Happy New Year, everyone. We’re still here. Mayans can suck it. And here are my top album picks for 2012. Each year somebody stumbles across this for the first time, so let me dispense with the disclaimers and caveats.
This is just me, spouting my opinions. There are no required “categories”. I didn’t listen to much prog, jazz, or hip hop this year, and I liked the stuff here better than the prog, jazz, and hip hop I DID listen to. So there’s no need to write me, irate that I didn’t include any prog, jazz, or hip hop. Et cetera.
I’m a music snob and a musician; the worst combination to find in someone wearing the hat of “music critic”, and you’re completely entitled to scoff at my choices. But this isn’t about competition; this is me, waving a flag for what I think are worthwhile albums that people should spend their money buying and their time listening to. I have no agenda here other than to keep the quality of the music in your life HIGH.
Also, the order of presentation is, as usual, somewhat elastic. There are days when any of these releases could slip up or down a few notches, depending on my mood.
One more thing: One of my picks from last year won a Grammy, and two of my picks from 2011 have been nominated for Grammys in 2013… it has to do with their cut-off date for eligibility and other assorted blah-blah. My point in mentioning it is that I find it a promising trend — I mean, I haven’t agreed with the Grammy Awards that much in over a DECADE. To boot, one of my picks from 2012 is nominated for a Grammy this year…. who knows if any will make the 2014 list.
It either means that the world is waking up to what’s good, or I’m slipping in my old age. I’m going with the former.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Therefore, I recommend that you LISTEN ALONG as you read by opening up my iTunes Playlist with selections from these records,
or click on each album cover to listen more specifically.
1. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young?
Each and every time these guys play, they raise the bar for what can be done with acoustic instruments. Specifically, the acoustic instruments used in the traditional makeup of a bluegrass band: guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin, and double bass. Punch Brothers have been around (under different names) since shortly after the demise of legendary bluegrass/pop group Nickel Creek, when mandolin-master-of-not-unappealing-voice Chris Thile attempted to get together a bunch of guys who could play as maniacally and sing as prettily as he can and make everyone else in the world wish they were them. It worked. These guys are amazing, fun, and unstoppable, and this is their best work yet.
The band teamed up with producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Amber Rubarth, Norah Jones, Mutemath, etc) for this, and the difference from PB’s last album (“Antifogmatic”; see my 2010 list) is instantly audible. This whole record conveys the ambiance of a live performance in a small theater — there are no startling shifts in aural texture or instrument placement from song to song, and each track seems to have a similar amount of reverb/delay/ambiance. The brilliance of this “set it and forget it” production approach is that it lets all the interest and surprise come from the musicians themselves; from the dynamics and arrangements of the songs.
And damn, but there are some excellent songs on this record. Case in point: “This Girl” is absolutely one of the best songs of the year on a number of levels, and it’s rare that I’d give that honor to a song that’s not a heartstring-tugger. It’s the rollicking, fun, one-sided conversation between a man and the God he abandoned until he met a girl who hadn’t… hilarity ensues. Given Thile’s history of not-so-humorous stories of relationship trouble between believers and non-believers (check out ”The Blind Leaving The Blind” on the group’s second offering, “Punch”), it’s great to see that time has steered that message more towards satire and away from plain old… ire.
There’s a burden on a supergroup: What does “the band who can play anything” choose to PLAY?? Do they constantly flex and go over the top to prove themselves by injecting odd time signatures and wild key changes into every song? They do, but nowhere near as much as they used to, and I won’t lie — that’s what got them to the top of this page; it’s welcome. They got the secret formula just right. These songs are a bit milder in their presentation than PB offerings of the past, as if King turned down the “Prog Knob” just enough to make them palatable without losing their essence.
That is not to say that they don’t cut loose; no way. The opening track is propelled along by rapidly pulsing, impossibly in-tune double stops from bassist Paul Kowert (who seems to have found the “overdrive” knob on his preamp — nice!!), and the award-winning Noam Pikelny’s banjo playing on the minor and moody “New York City” sounds like someone lit his hands on fire. Violinist and harmony vocalist Gabe Witcher shines in both roles in the haunting “No Concern Of Yours”, and in a PB studio-first, he takes the reins as the lead vocalist on the gritty, funky “Hundred Dollars” in a way that makes me want more more more. Guitarist Chris Eldridge only makes his presence known for brief but intense moments in each song, as if to remind us that if he wanted to, he could blow the roof off this place one-handed, but instead he chooses to add to the greatness of the ensemble.
