Here’s my issue with this year’s best album list. While there’s a treasure trove of excellent albums that were released this year, there weren’t any that stood out on a level higher than those below them. Whether it was Westerberg’s Folker, Hold Steady or Arcade Fire’s albums, various Wilco albums, or even the one-off debuts that were the highlights of previous years, this year saw nothing of that sort. The distance between this year’s top-charter and number forty is miniscule. You could almost turn my list upside down and it could be what I’d decide tomorrow. I almost should leave the top ten spots blank, and begin the list with number eleven.
Oh well, I still managed to come up with what I feel is a strong collection of releases, particularly if you enjoy bubblegum pop melodies surrounded by fuzzy guitars, recorded on what appears to be an aging cassette deck or boom box. Yes, it’s a year of lo-fi pop, at least in my household.
What is probably shocking to most of my friends it the lack of quite a few so-called legends who put out records that were greatly hyped in the music media. Yet outside of Bob Dylan and a few others, I saw little to recommend on most of these albums. Hence, you’ll see no Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, and a few others that are topping the vast majority of top ten lists. Not that these are bad albums. I just don’t think of them as being as great as the media has led us to believe.
Top 40 Albums of 2012
40. JEFF The Brotherhood, Hypnotic Nights. Recorded in only seven days, brothers Jake and Jamin Orrall take the basics of classic rock, garage pop, and fuzzy psychedelia, and boil it down to three guitar strings and a simple drum setup that would make Ringo Starr proud.
39. Dinosaur Jr., I Bet On Sky. Their third album since the full original lineup reunited, it’s another case of why change a format that has always worked? Yes, there are some keyboard touches here and there that would have NEVER made it onto previous albums, but this is still J. Mascis turning his guitar up to 11 and singing about losing, waiting, and lots of desolation.
38. Mark Lanegan Band, Blues Funeral. With all of the projects that features the deep growl of the former Screaming Tree leader’s vocals, it’s hard to believe that Blues Funeral is his first solo album since 2004. This is one of those album’s you put on late at night, with little to no lighting in the background. Light up a fatty, and let Lanegan help you get through the night.
37. Allah-Las, Allah-las. This is another band whose hype was initially a turnoff. I had read article after article on how this group had so perfectly recreated the 60’s “Nuggets” sound, but the couple of songs that I heard seemed to lack the intensity of that period. I finally gave it a real chance, and if you ignore the hype, this really is a great recreation of a different aspect of 60’s rock. Instead of the Music Machine, think about Love, The Byrds, or the more psychedelic side of that era’s Los Angeles sound.
36. The Mahones, Angels & Devils. Canadian celtic punk rockers, with the emphasis on the rockers part of that description, carry on with their ninth excellent album. On last year’s The Black Irish they covered The Replacements; on this record it’s Husker Du’s “Makes No Sense At All”. It’s not shocking that I would love this band...and album.
35. King Tuff, King Tuff. We’re very close to anointing a new leader of underground stoner rock, and his name is Kyle Thomas. Besides being the frontman of J. Mascis’ stoner side project, Witch, Thomas is also the leader of Sub Pop’s indie poppers Happy Birthday..and that’s just the start of his resume. King Tuff is what he calls his solo projects, and its noteworthy as a halfway point between his work in Witch and Happy Birthday.
34. The White Wires, WWIII. I’ve been a huge fan of these power pop garage rockers since WWI, and there’s nothing on third album to make me change my opinion. yes, it’s more of the same, but it’s a formula that continues to work. Why change for the sake of change?
33. Guided By Voices/Robert Pollard flurry of releases. Another year, another endless stream of Robert Pollard-related releases. All have their moments of greatness; all have their lackluster tracks. My suggestion is similar to what John Lennon once said about those upset about the breakup of the Beatles - take the best songs off each release and make one great album.
32. Aimee Mann, Living a Lie. It’s hard to believe that Mann has been writing and recording music for close to thirty years, as her first album in four years has the youthful energy of a newcomer first coming of age.
31. Farrar/Johnson/Parker/Yames, New Multitudes. Like his former bandmate in Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar was approached a few years ago by the estate of Woody Guthrie to record a batch of unreleased Guthrie songs. Not wanting to be compared to Jeff Tweedy, he passed at the time, but finally relented to collaborate with the leaders of Centro-Matic (Will Johnson), Varnaline (Anders Parker), and Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket). Farrar’s decision to focus on songs that Guthrie wrote during his earliest years in Los Angeles gives this album a definite focus and theme.
