My Favorite Music of 2012: 60 albums (give or take a few)

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 best2012cdsgoes, 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.

Continue reading “My Favorite Music of 2012: 60 albums (give or take a few)”

The Royal Concept (2012) EP

The Royal Concept (2012) EP

My favorite EP of 2012 came from Sweden’s The Royal Concept. They hail from Stockholm.

You can download almost all of the EP for free from their page at SoundCloud.

Five great songs:

1. Gimme Twice

2. Goldrushed

3. Knocked Up

4. D-D-Dance (you can listen at SoundCloud but download from iTunes)

5. In the End

You can also check out the song “World on Fire” and a 3:32 remix of “Gimme Twice.”

File under: New Wave Prog?

Your move, Phoenix!

The Strange Case of … (Best of 2012 — Part 10)

Halestorm

The final album in my Top Ten for 2012 is Halestorm’s The Strange Case of …, on which Lzzy Hale showcases her stadium-calibre rock voice and her split personality (“Mz. Hyde“): just as the album title alludes to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the theme here is how a jaded maneater’s tough outer shell (tracks 1-4 and tracks 8-12) encases a true romantic hidden inside (tracks 5-7: the thermonuclear love ballads “Beautiful With You”, “In Your Room”, and “Break In”). This meta-concept album thereby allows Lzzy to showcase her softer side and reveal how her well-rounded, multifaceted rock talent has her destined for mega-stardom.

It’s been a massive year for Halestorm and they’re ending 2012 with a bang! It was just announced that the group and their song ‘Love Bites (So Do I)’ off of their latest album ‘The Strange Case Of…’ were nominated in the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance category for the upcoming 55th annual Grammy Awards, taking place Feb. 10, 2013, in Los Angeles.

The accolades for Lzzy and her band are well-deserved. Her talent even registered on (my fave) Mike Portnoy‘s radar, as this year Lzzy sang with Adrenaline Mob on their impressive Omertà album, doing guest vocals on the track, “Come Undone” (which is a hilariously deadly reworking of the Duran Duran song).

I had reserved the last slot on my 2012 Top Ten list for Soundgarden’s new album, King Animal. But in the end, the album just didn’t make the cut. Carl has a great review of the album, and his analysis of the lyrics (through the lens of T.S. Eliot!) will no doubt have me revisiting the album in the months to come and reconsidering, since I pretty much paid attention only to the music and not to the lyrics. Hence it was the absence of killer guitar solos on King Animal that led me to give it the boot. That whole anti-guitar solo grunge mentality is too anti-prog in my books, and therefore a fatal flaw.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Chris Cornell fan, but I like his Audioslave oeuvre the best, as well as his solo work. (Where does Soundgarden ever have the left-field magical moments of Audioslave’s Tom Morello guitar solos?) And I note that Carl’s review of King Animal spends way more time referencing great Audioslave moments than it does King Animal! For me, that was just confirmation that I was right to give Soundgarden the boot from my Top Ten.

For a while, The Cult’s unexpectedly amazing 2012 disc, Choice of Weapon (be sure to buy the bonus track version at the same price), was a strong contender for my Top Ten, thanks to standout tracks like “Lucifer”, “A Pale Horse”, “The Wolf”, and “For the Animals”. Only because The Cult is the band from the past and Halestorm is the band from the future do I give the nod to Lzzy over Ian. But both albums are solid, upper-echelon material.

I also toyed with the idea of putting Adrenaline Mob’s Omertà in the last slot of my Top Ten, because it has some tremendously accomplished metal. Mike Orlando’s guitar solos are astonishing, especially when combined with Mike Portnoy’s drumming. But the album is also a mixed bag. I found that I would carve it up into an EP for my playlists, because the only tracks that could consistently hold my musical interest were “Indifferent”, “All on the Line”, “Feelin’ Me”, “Come Undone”, and “Believe Me”.

So Omertà had to get the boot because it wasn’t solid from front to back. Yet by giving the final slot in my Top Ten to Halestorm, I get the best of both worlds — because Adrenaline Mob still gets paid an indirect tribute by way of my choice, thanks to their own recognition of Lzzy’s amazing talent (via “Come Undone”).

Halestorm

2012 has been a great year for music! A big thank you to all my fellow Progarchists for sharing their musical experiences here, thereby expanding my own.

I’ll see you back here on New Year’s Day, when I will reveal the name of my fave EP from 2012 — since EPs do not count towards the Top Ten list, which (in good prog fashion) I always dedicate to the recognition of the best contributions towards the keeping alive of The Art of the Album (and we all know who wins the top title for 2012 in that regard — Best Album of the Year).

Trouble with Machines (Best of 2012 — Part 9)

District 97

Another one of the albums in my Top Ten for 2012 is District 97’s Trouble with Machines.

Nick is right to call this “top-class prog metal.” It’s the sort of thing that is right up my alley.

But what makes this disc a cut above all the others in its class, and truly worthy of being in the upper echelon in that beloved genre, is the outrageously distinctive jazz sensibility that Leslie Hunt brings to these songs.

In fact, it is hard not to classify Trouble with Machines as the best jazz album of the year!

