2012 has been a year in music with a few great surprises. Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar managed to put out debut albums that were not hindered by their major record deals -- a feat in hip-hop, to say the least. As a result, Ocean's Channel Orange and Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city are on everybody's Top 10 of 2012 lists. They were so good even Rolling Stone was able to figure it out, giving each four stars.
But an album that also dodged the industry's trappings is Michael Kiwanuka's Home Again (Cherrytree/Interscope). Contemporary soul singers usually don't fare too much better than hip hop artists when it comes to creative freedom, but Kiwanuka seems to have made the album he wanted to make, except that no one's really talking about it. (For the record, Paste did rank Kiwanuka 6th in its "20 Best New Bands of 2012.")
Reviewers met Home Again with lukewarm enthusiasm, finding it pleasing but unremarkable. And that isn't too hard to believe -- it is a modest sounding album, blending soul with singer-songwriter effects (acoustic guitar, lyrically driven). It also sounds like it could have been made forty years ago, and listeners were either impressed (it's a genuine looking back) or unconvinced (how could it not be at least a little contrived?). To the ears of many, Home Again was the kind of album you'd hear on NPR or on the "Coffee House" station of your XM car radio. The kind of album you can't even vote for on Pitchfork's 2012 Reader's Poll.
I love Home Again, have since I first listened to it and continue to. No, it doesn't feel like a landmark moment in music, it isn't big or compelling in the way that Frank Ocean and Bon Iver's albums are. It also doesn't really remind me of any one soul singer in particular (there are your influences -- Bill Withers comes to mind, Otis Redding has been talked about -- but they don't have the presence that Stevie Wonder has on Channel Orange or that Michael Jackson has on the Weeknd's Trilogy.) Can it be enough, then, to say that Home Again is just a lovely, soothing and enjoyable album to listen to? Maybe that makes it the "Coffee House"-music it's been labeled as, I don't now -- or, maybe that makes it cream-of-the-crop-music, whatever station or blog it's on.
Give it a listen here on Grooveshark, I think it will be worth your time.