People love to go on and on about how everything (i.e., music, movies, TV) sucks now, but in this information overloaded world, sometimes you just have to know where to look. I found a lot to love about 2012, so here are some of my favorite things this past calendar year.
Thanks to Amazon MP3 and Spotify, I was able to check out a lot of new music this year, and I wasn’t disappointed. My top albums of 2012 features a mix of young and older artists, which says as much about the younger crop of bands emerging as it does about veteran acts continuing to make vital music.
1. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
Garage rocker Ty Segall had a ridiculously prolific year, releasing three albums that were all highly praised by critics and fans alike. I only heard two of them, this one and Segall’s collaboration with White Fence (Hair), and both reveal a super-talented guitarist with a penchant for scuzz-rock freakouts mixed with spacey psychedelia. On Slaughterhouse, Segall is backed by his touring band and the group is tight. “Wave Goodbye,” “Death” and “I Bought My Eyes” lead a bracing collection of songs that culminates in the 10-minute feedback drone of “Fuzz War.” It’s a winning formula. Segall is a worthy successor to the late Jay Reatard’s DIY excellence.
2. Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral
Mark Lanegan has spent much of the last decade making guest appearances on other artists’ albums, from Queens of the Stone Age to the Twilight Singers to Isobel Campbell. On his first solo album since 2004’s Bubblegum, Lanegan explored some interesting electronic directions; he cited Joy Division, Roxy Music and The Gun Club as key influences on the album. It’s a long way from his beginnings in the mid-‘80s with Screaming Trees, forging a psychedelic grunge sound that predated many of their Northwest peers. “The Gravedigger’s Song” is an epic leadoff single that combines synths with harder edged sounds, while “Riot in My House” and “Quiver Syndrome” are out-and-out rockers and “Ode to Sad Disco” takes the experimentation to a surprisingly danceable conclusion.
3. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits
When it came out, this was just a quickie side project from Britt Daniel of Spoon and Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs that nobody had high expectations for. But holy crap, A Thing Called Divine Fits is a terrific album. Daniel’s contributions, which include “Flaggin’ a Ride” and “Would That Not Be Nice” are typically excellent and have that Spoon-ish quality that Daniel has been producing for more than a decade now. But it’s Boeckner who really shines with synthy concoctions like “My Love is Real,” “For Your Heart” and “Baby Gets Worse” that are super-catchy and propelled by his urgent, yelpy vocals. A winner through and through, and hopefully not the last we’ll hear from this band.
4. Titus Andronicus – Local Business
At first, the new full-length from New Jersey’s purveyor of literate punk rock didn’t grab me, especially after the mastery of 2010’s epic The Monitor. But with repeated listens, Local Business really took hold, insinuating itself in my consciousness with its boozy shouted refrains and sturdy riffs. Bandleader Patrick Stickles isn’t afraid to write umpteen-word song titles and make references to high-falutin’ artists and concepts while echoing the riffs of The Clash. Ergo songs like “Ecce Homo” and “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus” can coexist with the Johnny Thunders-esque “Food Fight” and the terrific “In a Big City,” as well as longer songs like “In a Small Body,” “Tried to Quit Smoking” and “My Eating Disorder,” which veers from punk sneering to near prog-rock in its final few minutes. Local Business is a mish-mash, but it’s great.
5. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
For its second album, the Vancouver duo unleashes an exhilarating 35-minute punk rock rush of uptempo songs about partying and being young and awesome. The title of the record says it all, really. Celebration Rock is all shouted vocals, loud guitars, pounding drums and “whoa-oh-oh” choruses, and damn if it isn’t just great. “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” “Fire’s Highway” and “Adrenaline Nightshift” are fist-pumpingly fun tales of youth gone wild, catchy and loud. Sure, there isn’t much in the way of dynamics or quieter songs, but who cares? Turn it up and enjoy, dammit.
The rest: My top 10 is filled out by the following albums: Bob Mould – Silver Age; METZ – Metz; Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory; Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky; and Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth. Alt-rock legends Mould and Dinosaur Jr. made new albums worthy of their legacies, while Van Halen’s first album with David Lee Roth in 28 years was surprisingly potent, with Eddie Van Halen reminding everyone that age hasn’t slowed him down on the fretboard. METZ and Cloud Nothings, on the other hand, were fiery upstarts who released impressive albums that bode well for the future. Outside my top 10 were albums from Mission of Burma, A.C. Newman, High on Fire, Torche, Soundgarden, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Rush, Guided By Voices, The Tragically Hip and Smashing Pumpkins.
Sad to say I don’t get out to see movies in the theater much anymore. Instead, I see them on Netflix or HBO months after they come out. But one recent movie I enjoyed this year was Goon, co-written by and co-starring Jay Baruchel (of Undeclared and Tropic Thunder fame) and starring Seann William Scott as a dimwitted bouncer who stumbled into a career as a minor league hockey enforcer. The movie’s got plenty of hockey goonery and bawdy humor, but also a healthy dose of heart. Liev Schreiber is great as a veteran fighter who has a bloody showdown with Scott. Given that the NHL is in the process of blowing up yet another season, Goon provided some much-needed hockey escapism for a little while.
Breaking Bad was the cream of the TV crop in 2012. The AMC drama about a high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin began its fifth and final season of 16 episodes with the first half running in the summer of 2012 and the rest scheduled to roll out next summer. In this age of DVRs, Breaking Bad was one of the few shows that I liked to watch the night it premiered (even if I waited 20 minutes so I could fast forward through commercials). Unlike the multitude of formulaic crime procedurals littering the airwaves, Breaking Bad is so unpredictable it forces you to watch every scene with a focus demanded by few TV programs these days. You can’t watch the show while texting or checking Facebook or Twitter on your phone. And the acting is superb, from Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as the lead characters or the sublime work done by character actor Jonathan Banks. It’s said that we’ll only get eight more episodes, but also nice to know that the show will go out on top. It’s just too bad we have to wait until next summer.
Honorable mention: Mad Men, Justified, The Walking Dead, Louie, Community, Parks and Recreation, Game of Thrones, Veep, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report.
This year, I found myself reading several oral histories, books that use quotes and recollections from hundreds of sources to tell a story. Three in particular had me transfixed in 2012: Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales; I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum; and Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm (not Mark Arm of Mudhoney, although he’s mentioned plenty in the book). All three explored the birth of ideas that changed pop culture forever, whether it was a 24-hour sports network to a channel that played nothing music videos to a music movement rooted in guitars and grit that was a response to all the flash and hairspray popularized by the music video channel. The books are each fascinating reads in their own way. Even if you’re not particularly interested in broadcast sports or music videos or grunge, the stories of how they emerged as cultural forces are gripping. Each book is well worth your time.
I don’t listen to radio anymore. In addition to music, I listen to podcasts, and lots of them. This year, I got into The Best Show on WFMU with Tom Scharpling, which is the podcast version of Scharpling’s weekly show on the New Jersey-based radio station with the music removed for licensing reasons. Scharpling is a comedy writer who has been hosting the show for the last 12 years. He interviews guests such as Marc Maron, Ted Leo and Chris Elliott, takes calls from listeners and goes on rants about any number of topics. I had heard about the show for years but finally decided to check it out in January and was quickly hooked. Indie rock drummer supreme Jon Wurster calls in regularly as a number of hilarious characters; he and Scharpling are as finely honed a comedy team as any in the business.
Honorable mention: WTF with Marc Maron, The Bugle, No Agenda, Comedy Bang Bang and Doug Loves Movies.