Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Top 20 Albums of 2012

An amazing year for music, as I listened to well over 100 albums in 2012. These are my favorites.

1. Bill Fay Life Is People Dead Oceans
Fay was already an old soul in his twenties, when he released two albums in 1970 and 1971 of stately orch-pop and smart folk rock that fell on deaf ears. Accordingly, Fay dropped out of the biz, but he kept writing. Meanwhile, the albums hit the cut out bins and used racks. They resonated and a cult grew, which included Jeff Tweedy, who began singing Fay’s songs at his solo gigs. This indirectly led to album number three after a 41 year wait (and Tweedy guests and Fay does a Wilco tune). Fay’s wisdom has grown while his tunesmithing ability is fully intact. His piano based songs are both economical and sweeping. Fay writes about spiritual considerations, but doesn’t beat listeners over the head with Jesus. Instead, he looks for meaning in a way a secular humanist can appreciate. This culminates in the stunning “Cosmic Concerto”, an epic song of majestic beauty and grace, which sums up a lifetime of asking questions about our purpose in life. A deeply moving work.

2. Frank Ocean Channel Orange Def Jam
This hotly anticipated album not only lived up to the hype, it was even better than the hype. The first proper album from the singing member of the Odd Future collective is, like a lot of the best modern R & B (ex. – Janelle Monae), steeped in the genre’s past while always sounding as modern as can be. In Ocean, you can hear Prince, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and other greats, but the album is also informed by hip hop and other parts of the pop and soul universe. Ocean can craft catchy tunes with seeming ease, but he also has ambitions, as illustrated by the shape shifting exploration that is “Pyramids”. To a degree, Ocean, like Bill Fay, is also searching for meaning, from a markedly different perspective, and his explorations give his songs a lot of depth and resonance.

3. Michael Kiwanuka Home Again Interscope
Kiwanuka freely wears his influences on his sleeve – folks like Bill Withers, Otis Redding and Terry Callier. His mix of folk, R & B and jazz manages not to sound retro or contrived but wholly organic, as if this is the music that he has to make. He is as adept at songs that float in the air as he is in soulful pop songs, with a voice that is mature and full of feeling. Getting Paul Butler of The Bees to produce was a coup, as he provides just the right sound and arrangements, enhancing the warmth that naturally emanates from Kiwanuka.

4. Django Django Django Django Ribbon
One of the members of this Scottish band is related to a member of The Beta Band, and some of that band’s psychedelic-electronic sound can be found on this platter. But these young art students have a lot more energy, and there are pulsing dance beats, mixing in with pop smarts reminiscent of Stone Roses. While the Djangos seem to exude an innate sense of cool, the excitement they feel about their music comes through, creating songs that are assured and energetic at the same time, and quite catchy too.

5. Killer Mike R.A.P. Music Williams Street
While Killer Mike is best known for his appearances on Outkast and Big Boi records, he has been making his own records for quite a while. Working with El-P (whose Cancer 4 Cure was also a damned good 2012 release) for the first time, this Killer found the perfect collaborator. Mike is a passionate and incisive lyricist with an authoritative flow. El-P comes up with hard beats and sonic collages that work so well with Mike’s skills, yielding great songs like the title cut and explosive political polemic “Reagan”.

6. Disappears Pre Language kranky
This excellent Chicago band's third LP is its first (and only?) with drummer Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. A reverb heavy, Krautrock inspired sound still defines the band, but Disappears is now embracing conventional song structures. There are more identifiable riffs and the band shows off an expanded rhythmic pallette, perhaps due in part to Shelley's presence. Some reference points include ‘90s post-punkers Girls Against Boys, The Fall and a dash of singer Brian Case’s old band, The Ponys. For some, including the guy at Pitchfork who reviewed this album, this might represent a betrayal, but Disappears retains a lot of the qualities from their earlier work, it's just that they aren't content with merely oscillating or pounding -- there are some real grooves on this rekkid. And for folks who like it when they freak out and unleash shards of guitar noise, they certainly jam out on a couple of tracks. Another big step forward for Disappears.

7. Cloud Nothings Attack On Memory Carpark
Dylan Baldi had already proven on prior Cloud Nothings releases that he could effortlessly kick out catchy punky pop tunes. Finally heading into the studio with his band, and with Steve Albini behind the boards, his music not only became more muscular and aggressive, but it revealed a new side to his identity that is more akin to Nirvana and Husker Du. So the buoyant optimism remains and coexists with expressions of rage and desperation on a terrific collection of tunes that explodes out of the speakers.

