TOP 50 RECORDS OF 2012:
50. Justin Townes Earle- Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
Justin Townes Earle walks a tightrope between blessing and curse being the offspring of alt-country legend Steve Earle along with the tortured ghost of his father’s mentor Townes Van Zandt perched on his shoulder. It’s a burden to have to live up to two country legends, but Townes Earle more than lives up to his lineage as the lonesome pale rider suits him well on Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now. He wallows spinning songs of sorrow blending country blues, Honky-Tonk and Memphis soul. There is a ray of light cracking through the bleakness though- the album’s aptly titled closer “Movin’ On” with its chugging Cash-esque train escape out of the dark side of town.
49. Vintage Trouble- The Bomb Shelter Sessions
The word “vintage” couldn’t be more appropriate for this band. With their Stonesy swagger mixed with R&B charisma, they’re a retro furnace blast for modern times. Frontman Ty Taylor howls with a soulful flair on standouts like the opener, “Blues Hand Me Down” and the eight minute bluesy closer “Run Outta You” just might leave the Germanic God Odin weeping in his throne in Valhalla during the wee small hours.
48. Trampled By Turtles- Stars and Satellites
Sometimes they seem as if they’re a thrash metal band hidden under the gaze of a bluegrass outfit due to their often speedy high-octane string band songs. There are still moments of that on Stars and Satellites but the approach as a whole is much gentler. The result is a batch of warm arrangements reminiscent of a countryside journal with visibility for miles on cuts like the scene-setting opener, “Midnight on the Interstate” the heartbreaking build into a gallop of “Alone” or the final barnyard dance of “The Calm and The Crying Wind”, they succeed in creating a misty-eyed travelogue. With a mighty surge in the rebirth of folk and bluegrass in pop music, Trampled By Turtles might get overlooked -but even so they create great music for genre, holding their own with the heavy-hitters.
47. The Beach Boys- That’s Why God Made The Radio
It’s a bit surprising that the surviving members of The Beach Boys would get together to commemorate their 50th Anniversary as a band. What’s even more surprising was a new album of entirely new material. That’s Why God Made The Radio is a lush nostalgic blast of Beach Boys bliss, with maestro Brian Wilson helming the producing duties. These new songs hold up well, though, compared to some of their classic records including the title track, “Isn’t It Time”, “Shelter”, “Daybreak Over the Ocean” and “From There and Back Again” all showcase incredible harmonies with the same youthful virility of the same California lads some five decades ago.
46. Silversun Pickups- Neck of the Woods
Amidst a log-jam of bullshit post-grunge guitar bands came a breath of fresh air in the Silversun Pickups with their record Swoon in 2009. They continue their hot streak with 2012’s Neck of the Woods. Lead singer/guitarist Brian Aubert sings in his now trademark whimsical yet fiery Corgan-style vocals while layers of guitars give Neck of the Woods the proper and engaging atmospherics. Songs like “Skin Graph”, “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)”, “Mean Spirits”, “The Pit”, and “Dots and Dashes (Enough Already)” prove that Silversun Pickups have staying power.
45. The Sheepdogs- The Sheepdogs
The Sheepdogs caught a huge break in 2011 when they won a contest that landed them on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. With their debut on a major record label, their self-titled effort The Sheepdogs, they prove that winning that contest wasn’t a fluke. It’s not shocking that these guys from the great white north of Canada make classic southern rock with the best of ‘em. They’ve seemingly picked up a torch The Allman Brothers left behind- we may have seen that somewhere before. These guys would fit right in at home with the party weekender tough guy rock of the 1970’s, or at least blend in perfectly on the Dazed And Confused soundtrack. Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney lends his producing skills to the album and evidence is apparent on “Feeling Good” with its stomping Black Keys vibe. Elsewhere, “Is Your Dream Worth Dying For?” sounds like a cut that would’ve been a big hit during the Golden Age of FM radio, and the Thin Lizzy rowdiness of “While We’re Young” sounds like these guys have enough moonshine coursing through their veins to fuel a rocket.
44. Alabama Shakes- Boys & Girls
Alabama Shakes were a big buzz band in 2012, and they lived up to the hype. Boys & Girls is coated in washes of retro soul, blues, and southern charm giving it a rustic modernism. At their center though is the captivating singing of Brittany Howard- both refreshing and empowering. It’s rare in this era when females step to the front of a blues rock band, but Howard does so with the force of a hurricane. A wounded wail on songs like “Hold On”, “I Found You”, “Hang Loose”, and “Heartbreaker” that could grab a listener from the furthest seat away.
43. Mark Knopfler- Privateering
Before he started the global phenomenon of Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler always wanted to be a Bob Dylan type of singer/songwriter. It should come as no surprise then, with the dissolution of Dire Straits that Knopfler’s solo career similarly has mirrored Dylan’s latter day explorations of roots rock, folk, and blues. The culmination of his solo career comes in the vast landscape of the double album Privateering. Knopfler takes various global styles, transforming them into a melting pot of Americana which he pulls off as well as anyone from this continent (despite being an Englishman). His journey takes him from confessional troubadour in “Redbud Tree” to “Seattle”. He dabbles in Celtic balladry with “Haul Away”, dulcet waltzes with “Radio City Serenade”, high seas shanties with the title track, sauntering blues in “Don’t Forget Your Hat”, inaugural Rock & Roll in “I Used To Could” and even a bit of Dire Straits tinted rock with “Corned Beef City”. Privateering may, at times, seem like it’s a world apart from Dire Straits, but that doesn’t make this endeavor any less rich or satisfying.
42. Heartless Bastards- Arrow
Amongst all of the hard rock releases this year, the one with the sharpest teeth might be Arrow, lead by femme fatale Erika Wennerstrom. The band flexes their dynamic ability, showing off their range on rockers like the stomping “Parted Ways”, the fearsome “Got To Have Rock and Roll”, and the air-raid siren riff of tyrant closer “Down In the Canyon” that sounds as menacing as some of the deepest, darkest fathoms Black Sabbath explored. Elsewhere there’s the gentler heavy-headed weariness of the road with “Marathon” and the churning, haunting “The Arrow Killed the Beast”. The Mach II version of Heartless Bastards gel on Arrow perhaps better than any other record that’s been done by them yet.
41. The Avett Brothers- The Carpenter
The Avett Brothers are amongst the front runners of the folk-rock revival pack. After a break-through with 2009’s I and Love and You, The Avetts return with producer Rick Rubin for The Carpenter. Although not as sweeping as I and Love and You, The Carpenter sounds more mature and earthy. It’s a mixture of great song craft with sublimely sad songs such as “The Once and Future Carpenter”, “Live And Die”, “I Never Knew You”, and “Down With The Shine”. Other poignant tracks include creaking bittersweet ballads like “Winter In My Heart”, “February Seven”, “Through My Prayers”, and “Life”. The Avett Brothers carry the baggage of multi-decade veterans of heartbreak, and make it seem so sweet.
40. Ponderosa- Pool Party
After releasing their debut album Moonlight Revival early last year- a sturdy collection of Allman Brothers meets The Rolling Stones southern rock- no one probably saw the 180° turn they would make with their follow-up in Pool Party. This venture is an echoing ethereal effort that, in part, may have to do with producer Dave Fridmann, who’s also produced the likes of The Flaming Lips. Pool Party sounds like an entirely new band but the risky big leap pays off well. It’s a dream-pop submergence with standouts like “Here I Am”, “Black Hill Smoke”, “On Your Time”, and “Navajo” which sounds like a mix of Fleet Foxes and Manic Street Preachers at their most ambitious.
39. Nude Beach- II
Nude Beach’s II takes a lot of cues from classic rock and late 70’s punk, but it’s the raw, youthful exuberance that makes this one of the most exciting records of 2012. Right out of the gate, opener “Radio” has the pistons blazing- a getaway car to anywhere better. The road trip continues with the early Springsteen boardwalk bravado of “Walkin’ Down My Street” and “Keep It Cool”, open highway fervor in “Some Kinda Love”, the buzzsaw of “Cathedral Echoes”. And you’ll swear “Love Can’t Wait” is something Tom Petty might’ve mistakenly left off of Damn The Torpedoes or Hard Promises. Titles like “The Endless Night”, though, pretty much sum up the whole record.
