Because we just couldn’t stop at 20… or 25… or 50….
BY THE EDITORS
It was the best of years, it was the… er, well… yeah. It was the best of years. Funny though – could swear we’ve heard that somewhere before. Maybe it’s because 2011 was the best of years too! [Or maybe because you copied and pasted this intro from the 2011 essay. – Formatting Ed.] Seriously; at this stage in the game, there are so many records released each year, and in every genre and micro-genre imaginable, that you’re either hopelessly ADD-derailed or just plain lazy if you can’t find 10, 20 or even 50 titles worth hollering each year.
So as we suggested 12 months ago in this space, please feel free to slap that person standing next to you who is griping about not hearing anything good this year. Then ask us sometime about trying to pare down a list of some 200-odd worthy new releases (and that 200 was trimmed from the more than 3,000 CDs – we don’t count digital files; there were probably another 1,000 of those – sent to BLURT in 2012) into a manageable Top 50. Okay, technically it’s a Top 52, because we’ve got a separate Album of the Year and Artist of the Year, and the latter was a tie between Ty Segall and Grimes, whose Twins and Visions were, respectively, unquestioned highlights of the year.
We’ve tried to factor in the fave raves of our 50+ contributing writers, the best-album picks from our readership in our informal year-end readers’ poll, and sundry less-quantifiable measures that our highly skilled team of office interns employed in order to arrive at that Top 50/52. But in the end, we don’t take it all that seriously, because we’ve been doing this year-end stuff long enough to know that (a) our list is prone to change within five minutes of publishing it; and (b) the only folks who read these lists are the ones who write them, music publicists trawling for content for their next press releases, and maybe an aggregator or two. The artists themselves are too busy thinking about their next projects, their upcoming tours, paying the rent, etc., to worry about whether or not they land in someone’s ephemeral year-end roundup.
Bottom line: no excess navel gazing here; no what everything means, maaan… from your friendly neighborhood BLURT. Here’s our list – let’s do this.
[Photo of Matthew E. White, above, by Sara Padgett. Also feel free to consult our annual Revenge Of The Writers feature, wherein the BLURT staffers and contributors submit their individual lists of 2012 picks ‘n’ pans. And if you want to compare these lists with the previous couple of years, check out our Top 50 of 2011, our Revenge Of the Writers 2011, our Top 50 of 2010, and our Writers’ Picks for 2010.]
1. ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Matthew E. White – Big Inner (Hometapes/Spacebomb)
CONTRIBUTOR KYLE A. ROSKO SAID: Matthew E. White’s Big Inner, the solo debut from the bandleader of Richmond, VA-based jazz band Fight the Big Bull, is the first release on White’s own Spacebomb Records imprint… The sounds on the record include spiritual choir arrangements from Megafaun’s Phil Cook, starry-eyed string arrangements from Trey Pollard, and cool-water guitar work from White himself that is influenced in no small part by old soul records, as White harkens back to his house-band predecessors at Stax Records.
There were many musical spirits in the room when White and his Spacebomb band went to recording the seven farmhouse-soul spirituals found on Big Inner, but what ultimately renders this record truly special is the band’s ability to synthesize all these elements into something that is uniquely their own.
2/3. ARTIST OF THE YEAR (TIE): Ty Segall & Grimes. As profiled here at BLURT by Contributing Editor Jennifer Kelly, San Fran rocker Segall was everywhere this year – on the road, on the late-night TV programs, and especially in the record store bins, with no less than three well-received platters (notably Twins, issued this past fall on Drag City) released on his 2012 watch. Twins, in fact, came about through the painstaking, time-consuming process of solo songwriting, Segall working on it for six months, on and off, first demoing songs with a guitar and provisional lyrics, later fleshing them out with bass, drums and lots of guitar.
Grimes, meanwhile (also profiled, courtesy contributor Selena Fragassi) dropped her latest album Visions in February via 4AD/Arbutus and watched the critical and commercial momentum build steadily throughout the year even as she toured, made videos, got involved in the fashion world, and more. On the album she (known to her friends as Clare Boucher) is frequently given to ethereal wordless coos, giddy squeaks and wounded gasps, deploying them as rhythmic depth charges, and while some of the sonics also tilt towards the abstract, almost glitchy or Aphex Twin-like in places, because the melodies stay foregrounded the accessibility factor is high enough to give a casual listener the sense of confronting a more mainstream pop album than might be expected.
We’re not exactly taking any blog-a-riffic chances by awarding the two musicians our top honors for 2012, as both of them have already topped a number of media and critics lists. Look for them to continue that trend. But we firmly believe that Segall and Grimes deserve all the accolades and we are looking forward to hearing more in 2013.
4. Bob Mould – Silver Age (Merge)
WE SAID: From the first notes it’s clear that Mould isn’t so much settling for his older style as reclaiming it. This kind of chunky chord work has been beaten into the ground in the hands of the alternarock hordes, but coming from the frets of Mould’s trusty Stratocaster it sounds fresh, clean and new. Silver Age isn’t only a shift in sound from the more eclectic work of Mould’s last few records, but a shift in mood as well. Somber Bob mostly takes a break, replaced by angry Bob, defiant Bob – even jubilant Bob…. another peak in a career full of them, and it’s due to the quality of the material Mould uses to construct the suit, rather than the classic cut of the design.
5. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city (Interscope/Top Dawg)
WE SAID: Kendrick Lamar may have invented psychedelic rap. A lot of critical attention has been paid to Kendrick’s storytelling (and deservedly so; with its The Wire-esque underpinnings, Kendrick’s stories dazzle) on his 2012 opus, but arguably not enough has been paid to the uniquely diverse sonic palette Kendrick uses to tell those stories. There’s influence from West Coast hip-hop in its 90s heyday, Outkast-era southern rap, and even psychedelic rock, namely on the trippy track “Swimming Pools (Drank),” the best song on the album. Form and function come together on this concept album brilliantly.
6. Lower Dens – Nootropics (Ribbon)
WE SAID: With the second Lower Dens album, freak-folk goddess Jana Hunter has moved even further from her guitar-toting beginnings, bringing on Carton Tanton for the synthesizers, which, along with machine-precise drums, usher Nootropics into the neighborhood of Krautrock. [And] much like Beach House’s Victoria LeGrand, Hunter turns the warmth of sung blues bends into something chilled and otherworldly.
7. Grizzly Bear – Shields (Warp)
WE SAID: While previous albums Yellow House and Veckatimest possess more elegant, sweeping and climactic moments, Shields arguably signifies their most cohesive effort to date. The 10 tracks that made the final cut ebb and flow in near-perfect doses — slowly ingraining themselves into one’s memory subtly yet potently with each passing listen.
8. Tame Impala – Lonerism (Modular People)
WE SAID: Recording the album in Paris may have been the catalyst to give frontman (and primary songwriter) Kevin Parker a more cosmopolitan edge, as he anchored Lonerism’s 12 tracks with a modern undertow lacking on 2010 album Innerspeaker. The new release wakes up from the latter’s slumbering dream state, curtailing jam band tailspins for songs confident enough to find a solid ending. Eschewed also is the surrealistic white noise that permeated earlier singles for more literal interpersonal memoirs.
9. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp (Jagjaguwar)
WE SAID: In many ways, Sharon Van Etten’s third full length is a huge step forward. Not that her first two albums Because I Was In Love and epic were anything less than impressive, but they were introspective records that fit the Brooklyn musician’s mindset. For Tramp, she crafted a beautifully-produced and outward record that was born on the road and resulted in her best work to date. There’s an inordinate amount of talent spread throughout these songs, but it’s always Sharon Van Etten at the front and center on her Jagjaguwar debut – making us forget about her supporting cast by showing off her growth as a singer and writer.
10. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (Reprise)
WE SAID: Was Americana a feint or a misstep? Released scant months ago, it worked better on paper than on record; well intentioned or not, it was a sloppy affair. But Psychedelic Pill boasts nearly an hour-and-a-half of lengthy, jam-based numbers that left fans open-mouthed and slack-jawed during the fall tour. And while Pill probably isn’t destined to be held in the same regard as such stone ‘70s classics as Zuma or Rust Never Sleeps (and its concert counterpart Live Rust), it’s easily as tunefully unhinged as 1990’s Ragged Glory and as sonically immediate as 1994’s Sleeps With Angels; it’s as pure a distillation of the band as one could hope for in 2012.
11. Twin Shadow – Confess (4AD)
WE SAID: At its best, the album simply bursts at the seams with retro hooks and ferocious grooves, taking the blueprint of his insular, critically adored debut, Forget, and blowing it up in all the right places. Self-produced by George Lewis, Jr. (with assistance from keyboardist Wynne Bennett), Confess clearly bears the mark of its polished studio inception – a far cry from the living room-recorded confines of Forget. And you can even spot this confident reinvention without listening to the music: On the album cover, Lewis stands in a pompous, stylized pose, wearing a black leather jacket, its collar flipped up against his bare chest. It’s simultaneously retro and suave, dated and emphatic, in the best way possible. Its boldness speaks volumes.
12. Peter Buck – Peter Buck (Mississippi)
WE SAID: The vinyl-only post-R.E.M. solo debut of Buck is weird, raw and beautiful all at once. Swampy Crypt-tastic jams like “It’s Alright”, “Give Me Back My Wig” and “Hard Old World” echo the spirit of a pre-Fab Peter sitting behind the counter at the old Athens, GA mainstay Wuxtry Records fixing to increase his Cramps sales by playing the Gravest Hits EP over the sound system whilst discovering the joys of Loaded-era Velvet Underground and Nancy & Lee during the dead hours. And make no mistake: the man can sing. He’s got this throaty, tuneful growl similar to that of Billy Childish, whose Headcoats indeed proves to be an inspirational point of reference here as well.
13. Tift Merritt – Traveling Alone (Yep Roc)
WE SAID: Merritt’s alluring twang-soul vocals — laid-back, lilting and lightly bruised — suggest at times Emmylou Harris and Iris Dement. Throughout the disc, she sounds relaxed and confident which nicely balances the sense of uncertainty that her lyrics hold. Filled with straight-from-the-heart vocals, emotionally honest lyrics and sophisticated roots-based arrangements, Traveling Alone recalls Harris’ landmark Wrecking Ball — and stands as Merritt’s long-awaited breakthrough album.
14. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Going to Change the Way You Feel About Me Now (Bloodshot)
WE SAID: Edging ever closer to the genius songwriting of his father, Steve Earle, on Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, Justin is nearly there. The young Mr. Earle spreads his wings on Nothing’s and uses the typical country approach of fiddle and lap steel sparingly. Instead, he welcomes a nice horn section (a nod to the South’s jazz history and the great Memphis Horns) and ambiance that makes the songs more powerful and lets the listener know that this young man fully understands the music he creates.
