We're Half Way There: The Official™ Something Else! Mid-Year Top 10 for 2012

After two goes at an annual Official™ Something Else! Top 10 list, we’ve decided to introduce a mid-year edition — for those who simply can’t wait for the Christmas sales to start gathering the very best new music. As always, to make this list, an album must have appeared on one of our individual polls and been agreed upon by the guys who refill the watercooler at SER Towers.

The results of that winnowing move across a broad spectrum of styles — from rootsy stuff (Dr. John, Otis Taylor, Bonnie Raitt) to various jazz styles (Spectrum Road, Mary Halvorson), with a heavy dose of comebacks (The Beach Boys, Van Halen, ZZ Top) and striking new sounds (Jack White, Bruce Springsteen) to boot.

Perhaps the biggest surprises remain those two return-to-form recordings from the Beach Boys and Van Halen, if only because both groups had been involved with so many pitched inter-band squabbles. At time same time, Springsteen showed that more consistent presences in rock music could still write music that resonated, too. Dr. John, Raitt and White returned with albums that pushed their sounds into new places, and Spectrum Road — the all-star fusion collective — breathed new life into some old sounds from the late Tony Williams.

So, here we go!: Something Else! Reviews’ Official™ Mid-Year Top 10 for 2012. Click through the titles for more …

No. 10
OTIS TAYLOR – OTIS TAYLOR’S CONTRABAND

S. VICTOR AARON: Haunting and vulnerable at once, Taylor’s hypnotic blues occupies its own space.

NICK DERISO: A musical alchemist and stirring modern-day storyteller, Taylor is just as apt to experiment well beyond the Delta tradition as he is to explore the raw passions of this nation’s fight for racial justice. This isn’t your grandfather’s blues. Instead, Contraband is this haunting mixture of ominous guitar and banjo work (yes, banjo), wildly inventive syncopated rhythms, and a series of raw themes dealing with searing personal demons, the scourge of war, and the scalding verities of love.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Otis Taylor discusses the state of the blues today, career intersections with Tommy Bolin and Gary Moore — and the forgotten African-American legacy surrounding the banjo.]

No. 9
MARY HALVORSON QUINTET – BENDING BRIDGES

S. VICTOR AARON: This album continues on the path traversed by Saturn Sings, as Halvorson’s music suggests indie rock, whack jazz, and even more traditional jazz but never dwelling anywhere. That propensity to abruptly change her temperament across these styles has become a calling card of hers, but the thrill of surprise remains — even after you know it’s coming. As when she pivots from docile to demonic in the 5-7 minute stretch of “Sinks When She Rounds The Bend (No. 22)”, ending with the dying strains of a musical wreckage. Her contrarian bent is sprinkled throughout and typically nestled in the crevices of the conventional: the differing segues between bars on “Hemorrhaging Smiles (No. 25),” for instance.

No. 8
ZZ TOP – TEXICALI

NICK DERISO: There’s a determined effort with ZZ Top’s initial new release after nearly a decade away to move past the Eliminator period’s missteps, to reclaim their unrefined 1970s feel — welcome news, indeed. ZZ Top embraces everything that made them interesting in the first place, even while making small changes to keep it from sounding redundant or like they’re trying too hard.

[SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: Gas up the hoopty-car space shuttle for a fun trip back to ZZ Top’s blues-rocking, furry-guitared past — from ‘Tejas’ and ‘Deguello’ to ‘Afterburner’ and “Recycler.’]

No. 7
THE BEACH BOYS – THAT’S WHY GOT MADE THE RADIO

S. VICTOR AARON: 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.

NICK DERISO: Who would have guessed, after decades of awful public squabbling, that the battling Beach Boys would return at all — must less in perfect harmony? The first new album in forever to feature founders Al Jardine, Mike Love and Brian Wilson, along with legacy members David Marks and Bruce Johnston, is highlighted by a stirring finale suite of songs, very much in the style and substance of Pet Sounds and SMiLE.

