Best of the Best: The Official™ Something Else! Top 10 for 2012

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We’ve each already had our say, individually. Said our piece.

Then came time to meet over the remnants of the egg nog and hammer out a consensus — before we go over the disc-al cliff into 2013.

It wasn’t always easy, but we reached detente on a series of recordings that, in any order, represent the very best from our personal best-of lists. There is, we’re happy to report, a stirring variety of styles and sounds.

After all, to get into 2012’s Top 10, artists like Jack White, Dr. John, Spectrum Road and Bob Dylan had to fight their way past some seriously great recordings by Neil Young, the Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen. Heck, our honorable-mention addendum would have made a fine Top 5 during annual polls in any other year.

Writers including S. Victor Aaron, Nick DeRiso, Fred Phillips, Jordan Richardson and Mark Saleski added their thoughts, as we winnowed down a group that also includes Van Halen, Mark Knopfler and Black Country Communion.

In a sign of how fleeting these things can be, two of these acts — BCC and the Beach Boys — have already apparently gone their separate ways, before this compilation could be posted. Elsewhere, though, there were well-received regroupings from the likes of Van Halen, and Young with Crazy Horse — not to mention successful pairings featuring Dr. John and Dan Auerbach, and the all-star Spectrum Road. Jack White went his own way, while Dylan, Knopfler and Springsteen made impressive returns to the studio.

Through it all, Something Else! Reviews had its ear pressed directly onto the speakers. This is what we loved …

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No. 10: BLACK COUNTRY COMMUNION – AFTERGLOW (ROCK): The third, and apparently final, effort from a an all-star amalgam that includes Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple, Black Sabbath), Derek Sherinian (Dream Theater), Joe Bonamassa and Jason Bonham (Led Zeppelin, UFO, Foreigner) sounds like a band finally putting it all together. Instead, everything began to fall apart just before the album hit the streets. They’ve never sounded better.

S. Victor Aaron: BCC was a hard rock band that reminded you of why you got into hard rock to begin with, just hitting its stride. And now, the band is no more. What a goddamned shame.

Nick DeRiso: 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. So, OK, lately there have 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! counts down the best that 2012 had to offer, from rock and jazz to country to blues -- from studio efforts to live albums to sprawling reissues.]

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No. 9: BEACH BOYS – THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO (POP/ROCK): 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, That’s Why was highlighted by a stirring finale suite of songs — very much in the style and substance of Pet Sounds and SMiLE. Their long-hoped-for reunion, alas, didn’t make it past a tour in support of this album.

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: Mike Love went and screwed it all up. Would’ve guessed? Ignore that, if only for a chance to enjoy one more late-summer reminiscence, after decades of awful public squabbling. There remains this fizzy sense of discovery, as the battling Beach Boys return in perfect harmony for one more (perhaps final) time.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The Beach Boys have seen their share of career lows -- from Mike Love's pervy come-ons, to attempts at rap, to (yes) disco mixes. And that's not even the worst of it.]

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No. 8: VAN HALEN – A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH (POP/ROCK): The first new full-length project undertaken by David Lee Roth, Eddie and Alex Van Halen in nearly three decades. Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen replaced original bassist Michael Anthony, causing the first bit of controversy. It later became clear that several of the tunes were reworked demos from the late 1970s. It’s been nearly that long since they sounded this vital, anyway.

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.

Fred Phillips: Roth is back — and so is the fun. Many people cried about the band pulling out old songs and redoing them for this album, but who cares? It’s a great record, and it rocks like Van Halen hasn’t rocked since the early 1980s. Isn’t that more important than whether or not they wrote the songs last year?

Nick DeRiso: Some of the material requires more than one listen to completely absorb. Anthony’s cloud-bursting tenor is also 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.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: A long-awaited reunion with David Lee Roth had us pulling out old Van Halen, including favorites like "Runnin' with the Devil," "Hot For Teacher" -- and yes, some Sammy, too.]

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No. 7: NEIL YOUNG, WITH CRAZY HORSE – PSYCHEDELIC PILL (POP/ROCK): This second collaboration of 2012 couldn’t have been more different than the first — a collection of reworked traditional tunes that was interesting but hardly essential. This, however, proved to be a stirring statement of purpose. Unlike so many of their contemporaries, these guys don’t settle for an easy eulogy of their youth. Instead, they rock their asses off.

Nick DeRiso: A mythically raucous, completely unsentimental collaboration between Neil Young and his old garage-rock buddies Crazy Horse. There’s just something about it, when these guys get together. Even as Crazy Horse constructs this bloody-knuckled storm of rock ‘n’ roll noise behind him, Young simply comes alive again.

Mark Saleski: This is Neil and the Horse making a joyful and blasphemous noise. There’s plenty of wistful looks back, much of it hammered home by thick, sludgy guitars. Neil’s been thinking a lot lately and it appears that that mind hasn’t lost a step.

Jordan Richardson: Featuring epic jams and sure classics like “Ramada Inn,” Psychedelic Pill is my favorite album of the year. It is the cap on what could easily be termed the Year of Young, what with a stellar book, two albums with the Horse and a devastating tour taking shape in 2012. Wow.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: The E Street Band's Nils Lofgren talks about the devastating loss of Clarence Clemons, and signature career moments with Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Ringo Starr.]