Just listen to all those wildly intricate jazzy vocal lines that Leslie does. Totally mind-blowing. And all in perfect coordination with her bandmates.

I was going to put Map of the Past by It Bites into this slot in my top ten, but Trouble with Machines won out instead. Partly this is because of my own metallic predilection, a longstanding gravitation towards riff-tastic guitar work.

But mostly this is because the prog-pop excellence of It Bites was eclipsed for me by the more purely pop perfection of Bend Sinister, which won a spot in my Top Ten this year instead. Beautiful as Map of the Past is, the purer power pop perfection of Small Fame wins out.

In other words, for me the prog on the It Bites disc is less innovative than District 97’s prog-giness, and the pop less perfect than Bend Sinister’s pop-iness. But darn it, this was a tough call to make.

I love how District 97 has a bunch of my all-time favorites as their prog influences: e.g., you can catch them live doing eminently satisfying covers of Rush and Genesis. But then they transcend all that and do something amazing: i.e., they are able to be their own audaciously unique selves.

What a great album this is. Don’t miss it. I think it exhibits a magical truth of prog: viz., how a truly great group must be one that is made up of extremely talented individuals but who then become something even greater than the mere sum of their parts.

Moreover, this amazing group is arguably what jazz was always meant to become, in order to articulate the maximum impact of its full musical potential. At least that’s what their amazing jazz metal is for a guy like me.

Wildly exemplary.

Nick’s Best of 2012 (Part 3)

And finally, after my ‘Top 5 Contenders‘, we have (drum roll please!) my Top 5 of 2012:

5. Panic Room – Skin

panicroom

A real surprise, this. I like Panic Room well enough; I admire their previous release, Satellite, both for its fine production values and for the two or three stand-out tracks on it. It is a good album, but not a great album. So I wasn’t expecting them to have raised their game quite so much with the follow-up. Production-wise, Skin sounds every bit as good as its predecessor, but the quality of the songwriting is higher and more consistent. The rockier tracks, Song For Tomorrow and Hiding The World, are as good as anything they have done, but it is the slower, quieter songs that really shine. There’s a wonderful mellow, chilled vibe to these quieter songs, and the liberal use of strings adds a degree of sophistication. Anne-Marie Helder’s voice is simply heavenly. This isn’t music that will challenge you, unlike some of the albums in my Best of 2012 list; rather, it is the sonic equivalent of a silk shirt or satin sheets: smooth, elegant and luxurious.

4. Kompendium – Beneath The Waves

kompendium

Another surprise entry. Being a fan of Magenta, I pre-ordered this purely on the strength of Rob Reed’s involvement and he hasn’t disappointed. Magenta’s distinctive take on prog pervades Beneath The Waves, but this is an altogether more epic piece than anything done by that band, bigger in scope and bigger in its production. A ‘cast of thousands’ has been involved over the album’s three-year gestation period: Steve Hackett, Francis Dunnery, John Mitchell, Nick Barrett and Jakko Jakszyk on guitar; Gavin Harrison and Nick Beggs providing the rhythm section; Mel Collins, Troy Donockley and Barry Kerr on sax, pipes and whistles; Dave Stewart and the London Session Orchestra; The English Chamber Choir; Tina Booth, Shan Cothi, Rhys Meirion, Angharad Brinn and Steve Balsamo providing solo vocals.

The result of all this labour is a lush and richly atmospheric album, successfully blending classic prog with symphonic and celtic/folk elements. At times, it sounds uncannily like something Mike Oldfield might have produced in his heyday – a most welcome resemblance to an Oldfield fan like me! In places, it has the feel of a film score, in others the drama and impact of musical theatre or opera – and the vocal and choral work is quite stunning. The packaging of the album, in a mini-gatefold sleeve with an 18-page colour booklet on the inside, also deserves praise.

3. Rush – Clockwork Angels

rush

I have to admit that I idolise this band, but if they had produced another Snakes & Arrows, they wouldn’t be featuring in my Top 5. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with S&A; it is undoubtedly a good album, but there’s a certain ‘sameness’ to the tone and texture of the individual tracks. It feels densely-layered rather than loose and free-flowing, safe rather than adventurous. Clockwork Angels addresses these issues head-on. For starters, it’s a full concept album – their first, shockingly (the concept pieces on Caress Of Steel, 2112 and Hemispheres being one side of an LP only). And what a concept! The familiar dystopian themes beloved by Neil Peart, but set in a Steampunk universe, and tied into a novel by Kevin J Anderson and Peart.

The music is also a delight. The concept lends it a greater sense of urgency and purpose. The sound is a bit more stripped down than on S&A and there are subtle nods to classic 70s Rush – such as the Bastille Day bass riff that creeps into the opening of Headlong Flight. The latter is a beast of a track, one of several real rockers on this album – the title track and The Anarchist being the other prime examples. Changes in tone and pace come from a delightfully loose section of the title track featuring slide guitar and from a couple of slower, more reflective numbers: Halo Effect and The Garden. The latter ends the album in uncharacteristically emotive fashion. Could the subtext really be a farewell to fans? Let’s hope not, but if this is their last bow then they have taken it in fine style.