8. Kelly Hogan I Like To Keep Myself In Pain ANTI-
Hogan was Chicago’s best kept secret. The former Jody Grind singer and eternal wit is a team player who has helped out/worked with fellow brilliant singers like Neko Case and Nora O’Connor, but somehow, she had not produced an LP that did justice to her amazing honeyed voice which can handle pop, country, jazz and R & B with the greatest of ease. This time, she asked her many friends in the biz to give her songs, and folks like Robyn Hitchcock, Robbie Fulks, Jon Langford, Stephen Merritt, M. Ward and others gave her top drawer material. Working with a band that included the legendary Booker T. Jones, her amazing interpretive singing finally got the showcase it needed. She apparently has more songs stockpiled, so the world can further discover what us Chicagoans known for a long time.

9. Dr. John Locked Down Nonesuch
Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys met Dr. John at Bonnaroo and struck up a friendship. Auerbach wanted Dr. John to get back to his classic funky swamp rock style, and got Mac Rebennack to ditch his piano for the organ. This was just the start of sending Dr. John in a time machine to make a record that nearly equals classics like Gris-Gris. This is smoky and greasy, with the good Dr. sounding like it’s 1968 all over again.

10. Mark Lanegan Band Blues Funeral 4AD
The former Screaming Trees frontman will always be worth a listen due to his commanding vocals that are somehow worn but powerful at the same time. What I love about this album is that it shows off how much he can do with that voice. There are some great rockers on here (including one that sounds a lot like Queens Of The Stone Age, with whom he’s worked) while other songs rely on keyboards and electronic percussion. One even sports a disco beat. Whatever he tries, Lanegan is in command, showing off the breadth of his talents.

11. Redd Kross Researching The Blues Merge
The first Redd Kross album in 15 years and sixth since they got started in 1982, finds the band pretty much picking up where it left off on wonderful albums such as Phaseshifter and Show World. While the recent surge in attention to Redd Kross is grounded more in their '80s teen punk past, the ‘90s found the band evolving into the top notch power pop outfit represented here. Indeed, they sound like a southern California variant on Cheap Trick, combining slamming guitars (with some KISS inspired lead guitar) with strong melodies and hooks. Brothers Jeff and Steven McDonald (who is currently also a member of Off! and Sparks) harmonize as well as ever and have a few more pop culture references in their bag of tricks. This is energetic, catchy and excellent.

12. Micachu And The Shapes Never Rough Trade
The third Micachu album, but the true follow up to the 2009 debut Jewellry after last year’s foray with the London Sinfonietta, doubles down on the band’s ultrapercussive, experimental post-punk meets garage/grime meets hip-hop meets whatever other genre seems convenient sound. The band still specializes in dissonance and layered sounds (even bringing back a vacuum cleaner on the opening track), but with denser production in an effort to cram even more sounds and ideas into these mostly short, sharp tunes. This means the hooks don’t always leap out on the first play. Other songs are cascades of well structured noise that still, for the most part, try to find something to hook the listener in. Thus, while not as accessible as Jewellry, this is an album which will continue to offer something new with each listen. It’s challenging without being insular, and the product of a compelling vision, even if it sometimes sounds like just a lot of clattering.

13. The dB’s Falling Off The Sky Bar/None
The first album in 25 years (and fifth overall) from this classic ‘80s North Carolina power pop band. The first two dB’s LPs blended classic ‘60s influences (such as The Kinks and The Beach Boys) with the quirky inspiration of Radio City-era Big Star. Singer/guitarist Chris Stamey then left and took the quirks with him, while singer/guitarist Peter Holsapple took the music in a rootsier direction, adding country and R & B elements. Stamey returns to the fold for this LP, but the sound is somewhat closer to the third and fourth dB’s albums. Stamey’s tunes are wistful, mature pop-rock, while Holsapple remains the classicist. The song that most evokes the spirit of the early dB’s is “Write Back”, the first dB’s number penned by drummer Will Rigby. A very well done reunion album.

14. Saint Etienne Words And Music By Saint Etienne Heavenly
The eighth album from this quintessential British dance pop trio is their second consecutive concept album, following the exploration of in a block of London flats on 2005's Tales From Turnpike House. This album, which is all about music and the many ways it impacts our life, is not quite as stylistically diverse as its predecessor. Saint Etienne sticks with its bread and butter, ultra-melodic Eurodisco, with hints of Bacharach, Beach Boys and R & B in spots. And Sarah Cracknell is still an urbane and sublimely controlled singer. Compared to a lot of contemporary dance music, Saint Etienne might seem tame, but much like Pet Shop Boys, this is intelligent music that is also catchy with a good beat. For most artists, an album this good would be considered an achievement. That this is probably the third or fourth best St. Etienne album is a testament to this group’s greatness and consistency over the past two decades.

