Best of 2012 … So Far June 13, 2012Posted by Matt in Best of 2012.
Tags: Alabama Shakes, best of 2012, Bruce Springsteen, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Cory Branan, Dr. Dog, Dr. John, Heartless Bastards, Jack White, Jay Farrar, Justin Townes Earle, Leonard Cohen, Lucero, music, Neil Young, New Multitudes, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Sharon Van Etten
As the earth nears the halfway point in its annual journey around the sun, it is time we take a look back at the first half of this year, the highlights and triumphs and perhaps disappointments to date in 2012. In my strange little world, music provides the soundtrack and direction for each day, and I am always seeking to bolster my collection and to delve into the minds of artists, whether they are ones I’ve followed for years or upstarts of whom I may have only recently become aware. At my latest count, I’ve listened and paid attention to 35 new albums so far in this calendar year. These are my favorites.
Jay Farrar, Jim James, Will Johnson and Anders Parker – New Multitudes
Super groups are always kind of a crap shoot. I mean, not everybody can be the Avengers. So I approached this collection of unreleased Woody Guthrie material, as interpreted by Jay Farrar (of Son Volt / Uncle Tupelo), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), and Will Johnson and Anders Parker (both of Centro-Matic), with some trepidation. Fortunately, the group came through with a work that both evokes images of Guthrie’s Dust Bowl-era world and gives a timely statement on today. Jay Farrar has one of my all-time favorite voices and it’s a pure joy to hear him sing lines like “Music is the language of the mind that travels / It carries the key to the laws of time and space.” My favorite tune in the collection, though, is “My Revolutionary Mind,” as sung by Jim James. How can you not like lyrics like: “I need a progressive woman / I need an awfully liberal woman / I need a socially conscious woman / To ease my revolutionary mind.”
Download: “My Revolutionary Mind”, “Hoping Machine”
Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden
I first became acquainted with the music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American old time string band that seamlessly combines elements of folk and bluegrass with hip-hop and other music styles, after their 2010 release Genuine Negro Jig and songs like their spirited cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” so I eagerly awaited their latest release. Once again, the three piece struck gold with their modern take on an old style, successfully transporting the listener to the rural hill country where people young and old gather to make some of the original American music. Banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and an assortment of other instruments combine with an expert skill seemingly at odds with the youthful members of the band.
Download: “Ruby, are You Mad at Your Man?”, “Country Girl”
Dr. Dog – Be the Void
Dr. Dog has been writing and releasing some of the catchiest indie pop in the music world for years, and Be the Void continues in that fun, danceable vein. Having had the opportunity to see them live earlier this year, I can say this latest album captures the sing-a-long energy of their concerts – it’s unavoidable and impossible to dislike. This is music to make you smile, to enjoy life, to revel in the experiences that each day brings. “Lonesome” could make even the coldest, most indifferent listener clap and chant along in unison, while the spacey psychedelia of “These Days” will grab you up and carry you along on a strange and colorful voyage through interstellar regions often left untouched. It’s a fun ride and definitely worth the trip.
Download: “Lonesome,” “These Days”
Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal
The 65 year old Ray Wylie Hubbard, perhaps best known for penning “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” has been in the business a long time, lurking just below the radar for more than four decades while influencing untold numbers of Texas singer-songwriters. This latest release shows that the aging outlaw still has quite a bit left in the tank and a seemingly infinite number of pearls of wisdom for following generations. Notable lines abound in songs like “Lazarus” (“At least we ain’t Lazarus / And have to think twice about dyin’) and in “Coricidin Bottle” (“If you ever get to heaven say ‘Woo, thank you!” / If you ever get scared say the 23rd Psalm”). But the highlight of the album comes in the autobiographical “Mother Blues” where Hubbard tells of being a young man who only wanted a “gold plated Les Paul and a stripper girlfriend.” Good stuff.
Download: “Lazarus,” “Mother Blues”
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Americana
Did you ever wonder what it would sound like to hear Neil Young, with his grungy, loud guitar, and unmistakable, nasal voice, singing American standards like “Oh Susannah” and “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain?” Well, if you did, here is your answer and it’s awesome. This is one of those collections where you can imagine Young sitting around, jamming and saying, “What the hell, let’s record.” He turns American roots music on its head and totally rocks it out, blasting through versions of “Clementine” and “Tom Dula” in ways that you never imagined. Sure, it’s not an album of original music and it doesn’t have the poignancy of his greatest works of long ago or his more recent masterpiece “Le Noise,” but it is a lot of fun. Turn it up loud and enjoy.
