A couple of years ago I was talking music with two good friends. One of them, apparently moved in some way by my relentless (and surely annoying) blathering about my music library, my favorite artists, ad nauseum, said, “Carl, you have such discriminating taste!” The other, a devotee of Bach, chant, and other great tried-and-true music, dryly responded, “On the contrary, Carl, you seem to have no discrimination at all!” Touché! How true. And yet I keep on foisting my picks upon anyone who dares to listen or read.
My choices here are emphatically “favorite”, not “best”, as I am all too aware of the rather subjective nature of such an enterprise. I’ve tried to have some fun with it, but I’ve also worked over my lists more than a few times. I’ve made my choices from roughly 4,000 songs, give or take a couple, all of them (with a few noted exceptions) released in the past year. With that, here goes, beginning with my “12 Favorite Albums of 2012”, regardless of genre:
12. I Like To Keep Myself In Pain by Kelly Hogan. A toe-tapping, head-shaking, “yeah”-inducing combination of soul, R&B, Southern, country, jazz, and a few more flavors for good measure, with legendary Booker T. Jones on organ. Hogan’s voice can do it all, without a needless or self-indulgent note.
11. Blue Moon by Ahmad Jamal. One of the true legends of jazz piano, whose dynamic use of space had a huge influence on Miles Dave—in the 1950s! Jamal is now in his eighties, but his playing is not only lively and crisp, it continues to develop. Check out his fabulous cover of “Blue Moon”.
10. 3 Pears by Dwight Yoakam. Here’s what I wrote on this site a few months ago: His music has always been lean and his lyrics dry, but the new twist is subtle: a warmth in both content and sound. An example of the first is “Waterfall”, which is playful, with a wry and wistful sense of joy. The second comes through in Yoakam’s superb vocals, set in arrangements that are fat-free and feature just the right amount of twang and reverb, with tasty touches of organ and piano. The man is a superior songwriter and this set is further proof that country music can be twangy and contemporary without being shallow and trendy.
9. Bear Creek by Brandi Carlile. I saw her live this past August (our third Carlile show) and she and her band were stunning. That such power and presence comes from such a petite woman is amazing; think of her as Johnny Cash channeled through Janis Joplin. She is also a very good songwriter. And she is from the Northwest (Seattle), just up the I-5. If you’ve never heard her live, watch her singing, “Raise Hell”.
8. Corner of the World by SOLUS3. This is the first of my more proggy picks; it was released in late 2011, but I didn’t discover it until early last year. SOLUS3 is a sextet that has been described as “prog dubtronica”, which is an apt description for music that is ethereal, intense, beautiful, jazzy, and very, very distinct, capped by the often searing vocals of Krupa. A keeper.
7. Where Do You Start? by Brad Mehldau. Mehldau makes my list nearly every year, which speaks to his production and quality, which never waver. He is one of the finest jazz pianists in the world, and this past year he released two albums: Where Do You Start?, consisting of covers, and Ode, with all original tunes. Both are outstanding, but I went with this one because no one covers a tune like Mehldau and Company (his 2006 “Live” album has a version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” that is almost 24 minutes long!).
6. The 2nd Law by Muse. This one took a while to get into, in part because I think it is a bit disjointed. In fact, I don’t even listen to the final two (mostly instrumental) cuts that often. The irony, it seems, is that while this is supposed to be a concept album, its strength is in the individual songs, especially “Madness”, “Panic Station”, and “Follow Me”. But the pinnacle here is the snarling anti-Wall Street tune, “Animal”, which starts out with a Radiohead-ish bass line and electric piano and then builds into what singer/guitarist Matthew Bellamy has described as “face melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia”, featuring some mighty tasty fretwork. Whatever you call it, I think it is one of the best rock songs of 2012.
5. Albatross by Big Wreck. From my earlier review: I was oblivious to this fine group (a “neo-prog hard-rock outfit” according to AllMusic.com) until I stumbled upon this new release on emusic.com. Singer Ian Thornley brings Chris Cornell to mind with his powerful, expressive vocals, but is hardly a clone, nor does he try to be. Three successive songs—”Wolves”, “Albatross”, and “Glass Room”—are worth the price of admission. “Wolves” (see YouTube video), especially, is a dynamite track, a perfect four-minute modern rock song, with top-notch playing and subtle melody.