15. Spider Bags – Shake My Head (Odessa)
WE SAID: Chapel Hill’s Spider Bags have undergone a stunning transformation that may leave fans shaking their heads in amazement. Their music – “Southern rock turned on its ear” – has shed that tired cocoon and flown off like a butterfly-out-of-Hell for this go ‘round. They’ve shifted into punk rock mode, as well as offering up garage, psych and cow-punkish contributions. The Spider Bags are one of the best ‘bar bands’ in the biz.
16. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Live From Alabama (Lightning Rod)
WE SAID: This remarkable live album, a loose-limbed yet highly specific summary of Isbell’s oeuvre to date, and cut this past August on home turf before appreciative crowds in Birmingham and Huntsville, puts the man’s songwriting on display. It additionally allowing his 400 Unit (keyboardist/guitarist Derry deBorja, bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gamble) to shine in subtle yet distinctive ways and underscoring the fact that several years of touring and recording together have, indeed, turned them into a unit.
17. Public Enemy – The Evil Empire of Everything (King Midas)
WE SAID: Looking for an antidote to all the bling ‘n’ bitches party rappers who’ve transformed contemporary hip-hop into the urban equivalent of brainless ‘80s hair metal? Well roll over, Motley Crue, and tell Bret Michaels the news: the boyz be back in town, and they’s takin’ no prisoners. Chuck D, Flavor Flav and the “crew” have delivered the hardest-hitting, most visceral PE platter since 1990’s epochal Fear of a Black Planet. Substantive-to-the-point-of-shattering lyrics, mastodon-sized beats and arrangements awash in cortex-uncorking sounds makes for a genuinely cinematic experience – in fact, someone needs to make a movie out of this record, pronto.
18. Giant Giant Sand – Tucson (Fire)
WE SAID: As this superb disc shows, the desert landscape – as well as the artistic outpost that is Tucson – still seems capable of sparking Howe Gelb’s inspiration and love of music. A concept album about a man who leaves Tucson for a new beginning in a sometimes-romantic, sometimes-confusing Southwest, it has the breadth, intelligence, mystery and ambitious arrangements of a major work. Almost every song is vivid in its poetry and instrumental coloration.
19. Lord Huron – Lonesome Dreams (IAMSOUND)
WE SAID: Ben Schneider is a visual artist and on the debut album from his band Lord Huron, it certainly shows. Not only is the artwork included with the album beautifully rendered, there is a heavy visual component to these desert-dried folk-rock hymns; many of the ten songs collected come across like landscapes culled from old western films. And appropriately, the album’s lead single “Born to Run” has a music video that comes across like a Western short film, featuring an outlaw Schneider on the run in the desert, trying to return to his lost love. The rest of the album is just as visually evocative with its sonic soundscapes.
20. Calexico – Algiers (Anti-)
WE SAID: For Calexico, sitting still has never been an option, which is no doubt behind Joey Burns and John Convertino’s decision to decamp to New Orleans, to record their first studio album in four years. The music on this remarkable record creeps up on you, and subtleties abound; with Burns’ vocals mic’d very close and much of the instrumental flourishes occurring deep in the mix, it’s an intimate affair and perhaps the first Calexico release that could be described as “a headphone album.” No two songs are alike, yet all of the dozen here are interrelated in vestigial ways, lending it an uncommon weight and heft and rendering yet another sense of place for Calexico.
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21. M. Ward – A Wasteland Companion (Merge)
WE SAID: A Wasteland Companion belies its foreboding title, largely eschewing the hushed introspection that’s cast a pall over previous efforts in favor of, well, a sound that’s at least marginally more hopeful. To be clear, nobody’s ever going to mistake Ward for the life of the party – not in a musical sense anyway – but with tracks like the telling “Clean Slate (for Alex & El Goodo),” the happy-go-lucky “I Get Ideas” and the casual strum of the title track and “Wild Goose,” Ward appears to have let down his guard and opened up to optimism.
22. Cat Power – Sun (Matador)
WE SAID: On her first album of original material in six years, Chan “Cat Power” Marshall has something new to say, and a new way to say it. Rather than chronicle her anguish and doubt, Sun preaches confidence and hope. And it does so with synth-heavy music whose every note, reportedly, was played or programmed by Marshall. And if the album’s style is surprising, it’s Marshall’s disposition that’s startling. She is so sure of herself that she’s prepared to confront not just romance’s injustice, but also the world’s.
23. Tamaryn – Tender New Signs (Mexican Summer)
WE SAID: Tender New Signs is meant for all-the-way-through listening, preferably horizontal, preferably with headphones. You could sink into the Tamaryn aesthetic like a soft pillow, so enveloping, so welcoming and gentle the sound, yet these are not formless exercises in texture. No, all nine of these slow-moving cuts are built on actual melodies, simple enough to stick right away, radiant enough to hang like this album’s overtones, well after they are finished.
24. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits (Merge)
WE SAID: Angst and dark romance runs like a thread throughout the album. The songs marry Britt Daniel’s bombastic rocker inclinations with Dan Boeckner’s swagger and emotion with an itchy, staticy, adrenaline-fueled urgency from start to finish. There’s an immediacy to the band’s debut that suggests a passion project long in the works.
25. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (Constellation)
WE SAID: The insanely-titled new release from this enigmatic Canadian post-rock outfit, is the band’s first full-length effort in almost exactly a decade, and the record is so good that it completely validates Godspeed’s return to the studio and the touring circuit. This isn’t the sound of a once-renowned band trying to cash in on their glory days; it’s the sound of a band invigorated.
