*Albums that can easily be on this list on any given day include Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zero’s Here, Heartless Bastards’ Arrow, Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s’ Rot Gut, Domestic, The Shins’ Port of Morrow, and Lucero’s Women & Work.
** The Black Keys’ El Camino was released in 2011 & made my Top 10 for 2011. I omitted it for that reason, even though it has cracked numerous Best of 2012 lists.
***Joshua James’ From the Top of Willamette Mountain, Kopecky Family Band’s Kids Raising Kids, Birds of Chicago’s Birds of Chicago, Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Psychedelic Pill and Shovels & Rope’s O’ Be Joyful all would have been somewhere on this list had I owned them before creating the list. (Shovels & Rope’s O’ Be Joyful maybe would have even cracked the Top 10.)
FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2012
50. Gary Clark Jr. - Blak and Blu
“…After years of watching his star rise, many people in the industry have vocalized the belief that now is the time for Gary Clark Jr. to explode. As fate would have it, Clark signed with Warner Bros. and is stepping into the spotlight on his major label debut. The album, titled Blak and Blu, has the potential to be a variety of things to vastly different people, and that’s perhaps the coolest weapon Clark has kept hidden from the masses.
Much like his native city, Clark is a melting pot of great musical influences. Just as Austin is declared “The Live Music Capital of the World” not “The Live Blues Capital of the World,” Clark is a talent raised on a hodgepodge of genre-busting heroes, not just SRV and Jimi. Those expecting the blues will get it copious amounts on Blak and Blu, but they’ll also find Clark digging into his love of soul, R&B, and radio-ready hip hop. Of the thirteen songs, more than half have appeared in Clark’s catalog on Hotwire Records. He retools many of them for the major label jump, and he introduces newcomers to some of his jams that he has been playing for more than five years. If Clark wanted to be the biggest blues act on the planet, he would unequivocally do it by playing variations of “When My Train Pulls In” for 40 minutes and call it a wrap. Simply put, he is easily one of the most exciting guitarists, voices, and stage presences to emerge in years. That’s why his decision to dive into so many different genres on his debut album is a feat worth applauding, even if you would prefer a consistent 40 minutes of monster riffage and 12-bar blues…
There is zero doubt Clark will catch flak from some of his most longstanding evangelicals for the chameleon coat he sports on Blak and Blu, especially regarding the radio-ready R&B of “Blak and Blu” and mellow hip hop of “The Life.” The truth is I would’ve been over the moon had Clark solely unleashed a 60-minute guitar assault of 12-bar blues and violent howls on Blak and Blu. However, I respect the man more than ever before for having the balls to play whatever music he desires, irrespective of genre, on his first impression to the masses. That takes guts and honest-to-God faith in your competencies and influences.
The irony of any of the “savior of the blues” evangelicals calling Clark a sellout for the myriad hats he throws into the ring on Blak and Blu is that he made the most un-sellout move imaginable by doing that very thing while riding such hyperbolic hype. There are precious few blues and rock artists in music today who are as talented, compelling and charismatic as Gary Clark Jr. is with a guitar in his hand. However, there are even fewer musicians alive who can be any one of those three adjectives when taking a stab at diverse sounds. Right now, it appears Gary Clark Jr. seems less satisfied being the savior of any one genre of music than the multitudes would like him to be. Good for him! Only time will tell if we’ll be fortunate enough to see him succeed by crossing genres and bringing different personalities and backgrounds together. It’s been a hell of a long time since we’ve seen anybody pull that off. That Gary Clark Jr. is willing step up to the plate to take a swing at that on his first at-bat in the big leagues speaks multitudes about the man behind these damn fine songs.”
49. Band of Horses - Mirage Rock
With a few exceptions, Mirage Rock was a much maligned record in the blogosphere and Pitchfork sect. Personally, I think that’s a goddamned shame. I’m a Band of Horses guy through and through, and where others believe Mirage Rock is the sound of Band of Horses careening off a cliff, I wholeheartedly feel this Glyn Johns-produced album is just as magnificent as Everything All The Time, Cease To Begin, and Infinite Arms. Where some (i.e. Pitchfork) have clamored that BoH has been making steady nose dive since Cease to Begin and claim Mirage Rock sounds like an entirely different band, I feel that each album has been a rousing success. In the crunching rock and roll gems and the sublime ballads, Band of Horses knock it out of the park on a song-by-song basis. This is yet another BoH album I’ll be loving for years to come.
48. Hacienda - Shakedown
“San Antonio rock and roll band, Hacienda, have triumphantly let loose on their third album, Shakedown, by firing off a brisk set of ten deliciously melodic gems powered by heavy doses of guitar licks, soul grooves and indefatigable hooks. Hacienda and their particular brand of compulsively enjoyable, old-fashioned rock are kindred underdog spirits to Billy Beane’s now legendary Moneyball baseball teams in this 2012 Autotune and dubstep mp3 pop landscape. That the San Antonio boys are such underdogs is a legitimate shame, because a perfect world would champion the ten songs of Shakedown up the pop charts like all the ‘60s gems that influenced Dante Schwebel and the trio of Villenueva brothers, Rene, Abraham and Jaime.
Hacienda is a band born and raised on the touchstones of family, brotherhood, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Booker T. and the MGs, and a multitude of other bands the current pop music scene would proudly borrow from in a 21st Century utopia. Because pop radio, Clear Channel, the internet tastemakers and outfits looking to profit from Autotune technology all seem content keeping Hacienda and their vintage rock and roll brethren miles beyond the outskirts of the pop charts border, common sense would say the Villenueva brothers and Schwebel will forever be resigned to being a loveable bar band. If that were to happen, Hacienda’s passionate, modest collective of fans would feel lucky for the nights they get to see the guys play whenever the band’s relentless tours happened to reach their town. Those fans would be satisfied snatching up Hacienda albums from the local Custer’s Last Stand independent record store. Hacienda would be theirs to keep, but those fans would forever be baffled by the world’s failure to rally behind the band’s geniality, instant charms and perfect pop melodies…
It’s high time for the music world to take a hard look at Hacienda. Should that recognition ever come, surely they’ll accept it. If the majority of the rock and roll fans who testify at the altar of The Fab Four, pledge allegiance to Brian Wilson’s harmonies, and drop a few hours’ wages to see The Black Keys sell out a stadium end up spending a couple dollars on a ticket to a Hacienda show or bet on Shakedown, then the Schewbel and the Villenuevas will be on the road towards that unthinkable and coveted twenty-game winning streak.“
47. Damien Jurado - Maraqopa
Album after album, Damien Jurado proves he is one of the most gifted singer-songwriters of his generation. The world within his music is characteristically stark landscape that lives up to the Raymond Carver comparisons he is often tagged with, and that world is adorned this time around with all sorts of fascinating touches courtesy of Richard Swift’s outstanding production. Tunes like “Nothing Is The News,” “Reel To Reel,” “Everyone A Star,” and the impossibly gorgeous “Museum Of Flight” will convince you in a heartbeat that Maraqopa is one of the most underrated efforts of 2012.
46. Nick Ferrio & His Feelings - Introducing Nick Ferrio & His Feelings
“Nick Ferrio is a country singer-songwriter from Peterborough, ON who has played bass for The Burning Hell for the past six years. Now, Ferrio is venturing out with a solo effort of exquisite country songs under the cleverly named (and inarguably fitting) backing band moniker of Nick Ferrio & His Feelings.
The nine songs that comprise Introducing Nick Ferrio & His Feelings are a refreshing combination of the sort of old-school country the sort that Willie, Merle, and George Jones played with heart and gusto. They have the feel of lost classics captured with vintage recording equipment, and they’re brought to vivid life with Ferrio’s poignant, often clever, and always heartfelt storytelling. Ferrio’s music is not the brand of bloated, overproduced country that floods radio stations and halftime shows. His songs are the sort carved from tens of thousands of miles touring across rural landscapes, lyrics scribbled upon napkins on Formica tables in greasy spoons, and Dylan and Hank records spinning on the turntable in the corner while you dance in the kitchen with the one you love hours after dark.