38. King Tuff- King Tuff
Kyle Thomas, a.k.a. King Tuff, may never get his shit together to make a concise mission statement. That’s more than okay because this infusion of stoner rock with indie-pop is enough of a rally cry to resurrect anyone from a couch coma and get them to their feet. Look no further than pumped-up opener “Anthem” sounding like a clarion call for all the weirdos out there. King Tuff and his crew sound like the block party band for the night with enough good vibes for the entire neighborhood with rollicking cuts like “Alone & Stoned,” “Keep On Movin’,” “Bad Thingm” and “Stranger”. They mix well with slow burners such as the Stone Roses flavored “Unusual World” and Mott The Hoople tinged “Swamp of Love.” Thomas sounds like the good times will be rolling for awhile.
37. Shovels & Rope- O’ Be Joyful
After hearing the courteous, genuflecting indie pop of coed duos like She & Him and the Civil Wars, Shovels and Rope is the revitalizing ramshackle clang and clatter of wife/husband combo Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. There hasn’t been a guy-girl pair since The White Stripes to make this type of energetic country blues and folk. And on their debut, O’ Be Joyful, they make a blissful ruckus. Hearst’s ash-tray yelp meshes with Trent’s falsetto wonderfully on boot stompers like “Birmingham”, “Keeper”, the title track, “Hail Hail”, and “Cavalier”. This may be the most rustic, authentic feeling record this year.
36. Tame Impala- Lonerism
If psychedelic rock is to make a comeback, the boys from down under in Tame Impala are going to lead the charge. It’s been a long time since a record like Lonerism came along sounding both palpable, with certain pop sensibilities, yet as foreign as a prism from a distant galaxy. Lonerism is a space journey of warped sunshine harmonies and alien soundscapes that burrow into your cerebrum until you feel light years away with these Aussies. There are moments when it seems as if this is a record The Beatles would’ve made had they continued making music into the 1970’s. There are a lot of great extraterrestrial freak outs here but make sure you’re surrounded by good friends if your trip starts to go bad and veer to the abyss on the spectacularly mind-bending wormhole of “Elephant.” Now that your chairs are tilted back and eyes dilated to the size of flying saucers, hold on for dear life… worth it.
35. Father John Misty- Fear Fun
Singer/songwriter Joshua Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, has had his hand in several side projects- most notably, a stint in the Fleet Foxes as their drummer and backing vocalist. It’s not surprising, then, that his album Fear Fun leans on the same Pacific Northwest hymnals that lead Fleet Foxes to such prominence. The difference, though, is Fear Fun tends to be a lot weirder, like catching a rare glimpse of Sasquatch before lumbering deeper into the woods of that same Pacific Northwest. Father John Misty is a folk neo-psychedelic guru inviting you to walk behind him barefoot down the bizarro path, further down the rabbit-hole on cuts like “Funtimes In Babylon,” “Nancy From Now On,” “I’m Writing A Novel,” “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2,” and “Only Son Of A Ladiesman.” And the lyric of record closer “Everyman Needs A Companion” might contain the best Catholic-guilt lyric never written by Bruce Springsteen: “John the Baptist took Jesus Christ down to the river on a Friday night/ They talked about Mary like a couple of boys/ With nothing to lose, but too scared to try.”
34. Andrew Bird- Break It Yourself
Andrew Bird’s sixth studio album, Break It Yourself, has two major elements that should be of no surprise to long time Bird followers: lots of whistling and violin. These never seem smothering or cliché though- more like companion brush strokes as Bird paints lovely, sonically abstract murals on Break It Yourself. What sets it apart from some of his more recent work though is the whole live-in-studio feel, thanks to Bird’s backing band, which replaced his mad scientist, do-everything-himself approach. This is evident on standouts like “Danse Caribe”, “Eyeoneye”, “Near Death Experience”, “Orpheo Looks Back” and the eight-minute “Hole in the Ocean Floor”. On this album, and all his others, one thing is evident– no one makes records like Andrew Bird.
33. JEFF The Brotherhood- Hypnotic Nights
Remember how thrilling and risky it felt to drink under 21? Keggers at house parties or bonfires deep in the woods, you felt empowered living outside the law. JEFF The Brotherhood’s Hypnotic Nights prowls outside the boundaries of those kinds of laws, or at least encourages you to do so. Brother’s Jake and Jamin Orrall specialize in thumping and crunching proto hard rock but also they’re given extra fire power and are more dynamic with production from The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach on Hypnotic Nights. They blend booze guzzlers and brawny bruisers like, “Country Life,” “Sixpack,” “Staring At The Wall,” and “Dark Energy” with more experimental spaced-out tracks “Region of Fire” (Good God is that a sax solo!?) and “Hypnotic Winter.” The closing cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” is bizarrely beautiful; a synth-slathered nearly moog-sounding mongoloid ballad that show their ever-increasing chops for studio nuances. Who knows what creature their next record will morph into but it’ll probably be warped and exhilarating, just what we need from the Orrall bros.
32. Fun.- Some Nights
Frontman Nate Ruess of Fun. at times has a stadium-filling falsetto as powerful as anyone, even occasionally sounding uncannily like Freddie Mercury reincarnated. Even more impressive? The band’s flair for matching the flamboyant prog-rock mini operas of some of Queen’s most monumental recordings. Their album Some Nights includes two mega hits in the title track and “We Are Young” as well as other moments of grandiosity such as “Carry On”, “Why Am I the One”, and “All Alright”. It’s refreshing in this era of music to hear a band like Fun. and their pomp & circumstance extravagance.
31. Delta Spirit- Delta Spirit
Delta Spirit continues to cut a path for themselves somewhere between Americana and indie guitar bands on their 2012 self-titled effort. At the forefront of Delta Spirit remains singer/songwriter Matt Vasquez, who has blossomed into a formidable songwriter. His distinctive raspy croon makes Delta Spirit stand out from the rest of the pack. The songs sketch visuals for themselves like the opener “Empty House” sounding like waves crashing against the shore, “California” is the pavement whisking by while you’re looking out the window of a West Coast road trip while “Idaho” and “Money Saves” attempt to rattle the restless from the doldrums. Delta Spirit may have self-titled this album because it serves as a good portrait for the bands’ strengths– elements of darkness that can boast inviting warmth, too.
30. Dry The River- Shallow Bed
With their debut record, Shallow Bed, Dry The River join a budding resurgence of folk rock into mainstream lead by Mumford & Sons. Shallow Bed, however, has many intricacies and complexities that make it more austere than some of those other bands with their glorious hoedowns. Frontman Peter Liddle’s ghostly quivering falsetto gives the songs both a haunting yet pastoral vibe that engulfs this set of songs. There are still ostentatious instances like “New Ceremony”, “The Chambers & The Valves”, and “No Rest” that liken the distressed epics of The Smiths or The National. The eerie, baroque folk of Shallow Bed certainly makes it one of the more unique and engaging debuts this year.
29. The Walkmen- Heaven
The Walkmen return with their seventh studio album, Heaven, which is their most versatile and captivating to date. Hamilton Leithauser leads his crew through a careening set of songs, including the darker U2 hued title track, “Heartbreaker”, and “Nightingales”. There’s a nocturnal saunter in “The Witch” and “Southern Heart”, and the subtle majesty of “Line by Line” showcase the talent for which The Walkmen have become amazing craftsman. Heaven is the sound of The Walkmen passionately and restlessly crafting a record, trying to outdo themselves once more.
28. Lord Huron- Lonesome Dreams
Ben Schneider and his band Lord Huron conjure up a big dream sound on Lonesome Dreams. Right down to Schneider’s Jim James style of singing, Lonesome Dreams recalls At Dawn-era My Morning Jacket. The lush, ornate back drops coating Lonesome Dreams sound like a celestial adventure couched in comfort. “Ends of The Earth” sounds just like an ambitious journey to that very location while “Time To Run”, the title track, and “She Lit A Fire” sound like this elegant night may never end. That’s okay, because if Schneider gets his wish in “The Man Who Lives Forever”, the endless dream of Lonesome Dreams can go on for eternity. Despite its title, this is one of the most inviting records of 2012.
27. Ryan Bingham- Tomorrowland
Ryan Bingham is one of a handful of artists keeping the outlaw spirit of country music alive. He broke onto the scene by winning an Academy Award with T Bone Burnett for their co-penned tune “The Weary Kind” for the film Crazy Heart. Bingham’s fourth studio album, Tomorrowland, is an expansive, sprawling slice of Americana with an infusion of roots-rock, roadhouse blues, and country delivered with Bingham’s bourbon-soaked sneer. It combines sticky barroom floor brawlers like “Beg for Broken Legs”, “Guess Who’s Knocking”, and “Heart Of Rhythm” with sundown tearjerker drifter ballads “Western Shore”, “Flower Bomb” and “No Help From God”. There’s even a stab at shifting conscientious folk with the eight-minute “Rising Of The Ghetto”. At times, Bingham’s landlocked blues make you feel like you’re on the next stool over, talking to the barfly poet at his favorite watering hole after a late night gig over a few beers (Or a dozen).
