Sunday, January 27, 2013
Why, hello again. Herewith, I am presenting my annual but scandalously late rundown of my favorite 20 albums of the year.
As you probably know, I'm old school when it comes to my music. I would rather hear it on vinyl than on Spotify. But the record stores have mostly all gone away, and I hear that the record industry is going to be phasing out CDs in favor of all digital releases (although, and here you can score one for the good guys, apparently there is still a market for vinyl.) Kids don't listen to music anymore, not like we used to. I know I went on this rant last year, so I'll keep it short. Hey, I love my iTunes and my iPod as much as the next guy; how great is it to walk around with a couple thousand albums in your pocket? But nothing touches the experience of listening to a full-on piece of physical media (not some lossy MP3) through the big speakers-- listening, damn it, on the hi fi! Sometimes when I get a new album I'll rip it to iTunes, put it on my iPod, and maybe the first 10 times I play it (and if it gets that far I already like it) it's MP3s on headphones. And then I get some time in the living room on a Saturday, I crank the thing up big-- and it's just awesome.
Have you played the Jack White on the big stereo? No? Seriously then, go do that now.
Anyway, the usual disclaimer is that I don't claim these are the best albums of the year; what they are is my favorites. So there's usually a bunch of old guys on here, and genres of music that already existed in the '70s. I respect hip hop, but I don't much care for it.
So it isn't surprising that 3 of my top 7, and 6 overall, are by guys over 60. On the other hand, there are some new bands here, and by my count there are 5 debut albums here. They may not all be rookies (i.e., Chris Robinson Brotherhood)-- but a couple of them are.
Note that each album title in the purple bold is a link to the artist's website (or in a couple of cases, Amazon) where you can procure said release. I'm such a colossal music geek that, in visiting these sites to get you the links, I ended up discovering-- and buying-- three more albums from these artists (in each case, a new or relatively new live recording.)
As always, RIYL means "Recommended if you like."
1. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill
year with a new Crazy Horse record is a good year, and in 2012 we got two. The
first, Americana, is all cover versions of folk songs (if we can call the Doo
Wop classic “Get a Job” a folk song) like “Oh Susannah” and “This Land is Your
Land,” and if it had been their only release of the year we’d surely have found
a place of honor for it on this list.
But Psychedelic Pill… Mmm mmm. When Young gets together with Crazy
Horse, the music gets big, loud, and primal, and time seems to bend and slow until it passes, if at all, like thick sap dripping from an old tree. I love 'em, love their big fat dumb buzzing piercing overdriven
Indian dinosaur stomp. Psychedelic Pill is a seriously generous helping of that
stomp; a double album (remember those?) featuring long songs that stretch time
until you’re drifting and swaying in the middle of a jam that could easily be “Down by the
River” (1969) or “Cortez the Killer” (1975) or pretty much anything off Ragged
Glory (1990). As he says in the concert
film Rust Never Sleeps, “It’s all the same song!” Three of the tracks are crazy
long; the opening “Driftin’ Back” clocks in at 27:37, longer than the entire
Sufis record (#17), and I am always a little sorry when it’ over. We saw the 'Horse at the Garden in November, where
they were, as always, great; “Walk Like a Giant,” 16 minutes on record, was
probably the highlight. Live, they end the
song making a mighty ruckus that indeed sounds like a giant plodding with Bunyanesque (as opposed to bunion-esque) feet upon the earth.
Which, when you think about it, is how Crazy Horse always sounds at their best… Young’s
output this century has been a little spotty, but there have been some real
gems, and this may be the shiniest of the lot. RIYL: Crazy Horse, dinosaurs,
Indians, electric guitars.
listened to the Raconteurs but not, you might be surprised to learn, White Stripes; as with the Doors, I have a thing about bands without bass players. So it's possible my reportage here about Jack White
may have the air of the obvious for some of you fans. I played this a bunch
earlier in the year when it came out (or as us hipsters say, “dropped.”) Every time I did, it reminded me of Led
Zeppelin—the guitar prowess, the timbre of the voice on the shrieking, the thud
and stomp of many of the songs. But
also, White reminds me of the quintessential musician that Beavis and Butthead
would love, or that Tenacious D would share a stage with; an almost cartoonish caricature of the sci-fi nerd heavy metal
rocker. Which in this case is meant to be a compliment. I wish I’d seen him live, because I'm sure he’s great. And I hope he makes a bunch more records. RIYL: Led Zep, Son House, making that devil's horns heavy metal sign with your pointer and pinky raised.