4. I Am Anonymous by Headspace. My top pick of what can rightly be called prog. This captured me immediately and repeated listens have only deepened my appreciation for it. The combination of Damian Wilson’s emotive, powerful vocals and Pete Rinaldi’s guitar work is winning, and even more so because the compositions and production are top of the line, with much credit going to Rick Wakeman’s son, Adam, who formed the band and handled keyboard and production duties.
3. The Calling by Romain Collin. My favorite jazz album of the year is a gorgeous, mature, and evocative set by a talented French pianist that combines traditional jazz piano and a variety of classical influences (Collin is classically trained) with tasteful, dynamic electronic flourishes. This is what I imagine Radiohead might sound like if they were a keyboard-based jazz band.
2. Flying Colors by Flying Colors. Okay, this is certainly proggy in places, but I see it as more of a rock album featuring fabulous musicians with rich prog backgrounds. I’m been in awe of Steve Morse for years, and the combination of he and Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, and Dave LaRue not only works, it works spendidly. And vocalist Casey McPherson was an inspired choice. This one will not soon gather dust.
1. Was there really any doubt?
And now, the best of the rest, by categories both usual and custom-made.
More Prog! Give Us More Prog!
• English Electric, Pt. One by Big Big Train. This one took a while for me to “get”, but I think I’ll be “getting” it for many years. Have any of you heard of it? (Ha!) Impressively literate, with a unique combination of hope, nostalgia, wonder, and introspection.
• Clockwork Angels by Rush. This is the first Rush album since Roll the Bones that has captured and kept my attention. The word that keeps coming to mind in listening to it (as silly as it sounds) is “organize”: there is a freshness, looseness, and natural feel to this album that is new to my ears. These guys are amazing.
• All the Wars by The Pineapple Thief. Bruce Soord and Crew continue to deliver the goods. This seems to be a more rocking effort than past albums, but with the band’s distinctive broodiness and rich sound. Great stuff.
• March Of Ghosts by Gazpacho. Another emotionally charged and haunting epic from the Norwegian art-proggers. For those who haven’t heard them, ProgArchives.com nails it: “a bit more accessible than Radiohead, more diversified than Marillion and more proggy than Coldplay.” They deserve a bigger audience.
• March of Progress by Threshold. Singer Damian Wilson returns to the fold and the band delivers a scorching, full-speed ahead album, with some of the more in-the-face political lyrics of anything I’ve heard recently (“Liberty Complacency Dependency” anyone?). And the songs are loaded with big hooks and melodies. Terrific.
• Skin by Panic Room. The excellent and quite elegant album has only one fault, in my estimation: the cover. It doesn’t match the music at all, and I fear it might cause some to think this is goth or death metal. Anne-Marie Helder is an outstanding vocalist, the songs are of high caliber, and the playing is tasteful, with spacious production.
• XXX by Asia. I stopped keeping track of Asia for quite some time (uh, twenty years), but the last couple of releases have been a return to form, in large part because Downes, Howe, Palmer and Wetton have now been back together for a while. Wetton sounds great and the songs, while not overly complex or involved, are well crafted, on par with the first two Asia albums.
• Of Earth & Angels by Leah. Chris Morrissey mentioned this album on his “best of” list, and I’ve been enjoying it ever since. A mesmerizing vocalist, but also a good songwriter. Thanks, Chris!
• RewoToweR by Profusion. From an earlier post: “[T]he music is quite good, even outstanding, with assured playing, tasteful arrangements, and hook-heavy songwriting that is at turns playful, ambitious, mythical, and, on occasion, a little corny…”
• Weather Systems by Anathema. Lush, symphonic, and melancholy, with plenty of beautiful harmonies and extended suite-long songs.
• Perspectives by Lord of the Mushrooms. Odd meters, crunchy guitars, jazzy interludes, big moments of bombast, occasional sections of lucid calm. Oh, and the band is French, if that’s of interest. Fans of Dream Theater should enjoy this.
• The Black Chord by Astra. Another terrific album from the California boys who sound like they grew up in the 1970s feasting on the best prog groups of the day. A triumphant sophomore release.
• Beyond Man and Time by RPWL. A really good album by a German group that might be classified as “neo-prog”. Accessible, but with a lot going on in this assured concept album. Fans of Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson should enjoy this one.
Make Time For Jazz!
This is going to be hard as there were many, many good jazz releases in 2012. Here’s my take:
• Four MFs Playin’ Tunes by Branford Marsalis Quartet. I like most of Wynton’s music, but Branford really brings it, whether tearing it up on cuts like “Whiplash”, or playing a lyrical lament on the soprano sax on “Maestra”.