26. Titus Andronicus- Local Business
2010’s The Monitor by Titus Andronicus was a watershed achievement for the young band, incredibly ambitious in scale while still maintaining a fury at its core. 2012’s Local Business, had a daunting task of following up that career-defining album. Local Business certainly succeeds as a predecessor. Patrick Stickles spews lyrics of desperate defiance with agitated punk-rock fervor. Even though the record contains songs with ridiculous titles like “Still Life with Hot Deuce and Silver Platter”, “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus”, and “Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)”, every one of them is delivered with a gut-check urgency that suggests Stickles’ life (and maybe yours) depends on you hearing them.
25. The Hives- Lex Hives
There’s one thing The Hives certainly don’t lack, and that’s confidence. They’re flagrantly brash self-promoters and they dare you to tell them otherwise. It’s hard to doubt them when they keep delivering great high-energy records. A hiatus for five years was the only thing that could cool them off, but they return with Lex Hives this year and it’s a riotous outing as usual. The Hives prove they’re still masters of garage rock, effortlessly hammering out simplistic but fearsome songs. “I Want More”, “Wait A Minute”, “Patrolling Days”, “Take Back The Toys”, “These Spectacles Reveal the Nostalgics”, and “Midnight Shifter” are every bit as primal and catchy as anything they’ve ever done. For the most part, you know what you’re going to get when you hear a Hives record. Predictable? Perhaps, but always reliable.
24. The Smashing Pumpkins- Oceania
Make no mistake about it, The Smashing Pumpkins are a dictatorship. Brain trust Billy Corgan rules the name and likeness of The Smashing Pumpkins with an iron fist. He’s the sole member of the original band left, but as the return to form Oceania suggests, Corgan knows exactly what he’s doing. It pulls on career-spanning strengths whether it be the heavy, grungy guitar attack on tracks such as “Quasar”, “Panopticon”, and “The Chimera”, or melodramatic distorted beauty of tracks “One Diamond, One Heart”, “Pinwheels”, and “Wildflower”. Even the nine-minute wintry prog-rock of the title track sounds like Corgan has been revitalized and impassioned by this new material- no matter who’s playing behind him.
23. Black Country Communion- Afterglow
There weren’t a lot of old-guard heavy metal/hard rock acts releasing too much material this year… or at least not much good material. That was, until “super group” Black Country Communion released their record Afterglow. This is the band’s third record and bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes, guitarist Joe Bonamassa, keyboardist Derek Sherinian, and drummer Jason Bonham feel much more like a band really gelling and hitting their stride than a patchwork “super group”. Besides the unbelievable prowess of all of the players, the real power behind BCC remains Hughes’ seemingly ageless Golden God wail. Menacing behemoths “Big Train”, “This is Your Time”, “Confessor”, and “Crawl” could stand alongside 70’s hard rock forefathers.
22. Jack White- Blunderbuss
Jack White’s Blunderbuss arrives as one of the most anticipated solo debuts in recent memory. Even though technically, he was the mastermind behind The White Stripes, many still thought a proper solo album was long overdue. This is the most ambitious record White’s made since The White Stripes’ Elephant, and the most eclectic of his recording career. It isn’t necessarily the guitar hero record many may expected but when White does unleash solos, they’re quick, lethally piercing squeals countered by piano fills and acoustic guitar departures. Standouts are plenty with “Missing Pieces”, “Freedom at 21”, “Trash Tongue Talker”, “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”. And the best song- the jarring visceral rocker “Sixteen Saltines” which is as potent and incendiary as any song he’s made on any record.
21. The Shins- Port of Morrow
Port of Morrow appears five years after The Shins’ last output, Wincing the Night Away. There’s a big difference though this time- James Mercer is the only remaining member of that old Shins’ lineup. Although Port of Morrow still has an indie aesthetic woven through it, this is the biggest and most vibrant pop oriented album Mercer’s made under The Shins banner. Perhaps his collaboration with Danger Mouse on the Broken Bells album is what sent Mercer forging into new terrain. The whole record has a positive current through it, as Mercer croons his way through irresistible pop treasures “The Rifle’s Spiral”, “Simple Song”, “It’s Only Life”, “Bait and Switch”, “Fall of ‘82”, and “40 Mark Strasse”. Once again, Mercer illustrates, as he always does, that he has an incredible mind for writing catchy, hook-filled tunes with the greatest of ease.
20. The Wallflowers- Glad All Over
Glad All Over is the first record by The Wallflowers in over seven years. Frontman Jakob Dylan took time away from the band for a modest stab at a solo career, releasing two quietly pleasing, albums but nothing groundbreaking. Another well-known burden (some may even call it a curse) is Jakob’s lineage. Being the progeny of Bob Dylan, arguably the most important and prolific artist in Western civilization. Pretty daunting, right? Well, 2012 saw the return of Dylan and his old warhorse outfit- The Wallflowers. The Wallflowers have always been durable and always been dependable without releasing a bad album yet. Dylan is a gifted straight-ahead Rock & Roll writer, crafting songs more in the vein of Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen than his father. Glad All Over is a showcase of the vivid versatility of The Wallflowers as they turn stylistic departures into strong suits. The opening “Hospital For Sinners” employs the buoyant charge of an electric piano, “Misfits and Lovers” and “Reboot the Mission” are odes to Sandinista!-era Clash (both even feature The Clash’s Mick Jones), and the careening groove of “Have Mercy on Him Now”. There’s still plenty of classic driving, storytelling Wallflower songs with “First One in the Car”, “Love Is a Country”, “It Won’t Be Long (Till We’re Not Wrong Anymore)”, and “Constellation Blues”. Glad All Over is another very good record by the reliable Wallflowers. They still haven’t made a bad record- and even Jakob’s legendary Dad can’t say that.
19. Of Monsters And Men- My Head is an Animal
If you’ve got a gaping wound from longing for new music from Arcade Fire, you’ll find solace in the Icelandic sextet Of Monsters And Men and their debut record, My Head is an Animal. With sensational anthems, the co-ed vocals of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar “Raggi” Pórhallsson, right down to the shouted HEYs, Of Monsters And Men sound more like Arcade Fire’s peers than their understudies. There’s no shortage of powerful, cinematic-sized songs which are also irresistibly catchy with “Dirty Paws”, “King and Lionheart”, “Mountain Sound”, “Little Talks”, and “Six Weeks”. We all love Arcade Fire, but Of Monsters And Men make music of nearly equal stature and might, My Head is an Animal is a phenomenal debut album.
18. Soundgarden- King Animal
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden were at the top of a Seattle underground scene turning into a global phenomenon known as grunge. With the exception of Pearl Jam, all of those bands either dissolved or faded from previous glory. Soundgarden was not immune to this- they disbanded in 1997 due to internal friction and creative differences. Fast forward 15 years and we find an unlikely reunion- a rebirth with a brand new album, King Animal, from the heaviest-riffing outfit Seattle has to offer. King Animal is the sound of a lumbering beast awaking, shaking off the dust from its lengthy slumber, rejuvenated and refocused, with the same predatory instinct that took Soundgarden to the top of the grunge food chain. Chris Cornell hasn’t lost any of his paint-peeling vocal delivery as guitarist Kim Thayil weaves sinewy yet burly riffs through cuts like opener “Been Away Too Long” an apt manifesto. The marauding “Non-State Actor”, the Four Horseman gallop of “By Crooked Steps”, the psychedelic Moroccan dust storm of “A Thousand Days Before” and the charred highway of “Attrition” are all great cuts. The closer “Rowing” seems appropriately sequenced in that it sounds like a man cast out of Utopia and destined to walk like a vagrant through a scorched earth for the rest of his remaining days. The centerpiece comes in the perfectly titled “Blood On The Valley Floor” with a severely maniacal riff like a giant trampling a village. In this valley, Cornell howls like a doomsday siren before a biblical flood sweeps away everything else civilized.
17. Green Day- ¡Dos!
No one’s been more productive in 2012 than Green Day. Apparently a three-year absence was too much and they decided to make up that gap by releasing three records in one year. The middle of those three being ¡Dos! Fans who were tired of Green Day’s bombast with the punk rock operas of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown may rejoice as this is a bit of a return to their early years. For a group of guys all over 40 now, this power trio still churns up adolescent angst-riddled fury with pop flourishes like men half their age. Think of the short crushed-into-diamonds garage rock of 60’s era Nuggets, or even their side project of the Foxboro Hot Tubs. Thrashers like “Fuck Time”, “Stop When the Red Lights Flash”, “Lazy Bones”, “Makeout Party”, and “Wow! That’s Loud” are balanced by power pop with “Wild One” and “Stray Heart”. Of their 2012 trilogy, ¡Dos! provides the most hypodermic rush.
