For the sixth straight year, it’s time to look back on the year in music to recollect which albums I really, really liked this year and make a list. Four lists, actually, reflecting the way I think about music: three kinds of jazz, and everything else. As before, I’m starting with “everything else,” which covers a wide span of music, but mostly falling into the rock, folk and blues realms. If you’re looking for more-or-less mainstream recommendations, well, here are mine.
This year, many big name acts, some who have been around for decades and some prominent members of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, made the list. You might even call 2012 the Year of the Comeback, as these acts lived up to their legends making records that might not reach the levels of their classic discs, but at least they were able to find their old mojo and give us some music that played heavily to their strengths. It’s not that unusual to get blown away by a record from a stalwart once or twice a year, but it seems this phenomenon was happening about once every couple of months this year.
The album of the year, though, is a debut, but no stranger to anyone who’s followed rock of the last dozen years. He’s certainly better known than the creator last year’s Record Of The Year, a certain Argentinian named Florencia Ruiz. So here are the selections, unordered and not set to a predetermined number of choices. Click through the titles for the complete reviews …
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Jack White – Blunderbuss: We all 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.
But, it’s not just the mastery of these styles, it’s the swagger he brings to every song. He pours in more nuanced emotion into each song than the lyrics let on. Like the Black Keys, he’s skilled at referencing 60s and 70s music with classic sounding riffs, but arranging the songs in a roots-rock style like no one else quite did back then — or today. He even tears off guitar solos that aren’t hackneyed (“Freedom at 21,” for instance).
White often suggests raunch without having to say anything raunchy (as he did with the White Stripes), but now he feels free to play horny vibes in different flavors, via hard tunes such as the Little Willie John hip-wigglin’ rocker “I’m Shakin” and the unlubricated raw punk anthem “Sixteen Saltines.” “Blunderbuss” shows off the Southern country-rock credentials of a man who breathed new life in Loretta Lynn’s career, and effortlessly crafts a sing-along pub-ready ditty “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy.” Some of his anger comes out the most when he exchanges his guitar for a piano, as with the bitter break-up song “Hypocritical Kiss.”
Regardless of his mood, it’s rock that’s direct but deep; simply constructed but esoterically layered. Blunderbuss sounds good on the first spin, but you’ll still be trying to parse it on the tenth. That Jack White is a pretty clever dude.
THE BEST OF THE REST:
Black Country Communion – Afterglow: BCC was a hard rock band that reminded you of why you got into hard rock to begin with, just hitting its stride on their third album. And now, the band is no more. What a goddamned shame.
Donald Fagen – Sunken Condos: Fagen breaks out of the Aja/Gaucho/Nightfly template just enough to make his latest album stand out from his other solo albums, and still sound familiar and inviting enough for long time fans.
Patterson Hood – Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance: There’s no Drive-By Truckers album this year to consider for the list, but DBT frontman Hood makes a calmly transcendent album on his own, using his trademark plainly eloquent style of telling stories that connect to us all.
Mark Knopfler – Privateering: Always a master guitar picker an effectively folksy singer, Knopfler’s songwriting reaches new depth, as if that were possible.
Bob Dylan – Tempest: “I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings”, growls Dylan on “Early Roman Kings.” His music, more than it has in a while, still rings too.
The Beauty Room – The Beauty Room II: Remember when “soft rock” wasn’t such a maligned genre, because the melodies were memorable, the harmonies soared and the lyrics weren’t so vapid? The Beauty Room evokes everything you used to like about this kind of music.
David Byrne and St. Vincent – Love This Giant: The surprise selection of the list, as nothing Annie Clark has done on her own strikes me as interesting, and Byrne’s recent solo work has been only mildly so. But together they created some sparks that push St. Vincent into artsier, horn-driven territory and Byrne into the closest he’s been to his Talking Heads self in decades.
Chicken Diamond – Chicken Diamond II: Amazing how so much fun, loud and nasty blues-drenched noise can be generated by one man from France.
Rory Block – I Belong To The Band: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis: It took a great blueswoman to make such an inspiring appreciation of the music of this great bluesman.
Alex Chilton – Free Again: The 1970 Sessions: Long-overdue release of recordings from aborted solo debut reveals the breadth of Chilton’s talent, making stops in the territories of swaggering rock, sunny pop, acoustic folk and country-rock and doing it all with the authority of someone twice, heck, thrice his tender age of 19.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, and the runner-up to Blunderbuss as the best album on this list.
Seth Walker – Time Can Change: Walker gets rootsier, which only makes this talented folk-blues troubadour even better.
Mike Keneally – Wing Beat Fantastic
Neil Young And Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill
Kelly Joe Phelps – Brother Sinner & The Whale
Steven Wilson – Get All You Deserve
Otis Taylor – Otis Taylor’s Contraband
Joe Louis Walker – Hellfire
Anders Osbourne – Black Eye Galaxy
Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream
Shemekia Copeland – 33-1/3
NEXT UP: Part 2: Modern and Mainstream Jazz