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.