26. The xx – Coexist (Young Turks)
WE SAID: A/k/a Romy and Oliver’s big adventure: the duo’s hushed-yet-cerebral compositions were this year’s teenage symphonies to God, equal parts ambient flow and psychedelic drift, with an additional dreampop component that most of the year’s other dreampoppers could only dream of mustering. The album unfolds like a half-remembered dream – pun intended – that gradually takes form as the day progresses, so much so that when it’s finished spinning you’re not sure where the beginning was. If that sounds too ephemeral and precious, listen a little closer: this is the sound of deep, lingering contentment.
27. Teengirl Fantasy – Tracer (True Panther)
WE SAID: Nick Weiss and Logan Takahashi aren’t exactly making broken beat e-music on the far-fetched, experimental end of the spectrum. Instead, the two Oberlin alums are admittedly influenced more by classic house, techno, and ambient. This definitely works in their favor, as Teengirl Fantasy’s music simultaneously contains satisfying cues drawn from its predecessors as well as a distinctive creative bent all its own. Tracer is a lovely, melodious, engaging work of electronic music that will play just as well in the bedroom as it will on the dance floor.
28. Bettye LaVette – Thankful N’ Thoughtful (Anti-)
WE SAID: Thankful N’ Thoughtful isn’t for the faint of heart or the smiley-face crowd, but for anyone seeking a visceral connection to the lifeblood of real people living real lives, park it right here. Producer Craig Street and LaVette’s killer band have concocted a pleasingly minimalist melange that mixes bluesy, soulful grooves with country and rock, putting LaVette’s voice front and center, exactly where it should be. LaVette is in incredibly fine form, squeezing every amount of emotional resonance out of every track, her voice a well burnished, emotionally charged instrument that she plays like a master.
29. The Fresh & Onlys – Long Slow Dance (Mexican Summer)
WE SAID: The opening track of Long Slow Dance, “20 Days and 20 Nights,” gives a hint of sordid emotionality. But more important, it becomes immediately apparent what the listener is about to experience, a piece remarking on Springsteen-style power pop with an Old West aesthetic blanket laid over it. Tons of polish in the mix. Long Slow Dance is a schizophrenic album, at times frustratingly so. Yet it has its redemptive elements, so I’m just gonna use this last line to tell you that if you don’t listen to any other song this year, you need to listen to “Foolish Person.” Do it right now.
30. dB’s – Falling Off The Sky (Bar/None)
WE SAID: The dB’s of 1980 and 1982 were young and hungry, eager to prove to the world that they had a million song ideas; the dB’s of 2012 are older and more deliberate, careful to refine each idea into its most immaculate design. There is a measured authority in the songs included on Falling Off the Sky. The material is more complex, more carefully presented. The early records were rambunctious and immediately exhilarating. The new one is more wide-ranging, unfolding in waves of musical pleasures which slowly roll over the listener until there is no resistance possible.
31. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes (Warp)
WE SAID: Flying Lotus swoops through his music like a trapeze artist working without net or partners. Recorded at home like his last album, Until the Quiet Comes has free jazz references (Sun Ra, Pharoah Saunders), prog rock touches (Gentle Giant) and a few tips of his hat to Stereolab in the mix. Mostly though, it’s all Flying Lotus.
32. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch (4AD)
WE SAID: It is remarkable to see a once-teen-idol pop star, given complete freedom and long divorced from the star-making machinery, make music — sounds — so little related to anything that provided for his initial success. This has little in common with even “traditional” avant-edgy rock albums, although there are moments of rhythmic noise that recall Metal Machine Music. And as a singer, Walker, having stripped away the romanticism, sounds like a mournful choirboy whose solemn isolated voice, still struggling against odds for high-pitched purity, also aches for what has been lost.
33. Sigur Ros – Valtari (XL Recordings)
WE SAID: Sigur Rós has, in the past, caught flack for valuing static beauty over development, building icy, gorgeous landscapes that remain nearly motionless over the course of a song. Here, however, momentum lurks in even the prettiest tableaux. Wispy delicacy – the birdlike tones of Jonsi, the ghostly echoes of piano – builds into massive, swirling climaxes for these slippery, shimmery, beautiful songs.
34. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light (Fat Possum)
WE SAID: Known for his expanses of heavy psychedelic crème and aerated foam, Jason Pierce crunched his usual sound into something blunter and poppier this time out. Sweet Heart‘s melancholy tunes are still grand, their orchestras soaring and their choruses rousing, even Phil Spector-orian in the epic kink, but they’re more tightly wound than on previous efforts. And on the album’s most yearningly romantic ballad, “Too Late,” he stretches himself to find redemption in love: “This is dedicated baby, what more can I say?/ I won’t love you more than I love you today/ And I won’t love you less, but I’ve made my mistakes/ Stay away from love, dear, if that’s what it takes.”
35. Lost In the Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs (Anti-)
WE SAID: After a brilliant debut album that pushed the parameters into as yet unchartered realms, Lost in the Trees returns with a sophomore set that blurs those boundaries even further. Shimmering and ethereal, A Church That Fits Our Needs finds the band as ambitious as ever, daring to soar on the strength of a mere pluck of piano strings or billowing symphonic set-ups. It rings with a resilience that’s inspired, ambitious, mesmerizing and majestic.
