writing the songs on this record, Dan Deacon must have had an epiphany about using turbulent, frantic and beautiful music to reflect the story of America and its place in the world right now. The album gives voice to the desperation and hopefulness within the American spirit while yearning for simpler, more inspiring times. — Murphy

Deadmau5, >album title goes here (Ultra). Leave it to Deadmau5 (aka Joel Zimmerman) to release yet another tongue-in-cheek-titled album. Featuring artists such as Wolfgang Gartner, Imogen Heap, Cypress Hill, Chris James and Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, Deadmau5 leaves no stone unturned in his quest for musical domination. — Chester

Death Grips, The Money Store/No Love Deep Web (Epic/Self-released). A bracing fusion of noise, dub, IDM, math rock and hip-hop, Death Grips' two releases explore a raw, brutal aesthetic that was never trying to be anything anyone outside the band was expecting. Menacing, abrasive, forbidding, stark and blunt, this music was clearly made to either alienate or inspire. — Murphy

Mac Demarco, 2 (Captured Tracks). Mac Demarco's lovingly worn-out, David Lynchian vibe makes it seem like he's been making artful records for decades. But 2012 saw his first releases (the beautiful Rock N' Roll Night Club came out this year, too), and Demarco benefited from being able to introduce himself in a visual sense, as well, with the warbly VHS "Ode to Viceroy" only adding to his appeal. — Bree Davies

Die Antwoord, Ten$ion (Downtown). You probably know someone who hates South African rap-rave duo Die Antwoord. Or really loves them. There's often no in-between with these polarizing weirdos, whose incendiary lyrics and exotic Zef style (think a Kanye West video directed by Harmony Korine) has resonated with those who love to dance but are sick of dubstep, or who love hip-hop but are tired of gold-mouthed meatheads throwing currency at bouncing bottoms. — Hesse

Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits (Merge Records). Like power pop without an aversion to electronic music, the Divine Fits debut shows a clear stylistic nod to Kraftwerk and offspring like Trans Am. But soulfulness and an urgent energy inform the songwriting and buoy each track, like a long-lost, great Tom Petty album. — Murphy

Dragonette, Body Parts (Dragonette Inc.). With warm synths, chugging guitars and drum work that falls somewhere between that of the Scissor Sisters and No Doubt, Body Parts perfectly summarizes Dragonette as a band: seriously fun. Dancing to "My Legs" or singing "Live in This City" is the most fun you'll have with a pop album all year. — Lamz

E-40, The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil 1,2 & 3 (Heavy on the Grind Ent.). E-40 always seems to be ahead of the industry, leading the streets with new anthems every year. The albums in this three-LP set were released on the same day and charted individually on the Billboard 100. The records, which maintain a bass-heavy, hyphy sound, are powered by several singles, including, most notably, "Function," featuring Iamsu, Yg and Problem. — Valenzuela

Example, The Evolution of Man (Ministry of Sound UK). Example plays hopscotch with electro, house, hip-hop, hard rock and pop — sometimes within the same song — to exhilarating effect on Evolution. "Say Nothing" was the perfect song for a warm Colorado November, while "Come Taste the Rainbow" proves that Example has a song up his sleeve for every other season, too. — Lamz

Lupe Fiasco, Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Part 1 (Atlantic). This is Lupe Fiasco unleashed, free of all label woes and restrictions. Fiasco has become more vocal about the world's ills as he gains more popularity. He magnificently ventures into genre blending and employs trendy vocals without losing the potency of his message. — Valenzuela

Firewater, International Orange (Bloodshot). Recorded in Istanbul during the Arab Spring, while bombs were going off around the city, International Orange harnesses that energy of change, as well a bit of fiery punk vigor. The songs are injected with worldly flavors, from bhangra and Turkish rhythms to ska, dub and mambo. Frontman Tod A outdid himself on this one. — Jon Solomon

Flying Lotus, Until the Quiet Comes (Warp). While his previous innovations and aesthetics have been emulated plenty, FlyLo raises the bar yet again with a dynamic album that disregards tempo and genre in the name of expression. From fat-bottomed-bass minimalism to sultry reimaginings of lounge jazz for the digital age, he touches 'em all. — Rodgers