Download: Oh Susannah, Jesus’ Chariot (aka “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain”)
10. Cory Branan – Mutt
I had heard of Cory Branan before he was name-dropped in a song by one of my favorite bands, Lucero, but it was after that quick reference that I started to pay attention to the work of this great Memphis singer-songwriter. Branan shows a diverse set of influences as he deftly transitions between styles, from the Tom Waits-esque “The Snowman,” to “Bad Man,” with its E Street Band piano riff and vocal styling of Tom Petty, the Mellencamp-like summer jam “Circa Summer 80 Somethin,” (with one of the best lines of year “You were dancing barefoot on the picnic table and dammit girl, truly goddamn it girl, truly goddamn it girl, truly goddamn”). The centerpiece of the album, though, is the great “Survivor Blues,” a tune that takes a darker look at the “Born to Run,” escapist mythology, with the refrain of “What didn’t kill you / Will make you wish you died,” ringing out as the stark voice of realism. It’s a very good album from an artist who stands as a musical treasure of this city.
Download: Survivor Blues, Yesterday (Circa Summer 80 Somethin’), Bad Man
9. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
One of the most interesting phenomena that has come to light in the past ten-to-fifteen years is the number of late-career releases from the elder statesmen of the music world, whether it be Johnny Cash’s incredible American Music run, the continued relevance of Bob Dylan, or even the great recent works of Bruce Springsteen (who, at 62, is a mere pup compared to the others), and the 77 year old Leonard Cohen continues in the interesting and poignant trend. Dark and beautiful, Cohen’s unmistakable voice continues to complement his superb songwriting in a way that few artists have ever and will ever match. Contemplating mortality with a wry sense of humor, he kicks off the album speaking in third person, “I love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit,” then considering a life nearing its end in the context of a failed romance, he says, “I got no future / I know my days are few / The present’s not that pleasant / Just a lot of things to do / I thought the past would last me / But the darkness got that too.” It’s truly a late-career masterpiece not to be missed.
Download: Going Home, Anyhow, Amen
8. Dr. John – Locked Down
Truth be told, I’d never paid a lot of attention to Dr. John. Sure, I knew Gris-Gris and I knew how important he was to New Orleans music, but for some reason I had never spent much time with his work. But, when I heard that he was releasing an album with Dan Auerbach (singer/guitarist for the Black Keys), I was immediately intrigued by the idea. Turns out, I now see what I’ve been missing. Auerbach injects his sound into Dr. John’s funky voodoo R&B to perfection, turning out one of the best and most fun albums of the year. On this work, the 71 year old music legend displays the dual reality surrounding and affecting humanity since the beginning, the desire for personal pleasure against the hope for something more, the drive to be good. Perhaps this is no truer than in the album closer “God’s Sure Good,” when he says “God been good to me / Better than me to myself.”
Download: Locked Down, Revolution, Big Shot
7. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
Poignant and beautiful, tender and angry, New Jersey’s Sharon Van Etten has released a true standout album of the first half of 2012. Her voice is one of melancholic beauty, one that at times reminds me of Cat Power, but that is decidedly her own. It will capture you, pull you into her world, a place where wants and desires battle with reality when she sings, “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city / You’re why I’ll need to leave.” Songs like “Leonard” are heartbreaking beautiful with its opening lines of confusion and questioning, “There he goes / He finally closed the door / I turn the lock feeling more confused than before / What gives?” With releases as urgent and wonderful as this, Van Etten will not be flying under the radar for long.
Download: Warsaw, Serpents, Leonard
6. Heartless Bastards – Arrow
I first became acquainted with Heartless Bastards following their 2009 release, The Mountain, and was quickly taken by their classic rock sound and Erika Wennerstrom’s powerful vocals. Arrow takes that formula and adds excellent songwriting to the mix, crafting one of the best albums so far in 2012, one that may stand as a career-defining moment for the band. From the colossal build of the opener “Marathon” (And we all want to belong / To something more than, more than ourselves), to what may be the best song in their repertoire, “Parted Ways” (And the sun went down on this little ghost town / near the valley of the Rio Grande / I need a little bit of whiskey and a little bit of time / to ease my troubled mind), this is truly a great work and one that deserves to be heard. I missed the band when they played Memphis earlier this year, so here’s hoping they have a return trip planned in the near future.
Download: Marathon, Parted Ways, Low Low Low
5. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
In the music business, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to follow in the steps of your father, especially when your father is someone as important to the alt-country world as Steve Earle. And Justin Townes Earle does no doubt struggle with it at times, both the fame and the evils that seem to follow behind it, and you can hear the references to his famous dad in much of his music, including the opening lines of this album, “Hear my father on the radio / Singing take me home again / 300 miles from the Carolina coast / And I’m skin and bones again. / Sometimes I wish that I could get away / Sometimes I wish that he’d just call / Am I that lonely tonight? / I don’t know.” Despite his struggles with substance abuse, JTE has quickly become one of the most important and most prolific acts in the Americana world, releasing five albums, all of them good to excellent, over the course of six years. Earle employs a Stax-style horn section on this album, a curious and welcome trend also seen with a band still to come in this countdown, Lucero. For me, the highlight of the album is “Memphis in the Rain,” a rollicking number that makes you feel as though you really are rolling down the streets of the Bluff City. Now, if only we could get him to play another show here.
