The Dinosaurs of Rock roamed the Earth again in 2012, racing up the charts past bands half their age and chewing through expectations. Expectations, you say? I had many. Most of them dead wrong.
Take the Beach Boys. Expectation: A pandering, but ultimately vapid attempt to kindle the lost dreams of youth. Reality: A bold, if devastatingly short-lived, return to past studio glories — and a very sweet reverie.
Or Bob Dylan. Expectation: More old-school rewrites and loose, often snarky roots doodles. Reality: A detailed, often deeply challenging new recording that found plenty of room for very real emotion.
Or Black Country Communion. Expectation: An unfocused disaster, after the band appeared to implode even before the album’s street date. Reality: Whether they knew it or not, whether it becomes their valedictory or not, they were constructing what may be their best album yet.
Or Bruce Springsteen. Expectation: He’s updating his sound with hip hop influences? There’s a bulging group of guest musicians? See Beach Boys. Reality: One of his most ambitious, and heartfelt, releases in years.
Or Van Halen. Expectation: They’re going to try to reanimate the happy-go-lucky party-rock of their early era with original frontman David Lee Roth? See Beach Boys. Reality: Big riffs, and even bigger fun.
Dr. John? None, not after uneven recent releases. Or Mark Knopfler. Expectation: None, not after so long away. The dBs? None, not after an even longer time away. Neil Young? None, not after the curious kindergarten rock of Americana.
But part of the magic of each of these releases was how they simply came out of nowhere, only to settle into a months-long heavy rotation on every device I owned.
Here are my Top 10 rock and pop projects for 2012; bang on the titles for more …
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – WRECKING BALL (POP/ROCK): 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. As with anything of such ambition, not all of it worked. No matter: Wrecking Ball quickly became one of the most-talked-about recordings in recent memory, and that was before the late Clarence Clemons came bursting out in the middle of “Land Of Hope And Dreams” — peeling off one final heart-stopping, tear-springing solo for the ages.
BLACK COUNTRY COMMUNION – AFTERGLOW (ROCK): The pity of it, really, is how perfectly named this album is. See Afterglow, a thunderous delight, arrives just as Black Country Communion appears to be falling apart. It’s a shame. A shame because there aren’t enough bands playing this kind of straight-ahead, no-bullshit rock anymore. It’s a record that doesn’t bother speaking to your head — only your heart. Or maybe some place lower. A shame because, for guys like drummer Jason Bonham (always, it seems, toiling in the lengthy shadows of his famous father) and vocalist/bassist Glenn Hughes (who’s been in legendary bands, but always as a late add-on), Black Country Communion seemed to be a ticket-punching pathway to establishing their own legacies — separate from anything that came before. There’s been some hints that maybe these guys can’t still patch it up. Let’s hope.
[OUR BEST OF 2012: Join in the conversation as Something Else! Reviews counts down the best of the best 2012 albums, from rock and jazz to country to blues.]
THE dB’S – FALLING OFF THE SKY (POP/ROCK): The reunited dB’s come storming out here, quickly dispensing with the expected sheen of lazy nostalgia from the opening track. Check out Peter Holsapple, filled with the pissed-off brio of classic Neil Young, squalling: “You better wake up, wake up, wake up!: That time is gone.” Chris Stamey follows with “Before We Were Born,” a resonant sunburst of jangle-pop, and in two songs the dB’s — together in the studio for the first time since 1982’s Repercussion with all four original members — have reclaimed everything that made them such a memorable snark-pop presence in 1980s-era rock, even as they deftly update their sound. There’s a deeper complexity to the music, and — in a few notable instances — an even harder edge to the songwriting.
JACK WHITE – BLUNDERBUSS (POP/ROCK): Stepping out, finally, into his own, White brings along familiar sounds and textures. You hear something of the White Stripes throughout Blunderbuss, and something of his many collaborative efforts since his partnership with ex-wife Meg White suddenly blew apart: There’s a riff reminiscent of the Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” on the new “Freedom at 21,” and “Trash Tongue” strongly recalls his recent grease-popping R&B work with Wanda Jackson. But, then again, this album is like nothing he’s ever done before, 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?
NEIL YOUNG, WITH CRAZY HORSE – PSYCHEDELIC PILL (ROCK): He opens with “Driftin’ Back,” a thunderous, nearly half-hour track that equals and, in some cases, surpasses so many of the songs that seek to contextualize the 1960s. I’m not sure anyone has better illustrated the impotent fury that followed for those who worked so hard toward change, only to see it all come to such a thudding conclusion. The album might have ended right there, if Psychedelic Pill — due October 29, 2012, from Reprise Records — were sequenced differently, if it only sought to look back. Instead, Crazy Horse is then granted a chance to do what it does best — to completely rock out, and thus recall every one of its earlier, floor board-rearranging triumphs with Young. In that way, they end up reconstructing the soaring promise, and the boundless joy, of the decade Young started out eulogizing here.
VAN HALEN – A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH (ROCK): It’s interesting that A Different Kind of Truth doesn’t always go for the easy hook (recalling Fair Warning), something that may surprise late-arriving fans of keyboard-driven pop successes like “Jump” (and certainly the subsequent period with David Lee Roth’s successor, Sammy Hagar). Some of the material requires more than one listen to completely absorb, and Anthony’s cloud-bursting tenor is missed at times. But A Different Kind of Truth has a way of burrowing in. That’s largely thanks to the presence of Roth, of course. He’s always good for spandex-splitting laugh or two.
BEACH BOYS – THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO (POP): 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. If some — or, maybe all – of it feels steeps in late-summer reminiscence, well, that’s also part of the magic of their return. After all, Wilson was waxing poetic about things like transistor radios, beach bunnies and hot rods back when they were all shiny and brand new. Ignore the fact that they screwed it all up again in real life.
BOB DYLAN – TEMPEST (ROCK/FOLK): For all of the album’s off-handed menace, for its many betrayals, for all of its fiery condemnations, Tempest offers commiserate moments of community, of gritty determination, of desire, of grace. Nobody ever gets saved, or even forgiven, as far as I can tell, But there are tender mercies, things worth grabbing onto, fleeting pleasures for those who’ve made it this far. Dylan — occupying simultaneously the role of leathered curmudgeon who’s seen it all, and tender-eyed romantic baring his chest — once more walks the fine line of contradiction, a place he has called home for so long that it ought to be re-christened in his honor. And, wouldn’t you know it? Even 50 years in, he still never loses his balance.
MARK KNOPFLER – PRIVATEERING (ROCK): Knopfler works with a loose theme here, that of living by your wits on the high seas, but the broader messages found on Privateering are sure to resonate with anyone who’s faced down life’s mighty struggles. It’s been three years since the former Dire Straits frontman issued Get Lucky, and he clearly has been busy: This album includes 20 new original songs — to go with eight additional cuts on an expanded super deluxe edition. I’m struck not just by the depth of music, though, but also by the breadth of sounds on this, Knopfler’s seventh solo album.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The Black Keys’ ‘El Camino’ didn’t so much try to follow up 2010’s Brothers, as feel around on its outer edges. There was less blues, and more brawn. Think Brothers, turned up to 11.]
DR. JOHN – LOCKED DOWN (ROOTS ROCK): The project begins with a humid closeness, as night sounds surround the title track’s lean rhythms, and it never backs away. Auerbach 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.
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