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No. 6: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – WRECKING BALL (POP/ROCK): Released into the turbulent aftermath of losses both big and small, Springsteen sought to deal with the crushing realities of the Great Recession and also the more specific future of his band after the sudden passing of Clarence Clemons. Wrecking Ball, in keeping, is a complex undertaking, both hard-eyed and hopeful, often sad and then determined.

Nick DeRiso: This album boasts the kind of sweeping aspirations that are all but lost in the download age. 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.

Mark Saleski: Bruce was pissed off at the state of affairs and created a suite of songs that dove down into the shadows before revealing that there was indeed some hope. Bringing together rock, folk, blues, and gospel elements, the album was the fuel that sparked a tour that left no doubts about the possible existence of an E Street Band in the post-Clarence world.

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No. 5: MARK KNOPFLER – PRIVATEERING (POP/ROCK): 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. We were struck not just by the depth of music, though, but also by the breadth of sounds on this, Knopfler’s seventh solo album.

S. Victor Aaron: Always a master guitar picker an effectively folksy singer, Knopfler’s songwriting reaches new depth, as if that were possible

Nick DeRiso: Knopfler works with a loose storyline here, that of living by your wits on the high seas, but his broader theme of perseverance through adversity is sure to resonate with anyone who’s faced down life’s mighty struggles. For all of the writerly detail, for all of the tasty licks, that’s a message that still resonates — now, maybe more than ever.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Our much-reviled Sucks Series makes a stop in the Bob Dylan epoch, lambasting missteps from 1970's 'Self Portrait' to 1990's 'Under the Red Sky.']

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No. 4: BOB DYLAN – TEMPEST (POP/ROCK): This self-produced 10-song project, which arrived just more than 50 years after Dylan’s self-titled debut, was nearly consumed by “Tempest” — this remorseless 14-minute rumination on the Titanic’s plunge into the icy black waters of the North Atlantic. But there was much more to be heard and felt here, as Dylan dabbled in sounds and emotions that continue to surprise and delight, five decades in.

Mark Saleski: I have to laugh when I see somebody hoist that “Voice of a Generation” thing when talking up Dylan. It’s funny because Dylan never bought into it (and in fact sneered at it) and, judging from the comments I’ve read concerning his last handful of records, it would appear that a large chunk of his generation has stopped listening. It’s really too bad because in many ways his most recent releases have been as tough and powerful as anything he’s ever done.

Nick DeRiso: 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.

S. Victor Aaron: “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.

[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.]

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No. 3: DR. JOHN – LOCKED DOWN (POP/ROCK): The project begins with a humid closeness, as night sounds surround the title track’s lean rhythms, and it never backs away. The Black Keys’ Dan 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.

S. Victor Aaron: 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.

Nick DeRiso: Auerbach even finds a way to resurrect the jungle mysticism, layered cadence and mojo shouts of Dr. John’s classic work with the Meters on “Ice Age,” “Eleggua,” and “You Lie,” a high point here. It’s a stirring blend of Dr. John’s tough-minded hurricane laments of the last decade, but with this welcome jolt of good-natured fun.

[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.]

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No. 2: SPECTRUM ROAD – SPECTRUM ROAD (JAZZ/FUSION): Founding Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid is playing a different tune these days – a hard-driving jazz-rock tune alongside an all-star cast of Jack Bruce, John Medeski and Cindy Blackman-Santana. Together now as Spectrum Road, the quartet has taken the idea of paying tribute to Tony Williams Lifetime to its zenith.

Nick DeRiso: Rather than following the grounding-breaking fusion template set forth by Williams, who passed away in 1997, 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, Living Colour, Medeski Martin and Wood and Blackman-Santana’s memorable stint with Lenny Kravitz, but at the same time nothing like them at all.

S. Victor Aaron: The power and the fury of the original, John McLaughlin/Larry Young Lifetime band has now been channeled through a supergroup that not only lives up to the billing, they even exceed it. Spectrum Road, named after the Lifetime song “Spectrum,” is a tribute band, sure, but one that not only celebrates the music of its subject, it even tries to make it better. And sometimes, it even succeeds in doing so.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: We at Something Else! were sad to see the "official" breakup of the White Stripes. Of course, the true reason for their breakup has been kept under wraps for years - until now.]

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No. 1: 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. Yet, 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.

Mark Saleski: My favorite moment in the film It Might Get Loud comes at the beginning, when Jack White fashions a guitar-like thing out of a board, a pickup, some wire, nails, and a glass bottle. Sometimes Jack can come off as being either too full of himself or too full of the idea of himself. But then he puts out a record like this and you realize that it’s the music that counts.

Nick DeRiso: White doesn’t simply discard his old band’s combination of nervy Delta blues and unmoored punk attitude here; he roars past it. There is so much diversity, such a multiplicity of imagination and kitchen-sink don’t-give-a-shit-ism, that Blunderbuss at times feels like a ready-made greatest-hits package, with every song both unto itself and part of a larger journey. You have to wonder: Were the White Stripes, who now sound startlingly direct — maybe too conservative, in retrospect — actually holding him back?

S. Victor Aaron: He pours in more nuanced emotion into each song than the lyrics let on. Like the Black Keys, he’s skilled at referencing 1960s 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. The result is 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.

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HONORABLE MENTIONS: David Byrne and St. Vincent – Love this Giant; Neneh Cherry – The Cherry Thing; Rush – Clockwork Angels; The dBs – Falling Off the Sky; and Donald Fagen – Sunken Condos.

Something Else!

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.