Thursday, January 3, 2013

JD's 2012 Favorites

I can't with any credibility call this a "best of" list as my new music listening was down this year. I had a crazy year at work, plus my family moved not once but twice because our new house wasn't ready when our old one sold (this approach not recommended for families with children).  I appreciate that my brothers here carried the load at WYMA while I was AWOL.

Of course, the philosophy here has always been that we don't pretend to be critics - we write about stuff we like at WYMA. Period. So all I have here is 20 CDs from 2012 that I like a great deal and will keep listening to long after 2012 is past.

It made me happy to get such high quality new work this year from some of my all time favorite artists - Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, the dBs, and Graham Parker and the Rumour. All four are major touchstones in my lifelong love of music, so to find them creating such important and urgent work at this point in their lives resonates deeply.

And I should also note that my list is ecumenical. As our regular readers know, all of us here at WYMA are graduates of the University of Notre Dame whose football team had a heroic year worthy of Bruce Springsteen. However, my top 10 list includes 3 bands with deep ties to the state of Alabama whose Crimson Tide will battle the Fighting Irish on January 7 for the national championship in a showdown of the two most storied and beloved teams in college football.

The Muscle Shoals (Alabama) sound combining rock and Southern soul is another major touchstone in my life. I so appreciate that Muscle Shoals ethos - always a groove with emphasis on the sound of a real live band of tight musicians, great songwriting, and singers who can mine the emotions of a song.  Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, the Alabama Shakes and Patterson Hood all have deep roots in Alabama and in their own varied ways each honored that rich Muscle Shoals tradition by making music in 2012 that struck deep. All three are more than welcome anytime in this neighborhood pub of ours at WYMA.  They'll find plenty of Muscle Shoals music on our jukebox, right next to the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, the MC5 and Fighting Irishman Van Morrison.  

And I should mention that I caught Patterson Hood's tour in support of the solo record and it brought me to my knees, hands down the best live show I saw this year. So we tip our Irish cap to our friends down South.

My number one favorite CD of 2012, and for pure joy the record I came back to time and time again is The dB's Falling Off the Sky. It is remarkable that a band could get back together after 30 years and make a record that not only stands up to their storied past, but start to finish is the best CD of their career. Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple are unusually talented songwriters and master craftsmen. They put their lifetime of knowledge into this blueprint for soulful power pop and how to make a great record. Listen to "That Time is Gone" - killer chorus, tasty guitar riffs, big bridge at end, swirling organ sounds, tambourines, vocal harmonies, clean and direct production sound - kids this is how you do it:

And Falling Off the Sky has song after song that hits the mark. I have and will always love their power pop sound. Big Star, R.E.M. and the Replacements are all gone, but thank god we have The dBs to make outstanding new music and carry the flag.

The remainder of my top 10 in alpha order:

Alabama Shakes. Boys and Girls.  Brittany Howard opens the record singing "Bless my heart, bless my soul, didn't think I'd make it to 22 years old," and with that a career was launched. "Hold On" was one of the most irresistible radio singles of the year in an era where radio singles don't come from unknown artists like this, don't sound like old soul songs, and aren't made down home on a low budget.

But the press went crazy for this record, and against all odds and trends suddenly "Hold On" and the Alabama Shakes were everywhere.  This all happened for one reason - Brittany Howard has an amazing voice and is the genuine article. In a prefab pop era, Howard sings her heart out without the benefit of Auto-tune, a stable of writers, wardrobe changes or any gimmicks. And she's backed by the right band.  Here's our full review.  And let me point out that our own John Hyland was one of the very first people out of Alabama to write about this band, here at WYMA on October 18, 2011, long before the record was released.

Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires. There is a Bomb in Gilead.  "Say a prayer for punk rock and say a prayer for me!" Lee Bains III is my new favorite guy - a rock and soul powerhouse who could just as easily be from Detroit as Alabama, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. The combination of a great voice, good taste and the right musical ingredients make this band and record a complete triumph. Another artist I might have missed had it not been for WYMA, where John Hyland has been shouting from the rooftops about these guys for quite awhile. The approach here isn't revolutionary, but it is remarkably well done - great guitar sounds, pounding drums, fantastic bar band vibe, singing songs about the Southland, the gravitational pull of home, growing up, and old girlfriends - you know, rock and roll. And who can't love a band that name drops Fugazi, Walker Percy and The Ramones? Ladies and gentlemen, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, "Ain't No Stranger":


Bob Dylan. Tempest. You ever taken a long car ride with a friend going through something in his life that he has to get off his chest, and it's full of life's complications, so he unloads on you his trusted friend a long and not at all linear narrative? Listening to Tempest feels like that to me. This is Bob Dylan's 35th record but perhaps his most direct and honest. Engineer Scott Litt brilliantly mixes the vocals way up so it is as if Dylan is speaking directly to you. And it seems he is wound up, urgently trying to get all his thoughts out. Meanwhile, Dylan continues to tap even deeper into the rick history of American blues, folk and R&B that has inspired and haunted him for decades, as here on "Duquesne Whistle":

But while Dylan's words and cultural importance will always be a big part of the context for his work, what continues to floor me is his sense of melody and song structure. Here's my favorite track from Tempest, "Pay In Blood", an equally beautiful and disturbing song, and maybe my very favorite of 2012, propelled by an impossibly perfect tune: listen to "Pay in Blood" here.

