Best Albums of the Year 2016

Unfortunately 2016 will likely be remembered as the year the music died. Bowie and Prince were the headliners, but it seemed like every other week another famous musician was transitioning to the great gig in the sky. Thankfully, the reason we care about these people will never go away: the music. We may have lost a lot this year, but we were also blessed with a great new batch of albums to help us get through this thing called life.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

deliriumThe Claypool Lennon Delirium – The Monolith of Phobos
Winning combination features Les Claypool of Primus teaming up with Sean Lennon, whose father John Lennon was once in a band called the Beatles. Most often described as “psychedelic rock” this album is so much catchier than that. Sure, it sometimes provides a glimpse of what it might have sounded like if John Lennon replaced Syd Barrett in early Pink Floyd… or if a time machine allowed Flea to play bass with the Beatles. There’s even a track about Bubbles the chimp, Michael Jackson’s old primate friend. Just a lot going on here. On this addictive set of tunes the younger Lennon certainly reaffirms his own chops as a singer and songwriter and provides the perfect soundscape compliments to Claypool’s always busy bass lines. And while Claypool’s lyrical and vocal quirks can keep his Primus albums out of heavy rotation, the smaller doses found here serve to keep an otherwise heavy affair light on its feet. Monolith has proven to be one of those rare albums that’s instantly likeable on first listen and also a grower that keeps you coming back again and again.

RUNNER-UP ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

de-latribe

A Tribe Called Quest – Thank You 4 Your Service, We Got it From Here
De La Soul – …And the Anonymous Nobody
It’s really incredible to be sitting here at the end of 2016 with two of the best albums of the year coming from Tribe and De La. Yea that was the norm in 91, but 91 was a quarter century ago! And this isn’t a sympathy vote or career achievement award. These two albums are both expertly crafted… just straight-up bangers, instant classics. It’s a triumphant comeback not only for the groups themselves, but also for hip-hop Albums (with a capital A) as cohesive works of art.

BEST OF THE REST

drive-by-truckers-american-band-album-cover-artDrive-By Truckers – American Band
Easily the best Springsteen album in decades. But seriously folks, no one does true Americana rock quite like the DBT’s as far as depth of writing meets true grit. Grappling with what it means to be Southern in America has long been the Truckers lane, but they never fall asleep at the wheel. They continue to ask tough questions and find some relief in the screech of guitars and the fine art of storytelling.
bowie-blackstar-vice

David Bowie – Blackstar
This awful year started with this beauty of an album, followed a few days later by the departure of Bowie from planet earth. I wrote about it then, and it’s still one of the best albums of the year now.

radiohead-moonshapeRadiohead – Moon Shaped Pool
Most Radiohead songs sound equally adept at sound tracking either a desperate escape scene or the mundane existence of laundry folding. And that seems to hold true here. I’d like a few more rockers, but I’m not shocked or disappointed to find a new Radiohead album is a mostly mellow affair. That said, “Ful Stop” is certainly a classic “this is what Radiohead sounds like” song.

anderson-paakAnderson .Paak – Malibu
This is one of those great summer albums, as its title and cover suggest. Perfect for the beach or blasting on road trips. Just a funky stew of a variety of styles masterfully pulled off by this mega-talented dude who sounds like a bridge between Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars.

jackie
Jackie & the Treehorns – RU4REAL?

Otherworldly guitar rock effort proves that Jackie mastermind Steve Rubin is in fact, if you’ll forgive the obvious pun, for real. Not just as a guitarist but also as a songwriter and producer. Don’t just take my word for it, go download the album.


margo-price-midwest-farmers-daughter-562x560Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

OK this one might be a little too twangy for you but it is some damn good authentic country music with SOUL, not that fake cowboy popstar contemporary crap they serve up at awards shows and before football games. This is righteous and hearty comfort food music, direct descendant of 1970s Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.


raggaStephen Marley – Revelation Pt. II: Fruit of Life

I think Stephen Marley is one of the best producers working today. The variety of sounds and the different types of tracks he can create is seemingly limitless. And among the numerous and talented Marley offspring, it is Stephen’s singing that has always sounded the most like Bob’s voice. Fruit of Life finds him working reggae and dancehall magic where it meets the road to hip-hop, collaborating with Rakim, Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, and even Wyclef Jean. Brother Damian ‘Jr Gong’ Marley is involved… unfortunately so is Pitbull on the inevitably cheesy filler track “When She Dances.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
The Avett Brothers – True Sadness
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Rich Robinson – Flux
Ras Kass – Intellectual Property
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Jack White – Acoustic Collection

DECEMBER’S CHILDREN
These are the albums that came just came out in the final month of the year… I named this section after an old Rolling Stones album called December’s Children. My gut feel is they are good enough to be on the list of best albums of 2016, but sometimes we just fall in love with the shiny new things.

