It’s hard to believe how quickly the time goes, but it’s been nearly twelve months since I posted my Top 20 Albums of 2011 column, which marked the 20th consecutive year that I had published such a year-end list via an ever-evolving array of digital and print outlets. With a belly full of Thanksgiving leftovers tonight, it seems a good time to offer the 21st edition of this ongoing series, in which I lay out my admittedly and unapologetically subjective views on the very best music that the prior year has set before me.
I usually do this article in late November or early December each year, because I think an album has to spin on my turntable (or digital substitute thereof) for at least a month or so before I can put it on a list like this. So I don’t include anything that’s going to come out in December 2012, but I might include some things that came out in December 2011, and if you put out a killer 2012 disc in the next five weeks, I look forward to celebrating it twelve months from now. Also, as much as I wish I could listen to every album released by every artist in every country in this great green world of ours, I can’t, so this is obviously the best of the (many) things I listened to in 2012. Sorry in advance if I didn’t include any of your favorite saung gauk recordings from Myanmar or Uruguayan candombe hits this year, since I didn’t hear any of them. My omission in no way invalidates your own appreciation of those and any other vital and vibrant musical forms that please you. Happy listening!
Okay, these obligatory preambles aside, I want to say right up front that I think 2012 was an absolutely fantastic year for new music. Some years, I have to struggle to come up with 20 albums that I consider worthy of mention. This year, I had to struggle to cut the list back to 20 albums, and when push came to shove, I decided it wasn’t worth throwing one brilliant record off the island just to hit that round number, especially in my 21st year of making such public declarations. Hence, The Top 21 of 2012, which also seems to nicely fit the vibe of 12/21/2012 being the End of Days anyway.
The list below includes a lot of debut albums by emergent artists, and it includes a lot of second or third albums from young bands passing into new spheres of creative maturity, and it include a lot of new classics from long-time favorites. Which I think is great, because when people give me the whole “music was better in the [pick your decade here, depending on how old and obsolete you are] than it is today” spiel, I’m always adamant in noting that I really, truly believe that the very best music, ever, is the music being made right now, by definition. To admit otherwise is to accept musical obsolescence and creative senescence, and I am not yet ready to become a look-back bore.
2012 ALBUM OF THE YEAR
With that sense of always looking forward in mind, it tickles me to name a debut long-player by a band I’d neither heard nor heard of six months ago as the best that 2012 had to offer. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you World Music by Goat, which I declare to be my Album of the Year for 2012:
Goat’s “World Music,” the J. Eric Smith Album of the Year for 2012. Click this image to visit the band’s website, and then make sure to watch the live video from Truckstop Alaska in Gothenburg.
Goat, World Music: Goat are a three-piece band in the studio and a seven-piece collective onstage who claim to come from a tiny town in Northern Sweden called Korpolombolo, to which a witch doctor allegedly traveled in ancient times, established a thriving voodoo cult that permeates local thought, music and culture to this day. I buy that Goat are from Sweden, but the rest of it, okay, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it, I get it, cool. The band’s back-story construct is amplified by their use of masks and costumes onstage that actually do evoke a weird blend of radically disparate Nordic and Caribbean cultures. Regardless of how, where and why it was created, Goat’s music is sublime and exciting, offering a bizarre melange of conga-driven tropical rhythms and melodies taken straight from the NorthSide back catalog, tweaked with fuzztone bass and guitar, and with energetic female vocals atop the whole mess exhorting you to shake your sexy parts in a language that may or may not be some combination of English, Swedish, Ululation or Glossolalia. I can’t really understand many of the words, but I get the meaning and the vibe behind them, and I love the mood evoked by those declamations and the music that frames them. World Music doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before, and I suspect that there aren’t going to be many things in the months ahead that sound like it either, unless and until Goat get their sophomore disc out into the public domain. Exceptional. Exciting. And easily the best that 2012 has to offer from where I sit. So congratulations, and thank you, to the mysterious masked musicians who gave us this disc. They’ve truly made something remarkable for the ages, and their Swedish Voodoo Witch Doctor forebears must be very proud indeed.
