The sounds of 2012 were compelling.
No one hears everything, but here is one music lover’s unscientific assessment of the year in new music, including big names that’ll be on a lot of lists and a few hidden gems I couldn’t let slip through the cracks.
1. “Lonerism” - Tame Impala
If you prefer your rock ’n’ roll gnarly and psychedelic, yet tuneful and accessible, this is an album you’ve been waiting for. The Aussie quintet wins on both imagination and execution with a work that’ll hold up to the best of the decade.
2. “Blunderbuss” - Jack White
His biggest surprise yet. Not sonically; the aural assaults, the frothy blues, the titillating twang is exactly what you think a solo-branded Jack White album should sound like. No, the surprise is that after a strong run of White Stripes albums, Raconteurs albums and Dead Weather albums, this might be the purest and best Jack White expression of them all.
3. “Boys and Girls” - Alabama Shakes
Southern-fried blues and soul with swagger to spare, and an earth-shaker of a voice from frontwoman Brittany Howard: like Tina Turner by way of Howlin’ Wolf, and both sensual and pummeling. Hope to the heavens this first album isn’t a fluke.
4. “Django Django” - Django Django
“Scottish art-rock” is the go-to descriptor, whatever that means in describing this superb debut. To these ears, it sometimes means electronica meets a Bo Diddley beat, sometimes means sun-baked harmonies, and sometimes means surf guitars and psyche-rock climes. They sound only like themselves.
5. “Coexist” - The xx
You get the sense when listening to “Coexist,” the follow-up to the British indie pop crew’s Mercury Prize-winning debut, that the xx leave nothing to chance. The attention to detail makes for layered, chilled-out songs that bear lots of repeat listening, and reveal something a little different each time.
6. “Channel Orange” - Frank Ocean
OK, I’ll get on the bandwagon: a landmark of contemporary R&B in much the same way D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” was in 2000. Deeply felt, and also raw; you’re left unsettled, not soothed.
7. “Locked Down” - Dr. John
The good doctor chose a simpatico producer in the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and the result is the strongest Dr. John release in at least 20 years – a harkening back to the vintage R&B, gristly swamp-blues and weirded-out grooviness of early classics like 1968’s “Gris-Gris.”
8. “Wrecking Ball” - Bruce Springsteen
Sometimes Bruce gets too much of a pass from adoring critics; some of his work from the last decade is blander than tofu. But his 17th studio album has everything you’d expect from good Bruce, from tight hooks to triumphal pacing, plus a more aggressive – sometimes downright angry – tone overall.
Page 2 of 2 - 9. “Celebration Rock” - Japandroids
Eight snappy songs and 35 pulsing minutes from the Vancouver garage rock duo of David Prowse and Brian King. Love the energy, love the speed, love this well-chosen cover of The Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy.”
10. “Hambone Meditations” - Luther Dickinson
An all-instrumental album of country blues, picked on guitar and mandolin, by the virtuosic North Mississippi Allstars frontman (one of several projects he had this year), and an understated gem. It fits almost all moods – easy to get lost in, easy to focus on, easy to enjoy as background music – as it disarms and warms you, veering occasionally into John Fahey territory.
“Tempest” - Bob Dylan
Music scribes heap praise on new Dylan albums as a reflex, but did they actually listen to this? It’s sort of charming in the way even mediocre Dylan is, but surprisingly lightweight.
“Blak and Blu” - Gary Clark Jr.
I put the 28-year-old guitar slinger’s “The Bright Lights” EP on my Best of 2011 list because it was such a captivating little collection. But something’s missing in his full-length. It doesn’t capture what makes Clark such a galvanizing force live.
“Push and Shove” - No Doubt
The first new album in 11 years from the once-electrifying SoCal rockers proves they were right to split up and let Gwen Stefani go her own way.
HIDDEN GEM (Plain Sight):
“Away From The World” - Dave Matthews Band
It isn’t great, but the return of Steve Lillywhite as DMB’s producer helps make this their front-to-back best album since the unreleased “Lillywhite Sessions” more than a decade ago.
HIDDEN GEM (Buried):
“Light Up Gold” - Parque Courts
Texans transplanted to New York who make succinct statements of rock and post-punk, high on wit and almost completely filler-free.
CAN’T DENY ’EM:
“Call Me Maybe” - Carly Rae Jepsen and
“Gangnam Style” - PSY
Though not to be confused with “favorite songs,” you have to give it up to the two singles that will be most remembered from 2012.
FAVORITE LOCAL RELEASE:
“Waking Season” - Caspian
To the uninitiated, they’re a noisy sextet from Beverly. To the converted, they’re a sensory-overload experience on par with the best in the post-rock genre, and their fourth album continues the streak.