Pop music and I had a three way in 2012, which meant there was plenty of awkwardness, highs, lows, excitement and ultimately fulfillment. As the year passed, I never worked up the same excitement as I had in 2011 where I felt like something great seemed to crop up every week beginning in January. As a result, I went through the year feeling like 2012 releases were just OK. But as I was going back through the year’s releases (and catching up with some I’d missed or hadn’t given a fair shake), I realized there was still some damn fine music made and released in 2012, especially by of artists making their debuts. So while I’m still not completely sold on 2012, I’m feeling pretty good about the future – from the soul and R&B of Frank Ocean and Michael Kiwanuka to the Americana and folk of Shovels & Rope and the Lumineers.
That doesn’t mean that 2012 didn’t have its share of musical highlights. I found plenty of them in locations as intimate as the Bell House in Brooklyn or as massive as MetLife Stadium or Fenway Park, some of the places I saw, heard and experienced the joy and love of live music. I was extremely fortunate to see my absolute fave, Springsteen, a (cough) few (cough, cough) times, faves from my college years (the Feelies & Del Fuegos) for the first time among others. Moving to the NY area has made seeing live music both incredibly easy (except for the late night dashes to the train) and potentially expensive (there’s almost someone somewhere every night). This year I saw some great bands with great friends while making a whole bunch of new ones (more on that to come, really, I swear).
Finally thanks to an invitation from and the encouragement of the proprietor of this fine site, Big Money Mike, (thank you, brother!) I started dabbling with writing again, something I hadn’t done since college a long, long time ago. Thanks to you that have taken the time to read and comment on my humble offerings. Here’s a look my favorite 12 records of 2012 along with a few favorite moments:
1. American Aquarium – Burn.Flicker.Die
American rock is alive and well on this record filled with dreams of busting out of small towns for rock and roll stardom, only here those dreams don’t necessarily end up as planned. I took a longer look at this record a few weeks ago here.
Hard for me to pick a favorite track, but “Casualties” sums up the record
2. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
The most joyful, infectious, high energy thirty five and a half minutes I heard on record this year.
Fave Track: “Adrenaline Nightshift”
3. The Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio
An amazing tour of jazz, hip-hop, R&B, soul, rock, you name it, with a who’s who of guest appearances. The remix EP he also released this year, Black Radio Recovered, was also brilliant.
Fave Track: “Always Shine (featuring Lupe Fiasco and Bilal)”
4. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
This take on the Great Recession was easily Springsteen’s best since 2002’s the Rising, but more importantly spawned his best tour since the E Street Band reunion in 2002 with some of the longest, most musically diverse shows of his career. The songs from this record, though, formed the core of the show and the stories he was there to tell night after night.
Fave Track: “Rocky Ground”
5. Ryan Bingham – Tomorrowland
Another take on the Great Depression but here the anger was upfront and in your face – a punk record from out of the west. It’s terrific record from one of the best young songwriters going.
Fave Track: “Heart of Rhythm”
6. Dr. John – Locked Down
A bluesy, funky, swampy, spooky return from the Night Tripper himself, more than capably produced (and played on) by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach
Fave Track: “Getaway”
7. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Speaking of terrific young songwriters, Justin Townes Earles continues to hone his craft both lyrically and musically, here adding a bit of Memphis style soul.
Fave Track: “Look the Other Way”
8. The Explorers Club – Grand Hotel
If you’re a fan of 60’s Bacharach style pop and Brian Wilson harmonies, here’s a superbly retro record for you
Fave Track: “It’s No Use”
9. Kelly Hogan – I Like To Keep Myself in Pain
Maybe better known these days as Neko Case’s backup vocalist, Hogan’s got a beautiful voice of her own. On her first album since 2001 she takes great material from songwriters like the late Vic Chesnutt and Robyn Hitchcock, mixes in some first class musicians like Booker T. Jones and coats them with that voice to create my favorite vocal performances of the year.
Fave Track: “Haunted”
10. Gary Clark, Jr. – Blak and Blu
Another artist that cuts across many musical genres, on some tracks Clark’s a blazing blues ax slinger and on others a smooth soul operator.
Fave Track “When My Train Pulls In”
11. Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal.
Once upon a time there was a band from Iceland called the Sugarcubes who gave us delightfully quirky pop music and Bjork. Fast forward to today and Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men gave us a debut album filled with delightfully quirky pop. Hopefully there aren’t swan suits in anyone future.
Fave Track: “Little Talks”
12. Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE.
This one’s at the top of lots and lots of 2012 best of lists, but for me it’s been a grower, and one that continues to be. Ask me in 6 months and it might be higher. Lyrically masterful over a low-key, slowly addictive R&B vibe.
Fave Track: “Sweet Life”
Fave Debut: Shovels & Rope – O Be Joyful. Two beat up drums and two old guitars never sounded so good.
Sample Track: “Hail Hail”
Fave Reissue – Paul Simon’s Graceland 25th Anniversary Box Set. I might be biased since Graceland’s been one of my desert island discs since it was first released in 1986. This set contains a remastered copy of the record, a live CD and a DVD documentary. Under African Skies. The conversation between Simon and Dali Tambo, son of ANC founder Oliver Tambo and the South African founder of Artists Against Apartheid, is fascinating as the men revisit the arguments for against Simon’s recording and playing with South African musicians.
Fave Show (non-Springsteen): The Feelies @ the Bell House, Brooklyn, 4/27 Three plus hours of jangly, crazy dancing to a band I’ve loved for 25 years and hadn’t seen until then.
Fave Show (Springsteen) Fenway Park, Boston, 8/15. The second of two nights at Fenway this summer. It’s the one my friends and I have used as a reference for later tour stops, “it was good, but it was no Fenway 2”. This one’s going up there with past shows that are now referenced by venue name like the Agora, Winterland, and Nassau Coliseum.
Releases I’m Looking Forward to in 2013: Yo La Tengo – Fade (out in January); Dawes (TBD)