3. Chris Robinson Band, Big Moon Ritual; The Magic Door
Robinson said, after the Black Crowes performed at one of Levon Helm’s Midnight
Rambles, that this was how he wanted to make records from then on. The last two
Crowes releases were true to that vision (notably Croweology, a double-CD live
ramble through what might be called their greatest hits, rerecorded mostly
acoustic.) After that the Crowes split (a hiatus it turns out; they're coming back this spring) and Robinson went and assembled a great ramble-ready combo. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood (CRB) has slowly become one of the best bands on
the I-hate-to-use-the-term “jamband” scene, gigging live for a solid year
before putting out any studio work, getting good the old fashioned way, one show at a time. They
draw from the vibe of the Grateful Dead (Robinson having put in time as one of
Phil Lesh’s Friends), the Laurel Canyon sound (both old and new; Robinson is a
card-carrying cool kid in the New Laurel Canyon scene), classic Americana, the
“Cosmic cowboy music” of Gram Parsons, and one of our favorites around here,
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. Of course the Adams link is Neil Casal, lead
guitarist in the Cardinals who fills that role in the CRB, and who’s
exquisitely tasteful lead work finds the common ground between Jerry Garcia and
James Burton (as he did in the Cardinals).
He’s fast becoming one of my favorite guitarists; he isn’t flashy, but
he shines in an ensemble setting, adding clear, watery lines that make
every song he's on sound better…. I’m cheating a little by treating these two albums,
which were recorded at the same time but released three months apart, as a
single double-album release, so I don’t have to pick between them. Frankly, when I listen to CRB, I generally go
for a live recording,
but these records together provide the blueprint for a good portion of the live
repertoire, and they were recorded in a fashion that comes pretty close to
capturing the band’s live groove. RYL: The Laurel Canyon sound, Cosmic cowboy
music, American Beauty, the Cardinals; and not necessarily the Black Crowes.
you went to college in the ‘70s, then you probably knew that guy in the dorm who had
this real expensive stereo, because he was a total audiophile nerd; and he had a
chair that was too big for the dorm, perfectly situated between his two giant
speakers, and every time you passed his room the door would be open and Steely
Dan would be blasting (off the reel-to-reel, of course; he’d tape his records the first
time he played them, then store them meticulously in the dust covers.) And that’s always
been the thing with Steely Dan; there was something inherently nerdy about them,
but they sounded so damn good… Fagen of course is one of the two principals of
the Dan, and this is his fourth solo record; to these ears it is the best Steely Dan record
since his first solo outing, the Nightfly, in 1982, daddy-o. Of course this is brilliantly played and
recorded, but what really makes it special is that Fagen brings the funk (reference point: in addition to the 8 original songs on here he does an Isaac Hayes cover. Can you dig it? Right on.) Skip the MP3s and the computer speakers, and play it on the good stereo when your friends come over. Hell, you can play
it when your wife’s friends come over. RIYL: Steely Dan, hepcats like Joneses
Rickie Lee and Norah, stereo components.