Kelly Hogan, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain. Hogan is blessed with a great voice, impeccable taste, and apparently a loyal artistic support group. For this record she sought songs from her many songwriter friends and they came through for her - including Andrew Bird, Catherine Irwin, M Ward, Robyn Hitchcock, John Wesley Harding, Robbie Fulks, and the late Vic Chesnutt. And Hogan is backed by an ace band that includes Booker T. Jones and drummer James Gadson. The result: perfection. Here she is singing Stephen Merritt's "Plant White Roses":

Patterson Hood, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance. Maybe I gravitate to Southern bands and songwriters because they draw on rich traditions of storytelling. I like a narrative with my music. I also appreciate courage and honesty. Patterson Hood is an artist of towering integrity and a gifted storyteller. On this record, he steps back from the rock'n'roll anthemic heroics of this blog's beloved Drive-By Truckers (who might as well be emblazoned on our masthead along with Guided By Voices), and writes his most personal record, reflecting back 20 years on the most difficult period in his life (see John Hyland's review here). Country, folk, rock, and especially soul - it's all here.  Beautiful and sad and deeply moving:  

Japandroids, Celebration Rock. I must keep tooting my brothers' horns here - Rocksteady74 was all over this Vancouver BC duo years ago from the get go. Guitar and drums and energy, and two guys who love and I mean L-O-V-E rock'n'roll. Celebration Rock is truth in advertising - this record is a celebration of rock'n'roll itself, a jolt of adrenalin and 35 minutes of pure joy. You hear these songs and you want to shout the choruses, jump and down thrusting your fists in the air, and that is exactly what these guys intended.  Rock is dead they say - long live rock...and the Japandroids.  Love this video:

Rodriguez, Searching for Sugar Man (film soundtrack).  It may technically be a reissue since these songs were recorded in the early 1970's in Detroit, but you wouldn't have heard them unless you happened to live in South Africa in the 80's or 90's and scored one of the bootlegged copies that sold millions there, a fact unknown even to Sixto Rodriguez who had given up his music career and was working in building demolition in Detroit....hey, it's a complicated story and one that needs a great 90 minute documentary film to be told. Searching For Sugar Man is my favorite movie of 2012; see it! The soundtrack features the best of the songs Rodriguez recorded with top shelf Detroit sessions players in 1970-71. Wow, are these songs amazing - arty, soulful folk rock songs that literally were captured in a time capsule and sound as unique and striking today as when they were made.

"Sugar Man":

"I Wonder":

Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball. Does it say more about the state of the music industry or Bruce Springsteen that Bruce is just about the only performer that can fill stadiums? What a year for Bruce - tremendous tour, great record, a must read biography by my man Peter Ames Carlin, and hell the Boss  even played a role in electing the President of the US! Wrecking Ball is an ambitious, fresh sounding record that takes dead aim at the economic injustices of the day. Musically, it gives you the working class hero anthems that Springsteen has always done exceptionally well ("We Take Care of Our Own"), while also successfully expanding into new territory -  Celtic rock ("Death to My Hometown"), and gospel with a little hip hop flavor ("Rocky Ground").

"Shackled and Drawn" is my favorite here and was the standout at his live show which is saying quite a bit when competing with that catalogue:

Sharon Van Etten. Tramp. Speaking of stark immediacy and skilled writing as seen with Bob Dylan and Patterson Hood above, Sharon Van Etten's Tramp is songwriting at its very best. I wrote a review here that I don't need to repeat.  Except to say that the "slow burn" that I described for this CD has continued over the past year, Van Etten's voice and words are lodged in my brain. I find a quiet intensity to this record that is jarring. There's real magic here:

My next 10 favorites, for a top 20, well actually it's 11 and 21...:

Sera Cahoone,  Deer Creek Canyon. People sometimes say country music is dead, which is nonsense.  But you sometimes do have to peer into the corners a bit to find it, though often it turns up in your hometown in the form of talented singer-songwriters like Tift Merritt (see below), James Low from Portland (also below), or Sera Cahoone from Seattle (or Ryan Bingham or Neko Case and many many more). Sera Cahoone has a lovely voice and a keen writer's eye. Deer Creek Canyon is a complete record of connected songs each extremely well played, sung and performed. Reviewed at WYMA here. Here's "Naked":

Sarah Gwen, Sarah Gwen. Sarah Gwen Peters put her life into this CD, both literally and figuratively. Her journey was a tough but determined one, told here.  I love the simple honesty of these songs. Backed by first rate players including Jay Bellerose and Jennifer Condos, but with great restraint, the focus here being squarely on Sarah's words and gripping voice. Listen to "Impossible" here. This debut is a real gem that deserves to be heard. Buy it - it may not be easy to find at your local record store but can be purchased as CD or MP3 here: CD Baby.