16. Green Day- ¡Uno!
Green Day claimed all three records released this year were drastically different. If ¡Dos! is a rediscovery of their punk roots, then their first installment of the trilogy, ¡Uno!, has a bigger venue in mind than the garage- something more on the scale of Madison Square Garden to be more precise. Green Day’s not as rough around the edges here as they are on ¡Dos! The songs are more thoughtfully constructed, bolder and grander. They still maintain intensity with songs like “Nuclear Family”, “Stay the Night”, “Carpe Diem”, “Let Yourself Go”, and “Loss of Control” featuring punishing riffs and cutthroat tenacity. They round it out with the bizarrely catchy yet terrifying disco of “Kill the DJ”, and an arena-filling combo of “Rusty James” and “Oh Love”. ¡Uno! packs a profane yet sonically mature punch.
15. Muse- The 2nd Law
You can usually count on Muse to throw a mind-fuck of an album at you that’s still steeped in classic rock. What’s even stranger is they almost always pull it off with stunning success. But The 2nd Law is by far the weirdest of Muse’s career. Its proggy grandeur and sheer scale alone demand attention. A declamatory statement surrounding a futuristic Sci-Fi dystopia, The 2nd Law experiments with orchestral flourishes, synths, electrionica, and even (gulp) dub-step. For Muse, big risks sometimes result in big dividends. Key moments include the militia opus of opener “Supremacy”, the Bowie-esque “Panic Station”, the Olympic march of “Survival”, the subdued lava-flow of “Animals”, and the best song on the record “Big Freeze”, which sounds like 80’s Queen mixed with Achtung Baby-era U2 that’s as stellar as any of their other monster anthems. Truthfully, The 2nd Law doesn’t reach the lofty heights of their last four recent records, but a lot of bands have tried big exploratory gambles and bombed. All Muse is guilty of is making a good album, not a great one.
14. The Tallest Man On Earth- There’s No Leaving Now
Kristian Matsson, a.k.a. The Tallest Man On Earth, just might be peerless when it comes to young introspective songwriters. He has the poetic acumen of a certain hungry Greenwich Village ragamuffin by the name of Bob Dylan- and along with it, a mistaken, boyish, wide-eyed gaze that’s actually acute and dagger-like. He may not be attempting to reshape the musical landscape like Dylan did in the ‘60s, but what he has done is string together three superb confessional singer/songwriter albums to begin his career with the latest being There’s No Leaving Now. Although this album is still barren for the most part as far as instrumentation goes, it is also his most lavish. Terrific cuts like, “To Just Grow Away”, “Revelation Blues”, and “1904” all are spruced up ever so slightly with backing guitars or drums. Matsson proves that he’s still most powerful with the combo of an acoustic guitar, brilliant lyrics, and that harsh, cold-water voice with tracks “Bright Laterns”, “Wind and Walls”, and “Little Brother”. It’s hard to say where Matsson goes from here, but he hasn’t missed the bullseye yet.
13. Ben Kweller- Go Fly A Kite
Ben Kweller is sort of a misfit in a large musical landscape. He’s a revolving door of stylistic shifts, and similar to Ryan Adams, these changes come not between albums, but between songs. At 31 years old, Kweller is already a veteran of the music industry having released five solo studio albums now with the latest being 2012’s Go Fly A Kite. The record is no exception to Kweller’s genre jumping, with a dazzling assortment of excursions including the opener “Mean to Me” with a riff that packs as much voltage as an AC/DC-Young brothers’ collaboration. He leaps from there to alt-country in “Out the Door”, “Full Circle”, and “You Can Count on Me”, and indie power pop with “Jealous Girl”, “Justify Me”, and “Time Will Save the Day”. He even throws in a sweeping ballad with “Where’s the Rainbow”. Kweller continues to mold his craft, the reward for us are the fruits of his labor.
12. Band of Horses- Mirage Rock
Band of Horses have spent their career thus far carving out a niche of their own. Their brand of mythical, mystical folk rock thanks in large part to Ben Bridwell’s whimsical and warming vocals and chiming, celestial songs. 2010’s Infinite Arms was a layered big-sky diamond, sparkling with tantalizing production from the band itself. For this year’s record, Mirage Rock, the band turns to legendary producer Glyn Johns. The result is a more stripped-down approach- an attack that’s leaner and focused to a sharpened point. Opener “Knock, Knock” is an adrenaline gallop that still feels like a comforting embrace. “Slow Cruel Hands Of Time” is as devastating as the title suggests burning like a lone candle on a trip through the wreckage of the past. “Dumpster World” has a moonlit alley cat saunter before exploding into a hammer riff mid-section riddled with drugs and decadence. “Electric Music” is like a locomotive pulling out of the depot, “Feud” is a cold-sweat rocker that simmers into the final send-off of closer “Heartbreak on the 101”. It leaves you feeling like you’re left wondering on a turnpike in the wee small hours- alone, rain pouring down, and walking to nowhere. If Infinite Arms was reaching for the stars, Mirage Rock is earthly bound but yet times uncomfortably thrilling. It’s depressing but affecting. And better still- it’s powerful. Band of Horses know how to reach emotional depths that most other bands couldn’t even dream of getting to.
11. Green Day- ¡Tré!
By the time the finale of Green Day’s 2012 trilogy ¡Tré! rolled around, it would have been safe to assume that the steam was running out and that the third record was for scraps and leftovers. Quite the contrary, ¡Tré! is top-to-bottom is the best of the set- a complete portrait of their strengths, similar to American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. A cornucopia of sounds including the heavy doo-wop of opener “Brutal Love”, the acoustic “Drama Queen”, stadium fillers like “X-Kid”, “Walk Away”, and one for the 99% in “99 Revolutions”. “Dirty Rotten Bastards” is a multi-part epic that may be their grandest moment since “Homecoming”, and they have another huge power ballad in “The Forgotten” to close it out. It should be noted that after this industrious string of albums were completed, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong checked himself into rehab at the tail end of 2012 for unspecified substance abuse. Since 2013 may hinge on Armstrong’s wellbeing, it’s hard to tell what’s next for Green Day. Needless to say, it would be great for the masses to hear this new batch of songs out on the road.
10. Leonard Cohen- Old Ideas
At the age of 78, it’s safe to say Leonard Cohen is entering his twilight years. And he’s doing so clothed in immense wisdom. He still has an acerbic poetic wit, wry as ever. He and Bob Dylan are similar in the sense that they sound like wise old sages ascending from the mists of generations past, delivering a weary old guard rattle for this new labyrinthine world. Even their voices sound eons-old, (Dylan with his blood-on-the-tracks bark), and Cohen with a gruff cavernous baritone which is center stage once again on his latest output, Old Ideas. Cohen’s fathomless, near-spoken word delivery cuts through the smoky lounge-act atmosphere. He is balanced out by angelic backing singers and sparse instrumentation. It’s a sublime result that’s stunningly haunting yet alluring, like a choral alternative to Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind. “Going Home”, “Amen”, “Show Me the Place”, “Darkness”, “Come Healing”, “Banjo”, and “Different Sides” feel like being placed at the baptismal fount with Cohen pouring a potent enlightenment. Cohen’s Old Ideas is 10 confessional hymns that sound more profound than anything you’d get out of a church.
9. Gary Clark Jr.- Blak and Blu
Gary Clark Jr. is a one-of-a-kind talent, a true blues gunslinger who, like so many before him, has been bestowed the vaunted mantle “Savior of the Blues”. The last person with this immense title/burden in terms of pure blues was Stevie Ray Vaughan. The 28-year-old virtuoso has already drawn comparisons to the aforementioned SRV and even Jimi Hendrix. He’s already considered to be that of a blues folk hero in Austin, Texas, as the city even made an official “Gary Clark Jr. Day” when he was only 17 years of age. That’s a lot of pressure and praise heaped on a man not yet 30. He’s a blues dynamo indeed, but Clark is so much more than just another blues guitar player. The veins of his debut album Blak and Blu are flowing with not only blues, but Rock & Roll, Soul, R&B, and even hip-hop. This fusion of genres and styles makes for a rich and remarkable debut record.