One more thing — late in 2012 the group released an EP of tracks (mostly cover songs) that didn’t make it to the full-length release. It’s called “Ahoy!”, and I’d have included it in the “Honorable Mentions” section at the end, but since you’re already reading this, I’ll save you the scrolling. Buy them both. Hugely worthwhile music here. Fifty years from now, these guys will be the stuff of legend, and your grandkids will be asking you why you weren’t listening to them/catching their shows at every opportunity. Don’t let your grandkids down.
2. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
When Apple first came on the scene, I was immediately struck by her voice… There was something about her smoky alto that was so DIFFERENT than anything else on the radio… When her second album dropped a few years later, it hit me immediately: she doesn’t use any auto-tune. Then as now, it is so refreshing to listen to a singer who can actually SING; who embraces the ever so occasional imperfection in a vocal performance and uses it to emphasize the sentiment they’re trying to get across instead of flatlining, tan-and-bland, all across the board. She’s got a wicked instrument in her throat, she knows how to use it, and she has never failed to impress.
The instrument located less than a foot ABOVE her throat, however, seems to encounter more than occasional discordance… and Apple has made a career out of letting us in on her internal monologue. And thank goodness for that. She makes the emotional turmoil inside her head into the jarring-yet-captivating poetry we’ve come to love from her. She’s always been a righteous drama queen; neurotic and sardonic, yet at the same time aware of the tragic circumstances she creates… it’s like she has bouts of rational clarity in which she writes these brutally honest songs of self-analysis… and then revisits the songs when she’s back down the rabbit hole, snarling and howling the self-critical lyrics as if she can’t believe that bitch had the nerve to call her out publicly. The album opens with “Every Single Night”, which is her, coming to terms with living inside her own head, and floats through various scenarios explaining how that head of hers has sabotaged her relationships with partners, from the process of picking them to the way she seems to keep messing them up…. but by the end, she seems to be reaching some kind of reconciliation with herself, and puts forth the idea that she might yet find solace.
Musically, the majority of these songs showcase Apple doing what she does best: exploring chord voicings at the low end of her very old-timey, saloon-sounding piano. No matter what else surfaces, it and her voice are the constants. She always plays it in a way that accentuates the most dissonant notes in any line, and it’s what gives her music that dark-and-quirky feel; the thing her many imitators can’t duplicate. It’s one of her stamps, and she uses it to great effect all over this collection.
Producer Charley Drayton, who serves as the percussionist on each track, is also a responsible party for this album’s fantastic sound. Most of the songs are backed by some kind of clacka-lacking, finger-drum-thumping, thigh-slapping, brushed-snare drum-rolling, bells-and-chimes-a-dinging, off-kilter rhythm. This doesn’t thwart Apple’s lyrical impact though — in fact, these upbeat arrangements help a few songs from sinking under their own morose weight, and add a playful spirit to her self-depricating sarcasm on others.
Of note: the big exception to everything I’ve just mentioned is the album’s closer, “Hot Knife”. It is, for lack of another explanation, a fun little sing-along. As far as I know it’s the first time she’s ever recorded a massive vocal overdub fest, and it’s sure to have female a cappella groups at universities all over America hard at work for the next year.
3. Ben Folds Five – The Sound of the Life of the Mind
What a delightful surprise this album is. Folds posted sneak-peeks of all the songs well in advance of the album release date, but I only heard three of them. I thought he was messing with us; each of the tunes I got a look-see at were deeper cuts from this collection; not the instantly gratifying, ultimately catchy, raucous and irreverent awesomeness the band make its hallmark back in the late nineties. These songs were good, but they were… MATURE, and not unlike the more adult contemporary fare from Folds’ solo career. I was annoyed. What was the point of reuniting BF5 if they weren’t going to be jackasses again??