30. Gentleman Jesse, Leaving Atlanta. It’s been four years since the Atlanta power pop band’s debut record, and they’ve been greatly missed. Any fan of the likes of Elvis Costello, Paul Collins, or Nick Lowe should be impressed by the pop hooks the pervade each and every one of the album’s 13 songs.
29. Mind Spiders, Meltdown. Sort of like Cloud Nothings, the second album from leader Mark Ryan’s project is the first to feature a full band. Yes, this is another hook-laden collection of garage rock power pop.
28. Lucero, Women & Work. Another year, another great Lucero album. Recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis, this wonderful band combines Americana, punk, and classic Memphis soul.
27. The Orwells, Remember When. Chicago high schoolers, obviously well-schooled in the Ramones and Replacements, are already on their fifth album. It’s noisy, it’s snotty, and it’s exactly the kind of guitar noise that 17 year-olds should be producing instead of laptop-oriented, catchphrase garbage.
26. Cheap Girls, Giant Orange. Produced by Against Me leader Laura Jane Grace, Cheap Girls’ third full-length album may be their strongest collection of garage-rock to date. Sure, it’s heavily indebted to 80’s college rock, but what’s wrong with that?
25. Howler, America Give Up. The Minneapolis album of the year, led by 19 year-old former Total Babe guitarist Jordan Gatesmith. Take a bit of the Libertines, add some surf-ish guitar and pop hooks, and you have a new band with a great future.
24. Father John Misty, Fear Fun. I did my best to stay away from the trendy indie-Americana album of the year. Fleet Foxes, where “Father John” used to toil as drummer, bored me, and the legend of this album being created while on a lengthy acid trip didn’t inspire any enthusiasm. Yet, Joshua Tillman (his real name) does have seven earlier releases to his credit, and this album’s recreation of the classic Laurel Canyon folk-rock sound actually does live up to the hype.
23. Jimmy Cliff, Rebirth. Definitely the comeback of the year (except for Mr. Mould and Redd Kross) as this reggae legend’s first album in over seven years is also his best in decades. Sympathetic production from Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, this album contains a number of great originals, along with some fabulous covers of Rancid’s “Ruby Soho” and The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton”.
22. The Babies, Our House On the Hill. What initiated as a side project may very well become a full-time band based on the quality of this album. Kevin Morby of Woods and Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls first came together last year in Brooklyn just to play occasional house parties, but this fantastic indie pop album is as good, if not better, than anything either of their “real” bands have ever released.
21. The Biters, It’s All Chewed Up, OK? The best description I’ve read of this band is “catchy power pop mixed with ’77 punk; imagine Johnny Thunders mixed with Cheap Trick”. Do I really need to add anything else?
20. The Jim Jones Revue, The Savage Heart. How is it possible that one of my biggest disappointments of the year still makes this list? I’ve always called this band a modern day version of LIttle Richard, based on the intensity and swagger of their first two albums. My disappointment with this album is that this template has been tempered a bit, but I can’t deny that this is still a strong set of tunes.
19. Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light. The studio is obviously not kind to Spiritualized leader Jason Pierce, as each of the band’s seven albums seems be the cause or the result of a mental or physical breakdown. This album appears to be as gut-wrenching as the rest, as it took two years to record the album, and then another year for Pierce to mix it in his home. Luckily for us listeners, the results are always worth the wait. Maybe not for Pierce’s health, though, but for those of us who love his work.
18. Waxahatchee, American Weekend. Many thanks to Gorman Bechard for turning me on to this album. Along with hyping this album via email, twitter, and on The Ledge, I noticed as I’m researching for this list that on Amazon he proclaims this as “this is Dylan in 1963. This is the flip side of the first Replacements single in 1981.” If that’s not enough to make you want to check it out, I don’t know what will work.
17. Tim Armstrong, Time Timebomb Sings Songs From Rocknroll Theater. A year ago or so, the Rancid frontman undertook a new gig as the host and creative director of a punk-meets-Twilight Zone musical web series. This release is a collection of the tunes aired on this series, and stands proudly with his acclaimed work with his “real” band.
16. Alejandro Escovedo, Big Station. Back in 2000, No Depression Magazine listed Alejandro as their artist of the 90’s, but a case can be made for him in this decade as he is on another roll these past few years. As with 2010’s Street Songs of Love, he’s accompanied by songwriter Chuck Prophet and legendary producer Tony Visconti on this collection of tunes about the underbelly of our society.
15. Jaill, Traps. The second album by Milwaukee’s Dinosaur Jr.-loving rockers carries on the great sound that made last year’s debut such a wonderful intro to the band.
14. Jack White, Blunderbuss. I’m a bit over the whole Jack White thing. Everything he does seems to have a bit of a underlying quest for media attention. Specially-shaped vinyl, one-off singles with single-digit available copies, two interchangeable touring bands, etc. Yet I can’t deny that for the most part I still enjoy his “real” releases.