36. Raveonettes – Observator (Vice)
WE SAID: A lot has happened with the Raveonettes since the mid-‘00s. Their splice of girl group melody and rackety, effect-driven guitar sounded new then, or at least relatively unusual. It was still half a decade before Vivian Girls, Pains of Being Pure at Heart and their many followers would colonize this blend of haze and sweetness. Rock was back, at least temporarily, and there was plenty of room for a floorboard’s worth of guitar pedals and a sound that linked the Ronettes to the Ventures to the Jesus & Mary Chain. As it turns out, there’s still some room for Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo, whose live act has gotten sharper even as their recorded output has grown more diffuse and atmospheric. Regarding the latter: Observator has a twangy, ethereal melancholia about it that’s rich in classic pop tropes (including the duo’s first love, Phil Spector’s wall of sound) and perfect for tapping the inner romantic in you.
37. Beach House – Bloom (Sub Pop)
WE SAID: With each album, Beach House, move farther away from their soft druggy drooogy waking-daydream éclat into something harder. The new Bloom still sounds as if it were recorded in a Salvation Army with an arsenal of instrumentation. But Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally up the ante on its blue-eyed soul slinging, additionally serving up hypnotic refrains and ice-thawing emotionalism – the stuff that made you fall in love with the pair in the first place.
38. Patterson Hood – Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance (ATO)
WE SAID: The only thing that keeps several tracks here from being Drive-By Truckers songs is the absence of a three-guitar firestorm. The biggest departure is the beautiful “Come Back Little Star,” which is driven by a melancholy piano and features co-vocals from Kelly Hogan, but even that tune could easily be Truckerized. It’s an indication of how many strong songs he has in the hopper, and how fans of his Truckers tunes will find much to love here.
39. Beachwood Sparks – The Tarnished Gold (Sub Pop)
WE SAID: 45 years after the fact, we finally have the true heir to The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Boasting vocal harmonies so Byrdsian you’d swear it was McGuinn, Hillman and Crosby instead of co-songwriters Chris Gunst, Brent Rademaker and Dave Scher. The Tarnished Gold dons the cosmic cowboy Stetson from the get-go. Thus staged, the album unfolds as a classic study in how to blend the best elements of rock, psychedelia, country and folk, even some touches of gospel and soul, with all the hyphenated hybrids those terms can conjure.
40. Eternal Tapestry – A World Out of Time (Thrill Jockey)
WE SAID: The peal of parrying, feedback-inducing e-bows; the chigger of arpeggiated riffing; the reliable propulsion of two percussionists a la the Dead or the Allmans; the elastic drone of distant Farfisa; and we’re off, embarking upon a magic carpet ride in pursuit of a fair maiden of the cancer moon in hopes of turning on her love light. Or maybe we’ve just wandered into the middle of a set by Portland quintet Eternal Tapestry, who suckle contentedly at the teat of vintage Bay Area ‘60s psych while also channeling everything from classic ‘70s Krautrock to latterday freak-folk to multiple-era free jazzers. If that sounds like a formula for hirsute grooviness, well, roll over Tim Leary, and tell Sun Ra the news.
41. Otis Taylor- Otis Taylor’s Contraband (Telarc/Concord)
WE SAID: Singer-songwriter Taylor finds his sweet spot on everything from jazzy, cornet-powered worldbeat and Memphis funk to twangy, hi-octane honky-tonk and neo-bluegrass, not to mention several of his patented hypnotic groove/blues rockers. He is consistently fitting his expressive voice to the material as he swaggers for the uptempo tunes and downshifts to a haunted moan for the starker, slower ones. And as producer, he’s similarly purposeful with the sonics, crafting a tight-ensemble-playing-in-a-circle vibe while providing enough separation and depth for each instrument so their timbres and nuances are clearly heard/felt.
42. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (Columbia)
WE SAID: Leonard Cohen has made the best full album of his career (song for song, sound for sound, lyrical point for point; yes, this is true). Old Ideas has a sort-of devilishness about it, in that it’s an exaltation and an assault on Cohen’s sacred/profane intellectualism. There is forgiveness. And then some. Sonically, the ghosts of delicate sympathetic instrumentation (this is his best, most diverse sounding album since the country/gypsy cabaret mix of 1985’s Various Positions) and deeply memorable melody aid his cause. Rather than rely on dense, stern synthesizers and heavy girl-voice backgrounds, those are kept to a spare minimum here. Everything is kept to a minimalist’s delight on Old Ideas. Ten short songs. Get in. Make the message count. Get out.
43. Dirty Three – Towards the Low Sun (Drag City)
WE SAID: It’s been seven years since the members of the Dirty Three have produced an album. The trio’s stark sound and loose, repetitious delivery have always featured more momentum than most rock bands that specialize in the play-two-chords-soft-play-them-loud-call-it-a-song formula. Most of this can be attributed to their unusual guitar/violin/drums lineup, and the way Warren Ellis plays haunting violin melodies instead of riffing. Furthermore, you can feel the enthusiasm as they play, even when a song might be a little sloppy. Jim White always plays like a creative jazz drummer, not just a time keeper. The group tinkers with their sound by having Turner and Ellis overdub extra guitars and violins in several tracks. It beefs up the sound while also challenging the ears. The time apart from one another has given the band a more expansive sound and Dirty Three have pushed themselves to create one of the most dynamic releases in the catalog.
44. Dan Melchior -The Backward Path (Northern Spy)
WE SAID: Melchior wrote and recorded The Backward Path during a time when his wife was becoming increasingly sick, a time when it must have become clear that he might lose her. As a result, the album is very serious, at times, quite sad, and also touched by a kind of mysticism. It is a lovely, extremely moving demonstration of exactly how a person can go on, not ignoring what’s going on, but not being beaten down by it either, and continuing to make art from the rawest of raw materials.
45. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Meat and Bone (Mom+Pop)
WE SAID: Aside from some intermittent touring, it has been eight long, painfully quiet years since The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion released their last record, Damage. Meat and Bone stands as quite possibly the band’s best album to date. The Explosion breaks everything down to its root and reconstructs it all in a perfect way; it should show a generation of cool kids that may have missed him the first time around that Jon Spencer is among garage rock’s main guitar slingers. Do not snooze on Meat and Bone: it is out of this world and as addictive as Heisenberg’s Blue Sky meth.
46. Swans – The Seer (Young God)
WE SAID: A quintessential Swans release. Moving from light to heavy, melodic to dissonant, gentle to violent over the course of its two discs and eleven songs, The Seer traverses the history of human emotion. On the title track, during 32+ minutes, Michael Gira & Co.’s music moves through acoustic solitude, pounding fury and haunting afterglow, before evolving into a shuffling groove, dissonant guitar waves and unsettling vocals that evoke the voices in God’s head during Earth’s creation.
47. Friends – Manifest! (Fat Possum)
WE SAID: Up front is singer Samantha Urbani, sultry like Lykke Li, sassy like club-era Madonna, and in possession of an uncommonly sensual coo, as one listen to the hypnotic, electro-pulsing New Wave of “Friend Crush,” and the way Urbani fairly French-kisses her long vowels, will demonstrate. Meanwhile, the rest of the group is stirring up the kind of funky-but-chic downtown vibe that Bronx post-punkers ESG once excelled in and, more recently, has been taken up by the likes of Brazilian upstarts CSS.
48. Warren Haynes Band – Live at the Moody Theater (Stax)
WE SAID: this sumptuous CD / DVD package, recorded in concert at Austin’s Moody Theater, finds the Gov’t Mule frontman and his solo band sharing the best of their wares – the fiery guitar licks, an exemplary rhythm section, horns and keyboards all locked in sync through a rousing set of up-tempo blues and frenzied R&B. The band draws liberally from their most recent studio set, last year’s breakthrough Man in Motion, while also tapping choice covers by Steely Dan, Jimi Hendrix and Sam Cooke.
49. The Old Ceremony – Fairytales & Other Forms of Suicide (Yep Roc)
WE SAID: The pleasures of OC are twofold. On the one hand are the acoustic-based yet cinematic arrangements, which blend wide-ranging folk, atmospheric rock and pretty much any other sound the band feels like borrowing or adapting to its cause. On the other hand is the imaginative songwriting by leader Django Haskins, the kind of tunesmith that makes you wonder why you haven’t heard of his work before – this is an individual who understands craft.
50. Anders Osborne – Black Eye Galaxy (Galaxy)
WE SAID: For years now Osborne has been known for his incendiary live shows and intense guitar playing. Now comes his second album for Alligator, which defies easy classification as blues or rock or anything else. This is a work of art-a throwback to the days before corporations completely controlled and corrupted media and culture. Corporations ruined radio and destroyed journalism with their emphasis on marketability and focus groups and playing it safe.
51. Archie Powell and the Exports – Great Ideas in Action (Good Land)
WE SAID: Amped up by what seems like a boundless supply of energy applied with equal amounts of enthusiasm, Greet Ideas In Action barely contains its fervor and becomes all the more intoxicating as a result. Without even the slightest pause between songs, Powell and company exude pure adrenalin as they take their headlong plunge into boisterous celebration, from power pop to ‘50s rock to just plain hi-nrg stuff that keeps accelerating until you’re out of breath.
52. Sidi Touré – Koïma (Thrill Jockey)
WE SAID: Where the African guitarist’s 2011 U.S. debut Sahel Folk was a series of voice and guitar duets, recorded casually at Touré’s sister’s home, Koïma brings in calabash, bass, multiple guitars and a back-up singer. It’s a denser, more animated realization of Touré’s Songhaïroots, featuring a diverse group of Malian talent and filtered through Touré’s own experience and artistic vision.
53. Glen Hansard – Rhythm & Repose (Anti-)
WE SAID: a superb solo outing from Glen Hansard, front man for the Irish ensemble The Frames, and more recently, co-star – with musical partner Markéta Irglová – in the critically lauded duo the Swell Season. Hansard and Irglová were also, for a time, romantic partners, and knowing that they subsequently parted ways makes the low-cast laments that populate this effort all the most poignant. That’s not to say Rhythm and Repose is wholly devoted to melancholia, brooding and rumination; Hansard boasts more than a hint of ringing resolve, whether voiced through a wail and a holler on the soaring “High Hope,” or with a feeling of quiet resolve on the tender torch song “Bird of Sorrow.”
54. Jack White – Blunderbuss (Third Man/Columbia)
WE SAID: The Nashville skyline’s breeze that hovers over Blunderbuss (Third Man Records) is hotter and more, well, blustery than anything White’s managed previously. Certainly his immediate past is easy to spot here. And it being a Jack White effort, the kitchen sink is filled with dishy old T. Rex and Robert Johnson takes and Jagger-like-moves, hillbilly glam-rock and jive-talking honky-tonk. A few missteps aside, Blunderbuss is good, damn good.
55. Brian Eno – LUX (Warp)
WE SAID: Originally designed to be heard at an art installation, as an album the music of LUX makes for a beautiful listening experience whether you are sitting alone in your house or in a gallery full of folks. Eno views this record as the long-awaited third installment of his Music for Thinking series alongside 1975’s Discreet Music and 1993’s Neroli. And with its relaxing, wordless waves of pastoral hums and harmonies, LUX rightfully earns its place amongst such classic works by one of the great masters of sonic exploration.