The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
The Stones putting out an album of old blues covers isn’t exactly shiny or “new,” and it might seem like the least exciting thing in the world, but Mick Jagger’s vocal and harmonica performance is worthy of the song selection, while the raw sound of the… seasoned band is a perfect compliment.

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
So I’m not like a pop culture junkie and I don’t really watch much television that doesn’t involve football or animation… so I never realized “that guy Donald Glover from that TV show Atlanta” was also the rapper Childish Gambino. Same guy. Anyway, I’d seen a previous CG album on a lot of best of the year lists in 2013 but I never bothered to listen to him because for some reason I thought “Childish Gambino” was a really stupid stage name. I put it on ignore along with any rap artist with a dollar $ign in their name. But THEN amidst the release of his new album, I read that he got that nickname from putting “Donald Glover” into an online WuTang Name Generator. And then I listened to the album, it’s all funk and singing with no rapping… and it’s really good and weird and cool and other lazy words we fall back on to describe the indescribable. Sounds like D’Angelo mixed with Anderson .Paak… if George Clinton was the bartender.

Neil Young – Peace Trail
Guy is still putting out solid new albums in his 70s. He’s still finding new sounds and telling new stories but also tackling many of the same concerns he’s always had. This time around he’s anchored by a sparse acoustic band anchored by veteran session drummer Jim Keltner and a solid batch of songs that capture that “classic Neil” sound without sounding stale. Young admits to being out of touch with the world where everyone’s staring at their phones, but then also mentions buying a robot on Amazon.com. Dude is fuckin nuts but he’s still bringing the goods for our ears.

December 99th – Dec.99th
The Artist Formerly Known as Mos Def is now Yasiin Bey and Dec.99th is a collaboration with producer Ferrari Sheppard. Another “weird/cool” album here that refuses to fit neatly into a category (though I did see a headline calling it “alt.hip-hop,” whatever that is). Chilled grooves meet spooky spoken word style.

Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two
The final Prince album was technically issued in December of 2015… hence its inclusion here as a “December” album since it was mostly received and enjoyed in 2016. The album opens with “Baltimore,” featuring the refrain “If there ain’t no justice then there ain’t no peace.” Five months later Prince was dead. This album certainly stands up among his best 2nd-tier non-legendary classic works, and is a good cross section of the countless things he did so well. I’m still so sad he’s gone, but can’t say the same thing about the year 2016.

THE FULL LIST

For all the people who don’t want to read long blogposts and just srolled down to the bottom to see my list of the best albums of 2016, here it is:

The Claypool Lennon Delirium – The Monolith of Phobos
A Tribe Called Quest – Thank You 4 Your Service, We Got it From Here
De La Soul – …And the Anonymous Nobody
David Bowie – Blackstar
Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Radiohead – Moon Shaped Pool
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Jackie & the Treehorns – RU4REAL?
Margo Price – Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter
Stephen Marley – Revelation Pt. II: Fruit of Life
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
The Avett Brothers – True Sadness
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Rich Robinson – Flux
Ras Kass – Intellectual Property
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Jack White – Acoustic Collection
The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
Neil Young – Peace Trail
December 99th – Dec.99th
Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two

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How to Mask Friends and Influence People: Reviewing My Friend’s Band

Clown-Mask-Card-8.5x8.5-FrontBefore you listen to this Jackie & the Treehorns album, before you share this review, tell me what your friend’s band sounds like.

They’re good, aren’t they? Your friend’s band? They’re always really good, not just because they’re your friends. I’ve always been a bit too fascinated with how we talk about music, why we attempt to write about music and put into words that which can’t and doesn’t need to be explained.

So the next question is how do we listen to and process our friend’s bands? What if it’s our brother, or our best friend, or just dudes we knew in college? And do we overvalue how “great” they are? Cuz let’s face it, some of your friend’s bands aren’t that great. But that’s awesome that you still talk them up.