The opener “Ain’t Messin ‘Round” is a shuffling Motown groove complete with blaring horns and a roasting solo from Clark. The title track is a topical neo-soul ballad aching with Marvin Gaye immediacy, “Bright Lights” is a take off a Jimmy Reed song with towering and taunting guitar work, and “Travis County” is a Chuck Berry-sounding boogie. “Numb” has the snarling fuzz attack of a Black Keys tune, “Please Come Home” is a 3am lament displaying Clark’s vocal range with a melting falsetto and solo to boot, and “Next Door Neighbor Blues” is a porch-stomping ode to Mississippi Delta blues.
Even after all of those highlights, though, there are two behemoth tracks worth the price of admission alone- “When My Train Pulls In” and the mash up Hendrix cover of “Third Stone From the Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say”. The guitar becomes an extension of his body and soul in these blues monsters: avalanches of distorted wah-wah solos, soaring, searing, and weeping. They’re interpretive volcanic swirling blasts from his fingers, leaving anything in their wake completely leveled or awestruck. Fans that wanted a straight-ahead blooze rawk record may be slightly disappointed with all of Clark’s different detours and ventures, but with all of those roads now paved, Clark can go anywhere from here.
8. The Lumineers- The Lumineers
Mumford & Sons started a mighty movement that seems to be spreading like wildfire. Indie folk/folk rock is aggressively integrating into popular music, so much so that the squares even got into it! And once you get the squares in on it, you can become massive. That was paraphrased from a Noel Gallagher quote but you know what? He’s right. The Lumineers stepped to the frontline as America’s answer to Mumford & Sons. Like Mumford & Sons debut record, Sigh No More, conquered the U.S. in 2010, so has The Lumineers self-titled debut in 2012.
Backed by the huge hit, the heartstrings tugging of “Ho Hey” (You’ll never guess which two words they yell repeatedly in the song)- The Lumineers is a riotous barn-raising of a hootenanny that’s at times incredibly heartbreaking. Frontman Wesley Schultz delivers the tunes in an affectionate, raspy croon with lyrics veering from lilting endearment to bitter cynicism. The record begins with the boxcar chug of “Flowers In Your Hair”, the barfly balladeering of “Classy Girls”, “Slow it Down” has a vibe of a drunkard’s late night remorse and “Charlie Boy” is a Nam era war ballad. The jarring electric guitar of closer “Morning Song” sounds 1,000 miles high in compared to some of the more acoustic affairs. Arguably the two best songs on the record are “Stubborn Love” and “Big Parade”. “Stubborn Love” is the tale of Schultz clinging on for dear life to a disintegrating relationship as he sings lines like, “She’ll tear a hole in you, the one you can’t repair/ But I still love her I don’t even care”. Schultz is attempting to stay positive in the bleakness with a defiant rallying cry, “Keep your head up, love”. The marvelous prism pageantry of toe-tapping “Big Parade” features Schultz’s catalog of characters including a Presidential candidate, nauseous beauty queens, a conflicted welterweight, and a catholic priest in crisis.
As a whole, the record shows how making catchy music with thoughtful thematic lyrics is still possible– in fact, it may even be easy for these guys. The Lumineers should be seen as equals to Mumford & Sons rather than followers.
7. Neil Young & Crazy Horse- Psychedelic Pill
Neil Young is one of the greatest North American artists of all time. He’s surpassed perhaps only by Bob Dylan in terms of longevity, importance and prolific output. That being said, he’s also a master in self-sabotage. To say Young’s a man that stands up for his convictions is an understatement because he’ll do so even if it means making artistic decisions that hurt the quality of his musical creations. It’s been a frustrating go of it (to say the least) for his die-hard fans who that wanted one last great record from Neil Young. Enter 2012’s Psychedelic Pill, which reunites Neil with the full version of Crazy Horse, his legendary on-again-off-again backing band of the last 43 years. It’s the first time he’s been with the full group since 1996’s Broken Arrow. With guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina, Neil and his favorite scruffs return to the garage to jam out the double album of Psychedelic Pill, the biggest of Young’s career, also his best in over 20 years. It proves that sometimes to get back to the promised land, you just need to get back on the horse, plug that Old Black Les Paul into an amp, and play the ever-loving shit out of it.
Beginning with 27-minute opener “Driftin’ Back”, it’s a feedback-drenched slab of classic a Neil Young & Crazy Horse attack. The title track is a pile-driving rocker with a crunching riff lying somewhere between a “Cinnamon Girl” stomp and the lumbering grit of “Fuckin’ Up”. The second epic, “Ramada Inn” clocks in at nearly 17 minutes and the Horse really get down in a groove- in a rock-steady pocket combating Neil’s echoing squalls of electric wrath. “She’s Always Dancing” is a beautiful haunting flight in which a mystical woman serves as his muse similar to “Like A Hurricane” amidst a towering surge of amplified roars. “Walk Like A Giant” is an appropriate way to close the album, the third mammoth track at over 16 minutes. Whistles almost seem to taunt listeners from a life boat somewhere as Young’s monolithic wall of bedlam whips up the already turbulent waters into a raging destructive tempest. Young and the Horse transport to another galaxy in the outro. A sludgy static-riddled meltdown serves as a complete spiritual release from all of the frustration nearly bubbling over as the monster’s pounding footsteps come to a near-smoldering stop before one final round of pyrotechnics erupt.
Young’s astonishing and interpretive guitar passages here speak in a transcendent tongue that no world-class wordsmith could ever lock down. Crazy Horse has been known to reel Neil back in and return him to prominence when he’s lost his way. And true to form, they’ve done it again. Neil lets the horses out of the stable to run wild for this ambitious piece of work, the best call he’s made in decades.
6. Mumford & Sons- Babel
Mumford & Sons certainly took America and the world for that matter by storm in 2010. With their rookie record Sigh No More, they gained a level of popularity that they probably never dreamed of. It was well deserved, as it was not just the best record that year but one of the best debuts ever. With an enormous challenge to follow up, these dapper lads from across the pond were up to the task with their sophomore release of Babel. Mumford & Sons are a rare breed- folk revivalists taking their barnyard hoedown to the big stages of theaters and arenas. Babel is a continuation of that colossal jubilant fracas thanks in part to Arcade Fire’s producer, Markus Davis, continuing to assist Mumford & Sons in their creation of big hearted anthems.
Right out of the gate is the purposeful march of the title track and the biblical allusions to the tower of Babel (“Like the city that nurtured my greed and my pride, I stretch my arms into the sky/ I cried Babel! Babel! Look at me now/ Then the walls of my town, they come crumbling down”). “Whispers in the Dark” is a pulsating cross-country train ride that ruptures into a rollicking boot stomp. “I Will Wait” is a classic Mumford spirited ascension of devotion, and “Holland Road” makes matters of the heart sound like being in a maritime disaster- like the waves of an indomitable undertow crashing against the gaping wound in your chest, attempting to swallow you whole. “Hopeless Wanderer” begins with a beguiling piano, like an alleviating rain falling before frontman Marcus Mumford’s calamitous strumming scorches everything to the horizon, destined to walk the ruinous landscape a lonesome vagrant. “Broken Crown” begins just as docile before the free fall into madness, a pulverizing stampede as Mumford declares, “Crawl on my belly ‘til the sun goes down/ I’ll never wear your broken crown/ I took the road and I fucked it all away/ Now in this twilight how dare you speak of grace.” A plunge into the abyss is only resurrected when “Below My Feet” soars like a heavenly flight leaving the earthly body. They return to the ground for the farewell waltz of “Not With Haste” serving as a final gentle genuflect.
It’s not always easy for bands to follow up a critical and commercial debut smash- many bands can never escape the immense pressure and suffocate because of it. There’s a reason the term “Sophomore slump” exists. Fortunately, Mumford & Sons are far too determined to fade away and their reign as the new kings of folk rock continues.
5. Bruce Springsteen- Wrecking Ball
Bruce Springsteen has always been one for painting huge sweeping cinematic moments in his rich canon of work… so picture this: Working on a Dream represented an optimistic sea change in 2009. It almost directly coincided with the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States. It finally seemed an upswing was going to happen. Three years later, The Boss returns with his hand still gripped firmly around the neck of his telecaster looking out upon the greater American frontier. But this time, his hand toughened and calloused, his lungs breathing in a cold dry air, his operatic Roy Orbison-worthy croon hardened into a gruff coal-mining bellow and his eyes dulled and gray, robbed of the vibrancy and hope from WOAD due to corruption, death, and deception. Bruce looks out to the horizon, past countless rows of foreclosed homes to find nothing has been settled. He kneels down and tightens the laces on his scuffed and worn work boots. There’s still a lot of work to be done. The work never ends. The Capitol’s been mired in tar-thick corruption by a government bickering into perpetual gridlock and the poor and working-class people of America are having their American Dream constantly smothered and sequestered by big banks while they watch their homes literally get taken from them. All of these conflicts provided the fuel and stoked the fires in Springsteen’s guts to create 2012’s baptism-by-fire Wrecking Ball.
