Since 2007, I’ve had year-end lists for the albums I thought stood out over the rest, within and without jazz. If the Mayans are to be believed, there won’t be time for year-end lists for 2012, so I best get started on this year’s selections pronto and trot out a half-year list. Just in case.
Before diving into all those jazz records I wrote about so far this year and pulling out the best ones, a look at the best records from other realms deserve their hat tips first. “Non jazz” for me mostly means rock, folk and blues, and that’s the focus of this grouping. In sizing up what are the best records so far outside the realm of jazz, from where I sit this has been the year…err, half year…of the unlikely comeback. Two acts submitted their first albums in ages, a fact which in itself is amazing. The extra shock came when I found that these records can hang with the records of their classic period. Three more acts have never stopped making records, but they’d turned in their best efforts in, like, decades.
So, yeah, scanning the musicians who made the list might make one think that they’re looking at a compilation from 1978 or even earlier. That suits this middle-aged critic just fine; I like that ol’ time rock ‘n’ roll. I like a little blues and folk, too, and some of my favorites in those styles are covered as well.
So here are the selections, unranked and unlimited to a set number of choices, which turned out to be eleven, plus a bonus selection. Click through the titles for the complete reviews …
Van Halen – A Different Kind Of Truth: Dave’s swaggering self is back, Eddie is focused, Alex is playing better than ever, Wolfie is the real deal on bass and the songs are ass-kicking treasures retrieved from a time capsule. The Record We Thought We’d Never See Again, Part 1.
Chris Smither – Hundred Dollar Valentine: May be the best singer-songwriter most people don’t know about, for forty years running. Here’s another choice opportunity to get acquainted with him.
The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio: For the first time since Brian Wilson got his mojo back, he’s bringing it to his old band, the only place where the vocals match his ambitions. It’s not uniformly excellent, but where it’s good, it’s good enough to make you cry for joy. The Record We Thought We’d Never See Again, Part 2.
Otis Taylor – Otis Taylor’s Contraband: Haunting and vulnerable at once, Taylor’s hypnotic blues occupies its own space.
Sinead O’Connor – How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?: O’Connor does what she does best, which is to pour her heart out in song. Sometimes it’s chipper, sometimes it’s sad, and oh yeah, sometimes she’s pissed. Delivered with a set of pipes still pure and powerful, she can bring real depth to raw narratives that few can, even now.
[SOMETHING ELSE REWIND: Check out Nick DeRiso's Half-Year list of Top Albums for 2012, Rock and Pop Edition.]
Joe Louis Walker – Hellfire: Walker brings fire from his guitar, emotion from his voice and conviction from his soul to this primo slab of gospel-inflected city blues.
Dr. John’s “Locked Down” should lock up many year-end awards, thanks to Dan Auerbach’s sympathetic production.Dr. John – Locked Down: Like Allen Toussaint was for Dr. John about forty years ago, The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach is the right producer in the right place at the right time. The product of this partnership is Rebennack’s best since Toussaint was in the control booth.
Seth Walker – Time Can Change: Walker gets rootsier, which only makes this talented folk-blues troubadour even better.
Jack White – Blunderbuss: We knew Jack White was talented, but now totally uninhibited as a solo artist, we now know just how talented, and it’s pretty much boundless. Veering from quavering rockabilly to crunchy anthem rock to smoky folk-soul all with authority and his own distinct garage-band mindset, Blunderbuss blows past his well-regarded projects with The White Stripes and the Raconteurs by taking more chances but never falling into the abyss.
Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream: One of her most organic sounding records since before Nick Of Time, she still has a firm grasp on blues, funk rock. country & R&B, and her slide has never sounded better. Bill Frisell makes a perfect guitar partner in his guest spots.
Anders Osbourne – Black Eye Galaxy: Osbourne builds on the masterful, reflective American Patchwork with an even wider sweep of scope and styles.
The Endangered – The Endangered: “Special” because this is an EP, not a full album. It’s also special in that they make fresh, new music in the old, reliable handmade ways.
NEXT UP: Part 2: Modern and Mainstream Jazz