When you hear your friend’s new demo (or soundcloud thingy or youtube “trailer” for their upcoming album), do you think about how your boy once rocked a C&C Music Factory cassingle in his car and now he’s got this super-serious Queens of the Stone Age hard rock vibe going? Our intimate knowledge of our friend’s life and known favorites and influences surely must taint our view of their music.

Wait, you can’t view music. This is how Jackie & the Treehorns trick you into using the word “taint” in their album review.

The point is, there is this indescribable difference in listening to your friend’s band versus the latest album from an actual famous rock star. For instance, I know Jack White is a minimalist rocker heavily steeped in and indebted to the blues. He’s a longtime champion of a truly “independent” business approach and has an extreme fondness for vintage, authentic recording gear and techniques. I know all of this because that is what he has presented to me on record and through interviews, etc. (And of course all of that is then remixed and regurgitated and re-imagined for me by all the people attempting to write about music.) I don’t actually know Jack White as a person, I didn’t hang out with him growing up in Detroit, I never worked with him as an upholsterer, and I’ve never been in any of his numerous bands or side projects.

But I’ve been in Jackie & the Treehorns. I was the original drummer, and also served as Jackie’s manager and confidant during such dizzying highs and lows of his career that there’s a documentary film about it. In fact, I’ve been in a few bands and side projects with my friend Steven Rubin, the guitarist, singer/songwriter, and mastermind producer behind Jackie & the Treehorns.

I know his influences. (I won’t name check them). I thought I knew his influences. Yes, I can hear some of them peaking out from behind the Clown Mask. And then there are new faces, or old faces with different masks on, and they’re singing too. I didn’t know he knew them. There are things about our friends that we don’t know.

Did you think your friend’s band would sound like this? What did you think they’d sound like? Do you feel guilty if, when your friend isn’t around, you tell people “They’re kinda like 311, but they totally don’t sound like them at all”? Are you a little ashamed that you’ve only made it out to see them ONCE, and you got there a little late, and honestly don’t even know what they sound like? You could always just mumble “sort of a Blues Traveler kinda thing” and hope the person either doesn’t get the reference or thinks it’s a good thing.

Have you ever lied to your friend? Or, more accurately, have you ever just not told the truth about how much you think they suck? Do you have a lot friends in bands? Are you reluctant to spread the good word about how great they are because the other friends you’re telling probably assume you’re only talking about your friend’s band just to let people know you’re the kinda cool person who knows people in bands?

So then what happens when your friend’s band makes a really great album? Your other friends are so tired of hearing about your friend’s band they might as well be called Cried Sheep. It’s not that they don’t care (yea, it’s cool, you know dudes in bands). It’s just that they’re probably never gonna take the 14 seconds to click the one or two links to instantly listen to the whole album for free. Seriously, read that last sentence again: they’re probably never gonna take the 14 seconds to click the one or two links to instantly listen to the whole album for free. Back in the day when no one would get off my lawn, we (the friends of yours who were in the bands) had to beg our friends (you) to purchase a hard copy compact disc of our band and then we inevitably just gave most of them away for free, in exchange for the promise or hope that you would tell all your friends about our band and then also get together with them and PLAY IT FOR THEM. Force them sit through My Friend’s Band’s CD. Thankfully, we don’t have to do that. We can do the here’s the link, go listen for free at the time and place of your choosing thing. But I will tell you this: my friend’s band’s album is really, really good. I’m not just saying that. And he didn’t email me bugging him to write something about it (full disclosure: yes he did). Fittingly, my favorite track is called “In No Condition to Explain.”

Please don’t ask me what my friend’s band sounds like. Aren’t your friend’s bands true originals with a unique style that really doesn’t sound like anyone else? It’s almost impossible to know, but even if it wasn’t my friend’s band, I’d still think this was a great album.

Do you believe me? Will you check it out? Do you mind if I wear a clown mask?

Best Albums of 2014

spoon album coverFor once I’ve actually waited until the very end of the year to do this nerdy music-geek exercise we like to call our Best Albums of the Year List.

Good thing I did: D’Angelo’s long-awaited new album dropped in December, and after seeing this guy named Sturgill Simpson with his ambitiously titled Metamodern Sounds in Country Music on everyone else’s Best Albums of 2014 list, I finally decided to give it a bunch of spins. Both made my list this year.