And yet, when I hit “play”, the opening fuzz-bass of “Erase Me” slammed out of the speakers, and all was again right with the universe. THIS is the album we hoped we were getting back in 1999 when they gave us “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner”; it’s got the advanced musical sensibilities and cool harmonies of that era in the band’s existence, but the delivery and spirit of play the band exudes on each cut calls to mind their heyday, when even the most serious and heartbreaking songs of “Whatever And Ever Amen” had a sharp sense of irony.
There are equal parts “jackass” BF5 and “storytelling” BF5 here, and it’s a good balance. For every introspection (“Sky High”, “Hold That Thought”, and the brutal-yet-uplifting ”Away When You Were Here” are quite worthy), there’s an in-your-face rocker (the title cut, “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”, and “Draw A Crowd”, whose hook you will never get out of your head… even if you really want to). When Ben is funny, he’s hysterical, and when he’s sad, you’ll be crying too. Drummer Darren Jessee contributed the song “Sky High” to the collection (and he’s no joke; he co-wrote the band’s biggest hit ever — remember “Brick”?), and in a move that made me grin, they set a piece of author Nick Hornby’s prose to music to create the album’s mighty title track. Folds and Hornby did a whole album this way back in 2010, and it was awesome. This cut is even more of that same awesomeness.
The decade-plus apart doesn’t seem to have been a problem for the trio musically… these guys can still play their asses off. From Fold’s face-melting piano solo in the opening track, to Sledge’s eternal mastery of lead-distorto-bass on “Draw A Crowd” and “Do It Anyway” (also note his tasteful double bass playing on “Sky High” and the brilliant and steady outro to “Hold That Thought”), to Jessee’s spot-on, zero-to-sixty drumming (the way he drives the bus on both the title track and “Draw A Crowd” are Keith Moon-worthy)… There may be those subdued, mature passages, but there is never a dull moment. The single, “Do It Anyway”, may be remembered more for the video than the song itself (because Fraggles are awesome), but it’s fun regardless, and it features the band jamming away relentlessly. You can hear it: they’re having an absolute blast. And it’s contagious.
4. Butterfly Boucher – (self-titled)
Boucher has released three records in the past decade, and all three have made this list. Particularly this year, when so many of my all-time favorite songwriters released albums that didn’t move me (Ani Difranco, Aimee Mann, Peter Mulvey, Andy Davis, Foy Vance… the list goes on), the fact that she’s three-for-three should tell you something; you’ve been missing out on this chick. If you love real pop music, get hip to Butterfly.
Boucher is equal parts 90′s smart pop, 60′s retro, and 70′s punk, with today’s dance floor sensibilities and a penchant for occasional and delightful 80′s schmaltz. She’s one of those self-producer-plays-every-instrument-and-has-a-killer-vocal-range types who can make an entire professional album in her bedroom with a few instruments, tubby toys, kitchen utensils, and a microphone… and near as I can tell, since leaving the major-label-nightmare a few years back (remember when her label put her on a “Shrek” soundtrack back in the day…?), she’s become the reigning queen of Nashville indie-pop-rock.
The opening cut, “5678!” (the quintessential choreographer’s cry, but possibly also a tongue-in-cheek response to Leslie Feist…?) got a low budget video and some decent promo, but it deserved much more; it stands up to (and in fact, crushes) every successful pop hit of the past year. You won’t just hear this hook, shrug, and move on; it will grab you and make you listen repeatedly. “The Weather” is as ballsy a rock tune as ever you’ll hear on a pop record, showing off Boucher’s killer pipes and chops on every instrument. It kicks serious ass, providing great contrast to more synth-heavy, danceable offerings like “Not Fooling Around” and “None The Wiser”. Undertones of 60′s baladeering abound most prominently in the gorgeous “The Warning Bell”, and syncopated, gritty-yet-synthy anthems like “I Wanted To Be The Sun” and “Take It Away” embody everything I love about her as an artist; engaging but not overused chord progressions, gorgeous harmonies belting out bittersweet lyrics, and all propelled by a slamming rhythm section.
