Sunday, January 13, 2013

The 20 Best Albums of 2012

Before 2012 recedes over the horizon in the rearview mirror, here’s my (fourth) annual list of the best releases of the year. As usual, presented roughly in order from No. 1 through 20.

Between the Times and the Tides – Lee Ranaldo – There’s not necessarily one clear standout track on this album. Typically, that would be cause for wonder: “How good can it be then?” Well, every song on this album is really good. On top of that, it’s one of those sum-is-greater-than-the-parts affairs. From the “Paint It Black” opening riff cum Big Star-ish jangly pop melodies of “Waiting on a Dream” onward, this first solo offering from the formerly youthful Sonic swims deep in pools of R.E.M.-ish power pop with its undercurrent of whimsical, carnival-esque characters (especially “Off the Wall”).

The Athenian influences are fleshed out by hints of Wilco, Jonathan Richman and others. Besides the opening track, another high water mark is “Xtene As I Knew Her,” which starts out as a simple pop tune but quickly assumes epic instrumental proportions with multi-layered waves of guitar channeling Neil Young’s electric tone and Dave Lowery's vocal twang and lyrical dexterity. There’s a nod to George Harrison in the chorus of “Fire Island (Phases),” before the song evolves into a Wilco-like coda, complete with Nels-like lead guitar trills. Several songs wave the banner on a bouncy pop staff (“Hammer Blows,” “Lost” and “Stranded”). Meanwhile, “Shouts” suggests a more upbeat version of R.E.M.’s “King of Birds” with a touch of Brain Jonestown Massacre thrown in for good measure. (Dig the backward guitar!) Another stellar song, “Tomorrow Never Comes,” bounces with neo-psychedelic guitar and lyrics that evoke Robyn Hitchcock. Despite these many reference points, this is album is full of original and sophisticated song writing enhanced by accomplished instrumentation and production.

I wish I had heard this album before I caught Ranaldo and his band opening for M. Ward in May. As good and eye-opening as that performance was, I would have enjoyed it all the more had I heard this album first. Then again, the opening slot served its purpose, I immediately went out and bought the CD! If you love indie pop with great guitar and cool haunting songs, you’ll be hard pressed to top this one among 2012’s releases.

Blunderbuss – Jack WhiteEclectic as you would expect, less minimalistic than the White Stripes, a bit rawer than The Raconteurs, but more tuneful than The Dead Weather, Jack White’s first solo album lives up to high expectations. From the funky riffage of the femme fatale tale of “Freedom at 21” and the jaunty folk pop of “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” to the Robert Plant-Alison Krauss-esque “Love Interruption” and the languid fiddle and piano-driven folk of the epic title track, this album has it all – or, stated otherwise, it’s all over the map (hence, the title). There’s even some humor in the mix (the faux Brooklyn accent injected into the cover of “I’m Shakin’”). But it’s the guitar – in it’s many different guises – that remains front and center throughout. And, as we’re accustomed to, White’s characteristic quasi-falsetto, double-tracked vocals are never far from the fore. The most prominent nod to the past – or playing it safe – on this record is the single “Sixteen Saltines,” the most Stripes-like song on the album. It’s a good one, though.

Yes, White has switched the theme from red, white and black to blue, but he’s found a new gimmick in that all of these songs were recorded in alternating sessions with all male and then repeated with all female backing musicians. The results were integrated in the mix. Jack must’ve liked the effect – or at least the buzz-worthiness of the image – since he took the concept out on the road with him, playing with the ladies one night and then the men the next. (I saw him with the female troupe in Boston.) Regardless of the color scheme or the gender of his team, White has continued to find artistic as well as commercial success.

Blood Half Moon – Scott Lucas & The Married MenTo the unfamiliar, this third release from this side project of the Local H singer/guitarist, is a bit like The Wallflowers meet The Beatles. That means the pop hooks abound and they’re nuanced with either searing rock melodies or plaintive Springsteen-esque narratives. The haunting fiddle coursing through many of the tracks gives the sound a unique stamp and provides an emotive undertone of despair that counterbalances the chunky rock guitar riffs. 