Opener “We Take Care Of Our Own” is a rousing rocker in the spirit of “Badlands”, but lyrically it’s a cynical State of the Union, a scathing indictment of the institution similar to the fist-pumping deception of mega hit “Born In The USA”. “Easy Money” is another deceptively glistening track with a blend of country-fried gospel drenched in fiddle and a clap/stomp drum beat with the same exuberant DNA as “Into The Fire” from The Rising. We come to find that this individual is as lost as Frankie or Johnny 99 heading to town armed with a Smith & Wesson .38. His justice will be swift at the end of a smoking gun barrel if he’s crossed. “Shackled And Drawn” is about as buoyant of a sound as you can get when dealing with the greed of Wall Street. The lyrics eerily echo the sentiments proposed by Woody Guthrie at one point with “The Jolly Banker”. You could easily hear Bruce singing this alongside Pete Seeger at a future Newport Folk Festival as he sings, “It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill/ Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong/ Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.” “Death to My Hometown” is the most rollicking Celtic song Bruce has written besides maybe “American Land”, which suggests he’s been hanging out with the raucous lads in the Dropkick Murphys more. Backed by Irish flute and a pulverizing boot stomp, Bruce is on top of his game lyrically here effortlessly pulling Irish Isles poetry from some the darkest wells of his soul. “We Are Alive” just might be his “We Shall Overcome”. It’s a jubilant rallying cry of unity and solidarity even in the face of death over a whistle-while-you-work riff borrowed from the horn section of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”. The album’s centerpiece and its finest hour is “Land of Hope and Dreams”. For years, fans have been clamoring for this song to be given proper studio treatment as Springsteen has been performing it live consistently since 1999. Justice is done to the song as it’s another undisputed classic Springsteen epic in his legendary back catalog at nearly seven minutes. It’s given an additional angelic overhaul and it’s a monumental voyage of redemption and salvation as Springsteen proclaims, “This train, carries saints and sinners/ This train, carries losers and winners/ This train, carries whores and gamblers/ This train, carries lost souls/ This train, dreams will not be thwarted/ This train, faith will be rewarded/ This train, hear the steel wheels singin’/ This train, bells of freedom ringin’”. Then there is perhaps the most ethereal moment when the final sax solo on a Springsteen record of his departed comrade Clarence Clemons comes blasting through the speakers. It’s the welcomed familiar sound that transcends the song itself as well as four decades of music together.
In many ways, Wrecking Ball is genuinely the most American record Springsteen has ever made. It’s a conglomeration of traditional Americana folk, Irish balladry, gospel, R&B, blues, country, Hispanic , and even hip-hop influences built on the solid foundation of Rock & Roll that has driven Springsteen and his work for over 40 years now. Bruce has given us an undeniably profound and rich modern folk rock masterpiece. These stories don’t just belong to him anymore- they belong to all of us. That is the truest sense of what folk music is all about. There’s no “I” or “mine” or “yours”, it’s empowerment through solidarity. This era has just been made timeless. They should make room in the archive of American folk music and on the Library of Congress recording’s shelves, because Wrecking Ball isn’t only a brilliant record, it’s damn important. Alan Lomax would be reveling in its majesty, too. The messages are intended to reverberate through the ages and generations. These are still troubling times, but it would seem that as long as there’s still that small glimmer in Bruce’s eye, the promised land can never be lost.
4. The Killers- Battle Born
After the tour of 2008’s Day & Age, The Killers took a break to pursue solo projects. After nearly six years of non-stop touring and recording the band was redlining, needing a much-deserved break. The Killers never have known how to do anything small scale and with their return, they bring their biggest record yet, the bombastic Battle Born. The band is guided through this voyage with a list of big name, big spectacle producers including Stuart Price, Steve Lillywhite, Brendan O’Brien, and Daniel Lanois to name a few. The term “Battle Born” comes directly from the state flag of Nevada (Frontman Brandon Flowers even sings, “Cut from the cloth of a flag that bears the name ‘Battle Born’”), it’s also the name of their recording studio in Las Vegas. It’s an album that may even make U2 blush at its hubris and bluster. With its synth-doused 80’s neon lighting it sounds like a John Hughes soundtrack built for stadiums.
From the opening 8-bit synth line of “Flesh and Bone” the hooks are in deep and The Killers sound tantalizing as ever. The Springsteen ethos of “Runaways” serves as a getaway car as Flowers croons, “A teenage rush, she said, ‘Ain’t we all just runaways?/ We got time, but that ain’t much/ We can’t wait till tomorrow.’” Flowers battles with complacency once the dust settles, “At night I come home after they go to sleep/ Like a stumbling ghost I haunt these halls/ There’s a picture of us on our wedding day/ I recognize the girl but I can’t settle in these walls.” The “The Way It Was” continues the night journey through the Nevada desert, taking another page from The Boss’ playbook of mini operas about love fought for and love lost (“Back then this thing was running on momentum, love and trust/ That paradise is buried in the dust.”) It’s one of several magnum opus power ballads on Battle Born, including “Here With Me”, “Heart of a Girl”, and “Be Still”. “A Matter of Time” and “Miss Atomic Bomb” have the adrenaline rush of their best work from Sam’s Town and “From Here On Out” has the propulsion and polish of Into The Great Wide Open-era Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. The climatic title track is defiantly rhapsodic- one final flurry of fireworks as The Killers set the nighttime Las Vegas skyline ablaze.
Flowers’ lyrical vision and bravado are as big as The Killers’ music itself. Many people write off his lyrics as ham-fisted and cheesy, but Flowers delivers them with such chest-bursting devotion and a theatrical cadence, that it’s clear he’s never been more serious in his damn life. Battle Born is another prodigious output from The Killers that ranks amongst their best.
3. The Gaslight Anthem- Handwritten
At his core, Brian Fallon has always been a restless romantic. That resonates and translates directly in his style of writing with The Gaslight Anthem. He’s forever tethered to the ideal of an apparent golden age that seems just out of reach, and the longing and desire that go with it. It’s well known that Fallon is also a disciple of Bruce Springsteen. Because of this, many of the same themes and subject matter course through the major arteries of The Gaslight Anthem’s records. A heart-on-the-sleeve, blue collar work ethic, and a perennial pursuit of salvation with innocence lost and blood spilled on the road during the journey. If The ’59 Sound is The Gaslight Anthem’s Born to Run, then a case could be made that Handwritten is their Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s a darker, grittier widescreen vision that still has the elements and backbone of a hope not lost and that the promised land is no illusion. Of course there’s the influence of The Boss on Handwritten, but there’s much more than that with slashing, cleaving guitars and serrating drums big enough to fill arenas and stadiums, while its gristle is still dripping in punk-rock fuel.
Opener “45” is a high performance, well-polished chrome machine tearing down the highway. An unabashed homage to the power and enduring spirit of Rock & Roll, with Fallon sermonizing, “And all my friends say,/ ‘Hey hey, turn the record over./ Hey hey, and I’ll see you on the flip side./ There you go, turn the key and engine over./ Let her go, let somebody else lay at her feet.’” The title track continues the adventure with a thumping powerhouse wallop and plenty of shouting whoa-ohs to go around. “Here Comes My Man” is a tip of the cap to Tom Petty with chiming guitars its even a take-off of the title from Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl” while Fallon defiantly croons, “So I packed up my things and I faced up my doubts/ You know I think I will grow my hair back out.” “Mulholland Drive” is a kiss-off ride into the sunset on the horizon as Fallon sings, “And did you miss me when I’m gone?/ And the simple things we used to rely on?/ Who came to wipe your tears away?/ Who came to bring back your dignity baby?/ And who came to drive you around this town/ Like I used to drive you all around with the radio on/ Through the mist on Mulholland” as lead guitarist Alex Rosamilia unleashes a cyclonic outro solo. “Keepsake”, “Too Much Blood”, and “Biloxi Parish” are some of the heaviest riffs on any of their records, and “Howl” is a two-minute electrifying torrent of Sink or Swim-era intensity, as Fallon pours out classic Gaslight Anthem ethos, “Now do you blow it out come Friday night?/ See if you wanna, you can find me on the hood under the moonlight/Radio, oh radio, do you believe there’s still some magic left/ Somewhere inside our souls?” “Desire” features more dazzling guitar wizardry before the final two ballads of “Mae” and “National Anthem”. “Mae” is a Kings of Leon-style shoot-for-the-moon serenade, and “National Anthem” is a stripped-bare tearjerker with acoustic guitar and string flourishes that terrifically encapsulates Fallon’s World Class songwriting. It showcases him as dual threat for not only writing killer rockers but devastatingly delicate requiems. Fallon is haunted by faded love as he claims, “I already live with too many ghosts”. There’s a nostalgic pining for simpler more tender times, “Now everybody lately is living up in space/ Flying through transmissions on invisible airwaves/ With everything discovered just waiting to be known/ What’s left for God to teach from his thrown?/ And who will forgive us when he’s gone?” Fallon’s final lines summarize the entire record, all-encompassing and cinematic as he eulogizes, “I never will forget you my American love/ And I’ll always remember you wild as they do come”.