Before we get to the very best and all the rest of my favorite albums of 2014, let’s start with a few words about The Album itself, and 2014’s best SELF-IMPORTANT ALBUMS:

U2 – Songs of Innocence
Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways
Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow
I wrote about the U2 album here, but that was as much about the release as it was the music. And, like with most music, it changes with time, as does our reaction and relationship with it. I think the U2 album is pretty good, but in 2014, in the midst of this evolving internet age, we must either hate U2 and glibly “destroy” any U2 fans and of course their Lord Bono. There’s no middle ground, which is kinda sad. You can’t just casually like U2. You’re either a U2 “apologist” or longtime fanatic drinking the kool-aid. All the nonsense and noise around the criticism eventually obscures the music itself. Yet it’s hard to be too sympathetic when the band and its tactics and PR create and fan the flames of said noise. Remember, this is a band that once named itself The Hype. And they still do The Hype as good or better than anyone.

Personally, I found myself liking the album a little more as it grew on me. But I also started to think differently about The Release, for better or worse. Without revisiting the story of their “giveaway” album that was essentially pushed to iTunes users… the big picture wasn’t just U2 wanting to say their album “reached” 10 Billion people or whatever. And it wasn’t just about the Current State of the Music Business that the alleged biggest band in the world was probably worried they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, sell even 1 Million copies given what’s happened to music sales.

The big picture I see is that so many artists still care about THE ALBUM. Not just singles and random one-off tracks, but the lost art of The Album. That’s why I’m grouping U2 with Foo Fighers and Wu-Tang Clan. Dave Grohl and the Foos built a TV series around their album concept and made one the rollout for the other and damn, forget the fact that the show is supposedly great (I haven’t seen it yet) but the album is really good too. Never been a Foo Fighters fan; I love Dave in all his other endeavors (especially the ones behind drum kits), but no Foos album ever grabbed me. They are so bland and safe and, yea, they rock, but it’s in this generic arena rock sense. Maybe this new album will fade out of memory like their other albums have always done. But again, the point is that Grohl put The Album and the album-building process into the forefront.

Same with the Wu. I already pointed out the album cover coincidence with Foo and Wu, but another similarity is stressing the Album as a piece of art. Not just the ongoing news items regarding Wu-Tang’s secret Only One Copy For Sale album (stunt?), but the actual new widely available official release of A Better Tomorrow. A reunion and swan song of sorts, it almost doesn’t matter that it’s “good” or “solid” or “just okay” or even “bangin.” They finally managed to get everyone together to make an Album. Not just a soundtrack single, or a “Wu-Related” project or solo joint with most of the Clan on some of the tracks. They made an album.

A bunch of other people made Albums this year. These are the ones I spent a lot of time with and loved the most. Apologies if your favorite band or album of 2014 isn’t reflected here. The comments section below is a great place for you to recommend more albums.

THE TOP 5:

Run the Jewels – RtJ2
The duo of El-P and Killer Mike is simply the best thing going in Real Hip-Hop. Their second album: a second consecutive instant classic.

Rich-RobisonCeaselessSightCoverLP_300x300Rich Robinson – Ceaseless Sight
Stunning solo album from the more anonymous of the Robinson Brothers famous for leading the Black Crowes. While Rich wasn’t gifted with vocal abilities of his hippie-jesus brother Chris, his guitar prowess and songwriting more than carry the weight here on this rich set of… Americana? Alt-country meets modern southern rock? Do we need to label it? No, but I’ll simply call it one of the best albums of 2014.

Jack White – Lazaretto
Despite his love of, and loyalty to, vintage equipment and antiquated recording practices, Jack White is nothing short of a master of modern rock. Not to mention one of our generation’s most gifted songwriters, guitarists, and producers. Lazaretto serves as yet another map to his worlds full of music.

Thurston Moore – The Best Day
If you miss Sonic Youth, this is a comforting visit.

The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
There’s a reason you keep seeing this weird band name and this album you’ve never heard of popping up at the top of every Best Albums of 2014 list. Go figure it out.