2012 HONORABLE MENTIONS (CLOSE CONTENDERS FOR THE TITLE)
Jed Davis, Small Sacrifices Must Be Made: Jed Davis is one the greatest singers, musicians and songwriters that I’ve encountered in nearly five decades of music listening, and his latest long-player may arguably be his best disc yet in a canon that’s filled with brilliance. He’s played with loads of folks over the years, and this album finds him working through a collection of songs written over a twenty-year span with a stable studio band including Reeves Gabrels, Anton Fig and Graham Maby. If you don’t know who those guys are (a) shame on you, and (b) go look them up online, and be awed at what an incredible supergroup Jed assembled for this record. There are gorgeous ballads and ribald rockers in equal measure on this platter, and the Otto Lilienthal cover image is a graphic design masterpiece. Essential.
Napalm Death, Utilitarian: There aren’t a lot of bands doing their very best work a quarter century into their careers, but Napalm Death are clearly in such rarefied company as 2009’s Time Waits for No Slave and this year’s Utilitarian are easily among the best that the grindcore pioneers have offered over their long and illustrious career. The new disc finds them delivering all of the brutal, political musical blasts that aficionados of the band would expect, but they also work to expand the sonic palette by having sax player John Zorn spray skronk all over “Everyday Pox,” while “Fall on Their Swords” features an operatic/Laibach-like vocal passage and “The Wolf I Feed” offers shrieking lead verse vocals from guitarist Mitch Harris countered by some of the most melodic singing the band have ever offered in the choruses. If you’re ever inclined to play the “it all sounds the same to me” card when referencing Napalm Death, then this album is one to prove you wrong. Great stuff by a great band.
Public Image Ltd., This Is PiL: Every time that erstwhile Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten/John Lydon seems to be crossing into cultural irrelevance, he invariably comes up with a musical masterpiece to remind folks that he’s not a simple man to be trifled with. After a few years of being excoriated online for his British butter commercials, Lydon reactivated his post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. this year and issued a shockingly, delightfully strong album, filled with spacious dubby grooves and some of the strongest singing he’s ever offered in a studio project. Returning PiL members Lu Edmunds (also once of The Damned, The Mekons, Shriekback and Billy Bragg’s Blokes) and Bruce Smith (Pop Group) are joined by newcomer Scott Firth on bass and keyboards, and the noise they make together is fantastically evocative and engaging, making this easily the best PiL album since 1979’s Metal Box/Second Edition. If John Lydon has to make butter commercials in order to finance albums like this one, then I support him in his advertising career 100%. Well played, Mister Rotten, sir. Well played indeed.
Three Minute Tease, Three Minute Tease: Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians were one of my favorite bands in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but when Hitchcock broke up his long-time group after their 1993 album Respect, I found his later solo and band efforts less engaging and appealing, and I lost interest in his work after a couple of years. In 2012, his amazing Egyptians rhythm section (bassist/keyboardist Andy Metcalfe and drummer/singer Morris Windsor) have unexpectedly re-emerged to work together backing prolific and eclectic California singer-songwriter Anton Barbeau in Three Minute Tease, and the trio have made an extraordinary album together. Metcalfe and Windsor are kings of the groove, and hearing their intuitive rhythmic magic on disc again all these years on is a delight. I’d never heard of Barbeau before this record (though he has a vast back catalog under his belt), but am delighted to report that he writes, sings and plays some truly great songs here, and some retrospective research into his oeuvre seems in order on my part. But regardless of what I find there, I thank him for getting Metcalfe and Windsor together again to play with him on his outstanding collection of songs, because all together, Three Minute Tease is one fantastic new band.
THE BEST OF THE REST (IN MORE OR LESS ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Ian Anderson, Thick As A Brick 2: Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock: Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson delivers a tremendous sequel to his band’s 1972 masterpiece, Thick as a Brick, but does it under his own name, without stalwart Tull guitarist Martin Barre, who’s been his primary creative foil since 1969. As much as I love Barre and the Jethro Tull brand, if it took jettisoning both to produce an album this good, then it was worth it. “Adrift and Dumbfounded” and “Medley: Upper Sixth Loan Shark/Banker Bets” are the best songs Anderson has written and performed since The Broadsword and The Beast days. Which was a long time ago, for those of you who aren’t up on your Tullology.
Crudbump, Real Art: Crudbump is the nom du rap of the writer Drew, perhaps better known as the artist behind the daily cartoon blog Toothpaste For Dinner and (maybe) as the author of the deliciously perverse black comic novel Veins, both of which are highly recommended. As is this album, which transcends the expected nerdcore genre to become something sublimely entertaining, with outstanding beats, phat synths and fantastically insightful and humorous observational lyrics. Best moment: the truly spectacular “You Dumb,” (language warning at link) which is easily among the most often quoted songs in the Smith household in 2012. Seriously.
