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2012 top albums

January 2, 2013

This is my 27th annual year-end list of my favorite albums of the year.

As always, these are “favorites,” not “best.” I wouldn’t presume that my favorites are the “best,” although I might sincerely think they are. Rather, these are the great among the albums that crossed my radar this year. There’s always room for more, too, if you look at the bottom of this list, you’ll see some albums from 2011 that I didn’t hear until this year, but they would have been good enough to make last year’s equivalent of this list if I had.

Here’s hoping you see some things you recognize, and might potentially find something rewarding for yourself as well.

1) John Hiatt, Mystic Pinball

He just keeps getting better, and he’s been good for a long, long time. This may be the best album of his career. “Wood Chipper” is certainly one of the best songs.

2) Hellsongs, Long Live Lounge

A Swiss trio that radically rearranges metal songs, emphasizing the melodies with a female singer and acoustic instrumentation. Some songs on this live release feature a symphony orchestra as well. Some metalheads may find this to be sacrilege. I normally don’t care for cover albums, but these songs are so re-arranged, I don’t even recognize some of them. In my book, their takes on Metallica (“Seek and Destroy”) and Pantera (“Walk”) border on genius, and the version of Iron Maiden’s “The Evil That Men Do” take the song and this album to a whole other place.

3) Blackberry Smoke, The Whippoorwill

Some of the best country rock in years. Musically just the soft side of Skynyrd, and lyrically just this side of a cleverly observational Randy Newman. Everything’s in the right place. Check out “Six Ways to Sunday” for a good example of what it is.

4) Rick Springfield, Songs for the End of the World

How does this guy keep making solid rock/pop albums when so many of his contemporaries do weak covers album (he did one himself in 2005) or turn to ballads or something “soft.” His 2004 album “Shock/Denial/Anger/Acceptance” was my album of the year. This one is similar in quality. Check out “Wide Awake” and “I Hate Myself.”

5) Moulettes, The Bear’s Revenge

Wow. An almost genre-defying effort, this group combines folk, rock, classical, prog and vocal pop into a layered ear-catching mash that gets better with each listen.

6) Kaiser Chiefs, Start the Revolution Without Me

Much of this album was released last year in Europe under the title “The Future is Medieval,” and as such wound up second (behind Paul Simon) on my year-end list. With this, they took some weaker songs out and put other weaker songs in. Still quite listenable, and I stick by my analysis from last year: “Their work is simplistically complex, and everything I want out of a rock band, catchy and open to interpretation.”

7) Martha Wainwright, Come Home To Mama

I would like to crawl inside this woman’s voice and live there. She’s not traditionally pleasing, but you never know where she’s going next vocally, which is fascinating. And she’s thinking lyrically, too, this time around about her newborn child and recently deceased mother. Some will find it odd or annoying. I adore it.

8) Maryann Cotton, Free Falling Angels

Combining the voice of Alice Cooper with the metal chops of some veteran players and some primo writing skills, this is kind of a retro melodic metal effort. Give a listen to the first cut, “Heaven Send For Me.”

9) A.C. Newman, Shut Down the Streets

I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is, but Newman is one of those songwriters whose work I like without exception. It’s melodic pop-rock, naturally, but always sounds like it’s come from another galaxy. Nobody’s using chords like he is, and he knows his way around a catchy chorus. Start with “Wasted English.”

10) Donnie Vie, Wrapped Around My Middle Finger

The co-founder and singer of Enuff Z’Nuff plows familiar ground with some melodic hard pop. This builds, the better songs and performances are in the second half. “Rattle On” and “No Escape” shine. At times, this sounds like a great album Elvis Costello never got around to releasing.

11) Boy & Bear, Moonfire

This is more to my liking than most of what passes for current folk-rock music. There are actually different tempos and catchy choruses here. They remind me of the 1970s Paul Simon. They may remind you of something closer to your age. “Part Time Believer” is a fantastic tune.

12) The dB’s, Falling Off the Sky

The speed and power have gone from these early 1980s power pop kings. But they still can write an amazing song, or batch of songs. Lots of quality here, but improbably, drummer Will Rigby’s “Write Back” is one of the best songs of the year.