Talk about bloodlines. People
are calling this a supergroup, which doesn’t thrill me, because the main thing
supergroups do is make one record and then split up. And I’m hoping this band
sticks around a bit. Perhaps the best known players are Devon Allman (son of
Gregg) and Cyril Neville (Neville Brothers), and yes, I have no choice but to
say the music sounds like a blend of the Brothers Allman and Neville. I assume
the best way to experience this band is live, but the record really swings and
percolates with some delicious funk. One of the most pleasant surprises of the
year. Obligatory Dead cover: “Fire On
the Mountain.” RIYL: The Allman
Brothers, the Neville Brothers, funkified R’n’B.
have to confess, the Shins have been one of those bands who I know are great
and whatnot, but I just never really “got” them, save for the odd tune or two, Natalie Portman's Garden State character notwithstanding. (Another
such band: the New Pornographers.) I keep getting their albums, each time
hoping, this is the one that will pop! for me. But I really loved the Broken
Bells record, a collaboration between main Shin James Mercer and
producer/studio genius Danger Mouse that was our pick for top album of 2010. Maybe that greased the wheels; Port of Morrow
was one of my favorite listens of the first half of the year; and my wife and
daughter both liked it, which always augers well for a record because they both have golden ears. I've always tended to think
of the Shins as “power pop,” but they’re not.
I guess they’d be called “indie,” although not by me; I find the term useless because I have
no idea exactly what “indie” sounds like. But
they deviate too far from the template of Power Pop to qualify for that highly formulaic genre; Mercer's songs
are complex, and this record is a dense tapestry of sound, with every song
packing multiple waves of melody. And I
like how one song flows into the next.
RIYL: “Indie”, Broken Bells, the New Pornographers.
7. Alejandro Escovedo, Big Station
a 61 year-old Austin-based singer-songwriter-guitarist, is truly an American
treasure. But don’t take my word for it, ask Bruce Springsteen; Escovedo is one
of the Boss’s favorites, and they duet on Escovedo’s “Always a Friend” on the souvenir EP from the Magic tour. The phrase
that always comes to mind for me when I think of Escovedo is “manly,” that he
writes manly songs. But don’t take that for macho; indeed his current touring
band is called the Sensitive Boys. His songs are honest and poignant and
heartfelt and true, articulate with simple language. And generally, they rock. (Hey-- I made you an Escovedo playlist on Spotify.) He’s kind
of like a Tex-Mex Lou Reed, there is true American poetry in his work. He’s been
pretty steady of late, putting out a new record every two years. I think this
one is his best since A Man Under the Influence (2001). RIYL: Townes Van Zandt, Dave Alvin, The
Silos, Los Lobos.
a mommy now—in fact, she’s expecting her second kid, as she told us at Town
Hall in November. Her last record, Red Letter Year, was all happy and
shit, which may not be great for business when you're a folk singer. Many of the songs had a lightness
and airiness, similar to that which has been permeating her live shows over the
past few years. She’d spent so much time as an angry young folkie—“punk folk”
was her niche early on—that she didn’t seem quite sure what to do with all the
good vibes. This is another happy record, the lightness mixed with her inherent
polyrhythmic funkiness, and overall it is eminently likable and appealing. She’s growing into her happiness, and I think her listeners are too; in fact in
“If Yr Not,” she sings, “If you’re not getting happier as you’re getting older…
then you’re f***ing up.” Like all Ani records, it gets a little preachy at
times—her best political songs are the ones that aren’t overtly political. And
it drags a little at the end. But overall I think it’s one of her good ones. RIYL: Red Letter Year, happy endings.
Sparks were sort of an antecedent band to the current “New Laurel Canyon” wave,
active at the turn of the century but splitting by 2003, having
made a handful of anachronistic records that combined the “Cosmic American
Music” of Gram Parsons with SoCal sunshine pop. For reasons I can’t quite
parse, their time seems to have come (bands like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver
clearly owe them a debt of gratitude.)
This album—whish assembles their original core line-up, and also
features the divine Neil Casal (Ryan Adams and the Cardinals; Chris Robinson
Brotherhood) sitting in on guitar—is all airy, gentle and immediately oddly
familiar, beguiling, with tasteful playing and sweet harmonies. It’s the
perfect record for lying on the grass on a warm breezy Sunday afternoon. In the mid-70s. RIYL: Late-era Byrds, Elephant 6, Laurel
Canyon, America (the band, not the country), Cosmic American Music.
