It wasn’t great. It didn’t start with an earthquake or birds and snakes and airplanes. Lenny Bruce was never afraid. But in the end, after Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Etta James, Davy Jones and MCA of The Beastie Boys – Adam Yauch – died, I think, in some weird post fake apocalypstic haze, I feel fine. Before I figure it’s time I had some time alone, I realized that 2012 was a good year in music. It blew 2011 out of the water. Last year’s best of list was dominated by Adele’s Adeleness. I had trouble filling in around her powerful presence. She put out the best Bond movie theme song in thirty years, in October, with Skyfall; a large, lush ballad that reminded you of why she’s the grand dame of popular music. But there was music you didn’t hear enough or at all. We’ll cover it in a non-numbered anti-list that’s officially twelve, in ’12.
The most anticipated mainstream record of the year was from a British indie folk band whose leader. Marcus Mumford, is married to a popular actress, Carey Mulligan. This was supposed to suck. But, crap, it doesn’t. From verses that reach exciting crescendos to some of the best acoustic strumming possible, Mumford and Sons has mastered a genre through expert production from Markus Dravs, the dude who produced Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs Grammy Winning album. Babel’s folk formula and rock harmonies, work.
The Shins’ Port of Morrow –
2007’s Wincing The Night Away was one of the best indie rock album releases ever. Moody, sarcastic, and full of songs that made you dance and be moody and sarcastic, the last thing you’d expect is for the guys from New Mexico to grow up and make a great record five years later. But instead of taking a wrong turn at Albuquerque, they scored with Point of Morrow, a proper titled CD about moving into adulthood with your own personality. Simple Song was the lead single and easily one of the best tunes of the year.
Whenever Subpop Records announces a new act on it’s now legendary label, there are two usual reactions – eye roll and/or fistpump. Metz, a fearsome foursome from Toronto allows the latter. Noise Rock is a love or hate genre. The current poppier group, Sleigh Bells, put out a great record two years ago, then released one that was just okay this year. Metz took the movement deep in rock and industrial sounds and it’s amazing. Wet Blanket is the most surprising anthem to come along in years. This is a CD that grows on you, then takes over your life.
Pop music doesn’t have to suck. The fact that so much of it does, means that the good records need to be celebrated. It’s easy to label the Denver, Colorado folk rockers as “Mumford and Sons lite” but that means you didn’t listen to their CD. Ho Hey was a better single than I Will Wait and their self-titled debut is a better overall album than Babel. The Lumineers depend less on hooks and more on musicianship. The record soars and shows that sometimes, Americans can do a better version of something than the British.
I told someone earlier this year that Tame Impala is this generation’s Pink Floyd. I may be selling them short. The psychedelic rock project from Perth, Australia’s weirdo mastermind, Kevin Parker, might be better than Pink Floyd. Moody, bizarre, large, small, rich and sparse; the 2012 release, Lonerism is THE record to be crazy to. Music To Walk Home By is the best single, but the record begs to be listened from beginning to end, just like Pink Floyd. Great guitar work throughout.
Instead of arguing over the internet about whether women can rock as good, hard, and thorough as men, let’s just play Dead Sara’s awesome debut album. Lead singer Emily Armstrong, and guitarist Siouxsie Medley are female musical superheroes. From their thunderous opening single, Weatherman, to their heart bending ballad Sorry For It All, the CD is a bruising, bad ass tribute to women that came before them – Stevie Nix, Grace Slick (who calls Armstrong the best female voice in rock), Joan Jett, etc. This is a straight-up rock record that works in every way.
You probably heard about this band from Athens, Alabama being nominated for three Grammys, including Best New Artists and thought, huh? Lead singer and guitar player Brittany Howard is a force to be reckoned with. Lazily compared to Janis Joplin, Howard’s voice soars over her band mates tight compositions of southern soul music combined with nasty guitar licks. This is music to drink to and music to struggle along with. The perfect band at the perfect tough time is Alabama Shakes. This is blues based rock music with a soulful singer that will make you love Boys & Girls, their debut album.
For the cynical listener, Jack White’s always been solo, except when he’s playing guitar in whatever side project he’s goofing off with – Dead Weather, The Raconteurs. But listening to Blunderbuss, you realize that The White Stripes were a real band and Meg White had a lot to do with its sound, especially the rhythm sections. Jack’s solo effort is excellently moody and interesting in exposing his influences – country, bluegrass, punk, rockabilly, and album rock. Sixteen Saltines’ bluster will satisfy the White Stripes devotees. Love Interruption will make the country and blues people who’ve gotten to know Jack through his projects with Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash, happy. But the rest of the songs are where Jack White is headed. And they’re all really good.
For my money, and my listening tastes, The Gaslight Anthem and their frontman Brian Fallon are the best act in American music, right now. Handwritten is pure Americana, Bob Dylan influenced, but with heavier instruments, more tattoos, and so much angst, you’d swear you were the band’s therapist. Handwritten isn’t as punk as the The ’59 Sound and it doesn’t rock as hard as American Slang; their last two CDs. But Handwritten is their most complete album. 45 is a single that’s undeniable. It stays with you. Their live, free concert over twitter, in New York this summer cemented their everymen image. The Gaslight Anthem keeps getting better.
Cat Power’s Sun –
The alternative music sirens from the 1990s are supposed to be passe’, right? Newly birthdayed 40-year-old Chan Marshall, known in CD form as Cat Power, not only disagrees, she disagrees with a great album behind her. Cherokee, Ruin, Sun, Human Being; there’s song after song of stripped down production with electronic ambition, folk spirit, and Cat’s ferocious voice. This a woman who’s been through more than Adele and Amy Winehouse put together, but she lived and now she’s cool with her life. This is a great personal release that you’ll be unable to forget.
The next time you hear “rock is dead”, play this record at full volume and leave the room with that person’s jaw on the floor. The year’s most muscular sonic experience comes from two guys from Vancouver who decided to mix the best parts of classic rock with the even better parts of punk. The album starts and ends with the sound of fireworks, in between is one hell of show. The House That Heaven Built is the best song of the year. It’s what rock music can sound like if artists pay more attention to the guitar, drums, and angst that makes great songs. Try listening to The House That Heaven Built and not walk around screaming “tell ’em all to go to hell!”.
Twenty-five-year-old rhythm & blues singer-songwriter Frank Ocean entered into shark-filled waters of hype for his debut album in July, 2012. He worked in a downtown Hollywood studio with John Mayer, Pharrell and Andre’ 3000. Those guys and his record label started proclaiming his upcoming CD as magnificent in the spring. Then Ocean dropped the bomb of his sexuality, unheard of the r&b/hip-hop world. What he showed on Channel Orange was a masterpiece of soul, funk, electronic R&B, and a brilliant sonic experience that you can’t shake after listening to the whole production. Frank Ocean is 2012’s revelation. He literally changed the game through his art.
Here’s to a great year in music. Crank my favorite song of the ’12.