Ferrio’s voice and music get in your bones and make you keep inching closer, like a spitting campfire under the stars on a chilly autumn night. These are songs with a skilled, if refreshingly unglamorous, old-school country voice with an ear for romantic-minded storytelling. Ferrio utilizes much to his great advantage here – lilting lap steel, Sun Records-style chugging tempos, rousing guitar lines, and a pure knack for classicist country melodies; but Ferrio’s strongest asset is his ability to write clever, romantic everyman lyrics that register as witty heartache poetry, rather than the kind that strike the listener as overly trivial or sentimental. He is a keen observer of human emotions and longings, and he slides knowing human feelings into songs that precisely capture the spirit of country music at its best…
Introducing Nick Ferrio & His Feelings is far from the coolest record that will come across your path in the near future, but it stands right in step with a rich history and carries sort of lingering impact that is all too rare these days. Ferrio’s songs, like your most beloved denim articles and leather boots, gain indispensable character and become more irreplaceable with every wear.”
45. The Amazing - Gentle Stream
“Following up a lauded 2009 debut and a successful EP that followed, Swedish band The Amazing will debut their first official U.S. release, titled Gentle Stream, on October 23. The Amazing is a disarmingly melodic five-piece consisting of Reine Fiske (of the acclaimed neo-psych band Dungen), Christoffer Gunrup, Frederik Swahn, Alexis Benson, and celebrated jazz drummer Moussa Fadera. The band is set to embark on an American tour in support of the smoking hot Australian psychedelic band Tame Impala (check out Lonerism, which was released this week, if you haven’t already) in November.
Gentle Stream is an album worth getting exciting about. It takes brass balls to name your band The Amazing, but these Swedes make the decision sound fitting rather than arrogant. Take a listen to the title track, and you’ll know what I mean. The song is a hypnotic treasure filled with snaking guitar grooves, humid atmosphere and harmonies worthy of CSNY. “Gentle Stream” kicks off the album, and it instantly throws you into another world. It’s a sound of generations ago that calls to mind Floyd, classic Santana, and Neil Young & Crazy Horse, but it pulls off the mean feat of not reeking of nostalgia…”
44. Oberhofer - Time Capsules II
“Oberhofer is the band driven the prodigious musical talents of 21-year-old Brooklynite Brad Oberhofer and rounded out with Matt Scheiner (guitar, glockenspiel), Pete Sustarsic (drums), Dylan Treleven (bass), and Ben Roth (guitar). The band’s excellent debut release, Time Capsules II, is an unsung indie rock gem that frequently shimmers on the strength of Oberhofer’s deliriously catchy, often idiosyncratic hooks (think Beach Boys via Animal Collective) that worm their way into your head time and again. Oberhofer’s singular delivery, paired with his lyrical sincerity, are big reasons why the band’s songwriting is so effective.
First single “Away Frm U” was my initiation to the band several months back, and I was all-in after one listen. Ever since I got Time Capsules II, the whole album has been nothing short of a new indie-pop classic that I’ve been diving into with glee on a consistent basis. The bare bones of Oberhofer’s songs (heartbreak lyrics, high-voltage energy and big chorus make triumphant glee where sadness once existed) utilize a formula that has been a winner for generations, but Oberhofer’s melodic genius and fearlessness in delivery are what makes his songs so commanding and deliciously worn-in on deeper listens. On the baseball diamond, Oberhofer would be an All-Star pitcher who infuriates batters with his trademark, unhittable knuckleball, but who can just as easily dig in to blow a 98mph fastball by you. He has an adventurous melodic spirit, and he embraces his own peculiar voice to sing out, coo, shout, scream, whistle, and shriek (often varying vocal styles within a single chorus) to triumphant effect…”
43. Ryan Bingham - Tomorrowland
“Coming into his fourth album Tomorrowland, Ryan Bingham, the Texan rocker with a drifter’s rusty heart and a burning belly full of red-blooded dreams, stood at a crossroads with his career and elected to move forward in pursuit of his most pressing desire: freedom.
After nearly a decade with loving allegiances to his band (The Dead Horses) and his trusted label (Lost Highway), Bingham relocated to Los Angeles with his wife Anna, founded his own label Axster Bingham records, and set up camp in a house in Malibu to record a rock and roll album on his own terms. Initial reviews of Tomorrowland frequently cite the album’s brawn catching listeners off guard.
Bingham has always been a heartbreak balladeer and an authentic chronicler of the weary kind, and his outcast songwriting hasn’t lessened on Tomorrowland; he has just added muscle courtesy of heavy blues-rock riffs. He still sings of not settling for crumbs, lamenting phones without quarter slots, and standing by true love with no help from God; but this time around, Bingham brandishes his heart full of rhythm and rock and roll like a righteous weapon.“
42. Icky Blossoms - Icky Blossoms
“Omaha trio Icky Blossoms is a band with a commanding sense of what they hope to achieve: to get bodies to move and to keep you interested in the songs on repeated plays. To say they are a restless group wouldn’t give Derek Presnall, Sarah Bohling, and Nik Fackler enough credit. Filmmaking and visual arts are huge pieces of their individual backgrounds, and it’s clear the visual and the audio and inseparable when it comes to Icky Blossoms.
The band came together in 2011, were signed by the beloved Omaha label Saddle Creek (Cursive, Bright Eyes, The Faint, Azure Ray, The Mynabirds), and released their infectious, darkly sexy self-titled debut in July with Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Santigold, Liars, Foals) producing. Icky Blossoms are gearing up for a major tour in support of labelmate heroes The Faint, who will play their masterful album Danse Macabre at every stop…”
41. Silversun Pickups - Neck of the Woods
“On Neck of the Woods, Silversun Pickups add enough new twists to keep things fresh without straying far from what has cemented them as one of the more exciting bands in rock and roll ever since Pikul…
The album capitalizes on the use of synthetic sounds in the Pickups’ alternative psychedelia without digressing into electronica or a spaced-out loss of focus. Silversun Pickups excel at patiently creating an ethereal atmosphere of shimmering lights in an expansive midnight sky that can flare up into an addictive fury, seemingly in a split-second. You feel it coming when the tempo picks up, the guitars start layering on top of each other and then keys, bass and drums all explode in a choreographed battle at breakneck speed. It feels like all hell is on the verge of breaking loose; the walls shake, the floorboards splinter. It’s total release, and Silversun Pickups are adroit at delivering it time and again without getting stale (check out the one-two punch of “Mean Spirits” for and “Simmer” for prime examples).
On Pikul, Carnavas, Swoon and now Neck of the Woods, Silversun Pickups prove they make full albums jam-packed with sharp turns, shifting tempos that rise up to tsunami heights and settle back down to tame currents with total precision. The wonder of it all is how they consistently make the transition from the calm to the fury and back again seem simultaneously spontaneous and clinically sharp.
Silversun Pickups have been labeled since their inception as Smashing Pumpkins fetishists. That label may never die, and I for one wouldn’t mind if it didn’t. When you brand your band in that territory from the outset, the expectation is for a gargantuan sound, and Silversun Pickups have delivered upon that promise since Pikul. They amplify it on Neck of the Woods to create a stadium-sized sound for a band whose hallmark sound has consistently trounced the modest venues they customarily play. Once again, Silversun Pickups prove you can stick to your guns and your influences, add a glossy veneer now and again and make a play for maximum impact without overstepping a boundary or losing your luster.”
40. JD McPherson - Signs & Signifiers
“There’s no arguing against Broken Arrow, Oklahoma native JD McPherson having been cut from a cloth. Fortunately for us, that cloth is the sort of sweat-soaked, whiskey-stained garment that has lined the pockets of worn denim and wiped thick brows toiling in the midday sun, on factory lines, and behind roadhouse bars for generations. It’s an inherently American fabric composed of the touchstones of rock and roll as we know it with stalwart fibers of timeless power.
The sounds of JD McPherson are indebted to the rock and roll luminaries who have lived on for generations with no surname necessary: Buddy, Chuck, Elvis, Johnny, Jerry Lee, Ray, Little Richard, Ike, Fats. Critics haven’t been shy about deriding artists with allegiances to such heroes with words like retro, vintage and nostalgic. Screw them.