THE REST OF MY FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2014:

beckmorningphaseSpoon – They Want My Soul

D’Angelo – Black Messiah

Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Authentic. This is what the so-called music industry and its critics should wish Eric Church to be: real country songwriting and performance, without all the wanna-be Springsteen muscle-flexing or pale versions of Mellencampy small townery. Real folk rock with a twang.

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain

Beck – Morning Phase
I actually like this better than Sea Change. There, I said it.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

Pink Floyd – The Endless River (which I wrote about here)

Old 97s – Most Messed Up
I’d all but given up on the last 10 years or so of Old 97s and Rhett Miller releases. As their winning formula got so formulaic that it diluted itself into the background, nothing had the biting humor and real-life honesty and catchy riffs we fell in love with on earlier albums Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care. Well this new one finally does it, in a You CAN Go Home Again sorta way. A worthy update to the classic model.

Miles Davis – At the Fillmore  1970

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye

Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
I’m not the type of fanboy who always puts a Ryan Adams album on my annual Best-Of list every year he puts out an album… Wait, yes I am. That said, while this isn’t my preferred color of Ryan’s chameleon career, and on first listen thought “Welp, this might be the year I leave Ryan Adams off my annual Best-Of list…” I listened again and a few more times and it’s a real grower. Sure, there’s a couple songs that sound like Fleetwood Mac, but at least they sound like really good Fleetwood Mac songs! There’s still a few sad bastard acoustic tunes too, but it’s the slow burn of “Am I Safe,” haunting numbers like “Kim” and “Shadows,” and chuggers like “I Just Might” that give the album some depth.

And Finally, Some Random Old Shit I Was Diggin On This Year:

Donny Hathaway Live at the Bottom Line 1972. Amazing, just go: now.

Jonathan Wilson – His Fanfare was near the top of my 2013 list, but his 2011 debut Gentle Spirit is still in heavy rotation.

Pink Floyd – All of the classic mid-period stuff I’d “gotten sick of” back in college, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals. Amazing run that was. And I also had renewed discovery of just how great Meddle is.

Miles Davis – Almost everything from every era. I finally read his infamous autobiography this year and it had me diving in and out of all of Miles’ amazing incarnations. Remarkable body of work.

Three Crazy Snubs From Grantland’s Best Song of the Millennium Contest

Grantland has posted a “Battle for the Best Song of the Millennium,” formatted as a tournament bracket of course, culling 64 songs for all of us to vote on. I’m still an album guy, so “singles” and playlists are not really my thing. I can admit to being just old enough that I haven’t heard of a good chunk of the songs they picked, and that’s okay, I’m not in tune with all The Big Hits or whatever moves the radio dial these days.

I’m less concerned about what made Grantland’s list than what was snubbed: 3 of the songs that I would probably pick if I had to pick just the 5-10 best songs of the millennium, “Seven Nation Army” (The White Stripes), “Crazy” (Gnarls Barkley), and “Welcome to Jamrock” (Damian Marley). I’m sure narrowing the last 13 or so years down to 64 potential “Best” songs was a daunting task. So much so that they’ve already posted a reaction to the reaction: 20+ more songs they acknowledge shoulda-coulda made the list. Only “Seven Nation Army” made their “songs that just missed the cut” list, “Crazy” and “Jamrock” were snubbed there too.

From Grantland’s Mark Lisanti:

Not to pull back the curtain on our selection process… but “Seven Nation Army” bit the dust because of the dreaded “marching band penalty.” You know: If you can play it at midfield with tubas and French horns and socially awkward people in hats that have that weird strap that hangs down below the nose, it can’t possibly be a good song. It’s a Jock Jam. It’s halftime entertainment.

That’s sound reasoning if you want to vote against it once the tournament starts, but there’s 64 (SIXTY-FOUR!) slots… how do you not include this song ?

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What Are You Listening To?

Mixtape

A Random Mixtape

Human curiosity is…curious. I, for one, find myself becoming more and more interested in the methods by which people engage with their music. In the past, purchasing music was somewhat of a ritual: You heard about your favorite artists upcoming album, you saved your money for it, waited for it’s release date, went to your local record store, and bought a physical package that contained the music. Now, one can download and be listening to Michael Jackson’s entire discography within a matter of minutes and share it between multiple devices in an instant. As Det. Thomas ‘Herc’ Hauk once said, “Isn’t technology the bomb?”