• All Around Us by Brian Patneaude. A very fine sax player and composer from New York State who consistently plays post-bop that is engaging, a bit funky, and very tasteful. And he just posted his Top 10 jazz albums of the year.
• Christian aTunde Adjuah by Christian Scott. Once you get past the outfits and the eccentricities, there is a wonderful music underneath it all, filled with lots of emotion and mood, but with plenty of chops as well.
• Radio Music Society by Esperanza Spalding. Some jazz, some funk, some soul. Spalding is a dazzling bassist, singer, and composer, and she shines here. A bit slick at times, but there’s no denying the talent.
• Born to Sing: No Plan B by Van Morrison. No need for a Plan B for the Belfast Cowboy because he is the supreme Celtic synthesist, so soaked in jazz, blues, roots, and early rock, he can sing about grass growing and it is magical (and, in that regard, reminds me of G.K. Chesterton). This jazz-oriented album, on the Blue Note label, is arguably his best in a decade; he sounds refreshed, focused, and even happy. The horn arrangements are special and the songs are leisurely without ever wandering, mellow without ever dragging. The real revelation here are Morrison’s horn-like vocals, which are strong, elastic, and restless. Great album by one of my favorite musicians.
• Floratone II by Floratone. Eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell and company lay down toe tappin’ grooves and mix in some nifty electronic touches, which in results in a quirky, neo-Americana feel.
• Soul by Jeremy Pelt. One of the more enticing albums of the year, featuring Pelt’s flawless trumpet playing and great interplay. An acoustic showcase.
• Sleeper by Keith Jarrett. This is actually a live recording from 1979, with Jarrett and his European Quartet (featuring Jan Garbarek) playing some extended cuts, including the outstanding “Personal Mountains”. Jarrett never ceases to amaze.
• Star of Jupiter by Kurt Rosenwinkel. My favorite jazz guitarist delivers again, this time with a double album that is filled with compositional and performing brilliance.
• Manu Katché by Manu Katché. This is perhaps the funkiest ECM album ever, the sort of playful, soulful jazz album that gives an assured nod to modern sounds (read: synths and loops), but is rooted in acoustic bliss, with plenty of warm horns and shimmering organ.
• Black Radio by Robert Glasper. Similar in ways to Spalding’s album, but even more experimental, with elements of hip-hop and electronica in the mix. Deep grooves and exemplary production by pianist/producer/composer Glasper.
• Hello Earth! (The Music of Kate Bush) by Theo Bleckmann. A quirky and artistic homage to the quirky and artistic Bush. Jazz oriented, with splendid, elastic vocals by Bleckmann.
• Number Five by Tom Harrell. Trumpeter Harrell is so consistently good, you begin to take it for granted. More top-notch post-bop with outstanding players.
• Accelerando by Vijay Iyer Trio. Young pianist Iyer continues to push the boundaries, flirting with avante-garde/free sounds while never abandoning a more traditional swing and groove.
• Now Here This by John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension. While this album is occasionally frenetic and has a very modern (and crisp) sound, the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “soulful.” This comes through more obviously when things slow down, as on the lovely “Wonderfall”. The guitar solos are technically brilliant of course, but also have passionate, hungry logic that cannot be denied. This is music for the mind and the soul, which is about the highest praise I can give it.
Let’s Head to the Country!
• Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank Cochran by Jamey Johnson. A real country singer singing real country songs (written by a country legend). It does happen!
• Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now by Justin Townes Earle. The son of Steve Earle continues his string of exceptional albums, this time with some new wrinkles, including some hot horns and bubbling organ.
• Nashville Vol. 1: Tear The Woodpile Down by Marty Stuart. An enjoyable, down home follow-up to the excellent Ghost Train, with Stuart playing straight ahead country with obvious delight.
• Suited Up And Ready (EP) by The Mavericks. Raul Malo and crew have apparently reunited for a full-length album, but have first released this 5-song teaser. The formula is simple: Malo’s dynamic vocals and a cool, retro sound. Looking forward to the full album.
• Nobody Knows You by The Steep Canyon Rangers. Best known to many as Steve Martin’s backing band, these talented bluegrass players continue to expand their palette with leanings toward pop and rock influences.
• Fall Like Rain by Martin Sexton. One of my favorite live performers (three shows and counting), Sexton released this 6-song set before his 2012 tour. The man has a voice like no one else; it has to be heard live to be believed.