As a fan, there’s never good reason to second-guess your love for any type of impassioned rock and roll played damn well with a hell of a lot of soul. Just be thankful there’s a man around like JD McPherson who loves it as much as you do and who is willing to write such undeniably winning tunes at the risk of being typecast as retro. McPherson isn’t one to shy away from his backstory: former art teacher and punk (reared on Bad Brains and Pixies) in Oklahoma who became enraptured with Buddy Holly after a double-album of Holly’s Decca recordings fell into his hands thanks to a girl at his favorite OK record store.
On his debut album, Signs & Signifiers (released in 2010 on Hi-Style Records and re-released this year to broader audiences thanks to Rounder Records), McPherson struts on the very musical foundation his heroes chiseled underfoot generations ago, and he populates that rich terrain with twelve outstanding tunes worthy of the heritage…
These stories and characters may not be the hottest sellers at every given moment, but they’ve never lost an ounce of their luster. If there’s ever an America with no place for the music of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly or songs about rugged, red-blooded men, faithful and unfaithful women, and all the woes, splendor, and miscommunication that comes with the territory, then such is a place I have no intention of calling home.”
39. Rhett Miller - The Dreamer
Old 97’s frontman and Texan hero Rhett Miller crafted an exquisitely pretty album of full of his trademarked love and heartache tunes on his fifth solo album, The Dreamer. I’ll unabashedly say Rhett has been one of my favorite songwriters for more than a decade, and his witty, melodic and often lovesick way with words just feels like “home sweet home” for me. This time around, Rachel Yamagata lends her beautiful voice (not to mention Roseanne Cash) to several duets that soar on the strength of Rhett’s writing. Home sweet home has rarely felt so utterly lovely.
38. Elk - Daydreams
“Hailing from the Niagara region of Canada, Elk is a young, four-piece band that plays a brand of hook-heavy, lo-fi rock and roll that never goes out of style and couldn’t be more necessary right now. The band’s excellent sophomore album Daydreams is a straight-ahead powder keg blast of three-minute rockers built on heavy guitar jangle, propulsive rhythms, singalong choruses and airtight production.
Elk’s drummer, Josh Korody, is a renowned producer around the Niagara region and beyond, and he mines a killer sound for Daydreams. A great deal of the infectious energy all over Daydreams stems from a sharp focus on tempo and beat. From there, Elk like to let loose like mid-’60s Stones and Kinks while embracing full band harmonies (the band packs three sharp songwriters and vocalists in their arsenal) and blazing guitars while bashing out a collection of the finest Nuggets-worthy songs to come out this year. As I mentioned to bassist Ben Pokol in an interview with him on the day of the album’s release, it would be a damn shame if fans of lo-fi heroes like Ty Segall, Harlem, and Thee Oh Sees don’t get a chance to hear Daydreams.”
37. The Lumineers - The Lumineers
The Lumineers’ self-titled debut is nothing short of a folk-tinged revelation. From the rolling strum that kick off “Flowers in Your Hair” until the exultant ho-ho-ha-ha-hey-hey that closes out the album on “Morning Song,” The Lumineers is a masterpiece.
I was hooked the first time I heard “Dead Sea” before purchasing the album, and I fell in love on the album’s first listen by the time the lines “it’s a long road to wisdom, but it’s a short one to being ignored” and “the way you move I can’t close my eyes, ‘cause it takes a man to live, it takes a woman to make him compromise” crept up and floored me. Moments such as those consistently stun me from song -to-song with every listen of The Lumineers. From the closing time drunken waltz of “Classy Girls” with the protagonist a chasing a beautiful girl all around a dingy bar with handclaps and stomps in a Mumford and Sons vein and a peculiar boozy Southern drawl like Ryan Adams to the Guinness-soaked pub shouts and introspective hope of “Ho Hey” to the mesmerizing, piano-driven Prohibition-era waltz of “Flapper Girl,” every song is a labor of love, perfect harmony and grace. Each song on The Lumineers is a knockout, but none more so than “Dead Sea.” “Dead Sea” is simply one of the most gorgeous, heart-wrenching and flat-out brilliant songs of the year. If Wesley Schultz hasn’t convinced you he is a first-caliber songwriter and lyricist worth his salt anywhere else on the album, he will dismantle your every guard with the chorus of:
‘You told me I was like the Dead Sea. You’ll never sink when you are with me. You told me I was like the Dead Sea, the nicest words you ever said to me. Honey, can’t you see I was born to be like the Dead Sea?’…
If you haven’t heard The Lumineers yet, give listening to them serious consideration. If you are like me and fall in love every time you hear a folk album as magnificent as Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker and adore all of his greatest songs, if you seek out timeless music with a wealth of worthy influences like that of The Low Anthem, The Avett Brothers, The Head and the Heart and Jeff Buckley, you will not regret the time or dollars invested in The Lumineers.”
36. Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls
Alabama Shakes were already the toast of the entire music world several months before even having a debut record to their name, but Boys & Girls lived up to all of the hype. The Shakes’ songs are classics even on first listen, and the album gets better with every successive listen. It’s easy to see why such faith exists in this hot, young band being around for years to come. Songs like “Hold On,” “Heartbreaker,” “Hang Loose,” “Be Mine,” and “You Ain’t Alone” showcase Alabama Shakes as young rock and roll titans with a Fort Knox of genuine soul.
35. Jack White - Blunderbuss
“…Surely, what most listeners will take away from Blunderbuss is the unmistakable Nashville sound, a sound Jack has infused into his music and production for the better part of a decade, but Blunderbuss is the deepest he has mined the sound …and it should be noted that even with upright bass, Rhodes piano, Wurlitzer, clarinet and exemplary pedal steel, this isn’t your grandfather’s Nashville country; Blunderbuss is Jack’s rebellious, mongrelized sound of old Nashville, Memphis soul, Detroit garage and Delta blues. One of the things Jack White excels at (in addition to creating a persona of intrigue, guitar virtuosity, production expertise and unique brand management) possibly more than any other artist of the past decade, is marrying simultaneously complex but immediately loveable dense, layered rock & roll orchestration with seemingly tried-and-true rock & roll lyrics that seem deceptively adolescent or throwaway on first listen, but land body blows left-and-right with every listen. His lyrics on Blunderbuss are arguably his strongest ever, and the country-suffused playing and production on “Love Interruption,” “Missing Pieces” and the waltzing “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” help Jack’s writing hang in the air and have to room to breathe.
All in all, a man who is as accomplished and with such a consistently magnificent-yet-versatile catalog as Jack White is bound to leave people wanting when he ultimately steps up to the plate to release a solo album sounding akin to much of what he’s done in the past but not wholly in-step with the sound that stamped his iconic cool. I am not one of those people. I find Blunderbuss immediately rewarding, endlessly intriguing and as brilliant as everything Jack White touches.”
34. Tame Impala - Lonerism
Tame Impala’s sophomore album is one of the records all of my peers couldn’t praise enough as 2012 rallied to a close. Lonerism deserves every bit of the acclaim. It’s a dazzling album full of Revolver-inspired compositions and enthralling production wizardry. If you have any hint of fascination with The Beatles and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, get ready for your newest obsession.
33. The xx - Coexist
Critics and fans seemed to be split over what to make of Coexist. Many of the same people who were overjoyed with the minimalistic charms and heartache all over The xx’s s/t debut were vocal in their disappointment in Coexist. I found no such disappointment in The xx’s outstanding sophomore effort. Coexist is every bit the magnificent record The xx was.
Just like all the best intoxicants, one mesmerizing trip through Coexist is not fulfilling enough whenever The xx mood strikes me.
32. Jessie Baylin - Little Spark
Nashville songstress Jessie Baylin made one hell of a gem with Little Spark and its old-school tunes of shimmering, soulful pop and pristine arrangements. Her heart rings out through the proceedings as she channels Dusty in Memphis to thrilling effect. Little Spark is one of the most overlooked records of the year - hell, I overlooked it for the better part of 10 months - but the rewards are enduring once you take a chance on it.