15. Jimmy Cliff Rebirth Universal
For his 26th album, and first LP in eight years, the reggae legend convened with Tim Armstrong of Rancid and Operation Ivy. The idea was to get Cliff back to the essence of his music, and this collaboration has really borne fruit. The playing, production, songwriting and material are all top notch, as this album is full of wonderful R & B inflected reggae with a bit of ska here and there. Best of all, Cliff, at age 71, sounds pretty much the same as he did back in the late ‘60s, when he had his first hits. Moreover, he is clearly inspired, and the energy radiates out of the speakers. Let’s hope Armstrong and Cliff play together some more.

16. Shearwater Animal Joy Sub Pop
This veteran band, which started as a side project of Okkervil River, moves to Sub Pop for its eighth LP. A new label has no impact on the group’s ornate, dramatic style which touches on a lot of art rock from the past. Leader Jonathan Meiburg (who left Okkervil River in 2009) has a powerful voice which has garnered comparisons to Jeff Buckley. This is a bit more of an anthemic rock effort than recent platters, with more forceful drumming and a bit more guitar. But rest assured, the songs are still dominated by prominent piano and Meiburg’s singing. Musically, there is so much going on here, and this album sounds influenced by everyone from Talk Talk (at times, Meiburg sounds like Mark Hollis) to Scott Walker to ‘70s art rock like Peter Gabriel. I even hear hints of post-punk inspiration in some bass lines, and “Immaculate” is somewhat akin to Okkervil River. This is a terrific album of big music.

17. The Coup Sorry To Bother You ANTI-
This is the sixth album from this Oakland hip-hop band led by Boots Riley, but my first exposure to the group. The lyrics are a heady mix of Marxist politics and social commentary, which can be strident, but, to his credit, Riley’s wit prevents the songs from drowning in polemics. Musically, this album is rooted in guitar based funk. Some songs seem to spring from Funkadelic, Sly & The Family Stone and Prince, among others. Other tracks, as Nathan Rabin of The Onion A.V. Club noted, sound like the hybrid of funk and new wave that proliferated in the ‘80s. The result is perhaps the most thought provoking party album of the 21st Century.

18. Bat For Lashes The Haunted Man Capitol
The first two Bat For Lashes albums clearly positioned Natasha Khan as a contender for the title of true spiritual heir to Kate Bush, but she was still trying to figure things out. With album number three, she appears to have earned the title. Khan matches Kate’s sweeping melodies, and adds her own touches, such as a creative use of percussion and electronic rhythms, and hints of ‘70s singer/songwriter. While Khan’s voice is not a powerhouse instrument, it is very expressive and perfect for her strongest set of tunes yet.

19. Neneh Cherry & The Thing A Cherry Thing Smalltown Supersound
Cherry cut her teeth on jazzy post-punk with Rip, Rig and Panic back in the ‘80s. After laying low for many years, just doing the occasional cameo on someone’s record, Cherry goes back to her roots by joining forces with this powerful Swedish free jazz trio who worshiped her stepdad, Don Cherry. This is a match made in heaven, as Neneh’s voice is still one of a kind, full of nuance and sexy as hell, while The Thing attack the material with verve. And the material consists primarily of fabulous cover versions of tracks from acts like Suicide and The Stooges. This is how to make the avant garde accessible without losing any edge.

20. Dwight Yoakam 3 Pears Warner Bros.
After a seven year hiatus, Yoakam reestablishes himself as perhaps the greatest album artist in country music history. This album reconnects with his best ‘90s work, as Yoakam blends his twang with rock and R & B, without every sifting out the honky tonk. The time off clearly recharged his songwriting batteries, as the material sounds fresh, and he performs the songs with enthusiasm. But he doesn’t forget his roots, with an excellent cover of Joe Maphis’s “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke”.

The Next 20:
21. Grizzly Bear Shields 22. Richard Hawley Standing At The Sky’s Edge 23. Beach House Bloom 24. Homeboy Sandman First Of A Living Breed 25. Lee Fields Faithful Man 26. Christian Scott Christian Atunde Adjuah 27. Bob Mould Silver Age 28. The Hollows Vulture 29. Divine Fits A Thing Called Divine Fits 30. Prince Fatty Prince Fatty Versus The Drunken Gambler 31. The Moons Fables Of History 32. Nelson Bragg We Get What We Want 33. Mokoomba Rising Tide 34. Summer Girlfriends Shockwaves 35. Gemma Ray Island Fire 36. Poor Luther’s Bones Jukes And Junk 37. Georgia Anne Muldrow Seeds 38. Holograms Holograms 39. A.C. Newman Shut Down The Streets 40. Mission Of Burma Unsound

My favorite 2012 books:

1. Andrés Neuman Traveler of the Century: A Novel

2. Jess Walter Beautiful Ruins

3. Katherine Boo Behind The Beautiful Forevers

4. Gillian Flynn Gone Girl

5. Nick Dybek When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man

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