13) Graveyard Train, Hollow

These Australians do what I’d call doom folk, with acoustic instrumentation and menacing voices singing about bleak subjects. The singer sounds alternately like Alice Cooper, Jim Morrison and Jack Black.

14) fun., Some Nights

Nate Ruess, the lead singer here, as well as of the lamented The Format, is incapable of writing songs that are anything less than intelligent. His works also take time to peel back, making them musts to repeatedly re-listen. This one is, as usual, fantastic. Hit single “We Are Young” isn’t even their best song here. They lose points for too, too much Autotune, though.

15) Field Music, Plumb

The 15 songs that sprawl through this package sound like a lot of other things, but combine to make their own thing. Complex, herky-jerk guitar-based rhythms are offset with some gorgeous lead vocal work. Field Music’s best album ever.

16) Graham Gouldman, Love and Work

This music veteran (he wrote several 1960s hits for The Hollies and others) sounds frighteningly and alternatingly like George Harrison and a 1980s Paul McCartney on this collection of pretty, upbeat and melodic tunes. If ‘Beatle-esque’ means an emphasis on vocals and melodies to you, as it does to me, this is a prime choice.

17) Big Wreck, Albatross

I’ve always liked these guys, who are definitely rock but otherwise generally genre-defiant. The guitars remind me of Jimmy Page, and the songs are almost pretty pop melodically. They kind of soar, especially on the title track.

18) Lita Ford, Living Like a Runaway

This is high on my list of unexpected surprises from this year. I had no idea Ford had something this good left in her tank. There’s no “Kiss Me Deadly” here, but there’s none of the wince-inducing efforts of her last album either. She sings well, and the guitars and arrangements here are prime.

19) Little Feat, Rooster Rag

A solid packed tight set of fantastic songs, playing up the shuffle in their rhythm with fantastic, perfectly crafted songs. It’s inspiring that they’re able to do something like this in their fifth decade.

20) The Hives, Les Hives

Straight-ahead quick, fast, pounding songs with sing-along choruses and straight-forward lyrics. They’re giving us nothing huge to ponder, and that’s just the way I like it. These guys are incredible fun. Check out the ELO rip off, “Go Right Ahead.”

Honorable mention (in alphabetical order)

Aerosmith, Music From Another Dimension!

Nelson Bragg, We Get What We Want

Micky Dolenz, Remember

Elton John vs. Pnau, Good Morning to the Night

Lucero, Woman & Work

Public Image Limited, This Is PIL

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, The Magic Door

The Ting Tings, Sounds From Nowhere

The View, Cheeky for a Reason

Gin Wigmore, Gravel & Wine

Not unexpectedly, a handful of 2011 releases that would have made my year-end list last year didn’t come across my radar until this year. They include:

Matraca Berg, The Dreaming Fields

A legendary songwriter (she’s in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame). Every song is near-perfect. She’s not flashy enough to nab everyone’s attention, but you’ll hear these songs by other people eventually.

Dark Ocean Colors

The only way this could be more perfect is if it had come out, say, 38 years ago. It’s the album Paul McCartney should have made to follow up “Venus and Mars,” it would have been a perfect 10cc release, it’s what The Beach Boys could have done if Brian Wilson was functional.

Kira, Dreamtime

This is how you do an all acoustic album and keep listeners’ attention, with SONGS. This French singer-songwriter (who sings in unaccented English) presumably learned from her Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt albums.

Hyde and Beast, Slow Down

There’s a lot of depth in these songs, although some people might find the occasional falsetto vocal annoying. I couldn’t stop playing the album, finding irresistible its dancing back and forth between this decade’s styles and those of the 1960s and 1970s.

Robyn Hitchcock, Tromsø, Kaptein

The prolific Hitchcock is at his best when you can grasp his lyrics and when the music compliments their moodiness. That’s what happens here. Acoustic-based recordings, with a dotting of strings, that are among the best Hitchcock has done since his signature “I Often Dream of Trains.”

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