31. Nick Waterhouse - Time’s All Gone
“If you don’t know singer, musician, producer and analog devotee Nick Waterhouse yet, you will soon. The 25 year-old product of Huntington Beach, CA turned heads at SXSW 2012 in March and released his debut album, Time’s All Gone, on May 1. The album is a fiercely confident, masterfully played and recorded work of a startlingly accomplished set of soul gems, equal parts Decca, Stax and Motown soul, Chess Records R&B, New Orleans brass and Chuck Berry attitude. Coming from a young man born in the late ’80s, the achievement of creating an album this intoxicating and infectiously grooving as Time’s All Gone provides a total shock to the system of “Who the Hell is this, and where did he come from?”
The answer to “Who the Hell is this?” is Nick Waterhouse, a meticulous 25 year-old Californian beach kid with an encyclopedic knowledge of 45 rpm one-off, came-and-went stars of generations ago, a wickedly precise ear for production and a band of reputable players in the likes of San Francisco garage-rock prodigy Ty Segall, members of Innovative Leisure’s The Allah-Lahs and a founding member of Earth, Wind & Fire. These individuals step up to the plate to fill out Waterhouse’s backing band, The Tarots, simply because his songs, style and playing are that damn good. The response to “Where did he come from?” is California, planted in a time-warp recording studio unaffected by the vast majority of popular sounds that have served as the waves of cultural influence the past several decades…
The fruitful gifts you unwrap when you put Time’s All Gone are the stuff of classic soul: delirious energy, flirtatious dancefloor come-ons, expert horn sections, girl-group soul backing vocals, an accomplished voice of a man three times Waterhouse’s age, early Stones guitar solos, snaking organ lines and a pressed, polished, signed, sealed and delivered chart-topping pre-Vietnam 45 rpm sound for every cut on the album. If you’re craving a masterwork of sexy soul, immensely enjoyable sweaty and old-school R&B songcraft, you’ve found your Doctor Robert. Put your faith in a young man delightfully out of step with the reality television age and the current Billboard charts. When you hear the album, you’ll know why Waterhouse was tapped by Booker T. to open for the legendary master of soul in spite of lacking a full-length release under his belt.
Dive into both the first exceptional soul and R&B release of 2012. Here’s to a bright future and a cult following for the young Nick Waterhouse.”
30. Allah-Las - Allah-Las
“On their self-titled debut album, Allah-Las, an exceptionally tight Los Angeles outfit brandishing unabashed adoration for Nuggets-era garage, the Paisley Underground, and all things distinctly Californian, deliver a superb collection of jangling, backward-leaning rock and roll songs that rattle the brain and get the body shaking like true classics. Every cut on Allah-Las brings a vicarious glory on first listen, whether of the fever of British Invasion blitz, kaleidoscopic Haight-Ashbury flower power, or riding crystal blue waves in the Southern California sun. The songs get more lived-in with every obsessive listen; soon enough, you’re assuming a rewritten history where Allah-Las had a string of late ‘60s #1s, and you know their iconic history from the vintage super 8 films to the tell-all bestsellers and their late-career resurgence as touring relics…
The sounds of Allah-Las are both distinctly un-2012 and timeless in their abilities to strike your ears as immaculately conceived and fresh today as they would have over the airwaves in 1967. Damn the times, the trends and naysayers. Snatch up Allah-Las before the trends of 2012 relegate them to the status of vinyl crate goldmines like their lost 45 heroes, where their analog recordings of impeccable garage melodies and grooves are prophesied to be sampled for years to come by all of the Pro Tools fiends and laptop DJs.”
29. Rain Over St. Ambrose - Truth For News
“…On Truth For News, the Yarmouth five-piece are relentless underdog heroes who serve up galvanizing swells of fist-pumping choruses full of ethos and deliver them with blistering fervor and boundless heart. Rain Over St. Ambrose are the very sort of band who could’ve escaped the limits of regional acclaim in a different age of FM popularity (say Minneapolis in the 80s, Seattle in the 90s), but, unfortunately, it may take near-miraculous fortune for a band this good to pull off such a coup in current times.
What distinguishes Rain Over St. Ambrose most on their debut album is the caliber of the songwriting, and a wealth of that acclaim has to rest with Cory Le Blanc. With a rousing band at his side, Le Blanc maximizes on the potential of his commanding, guttural howl and lyrics that strike like sharpened daggers. Le Blanc has no shortage of things to say on Truth for News, and the band’s chosen vehicle for his power is in classic verse-chorus-verse structure with urgent calls for crowd engagement. Though Rain Over St. Ambrose is primed for fans of The Gaslight Anthem and Titus Andronicus (not to mention The Hold Steady, The Replacements, and fellow Canadians Constantines), Le Blanc’s songwriting approach is more in-step with Brian Fallon’s rousing garage gems of the former than of Patrick Stickles’ rabidly virtuoso lyrical blitzkriegs that are the unmistakable DNA of Titus Andronicus’ anthems.
Rather than pummeling the lyric sheet with a proliferation piss and vinegar diatribes, Le Blanc fashions the songs into heat-seeking missiles that build up to singular lines or questions that read more like populist bumper stickers and achieve hard-hitting results on repeat listening. On opener “The Debate,” he rides the wave of guitars and a rollicking tempo to light the fuse in verses like ‘He could never win (That’s what they think to say) / Ignorance will only bring us down” before the song detonates with the brilliant chorus query of “This is the information age / Why are you not informed?…’
The closing chorus on Truth for News finds Rain Over St. Ambrose howling, “We still got a long way to go!” It’s a fitting statement from a young band ripping out the gates with a damn fine collection of songs. Give these excellent, young Nova Scotians a valid listen if you’re a fiend for straight-ahead rock and roll with a burning heart. Something tells me Rain Over St. Ambrose will keep writing songs of this caliber and continue playing them with restless passion whether ten people or a thousand are listening, but tunes like these truly succeed when they’re played in the midst of a crowd. Let’s hope a band as deserving as these guys wins such a following.”
28. Milks & Rectangles - Milks & Rectangles
(Milks & Rectangles)
“If you don’t know Milks & Rectangles (and, sadly, you probably don’t), they are a PEI four-piece with a love of rock and roll and play on a foundation supported on the pillars of The Strokes’ Is This It, Franz Ferdinand, Stephen Malkmus’ lyrical ingenuity, and Velvet Underground’s Loaded-era avant-pop. If you can see where all of those blur into the vast pool of influence that is The Kinks, then you can safely attribute a great deal of Milks & Rectangles’ excellence to a passion for the Davies brothers’ band, garage rock and classic pop melodies. One can only hope Americans and Brits will one day be wearing shirts scribbled with a slogan comparable to God Save Milks & Rectangles.
The band has released several EPs since their inception in 2006, and they have given them all away for free. Milks & Rectangles have done exactly that on their Bandcamp with their outstanding full-length, self-titled debut. Ledwell, a musician who works an immigration office day-job, has an English degree, holds a managing editor position, is a music columnist, and wrote a dense 212-page thesis that you can peruse on Amazon (titled Media Images and the Subversion of Conclusive Historical Narratives in Historical Metafictional Depictions of the Rosenberg Executions and the JFK Assassination), is the considerate, hard-working sort of guy who should succeed with whatever he does. Listen to Milks & Rectangles, and you’ll understand why he and his bandmates deserve to succeed in the music scene. It’s a shame the band’s excellent (and absolutely free!) debut album has been downloaded on the underside of 200 times. If there is justice for the talented and diligent, that will change soon…”
27. The Men - Open Your Heart
Simply put, The Men’s Open Your Heart is one of the definitive, badass rock & roll records of 2012. The Brooklyn rockers do exactly what their album’s titles commands, and they burn through every damn ounce gasoline in their tank and then light whatever remains on fire. Open Your Heart is an addictive conflagration to behold, and, as you’ll soon discover, a few listens is nowhere near enough.
26. Elliott BROOD - Days Into Years
“…A tour through Europe a year ago laid the foundation for what would inspire Elliott BROOD’s new album, Days Into Years. A chance visit to a World War I cemetery called out to them, and the site bred deep emotions in the Toronto guys, seeing firsthand the endless stream of deceased Canadian names, conjuring the stories and dreams of these generations-ago Canadian brethren that died far from home in a momentous time of violent unrest, spreading fascism and true heroism.