A lot of critics and people alike criticize The Gaslight Anthem for aping their influences, especially Springsteen. But what they have to realize is that The Gaslight Anthem are the genuine article, proudly wearing their influences of Rock & Roll heroes and ages of the past. They’re driven and ambitious, and it sounds like no amount of flack is going to slow them down. They’ve made four records so far and all four are nearly flawless. And for all they’re influenced by, no one is making music right now that sounds exactly like this, not even Bruce Springsteen.
2. Japandroids- Celebration Rock
Almost every year, there is a catalog of big time Rock & Roll acts and established veterans of the trade at or near the top of these year-end “best of” lists. There’s a reason they’re at the top of these lists perennially. Continuous excellence combined with blockbuster albums that draw critical acclaim and popular adulation go a long way, and the heavy hitters are looking to stay on top as long as possible. Every once in a while, though, a young lionhearted band comes along that was totally off the grid and makes a startling statement. That dignity in 2012 goes to Japandroids. And what a hardy gauntlet challenge they have laid down. Their sophomore release, Celebration Rock, is undoubtedly the dark horse record of 2012. In the middle of albums by industry giants, Japandroids have mutated into a Colossus themselves. The Canadian dynamic duo of Brian King (guitar) and David Prowse (drums) received universal acclaim this year for Celebration Rock– even Pitchfork liked it, and they’re terrified of Rock & Roll! It’s a 35-minute injection of thunderous DIY spirit, a furious garage rocker, if a garage could contain this record. Chances are the garage would be set ablaze and reduced to flaming rubble.
Perhaps the purest, most synthesized form of hard rock this year appropriately begins with an ominous distant rumble of fireworks before Prowse’s menacing drums come stomping in, proceeded by King’s ringing fret assault into the launch of “The Nights of Wine and Roses”. More than a Carpe Noctem or Carpe Diem ride, it’s a Carpe Omnia race on the edge of a cliff that’s never sounded more vital as King asks, “Don’t we have anything to live for?” before proclaiming “Well of course we do!” with the defiant “We don’t cry for those nights to arrive/ We yell like hell till it happens”. “Fire’s Highway” has a continent-wide riff and who wouldn’t love romantic lines like, “Hearts from hell collide on fire’s highway tonight”? “Evil’s Sway” is an amphetamine-aided, witching-hour romp followed by the incendiary Gun Club cover “For the Love of Ivy”. “Adrenaline Nightshift” is something of Japandroids’ scripture, with the runway take-off intro that bursts into a soaring Phoenix as King sermonizes, “Hitchhiked to hell and back/ Riding the wind/ Waiting for a generation’s bonfire to begin/ When the plunder of the poets/ Thunder of a Punk’s guitar/ Beat life to my body/ Sulking drunk at the back of a bar”. “Younger Us” is an angst-riddled rocket and one of the best life-affirming songs is “The House That Heaven Built”. An arena-sized gallop of resiliency as King sings, “When the soul of the city/ Was laid to rest/ And the nights forgotten and left for dead/ I happened on a house/ Built of living light/ Where everything evil disappears and dies” followed by an urgent sky-high rally cry, “When they love you, and they will/ Tell ’em all they’ll love in my shadow/ And if they try to slow you down/ Tell ’em all to go to hell”. It’s clear that this “house” that heaven built is whatever venue Japandroids are playing at that night. The closer “Continuous Thunder” is a monumental stellular ballad with an armada of guitars and King’s divinely passionate lyric, “If I had all of the answers/ And you had the body you wanted/ Would we love with a legendary fire?” It’s more than enough to light the spark of the bookending fireworks as the simmering outro.
There’s not an album this year that’ll make you clench your fist tighter or beat your chest harder than Celebration Rock. They’ve woven the restless youthful heart of Rock & Roll through its genetics making it an essential record. Japandroids have proven their fortitude as gallant knights riding their steeds, valiant crusaders flying the time-tested, tattered and true flag of Rock & Roll.
“Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowin’, sounding like it’s on a final run.” Bob Dylan sings on record opener “Duquesne Whistle” from the enigmatic bard’s 35th studio album Tempest. But could that lyric and the album title be an omen? The world began to over-analyze and scrutinize this as they usually do with any new Dylan record. People wondered if this would be his final studio album as a tip of the cap to William Shakespeare who called his final play The Tempest. Dylan dispelled those rumors to The Rolling Stone as merely a coincidence, even citing Shakespeare’s play has “The” in front of it. How foolish we are! Quite the opposite, Dylan seems like he’s not even close to running out of steam as he conjures Old Testament wrath before you even listen to Tempest. Simply the word tempest is defined as a violent windstorm or tumult and that was probably his idea all along as this is Dylan’s darkest record ever. Dylan convened with his ace touring band earlier this year in Jackson Browne’s recording studio in Santa Monica, California and once again produced the album himself under his pseudonym Jack Frost. Dylan’s brilliance and his creativity haven’t diminished at all, and the result is another modern day masterpiece as astonishing in scope as any record he’s ever done.
Dylan remains a musical chameleon, out of time, out of step. He was once considered the cutting edge of Rock & Roll at the zenith of his powers and prowess in the mid-60’s, a pioneer forging bravely and boldly into new frontiers fueled by uncanny genius, chaos and amphetamines. It may be a little startling however for people just being introduced to his modern recordings. His new sonic direction can actually be traced back to two overlooked instances. His two modest covers albums of old-time folk and blues standards with As Good As I’ve Been To You and World Gone Wrong released in the early 1990’s. Ever since “Love and Theft” this has been thoroughly emphasized by Dylan and he has been retreating back into the mist with the ghosts of early forms of American music, a melting pot of influences. Some long-forgotten, whether it be Jazz, Western-swing, folk, parlor & murder ballads, blues, or the exciting primal dawn of Rock & Roll from the 1950’s. Dylan rediscovered his muse with the cacophonous eclectic roots of American music giving his career a much needed rejuvenation. Dylan’s ventures into the past have revitalized his career and he owes a great debt to his latter-day Renaissance to a sound that’s familiar yet refreshing.
Then there’s the voice. His voice is as raspy and rugged as ever, there’s no denying that. Many people listening may say his voice is shot. But chances are if you came to Bob Dylan looking for a “conventional” singing voice, then Bob Dylan’s universe probably never has, and never will suit you. If you’re looking for that, you can go buy those Mp3s (Or steal them more likely) from American Idol “talents” with their music and radio-ready voices devoid of any real substance. What people fail to realize is Dylan can still deliver a line with such phrasing and inflection that it’s more visceral and can cut deeper than any pop star crooner. His voice is a striking resemblance to legendary blues shaman Howlin’ Wolf more than anything else. His weathered voice, battered by the elements suits the abundant decay of morality and society within the world of Tempest. Dylan plays the prophet of doom barking fire and brimstone from his eschatological pulpit. Nothing’s been settled, this is a terrifying world Dylan paints with the brush strokes of a true master.
The aforementioned “Duquesne Whistle” begins with delicate, almost Caribbean-flavored guitars like they’re gently humming through an old Crosley cathedral-style radio before giving way to the jitterbug boxcar shuffle of his band. The song isn’t as raucous as more recent album openers like “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”, “Thunder on the Mountain”, or “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”. Rather, it’s a long lost train-line song with a carefree arrangement and it swings like a cut from “Love and Theft”. It’s the perfect opener for the record as it sounds like the beginning of the journey that is Tempest and a great juxtaposition from what’s to come. This is the start of the ride on the rails with Dylan serving as the conductor. “Duquesne Whistle” dabbles in deception as the locomotive winds around the bends there are ominous clouds looming down the line. Dylan actually co-wrote the song with the Grateful Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter and they show the early elements of darkness as Dylan bellows in his signature gravelly howl that this whistle is “Blowing like it’s gon’ kill me dead” as the train passes through another no good town. Make no mistake about it the music for this opener really stakes the claim. Dylan allows his band ample breathing room as they play with reassured charismatic cool and authenticity that’s rare in music these days. Dylan would scoff at the idea of ProTools, if he’s even heard of ProTools.
