Top Ten Albums of 2012

As the end of the year draws nigh, I, like so many other self-important know-it-alls, stoop to bequeath you, the audience, with my illuminating and elucidating best-of list for the year 2012. First, the also-rans.

Honorable Mentions

1. The Gaslight Anthem, Handwritten: Back when I first reviewed the album, I wasn’t all that impressed with it, and that hasn’t really changed. Not bad, but not up to the level of expectations I had after the one-two punch of The 59 Sound and American Slang.

2. Calexico, Algeria: A good album, but it didn’t really do much to grab my attention or work in a vein outside of what this band’s been doing for awhile now.

3. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill: It’s classic-sounding Neil Young & Crazy Horse. If that’s something you don’t feel you have enough of in your life, it’ll definitely fill that hole, but it doesn’t do anything we haven’t heard from these guys over the past about 40 years.

4. JD McPherson, Signs and Signifiers: Okie musician doing ’50s rockabilly/R&B/swing. Good stuff, even if it feels a little too pastiche-y.

5. Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits: Britt Daniel could’ve just done another Spoon album. No one would’ve been able to tell the difference.

And now, on to the main event!

10. The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter: A much stronger effort than their previous, I and Love and You, with better songs and fewer fussy details. There don’t seem to be as many harmonies, though, which I find sad, and this particular record still fall short of their best effort (Emotionalism, for those keeping score at home).

9. First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar: Scandanavian (barely out of their?) teens doing Americana and doing it right? Yes, please. “Emmylou” is gorgeous and heartfelt, and the title track is just one of the best damn songs I’ve heard all year.

8. Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal: “Little Talks” has been stuck in my head since sometime last year, and it hasn’t gone away. The rest of the album may not be quite as good, but it’s still pretty damn good. Plus, the lead guy in the band is a chubby man with a beard, which gives me hope of one day being a rock star myself.

7. Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre is Evil: The album crowdsourced funding made possible, this ode to everything ’80s is pretty damn catchy. Palmer sounds like she’s having fun fronting a full band, and the GTO rise to the occasion. I do rather miss the old Dresden Dolls days, though.

6. Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, Volume 3: A bit of a cheat, as this is sort of a “leftovers from the first two volumes” deal with less-developed songs from the Woody Guthrie lyrics with Bragg and Wilco tunes collections. There are still some great songs here, though, especially in Wilco’s offerings (“When the Roses Bloom Again” and “The Jolly Banker” are two of the best songs to come out of the Mermaid Avenue project, if you ask me).

5. AC Newman, Shut Down the Streets: A rather more somber album than we’ve come to expect from the power-pop wunderkind, but a compelling set nonetheless. It’s not anything particularly different from what he’s done on previous albums, but why fix what ain’t broken?

4. Bob Dylan, Tempest: I know, I know, a Bob Dylan album only ranking 4th for the year? Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse. But Tempest just didn’t really do enough new that I felt it deserved a higher spot. It’s good and all, but it didn’t really wow me. The best I can say about it is that it’s new Dylan songs, and they’re pretty good, but they’re nothing we haven’t really heard before.

3. John Fullbright, From the Ground Up: Another Okie, this one a widely-proclaimed “next Dylan.” Or maybe a “next Woody Guthrie,” as Guthrie is an obvious touchstone for the young man’s work (they’re both from the tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Okemah, where my own father grew up and I spent many childhood summers). As I mentioned back when this album came out, it sounds exactly like what I thought Fullbright would sound like with a full band, and that was a good thing indeed. The good songs on here are great, and the songs I didn’t care for were still pretty good, just not to my taste.

2. The Wallflowers, Glad All Over: A surprisingly fantastic album from the younger Dylan and his crack team of cohorts. Glad All Over featured several of my favorite songs all year, the best of which was “Misfits and Lovers.” It’s got a bit of the Clash to it, and there’s a nice change in the style from the Wallflowers’ earlier sound while maintaining some continuity. Good stuff.

1. Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself and Hands of Glory: Yeah, they’re two separate releases, and they really don’t share a theme or sound or anything, but they’re both fantastic and this is my list and shut up. Break it Yourself continues Bird’s streak of creating brainy, esoteric chamber pop that incorporates all sorts of different styles and sounds. His use of the violin becomes less and less about traditional playing and more about seeing what sorts of interesting sounds you can get out of the instrument. Hands of Glory feels like a spare, country companion to the world music-esque Break it Yourself. “Three White Horses” is probably my favorite song of the year. The changing tempos and shifting dynamics make it an inventive, enjoyable song.