The backbone of the album’s inspiration ties acutely to the brand of music Elliott BROOD crafts. Their sound has been tagged as a “death country” gospel since their formation almost a decade ago. That moniker has earned a mixed bag of criticism over the years but was fed with the band’s penchant for distorting and processing acoustic guitars and banjos and incorporating them into their spirited live shows. The band describes their sound to be based in folk and country rock, steeped in a lot of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, along with influences in the likes of Wilco and Son Volt. They cite The Band as “the perfect example of a bunch of Canadian guys who put their spin on country.” Making music with pillars like those as their foundation, all the while crafting urgent folk songs with the desire to get loud and a passion for igniting a revival that will people moving, Elliott BROOD treads fertile musical soil and enriches it with their stories and harmonies.
Known for years as the Canadian trio in sharp suits with acoustic guitars strapped across their backs, Elliott BROOD chose to go electric for the first time on Days Into Years, and they achieved the desired effect of evolving their sound rather than losing their core. They recorded the album in a former army barracks in rural Ontario and kept close the emotions that stirred in them at that World War I cemetery in Europe…
Elliott BROOD write the kinds of songs that make you genuinely want to hang on every word. They craft verses with the unmistakable desire to make every word heard and every chorus sung out. Elliott BROOD wants you to know all the words to every song, feel alive in their stories and sing along with all of your heart when they come to town.”
25. First Aid Kit - The Lion’s Roar
“First Aid Kit, the duo comprised of young, Swedish sisters Johanna and Clara Söderberg, write magnificent folk gems of pastoral beauty and poignant storytelling all over their second album, The Lion’s Roar. Perhaps the album’s finest, indelible creation is the chorus on “Emmylou,” which also happens to be one of the best songs of 2012. With melodies like, “I’ll be your Emmylou, and I’ll be your June / if you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny, too / No, I’m not asking much of you / Just sing, little darling / Sing with me,” sung in perfect harmony, how could you possibly go wrong taking a chance on this album?”
24. Nude Beach - II
(Fat Possum / Other Music)
“I’ve had the Brooklyn-via-Long Island trio Nude Beach’s album II in heavy rotation with minimal reprieve of late. The signature garage sounds of Nude Beach (Ryan Naideau, Chuck Betz, and Jimmy Shelton) take full advantage of a timeless rock and roll spirit popularized by the true greats (and several of my all-time favorites): Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Big Star, and The Replacements.
Nude Beach excel at delivering blasts of treble-heavy, three-minute garage rock packed full of hooky choruses that are built to last. Hasn’t this done before? Of course. II makes zero claims that Nude Beach are reinventing anything or breaking virgin ground, and that’s perfectly fine with me.
Some things stand the test of time while everybody else digs into the trend of the month. For me, loud and spirited, quality rock tunes about men and women, the working life, and youthful dreams played to near perfection will forever be as classically cool as James Dean, Steve McQueen old-fashioned Westerns. Nude Beach’s II passionately revels in that spirit, and no-frills, endlessly playable songs like “Radio,” “Walkin’Down My Street,” and “Loser in the Game” beg to be blasted late at night in tiny clubs with beers in hand.”
23. Justin Townes Earle - Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
22. Delta Spirit - Delta Spirit
“A great deal has been made in the music press over the past few months preparing Delta Spirit fans for the changes in direction to expect on the band’s new album, Delta Spirit. Any of the true blue diehards (as presumably most everyone that has seen them play a club date in the last fistful of years has become) will be the first to tell you the band on Delta Spirit is undoubtedly Delta Spirit.
21. The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten
“The Gaslight Anthem (Brian Fallon, Alex Levine, Benny Horowitz, Alex Rosamilia) are New Jersey’s reigning, young rock and roll heroes, and the New Brunswick boys deserve every bit of that title. Of surprise to no one, The Gaslight Anthem are still indebted to the true luminary of New Jersey-bred American rock and roll, the untouchable Bruce Springsteen, on the band’s fourth album, Handwritten (their first album produced by Brendan O’Brien and their first on Mercury Records). Where others may find fault in this, I find incomparable taste and a formidable backbone. Once again, The Gaslight Anthem’s output is nothing short of exceptional.
Before I go deeper on my own, I’m going to ride the coattails of a much better writer and a fellow, full-blooded rock music lover, Nick Hornby (yes, that Nick Hornby, author of the quintessential rock and roll/breakup/existential dread novel, High Fidelity, About a Boy and Juliet, Naked fame). In April 2012, Hornby put pen on paper lauding the praises of The Gaslight Anthem in what would become the band’s liner notes for Handwritten (liner notes you’ll be a proud owner of upon physical purchase of the outstanding 11-song collection).
Hornby opens by saying, “It would be stupid to try and tell you that the music you’re listening to is like nothing you’ve ever heard before.” A line later he says, “Most (songs) are played on loud electric guitars, and there are drums, and to be honest, if you haven’t heard anything like this before, then you’re probably listening to the wrong band anyway.”
Like I said, cynics needn’t bother. Go listen to the hottest, fleeting Auto-tune hit of July 2012…
On “Handwritten,” Fallon sings, “we waited for the sirens that never come / And we only write by the moon / Every word handwritten / Let it out, let me in, take a hold of my hand / There’s nothing like another soul that’s been cut up the same.” Anybody that doesn’t understand those sentiments is unlikely to be moved much by The Gaslight Anthem doing everything they are doing best at this specific juncture in rock music. To return once more to Hornby’s insightful take on the band, he says, “Anyone who has ever been frustrated by anything – a girl, a boy, a job, a self (especially that) – can listen to this music and feel understood and energized…Songwriters who are not scared to go head-to-head with everyone else in rock’s great tradition. The Gaslight Anthem are my kind of people.” Leave it to a literate, music-loving Brit to say explain the greatness of one America’s best unsung bands. Chide if you must in an election year where an abundance of popular music is created by the unskilled or heartless, but the little bits of glory The Gaslight Anthem are etching on vinyl in descendent, handwritten poetry are just about as classically American as rock and roll gets these days.”
20. Bob Dylan - Tempest
Hardly any other figure in music holds a candle to the mythological persona of Bob Dylan. A luminary in the cultural landscape half a century, nobody would fault Dylan for cashing in with a simple, cute record free of any challenges in the listening experience; that’s what he did in bizarre fashion on his last record, the holiday collection Christmas in the Heart. Instead, Dylan threw his whole being into the utterly bleak songs of Tempest, and the result is yet another near-masterpiece that intrigues, confounds, and elates on every successive listen. How the man continues to amaze with such untouchable prowess and poetic dexterity after all of these years is a question of genius that only Bob Dylan can possibly answer.
19. Divine Fits - A Thing Called Divine Fits
“A Thing Called Divine Fits, much like the vast majority of the discographies of Spoon, Wolf Parade, and Handsome Furs, is an addictive, aural treasure. Songs like the single “Would That Not Be Nice” and “Flaggin’ a Ride” take full advantage of Daniel’s distinct brand of nuanced ear candy unleashed at full throttle, while efforts like “What Gets You Alone” and “Civilian Stripes” capitalize on Boeckner’s versatile gifts for howling away on full-fledged rockers and telling more restrained, compelling stories against synthesized soundscapes and slower tempos.