Purposeful or not – and I’m sure not – other songs evoke a sonic reminiscence of old personal favorites of mine, such as The Church (“Out of the Boat”) and the greatly under-appreciated Boston 1980’s band Push Push (“Old Worries”). Overall, Lucas and Co. update The Wallflowers/Gin Blossoms formula for power pop – sharp guitar leads, strong melodic hooks, driving rhythm and worthwhile lyrics – for the new millennium in a manner similar to last year’s favorites Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs. Best of all, the album ends with an epic throwdown of “Ain’t No Grave,” a declarative, bluesy rant that would make Johnny Cash proud.

Sweet Pain – Mark CutlerThis Rhode Island legend continues to crank out tuneful, heartfelt roots rock, tinged with country and folk flare with an aplomb that belies his under-appreciated status on a global scale. This 2012 release features nine new tunes along with reworkings of four lesser-known gems from Cutler’s considerable back catalog. All but two or three of the songs are familiar to those who see M.C.’s many local performances during the course of the year. One of those newer tunes, the countrified “Nothing Left to Do” is my favorite, but there are many exceptional tracks, including the seemingly-innocent-yet-sinister-beneath-the-surface “Come Out to the Woods with Me,” the Sunday morning vibe of “Come Get Me Up” and the slacker romanticism of “Waste Some Time.” Cutler’s bluesier leanings are well represented too, particularly on the sardonic opening track, “Salvation Cruise.”

Among the older tunes Mark revisits and re-baptizes with his Men of Great Courage, the standouts are his Schemers’ composition, “Walking in the Night,” which remains fresh despite its mid ’80’s vintage, and the early Raindogs’ song of similar vintage, “Lonesome Pain.” The latter simmers with the twisted mania of the original – sans Johnny Cunningham’s (R.I.P.) irreplaceable fiddle playing, of course.

Despite not achieving the widespread recognition that his 30-year-career-long output merits, Cutler presses on producing top notch tunes played with passion and recorded with impact but not too much fuss. Though this isn’t my favorite Cutler record of his considerable catalog (which I have every bit of that I’ve been able to get my hands on), it stands tall among his better efforts. In fact, it may be the best representation in one record of the breadth of his songwriting talent. (So be sure to check this one out, you Nashville cats!)

A Wasteland Companion – M. Ward From plaintive, soft-spoken folk to jaunty pop and rollicking rock ’n’ roll, this album shows off Matt Ward’s masterful musicianship, subtle songwriting and production skills in all their glory – providing further reminder of how baffling it is that he’s not a bigger star. Perhaps it’s because he’s more “artist” than “pop star.” Yet, “Me and My Shadow” is a perfect example of the effective marriage of those two approaches.

More piano than guitar oriented than most of his albums, A Wasteland Companion features original takes on romance, as well as a dose of eccentric whimsy. There’s also a Buddy Holly-esque ’50s pop element to things (most notably on “Sweetheart,” featuring Ward’s She & Him companion Zooey Deschanel dueting on vocals) and a quirky first-person tale of a twisted TV sound effects man hijacking the airwaves of his station late one night in “Watch the Show.” And anyone who can pull off covers of both Louis Armstrong (“I Get Ideas”) and Daniel Johnston (“Sweetheart”), not just with aplomb but with a confident stamp of ownership, is clearly a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, after more than half a decade of impressive, highly artistic output, M. Ward is worthy of much wider notice – both on record and live. He put on one of the two best concerts I saw in 2012.

Three Chords Good – Graham Parker & The Rumour  – G.P. has remained musically vital and active in his twilight years, but this year’s reunion with his original bandmates 30 years nigh on seems to have injected new energy and given rebirth to the “angry young man.” The reunion was prompted by G.P. and Co. being asked to appear in Judd Apatow’s new movie This Is 40. The musicians’ reconnection lead to an album and brief-but-spirited tour of small theaters across the country. (I was front row in Boston!)