This is the case for the entire record. It’s the most musically diverse Dylan’s made perhaps ever. Certainly since his career rebirth beginning with Time Out Of Mind. “Soon After Midnight” is a lovely lilting number akin to “Spirit On The Water” from Modern Times that at first feels like a gentle swooning serenade but inauspicious nature creeps in again as Dylan sings that he’s been down on the “Killing floors” and threatens to drag the corpse of a character named Two-timing Slim through the mud. “Narrow Way” is a rousing roadhouse rocker that shakes all the dust off the Old Guard and where the body count on Tempest really begins to pile up. “There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town” from the British burning the White House down as Dylan proclaims, “This is hard country to stay alive in/ Blades are everywhere and they’re breaking my skin/ I’m armed to the hilt, and I’m struggling hard/ You won’t get out of here unscarred”. It’s a rarity on this record but Dylan adds a little humor here talking of his “Heavy-stacked woman” and that he’s going to have to bury his face between her breasts. “Long And Wasted Years” is a heartbreaking ballad of a deteriorated relationship amongst other things and recollections of better days from the past. Dylan’s destruction becomes sensationalistic as he proclaims, “I think that when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned”. Dylan even drops an autobiographical line yelping, “I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes/ There’s secrets in them that I can’t disguise”. He’s certainly playing it close to the chest for a man that’s spent a large portion of his career shrouded behind the veil of Ray-Ban Wayfarers and Aviator sunglasses.
“Pay In Blood” features Dylan singing in perhaps an all-time scorched-earth venomous snarl with lava-like phlegm. The music is far more deceptive with the warm twang of pedal steel guitar and a spirited marching piano. The lyrical attack is a brutal savaging however, an evisceration. Dylan slings loathsome lines like, “I got something in my pocket, make your eyeballs swim/ I got dogs could tear ya, limb from limb” and declares, “Legs and arms and body and bone/ I pay in blood, but not my own”. Then he finally pulls you close and says in your ear, “You bastard, I’m supposed to respect you?” as he sticks a blade into your guts and twists. After all, he “Came here to bury, not to raise”. When Dylan draws a line in the sand with his sword, you want to be on his side.
“Scarlet Town” is the name of the town borrowed from the traditional folk song “Barbara Allen”. You can picture “The Man In The Long Black Coat” from Oh Mercy as a wraith prowling the streets of Scarlet Town as a forlorn banjo trots and a fiddle weeps in the background. It’s a town populated by nefarious beggars, insidious misfits and lascivious maidens. It feels like a biblical overcast of locusts rolling into the neighborhoods as it teeters, trapped in purgatory between utopia and dystopia with the end being near yet it’s also where the seven wonders of the world dwell with “The evil and the good, living side by side” in Scarlet Town. The “Mannish Boy” bluesy romp of “Early Roman Kings” is dominated by David Hidalgo’s accordion pumping Tejano ventilator blues into its lungs, similar to “My Wife’s Home Town” from Together Through Life. Dylan tells of the early Roman kings as infamous tyrants, “They’re lecherous and treacherous”, but looking so good as monsters in their sharkskin suits, bow-ties, high-top boots, wearing fancy gold rings with all the women going crazy for them. Dylan wails with a craggy hubris, “I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings/ I keep my fingers crossed like the early Roman kings”. Dylan bangs his gavel unapologetically singing, “I can strip you of life, strip you of breath/ Ship ya down, to the house of death”. And when you try to barter for your freedom, his reply? “Ding dong daddy, you’re comin’ up short”.
The nine-minute “Tin Angel” may be the most merciless and callous song on the record. A hypnotic, churning murder ballad that could be from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ album Murder Ballads. It’s that malignant. It’s a brooding nocturnal saunter similar to “Ain’t Talkin’”. “He was a man of strife, a man of sin/ I cut him down and I threw him to the wind” flows with furious contempt. You can picture the moonlight creaking through the room illuminating thick pools of blood in an eerie shimmer where the three-way murder-suicide happens in the climax. “All three lovers together in a heap/ Thrown into the grave, forever to sleep”, the gruesome scene and dark recesses of humanity will resonate with you long afterward, as grainy and grizzled as “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown”.
The centerpiece of the album is the mammoth title track “Tempest”. Draped over it, an elegant waltzing Irish melody reworked from an earlier version of the tale of the Titanic by The Carter Family. It’s as majestic and hallowed as some of Dylan’s latter day epics like “‘Cross The Green Mountain” and “Red River Shore”. Historical accuracy is irrelevant here Dylan has done this before many times. Take his cut off Bringing It All Back Home “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” as he dreams he’s on the Mayflower, but there’s also a pay phone in there, and he alludes to a truck when he apparently meets Columbus himself. It’s cinematic and gargantuan, as bold as James Cameron’s film adaptation of the Titanic. Even Leonardo DiCaprio pops up a couple of times as “Leo” before being badly wounded and losing his mind, supposedly meeting the same demise in the icy waters of the Atlantic as he did in the movie. “Tempest” is a lyrical tour de force, a staggering 14-minute 45-verse odyssey with no chorus. Line after devastating line pouring from Dylan’s mouth, a marathon of carnage of the legendary Maritime disaster. Leo first discovers something’s awry when he gets to a flooded quarterdeck and there’s “Dead bodies already floating in the double-bottomed hull” and the engine has exploded. Later on we find chaos spreading as “Brother rose up ‘gainst brother, in every circumstance/ They fought and slaughtered each other, in a deadly dance”. Elsewhere, “There were traitors there were turncoats, broken backs and broken necks”. Ultimately the death toll rings out a final tally, “When the reaper’s task had ended, 1600 had gone to rest/ The good, the bad, the rich, the poor, the loveliest and the best”. There’s also something to be said about the character simply called The Watchman, dreaming of foreboding visions of the Titanic sinking. Is he simply a restless passenger denying his harrowing dreams? Is it God or some other deity? Or is he the same man who was once a youthful 24-year-old peering his weary head out too far on Desolation Row 47 years ago? We’ll never know for sure as the final image is him seeing the Titanic sinking “Into the deep blue sea”.
The closer “Roll On John” is a slight reprieve from all of the malevolence nearly bubbling over that came before. It serves as a gorgeous paean for John Lennon. A man up until his assassination was seen as an equal to Dylan, but more importantly to Dylan, he was a friend. Even though it’s nearly 32 years later, Dylan still laments and grieves over the loss of his beloved peer and time passed hasn’t diluted the power of song. Dylan sings in a smoldering sorrowful rasp as a graceful liquid organ courses through the heart of the song. There’s still the death rattle lingering that plagues the rest of the album with detailed accounts of Lennon’s murder. Dylan even alludes to a few of The Beatles’ songs written by Lennon including, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, “A Day In The Life” and “Come Together”. Dylan stated that he originally set out to make an album of religious songs, but the end result was the turbulent Tempest. “Roll On John” is an ethereal hymn however that is a successful venture into a spiritual sound, religious intentions or not.
The lyrics on Tempest have an incredible range from tender beauty to horrific apocalyptic visions. His wit and metaphors are sharp with deadly force, leaving naysayers laid low. Dylan’s Tempest isn’t only dark, it’s defiantly dark. The prevailing theme is Bob Dylan is a survivor. He’s walked down some of the nastiest roads and he’s still standing. Dylan says it best in “Pay In Blood” as he roars, “How I made it back home, nobody knows/ Or how I survived so many blows”. Dylan’s last 15 years of mind-boggling success make the 20 uneven and misguided years that preceded it all seem like a ruse. Only one person knows that for sure, and only one person probably ever will, Bob Dylan. His accomplishments and accolades are numerous since the turn of the Millennium alone: An Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, New York Times Best Seller, Pulitzer Prize winner, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom to name a few. Add to that his continuing indomitable Never Ending Tour and amazing body of work since 1997 with Time Out Of Mind, “Love & Theft”, Modern Times, Tell Tale Signs, Together Through Life, and now his best of the bunch in Tempest. Dylan is a national treasure, the most important, profound and influential musical artist in American history. A new Bob Dylan record isn’t just another release, it’s an event. Dylan is seen as a preacher and prophet in millions of people’s eyes, just as holy as any religious denomination, perhaps holier. Oh preacher, what tricks have you yet to show us? What tales have you yet to tell us? And we sit and once again listen in starry-eyed wonderment and sheer amazement.
By Matt Ireland