56. Kendra Morris – Banshee (Wax Poetics)
WE SAID: 30-something neo soul diva Kendra Morris’ debut, released by Wax Poetics, blends the old school vocal chops with a post-modern complexity. For while she values the authenticity and honesty of classic soul, Morris is also a big fan of intricate, multi-part songs that say one thing and contradict it with another and, most of all, of vocal harmonies, which are everywhere on Banshee. Morris performs all these songs in her own, very natural voice, shunning the kind of digital processing that has defined pop music for the last couple of decades.
57. Moon Duo – Circles (Sacred Bones)
WE SAID: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end,” began Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1841 essay “Circles.” 171 years later, Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada of Moon Duo strive to achieve the heightened form of transcendentalism the American philosopher was going for on paper in sonic form for their third full-length, also called Circles coincidentally enough.
58. Empresarios – El Sonido Magico (Fort Knox)
WE SAID: With Empresarios, it’s all about the good groove. Following up 2010’s superlative Sabor Tropical, these groove wizards from Washington, DC, are back with a seamless, sexy collection of twelve originals and a spoken intro (all in Spanish) that effortlessly achieves ecstatic lift-off. Their signature “tropicaliente” melange mixes up reggae, dub, salsa, cumbia and funk, all driven by an insistent, slippery dub bass line.
59. Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues (Kill Rock Stars)
WE SAID: Tucker’s self-professed “adult” record (she turns 40 this fall) isn’t MOR but fist-pumping rock that ain’t going gently into that good night. The ex-Sleater Kinney rocker is in quartet mode with tinkerer/multi-instrumentalist Seth Lorinczi joining her for a raging double guitar sound (though unlike her former bandmates, Tucker’s OK with hiring a bassist). Tucker’s famous warble/shriek is balanced by cannily-placed decorative hooks throughout, and even when she gets mournful on the second half, she’s still angry, strong and lyrical, not overly sentimental.
60. Lee Fields & the Expressions – Faithful Man (Truth & Soul)
WE SAID: Like Bettye LaVette and Charles Bradley, Lee Fields is another late-period, deep-soul success story. Faithful Man is a product of the dream team of producers, arrangers, songwriters and players (the house band called the Expressions) at Brooklyn’s Truth & Soul Records, whose history parallels Brooklyn’s better-known Daptone. Fields’ voice has a pleading, straining urgency in its upper register, but it comes across full of gritty strength and ripping intensity in mid-range. The Expressions, who include Michels on multiple instruments including saxophone and guitar, are perfect companions for this soul-revival recording. Keep it comin’.
61. Shoes – Ignition (Black Vinyl)
WE SAID: Cut-for-cut, Ignition is the power pop band’s finest record since its earliest days. Sharp tunes like the winsome “Nobody to Blame,” the bright “Diminishing Returns,” the psychedelic “Out of Round” and the rocking “Hot Mess” may not push the band’s self-constructed envelope, but there’s a noticeable breath of fresh air running through the writing and performances. This sounds like the work of a new, young band. Crammed full of the band’s trademarks and with a killer set of absolutely winsome melodies, Ignition finds Shoes sounding refreshed and better than ever.
62. Ahleuchatistas – Heads Full of Poison (Cuneiform/Harvest)
WE SAID: Ahleuchatistas – the band name melded from both the title of a Charlie Parker song and a revolutionary movement spurred in Mexico – has morphed into a duo, guitarist Shane Perlowin and drummer Ryan Oslance, and Heads Full of Poison represents yet another rebirth in its decade-long daring trajectory into a shape-shifting universe of sound. The caustic Flying Luttenbacherisms and Beefheartian hiccups of earlier material has given way to a staggeringly precise whipping of Eastern music and raga-bent deconstruction fused with its trademark monolithic, fractured avant-rock detail.
63. Antibalas – Antibalas (Daptone)
WE SAID: Like Fela himself, Antibalas engages whole-heartedly in politics, making the common man’s struggles a center of its syncopated, body-moving art. (The video for “Dirty Money” is explicitly tied to the Occupy Movement, making abstract lyrics about a man drowning and falling off buildings concrete and economically determined.) Afro-beat has always been protest music, but it’s also an escape hatch, a physically enveloping, mildly hallucinatory experience that puts harsh realities on hold. Seventies American soul also twitches to life in the Shaft-era guitar work of Marcos Garcia, the space-age funk of the keyboards, but there’s fusion jazz, too, in the wild keening and blaring of Stuart Bogie’s saxophone.
64. Lana Del Rey – Born To Die (Interscope)
WE SAID: The early criticisms weighed upon Ms. Del Rey are based upon hype – the supposition that she should jump bolt upright from the cold, gray but entrancing “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” vibe of last year’s “Video Games” to become a hyperactive Katy Perry sort. Or worse, a soberer Lady Gaga. That’s the internet’s fault, this hot hype. Produced with weirdly atmospheric hip hop warmth by Emile Haynie (of Kid Cudi fame), Del Rey can play the role of R&B floozy (“Off to the Races”) with a moll’s aplomb and prove that cowgirls really do get the blahs on the tortured “Blue Jeans.” There’s even the delectable summer’s shine of “Diet Mountain Dew” where being a pretty girl in New York City seems as op-to-Pop-timistic as Edie Sedgwick driving with the top down. But mostly this Bryan Ferry in a smart dress sticks to a deathly lounge lizard display of emotionalism and musicality, a smoky girl with a smoking gun’s lyrical flourish fond of lines like “he loves me with every beat of his cocaine heart.”