Dr. John, Locked Down. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys produced and spearheaded this wonderful musical zenith for the great Dr. John. And Auerbach did it just right, being neither in slavish devotion to Dr. John's history, nor taking an ego turn and forcing the good doctor into a Black Keys' primitive approach. Instead, it's a cut it loose, and throw it all in affair - horns, piano, keys, guitars, the funk, the swing, the blues, the stomp. It's the hippest revival tent you ever stepped into and some demons shall be exercised. "Revolution": 

Bettye LaVette, Thankful N' Thoughtful. A longtime favorite at our Soul Corner feature here at WYMA, Bettye LaVette is the best soul singer working today, and I'll stand on Aretha Franklin's coffee table in my boots to proclaim that.  LaVette is a master interpreter, tapping deeply into the right song to pull out her own emotions and tough life story.  This collection, produced by Craig Street, features songs by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Patti Griffin, Neil Young, and this gem, "I'm Not the One" by the Black Keys:

James Low and the Western Front, Whiskey Farmer. James Low probably doesn't think of himself as a country singer. But what is country music? How about this: Simple songs steeped in American musical traditions, about real characters with a tale to tell, stories about real life stuff usually happening away from urban centers, played with feeling on real instruments, preferably with a little twang in there. If we're at all close with that, then Whiskey Farmer is a great country music record. Low applies his sharp eye and first-rate writing skills to a song cycle about a down-on-his-luck guy who can't believe this is all there is to his life. And the Western Front provide just the right musical backing. Low is part of Portland's Americana community where good songs are the thing, and Low holds his own with his nationally better known contemporaries Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine) and Al James (Dolorean). In a well earned fate, far better than his Whiskey Farmer character ever got, this record was especially well received in the UK, and Low, after decades of hard work, had his first tour there this summer. Here is Low's first ever video:

Tift Merritt, Traveling Alone. Tift has the voice and heart of an angel. For this CD, she enlisted producer Tucker Martine and a great group of musicians (including guitarist Marc Ribot) and stripped this down to basics. The songs are heartfelt, well written and beautifully performed. More great country music; rootsy Americana at its very best. Full review here.

I particularly love this song, "Drifted Apart", with supporting vocals by Andrew Bird:

Of Monsters and Men, My Head is An Animal.  I have 13 year old twin daughters whose tastes run mainly to Z95-type pop music, so our tastes don't often converge. But we all agree on Of Monsters and Men and their deservedly smash hit single "Little Talks".

This Icelandic band writes simple folk songs that somehow come out as these epic anthems. And I love Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir's voice, which reminds me a bit of Lisa Hannigan, and that of course is a very good thing. The entire CD is well done, no one hit wonder here. This band and record deserve to win a bunch of Grammy's.

Graham Parker and the Rumour, Three Chords Good.  Like The dBs, GP and the Rumour are immensely talented guys who got back together after decades apart. Older, wiser, and with something to prove, and this record lives up to their great legacy. Reviewed here. Here is "Long Emotional Ride", just one example of the great Motown-influenced British pub rock that Parker does so well throughout Three Chords Good:

Chuck Prophet, Temple BeautifulYou like your guitars loud with a little garage and glam in there? All the better if you add saxophones, keyboards, and razor sharp writing? This record is for you (full review here). The title track is one of my favorite songs of the year:

Ty Segall Band, Slaughterhouse / Ty Segall and White Fence, Hair.  So much great music from this punk rock/garage rock madman, I can't decide. So l cheated and picked two records. Slaughterhouse a bit more punk rock, and Hair (a collaboration with Tim Presley and White Fence) more garage / psychedelic. But it doesn't matter, it's all rock and aggressive and weird and catchy and fantastic. Rocksteady74 is the expert here and I'm guessing he'll cover Mr. Segall in his year end piece later this week. Meanwhile, here's one from Slaughterhouse, "I Bought My Eyes":

That's it folks. Have a great 2013, and thanks so much for reading our blog.  When You Motor Away had more than 150,000 visits this year (!) and we are very grateful to each and every one of you.  


1 comment:

Shotgun Majors said...

Love your list. Some I knew well some were fun to discover. I found it because we both had Whiskey Farmer on or Best of List. Figured we might have similar taste. We do.