“They say you got your whole life to make your first album,” raps Oddisee at the top of “Ready to Rock,” the triumphant, densely collaged opener of People Hear What They See, D.C. music critics’ pick for the year’s best local album. But for the Sudanese-American producer/MC, it didn’t take a lifetime to finally pull the trigger on his “debut.” It was more like a decade, filled with at least a dozen free beat tapes, EPs, and group efforts (including a well-reviewed album with local trio Diamond District). Even though he spends much of the year in New York now, Oddisee laid plenty of brickwork in D.C. before 2012. Judging by the ballots local critics submitted for Washington City Paper‘s music poll, that kind of hometown dues-paying mattered.
D.C. didn’t lack for fast-rising young guns in 2012. Rapper Fat Trel boasted mainstream alliances, flirted with the national hip-hop press, and netted big features in local dead-tree publications (including City Paper), but neither his buzzy but uneven Nightmare on E Street mixtape nor his string of druggy, street-pounding singles managed to top our polls-which might say more about the leanings of local music critics than the increasing vivacity of D.C. trap rap. Instead, the more conscious, more craftsmanlike Oddisee took the No. 1 spot on our albums list, while his Marvin Gaye chop, “Ain’t That Peculiar,” topped our ranking of the year’s best songs.
The No. 2 spot on both lists went to The Evens, the protest-punk duo led by Ian MacKaye, whose bands have been closely identified with D.C.’s underground rock landscape for more than 30 years. Populating our lists are well-pedigreed acts like Chain & the Gang (featuring long-tenured post-punk preacher Ian Svenonius), brainy hip-hop veteran Kokayi, legacy grindcore act Pig Destroyer, and Lorelei, a noisy indie-pop band from the Slumberland Records stable that reformed this year for its first album in 17 years.
That doesn’t mean younger acts were left out. Several of the city’s crucial DIY venues folded, and one of its best vinyl labels, Sockets Records, pulled the plug after eight years, but our critics still pointed to a robust year for local indie rock. The all-systems-go instrumental rock of Buildings finally yielded a hefty, sci-fi-tinged debut, Everything in Parallel, while another Sockets act, Imperial China, continued to contort the city’s post-punk idioms on How We Connect. The genre’s tightly woven seams showed, too: E.D. Sedgwick and America Hearts, two bands with overlapping lineups and a taste for wry scene commentaries, caught critics’ ears, while Chain & the Gang member Katie Alice Greer‘s other band, Priests, repped for the city’s growing garage-rock presence. Even the space-disco abstractionists of Protect-U-the lone electronic act to make the top of our list-have punk-rock roots.
Thanks to the top-heavy ballot of one enthusiastic critic, long-running Afrobeat outfit Elikeh climbed near the top of our album list, while another group working in a less familiar African style, Janka Nabay & the Bubu Gang, scratched its way onto the bottom of the top 10. That album blended Sierra Leone’s bubu sound with the beeps-and-gurgles art rock familiar to habitues of D.C.’s house-show scene. Thanks in part to a co-sign from Talking Heads vet David Byrne, the album made murmurs nationally, and at a sweaty show this fall at The Dunes in Columbia Heights, a demographic melting pot got down to the group’s surprising, compulsively danceable, clack-clacking rhythms.
Before this summer, the Bubu Gang had never played a show in D.C. Luckily, getting familiar with the group didn’t take too long.
See the poll results below.
Also: Read about local critics and fans’ favorite moments in local music this year.
Best local albums of 2012
3. Elikeh, Between 2 Worlds (listen)
Best local songs of 2012
1. Oddisee, “Ain’t That Peculiar” (listen)
3. Chain & the Gang, “Certain Kinds of Trash” (listen)
Best nonlocal albums of 2012
1. Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream (listen)
2. Father John Misty, Fear Fun (listen)
4. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city (listen)
5. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Mature Themes (listen)
6. Pallbearer, Sorrow and Extinction (listen)
7. Grass Widow, Internal Logic (listen)
8. Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music (listen)
9. Sic Alps, Sic Alps (listen)
Best nonlocal songs of 2012
1. Frank Ocean, “Thinking About You” (listen)
2. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe” (if you really want to hear it again)
3. Grimes, “Genesis” (listen)
4. Usher, “Climax” (listen)
Contributors: Matt Cohen, Will Eastman, Jonathan L. Fischer, Sarah Godfrey, Lars Gotrich, Reese Higgins, Steve Kiviat, Aaron Leitko, Catherine Lewis, Rohan Mahadevan, John Masters, Marc Masters, W. Jacarl Melton, Metal Chris, Brian Miller, Marcus J. Moore, Valerie Paschall, Ramon Ramirez, Matthew Siblo, Morgan Tepper, Sarah Ventre
Editor: Ally Schweitzer