The album gets right back to the band’s old tricks with the kickoff track, “Snake Oil Capital of the World,” a typically snarky Parker social diatribe matched with musical grit provided by Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont on guitars and masterful backing vox and keys by Bob Andrews. The band cruises through the next few songs, which are solid, respectable G.P. fare, but not wholly impressive. That said, even middling G.P. tunes are leagues ahead of most of what’s released – now or back in the day. By the fifth track (the title track), however, the booster rockets fire and the collection burns from there on out.

Clever, engaging lyrics and hook-heavy melodies are matched with solid rhythmic grooves, making “A Lie Gets Halfway ’Round the World,” the provocative “Coathangers” and the sarcastic-but-sadly-true “Last Bookstore in Town” formidable additions to Parker’s catalog. Meanwhile, my favorite track, “Arlington’s Busy,” is a worthy addendum to the honor roll of truly great protest songs. Overall, Three Chords Good is a varied, polished and spirited affair from the “Old Soul” and his gang.

FolilaAmadou et Mariam This is the most pop and English-oriented release yet from the blind husband and wife team from Mali. Featuring guest appearances by Santigold, members of TV on Radio and the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, among others, this album was reportedly recorded twice: once in New York, and once in Bamako. The two versions were then welded together in a Paris studio. While the French/Euro-pop atmospherics of this album have been a part of Amadou et Mariam’s catalog for some time, here they are more pronounced and more Anglophied than ever before – to the point of occasionally overwhelming the essence of the duo’s sound. That said, this is still a really good record regardless.

If you like North African pop, but aren’t a purist, and you like, say Broken Bells, then most likely you’ll dig this record. Its mix of world, trance and funk coupled with even more English lyrics than previous releases broaden the crossover appeal. I fall somewhere between purist and someone who prefers the more western leanings and I still like this record quite a bit, even if it’s not quite as “authentic” as previous efforts. And, worth noting, it’s probably the most danceable record on this list.

Sweet Heart, Sweet Light – Spiritualized – Part Brian Jonestown Massacre, part Beatles, this is one of Spiritualized’s more upbeat, optimistic offerings. It kicks in with the harmony driven, jaunty pop chords propelling the Dylan-meets-Lou Reed-esque narrative of a young lady’s dissolution on “Hey Jayne.” The wash of sound continues through the very BJM-ish “Get What You Deserve” before taking a more soulful tangent on “I Am What I Am.” The psychedelic orchestral space trip returns on “Mary,” but then the sound shifts gears again, assuming a serious spiritual, nearly gospel vibe on the last two songs, “Life Is a Problem” and “So Long You Pretty Thing.” Despite the possible tongue-in-cheek aspect of these two tracks, particularly the former (a la The Stones’ “Girl with the Faraway Eyes”), they’re likely sincere sentiments given the hard road band leader Jason Pierce (a.k.a., J. Spaceman) has traveled throughout his career.

Banga – Patti Smith – For years, Patti Smith was viewed as the punk poetess laureate, something like a female Dylan a decade later. But on this latest record, her best in years, she sounds more like a female Leonard Cohen – especially later-day Cohen, the dignified, elder, artistic gentleman. Yet, true to her roots Smith still manages to evoke shades of Jim Morrison (“Banga” and “Tarkovsky”) and Dylan (“Nine”). There’s also evidence of the influence her friendship with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe has had on her music. Her old musical cronies – guitarist Lenny Kaye, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, bassist Tommy Shanahan and even ex-Television man Tom Verlaine – color this record with fresh, but familiar, sonic hues. Both tuneful and poetic, this is one of Patti’s best releases since her heyday. The lyrics rule the affair, of course, but this album is supremely tuneful – even poppy at points. Standout tunes include the title track, the opener, “Amerigo,” the Wilco-esque “April Fool” (complete with Nels-like guitar licks), “Maria,” “Mosaic,” “Nine,” the Doors-like psychedelic atmospherics of “Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter”) and the epic “Constantine’s Dream.”

