Its that time of year again: I present TBP’s annual “Different Kind of Music List” for 2012. (Click to see prior years’ lists).
Here’s the deal with our Anti-list : Lots of Best of Lists are out there, but they ain’t relevant to people with families, careers, hobbies, etc. I do not have time to listen to 200 new CDs each year, and I suspect you don’t either.
Hence, this list. Rather than cranking out yet another list of new music you never heard (and probably never will hear), this is a more useful list: What a relatively informed music fan’s “Most played” albums were this year — at least, according to my iTunes and the missus (Your playing THAT again!?!). These are the albums that were my personal soundtrack for 2012. (selected videos after the jump).
Those the ground rules. Let’s have at it:
• Album of the year: Alabama Shakes Boys & Girls
I first mentioned this album back in May. I stumbled across them on streaming KCRW before their 1st release came out, and I was blown away. It’s a crushing mix of blues, gospel rock and soul.
Their debut album was filled with music that was raw and powerful — an exciting mix of roots rock, country blues, soul and gospel. It has a decidedly retro flavor to it, but is still fresh and original. The song writing is strong, the band tight, and they sound as if they really light it up live.
Lead singer Brittany Howard has a voice full of soul and fire. Someone astutely observed she is “The love child of Otis Redding and Janis Joplin.” A potent power trio backs her. In their live shows, the band covers James Brown to Otis Redding, as well Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. That eclectic taste informs their original recordings.
No histrionics or irony, just straight forward blues driven rock n roll. PS: The CD is $6 . . .
• Box Set of the year: Led Zeppelin Celebration Day
Zep were the defining architects of classic rock. It is almost impossible to calculate how far reaching their influence is across genres from rock to heavy metal to punk to hip hop. Their riffs were the collective soundtrack of 3 generations of rock and roll fans. After 8 albums over 12 years, the band broke up in the 1980 (following drummer John Bonham death).
27 years later, on December 10, 2007, Led Zeppelin took the stage at London’s O2 Arena to headline a tribute concert — 20 million requests were made for the 18,000 tickets — and what followed has been described as the greatest rock and roll concert ever.
It is reflected in this two+ hour tour de force of the band’s signature rock ’n’ roll. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham, (son of late drummer John Bonham), performed 17 songs, recorded in high definition.
Note: The video is crisp and clean, but I found the direction a bit annoying (too many fast cuts, focused on the wrong things). Regardless, the music is incredibly vibrant and powerful, and the audio quality is simply stunning. Called a celebration of rock ‘n’ roll, my head exploded as I listened to this.
• Great new record from a classic rock star Mark Knopfler Privateering
The Knopfler touch is instantly recognizable the second the guitar picking is heard. His understated guitar work is evocative and beautiful, giving the album a near cinematic quality. Knopfler’s expected thoughtful musicianship is here, with a regal quiet and warm inviting sound.
The collection of 20 songs has lots of depth that rewards repeated listening. Gently haunting melodies and lyrical narratives make it a worthwhile pleasure.
Touring with Dylan seems to have done the Dire Straits founder and front man lots of good: The music on this album careens all over the place, from moody Celtic folk song, to soulful roots and rockin’ blues.
She continues to evolve musically, adding the title sultry pop songstress to her already stellar reputation as a jazz chanteuse. The album has a meditative, dreamy quality. The songwriting collaboration with Danger Mouse is very different than her usual commercially successful earlier work of downbeat, easy-listening jazz recordings.
Jones adds elements of longing and heartbreak to her sexy purr. This is an album that I found myself listening to a lot this past summer.
• Surprise Find: Todd Snider Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (with Amanda Shires on violin and backup vocals)
“…And if you’re so God almighty then what’s with all this mystery? Yes I wanna trust ya buddy, but you’re clearly keeping secrets from me.”
A clever and nasty disc of stripped down blues lamenting human foolish, banker follies and other assorted disasters of everyday life.
Beyond religion and economics, Snyder careens through topics as varied as youth culture, unemployment, rock-and-roll history and doomed romance.
Rolling Stone called it “hilarious, infuriated broadsides about economic injustice delivered in Snider’s stoner drawl over twangy roots rock.” To me, it was just surprising fun.
• Redemption disc: John Mayer Born And Raised
Another very pleasant surprise was this acoustic flavored, country-tinged work from former bad boy John Mayer.
The album is a tuneful mix of delicate acoustic guitars, soulful harmonica, piano and steel guitar. It creates a gentle balance of California country and southern rock, all of which works well to spotlight Mayer’s vocals.
It is easy to forget what a good guitarist Mayer is, and he shows off his chops with strong acoustic work. The album is more nuanced than his other efforts, with an easygoing intimacy. Producer Don Was has managed to coax Mayer away from pop, towards a more mature sound that seems to suit him.
