But what else besides music could reduce the horrors of long-term unemployment to mere eye-clawing agony? A wise man once said the only thing worse than having a job is not having one. But nothing's worse than a life without music.
On planet La Piazza Gancio, this was the year of the reunion.
Old favorites the dBs, the Blue Aeroplanes and Garbage all reconvened and released albums that were better than anyone had a right to expect. Graham Parker even reunited with the Rumour, with Three Chords Good the happy result.
Bobby Womack emerged from over a decade of self-imposed exile to release The Bravest Man in the Universe. Bonnie Raitt ended her seven-year hiatus with Slipstream, and the Rolling Stones celebrated their fiftieth year with their one-millionth best of and two pretty good new songs that had them sounding like they give a damn.
Even better, a long-forgotten documentary from a 1965 tour of Ireland was released.
Charlie Is My Darling is a powerful argument for the Stones nascent stage prowess, containing definitive versions of mid-sixties classics like “The Last Time”, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Time Is on My Side”. They proceed to tear through convincing covers of “Route 66”, “I’m Movin’ On” and “Down the Road Apiece” as well.
That Got Live If You Want It was released in lieu of this is a giant, staggering mystery. That Charlie Is My Darling is my archival live album of the year is not.
You might also want to check Graham Parker and the Rumour’s Live at Rockpalast, or Sonic Youth’s Smart Bar Chicago 1985.
As far as box sets go, The (English) Beat’s short but memorable career was at last immortalized on The Complete Beat, a five-disc offering featuring each of the band’s three albums plus a disc of remixes and another of Peel Session performances and a handful of recordings from 1982's Special Beat Service tour.
The remasters sparkle. The live recordings animate. I am overjoyed that the Beat’s honking, propulsive ska is born anew.
Finally, here are my favorite albums of 2012:
1. Wussy – Strawberry If you’ve ever flattered a piece of music with the word unvarnished, Wussy has probably already found a home in your iPod, cell phone, hard drive or CD player. They work the same vein of rough-edged alt-rock and country first mined by the Mekons on Fear and Whiskey in 1985.
Distilled to its essence, Strawberry is all about the voices. Guitarist/vocalist Lisa Walker’s is capable of vinegar-soaked caterwauling in the manner of Exene Cervenka or Hope Nicholls one moment, and the plaintive, unembellished singing made famous by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch the next.
Wussy-founder Chuck Cleaver’s brings a whole ‘nother set of attributes to the proceedings. His sometimes wobbly voice has a knack for conveying the same fist-shaking sense of everyman outrage Joe Strummer’s did. It is highly effective, especially on Wussy’s barbed songs of betrayal.
Best of all, Walker and Cleaver’s harmonies never get within several area codes of an Auto-Tune, leaving no doubt these are the voices best to sing the songs of those left weeping in the bathroom of the bridal suite on the first night of the honeymoon—to quote “Waiting Room”.
They serve Strawberry’s forlorn beauty perfectly.
Check the aforementioned “Waiting Room” and “Wrist Rocket”.
2. Various – Time to Go: The Southern Psychedelic Moment 1981 – 86 Lying, as it does, closer to Antarctica than just about any other country definitely qualifies New Zealand as isolated. And that isolation has served its musical community well, as prevailing pop fashions arrive in a weakened state from the extended commute and submit to native influences without much of a fight.
Also in its favor is a modestly-sized population, which means conquering the New Zealand market offers similarly modest financial rewards. Without an enormous pot of gold at the end of the radio play rainbow, someone who doesn’t sound like the prevailing flavor of the month actually has a chance to be signed and subsequently heard.
Maybe Kiwis are just more creative than they’ve ever been given credit for. Maybe there’s something in the water. Maybe the Coriolis Effect has an especially powerful influence on music-making in the southern hemisphere. I don’t know.
What I do know is that Time to Go: The Southern Psychedelic Moment 1981 – 86, a collection of Flying Nun tracks recorded when it was the coolest indie label on the planet, is the first compilation I've installed on a year-end list in many, many years.
Come to think of it, it's the first one since Getting Older, which was another Flying Nun compilation.
See a pattern here?
Check Scorched Earth Policy’s hellish “Since the Accident” and the Stones’ “Down and Around”.
3. The dBs – Falling Off the Sky If it hadn’t been for Falling Off the Sky’s unsentimental opener “That Time Is Gone”, I never would have guessed it wasn’t 1982 anymore. The defining elements of the dBs converge in a perfect storm to make their early-eighties heyday seem only minutes—not decades—ago.
Sky bursts with the Beatlesque nuggets Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey so effortlessly craft, with “Before We Were Born”, “World to Cry” and “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Anymore” the equal of anything from Stands for Decibles or Repercussion.
There was always a bit of the Lennon-McCartney dynamic in Holsapple and Stamey, and their yin and yang is in fine fettle. Stamey’s soft-focus psychedelia and Holsapple’s observant, tuneful pop combine to make Falling Off the Sky the best album Syd Barrett and Big Star never made.
I’m tempted to say it’s like finding a favorite t-shirt from your youth and discovering it still fits. But that would be reducing the dBs to relic status, which they clearly are not.
Check “That Time Is Gone” and “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Anymore”.
4. The Bamboos – Medicine Man Melbourne has never been confused with Memphis or Detroit as a source of great R&B, so the fact that the perfectly-formed Bamboos originate from that Australian metropolis comes as a fairly large surprise.