Sun – Cat PowerChan Marshall has a storied past, but none of that matters in this shades-of-Sinead affair (listen to “Manhattan”) with major musical nods to Peter Gabriel’s fine 1980s work in the overall production, synth and guitar tones. The album kicks off with a Mamas-and-Papas-sixties-folk-pop-meets-21st-century-rhythms-for-a-cosmic-prayer vibe on “Cherokee.” The stellar songcraft continues on the organic-meets-electronica, Beth Orton-like tonalities of the title track. Overall, Sun features a variety of sounds, drawing from world music, hip-hop flavors and even piano ballads. A strong rhythmic sense throughout provides the foundation upon which Marshall builds fascinating song structures and vocal décor.

Glad All Over – The WallflowersThis album offers a harder edged, funkier version of the sound that first catapulted these masters of the pop hook to prominence in the mid 1990s. Yes, it’s a comeback – after Jakob Dylan’s semi-successful solo excursions and some personnel changes. And while the genuine Dylan pedigree and many of the trademark elements of the band’s sound remain intact, Glad All Over is a notable new chapter. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Mick Jones in tow on two tunes – he adds a bit of The Clash swagger to the proceedings and his vibe infuses the whole affair, including their name-dropping Joe Strummer on one tune. “Reboot the Mission,” indeed.

Shifty Adventures in Nookie WoodJohn Cale In recent years, the legendary producer and Velvet Underground founder has been conspicuously smitten with the cutting-edge production techniques heard in contemporary hip-hop. And though this is not a hip-hop record – it’s more haunting, beat-driven pop – it does employ some sonic trademarks of the hip-hop groove, particularly in the beats built around Cale’s beloved MPC loops. Danger Mouse co-produces and plays on the opening track (“I Wanna Talk 2 U”), which these days is an imperative to take notice.

Studio wizardry aside, what makes this album exceptional is that, at its core, it’s a varied collection of great songs with a nice balance of funky grooves and compelling melodies. In other words, these songs could all be effectively delivered sans all the studio effects on just acoustic instruments, which there are a surprising amount of on this record. At times, the tunes recall Eno or Bowie (particularly on “Hemingway”), but overall it is characteristically Cale and proof that more mainstream listeners should know his post-Velvets output. Fans of Byrne, Eno or Bowie will surely enjoy this album.

Django Django – Django Django OK, I admit that I was initially compelled to check out this band because my cat is named Django (after the magnificent gypsy guitarist). Second, they’re from Scotland, always an additional merit for consideration given my personal lineage. Ultimately, however, the killer pop hooks these lads pair with arty rhythms, techno beats, ’80s-style synths and catchy lyrics won me over. Remarkably, the band balances sounding, at times, like late ’60s Pink Floyd (“Hail Bop”), Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles or even or Canned Heat (“Firewater”), while at other times evoking The Buzzcocks, The Undertones, Devo, Gary Newman and Kraftwerk. The single, “Default,” sums up the cynical eloquence of their post-modern perspective: “Wheels are coming off now, knew that it would fall apart. Take one of the machine, you’re a cog in a machine, it’s like a default.”