13. Legendary Wings, Making Paper Roses. Some bands just come of nowhere to become my favorites. Kalamazoo’s Legendary Wings is one of them. I stumbled upon their debut album on a music blog, and gave them little thought until one of their tracks came up in shuffle a day or two later. Beautiful power pop with a bit of punk energy.
12. Neil Young With Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill. You know exactly what you get when Neil summons his old friends in Crazy Horse, and that’s exactly what you get here. Feedback-laden guitar workouts at times hit close to thirty minutes, leading one to not believe for a second that Young is well past the age of 60. One noteworthy new twist to this album is the fact that it’s his first without the crutches of booze and pot in the songwriting AND the recording phase.
11. Matthew Ryan, In the Dusk of Everything. As he said on a recent appearance on The Ledge, Ryan’s songs are all about “being human”. His newest album completes a trilogy of releases that comprise a song cycle concerning the conclusion of a romantic relationship, and its affects on the “human condition”.
10. Mission of Burma, Unsound. With this album, the renowned Boston post-punkers have officially released more material during their second round as a band than they did during their original run. More importantly, the level of their reunion material is every bit as inventive as anything they previously recorded.
9. Titus Andronicus, Local Business. While their first two albums were concept albums of epic proportions, their third album has no lofty aspirations. They’re just a regular band here, recording the album primarily live with only an occasional overdub. The results are a tad less revelatory from their previous albums, but I still can’t resist their call to action.
8. Chuck Prophet, Temple Beautiful. The former Green on Red guitarist thoughtfully remembers an influential San Francisco club, Temple Beautiful, and life in that city during the time of said club. Willie Mays gets a tribute song, as does the Harvey Milk/George Mascone double homicide.
7. OFF, OFF! Another release that sees Circle Jerks/Black Flag singer Keith Morris, Burning Brides frontman Dimitri Coats, Redd Kross bassist Steven Shane McDonald and Rocket From the Crypt/Hot Snakes drummer Mario Rubalcaba partying like it’s 1982. Few songs make it past the one minute mark, but why not just make your point and conclude the song? Morris still has the passion, and we’re all the better for it.
6. Redd Kross, Researching the Blues. The comeback of 2012. Fifteen years after their last album, the McDonald brothers (Jeff and Steve) are back with their unique brand of pop culture-inspired power pop. One could argue Cheap Trick already made this record back in 1975, but doesn’t that add to the allure?
5. Japandroids, Celebration Rock. Simply put, if you enjoyed 2009’s Post-Nothing, you’ll love Celebration Rock. This duo is not a White Stripes ripoff band. Instead, they’re sort of a modern day Replacements; a contemporary of Fucked Up. Powerful rock with catchy pop hooks.
4. Bob Mould, Silver Age. I had written off the former leader of Husker Du and Sugar. His move into rhythmic dance-inspired music wasn’t exactly marketed for my taste, and even his occasional rock tracks just weren’t as interesting as what we had come to expect from him. Not so with Silver Age, where Mould straps the guitar back on and lets it rip.
3. Bob Dylan, Tempest. What can be said about Dylan’s 35th album that hasn’t been printed in almost every publication in the world? Nothing. Just take my word that the hype is justified, and I’ll take Dylan’s phleghm-filled growl over any TV karaoke contest winner.
2. Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory. The early Cloud Nothings releases were one-man band recordings put together in leader Dylan Baldi’s basement. Months after creating a touring band, they decamped in Chicago to record with the legendary Steve Albini. The results add clarity to the band’s sound, but doesn’t dilute the power of Baldi’s arrangements.
1. The Men, Open Your Heart. Take equal doses of the Buzzcocks, Thin Lizzy, Husker Du, and contemporaries such as Japandroids, toss them into a blender, and you have this almost pure “rawk” and roll. Nothing earth-shattering here, but good ol’ melodic hard-edged alt-rock.
Best Reissues, Compilations, Box Sets, Etc.
20. Paul and Linda McCartney, Ram. Although lambasted by critics at the time of its release, I’ve always found McCartney’s second post-Beatles album a bit charming. Sure, it’s over-produced and has its “schlocky” moments, but give me this album over any of the subsequent Wings material.
19. Moe Tucker, I Feel So Far Away. The former Velvet Underground drummer has quietly released quite a few albums and EP’s over the years. Switching to guitar, these releases have featured the help from members of bands such as Half Japanese and Sonic Youth on not only covers of her former band (and other 60’s classics) but originals that decry the rising corporate nature of rock ‘n’ roll. This double disc set compiles the highlights of a low-key life that deserves more attention.