If there’s anything you can count on in a Butterfly Boucher song, it’s that it will have at least one cool-ass modulation that you will not see coming, and that will totally capture you no matter how many times she throws it at you. She’s the goods, and I wish she would (finally) get her due. To boot, the album is only seven bucks on iTunes. Deal of the year right HERE.
5. Bob Mould – Silver Age
I don’t know why the last Grammy-winning Foo Fighters record didn’t grab me like this ass-kicker does. This thing is relentless. Mere moments after I was made aware of it’s existence, I typed the following statement:
“Each of my eardrums is now vying to be this album’s personal slam-hound.”
And I’m sorry to be so crass, but it’s as true now as it was then. 38 minutes of face-smashing non-stop straight-ahead rocking like I haven’t heard anyone do in a long while (and yes, I was effusive about Pearl Jam’s latest offering not too long ago, but this is definitely superior with regard to the face-smashing non-stop-rocking).
Bob’s music stands apart from all the younger acts that produce records in the same vein because of two characteristics: His anthemic writing style embraces tension rather than embracing release… and regardless of where he is in a musical phrase, he always EMBRACES NOISE. After digging on this album, anything produced after 2001 will sound… clean. Polite. Apologetic. Bob has never been ashamed of the messy sounds that drums and electric guitars make. He’s never tried to tame them; in fact his recordings have always sought to make the kick drum thump your chest, the guitars rattle your ribcage, and the bass punch you in the sternum. He’s gotten *really* good at that by now. The only problem with this was that he used to make it happen at the expense of his own voice in the mix, but that has largely been remedied here. At only one point do I find myself looking to tweak the EQ to bring out the lyrics a bit more.
This is the kind of album that gets me speeding tickets. People, if you remember Husker Du: this rocks harder. If you remember Sugar: this rocks harder. If you’ve been a fan of Bob’s solo stuff but have become convinced that he lost his edge: IT’S BACK, and it’s… hard.
And if you’re a youngin’, and would only have a frame of reference for Bob Mould if I told you that a snippet from one of his old tunes is currently used as the theme music for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”… Yes. This rocks much harder than that, and you should *really* give this old dude a shot.
6. John Mayer – Born and Raised
Mayer used to sneeze and get a Grammy nomination. It was usually for the smarmiest, pappiest tunes he would include on otherwise brilliant records. This year he produced what will no doubt be hailed as one of the best albums of his lifetime, and the Grammys are snubbing him so hard it’s audible.
This got hyped as a “country” album. And that’s both fair and unfair. Unfair because that label automatically tainted it for thousands of people before they ever heard a note, when in fact it is no more country than albums considered “classic rock” by Neil Young, The Eagles, James Taylor, or Crosby Stills & Nash (in fact, on the chorus of the title track, you’ll swear it’s actually Nash and Crosby singing harmony — and you’ll be correct). Fair though, because it is, in part, truer to the sound of actual country music than anything that say, Taylor Swift has ever made (…you see what I did there, right?). There’s even a great pub-music style tune that’s at least as good as that song Mumford and Sons keeps recording over and over again.
It’s not supposed to be a barn-burner, but this a mysteriously accessible album. There’s always a payoff to whatever degree you’re listening, but it varies greatly depending on how deep you want to go. You can let it wash over you without picking up a single thing from it, and if so, you won’t hate it but you may not love it either. However, if you turn it up when you want to get lost, you’ll find plenty to fascinate you. If “Heavier Things” was the soul-searching of his twenties, then “Born and Raised” is the reckoning of his thirties. Beautiful work, John. If your Grammys are the measure of how much you’ve pandered in the past, then you should be absolutely proud to have finally made a record that won’t get one.
7. The Novelists – Backstory
Singer/songwriters are tortured souls, and the hardest thing for tortured souls to do is play nice together, and the more any particular solo artists have going for themselves, the more reticent they usually are to even try teamwork. Oh, and jazz musicians are the last people on earth who will shelve their hip gigs to play diatonic pop music and assist in singing four-part harmonies with said tortured souls. I could go on with the gross generalizations, but suffice to say that this junior supergroup’s existence proves them all wrong.