Locked Down – Dr. JohnRight from the get go, it’s obvious that producer Dan Auerbach (he of Black Keys renown) resurrects the funky soul of Dr. J in a way that has seldom been heard since The Nitetripper’s gumbo was freshly brewed down in the Big Easy. Contemporary lyrics (“Revolution” and “Kingdom if Izzness”) paired with timeless grooves make for compelling listening. Locked Down offers a nice cross section of the artist’s strengths, from the slinky (“Big Shot”) to the spiritual (“My Children, My Angels,” which evokes The Stones’ Black and Blue track, “Memory Motel”). Besides the knob-twiddling and assembly of a sonically sympathetic supporting cast, Auebach’s spikey guitar leads add a lot to the affair, particularly when they soar over the funky keys, wall of horns and backing vox on tracks like the tremolo-driven soul of “You Lie” and the righteous closer “God’s Sure Good.” All in all, this album exudes the funk. Indeed, Dan A. and Co. have resurrected Mac Rebennack’s groove.

Silver Age – Bob Mould Mould revisits the hard-edged pop of his post Husker Dü band Sugar (his artistic apex) and produces an aggressively tuneful, vitriol-filled condemnation of the music industry (“Star Machine” et al). Bob shows us how, along with Minneapolis brethren The Replacements, he’s the godfather of the full-throttle, guitar-driven pop power that paved the way for Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Sleater Kinney and others. Silver Age kicks off with a potent one-two punch of “Star Machine” and the title track. The sonic assault continues unabated, but other standouts include a subsequent tuneful tandem of “Angels Rearrange” and “Keep Believing.” Things wind down just a bit for the R.E.M.-ish closing track, “First Time Joy.” Nice to see Bob regaining his mojo.

Royal Headache – Royal Headache – This Aussie band combines the frenetic rhythms and melodic sensibilities of late-’70s/early-’80s Brit pop artists like The Jam, The Buzzcocks, The Wedding Present, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe with a heavy dose of the sweaty energy and harmonic sensibilities of Hamburg-era Beatles. The result is upbeat, propulsive, yet melodic pop that bridges multiple decades with the essence of pure pop-rock punch. When they’re not channeling the raw, youthful energy of The Beatles, The Jam or even a catchy combination of The Faces and Buddy Holly (“Honey Joy”) – which is most of the time – they tap into the post-modern pop of The Figgs (“Two Kinds of Love”), The Wedding Present (“Back and Forth” and “Pity”) and Squeeze on speed (“Back and Forth” and “Down the Lane”). Even the two instrumentals tracks are joyful listens on this one.

Blues FuneralMark Lanegan Band This is an interesting, atmospheric, death-knell blues, pop exploration that evokes the better aspects of the early ’90s Seattle scene from which the former Screaming Trees frontman emerged. At times Blues Funeral is almost trance-like, at others it recalls the art-rock side of The Church with some hints of U2. Dark-toned throughout – particularly on the noire-ish “Bleeding Muddy Water” – the U2/Church-like traits are most prominent on “Gray Goes Black” and “Ode to Sad Disco.” Lanegan and Co. go more upbeat with the Julian Cope-ish pop rock of “Riot in My House.” But the indie-rock-meets-deep-blues sentiments are deftly delivered with Lanegan’s resonant tenor vocals and occasionally clever, Cohen-esque’s lyrics (“Harborview Hospital”). This is a classic slow burner of a CD.

Neck of the Woods Silversun Pickups – This impressive fourth effort from the L.A. quartet opens with shades of Nine Inch Nails and continues with a sound that repeatedly references Garbage (at their best), especially on “Make Believe” and “Bloody Mary.” That’s not a bad thing, especially since it’s merely a touchpoint and not a template. At times, the Pickups conjure the mellower side of U2’s modern sound (“Here We Are”). But, overall, the sound in this Neck of the Woods is edgier and more industrial (though still with a pop sheen) than the band’s previous efforts. “Mean Spirits” evokes a touch of Primus, with its prominent bass riffing and engagingly spasmodic lead guitar. Then they get prog-rocky on ”Simmer.” “The Pit” meshes the Garbage with New Order while the catchy guitar melody dominates “Dots and Dashes (Enough Already).”