18. The English Beat, The Complete Beat Box Set. I’m not sure how “complete” this is, but you do get each of their albums, along with a disc of Peel Sessions and another disc of remixes.
17. My Bloody Valentine Reissues. The loudest band in rock ‘n’ roll history finally sees their entire catalog remastered. Now how about that new album you’ve been promising for almost 20 years?
16. The Lyres Reissues. The 80’s premiere garage rockers two best albums, On Fyre and Lyres Lyres, gets the remastering treatment and bonus tracks.
15. Joe Strummer, The Hellcat Years Reissues. The former Clash leader’s final three studio albums saw expanded release this year, with the usual outtakes and b-sides added to each album. Most exciting, however, is the official release of his live reunion with Clash guitarist Mick Jones at a fireman’s benefit concert just a month before his 2002 death.
14. Archers of Loaf, What Did You Expect? DVD. Gorman Bechard’s concert film of what he calls the “best band of the 90’s” is as great as expected, so it is only natural that some of us have pulled out the audio for personal use. (Bechard recently said on Live Ledge that there are plans for an official release of the concert audio in 2013.)
13. The Plimsouls, Beach Town Confidential. Peter Case has done a great job at putting out archival live recordings in recent years, but this one may be the best to date. Recorded in 1983, this is The Plimsouls at the height of their existence, and this concert recording includes six songs not recorded anywhere else.
12. Alex Chilton, Free Again: The “1970: Sessions. Between his time in the Box Tops and Big Star, Chilton went into Ardent Studio to record a solo album. By the time any record companies expressed interest in the project, Chilton had already formed Big Star. While bits and pieces of these tracks have made it onto various compilations over the years, this is the most comprehensive collection to date.
11. Elvis Costello & The Imposters, The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook. In the 80’s, Costello did a tour that featured a wheel that fans could spin to pick the next song he would perform. A couple of years ago, he brought back this format, and this album is a sampling of the originals, rarities, and covers that were fixtures of this tour.
10. World Party, Arkeology Box Set. Five discs of demos, covers, live tracks, and outtakes from the genius of Karl Wallinger.
9. T. Tex Edwards, Intexicated! Besides being the greatest music tweeter I’ve come across, the former leader of The Nervebreakers has had quite a career since the band broke up in 1981. Intexicated! collects some of his solo highlights, including covers of Dave Davies and The Only Ones...and even a demo of a commercial he cut for the Chili’s chain.
8. Ryan Adams, Live After Death Box Set. When word came out that Ryan Adams was going to self-release a limited edition 15 LP box set commemorating his 2011 tour, the demand crashed his website. When it was restored the following week, I was one of the 500 lucky enough to get through. If you’re not one that needs multiple versions of quite a few of these songs, though, I suggest that you pick and choose from the digital version of the set.
7. Woody Guthrie, Woody at 100 Box Set. The prime influence of Bob Dylan and so many others would have turned 100 this year, and this box combines versions of his most famous tunes with rare radio performances.
6. The Small Faces Catalog. For years, this seminal band’s catalog has been a mess. Besides the fact that they have two albums with the same name, almost all of their albums originally came out on different labels. All of their material has now been brought together, and each album has now been released as two-disc “deluxe” editions.
5. The Nervebreakers, Hijack the Radio. One of the most under-appreciated late 70’s punk bands, this new compilation combines rare tracks from singles and other studio recordings.
4. Surf Age Nuggets: Trash & Twang Instrumentals. Although not a part of Rhino’s official series of Nuggets compilations, this four-disc set compiles 100 tracks of classic late 50’s/early 60’s instrumental surf music.
3. The Velvet Underground and Nico 45th Anniversary Box Set. You can’t get more complete than this six-disc set. Mono and stereo versions of the album (with outtakes, single mixes, and other alternate versions), Nico’s solo Chelsea Girl solo album, a disc of rehearsals, and a previously unreleased live recording. Who could ask for more?
2. The Kinks At the BBC Box Set. Five discs of British radio appearances, many of which were acquired via home recordings by fans. Along with alternate studio and live recordings of their classic tunes, this box is also noteworthy for a few songs that never saw official release.
1. Rolling Stones Archive Releases. Despite their reputation as bloodsuckers trying to bleed every dollar they can from their fans, the Stones have historically been reluctant to release material from their expansive vault. In the last two years, they have quietly been putting out much of these legendary recordings, and this year alone saw a handful of concerts, a rarely-seen mid-60’s documentary, a 1981 club appearance with Muddy Waters, and even their very first recording sessions.