Recently, while I was riding the metro into work, I looked around at the various co-zombies on my train. Most everyone was connected to some sort of mobile device and most everyone had headphones on. I wondered: what are all these people listening to? I suppose as a musician myself I am curious about people’s listening habits. That same morning I came into the office and randomly asked some co-workers what song they just finished listening to.
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Best Albums of 2012: Not Just a List!

I knew when the Fall new-album schedule had Bob Dylan, the Avett Brothers, and Patterson Hood releases on the same Tuesday morning that it would be the best September 11th ever.

Sure enough, none of them disappointed.  Bob Dylan returned with Tempest, a gritty and at times scathing stew of blues and folk serving as an amazing reminder of the late-career consistency he’s shown on record in the new century. Great Bob Dylan records are the reason people like me make lists like this every year.

Whether willingly or unconsciously, the Avett Brothers and Patterson Hood (lead driver and navigator of the Drive-By Truckers) are indeed disciples, descendants, and torchbearers of the folk-rock tradition personified and perfected by Dylan. And neither act seems to cower from the challenge, even if they’d scoff at my assertion that they belong in the same sentence as the legendary Dylan.

Seth and Scott Avett are blessed with much sweeter voices of course; and the songs (from the Beatlesque harmonies and tearjerkers to the more rockin’ numbers) on The Avett Brothers’ The Carpenter are perfect showcases for their natural talent.

phood-hlritdPatterson Hood’s Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance might actually be his best album to date. Fronting the Drive-By Truckers, Hood had already built a career as a gifted storyteller and master painter of pictures, and now the solo Heat Lightning flashes it right in our faces. There’s one scene where he shows up just after midnight at a liquor store in the next county cuz it’s Monday now and the liquor laws allow them to start selling again. It’s sad and lonely, but then Hood’s protagonist sees some “friends.” Even sadder, there’s already a line of “zombies” there when they flip the sign to open. This all transpires within the first verse of the first song.

From that first track on, it’s apparent that this will be a strange and telling ride, from that bleak scene at the liquor store in “12:01” all the way to where it “winds around dead-man’s curve where the lady from the Sunbeam bread wrapper was killed in that head-on” in “Untold Pretties.” Easily one of my Top 3 Albums of the year.

The other two were Chuck Prophet’s Temple Beautiful, reviewed here, and Jack White’s Blunderbuss (which I wrote about over the summer in this Heavy Rotation column). Other albums that I blurbed about in the first half of the year that make this Best Albums of 2012 list are:

Dr.John – Locked Down
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth
KRS-One – The BDP Album
DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles – Kolexxxion
Father John Misty – Fear Fun

soundgarden king animal artOne of the most pleasant surprises of the year was Soundgarden’s King Animal. They were always a good band, and made a few great records back in the day. But after such a long layoff, I was only expecting a shell of a bland Soundgarden-by-numbers album. I was wrong, this album really is great. The first two tracks might fit that bill of as-expected uninspiring rockers, but from track 3 through the end King Animal sits right up there with the bands’ finest moments from their Badmotorfinger-Superunknown peak.

At the end of the year, December saw the release of an album called Carry On, by a guy named Willy Mason. Never heard of him, but started noticing some good reviews so I checked it out. Really glad I did, as this album is both instantly likable and a slow-burning grower. Terrific songwriting meets production that ranges from trippy and atmospheric to stripped down and raw. Think Beck meets Daniel Lanois. Or just forget my half-assed attempts at catchy descriptions and just go buy Willy Mason’s Carry On right now. It’s like a secret gem. An out-of-the-blue underdog landing on my list of Best Albums of 2012.

The Rest Of The Best:

Jimmy Cliff  Rebirthjimmy cliff rebirth
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

Jason Isbell – Live in Alabama
Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day (reviewed here)
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Various Artists – Country Funk 1969-1975
Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream
Bill Fay  Life Is People
Band of Horses Mirage Rock

Rush – Clockwork Angels. That’s right, I’m risking what little credibility I might have by putting the polarizing RUSH on this list. Fact is, or my opinion is, this new Rush album rocks. There’s no synthesizers or cheesy electric drums. It’s not just guitar-driven, but the guitars actually sound like guitars. I realize most people hate the sound of Geddy Lee’s voice, and I’ll admit I can only take it in small doses. But this is a solid showing by the aging-but-legendary trio from Canada. I know it’s not cool to admit liking Rush, that’s why I hid this part all the way at the end.