Death Grips, The Money Store: Not quite as terrifying and transgressive as their 2011 debut mix tape, as signing to a major record label (Epic) seems to have dictated that they don’t illegally jack quite so many samples from recognizable sources, but still an album that puts a boot in your ass and makes you move, whether you want to or not, while also forcing you to think hard about the provocative flows laid down by the electrifying Stefan Burnett. A few months after this album came out, Death Grips were dropped by Epic when they pre-released a version of their next album, No Love Deep Web, with an stunningly graphic album cover. (If you choose to Google it, I do not accept responsibility for what you might see). Glad they’re back to being indie. It suits them, clearly.
Django Django, Django Django: Fabulously wiggly synth-rock from Great Britain, with deadpan mass vocals piled atop crisp rhythms and analog noises that would make Pere Ubu’s synthesists proud. This debut album includes their exciting early singles “Waveforms” and “Default,” and the merger of the group’s sonically obvious British vocal roots and Meccano-style electronic groove-making and kraut-rocking evokes something like Kraftwerk Does Canterbury, or Can Goes Cambridge or Ubu In Edinburgh. There’s also some musical spice thrown in from England’s former commonwealth partners in North Africa and the Indian subcontinent for good measure. It’s similar to Goat’s record, in some ways, as I think about it, only much more British. Have I mentioned that they’re British yet? Okay. Just checking. British.
Pete Donnelly, When You Come Home: Pete Donnelly is the bassist for The Figgs, a legendary Upstate New York-bred band who, in addition to crafting a great catalog of albums, have backed Graham Parker live and in the studio for years. Donnelly has also done side duty with Mike Viola and the Candy Butchers, Soul Asylum and NRBQ, adding choice musical taste and texture to the proceedings wherever he goes. His work has always been my favorite part of The Figgs experience, with his sinewy bass, eclectic songwriting and smooth harmony vocals always attracting my attention, and serving the songs. It’s great to finally hear him stepping out on his own here with a wonderful collection of classy, catchy tunes.
Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos: Steely Dan singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen deploys many of the members of the latest live Steely Dan band on this, his fourth solo disc, so it probably should not have come as a surprise when the lead single, “I’m Not the Same Without You,” sounded like a great lost track from Steely Dan’s Gaucho sessions (and that’s a complement for you snarkmeisters who are inclined to diss the Dan). The rest of the album lived up to the tasteful and tasty fare that you expect from The (Real) Donald, and it’s always a treat whenever he and his Steely Comrade in Arms Walter Becker choose to bless us with studio recordings, together or on their own.
Focus, X: Dutch masters Focus are one of the world’s most criminally under-appreciated bands, in large part because they scored an improbable international hit with the yodel-heavy “Hocus Pocus” in 1973, so most casual listeners give the “novelty band” or “one hit wonder” nods, when they notice them at all. But the vintage era Focus line-up of Thijs Van Leer (keys, flute, voice), Jan Akkerman (guitar), Bert Ruiter (bass) and Pierre Van Der Linden (drums) was an extraordinarily accomplished group of players, capable of merging sick riffs and chops with haunting solos and melodies, knitting it all together into something that often attained musical magical status. (Check these live video versions of “Hocus Pocus” and “Sylvia” to see what I mean, if you’ve only heard the sanitized studio/radio edit of these songs; Focus were punk before there was punk, only with loads more talent). In 2012, Van Leer and Van Der Linden have put out a tenth studio album under the Focus brand, this time aided and abetted by guitarist Menno Gootjes and bassist Bobby Jacobs. While I never thought the whole Focus thing would work without Akkerman, this album is spectacular, and here’s hoping that the Roger Dean album cover heart fools a bunch of Yes fans into buying the disc, too. They’ll like it!