One of the greatest assets of Divine Fits is the band’s ability to co-opt the distinct voices and styles of the prestigious indie rock veterans and seamlessly blend them into a coherent work, both sounding original and fitting perfectly alongside the best work of any member’s catalog. Even with the ubiquity of supergroups in the recent music scene, the near-perfect convergence of styles and voices on A Thing Called Divine Fits is a feat bested by no one and, perhaps, only equaled by the pairing of Jack White, Alison Mosshart, Jack Lawrence and Dean Fertita as The Dead Weather. Considering how uneven or forced a supergroup record can be (i.e. Superheavy, Chickenfoot, Velvet Revolver, Tinted Windows, Smoke & Jackal), A Thing Called Divine Fits transcends every doubt by joining the ranks of The Dead Weather’s Horehound and Sea of Cowards, Them Crooked Vultures‘ S/T, Diamond Rugs’ S/T, and Middle Brother’s S/T as one of the rare offerings that can stand alone as a superior work irrespective of each member’s history…”
18. Lord Huron - Lonesome Dreams
“Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams is quite possibly the most fully realized, full-length debut record released this year. Its highs come organically - in touch with the truest, most heartfelt emotions of man, and they are delivered with pristine beauty and an emphasis on the glory of nature. Lord Huron have an uncommon talent for creating songs that offer the very essence of what it is to be human – embracing wonder, finding love, fighting death, cherishing honor –while granting them an almost heroic beauty extracted from the mountains, valleys, forests, deserts and lakes that have blessed mankind with their beauty for ages.
A rich debut as rewarding as Lonesome Dreams doesn’t just spontaneously originate. There is always a backstory (i.e. Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago), although Lord Huron don’t seem to be particularly interested in presenting such a narrative at the moment…
that coveted debut is in my possession, and Lonesome Dreams answers all of that searching with ten superior songs of yearning and wonder brought to life with alluring hooks and pastoral, stirring arrangements. Schneider is an unapologetic seeker, and the themes at the heart of Lonesome Dreams cherish that romantic wanderlust and steep it in companionship, nature, beauty and mortality...
Standing up to everybody who tells you that you’re in love with the wrong person and that you should move on takes guts. Facing all of them head-on and telling them they don’t rightfully know the answer is heroic (if often misinformed or naïve). Being adamant for the long haul and citing the wonder of nature as your reasoning takes an altogether different kind of heroism. However, fashioning all of those deeply human emotions into an examination of the heart and the nature beyond our doors is Lord Huron’s greatest and most necessary achievement; that Lord Huron has imprinted that life-altering journey into glorious songs full of soaring harmonies and evocative arrangements the first time out of the gates is astounding. Such is a winning formula is hard to imagine growing old or lacking in power. If the ten phenomenal songs that comprise Lonesome Dreams draw chart an accurate blueprint for the voyage ahead, Lord Huron should be lighting necessary fires in our hearts and turning our eyes to the skies for years to come.”
17. Cody ChesnuTT - Landing On A Hundred
“‘Since my birth, I’ve been the greatest attraction on the Earth.’ Presumably, those aren’t the first words that come to mind when you are consider a man who has been removed from the limelight for an entire decade. It’s impossible not to classify a line like that as grossly hyperbolic, but on Landing On A Hundred, modern soul troubadour Cody ChesnuTT embraces the spirit of the greats to make bold strides in favor of such a heady claim, rather than just a forgotten talent with a new record. On his new album, the world will remember (or discover) that ChesnuTT is a magnificent, genuine artist with a hell of a lot of meaningful things to say and a stunning voice to do the talking.
Let’s be clear up front: Landing On A Hundred is a mighty fine, urgent album with all the feeling of a true classic. Over twelve songs, ChesnuTT makes an effort reminiscent of and worthy of true icons like Curtis Mayfield, Fela Kuti, Al Green and Marvin Gaye. You can’t help but realize making such an album is ChesnuTT’s sole intention ten year’s after his ballsy, frequently outstanding double-album opus, The Headphone Masterpiece. He has taken it upon himself to create a music with definitive, human soul in the face of a music scene he believes is starving for it. The Atlanta native, who is now in his forties and a father of two, and his ten-piece band took to Al Green’s old Royal Studios in Memphis to record an album that could stand up to the legacies of soul forefathers in an age where too much of what is popular is moving so far away from such a sound. The resulting songs are thrillingly alive and deeply satisfying…
A decade has come and gone since Cody ChesnuTT splashed on the scene with The Headphone Masterpiece. The only material we’ve seen from him during those years was a 2006 live album and his Black Skin No Value EP in 2010. After mounting a Kickstarter campaign to get Landing On A Hundred off the ground, fans rallied around the urgent voice of this true artist to restore faith in his brand of heartfelt, necessary soul. After raising $20,000 to get the album released, ChesnuTT goes above and beyond to provide an astounding return on his fan’s investment with the twelve masterful songs of Landing On A Hundred.
ChesnuTT explains the name of the album as “Landing on something truthful. Landing on something purposeful…something meaningful.” With those words as his guiding purpose on the album, Cody ChesnuTT delivers the goods to maximum effect. This album has been a long time coming, but the patience of his faithful fans has not been in vain. Not only is Landing On A Hundred arguably the finest, most necessary soul record to be released in years, it’s also one of the best albums of 2012. The record is a thing of beauty, and we should all consider ourselves blessed to have Cody ChesnuTT back.”
16. Stars - The North
“Stars, the Montreal five-piece of genuine heartbreak royalty, sound decidedly invigorated and joyous on their sixth album, The North. Thankfully, they refueled without sacrificing the doe-eyed wonder, aching introspection and lovelorn chronicling that amounted to an essential voice to so many fans for more than a decade.
The album (fairly unsurprisingly) opens with crackling and the ringing of a harbor bell as a lone voice states, “Well, the only way I see this happening is, uh, in an extended ride (pause) north.” Within seconds, the electronic rhythm kicks in and gives way to a blanket of glitzy synth, and the positively jubilant confection of “The Theory of Relativity” takes a giddy stronghold on every facet of your being. It’s one of the outright gems on an album delightfully full of strong songs; But, most importantly, it puts Stars’ welcome stamp of rejuvenation and ability to transport the listener to somewhere other than he is right of the outset.
Torq Campbell takes the reins of the verses on “The Theory of Relativity,” and he makes it obvious up front that he’s packing a sharp wit with and a light-hearted touch to balance out his tried-and-true leanings of anguish and theatricality. In the first verse, Campbell bluntly says, “Now that you’ve grown so wise / Use that head and stop to think a little / Just ‘cause you’re crazy doesn’t mean that you’re free.” He reminisces about being “a total devastator” in “lame grade ten,” laments that it can’t be ’93 forever, and calls for “a warm ovation for the dude who sold us ecstasy / he’s building homes now in the new third world.” It’s a deeply rewarding and addictive pop song with heart, wit, and a soaring melody, and it’s a prime example of the heights Stars take the listener away to with their strongest work…
Over the course of twelve songs and a fully rewarding 44-minute running time, Stars sound fresher and more vital than they have in years. Stars’ compositions have always aspired to be equal parts enjoyment, enrichment, and drama. On The North, the delicious, stirring cocktails are the richest, most satisfying concoctions the north-of-the-border bartenders have served up since Set Yourself on Fire. Only time will tell if The North legitimately stands as Stars’ finest hour, but it’s evident right off the bat that this collection will forever hang around the top shelf.”
15. Bahamas - Barchords
“Bahamas is the musical moniker of Afie Jurvanen, an Ontario songwriter and musician who spent the past few years playing piano and guitar alongside Feist. His gorgeous 2012 sophomore album, Barchords, is a 12-song, front-to-back knockout of poignant compositions filled with heartwarming melodies and heartache ballads. Barchords received deserving acclaim with Juno and Polaris Prize nominations, cementing its status as one of the finest Canadian releases of the year. Bahamas is a genuine artist worth cherishing, and Barchords is an album that has been in heavy rotation in my home all year long. I consider myself blessed for owning the record, and I have little doubt I’ll be enjoying its wonders for years to come.”
14. Grizzly Bear - Shields
How does Grizzly Bear follow up an album as arresting and brilliant as Veckatimest? They stand tall in the face of the pressures and expectations, and create a record as sublime, dense, and immensely engaging as any work that preceded it. Shields finds the esteemed Brooklyn foursome inhabiting a sonic landscape towering above all of their peers, and, as always, the proof is written right into these ten songs of unnerving artistry.