Heavy Rotation

I’m not gonna call this my Top 10 Albums of 2012 (So Far), because if there’s anything geekier than posting annual Best Albums of the Year lists, it’s doing them in July for the first half of the year. So instead just consider this a Top 10 Best Albums I recommend you add to your rotation for the rest of the summer. And, in one way or another, all of these albums are heavy.

Jonathan Wilson Gentle Spirit cover art by Mike Sportes.

Jonathan Wilson – Gentle Spirit
Okay right off the bat I have to cheat a little bit: this is the only non-2012 album on this list. This one was actually released in August of 2011, with some recordings dating another year or two older. But I’m using the “it’s new to me this year” rule, and it’s one of my favorite recent album discoveries. Phenomenal guitar tone with a voice smooth as silk. Born at the end of 1974, it’s like he was infused with the best of what Neil Young and Jerry Garcia had been offering around that same time. And “Natural Rhapsody” even ventures near Pink Floyd territory. Wilson, who just wrapped up an opening slot for Tom Petty’s European tour, also produced the Father John Misty Fear Fun album listed below, as well as both acclaimed albums by the band Dawes.

DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles – Kolexxxion
Premo drops a straight banger here, this time partnered with hard rhymer Bumpy Knuckles, aka Freddie Foxxx. It turns out to be a winning combo, roaring straight out of the hip-hop heyday of the 90’s: classic-sounding Gang Starr beats with Premier’s signature chorus cuts working along side Freddie’s aggressive but underrated wordplay.

Dr. John – Locked Down
Supreme grooves by the legendary master. These jams are fun for all ages. Whenever someone like Dr. John (as if there’s anyone else like him) drops an eclectic gem like this, writers like myself run to their blogs to use the word gumbo. It’s not that we’re lazy and predictable, it’s just that it’s so damn tasty.

Jack White – Blunderbuss
I’m gonna try not to wear my Jack White man-crush on my sleeve, so maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all. If you’d heard that Jack’s first official solo album in his own name was a successful blend of the sounds he cultivated with the White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather, then you heard right. It’s both nuanced and immediately likeable, and while most diehards would rank his White Stripes albums in the top few slots of his resume (in some order), dare I already claim Blunderbuss is Jack White’s best album ever, and let’s argue about where to rank the rest.

Killer Mike – RAP Music
Killer Mike mixes Chuck D’s booming clarity on the mic with a voice quality more akin to something between Ice Cube and Big Boi. This one jumps out of your speakers like an instant classic. Produced entirely by El-P, this is a brilliant collaboration that spawned something I would call futuristic/old-school hip-hop. El-P’s beats aren’t too frantic or busy and he somehow manages to make Rick Rubin-style 808 beats sound more like tomorrow than yesterday.

Chuck Prophet – Temple Beautiful
I reviewed this one when it came out, but just wanted to confirm it was not a flash in the pan. Still love this album.

Father John Misty Fear Fun cover art by Dimitri Drjunchin.

Father John Misty – Fear Fun
Singer/songwriter Josh Tillman follows his stint drumming/singing on the Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues with this oddly interesting piece of art. I don’t know if “Misty” refers to mist and fog or if it’s shorthand for mysterious, but from the mellow to the catchy, Father John paints a beautiful-sounding picture.

KRS-One – The BDP Album
With someone as prolific as KRS, who inexplicably works just outside the spotlight, it could be easy to miss this ultimate return to form. The BDP Album finds KRS picking back up on the Boogie Down Productions vibe in more than just name only. His brother DJ Kenny Parker provides the back drop and Kris does his usual wrecking of the mics.

Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth
Another one I’ve already reviewed here that I’m still rocking several times a week. I know, I have a problem. But six months later, I’m still reveling in the crunching sounds of a happy, healthy, and sober Eddie Van Halen in top musical form, the surprising pulse of his son Wolfgang on bass, and the not-surprising thunder of drums from Wolfie’s uncle Al.

Dr. Dog – Be the Void
Sometimes I think the albums and bands I love the most “don’t sound like anything else” and have some unique, indescribable sound and quality. But that makes them the most difficult to write about, hence “indescribable.” The best I can come up with for Dr. Dog is that they are like a modern-day psych-folk revival of The Band; recommended if you like Felice Brothers.