10. The Little Willies, For the Good Times
really do love Norah Jones, but I fear she’s fated, post-debut record, to do
her best work in collaboration with others (as opposed to as a solo
artist.) She put out a new solo record
this year, but for me the Little Willies release—their second—was the one I
played and that stuck with me. The mythology of the Little Willies is that they
are a Willie Nelson cover band; what they actually are is a hip, talented band of New
York musicians who are “slumming” by playing country music in an un-ironic fashion (which is kind of ironic). Here they cover the likes
of Willie Nelson (of course, but just one song), Lefty Frizzel, Ralph Stanley,
Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton. Now that’s country. Jones is great when she’s one of the boys; I
especially like her read of Parton’s “Jolene” and Lynn’s “Fist City” (but the
boys sing too.) Not quite as much fun as their debut—but close. Also, check this out, it's a lot of fun-- a full live show from Brooklyn, which as everyone knows is the new Manhattan, streaming on Hulu. Dig the hats. RIYL: Norah Jones, Old time country music
with an urban tincture.
11. Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream
can I tell you? Are you familiar with Bonnie Raitt
records? Well, this is one of ‘em. There
aren’t really any surprises; it’s just solid, in-the-pocket rocking blues, a
tasteful band, stinging slide guitar, some good new songs, and of course some
brilliant cover choices she makes totally her own—three songs by NRBQ’s Al
Anderson, two Dylan tunes, and most delightfully, Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down
the Line.” Some credit goes to Joe
Henry, who produced 4 of the 12 tracks (Raitt handles the rest); the record
shares a loose, assured feel with his work with Solomon Burke and Susan
Tedeschi, among others. RIYL: Bonnie
been on a Springsteen binge lately as a result of having read Peter Carlin’s recent bio. Of course this album can’t touch his classic stuff, and for me listening
to it feels a little like eating my vegetables—it’s a protest record about the
economic crisis, with a heavy “Occupy” vibe, whereas I’m really more a
“Cadillac, Cadillac, long and dark, shiny and black” kind of guy. I love the title track, about the demolition
of the Meadowlands stadium “where the Giants played their games”; I first heard
it in 2009, when I went to see him in his last stand at that very stadium and
he opened with it. Springsteen is experimental here, using loops and new
sounds; “Rocky Ground” even has a rap. But for the most part the new sounds fit
in and enhance the songs, although perhaps these songs would have packed more
weight in a minimalist setting a la Nebraska. But I like it; there are some
excellent songs here, and I’m thrilled he moved away from working with producer
Brendan O’Brien, who produced Springsteen’s ‘00s trilogy of The Rising, Magic
and Working On a Dream. To my ears those records sound small and plastic, and
this is an artist who begs for grandeur. RIYL: Springsteen.
The Counting Crows covers record. Often,
covers records don’t work—or if they do, they work for a while, but as they
recede into back catalog, they end up a curiosity that you never really play
(Quiz: who likes Pin-Ups better than Ziggy Stardust?) But this record works, I think for three
reasons. One, because the Crows (let’s
not kid ourselves, mainly Adam Duritz) picked a great batch of songs; two,
because some of these songs are obscure and I’ve never heard them before, so
these might as well be originals; and finally, because the Crows have such a
distinct sound that they tend to subsume any song and make it sound like the Counting
Crows (although some of the super-familiar ones, like Pure Prairie League’s “Aimee,”
are a stretch.) In fact, I might argue that some of these songs (especially the
ones that are new to me, like say “Hospital” by Coby Brown, or “Untitled (Love
Song)” by Romany Rye) are better Counting Crows songs than recent Counting
Crows originals. They pull a Dawes song out of their hats (“All My Failures”)
that hasn’t even been released—Duritz found it on Daytrotter. And for the
record geeks in the audience, of course, there are the obligatory Teenage
Fanclub, Big Star, and Gram Parsons covers. RIYL: Good Folk Rock, tasteful
covers, “Accidentally in Love.”