But in the sound the truth is found, and Medicine Man stands up to any criteria you care to apply. Sublime, soulful and firmly in the pocket, the Bamboos’ fifth album is a triumph.
Artists plying their trade in classic genres like soul run the risk of being confined by them in equal measure to the degree that they are liberated by them. But in the Bamboos’ talented hands, soul is a launching pad—not a straitjacket.
This is 2012’s leftfield delight.
Check “Eliza” (which features a great vocal from Megan Washington) and album-closer “Window”.
5. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball After several mediocre efforts, it was a joy to have Springsteen release something as vital as Wrecking Ball. At an age when most men are checking their retirement portfolios, Springsteen rails against our fraud of a democracy and calls out those responsible.
But the radio-friendly production doesn’t always deliver the grit these songs demand, and as a consequence Wrecking Ball at times sounds strangely divorced from its lyrical content. It also couches its indignation by closing with two feel-good songs that feel tacked on at the suggestion of a focus group.
But like Neil Young’s Living with War, just hearing an arena-sized artist rail against the ruling class and their status quo and ask provocative questions with no easy or popular answers is enormously refreshing.
If only our elected representation were as brave.
Check “Death to My Hometown” and “Wrecking Ball”.
6. Garbage – Not Your Kind of People The curious 21st century odyssey of Garbage continues, with their fifth album finally appearing seven years after the fourth.
To longtime consumers of pop music, this is usually a red flag. Conflicting egos, writer’s block and disinterest are usually to blame for extended hiatuses, and none of them point the way to good records.
But this is Garbage’s best since 1998’s Version 2.0. Go figure.
Maybe it’s the lowered profile. (Not to be snarky, but it’s not 1998 anymore, is it?) Maybe it’s the lack of record company pressure. (Not Your Kind of People was released independently on their own label.)
Whatever the reason, People abounds with hooks, insistent sing-along choruses and Garbage’s trademark assortment of guitar flourishes and squiggly electronic bits.
Check “Blood for Poppies” and “Felt”.
7. Gary Clark, Jr. – Blak and Blu Gary Clark, Jr. is a prodigiously-talented guitarist and singer, the latest in a long line from Texas. Blessed with a voice that falls somewhere between John Legend and Stevie Wonder and the ability to scorch a fret board like the bastard son of Jimi Hendrix and T-Bone Walker, his future appears unlimited.
But as evidenced on Blak and Blu, such overweening talent can sometimes be a liability. When you can perform soul, hard rock, pop, blues and hip-hop, it’s a powerful temptation to do all of them—all the time. Where Clark’s major-label debut stumbles is in its embrace of this scattershot approach.
For every “Ain’t Messin’ Round” or “Numb” there’s “The Life” or “Things Are Changin’”. And over the course of a seventy-minute disc, the stylistic (and qualitative) diversity becomes wearying.
Still, it’s hard not to feel Clark has a very bright future.
Check album-opener “Ain’t Messin’ Round” and “Bright Lights”.
8. The Blue Aeroplanes – Anti-Gravity Bristol’s Blue Aeroplanes have mostly been flying under radar since a late-eighties, early-nineties flirtation with, if not quite fame, at least becoming less unknown. 1989’s Swagger and 1991’s Beatsongs briefly exposed them to college radio and things like MTV’s 120 Minutes, but by the release of 1994’s follow-up, Life Model, Nirvana had changed the landscape.
Gerard Langley has soldiered on, releasing albums, EPs and the odd compilation all along. Anti-Gravity, originally a 2011 vinyl-only release, doesn’t technically qualify as a twenty-twelve release, but the staff at The Square Peg are willing to take last year’s compact disc release date under advisement.
The Aeroplane’s alt folk-rock remains unique and unhurried, with the odd bit of cello or trumpet thrown in to good effect. It's not just their small-but-dedicated fan base that have kept these Aeroplanes aloft.
Check “Oak-Apple Day” and “My Old Haunts (Laughing With a Mouth of Blood)”.
9. Jack White – Blunderbuss Blunderbuss should’ve been an EP. What else to think about a thirteen-track collection that crashes like an over-leveraged hedge fund halfway in?
On the upside, those first seven tracks represent White’s most-inspired songwriting and playing in years. “Sixteen Saltines” and “Freedom at 21” crackle like fire. Ditto the staccato guitar that knifes its way through “Weep Themselves to Sleep”.
White is on such a roll here that even the clarinet which weaves through “Love Interruption” works.
But an awful cover of “I’m Shakin’” and a string of country-ish ballads that fall strangely flat (especially given White’s demonstrated affection for the genre) follow the prickly blast of what would’ve been—in the vinyl age—side one, doing them no favors in the process.
Check “Freedom at 21” and “Missing Pieces”.
10. Jessie Ware – Devotion This young singer made a pretty fair impression in her native England, where Devotion went to number-five on British LP charts. She’s also been nominated for two BRIT award as British Breakthrough of the Year and as British Female Solo Artist of the Year.
Even if you’re not the type who’s swayed by music industry awards, Devotion has plenty to offer.
Refreshingly devoid of the sort of hyper-arranged and hyper-produced product flooding the marketplace, Ware’s debut consists simply of one voice and spare, understated backing. Serving the song, and not adolescent attention spans, no longer seems to be a felony—at least in the UK.
Check “Wildest Moments” and “Taking in Water”.
Graham Parker & the Rumour - Three Chords Good
Knife & Fork – The Higher You Get, the Rarer the Vegetation
Dr. John – Locked Down