65. Floating Action – Fake Blood (Removador/Harvest)
WE SAID: Black Mountain (NC) based Floating Action is the lushly lo-fi project of singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Seth Kauffman. And the new album, released on Jim James’ label, feels good. It bobs gently as a warm wave lapping a Caribbean island. It goes down easy as rum punch without the subsequent regret. What Kauffman is so good at, and what he never seems to tire of reinventing: How to work with muffled layers, resonance, feedback, echo. Each song is treated to varying degrees of delay and sonic density. Sound travels molasses-slow through secret passages. Here are crypts, vaults, burrows, crawl spaces, subways and the dark dens of the unexplored psyche.
66. Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby – A Working Museum (Southern Domestic)
WE SAID: A Working Museum may not be marked by much in the way of advanced musical technique. But for its creative abandon, and courage, it towers above a hill of output by younger musicians, as well as some of Goulden’s better-established contemporaries. There’s a nearly uniform freshness to the album’s colorful ruminations on “everyday” topics. Another magnet is provided by the frequent shift from Goulden to Rigby at the lead vocal mic.
67. Frankie Rose – Interstellar (Slumberland)
WE SAID: For Interstellar, Rose drops the Outs to go truly singular. She’s shed all the expectations accrued by a garage-pop repertoire to adopt an altogether new persona, one that’s doused in glitter and glam and driven by soft, mesmerizing vocals. You won’t find any “Candy” or “Girlfriend Island” type of tunes here, but instead, tracks touched by electronic, danceable beats and guitars akin to the Cure of the ‘80s.
68. Deerhoof – Breakup Song (Polyvinyl)
WE SAID: In many ways, Breakup Song is trademark Deerhoof. Infectious and celebratory in its claustrophobic cacophony, the songs jump from varying rhythms and soundscapes deftly and quickly. Still, although it is an electric, ultra-fun, frenetic carnival, it’s most satisfying in its quieter, more spacious moments.
69. Christian Fennesz – AUN: The Beginning and The End Of All Things (Ash International)
WE SAID: AUN: The Beginning And The End Of All Things is a strange Faustian drama from Austrian auteur Edgar Honetschläger AND the filmmaker could not have hired a better man to give this 100-minute cinematic meditation an appropriate sonic undercurrent. Beautifully melancholic passages on grand piano and guitar interweave and flutter through the ether of his static-encrusted digital ambiance over 15 compositions of unsettling serenity.
70. Japandroids – Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)
WE SAID: It is a good sign when a record opens with the sound of fireworks ripping open the night sky. It is a signal to the world of what is to come in the 35 minutes that are to follow: an explosion of distortion, pounding drums, ear-splitting volume and stories of fighting against a mundane life. Japandroids’ Celebration Rock has that by the truckloads; the Canadian duo picks up seamlessly were Bob Mould’s Husker Du and Sugar left off. Japandroids are showing, without reservation, their allegiance to music built upon pop sensibilities and the rotten teeth of punk rock.
71. Chuck Prophet – Temple Beautiful (Yep Roc)
WE SAID: So-Cal boy Chuck Prophet has long embraced San Francisco as his home, and Temple Beautiful is his ambitious paean to the little city by the bay. Each song is based on a bit of San Fran history, some events more notorious or infamous than others. It is the product you expect from this highly original and creative artist. It succeeds in its goal of telling some stories of this unique and singular city, as well as rolling out a dozen solid songs.
72. Quantic & Alice Russell – Look Around the Corner (Tru Thoughts)
WE SAID: Quantic and Alice Russell, Brits by birth, both possess a restless musical spirit that has taken them, literally and figuratively, around the musical world. Look Around The Corner, issued on Britain’s adventurous Tru Thoughts label, features fourteen tracks of Latin infused tropical pop, all produced with the unassailably tasteful, light touch that has always been Quantic’s hallmark as a producer and musician. It’s a terrific pairing, with Russell is in full vocal bloom.
73. Dead Can Dance – Anastasis (PIAS)
WE SAID: Dead Can Dance first reunited in 2005 for a tour as a celebration of its legacy, but Anastatis is arguably an even bigger deal: the first new material to come from the Lisa Gerrard-Brendan Perry partnership since 1996. From the first few notes, it’s clear that the duo’s signature blend of worldbeat rhythms and ancient melodies with rich electronic atmospheres is still potent, if leaning toward the synthesized side of DCD’s lush sound.
74. Aimee Mann – Charmer (Superego)
WE SAID: Charmer wins its way into our hearts just the same way Bachelor No. 2, Lost in Space, The Forgotten Arm, and @%&*! Smilers did. The mid-tempo, intoxicating tuneful songs, filled with keyboard flourishes, George Harrisonesque guitar solos, and layers of overdubbed vocal harmonies and counterpoint, are as irresistible as ever. Mann sings of the lure of the charmer who, it turns out, is as insecure as everybody else, without quite revealing that she knows how charming she is herself.
75. Redd Kross – Researching The Blues (Merge)
WE SAID: A goddamn gem, crackling with energy, that totally celebrates the pure bliss and joy that rock ‘n’ roll can, and should be. With colorful tweaking around with production effects and thumping bass beats, there’s a familiarity harkening back to albums past. It’s really something, as well as a dichotomy, when a band can sound better than ever and still sound the same. From these ten songs, running 32 minutes, and not a weak one in the bunch, Researching The Blues is everything the dedicated Redd Kross fan could possibly desire from a return album – except of course, maybe a few more songs.