2. Marillion – Sounds That Can’t Be Made

marillion

Even the most hardened Marillion fan would probably admit that the band’s muse has proved elusive since they basked in well-deserved acclaim for 2004’s masterful Marbles. Sure, they have served up some memorable music for us in the eight years since then – musicians with their talent, dedication and integrity could hardly fail to do so – but somehow it hasn’t had quite the same spark or level of consistent brilliance found on Marbles. With Sounds That Can’t Be Made, however, I feel that the magic is back. STCBM doesn’t quite scale the heights achieved by Marbles – which may well prove to be their career-defining highlight – but it comes close.

Album opener Gaza is a brooding monster of a track that courts controversy with its position on the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Whether you agree with Hogarth’s take on the issue or not, you have to admire the band’s boldness here. The album’s other ‘epic’, Montreal, is less successful, feeling to me like a collection of music ideas that don’t quite gel. The quirky Invisible Ink is likewise not really my cup of tea, but everything else is wonderful: the synth pop and soaring Rothery solo of the title track, the cool sophistication of Pour My Love, the laid-back groove of Power, the painful honesty in the tale of relationship break-up that is The Sky Above The Rain. This is Marillion doing what they do best: always reinventing themselves but always finding that intellectual and emotional connection, making you think but also making you feel.

1. Big Big Train – English Electric Pt 1

bigbigtrain

Yes, another Progarchist with English Electric Part 1 as his No. 1 of 2012, I’m afraid! And the fact that a self-confessed Marillion and Rush fanboy like me has placed this ahead of great albums by those bands tells you just how good this is. I can’t do better than the erudite and rather beautiful analysis of EE1 by Progarchy’s very own Brad Birzer (which I urge you to read), so I’ll simply say that it stunned me from the very first listen. As you’d expect from Big Big Train, this is an album suffused with a love of the English landscape, its rich history and its industrial heritage. It is less classically proggy than its excellent predecessor The Underfall Yard, leaning instead towards pop and folk music influences – there’s more of XTC in here than there is of Yes. Don’t let that put you off (not that it should), because the result is utterly sublime.

It’s difficult to pick out highlights when so much of the music is exquisite, but at the moment I’m particularly fond of joyous opener The First Rebreather, the elegaic Summoned By Bells and the dramatic A Boy In Darkness. Judas Unrepentant is wonderfully uplifting as well. And Uncle Jack is just so lovely, light and summery… Damn it, it’s all brilliant! And the cover artwork is rather special too. Could Part 2 possibly match, or even exceed, this? We will know soon enough!

Nick’s Best of 2012 (Part 2)

Following on from my list of ‘Highly Commended’ albums, we have my ‘Top 5 Contenders’.

The following five albums have missed out on a Top 5 placing by the slimmest of margins. Once again, they are listed alphabetically, not in order of preference.

Beagle in park with little planet effectAnathema – Weather Systems

For quite a while, this was a strong contender for my album of the year. That it doesn’t make my final Top 5 is testimony to the amazing quality of this year’s releases. The music here grabs you and stirs the soul just as effectively as 2010’s wonderful We’re Here Because We’re Here. but Weather Systems benefits from the more prominent role given to Lee Douglas, particularly on the haunting Untouchable Part 2 and Lightning Song.

echolyn1echolyn – echolyn

A late entrant into my Top Ten of 2012. It’s a multifaceted, multilayered work and I’m still digesting it – else it might have crept into my Top 5. I love the variety here, encompassing classic prog complexity but also a much more contemporary sound. Different parts remind me fleetingly of Radiohead, The Pineapple Thief, Amplifier (circa The Octopus) and even Elbow, but the net result is something completely original. Stand-out tracks for me are Some Memorial and the languid Past Gravity.

itbites1It Bites – Map Of The Past

Reforming with John Mitchell at the helm was a masterstroke, resulting in the excellent The Tall Ships in 2008 – but Map Of The Past is even better than its predecessor. It’s one of those albums that you simply can’t help singing along to and it never fails to put a smile on my face. Highlights include the lovely ballad Clocks, the thrilling prog of Meadow And The Stream and the deeply moving The Last Escape. Prog-pop at its finest.

sanguinehum1Sanguine Hum – Diving Bell

I’ll confess I’m cheating slightly here, as this album appeared on Bandcamp in late 2010, but the CD from Esoteric is a 2012 release, so it qualifies as far as I’m concerned! It’s an album of strange but beautiful sounds, unusual melodies and odd rhythms. At times it calls to mind Porcupine Tree in their more reflective moments, at others a less layered, less electronic North Atlantic Oscillation. On top of this it has the acoustic feel and vocal style of Turin Brakes. Fascinating stuff.

stormcorrosion1Storm Corrosion – Storm Corrosion

This collaboration between Steven Wilson and Mikael Åkerfeldt caused consternation amongst some fans of these artists when they discovered that it didn’t sound like the expected blend of Wilson/Porcupine Tree and Opeth. Personally, I love it. I certainly can’t do better than Alison Henderson’s pithy description of it as sounding like “Simon and Garfunkel on magic mushrooms”. A subtle and mysterious album, best listened to late at night.