This was another album that got played all summer — it has a delicate complexity that revealed itself with multiple listenings, as layers get peeled away. Its good clean fun.
• Mash Up/Crossover: R.L. Burnside A Bothered Mind
R. L. Burnside (November 23, 1926 – September 1, 2005) was a country blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist who lived much of his life in and around Holly Springs, Mississippi. He played music for much of his life, but did not receive much attention until the early 1990s.
Burnside was a legendary bluesman, known as much for guitar picking as for his trademark vocals. The disc mixes traditional blues with other genres, and features interesting collaborations with Kid Rock and Lyrics Born.
I belatedly discovered A Bothered Mind (2004) by accident: The song A Someday Baby, a mash up with Lyrics Born, hooked me. A traditional blues riff starts the tune, followed by an infectious syncopated beat that you don’t typically hear on older blues records. RL’s gravelly vocals move the song forward, but it really begins to kick when Lyrics Born California flavored rhymes turns this into something else altogether. (check out the video after the jump)
• Overlooked album: Paul Simon So Beautiful Or So What
Do you know this album? I don’t, or at least didn’t until this past year.
It seemed to have snuck by me in 2011, and I suspect you as well. It was critically very well received, but I hardly ever heard anyone mention it. Rolling Stone named it one of the 50 best albums of 2011.
No lesser an authority than Elvis Costello said:
“Throughout the record, I kept coming up against what I can only call, rock and roll surprises; not some orthodox formula but indelible, hypnotic guitar motifs and swinging, off-center rhythms tipping your expectations into a new kind of thrill.”
• WTF Album: Fiona Apple The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
“How can I ask anyone to love me, when all I do is beg to be left alone.”
A brilliant and dark work of austere haunting alt-pop.
Idler Wheel was recorded with a minimalist approach, using bare-bones instrumentation. Indeed, the album is entirely acoustic – mostly vocals, piano and drums.
It requires a confident, master songwriter to present themselves so naked and revealed. Fiona is calm, calculated and serene on this disc, she has developed a maturity Raw, eloquent, artful.
This is a formidable album, both intrusive and challenging. It demands your full attention, but it rewards the attentive listener.
I won’t argue with NPR, who called it “deliberately maddening,, eventually addictive.”
• Jazz Album Cyrille Aimee & Diego Figueiredo Smile
Cyrille Aimée is a new talent in the modern age of jazz. Combining Dominican rhythms with French Jazz swing to produce something new yet recognizable.
Smile, is a delightful mellow work, with Cyrille’s vocals accompanied by Diego’s Flamenco guitar. It is simple, stripped down and charming, with a relaxed Brazilian vibe.
Note that her most recent disc, Cyrille Aimée + Friends – Live at Smalls (2011) is a more straight forward Jazz combo. The backing band is first rate, capable of carrying much of the record on their own. But then those charming vocals come in, and you are back to what makes her so interesting to listen to.
Aimee is a worthy new Jazz vocalist playing traditional and world Jazz.
• Remaster: Prefab Sprout Steve McQueen / Two Wheels Good
I fell in love with this spectacular album in grad school. It was released as Steve McQueen in the UK, where it is well known, but in the US, this Thomas Dolby-produced album is called Two Wheels Good — and here it is mostly unknown, rarely heard. And that is a damned shame, as its a tour de force of song writing chops, clever lyrics, and brilliant music. (See our discussion of best unknown/unheard albums here).
Paddy McAloon’s songwriting has been justly compared to Brian Wilson. Each heart rending song of love and loss is harrowing, gorgeous, lovely. The lyrics are sly, full of wry irony. They grab you, and refuse to let go. Every song is a brilliant combination of musical jazz arrangement, pop melody, and lyrical genius. I cannot listen to this disc without thinking about love lost in days gone by.
The 2007 remastered version is a two disc set. The recording flaws and shortcomings of the original 1985 version gets cleaned up. The second disc is an acoustic version of many of the songs in the original album, revealing an even more delicate sensibility to the song writing.
Note that the US version of Two Wheels Good has a few extra songs, including the heart rending He’ll Have To Go. Its a good place to start for anyone interested who doesn’t know PreFab.
Last, some old favorites that did not make my list, but are still worthy of attention. These are classic bands who out good albums that for whatever reason, failed to make the final cut:
Videos after the jump
Alabama Shakes – Hold On (Official Video)
Led Zeppelin – Black Dog – Celebration Day
Mark Knopfler – Privateering
Todd Snider Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Norah Jones – Say Goodbye
John Mayer – Queen of California (Born and Raised)
RL Burnside, Someday Baby
The Making of So Beautiful or So What | Paul Simon
Cyrille Aimée, Diego Figueiredo Smile