Ellie Goulding, Halcyon (Interscope). Riding the success of her debut album, Lights, Ellie Goulding returned on her sophomore album with an enlightened musical maturity. Finding acceptance within the EDM community with remixes by the likes of Bassnectar, Jakwob and others, Goulding showcases a strong vocal range with an equally strong EDM undercurrent. — Chester

Colleen Green, Milo Goes to Compton (Art Fag Recordings). It's easy to dismiss Colleen Green as another lo-fi garage/bedroom-style product of the last decade. But her work is deceivingly complex — dark, smart and lyrically challenging. As bold as it was for Green to open the record with a cover (Descendents' "Good Good Things"), the song sounds like it was made for her. Plus, a pining love song to end all love songs, Green's original "Nice Boy (I Want A)," might be the best track of 2012. — Davies

Grimes, Visions (4AD Records). Like the shy skater girl in high school who was always doodling in her notebook, Grimes served as the ultimate celebrity crush of 2012 for socially awkward artisans. Her third full-length album, Visions is the perfect makeout record for twee electro-geeks unsure about whether to go all the way. — Hesse

Calvin Harris, 18 Months (Sony). Harris's best album is also a producer's album: The songs sound great because Harris lets his synthesizers (those drops!) do all the talking. When they're not at the forefront, though, lead vocals belong to welcome guests like Ellie Goulding, Example, Ne-Yo and Florence Welch. — Lamz

Happy New Year, Happy New Year (Crikey!). Eleanor Logan has a voice like one of the great pop divas of the '60s — but only if one of them had written captivating psychedelic pop informed by the aesthetics of noise. Hazy, hypnotic atmospheres and an entrancingly deep sense of introspection make this a repeatedly rewarding listen. — Murphy

Tom Harrell, Number Five (HighNote). While the legendary trumpeter Tom Harrell weaves some intricate lines on the opener, "Blue 'n' Boogie," a fiery duo with drummer Johnathan Blake, there aren't a whole lot of fireworks here, except for the title cut and "Melody in B-flat." But Harrell's rich tone works exceptionally well on the ballads and more relaxed cuts, and tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery is in top form. — Solomon

Hot Chip, In Our Heads, (Domino Recording Co). Hot Chip has been producing perfectly executed modern pop since its first album in 2004. In Our Heads, the group's fifth full-length release, is one of the feel-good albums of the year. It's also an immaculate, hedonistic celebration of dance music that isn't afraid of exploring human feeling. — Alviani

Japandroids, Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl Records). If Japandroids had only written one song as exhilaratingly uplifting as "The Nights of Wine and Roses," this would be a noteworthy album. But each song here is an electrifying reminder of the potential power of rock and roll to excite and inspire when infused with intelligent lyrics and raw enthusiasm. — Murphy

Joey Bada$$, 1999 (Self-released). The music of Joey Bada$$ recalls a simpler time in hip-hop, one that the rapper isn't old enough to personally remember. This unassuming badass has the emotional maturity and thoughtfulness of a much more seasoned vet. Anchored by the viral hit "Survival Tactics," 1999 is a model for how to keep lyrical integrity and still stay musical. — Noah Hubbell

John Abercrombie Quartet, Within a Song (ECM). Albums by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman helped shaped guitarist John Abercrombie's musical focus as a teenager during the early '60s. With the brilliant tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano on board, the John Abercrombie Quartet pays homage to those recordings with stunning versions of the artists' songs, as well as a few originals. — Solomon

Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music (Williams Street). Killer Mike showcases both street savvy and political prowess as he rhymes over El-P's dystopian beats. The surprising part might have been how perfectly the pair melded styles. "Reagan" should be required listening for high-school history classes. Definitely one of the strongest hip-hop records of the year. — Rodgers

Knife Party, Rage Valley (Warner Music UK). Rob Swire and Gareth McGrillen are no strangers to dance music: Outside of their Knife Party persona, the two perform under the Pendulum moniker. On Rage Valley, the Aussie dubsteppers bring a powerhouse of bass infused with catchy hooks that have pushed their sound into the national limelight. — Chester

Kreayshawn, Somethin' 'Bout Kreay (Columbia). Though Kreayshawn's bratty Oakland vibe presents itself much better live, it was nice to hear the rookie in the context of a complete album. "Go Hard (La La La)" had that bounce beat, but "Gucci Gucci" remained the most intellectually and pop-culturally stimulating single. From Twitter to the trap, Kreayshawn made her authenticity known. — Davies

Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid, m.A.A.d City (Aftermath). To match the hype that Kendrick Lamar has generated since his full-length debut, Section.80, with his first major-label album, Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, would have been remarkable enough, but the new material far surpasses the old in terms of listenability, lyrical complexity and sincerity. Come for the "Swimming Pools," stay for the "m.A.A.d City." — Hubbell

Greg Laswell, Landline (Vanguard Records). With 2010's Take a Bow, Greg Laswell proved that he could still write captivating pop songs without misery. In contrast, the lushly produced Landline shows that Laswell vividly remembers what it's like to be miserable, but with the perspective of someone who's no longer controlled by it. This is an emotionally wide-open and gently cathartic album. — Murphy

Lee Fields & the Expressions, Faithful Man (Truth & Soul). Lee Fields has made a lot of records over the past forty years, but none of them have sounded like this. Backed by a tight band and producers who've worked with Adele and Jay-Z, Fields unleashes a barrage of goose-bump-inducing soul and R&B. The wisdom of age gives his words added bittersweet power. — Rodgers

Liars, WIXIW (Mute). Few bands are as dedicated to reinvention with each offering as Liars. Like 154 if Aphex Twin were the inspiration instead of Can, this album evolves in tone, atmosphere, texture, pacing and rhythm with each song. Simultaneously the band's most accessible and most adventurous record to date. — Murphy

Mayday, Take Me to Your Leader (Strange Music). With a fusion of rock and hip-hop, these Strange Music signees bring some much-needed originality to the rap game. With assistance from Tech N9ne, Dead Prez and Murs, Mayday bangs out hard guitar riffs with anti-government rhymes that would make the ears of Public Enemy fans perk up. Leader is a great listen for those who like hard beats and timely lyrics. — Valenzuela

MNDR, Feed Me Diamonds (Ultra). Feed Me Diamonds is a synth-lover's wet dream, oozing love and sex in ways comparable only to a modernized, female-fronted Soft Cell. "Faster Horses" pummels you with layered magic, while the title track highlights singer Amanda Warner's penchant for historical lyricism. This is how smart electro-pop sounds in 2012. — Lamz

Napalm Death, Utilitarian (Century Media Records). Utilitarian offers a reliably savage take on today's social ills without waxing topical. For this album, Napalm uses electronics extensively to create a sense of menace, as well as a "grindcore sax attack," courtesy of John Zorn, on "Everyday Pox." This is blistering industrial post-punk from the godfathers of grindcore. — Murphy

Nas, Life Is Good (Def Jam). Nas is older and wiser, but he still delivers unrelenting rhymes with street knowledge with some help from Large Professor. Nas has something for everyone on this release, from pop lovers to hip-hop heads and every one in between. — Valenzuela

Netsky, 2 (Hospital Records). Belgium-based producer Netsky (aka Boris Daenen) broke onto the scene thanks to a nod on a remix of Rusko's "Everyday." Since then, his reach has expanded, and with tracks like "Give and Take" and "The Whistle Song," which features Hospital Records mate Dynamite MC, Netsky's popularity will only continue to rise. — Chester

No Doubt, Push and Shove (Interscope). After ten years, No Doubt returns with an album that's eclectic even by Gwen's standards. The wait was worth it. Tracks like "Settle Down," "Push and Shove" and "Gravity" make you forget Stefani and company ever left. Better yet, No Doubt sounds like it hasn't aged a day since Rock Steady. — Lamz

Panabrite, Soft Terminal (Digitalis Recordings). Norm Chambers has a gift for subtle sonic detail that shines especially bright on this album, with '80s-like analog synths evoking a sense of wonder and peace. If HAL 9000 imagined a paradisiacal afterlife, this would be its music. — Murphy

Peaking Lights, Lucifer (Mexican Summer). Growing out from and beyond the psychedelic dub of 2011's excellent 936, here Peaking Lights runs with a poetic reinterpretation of the name "Lucifer," turning the conventional meaning on its head. The resultant languid, incandescent melodies conjure images of moonlit tropical landscapes. — Murphy