I've been a big fan of this band since their first record. Sure
they’ve had line-up changes over the years, but since the beginning—even before
their 1986 debut, back when they were kids gigging around Waukesha, Wisconsin
singing Elvis songs—the BoDeans were Kurt and Sammy. Two blue collar kids, twelve silver strings and a crazy dream. So when I read that Sammy
had quit the band on the heels of their 2011 release, I was heartbroken. Then,
when I heard Kurt was going on as the BoDeans, even recording a new
album—honestly, I didn’t know what to make of it. Their last record had been
quite a disappointment—to my ears, it was their worst-- and maybe the band had just
run its course. Maybe whatever acrimony there was between Kurt and Sammy had taken their chemistry hostage. But on American Made,
Kurt has managed to reinvent the band, keeping the essence of what was good,
and finding a new sonic palate that’s familiar… but different. The harmonies, predictably if sadly, are gone.
There is more electric guitar; Sammy played only acoustic, but the new guy
occupying his spot, Jake Owen, plays electric along with Kurt, giving them a Stonesy two-guitar attack. And there’s
accordion (courtesy sometime-member Michael Ramos) and violin. It’s a different spin on what they’ve been
doing all along—making simple, uplifting, rootsy American rock’n’roll. I miss the old two-against-the world bond that was the core of this band, and I miss the way their voices blended together. But this works. RIYL: Roots rock, Americana, second acts.
These three guys first got together during a Hendrix tribute project, which tells you a lot about common ground right off. Hidalgo
of course is one of the singer-guitarists in Los Lobos, a band that has amassed
a hell of a catalog of spin-off projects.
Dickenson is one third of the North Mississippi Allstars, and Nanji, who
I confess I never heard of before, was in Indigenous and has been compared to
Stevie Ray Vaughn. So you get exactly what you bargained for here; three searing
lead guitarists steeped in blues, rock and boogie, plus a bass and drummer,
laying down 65 minutes of scorching Texas Boogie that seems to jump right out of the
speakers. You’ll smell the smoke. The three
gunslingers never get in each other’s way, despite all the three-man weave. Bam!
RIYL: Stevie Ray, ZZ Top, Texas Boogie.
A four-piece out of, you guessed it, Alabama; this is their first record, and it got a lot of attention. Front woman Brittany Howard, who sings, plays guitar, and is primary songwriter, has a commanding, throaty voice and isn't pretty, so of course she's immediately compared to Janis Joplin, which may be convenient, but I don't think I buy it. If anything I think I'm hearing Fontella Bass ("Rescue Me.") The songs have a peppy, Motown sort of feel, with a dollop of southern bar band R'n'B, and yeah, Howard does sing the hell out of the shit. I have a feeling their second record is going to be a let-down; there's definitely an element of, everything-going-exactly-right at play wit this release and the reception thereof. But hell, I've been wrong before. RIYL: Motown, southern rock, '60s R'n'B.
No, seriously, this is real. Hear me out... I know everyone loves Seattle's Fleet Foxes, purveyors of a genre I tend to think of as Millenials-with-beards-playing-folk-rock. I keep hearing they're like CSN or the Beach Boys, but when I listen they sound more like Gregorian chanting. Meaning I just don't hear the warmth of those older bands, I hear something almost sterile and impenetrable (and yes, I know this is going to trigger the hate mail.) If you're wondering why I'm off on the Fleet Foxes rant right now, it's because Father John Misty is actually Josh Tillman, who was the drummer in the Foxes for a recent spell. I confess I know nothing about him otherwise; I've never heard his other recorded output. But one thing that drew me to this is that it was produced by New Lauren Canyon Scene linchpin Jonathan Wilson, who actually topped this list a year ago. Right now, for me, Wilson can do no wrong. My initial reaction after a couple of spins was, hey, this is the record I keep wanting to hear from Fleet Foxes (probably totally unfair, both to them and to you.) The story TIllman tells about creating this album-- according to Wikipedia, so it must be true-- begins, "I got into my van with enough mushrooms to choke a horse and started driving down the coast with nowhere to go." He basically ends up in Laurel Canyon at Wilson's house. And yes, this album sounds like that drive. RIYL: Jonathan Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, On the Beach-era Neil Young, gentle psychedelia.