Those were the ones I dug this year. What grabbed your interest?

Hard-Boiled: The Playlist

When I’m doing most of the things I do, such as writing, I tend to also listen to music. Music’s always been pretty important for me, and I find it difficult to concentrate when I’m doing certain tasks without music. TV just doesn’t cut it: I get too distracted, want to watch what’s going on.

With that in mind, here’s a playlist I put together a week or two ago to write my novel to. The songs have absolutely nothing to do with the actual novel or its themes or anything, just a loose collection of songs I’m enjoying at the moment.

1. The Cranberries, “Linger”: Who doesn’t love ’90s Lilith Fair fare?

2. Bob Dylan, “Paths of Victory”: This piano-based tune feels as much like a Woody Guthrie tune as anything Dylan ever wrote.

3. Paul McCartney, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”: I myself have brown eyes and am a man. Draw your own conclusions.

4. Willie Nelson, “City of New Orleans”: Who doesn’t love train songs, especially from the point of view of the train?

5. Andrew Bird, “Three White Horses”: One of the best songs off the recent Hands of Glory EP, this is just a fantastic tune in a style rather different from Bird’s usual sound.

6. Woody Guthrie, “Dust Pneumonia Blues”: I just watched Ken Burns’s Dust Bowl documentary last week, and the use of Woody Guthrie songs in that got me in a Woody mood.

7. Lodger, “The Good Old Days”: Classicist Brit-pop? Yes, please.

8. Mark Knopfler, “Don’t Crash the Ambulance”: Humorous song about the passing of the torch of the presidency to the next guy? With Mark Knopfler’s baritone drawl and beautiful Strat fills? What’s not to like here?

9. Allison Krauss & Union Station, “Restless”: I feel this way when I write sometimes, so it seemed appropriate.

10. The Temptations, “Papa was a Rolling Stone”: I think it’s that saxophone part that does it for me.

11. Panic! At the Disco, “Nine in the Afternoon”: Don’t you dare judge me.

12. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “It’ll All Work Out”: I love the mandolin in this one. It’s one of the prettier Heartbreakers tunes.

13. Calexico, “Ocean of Noise”: Calexico putting their indie-mariachi spin on one of the best songs from Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. Brilliant.

14. Miles Davis, “It Never Entered My Mind”: My favorite Miles Davis song, from the criminally-underrated Workin’ album. Just absolutely amazing stuff.

Top Ten Albums of 2011

I am, as anyone who has spent ten minutes talking with me knows, a bit obsessed with music (also, comic books, but that’s a totally different post). I try to keep up with new stuff, but there’s always just so much coming out, and all the old stuff I’m discovering that I hadn’t heard before, and all the other stuff I had heard before but really liked and wanted to hear again and again…it’s tough to keep up. That being said, there were a couple of albums I just did not get to this year that I really wanted to listen to. Stuff like They Might Be Giants’ Join Us, Calexico’s Selections from Road Atlas (1998-2011), or Deer Tick’s Divine Providence. I’ll get to them eventually, especially now that we’re in that dead time of new music releases that is the post-holiday time, but in the meantime, here’s the stuff I really liked this year.

Honorable Mentions (things I listened to and rather enjoyed, if not enough to really gush about):

William Elliott Whitmore, Field Songs: A pretty solid album, though not as engaging as Ashes to Dust (still my favorite of his).

Cake, Showroom of Compassion: It’s kinda nice to see these guys, fifteen years later, still doing their thing their own way. Sure, John McCrea might actually almost sing once in awhile now, and there’s occasionally no irony in his delivery, but it’s pretty much the same as it ever was, and what it was wasn’t broken.

Tom Waits, Bad As Me: A new Tom Waits album is always welcome, and this one hit some pretty sweet spots, but it just didn’t have the oomph that I wanted it to have. There really wasn’t a standout track for me, which is probably why it didn’t make my top ten.

The Submarines, Love Notes/Letter Bombs: These songs feel like they were custom-made for iPod commercials. Take from that what you will.

Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive: A solid outing from Earle, the only tragedy being that the standard version of this album does not include his cover of the title track, a wonderful rendition of the old Hank Williams tune.