Download: Memphis in the Rain, Maria, Down on the Lower East Side
4. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Songs and performances of the Alabama Shakes have been bouncing around on the web for some time, building a huge buzz for this, their debut album. Soon the Athens, Alabama band was opening for personal favorites like Drive-By Truckers, Jack White, and a whole host of other greats, even scoring a gig at Bonnaroo. In a time when Southern music is making a huge grass-roots push, Alabama Shakes have vaulted nearly to the top, becoming relatively well known in a very short amount of time. When soulful singer Brittany Howard sings of herself in the album opener, “Bless my heart / Bless my soul / Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old / There must be someone up above / Saying ‘Come on Brittany / You got to come on up,” she does it with such conviction you can’t help but root for her. This is decidedly old school soul, similar to contemporaries like Sharon Jones & the Dapp-Kings, but with a southern flair that oozes authenticity.
Download: Hold On, Hang Loose, You Ain’t Alone
3. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
The Boss is one of those artists who, though past the age of 60, seem to have caught a second wind in their career, putting out some of the best, most relevant and interesting music they have in some time. Following on the heels of the excellent Magic in 2007 and Working on a Dream in 2009, Wrecking Ball had a lot to live up to and fans no doubt wondered where the artist would go from that point. Never one to rest on his laurels, Springsteen took an unforeseen curve and released what many have called his “angriest album yet.” The Boss takes aim at economic justice, landing punches on the financial meltdown and corporations who are seen as making a mockery of the American Dream. In songs like “We Take Care of Our Own,” his words drip with irony as he talks of those left behind and struggling. It’s been called his “Occupy album” and perhaps that is an applicable descriptor as he slams the advantage-taking institutions in songs like “Jack of All Trades” (“The banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin / It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again”). “Death to My Hometown” is an Irish-inspired anthem (They destroyed our families’ factories and they took our homes / They left our bodies on the planks, the vultures picked our bones) that serves as a grave indictment against the powers that be. This album is epic and deserves its rightful spot in the Springsteen canon.
Download: We Take Care of Our Own, Easy Money, Jack of All Trades
2. Jack White – Blunderbuss
Over the past several years there has been no shortage of Jack White music, but ever since the demise of the White Stripes following 2007’s stellar release Icky Thump, he just hasn’t sounded the same. Though much of it was quite good, the spontaneity and urgency seemed to be missing from his music al output with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. Well, I’m happy to say that his first solo album, Blunderbuss, is a hugely welcome return to form. It does what White does best: rock. “Sixteen Saltines” and “Love Interruption” sound like they could easily have been included on Elephant, while “Freedom at 21” displays all of the crazy, riff-magic that made White a guitar god. This existence of this album makes me supremely happy and I can only hope that White continues along this same road for some time. I had the chance to see The White Stripes live several years ago and it ranks as one of my all-time favorite shows and the wildly unpredictable Jack White is among the greatest guitarists I’ve ever seen.
Download: Sixteen Saltines, Love Interruption, I’m Shakin’
1. Lucero – Women & Work
I had liked Lucero for years, maybe even dating back to before I moved to the Memphis area in 2004, and had seen them a handful of times during that period, but it wasn’t until 2009’s incredible 1372 Overton Park, that I truly came to love the band. Last year alone I had the opportunity to see the band three times, including an epic 3+ hour show at Minglewood Hall just before Christmas when they debuted much of this, their latest studio work. Since that show in December, I’ve had the chance to meet a few of the guys in the band and have conversed with some of them online, further cementing my allegiance to the greatest current band from Memphis. From the first time I listened to it, streaming it online prior to its release, I was completely blown away by Women & Work. Though I love the older Lucero stuff, the “empty bottle and an old country song” greatness, their more recent work has taken a giant step forward, keeping the elements that made them favorites among country-punk fans while incorporating new, and decidedly Memphis, elements. Memphis-style horns were added and the vocals changed to something more full and soulful, as Ben Nichols turned a major corner as a singer. The album begins with two rollicking, upbeat numbers, “On My Way Downtown” and “Women Work,” both of which pull the listener in, setting their feet to tapping and head to bobbing. I think my favorite song on the album is the strange and different crooner, “It May Be Too Late,” which to my ears represents a very interesting and welcome twist to the new Lucero sound. When Ben sings those lines “It may be too late to save me little girl / Called the phone till the numbers wouldn’t dial,” it really hits the listener deep, just like great music should. In “Juniper,” my inner nerd loves the opening line, “She looks like a superhero down on her luck.” The imagery is perfect. My second favorite song is “Sometimes,” with its lonesome (Check out Steve Earle’s distinction between the words lonesome and lonely in his incredible novel I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive when you get the chance), mournful sound and it’s chorus of “The road from Tennessee, it shakes and rattles to the bone / The hills of Arkansas are filled with haunted lakes and ghosts / Oh, and sometimes I hear them on those lonesome nights / Sometimes they come out of the woods and up to the house.” This has been, by far, my most listened to album of 2012 and I hope you will give it a spin, too. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.
Download the whole album.
Thoughts? What should I have included/not included?