17. Sufis,The Sufis
been a sucker for psychedelia ever since that fateful day freshman year in
college, when—ah, but I digress. The Sufis is a good old-fashioned psychedelic
record; I’d benchmark it somewhere between the Beatles’ Revolver and Pink
Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn. It starts out in a Nuggets-style song form,
but evolves into more free-form music as the disc progresses... and gets more
interesting in the process. Listening to
it on headphones is quite a… well, trip. I don’t know that this will age
especially well (although it already sounds like it’s 45 years old.) But it’s
fun. Especially if you really, like, LISTEN to it, ma-an! Also—ten songs, under a half hour, like they
used to make ‘em. Leave them wanting more, I always say. RIYL: Dukes of Stratosphear, Olivia Tremor Control, The Orgone Box, Purple Haze,
Orange Sunshine, blotters, barrels, vintage psychedelia.
18. Doctor John, Locked Down
It would be hard for this to go wrong-- Dr. John, 72, who is stone cold N'Awlins hoodoo down to the bone, teaming up with Dan Auerbach, singer/guitarist of the Black Keys, who plays and produces. And it does not go wrong... yet conversely, it hasn't really grabbed me and stuck like I thought it would, which is why it's down here as opposed to up at the top with Fagen. I think it's because I'm just not finding any "earworm" style hooks. Still, you gotta mojo hand it to these guys. They find the common ground between the good Doctor's swampy Cajun voodoo blues, and the Black Keys' electric modern Zep-meets-Son-House-on-acid 21st century blues. I'll have to ask my pal Henry how they were live; I assume he caught the show. RIYL: Gris Gris, Gumbo, being in the right place at the wrong time.
19. Father John Misty, Fear Fun
Sure, you remember Joan; think mid-90s, "What if God was one of us? Just a stranger on the bus?" But she's a blues mama at heart, having cut her teeth around Manhattan in the early '90s as part of the same local blues/jamband scene that included Spin Doctors, Blues Traveler, and even Warren Haynes (and also my friend Johnny Allen.) I've seen her with the Indigo Girls, serving as a third Indigo; and of course she's toured extensively this century with both the Dead and Phil Lesh & Friends. On Bring It On Home, Osborne turns that blues mama loose, covering a slew of upbeat, classic roadhouse blues. She covers Allen Toussaint (who sits in on his song), Willie Dixon (twice), John Mayall, Otis Redding, and Al Green; that should help you triangulate. Oh, there's also Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips," a great song you may know from the Stones... This is the music that best plays to Osborne;s talent; here she puts me in mind of her badass vamps on the Pigpen workout "Caution (Do Not Stop On the Tracks)" with Lesh and the Dead circa 2003-2006 (which reminds me: you can stream a nice Lesh show with Joan here. I was at this one. Check out her duet with Trey Anastasio on Dylan's "Buckets of Rain.") Anyway, she can sing, she can sing the hell out of this music. RIYL: Big Mama Thornton, the place where blues and R'n'B meet.
was a lot of buzz about Bob Dylan’s The Tempest as his best in years; I thought
the overriding message of this record was, “Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn!” … Props to the 50th-anniversary-reunited
Beach Boys for recording an album. The
tour was great, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, but the record was overall
only fair; they’re 70 years old and surf is decidedly not as up as time
is. This is what “summer’s gone” sounds
like. But if the whole thing was as good as the closing pair of Brian songs, it
would have been one of the year’s best… I generally exclude live albums from
consideration, but if I didn’t, then Everybody’s Talkin’ by the Tedeschi Trucks
Band would be top-3.
The song of the year, of course, was "Call Me Maybe."