Four seasoned singers: a gravelly baritone (singer/songwriter Joel Ackerson), a classic tenor (ridiculous young jazz bassist Zach Teran), an Irish tenor (singer/songwriter Eric Andersen), and above them all, the melismatic soprano of Megan Slankard (check last year’s list at #3). Ready to go out on a limb with me? Imagine Elvis Costello, Josh Groban, Bic Runga, and a young Elton John all standing around the same microphone. Easy, right? Of course not. These are not easy voices to make blend into a cohesive whole. Usually, when you’re putting together a vocal harmony, you seek out voices that blend together, and what that entails is each voice sacrificing its own character for the sake of many voices sounding as one. It’s the reason famous singers with distinct voices usually sing their own harmonies in the studio… because otherwise it can distract a listener. No; if you’re going to do harmonies with four voices so very different from each other, they had better be *awesome* singers.
…and goddamn, so they are. There it is, at some sudden point in every song… that SOUND. It’s unlikely greatness, and a sound that, if enough people hear it, will take them wherever they want to go.
The arrangements of every number are breathtaking. Each writer contributes at least two songs I’d place on par with the best I’ve heard from each of them, and the sequencing of the record makes for an engaging listen that leaves you yearning for more than just these nine tracks. Each has an individual, professional music career. They also live in three different cities spanning two time zones (San Francisco, Reno, and Boulder). So here’s hoping that this group stays together for the long haul, that they keep letting the whole be stronger than the sum of its parts, and that their next release is a 12-songer. If they last, they will move mountains.
8. Soundgarden – King Animal
Soundgarden: Masters of that elusive “The record’s skipping… oh wait, no it’s not…”-badass rock groove; the grunge warriors who took those otherwise rehashed pentatonic licks to a new plane of existence. They were always that band everyone tried to emulate, but who nobody ever COULD emulate. Simply put, they are the world’s best avant-garde-blues-rock band, and as the opening track laments, they have indeed been away for too long.
And where the hell have they been? Kim Thayll and Ben Shepherd have been virtually invisible since the band’s last album sixteen years ago, while drummer Matt Cameron has played with Geddy Lee, The Smashing Pumpkins, and most notably in Pearl Jam since 1998. Chris Cornell, of course, was busy making his three solo records, that album he sang for Slash, and the whole overblown charade of Audioslave… all of which turned out to be underwhelming in comparison to what he once did and has done again with this band.
Those close to me know that I have always been fascinated by Cornell’s fantastic upper vocal register, and when he uses it to its potential, it hardly matters to me WHAT he’s singing — I still find it captivating. It’s like hearing the hunting cry of some rare mammal in the arctic tundra, and it’s worth listening to just because it’s so uncommon. As Cornell hasn’t treated us to this many high notes in a few years, it’s interesting to hear how their timbre has taken on a new character. It’s angrier; more primal, like it’s coming from a different place in his voice box… or perhaps it’s just a new hellfire demon being housed in his earthly vessel. Whatever the case, he sounds positively wicked.
….as does the whole ensemble. At their best, the songs seek to force you into submission, and most achieve this. They aren’t pulling out many new tricks here; with one startlingly cool exception (no spoilers, but you’ll either love it or loathe it, and I love it…), all the sounds you hear are sounds you’ve heard from them in times past; the components have simply been brought together better than ever before. Lopsided, slightly dissonant ostinato riffs meeting bombastic, surgically precise drumbeats… it’s like jackhammers locking in with sledgehammers, and it’s mighty. Add Cornell’s voice over the top, singing at least as many hooks as on 1994′s “Superunknown”, and you get the triumphant return of a cutting edge group who’s proven they still do this better than anyone else.
Oh, and there’s cowbell. And it’s brilliant.
9. Justin McMahon – Second Chances and Irreparable Mistakes
Full disclosure: I played bass on four of the songs on this collection. Regardless, I feel not a bit awkward about endorsing it as one of the best of the year as far as modern folk albums are concerned. Justin has been Reno, Nevada’s best kept secret for at least half a decade now, and it’s gratifying to see him finally touring the country and promoting his music in earnest.