Pop. 1280, The Horror (Sacred Bones). This record is even more noisy, dark and brutal than The Grid, Pop. 1280's debut. With this set of songs, the band sounds like it was inspired by the likes of Killing Joke, Cabaret Voltaire, Flipper and My Dad Is Dead, playing a mutant punk rock that's sure to alienate purists. File under "post-industrial death disco." — Murphy

Rez Abbasi Trio, Continuous Beat (Enja). While Rez Abbasi obviously knows his way around bop and post-bop, the multifaceted guitarist shows that he's a lot more than that, flexing his chops on cuts like "Divided Attention" and "Rivalry," recalling Bill Frisell on Thelonious Monk's "Off Minor," and slipping some Middle Eastern textures into Keith Jarrett's "The Cure." Definitely one of Abbasi's more adventurous outings. — Solomon

RiFF RaFF, Summer of Surf (Self-released). With all the extracurricular acting RiFF RaFF does, it's easy to assume that this former MTV reality star is just playing a role, but his closest friends say otherwise. Either way, RaFF has an undeniable ability to conjure some of the most absurd images you'll find anywhere. Ready your sense of humor and open your mind, or you might find this tape downright offensive. — Hubbell

Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio (Blue Note). While Robert Glasper has three Blue Note jazz recordings under his belt, the pianist is no stranger to hip-hop. On Black Radio, Glasper straddles the two worlds, as well as tossing in some R&B and neo-soul with a stellar lineup of guest vocalists, including Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal and Yasiin Bey. Glasper keeps raising the bar with each new album. — Solomon

Kurt Rosenwinkel, Star of Jupiter (Wommusic). While 2009's Reflections was nearly all ballads, Kurt Rosenwinkel switches things up dramatically on the two-disc Star of Jupiter, which thoroughly showcases the guitarist's fiery chops, along with his compositional skills. Possibly the most daring recording of Rosenwinkel's two-decade-long career, Star of Jupiter is stellar throughout. — Solomon

Rusko, Songs (Downtown). Thoroughly indulging his dubstep obsession, Rusko brings raw, pounding bass directly to your ears on his second release. A true multi-sensory experience, the album delves deeply into reggae, with some outstanding vocal features. To get an idea of the album and where dubstep is going, check out "Skanker." — Chester

Jenny Scheinman, Mischief and Mayhem (Jenny Scheinman Music). Having performed with folks like Bill Frisell, Bruce Cockburn and Norah Jones, Jenny Scheinman is one of the more versatile violinists in music today. While she shows off her jazz and improvisational chops here, as does guitarist Nels Cline, Mischief and Mayhem is whole lot more than straight jazz. It's an invigorating disc however you look at it. — Solomon

Sleigh Bells, Reign of Terror (Mom & Pop Music). A beautifully curated cast of contrasts, Reign of Terror showcases a combination of the masculine and the feminine. The hard-core industrial beats here are paired with delicate estrogen-pop melodies, resulting in a cross-cultural assault of dance-fight goodness. But what else would you expect when pairing a former Poison the Well guitarist with a child star from Nickelodeon? — Hesse

Bobo Stenson Trio, Indicum (ECM). In the four decades he's been playing with his trio, Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson has clearly mastered the art of classy, understated lyricism, as evidenced on his past ECM works and, in particular, on this year's Indicum. The group improvisations are quite engaging, as are the traditional hymns and renderings of songs by Bill Evans and George Russell. — Solomon

Swans, The Seer (Young God Records). At times intimate, contemplative and tender, at others exhilarating and terrifying, The Seer demands your attention and rewards your patience. It's a masterpiece of dynamic range and richly diverse soundscaping that stirs the imagination and the spirit — both of which Michael Gira tapped deeply for the album's poetically resonant imagery. — Murphy

Swedish House Mafia, Until Now (Astralwerks). The Swedes did it again! They went and released an album with enough singles to propel them to work on solo projects ("Save the World" and "Don't You Worry Child" are regular spins for any headlining EDM DJ looking to get a response). But while all three of these artists' solo projects (Axwell, Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso) are gaining momentum on their own, when the trio returns from its break, you can expect a massive reunion tour. — Chester

