Looking back, I have to say that 2012 didn’t bowl me over in a flood of great pop cultural artifacts. Aside from a handful of gems, I felt that 2012 was a fairly tepid year on the music front – both in terms of releases and tours. Nevertheless, 2012’s ticking clock has me taking stock of the year’s offerings, and I present to you my top three in each of both.
1. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
These days, it isn’t often that a rock album comes along and knocks my socks off. But after a prelude of fireworks, Celebration Rock comes in with an energy and excitement that is unparalleled in any of the other releases I’ve heard this year (barring perhaps Pet Clinic – more on them later). I’ve long said that it wasn’t mp3s that killed the album, it was CDs. Once artists had the ability to make 75 minute albums, far too many of them did. There’s something to be said for working within constraints; brevity is a virtue oft lost in today’s music. Japandroids get it: they hit it and quit it – 35 minutes of straigthforward, high energy rock with singalong choruses and loud guitars. Yes, please.
2. Dr. John – Locked Down
For the last ten years or so, I’ve had a growing interest in New Orleans’ music and culture. For over four decades, Dr. John has been the de facto cultural ambassador for the Crescent City, bringing a taste of the city’s musical gumbo to the masses. I was intrigued upon hearing that Dan Aurebach (of Black Keys fame) produced the latest Dr. John disc, and made sure to pick it up on Record Store Day. And while I expected the album to be good, it was excellent. Auerbach and the musicians assembled in the studio brought a freshness to Dr. John’s newest compositions, and the Doctor somehow sounds more fresh and fiery than he has in some time. Essential listening.
3. Kimbra – Vows
The Kimbra album initially didn’t make much of an impression on me. It took a road trip to Philly to win me over, but she certainly won me over. Vows is interesting in that it is in essence a pop album, but Kimbra isn’t afraid to experiment a bit, either. The result is an extremely catchy and accessible pop album that is just off kilter enough to maintain interest. In a binary world of pop that seems to cater exclusively to preteens or soccer moms, Vows is an incredibly fresh and fun album.
Beach House – Bloom
Gorgeous, wonderful album – but its “more of the same” (as its predecessor, Teen Dream) approach keeps it out of the top echelon for me.
Broken Fences – (self-titled)
One of my favorite Pittsburgh bands at the moment. A two piece acoustic group with a great sense of melody, and some of the most incredible harmonies I’ve heard in years.
Pet Clinic – The Dust that Made the Fire Light
A perk of supervising a college radio station is that you automatically get keyed in to new music. The first time that I heard Pet Clinic was one of those rare moments that I called the radio station to ask “What was that song you just played?” I was doubly impressed to learn that they were from Pittsbugh, and I snatched up their EP at the earliest possible convenience. Raw, rambunctious rock.
1. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – Consol Energy Center, Pittsburgh, PA 10/27
This was the fourth Springsteen show that I’ve seen, the first being the E Street reunion in 2000. I’ve never seen him put on a bad show, but this one was off the chain. Three plus hours of non-stop classics old and new, the highest energy 63 year old I’ve ever seen. Many highlights, but the best of the best were probably “The Ties that Bind,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” and “Badlands.” When a post-concert afterglow has you listening to an artist exclusively for a week, they’ve done their job.
2. Dr. John – Flood City Music Festival, Johnstown, PA 8/4
I’ve wanted to see Dr. John live for some time. The excellent Locked Down LP only intensified that desire. By some sheer stroke of cosmic luck, the good Doctor played Johnstown’s increasingly popular Flood City Music Festival in August. Dr. John did not disappoint. He and the Lower 911 ran through the high points of Locked Down, and through the massive catalog that Dr. John has accumulated over the last 44 years. Highlights: “Locked Down,” “Such a Night,” and “Wang Dang Doodle.”
3. Kimbra – Theatre of the Living Arts, Philadelphia, PA 10/21
I admit, I dragged my heels a bit going to this show. It required a Sunday road trip on a working weekend, and as I mentioned earlier, the album didn’t grab me. Fortunately, my companion was a bestie and fellow music geek. And the show instantly made me a fan. I probably just didn’t give the album a fair shake, but even beyond that, the energy and voice that Kimbra brought to the stage were simply fantastic. Highlight: “Warrior,” which I listened to every day for the next week.
Van Halen – Consol Energy Center, Pittsburgh, PA 3/30
I’ve already spent time kvetching about this show for Popblerd. At least “Cathedral” / “Eruption” kicked ass.
Madonna – Consol Energy Center, Pittsburgh, PA 11/6
I often say that I’m writing off big arena shows forever. Folks like Springsteen keep me coming back. Shows like Madonna’s make me reconsider. Here’s how to make Dr. Gonzo mad: don’t hit the stage until 10:45 on a Tuesday night. Play mostly songs from the last decade’s worth of bland albums. Let the video screens handle a few songs in their entirety. Truncate or drastically alter the arrangements on what little of your classic material you do play. Easily the most regrettable $100 that I spent this year.