No. 6
BONNIE RAITT – SLIPSTREAM

NICK DERISO: In her first project since 2005, Raitt returns with a layered release that began with early sessions recorded alongside country blues/Americana producer Joe Henry (Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke). Those four tracks — including two songs from Bob Dylan — were then joined with additional music that Raitt self produced to form a deeper complexity. These earthier musings serve to balance the earlier, darkly mysterious asides, giving Slipstream this textured, human scale — even as it underscores what makes Raitt so very special.

S. VICTOR AARON: 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.

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No. 5
JACK WHITE – BLUNDERBUSS

S. VICTOR AARON: 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.

NICK DERISO: So full of musical ambition and quirky twists and thrilling chance-taking turns and startling successes, that Blunderbuss forces White into a whole new light: Were the White Stripes, who now sound startlingly direct — maybe too conservative, in retrospect — actually holding him back?

[CAN’T GET ENOUGH BRUCE?: Check out our weekly feature ‘Sparks Fly on E Street,’ where Mark Saleski breaks down Bruce Springsteen’s legendary career – song after memorable song.]

No. 4
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – WRECKING BALL

MARK SALESKI: It’s pretty obvious that Bruce Springsteen wanted to make a statement with Wrecking Ball. What his exact thoughts were as he constructed the songs are mostly beside the point. His characters have been through a lot and are certain to face more outcomes. And yet…they remain hopeful. Their spirituality, however they define it — however we define it, because “they” are us— will guide them.

NICK DERISO: This album boasts the kind of sweeping aspirations that are all but lost in the download age, as Springsteen turned the ragged emotion and pent-up rage from a period of staggering loss into a project that took an intriguing number of musical risks — even as it took on even bigger themes. He talked about the haves and the have nots, about the difficulties of accepting things that are never coming back, about the way that faith can gird us in tough times.

No. 3
VAN HALEN – A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH

MARK SALESKI: This is a band returning to form, re-visting some old haunts, and most important of all: having a ton of fun doing it. David Lee Roth? He makes it all work with that unique combination of swagger and goofiness. You might want to say that “Stay Frosty” is a cheap rip-off of “Ice Cream Man.” It does start off as an “Ice Cream Man”/”Gallows Pole” mashup, but by the time the guitars explode to life and Dave ends up rhyming “kung foo fighting” with “get it in writing” you’ll realize you’re having the best time you’ve had since, well…1984.

S. VICTOR AARON: 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.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Vernon Reid discusses the incendiary fusion of Spectrum Road, how jazz has informed his playing from the start – and bursting onto the scene with Living Colour.]

No. 2
DR. JOHN – LOCKED DOWN

NICK DERISO: The project begins with a humid closeness, as night sounds surround the title track’s lean rhythms, and it never backs away. Producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys matches Dr. John’s cranky hoodoo-man vocals, song by song, with his own brown-gravy groove — and, in a move that gives the album its signature sound, encouraged Dr. John to explore his familiar penchant for spooky funk at the organ. What you end up with is the best Dr. John album in ages, as swampy and oozy as the Night Tripper’s 1968 triumph Gris Gris but as gnarled and tough as 1998’s Anutha Zone.

S. VICTOR AARON: Like Allen Toussaint was for Dr. John about forty years ago, 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.

No. 1
SPECTRUM ROAD – SPECTRUM ROAD

S. VICTOR AARON: Here is a supergroup that actually lives up to the billing, making their debut album the rock-jazz event of the year. And Tony Williams’ legacy gets a long overdue upgrade.

NICK DERISO: Rather than following the grounding-breaking fusion template set forth by Williams, Spectrum Road is instead using his music as an inspirational framework. The results are inventive, triumphal, thunderous – a combination of the sounds associated with Jack Bruce’s Cream, Vernon Reid’s Living Colour, John Medeski’s Medeski Martin and Wood and Blackman-Santana’s memorable stint with Lenny Kravitz, but at the same time nothing like them at all.

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The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.