Radiohead, The King of Limbs: I think somewhere along the way, Radiohead and I headed off in different musical directions. I’m not sure which of us went wrong, but I’m not sure I really want to follow where they’re going anymore. Didn’t they used to play guitars and stuff?

R.E.M., Collapse Into Now: The final album from these guys isn’t too shabby, but it’s not really anything spectacular. Not a whimper, not a bang, but somewhere in-between.

The Top Ten (the albums I couldn’t stop listening to):

10. Old 97’s, The Grand Theatre, Volume 2: Picking up where last year’s The Grand Theatre, Volume 1, left off, this finds the band in fine form, cranking out poppier songs than were found on the first disc. You can hear them having fun with their music, which is always appreciated.

9. The Black Keys, El Camino: This picks up right were Brothers left off, sonically. They’re mixing in more old-school soul and whatnot with their standard minimalist blues, and it really adds some depth to the sound. It’s highs aren’t as high as on Brothers, but it’s a leaner record without a lot of the filler that weighed down the middle part of the earlier record.

8. Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots: I mentioned the song “Everybody Needs Love” from this album in my iPod list yesterday, but honestly the rest of the album is pretty damn solid, too. These guys (and gal) are great storytellers in the Johhny Cash/Merle Haggard tradition, crafting sagas of hard liquor, harder luck, and infidelity that has all of the disturbing allure and attraction of a massive accident on the side of the highway.

7. Jonathan Coulton, Artificial Heart: I hadn’t really heard of this guy, then discovered he was responsible for the hilarious and whimsical song at the end of the game Portal. I decided to check this album out, and feel I’ve been deeply rewarded for doing so. His songwriting is top-notch, and this album would be worth it for “The Stache” alone, his paean to fuzzy upper lips.

6. Okkervil River, I Am Very Far: These guys become more awesome with each album. I still find it entertaining that “White Shadow Waltz” is not, as one would expect, in 3/4 time. Also, drums are used almost as punctuation in these songs, sharp cracks that accent the rest of the music and the convoluted lyrics perfectly.

5. Wilco, The Whole Love: This sounds like the album Wilco has been trying to make since A Ghost is Born. There’s a little something for everyone here: “Born Alone” could have fit in alongside anything on Summerteeth or Ghost, oddly enough, while “Dawned On Me” sounds like a Ghost outtake. “The Whole Love” itself is a distillation of everything the band is right now, a mission statement along the lines of “Wilco (The Song),” only even better.

4. 8in8, NightyNight: It was an ambitious if slightly ridiculous premise: get four like-minded souls in a recording studio for 8 hours to write and record 8 brand-new songs on the fly. The final product may have fallen short of that goal (only six songs in something like 10 hours, when it was all said and done), but the music they created was fun, whimsical, and more than a little emotionally engaging. Besides, it features Neil Gaiman singing a song about Joan of Arc wandering around a park in London in the modern day, and what’s not to love about that?

3. Beirut, The Rip Tide: The is the most streamlined album Beirut’s done, and it still features so much accordion and brass that it’s not even funny. It is, however, fantastic: I remain in constant awe about how this band creates such depth in the music. It’s almost operatic in places, but not pretentious or overwrought. It’s a nifty trick to pull off, and The Rip Tide walks the tightrope perfectly.

2. Portugal. The Man, In the Mountain in the Cloud: Oddly enough, I found out about these guys while sitting in a community college cafeteria over the summer. Regardless of how I discovered them, they sound like what would happen if the Flaming Lips started an Oasis cover band, and there’s nothing about that sentence that isn’t brilliant.

1. The Decemberists, The King is Dead: This may be the least-unified album thematically by the band in many years, but it makes up for that by being the most consistently great album they’ve done in years. There is a unifying concept to the record, though not in the same way there was for The Hazards of Love or The Crane Wife. For The King is Dead, they’ve stuck to a particular style for most of the record: a loose, country-ish, folky rock sound that creates a cohesion despite the lack of an overall theme. Many of the songs do share a longing for pastoral simplicity and a desire to be surrounded by good friends and family. The album came out back in January, but I’ve listened to it so many times already it feels like I’ve had it for years. I had to remind myself it actually came out this year.

So, that’s the list. Agree? Disagree (in which case, you’re wrong)? Let me know your thoughts and your favorites from this year!