Updated Sun, Dec 9, 2012 9:34 am
In May, several friends and I were kvetching on Facebook about the mediocre year in music. Now, at the end of 2012, I find my "best of" list to be fairly long.
It's true that only a couple really strike me as standouts and long lasting, but looking back all the way to January, there are several I feel comfortable recommending. Here's my top 10:
Blues Traveler, Suzie Cracks the Whip: Always a favorite in the 1990s, I'm surprised by how much I've enjoyed this new album. It's immediately comfortable without sounding worn out. My favorite track is "Recognize My Friend." It starts slow, but picks up the beat and, of course, features John Popper's killer signature harmonica.
The Wallflowers, Glad All Over: I know, you're thinking "not those guys again." But this is a slightly different sounding Wallflowers. It's still Jakob Dylan driving, but he shares the vocals here on a few tracks, including with Mick Jones on "Reboot the Mission." It's updated easy-listening 90s music.
Celldweller, Wish Upon a Blackstar: Metal? Electro? Industrial? Pop? All of the above. It sounds different, let's leave it at that. Track three, "Blackstar," has gotten a lot of play on my workout playlist.
The Blasters, Fun on a Saturday: Even without Dave Alvin on guitar, the new Blasters album really is "fun." It sounds like laid-back 50s rockabilly: All the energy without being frantic. The title track is as good a place as any to start, though the cover of "Jackson" deserves a listen, too.
Macy Gray, Covered: One my favorite singers had two new albums in 2012, but both were comprised of old songs. Her Talking Book tribute to Stevie Wonder is the weaker effort, but Covered offers creative takes of some well-known songs from Radiohead, The Eurthymics and Metallica. I've often said that covers only work when they're unexpected or different; Gray pulls it off (check out "Nothing Else Matters"). As a side note, in between songs are short comedy sketches that are pretty funny. I always laugh at "You Want Them Nervous" and "I Try is Cool and All, But."
David Wax Museum, Knock Knock Get Up: I first heard David Wax Museum at a live taping of NPR's Mountain Stage in Charleston, W.Va. They stole the show. This third album is still infused with the sounds of Mexican instrumentation, but sounds much more mature and expansive than their first two albums. "Harder Before It Gets Easier" is a fun representation of what to expect from this album and band.
Josh Ritter, Bringing in the Darlings: Can Josh Ritter miss? He didn't with this six-track EP. It's sparse and less rowdy than my favorite songs from 2010's So Runs the World Away, but it's sweet. Listen to "Can't Go to Sleep (Without You)" or the Don McLean-esque "Love is Making Its Way Back Home."
Yves Rakotamalala, Ce Matin Encore: This isn't a new album, but new to me. It was originally released in 1981, then made available as a free download in 2010 at the Free Music Archive. I stumbled upon it while looking up something else, but was immediately struck. Rakotomalala is a latter day Malagasian Bob Dylan (early years) who sings in French and English. Doesn't that description make you curious? Nearly every song on this 12-track album is just Rakotamalala and a guitar, sometimes a harmonica. Sample "We Have to Believe" or "You and I" to get a feel for his moody sound.
Glen Hansard, Rhythm and Repose: This album is one of the standouts of the year. Emotionally, "Maybe Not Tonight" reminds you of so many rock/pop ballads, but it pulls you in anyway. This is a Friday-night-sittin'-on-the-couch-listening-to-real-music kind of album.
Blood on the Dance Floor, Evolution: Another standout, in my opinion. It's full-on electronic pop with teenage angst, grooves, bumps, fun and even some serious messages ("You Are the Heart" is a plea to prevent teenage suicides). "Frankenstein + the Bride" is the most infectious song on the disc and, as a bonus, an acoustic version is also included. If this is what "The Kids" are listening to nowadays, we're going to be Alright.
Finally, there were a lot of albums that I think deserve honorable mentions:
Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Americana: It grows on you. Give it several listens.
Mark Knopfler, Privateering: A dual-disc release that's still pretty new to me. I'm looking forward to really diving in more.
Jeff Lynne, Long Wave: Perhaps most notable because he doesn't release new music very often. There are some standout tracks here, but I'm even more excited about an upcoming reissue of his only other solo album, Armchair Theatre.
Gaslight Anthem, Handwritten: Music as close to 70s-era Springsteen you'll find.
Dwight Yoakam, 3 Pears: Rocking, playful, smart grown-up country music.
Waylon Jennings, Goin' Down Rockin': Jennings' last recordings are very much in keeping with his original outlaw reputation.
Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real, Wasted: Willie's son is making his own way in outsider country music.
Lisa Marie Presley, Storm and Grace: If you liked The Dixie Chicks' Wide Open Spaces...
Don Williams, And So It Goes: Another country music legend lives up to his reputation. This is music my dad and I can agree on.
Amy Ray, Lung of Love: Because it's Amy Ray. No surprises; you know what you're getting and I'm more than happy with that.
James Hill is the assistant director for Athens County Public Libraries and early-shift host of Radio Free Athens on Saturday mornings on WOUB AM. His approach to music is scattershot and weatherproof, so dress appropriately.