Master of My Make BelieveSantigold – This quasi rap/pop album is a bit outside the gravitational pull of my usual preferences when it comes to styles of music, but the stellar quality and crossover appeal of this second release from Santi White are undeniable. Yes, there’s the typical somewhat overblown pop production and some rapping, but there’s plenty of genuine singing gilded by infectious African and Caribbean rhythms, catchy melodies and thoughtful lyrics. This is significant and is a big part of what makes this release stand out in the crowded field of producer-driven pop. Exceptional tracks include “The Keepers,”  “Disparate Youth” (with its buzz-saw guitar), “This Isn’t Our Parade,” “Freak Like Me” (with it’s paring of hip-hop beats and choral harmony vocals), and the edgy “Go!” featuring Karen O of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. Like many Top 40 pop and R ’n’ B albums these days, production is front and center but in this case it doesn’t relegate the songs and performance to second-tier status. Here, the three components work together on equal terms and add up to more than the sum of the parts.

The Idler Wheel …Fiona Apple – Space may be unlimited on the internet, but that still doesn’t justify full rendering of this CD’s title (for the record it’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do … huh? Right!), but Fiona does things her own way. Always has and this time, perhaps more than ever, she does what she wants, how she wants. The result is her most interesting and adventurous album yet. I haven’t been a big fan of her previous records, but there’s always been enough there to suggest to me that she’s more than just a better-than-average Tori Amos/Kate Bush offspring.

This eclectic offering pairs her gymnastic vocals and adventurous piano playing with artsy muted percussion in a stripped down songwriterly affair. At times it’s country-folk flavored (a la Eleni Mandell), at others it’s avant garde jazzy (kinda like Laurie Anderson meets Nina Simone) or cabaret noir (a la Amanda Palmer). But the most forceful impression is that of a Randy Newman-esque thoughtful, emotional piano-based songwriter. Yes, it’s that good … at points. The standout track is the album’s closer, “Hot Knife,” which in addition to the aforementioned even evokes a hint of Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus. Despite all the reference points (I can’t say they’re direct influences), it all adds up to Apple’s most interesting offering yet.

Honorable Mentions:
Celebration DayLed Zeppelin – Though it was officially released this year, this audio and video chronicle of the mighty Zep’s triumphant reunion at London’s 02 Arena comes half a decade after the fact. Worthy of recognition because not only does the performance put a definitively positive exclamation point of closure to the band’s unequaled career, but also for the band’s killer first-ever live performance of “For Your Life” from 1976’s under-appreciated Presence album.

Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty InternationalVarious Artists – There have been scads of Dylan tributes and covers albums (official and not-so) over the years, but this one is remarkable for its magnitude (4 discs), it’s wide variety of artists from vastly different genres and the surprising gems to be found among the lot. Yes, there are few outright wankers (Ke$ha’s faux-tearful take on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and Lucinda Williams’ surprisingly anemic “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”), but there’s a generous supply of unexpected revelations, too. The standouts include: The Belle Brigade’s rendition of “No Time At All” from Street Legal, Joe Perry’s “Man of Peace,” Mariachi El Bronx’s “Love Sick,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Property of Jesus,” Patti Smith’s “Drifter’s Escape,” the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ “Political World,” Taj Mahal doing his best Tom Waits impression on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” and the Spartan banjo picking and gender-defying masculine vocals of Marianne Faithful’s “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.” Stellar performances aside, most of all though, Chimes of Freedom is yet another compelling representation of the extent of Zimmy’s genius.

Runners Up:
The Day Gravity Stopped – The Figgs, No Thyself – Magazine, Tempest – Bob Dylan, Privateering – Mark Knopfler, How About I Be Me (and You be You) – Sinead O’Connor, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy – Nada Surf, Storm Corrosion – Storm Corrosion, and Old Ideas – Leonard Cohen.

Previous Best Album of the Year Lists:
•  2011
•  2010
•  2009

What’s your view?
What do you think of this list? Agree, disagree, have additions? Comment below. If you have your own list, I’d love to see it. Add a link to it in the comments.

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