The best of 2012
1) The Grifter’s Hymnal by Ray Wylie Hubbard (Bordello Records). You could make a case that Ray Wylie Hubbard invented alt-country. Best known for penning one of the most bad-ass country tunes of all time (“Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother”), Hubbard’s grizzled bearing is the outlaw template by which style has always been measured for Southwestern musicians. This year’s album, his finest ever, firmly establishes Hubbard as one of the genre’s best songwriters. “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell” is not only the year’s most hilarious and timely send-up of Dante’s Inferno, (he assigns the “Fox News whores” to their own dark corner of Hades) it rocks like it’s heralding the Mayan apocalypse. Thom Jurek ends his review of it in All Music Guide with these memorable lines: “It’s a swaggering, sexy, shake your ass, greasy, deep roots record. It pursues the same mercurial music that bit everyone from Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to the White Stripes, the Black Keys, and Black Angels, down alleys, in bar and bedrooms, across history, myth and space.” Amen, brother. Essential listening for anyone who thinks musicians my age are irrelevant.
2) Carnivale Electricos by Galactic (Anti). Dr. John’s Locked Down will probably make more end of the year lists than this great party record by the New Orleans soul collective known as Galatic. Both records showcase the city’s vibrant tunesmiths and funky music scene and Locked Down nearly made my ten best list, too. But this record best celebrates a long-unheralded side of the Crescent City’s heritage: the music made specifically for the world’s biggest party, Mardi Gras. Carnivale Electricos taps into the “Sissy Strut” vibe of the Meters by engaging Cyril and Ivan Neville to sing on “Out in the Street” and its opening cut gets the carnival party started by putting Big Chief Juan Pardo in front of the microphone, backed by the chants of his Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Golden Comanche. Even old-school New Orleanians will love Galatic's remake of “Carnival Time” which reprises a performance by Al Johnson. Scintillating. If you don’t sway to this one, you better get your pulse checked.
3) Fear Fun by Father John Misty (Sub Pop). A sleepy, sonorous folk album from the former drummer of Fleet Foxes, J. Tillman, Fear Fun sounds like the record the Band might have cut if they’d recorded Big Pink in Laural Canyon, California instead of Woodstock. The trippy Cali vibe is in evidence on songs such as “Funtime in Babylon”, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and “I’m Writing a Novel.” The CD’s cover art is an homage and/or parody of psychedelic poster art that Bill Graham used to promote his concerts at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. You may need the magic of psilocybin mushrooms to fully appreciate the tuneful meanderings of Tillman’s stories, but this album is worthy of the trip.
4) Lonerism by Tame Impala (Modular). The brain child of Aussie Kevin Parker, Lonerism is awash in studio tricks, amplified reverberations and mind-bending distortions that sound tunefully aware of the Beatles’ greatest studio achievements, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. On “Apocalypse Dreams”, the album’s best song, Parker’s vocals purposely mimic John Lennon’s faraway cries on “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds”. Throughout the recording, producer David Freidman’s has layered an array of sonic burps, bells and whistles that turn Lonerism from a quirky studio experiment into a seamless synth pop masterpiece. If at first it seems too dependent on studio gimmickry, give it time. This one will grow on you.
5) Arrow by Heartless Bastards (Partisan Records). Erika Wennerstrom’s primal wail (her vocals are as distinctive as any female rocker since Janis Joplin), always is the sturdy foundation of any Heartless Bastard record. On Arrow it’s finally matched in intensity and passion by the inspired performances of her band mates, Mark Nathan (guitar) Jesse Ebaugh (bass) and Dave Colvin (drums). The Bastards rock harder than ever on tunes like “Parted Ways,” “Simple Feeling” and their statement of purpose, “Got to Have Rock and Roll.” Get it here.
6) The Lost Kerosene Tapes, 1999 by Bob Woodruff (Sound Asleep). If you can imagine hearing Steve Earle’s Guitar Town for the first time in more than a decade after his record company refused to release it, you might have that same sense of astonishment in hearing this great alt-country record, buried in the vaults for 14 years and never released before finally being issued in Europe this year. Woodruff’s stinging guitar work and the passionate way he delivers songs like “Fire In the House of Love”, “Hat Full of Rain” and “Brand New Blue” offer compelling evidence he is an unheralded voices of the genre. This one would have been higher if this were not old material.
7) Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen (Columbia). This was my soundtrack for the 2012 election, Springsteen’s finest album in decades. A millionaire many times over, Springsteen wears his blue collar roots on his sleeve. I get that some critics think this is ironic or merely a patronizing selling proposition to his legion of fans. The angry tone of many of these songs, his heartfelt angst at how one of our major political parties conspired to hold the nation hostage in a time of hardship, makes me trust the sentiments of Wrecking Ball. In “Easy Money”, when he sings about bringing his Smith and Wesson .38 to “the far shore” and warns the fat cats “you won’t hear a sound when your whole world comes tumblin’ down”, he’s not issuing a personal warning, he’s calling for revolution.
8) Signs & Signifiers by J.D. McPherson (Rounder). The way “North Side Gal” romps out of the starting gate, you’d be forgiven for thinking McPherson’s first album will be a 100-yard sprint to the finish. Only “Firebug”, the album’s second single, matches the frenetic fire and rockabilly panache of “Gal”. But that’s not to suggest Signs & Signifiers doesn’t strive for an authentic, wailing Sun Studios vibe that thrums throughout, highlighted by Jimmy Sutton’s thick, thumping plucks on a stand-up bass. These 12 sizzling songs come in under 35 minutes, a casual nod to albums in the 1950s, when short songs were designed for AM convertible radios and two lane blacktops. Play this one on a cross country drive and see if you can avoid a speeding ticket. I have my doubts.
9) Blak and Blu by Gary Clark Jr. (Warner Brothers). I was prepared to love this CD and can recommend this as the best straight-ahead blues music of the year. When he’s playing raw and fast, Clark rivals the Black Keys for sheer unadulterated ax thrills. And when those horns blare over his those tasty guitar licks, this is a powerful testament to a great new musical voice, balls to the wall noise. “Ain’t Messin’ Around” and “When My Train Pulls In” and “Numb” tear the walls down. But Clark’s attempt at romantic ballads and a try at rap feel misplaced here. This one is worth hearing but his follow up: watch out!
10) Clear Heart Full Eyes by Craig Finn (Vagrant). Finn, the songwriter par excellence whose manic stage mannerisms and street-smart, detail-rich stories of misbehaving youth and hipster hucksters helped make the Hold Steady America’s savviest bar band, maintains his nuanced eye in this wonderful solo effort. His back-up performers on this record don’t vie for attention, like the Hold Steady do. They provide a subdued sonic palette for this songs that places the emphasis on Finn’s lyrics to good effect. Highlights include “No Future” and “Terrified Eyes.”
These are my CDs of the year numbers 11 through 20, in alphabetical order. The Carpenter by the Avett Brothers; Algiers by Calexico; Rebirth by Jimmy Cliff; Sing the Delta by Iris DeMent; Django, Django by Django Django; Tempest by Bob Dylan; Locked Down by Dr. John; On the Impossible Past, by the Menzingers; The Ghost of Browder Holler by Chelle Rose; Port of Morrow by the Shins.
My 20 favorite songs of the year: “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell” and “South of the River” by Ray Wylie Hubbard; ”The Obituaries” by the Menzingers; “North Side Gal,” by J.D. McPherson; “Numb,” by Gary Clark Jr.; “Apocalypse Dreams,” by Tame Impala; “Land of Hope and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen ; “Fire In the House of Love” by Bob Woodruff; “Parted Ways” and “No Future” by Heartless Bastards; “Carnival Time” by Galatica; “I'm Writing a Novel” and “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” by Father John Misty; “I Need You” and “Alimony” by Chelle Rose; “Default” by Django Django; “Splitter” by Calexico; “No Future” by Craig Finn; “Bait and Switch” by The Shins.; "When I Write My Master's Thesis" by John K. Samuel.