• Signs & Signifiers by J. D. McPherson. A rollicking, rockabilly album that has one eye looking to the past but with both feet in the present. Proof that traditional and contemporary can work perfectly together.
Plug It In (Some Favorite Electronica)!
• Panic by Caravan Palace. Imagine that Paris in the 1920s had electronic keyboards and other modern perks. Lots of fun.
• Until The Quiet Comes by Flying Lotus. From my earlier review: This is my sort of electronica: richly detailed, sumptuous, quirky, edged with darkness, possessing a jazzy flair, and endlessly inventive. The jazzy element has a genealogy, as Steven Ellison (who is Flying Lotus) is the great-nephew of Alice Coltrane, wife of the late, legendary ‘Trane. Includes a track, “Electric Candyman”, with a certain Thom Yorke. A near perfect late night album, this rewards repeated listens.
• 5 by Lamb. This was a 2011 release, but I didn’t know it was out until a few months ago. Lamb is an old favorite, and Andy Barlow and Lou Rhodes do not disappoint. Immaculate, slightly chilly production and Rhodes distinct vocals make this a stand out album.
• You by Kate Havnevik. A more poppy and upbeat turn from her 2006 album, Melankton, but with the same enjoyable Björk-like swells and Dido-ish vocals.
Albums I Didn’t Expect to Enjoy, But Most Certainly Did!
• Some Nights by fun. I somehow discovered this band before they became all the rage, in part (I think) because Janelle Monáe (see 2010’s dazzling The ArchAndroid) sings on the huge hit, “We Are Young”. That song was my kids’ favorite song of 2012, requested almost every time the family got in the van. Well, hey, it is catchy!
• Boys & Girls by Alabama Shakes. Gritty, soulful, southern, with a winning combination of classic rock sound and happenin’ hipness. And lead singer Brittany Howard simply lets it rip. See for yourself.
• Epicloud by Devin Townsend Project. I first heard Townsend about twenty years ago on a Steve Vai album (he was still a teenager). Then I lost track of him. Turns out he’s been cranking out 2 or 3 albums a year. And his most recent material is so wonderfully big and over-the-top, it’s hard to not like. Oh, and Anneke Van Giersbergen joins Towsend on vocals. Crazy stuff, and crazy good.
• Memories Of A Beautiful Disaster by James Durbin. Take a big breath. Yes, he was on “American Idol.” Breathe out. But Durbin doesn’t sound like an “Idol” contestant, but like the love child of Axel Rose and Lisa Ford. A guilty, guilty pleasure.
• Our Version of Events by Emeli Sandé. Modern, neo-soul is usually my cup of tea (Seal is a big exception, so this album by the young Brit has been a pleasant surprise. Come to think of it, there are elements of Dido, but with a more in your face approach. Great vocals.
• Plumb by Field Music. Imagine Paul McCartney singing with a low-fi prog band that specializes in two-minute long songs. Really. It’s weird. And yet it works.
• The Weight of Glory: Songs Inspired by the Works of CS Lewis by Heath McNease. What sounded like it could be cheesy, trite, and annoying is quite the opposite. This is well-crafted and thoughtful pop music with a purpose, never ever sinking into preachiness or Christian clichés.
• Covered by Macy Gray. Not every song grabs me, but her husky, world-weary versions of “Creep”, “Here Comes The Rain Again”, and “Nothing Else Matters” are worth the price of admission.
• Noctourniquet by The Mars Volta. For every song by The Mars Vola that I’ve liked in the past, there are several I cannot stick with. This album, however, is full of great songs, and while there is plenty of left-field zaniness, it is more focused and agreeable. “Aegis” is one highlight of many.
And, finally, two bonus albums that I would categorize as “Late Have I Known Thee!”:
• ’57 In Concert by Frank Sinatra. At last, the legendary Seattle concert is available for a reasonable price, and it is worth it, especially since remarkably few Sinatra concerts were ever recorded (especially not prior to the Sixties). Sinatra isn’t in perfect voice, but The Voice is darned good—and the bonus is that Nelson Riddle, his trusty arranger during the Capitol years, was actually conducting.
• That’s All by Mel Tormé. This 1965 album escaped me for some time, thought I’m not sure why. It is one of Tormé’s best, with a wide range of songs, including the Gershwin tune, “Hang On To Me”, which is one of the most poignant Tormé performances of all time.