13. Father John Misty - Fear Fun
J. Tillman left Fleet Foxes, adopted a wild new moniker, and incorporated a fresh atmosphere of dark, carnivalesque wonder into his trusted brand of folk to carve out one of the strongest albums of 2012. Songs like “Funtimes in Babylon,” “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” “I’m Writing a Novel,” “Only Son of the Ladiesman,” and “Everyman Needs a Companion” present an astoundingly gifted lyricist and artist at the zenith of his powers, and they compound to make Fear Fun one the finest lyrical compositions of the year.
12. Gentleman Jesse - Leaving Atlanta
“Rock & roll torchbearer Gentleman Jesse has triumphantly returned with Leaving Atlanta, a blazing fireball set of thirteen blistering tunes chocked full of swagger, boogie, earworm hooks and immensely winning garage-pop confection.
This time around Jesse has dropped the & His Men moniker, but no confidence or musicianship was lost in the name change. Leaving Atlanta fires on all cylinders with brassy self-assurance equal to, or perhaps more than, 2008’s outstanding self-titled debut. The sort of high you get listening to a Gentleman Jesse album is the best kind: all the boozy energy, wild nights and made memories without any semblance of regret or hangover. Those years spent tearing you Gentleman Jesse & His Men and these weeks queueing up Leaving Atlanta can leave you blissfully dumbfounded at the audacity of this guy to come seemingly from nowhere knocking out song after song that’s on par with the absolute greats of the ’60s and ’70s. Before the handwringing starts, know right up front Gentleman Jesse is no simple revivalist. Jesse Smith writes and plays these songs like his DNA is coded in vinyl and melodies. He’s not rehashing decades-old 45s; he’s living them.
Legend has it Jesse has been through hell and back since all the promise and perfection of that debut album. He named the new album Leaving Atlanta as both an ode and a stab at his hometown...
Over the years, every time I’ve listened to Gentleman Jesse, I can’t help but scratch my skull in wonder of why more bands don’t tread a similar path. Maybe they all want to reinvent the music wheel, appear academic, hip, avant-garde, unclassifiable or mysterious. Whatever the reasons they decide to do their thing and not the thing Gentleman Jesse does could hardly mean less to me; they wouldn’t do it nearly as loud, addictively and magnificently as Gentleman Jesse does. After two listens, I tweeted that listening to Leaving Atlanta restored my belief that Gentleman Jesse is the most underrated rock & roll man in America. God only knows what kind of praise I’ll throw his way after my 100th listen, which given the pop perfection of the album, may only be weeks away. Here’s to Gentleman Jesse and his new collection of essential rock & roll songs primed to be your new favorite album, your go-to jukebox head-turners and your most delightfully enslaving obsession should you take a chance on him.”
11. Diamond Rugs - Diamond Rugs
“Surgeon General’s Warning: The music of Diamond Rugs is a potentially addictive substance and may be harmful to your health. Consult your doctor before playing.
That warning doesn’t actually grace the packaging of Diamond Rugs’ self-titled debut, but it sure as hell couldif you’re the type to take songs to heart and pursue their joys with abandon. If that’s not you, why the hell are you listening to rock and roll anyway? Like many of the best things life has to offer, reckless enjoyment just may take years off your life; screw all the worrying though, if you’re after a life worth living.
Diamond Rugs’ debut is a hard grooving, rowdy, rock and roll treasure with played with balls-to-the-wall, drunken energy from a deceptively tight, hardworking band. Whether done by icons like the late-‘60s Stones, The Replacements, or Guided By Voices, rock and roll will always need wild, damn good bands to give it a kick in the ass thanks to youthful, hedonistic spirit and careless jumps off the wagon time and again. The bands that do this best have the power to renew your vows to rock and roll. They’re the guys who have you buying the entire bar a round after filling the juke with your hard-earned wages, blasting their party tunes for the uninitiated. On that note, cheers to Diamond Rugs, the new, reigning princes of fun, loud and dirty heartbreak-and-booze glory…
The short of Diamond Rugs is it’s the sound of a versatile rock and roll band at the top of its game playing loud, rambunctious songs about women and beer that are every bit as timeless as like-minded songs done by the band’s heroes. It’s one of my favorite albums of the year, and it hasn’t been out of heavy rotation since I got it. Diamond Rugs is a killer rock and roll record without an expiration date, and it will be one of the best and most enduring records released in all of 2012.”
10. Sharon Van Etten - Tramp
Following up a record as subtly tremendous as Epic is a formidable challenge to say the least, but Sharon Van Etten rose to the occasion on Tramp with 12 songs of devastating beauty that beg for compulsive listening. Van Etten possesses not just one of the most powerful voices to come around in ages, but she also wields a pen that magnificently cuts to the heart of true sorrow. The National’s Aaron Dessner oversees the production to poignant effect, and the parade of esteemed collaborators including The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, Julianna Barwick, Zach Condon, Thomas Bartlett, and Dessner adds no shortage of riches to Tramp’s heartbreaking sound.
9. Dr. Dog - Be The Void
“How goddamn refreshing is it to have a band around that plays rock & roll with their own instruments, crafts gloriously melodic harmonies, equally witty and ruminative lyrics, genuinely has a blast playing music with each other and in front of fans, and puts out joyous, catchy nuggets without ever seeming to try too hard to chase trends, land commercial spots or go ubiquitously viral? Dr. Dog has accomplished just that for the entirety of the past decade and continue to do so yet again with Be the Void, the band’s seventh album in eleven years. Even after the artistic and melodic excellence all over We All Belong, Fate, and Shame, Shame, the Philly boys have granted the world their finest hour with Be the Void. It is yet another deceptively complex blitz of deliriously engaging and fun rock & roll, twelve consecutive undeniable radio-ready bursts of vitality and sunshine. Unfortunately for their wallets, these songs are unlikely to go viral, soundtrack flash mobs or find their way into a Girl Talk mashup. These songs are radio-ready in the same sense that damn near every song Ray Davies penned with The Kinks was radio-ready. Be the Void is chock full of the hooks that will ignite in your brain hours after hearing them. They are songs with the pop, bite and beauty to live far beyond an iPod commercial spot or a simple one-time Spotify listen and shelve for another time. Dr. Dog is a band to rally behind, see live and cheer on as comrades, not as iconic, bigger than life stars; it’s likely they’ll never reach such an elevated stature, and though it’s a damn shame, shame, they don’t seem all that disappointed…
‘There’s a certain drunkenness to their music that I usually find unappealing in other bands, but it’s contagious the way they do it.’
8. Robert Francis - Strangers In The First Place
“It’s a hell of a mistake to try to pigeonhole Robert Francis into an easy classification. The man works a lifetime of influences into his beautiful Laurel Canyonesque brand of alternately sepia-toned and polychromatic singer-songwriter rock. His songs are never indistinguishable, the versatility of genres always suits the song at hand, and his sound is always equally fitting for after-midnight bonfires and cross-country treks. His new album, Strangers in the First Place, finds Francis excavating the caverns of his soul in order to craft a resplendent love letter to his Los Angeles home and the life he has come to know. The end result are twelve masterful songs that add up to one of the most flawless records in recent memory by one of the best young songwriters and voices in music today.
I bet on an educated guess Robert Francis could be right up my wheelhouse when I bought his second album, Before Nightfall, on a whim in late 2009 without having heard a song. Almost instantly, I was calling it my new Heartbreaker (referencing the Ryan Adams masterpiece from 2000 that had been as essential as oxygen to me for a full decade). I was obsessed with the album – its foundation, influences, heart and storytelling. I found a kindred spirit and a hell of a musician, and my obsession amplified months later when I witnessed Francis and his band put on arguably my favorite live set of the year (out of the hundred or so I saw) in 2010 while I was living in “The Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin, TX. Within a few short weeks, my obsession with Strangers in the First Place has already bested my enthusiasm for Before Nightfall.
Strangers in the First Place is Francis’s third album and his first on Vanguard Records. If you’re a Robert Francis novice, picture a more rustic Jeff Buckley, who just so happened to be the first guitar student of John Frusciante and the protégé of Ry Cooder, as he conjures songs of love and love lost that paint every shade of California. Picture him scrawling lyrics upon backs of postcards documenting landscapes up and down the 405 and 101, marrying the lyricism of Jackson Browne with Dylan, and then singing with a powerhouse voice that can floor you like a late-70’s-Springsteen chorus.