Taylor Swift, Red (Big Machine Records). Taylor Swift's Red is a massive music machine running on vibrant hooks and an undying belief in the power of love in its various colors. It's her first venture into non-country territory, and she manages surprisingly well. Rock, pop, even a dubstep breakdown — Red is what Taylor Swift sounds like in Technicolor. — Lamz

Tame Impala, Lonerism (Modular). On Lonerism, Tame Impala produces a sound that is born of classic albums of the '60s and '70s — but even as it pays homage to throwback techniques, the act utilizes modern sound technology. The result is something fluid, bright, textural and completely awesome. — Alviani

Tech N9ne, Klusterfuck EP (Strange Music). Tech N9ne took a break between his last album and E.B.A.H. for an exhilarating effort that would blow away most people's projects. Tech displays his above-average songwriting ability and accelerated rhyme pace while adding a solid notch to the lengthy track list that has made him the number-one independent artist in the world. — Valenzuela

Trust, TRST (Arts & Crafts). Many bands in recent years have tried to evoke the sound and feel of '80s synth pop. For TRST, Trust went further and wrote indigo-hued dance music worthy of New Order and Clan of Xymox. Robert Alfons's cavernous voice is the perfect companion to the music's moody yet bright melodies. — Murphy

Ttotals, Silver on Black (Self-released). Silver on Black is the perfect example of what happens when musicians with a deep appreciation for primal rock and roll, psychedelia and experimental electronics write songs that not only reflect those interests, but embody all of those elements at once. A bit like the Straightjacket Fits, only darker and noisier. — Murphy

U.S. Girls, Gem (Fat Cat). With its warm organs, forlorn vocals and a production style ripped from a glam-era Tony Visconti recording, U.S. Girls' Gem is a throwback masterpiece. Meghan Remy and producer Slim Twig overtly channel the past through two choice covers, "Down in the Boondocks" and "Jack," but originals like "Rosemary" and "Slim Baby" prove to be just as terrifying and beautiful. — Davies

Sharon Van Etten, Tramp (Jagjaguwar). Part of the beauty of Sharon Van Etten's music comes from the confessional quality that she shares with many singer-songwriters — she's revealing her soul for listeners to see and dissect — but on Tramp, it's the effortlessness with which she's able to do this that sets her apart and makes the album such an unexpected treasure. — Alviani

Various, Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac (Hear Music). Among this compilation of reimagined Fleetwood Mac classics like "Rhiannon" (Best Coast), "Tusk" (The Crystal Ark) and "Gypsy" (Gardens & Villa) are a few versions that fizzle (MGMT's "Future Games"). But when they work, they sound like sparkling-new songs (The New Pornographers' "Think About Me") to even the most casual Nicks or Buckingham fan. — Lamz

Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando (ACT). On previous releases, forward-thinking jazz pianist Vijay Iyer has pushed boundaries, from working with intricate compositions to incorporating complex tempos. Here, though, he takes things to a new level. With the muscular rhythm section of bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore fueling things, Iyer delivers some extremely exciting playing on this tour de force. — Solomon

The Walkmen, Heaven (Fat Possum/Ryko). After 2008's You & Me and 2009's Lisbon, it was difficult to imagine the Walkmen ever improving on their soulful, indie-billy sound, which has inspired so many tight-jeaned upstarts. Last spring, however, the act put an end to three years of wondering, releasing a collection of mature, airtight songs whose delivery appears at times misleadingly sloppy, yet always hits the perfect emotional and musical note with an ascending alacrity. — Hesse

Wu Block, Wu Block (Entertainment One). This super-collab between Wu-Tang and D-Block is full of hard punchlines, unpredictable rhyme patterns and compelling narratives. Ghostface and Sheek Louch anchor a majority of the songs, but there are plenty of features from both crews and beyond, with Raekwon, GZA, Inspectah Deck, Method Man, Jadakiss, Styles P, Erykah Badu and Cappadonna all making appearances. — Valenzuela

John Zorn, The Gnostic Preludes (Tzadik). Part of a series of albums that are mystically influenced, The Gnostic Preludes finds composer John Zorn enlisting guitarist Bill Frisell, harpist Carol Emmanuel and vibraphonist Kenny Wolleson to beautifully interpret songs that borrow from early minimalism, twentieth-century Spanish music and chamber jazz. Preludes is a stunning yet relaxed album throughout. — Solomon

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