Gangrene, Vodka & Ayahuasca: This is something like the skankiest, skunkiest hip-hop/rap-based album of the year, a wild trip through psychedelic beats and florid dream vision flows that just hits it out of the park, track after track after track. The lyrical content often reflects on the altered states that a variety of natural and man-made substances can inflict upon a fragile psyche, and while I don’t wish to impugn to creators of this hazy masterpiece, it does seem that you can smell smoke, herbs, empty bottles and a vague hint of mushroom in the spaces between the sounds on this thoroughly enjoyable sonic expedition. Gangrene is a collaboration between DJ’s Oh No and The Alchemist, and as hard as they both rock solo, they really do achieve something sublime when they work together here, even if it makes you want to take a shower when it’s over.
Here We Go Magic, A Different Ship: I have all three of Here We Go Magic’s full-length albums and it has been a delight to hear the group grow from an edgy/experimental Luke Temple solo vehicle into a skilled band that’s capable of creating music catchy enough for me to have actually heard it over the store sound system in our friendly neighborhood Target store. And that’s a good thing, I think, since popularity doesn’t equate to sell-out in my book at all, as I’d certainly rather hear Here We Go Magic’s delicious “How Do I Know?” instead the usual crap that I’m forced to endure when I go to buy socks, underwear or what seems to be a never-ending sequence of easily broken Apple products. Temple and company do a great job of finding the sweet spot where “experimental” and “pop” exist comfortably side by side, and that’s a delightful feat in this or any other year.
Jazz Butcher, Last of the Gentlemen Adventurers: 30 years after they first played together in clubs in Oxford, and 25 years since their initial partnership exploded under a poisonous cloud of alcohol and fisticuffs and road fatigue, The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy’s Pat Fish and Max Eider returned to the studio together in 2012 to issue this delightful and unexpected new disc, their first since 2000’s “let’s make up and be friendly” album, Rotten Soul. It finds them pretty much picking up on the original musical agenda where they left off with 1995’s Sex and Travel, before mission creep and quality control issues entered the mix during the final year of their initial run. There’s superb guitar work here from Eider (who I consider to be one of the world’s most seriously under-rated performers), great songs and lyrics by Fish, a solid new rhythm section and excellent production from long-time Fish collaborator (of the post-Eider era) Richard Formby. I’ve very much enjoyed listening to Fish and Eider (especially) on their own over the past quarter century, but it’s truly a delight to hear them collaborating again here, as the interplay of their voices and guitars together really is something special and magical.
Kamikaze Hearts, Live 05-07: It’s probably rare for an outsider to be able to watch a band evolve from cradle to grave in quite the way that I experienced Kamikaze Hearts during my last decade in Albany, so I am glad I had that experience. I saw one of the first public performances featuring main singer-songwriters Gaven Richard and Troy Pohl onstage together, after having heard Richard with his earlier band (Annabel Lee) and Pohl working in a production/collaborative capacity with local anti-folk goddess Paddy Kilrain. I watched Gaven and Troy and co-founder Matthew Loiacono go through a couple of early line-up changes involving an angry bass player and a thoughtfully sensitive cellist (it was in the latter configuration that I booked them to perform on Sounding Board, the television show I hosted at the time), then watched them recruit the bassist (Bob Buckley) of another band who had angered our television studio technical crew by spending a lot of time trying to mic a box of crickets during a recording session. They later added the bassist (Nate Giordano) of an industrial metal band called Wetwerks who had also played on Sounding Board, shifting Buckley to slide guitar in the process to create their “classic” lineup. I saw them play at least a dozen acoustic “porch music” shows at a variety of clubs over the years, and I also saw them play electric gigs under the moniker/alias Pirate School, including a great show that I booked at the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer. The Kamikaze Hearts put out some fantastic records along the way, eventually getting their last studio disc out on Bjork’s One Little Indian label. Then they played a bunch of long and amazing live shows (some of them featuring guest Frank Moscowitz, the erstwhile cricket player) and just as things really seemed to be going their way, they quietly disbanded and went away. I have all of their studio works, but it’s a treat to now hear some classic cuts from some of those later shows here, including their awesome rendition of Stephen Gaylord’s “Scumbag Pines,” which I’m glad to finally have on my jukebox. Bonus points: the album comes on a flash drive that doubles as a beer bottle opener. Perfect!
