Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Best of 2012: The Best Albums I Heard

2012 was once again a year in which I didn’t hear much in the way of newly recorded music that changed my life.

Or even substantially enhanced it.

This is not for lack of trying.

There are few things that I want more than to discover new music that I find invigorating. Toward that end, I bought at least a couple dozen albums in 2012—either in physical or digital form—and listened to many more via Spotify. I regularly perused reviews from Rolling Stone, AllMusic.com, Metacritic and various newspapers, magazines and websites. I checked out best sellers and new releases on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. I paid attention to who played at Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, Bonnaroo, Coachella and other festivals, even streaming much of them on YouTube. I watched a lot of live gigs on Palladia. And I read numerous Best of 2012 opinions, both mid-year editions and especially of late.

Based on all this, I have sampled a lot of new music, at least within styles I tend to like. And between releases by cherished favorites—Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Garbage, Alejandro Escovedo, Dinosaur Jr., Bob Dylan, Soundgarden, Rush, Jack White and more—as well as newer bands oft cited as releasing stellar albums in 2012—Fun., Tame Impala, Japandroids, Howler, Divine Fits, The Lumineers, Titus Andronicus—there has been very little that, especially across an entire album, has made me go “Wow!”

Yes, there have been some decent albums and enjoyable songs, but for me, a truly great album is one that I come back to again and again—upon its initial release or my discovery, but also in years to come.

Looking back now at my picks for the Best Albums of 2011 and 2010, the above criteria has really only applied to my top pick in 2011 (Adele – 21) and perhaps just half of my top 10 in 2010.

And while I genuinely enjoy all the albums I cite below to some extent, at this point I suspect only my top 2 picks will prove to have shelf life in my musical universe. So you may wish to listen on Spotify before buying any of them.

But without any further ado, these are the albums I liked best in 2012:

1. Maxïmo Park – The National Health
I feel somewhat sheepish about awarding the top slot to a band so little known in America, but other folks’ Best Albums of 2012 lists are full of artists with which I’m not familiar. Maxïmo Park’s 2005 debut, A Certain Trigger, still ranks as my favorite album of the ’00s and after a couple lesser ones, I thoroughly enjoy The National Health from start to finish. (Spotify link)

2. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
It says a lot about The Boss that I like at least 10 of his previous albums better than this one, yet I still think it’s an excellent record with interesting sounds and a lot to say. (Spotify link)

3. The Hives – Lex Hives
They may not be the buzz band they once were, but the Swedish band continues to produce infectious, Ramones-like rapid fire rock songs. And Lex Hives is full of them. (Spotify link)

4. Paul Weller – Sonik Kicks
The Modfather has been on quite a hot streak in the 21st Century, with Sonik Kicks his 6th stellar studio album of the millennium. (Spotify link)

5. Kelly Hogan – I Like to Keep Myself in Pain
A longtime bartender at Chicago’s Hideout, Hogan proved captivating in an opening set for Wilco in Davenport in July, and though her album doesn’t scale Adele-like heights, she’s an impressive vocalist in a somewhat similar vein. (Spotify link)

6. Susanna Hoffs – Someday
The Bangle beauty showcases strong songwriting throughout her latest solo album. (Spotify link)

7. Neil Young – Psychedelic Pill
With a 27 minute song to open the album and two others clocking in over 16:00, this new work with Crazy Horse isn’t easy to listen to—in full—while driving. But two of the epics, “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like a Giant” are among the album’s best songs, and there’s more than enough here to remind why Neil Young is one of the greatest rock artists of all-time.

8. Taylor Swift – Red
I’ve never cared about Swift’s romantic melodramas and subsequent musical salvos, but I find her to be one of the few present day musical artists to actually possess impressive artistry. Red showcases a rather impressive range of songwriting and singing styles. (Spotify link)

9. Bob Mould – Silver Age
According to reviews, I was supposed to like Mould’s new album as much as 1993’s great Copper Blue, released with Sugar. I don’t, but he fell short of past glories a bit more satisfyingly than did the Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Soundgarden, Garbage and others I had high hopes for. (Spotify link)

10. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
In listening to a lot of artists cited in other Best Album of 2012 lists, the Japandroids seem to be the best of what I’ve heard. The guitar buzz created by the Vancouver duo admittedly fits into my sweet spot, though so far I like their sound more than their songcraft. (Spotify link)

Honorable Mention

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (Spotify link) 
Bob Dylan – Tempest (Spotify link)
Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky (Spotify link)
The Killers – Battle Born (Spotify link)
Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth (Spotify link)
Slash with Myles Kennedy & the Conspirators – Apocalyptic Love (Spotify link)

Highly worthwhile live albums/DVDs

Blur - Parklive (Spotify link) 
Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day

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