Going into Strangers in the First Place, Francis set out to “capture the feeling of expansiveness that lies at the heart of Los Angeles,” his beloved hometown. For the first time in his career, Francis started the writing process with the lyrics. He wrote lyrics with the poetry of W.H. Auden, Stanley Kunitz and Conrad Aiken as inspiration and waited “for melodies that would rhythmically fit with them.” He then came up with the melodies for the album while taking road trips up the California coast in silence and with his dog as a companion. Francis let the sounds that flooded his head on those jaunts become the sonic landscape to color the stories and poetry he had put on paper, and it shows. No ounce of emotional depth or imagery was lost in the translation…
The magnificent group of songs sequenced as the homestretch of that journey (“I Sail Ships,” “The Closest Exit,” “Wild Thing,” and “Dangerous Neighborhood”) proves to be a collection of the most devastating and enriching songs you will hear this, or any, year. “Dangerous Neighborhood” is the luminous emotional and musical climax of an album stocked to capacity soaring moments. Francis opens the final song with the line, “I, I’m gonna make a masterpiece,” and with those words, he foretells his achievement of Strangers in the First Place. From that blunt admission of hope, Francis takes us on a powerful journey to the depths of his longing heart and spinning brain, singing, “my mind is a dangerous neighborhood,” all the while the band musically cruises the open road, dips into canyons, climbs picturesque mountains and then makes the triumphant return trek home. What awaits Francis (and us) at the end of the journey is a world the same as we left it, but all of us will have grown, evolved and fallen far more in love with the world and the people around us than we were in the moments before we dropped the needle on the record.”
7. Beach House - Bloom
“Beach House come straight out of the gate on Bloom with the same bold maneuver they dropped on team Teen Dream: they come out swinging with one of the best songs of the year in “Myth.” The Baltimore duo make legitimate cases for song of the year at least a half dozen times on their fourth album with the most intoxicating songs you’re likely to find in the genre.
The sure-handed orchestration and delivery unfurl into lush transcendence with such elegance and confidence that Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have raised the bar in dream-pop magnificence yet again. This is a band with an unflinching sure hand in its strokes, making minutely intimate and immensely majestic songcraft full of passion and carved out of love, heartache and emotional vulnerabilities. Beach House adds layer upon layer with increasingly ethereal flourishes like a dream-pop version of a Russian matryoshka doll in reverse. Victoria Legrand’s spellbinding vocals are at the center of every Bloom knockout “Myth” to “Wild” to “Lazuli - hell, those are the first three songs on Bloom, and the fact that this album isn’t just front-loaded, it’s a first minute to last minute full-on knockout is a testament to Beach House’s preeminence in the indie pop landscape.
Beach House’s penchant for creating maximum bliss so consistently with a voice and collection of instruments (and the occasional beach recording of seagulls for good measure) is astounding. By the time the glorious lead lines hook you on “Hours” near Bloom’s midway point, I’ll bet a month’s rent you’ll have fallen helplessly for Bloom…
With Bloom, they have created a new career best and an album certain to be one of the best of 2012.
Rarely is there a sure thing when it comes to your money and time, but Bloom by Beach House is a sure thing.”
6. 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
If the heralded return of Fiona Apple wasn’t beguiling enough at the outset with a 23-word poem for a title, one listen to The Idler Wheel… had me singularly enraptured once again in her world of scorn, venom, and impossible beauty. I’m still helpless in trying to determine if the album’s greatest asset is Fiona’s exquisite vocals, her peerless excavations of a tortured, lovesick heart in her songwriting, or the genius production flourishes courtesy of herself and musical partner Charlie Drayton. Whatever the reason, The Idler Wheel… is a truly commanding listening experience and one of the best albums of 2012.
5. Cat Power - Sun
“On Sun, the ninth studio album of Cat Power’s esteemed recording career and first in more than four years, Chan Marshall takes a bold singular vision, a ferocious propensity to make strong music on her terms, a heart burst wide open, and a wealth of damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don’t risks executed with consummate grace and an uncanny ear for what unequivocally works.”
“…Every part of Marshall’s being bleeds from every nook, cranny and wondrous sound of Sun’s eleven accomplished songs. Chan wrote every word, played every instrument, engineered all but “three small beats,” and self-produced the entirety of Sun. It’s a wholly singular work brought to life with passionate urgency and feels miraculously distant from belabored for having been a project of love and strife for the majority of six years.”
“…What suits Chan most of all though is her coup de grâce of a chorus: ‘peace and love was a famous generation / I may be a lover, but I’m in it to win it.’
Those are the sort of words a stubborn, brilliant woman says after she’s second-guessed, written off and told she needs a producer. Sometimes, that woman triumphantly resurrects herself, towers above the masses and achieves greatness. That’s precisely what Cat Power has done with Sun. She has kissed off the naysayers, dug deep, and bashed out one of the best records in recent memory on the strength of her own laurels.
Take a bow, Chan. You’re winning it.”
4. Titus Andronicus - Local Business
Patrick Stickles and his fellow Jersey punks of Titus Andronicus step up to the plate in the shadow of their 2010 masterpiece The Monitor to knock out another 400-plus-footer of vital, challenging, and, most importantly, fun rock and roll filled with Stickles’ literate blitzkrieg of barbed-tongue wit, heartache, righteous anger, and goofy abandon (“Food Fight,” “(I Am The) Electric Man”). Precious few songwriters today have the urge, balls, or smarts to rip through verses half as brilliant as the ones Stickles delivers on even his above average songs, but no one can touch the dazzling array he brings to the liner notes of “Ecce Homo,” “Still Life Hot Deuce on Silver Platter,” and “My Eating Disorder.” That the rest of Titus have his back with an instrumental arsenal that sounds like the spawn of The Clash, Thin Lizzy, & The E Street Band just vacuum seals his lyrical genius in songs ready for incessant admiration.
3. Zeus - Busting Visions
(Arts & Crafts)
Busting Visions is my pick for most unsung/underrated album of 2012.
“Their sophomore album is a fourteen-song stunner stuffed with the sorts of enthralling rock gems that consistently thrill on every level. Zeus are a band who embrace the riches of past giants (The Beatles, Queen, Led Zeppelin) and pay homage to those bands’ storied legacies while crafting original tunes of pop perfection on the strength of layered anthems brought to vivid life on the strength of soaring three-part harmonies…Busting Visions is nothing short of a rock and roll manifesto from one of today’s best bands delivering a grossly underrated collection of songs that live up to The White Album scale of versatility and songcraft Zeus have damn near perfected.”
2. Japandroids - Celebration Rock
“Celebration Rock is a hot-blooded, vital and blistering rock and roll triumph with the pedal to the floor and a full tank of gas. From opening seconds to closing seconds, where the sonic glory of fireworks blasts thunder and then crackle to bookend the album, Celebration Rock is a yearning, howling, rejoicing beast of old-school romance, youthful indiscretions and don’t-give-a-fuck attitude.”
“Japandroids aim for rock and roll glory with those landmarks as they’re foundation, and they succeed on every level. The impetus in creating Celebration Rock was the desire to offer up an album of urgent, wide-eyed, body-shaking rock and roll songs, and the effort has amounted to an album towering in the ranks of favorite bands you have come to love wholeheartedly, the ones that you play on every occasion to remind yourself how to have fun and be your best self.
Final verdict: Celebration Rock – Play loud! Shout out! Repeat!”
1. The Walkmen - Heaven
(Fat Possum / Bella Union)
“…It’s a heartbreaking rumination that Hamilton and The Walkmen craft better than anybody in 21st Century indie rock, and it ends Heaven in emblematic, somber fashion.
If you are new to The Walkmen or an irresolute fan, odds are Heaven won’t grab you by the throat on first listen and make you a believer. If you let this gem slide that easily, it will be a damn shame. Even though the boys are now ten years in, they have a boundless cache of arresting songs and first-rate arrangements left in the tank. Heaven is the best album of The Walkmen’s career; don’t be startled when the consensus deems it cream of the crop on the obligatory, year-ending “Best of 2012” lists.”