McMahon has a rare and irreconcilable combination of traits: he is a hopeless romantic, full of enthusiasm for the sweetest sensations life has to offer… but also possesses a disdain for the human condition that places him somewhere between a mild sociopath and a total misanthrope. Add to this that he is also a consummate linguist and poet, and you begin to see why he makes such an interesting songwriter. The beauty of his lyrics comes from the push and pull between the poles of his psyche — depending on the song, it’s anyone’s guess which will get the upper hand — will he throw his sense of self-worth down the well, or does hope spring eternal, and will he press on to get it right next time?
I’m not doing him justice with that, as his delivery is anything but comic. He articulates his stories in ways both blunt and satirical that will either wound you deeply or make you wish you’d thought of it first. Then suddenly he’ll be a life-loving optimist, giving you a much needed boost of serotonin, and bolstering you for the rest of the message: Yes, life is suffering. We are going to care about people who are going to make awful decisions. We’re all going to let down the people we love. We’re trying as hard as we can.
It’s not the easiest message to hear, but it might be the most important.
10. Beck – Song Reader
This is so retro it’s nouveau. Beck’s been a hipster since before being a hipster was disdained by hipsters, and this is arguably the biggest hipster move EVER.
This is not a sonic record. It exists only as ink on paper… like all music did prior to the discovery of electricity.
And I love it. It’s brilliant.
Because what does this record sound like?
WHATEVER YOU WANT IT TO. That’s the point. Because it’s not a record yet. At least, not a record by Beck. He never recorded any of these pieces, so if you want to hear them, it’s up to you to perform them, or to find musicians capable of reading music and having them do it. You can perform the songs exactly as written, or interpret them any way you are moved to.
The album is the gift that keeps on giving, and it’s both the antithesis of the digital era (take that, piracy!) and the best thing that ever happened to it all at the same time. Nobody ever needs to hear these songs the way you do, but if you feel like contributing to the planet and want to demonstrate how you’ve honed your version of one of these tunes to perfection, you can upload a video of it to a website set up for that very purpose: http://songreader.net
Then you can listen to the versions others have posted, and expand your ideas about what can be done with a piece of music.
I think it’s one of the coolest ideas ever (and I’m not alone in that… I mean, it was also considered very forward-thinking about a century ago), and as soon as I decide which of these tunes will sound best on a solo bass guitar, I’m going to get involved myself.
HONORABLE MENTION – Kimbra – Vows (2012 Version)
Last year I chose “Vows” as my full-throttle #1 pick. My only lament was that the release was Australia/New Zealand only, and that the rest of the world had to get creative to procure a copy. 2012 saw the record released to the rest of the planet. However, American record labels being what they are, they had to mess with it. ”Vows 2012″ is not the same album as “Vows 2011″. Four of the songs were cut and six were added.
Not that the new songs are “bad”… compared to most other artists, they range from passable to quite decent; it’s just that the placement (and REplacement) of these new songs totally destroys the sequence and vibe of the original record, and that was part of what made it so powerful. Never underestimate the power of song order; it’s what takes you on the listening journey. The original album is simply magical, and the impact of most of the songs is severely diminished on the new version. One of the most important transitions on an album; the first thing that determines how people will perceive the work — it’s the transition from Song One to Song Two. On the original album, this was brilliant, and set up the listener for the ride to come. On this version… total let down. Another big point is how you END a record, and the last song on the original, “The Build Up”, was an esoteric, bold statement that solidified in my mind that Kimbra is a legit artist with something to say. This version ends with an 80′s throwback collaboration with the dude from Foster The People. It’s like Kimbra joined The Human League. Not an awful tune, but ultimately disposable.
No, what puts her here for (sort of) the same album she got #1 with last year is a song that, had it appeared on the original version, would have put it on my Desert Island List. In fact, thanks to iTunes playlist creation, I now have my own customized version of “Vows” that does just that. The tune is called ”Come Into My Head”, and it is my JAM. I can listen to this tune on repeat for an hour in the car and be just fine. That NEVER happens. It recalls the best seventies horn-section funk with a playful, spacey, P-Funk style twist, and I can’t get enough of it. If you dug the original record, download this tune (and to be fair, the live version of Nina Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring” has a pretty spectacular payoff if you listen long enough, so that one too), and cobble them into the first version for non-stop listening awesomeness.