Public Enemy, The Evil Empire of Everything: Like Death Grips (noted above), hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy also put out two albums this year. The first, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp, got most of the year’s press coverage regarding the band, since it was their first studio disc in five years, and it contained the ripping single “I Shall Not Be Moved.” But the rest of that disc felt a little thin to me, with a lot of guest spots that diluted the killer P.E. sound, that first and foremost hinges on killer beats from the Bomb Squad, furious exhortations from Chuck D, and well-placed interjections from Flavor Flav playing the role of the lyrical foil. Interestingly, Public Enemy’s second album of the year, The Evil Empire of Everything, rectified these shortcomings and then some, with epic standout track “Icebreaker” rocking for a solid seven minutes with a variety of instrumental movements that leave it standing as the “Bohemian Rhapsody” of hip hop. When Chuck and company bring in supporting performers, they get the most out of them, especially on “Everything,” an incredible gospel soul protest number featuring Gerald Albright and Sheila Brody. I’d totally go to a church where I got to worship to this song!
Opossom, Electric Hawaii: This delicious little trifle hails from New Zealand, and like so many other albums from the home nation of Split Enz and The Flying Nun label, it blends perfect, pristine pop and wooly, wonderful weirdness into a distinctive and impressive whole, that somehow could never emerge from any other place in the world. (If you don’t click any other link in this article, you should click that Split Enz one, just to see how completely bizarre they were in their early, pre-international success days). Opossom is the current musical vehicle for Kody Nielson, who once fronted “troublegum” allstars The Mint Chicks. His new band offers a similar blend of sweetness and menace, with a fantastic production sheen that really makes it jump out of your stereo, even if your stereo is a tiny little thing in your pocket from Apple that is likely to break if you sit down too quickly. Just saying.
Tame Impala, Lonerism: Another disc from the southern half of the planet (this time from Perth, Australia), Tame Impala’s sophomore record builds wonderfully on their highly acclaimed 2010 debut, Innerspeaker. Like some of the other records I’ve already discussed here (e.g. Opossom, Here We Go Magic, Django Django, Goat), Tame Impala’s Lonerism is at heart a pop album with strong songs, only they’re all decorated up with all sorts of wild and crazy sonic dressings that make them both comfortable and other-worldly at the same time. While the band functions as a five-piece in a concert setting, in the studio, Tame Impala is primarily the instrument of Kevin Parker, once of The Dee Dee Dums. He’s got a great sense of studio space, and it’s fantastic to hear such a young musician really creating a unique and exciting neo-psychedelic palette for his recorded music, without ever falling prey to the self-indulgence that solo studio work can often engender. I’ve read reviews that favorably compare this record to the more psychedelic bits of The Beatles’ Revolver and Sgt Peppers albums. I wouldn’t argue with that assessment.
Serj Tankian, Harakiri: One of the great mysteries in modern metal music is why the once-brilliant System of a Down allowed guitarist Daron Malakian’s thuggish and monotone shouting to take up more and more space on successive albums, effectively limiting the contributions of lead singer/keyboardist Serj Tankian, owner of what I’d argue is one of the finest vocal instruments ever deployed atop a metal bed. Where System’s first two albums soared, as Malakian assumed ever-more control of the band, the group became equally ever-more earthbound. On his third solo album, Serj Tankian once again soars, sometimes using his operatic pipes on powerful metal cuts, and sometimes using his rapid-fire, crisp lyrical delivery as a percussion instrument, punching both the beats and the message home at the same time. And make no mistake about message: this is a provocative sociopolitical album, touching on some themes that have haunted Tankian throughout his public performing career (e.g. the Armenian holocaust) and some that seem to be new obsessions for this particularly thoughtful songwriter (e.g. animal suicide). This is the best System of a Down-related album since Toxicity was released in 2001, and I’m damned glad to finally hear it.
Jack White, Blunderbuss: Last but certainly not least, former White Stripe and current (?) Raconteur and Dead Weather member Jack White finally gets around to putting out what he markets as his first solo album, even though we all know that he pretty well dominates anything that he performs on, so it seems a technicality to call it that on some plane. Interestingly enough, though, for his first (so-called) solo effort, White actually assembles a crack band of young studio hounds, and he gives them a lot of room to run, so that his voice, guitar and keyboard work is often not the primary point of auditory interest in any given song. White’s songwriting and arrangements are all over the place (in the good meaning of that phrase), with dirty rockers, piano ballads, blues excursions (both modern and traditional) and radio-friendly pop rubbing shoulders in a generally compatible and comfortable fashion. He’s probably the most experienced debut solo artist I can think of in recent years, but I’m glad he’s finally ready to put something this good out under his own name.