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.

Advertisements

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.

The Throne We Should Be Watching

When did KRS-One join the witness protection program?

Have you seen this man? KRS-One is still on point.

He didn’t. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: he’s actually put out seven really good albums over the last five years alone. And yet it feels like he’s disappeared right out there in the open. You would think with so many people lamenting the alleged Death of Hip-Hop that a legend like KRS-One would get recognized for dropping a few instant classics over the last several years.

Music bloggers and casual rap fans wait with bated breath any time Kanye West puts out an album and declare the last and next Roots album a classic and wish to the heavens that OutKast will some day make another album. People are losing their minds waiting for Dr. Dre to finish Detox, the album he’s supposedly been working on for almost 10 years. And yet there’s KRS the Teacha, a unanimous “Greatest of All Time” on everyone’s shortlist no matter the criteria, and he’s not just still alive, or still recording… he’s making some of his strongest albums ever.

Don’t believe me? Go listen to Survival Skills, the 2009 album he made with Buckshot. This is easily my favorite hip-hop record of the last five years. If you click away from this article considering buying one album, it should be this one. It’s just a perfect storm of quality beats/production with the solid 1-2 punch of Kris and Buckshot on the mic.

Still not convinced? Did you know he made an album with Wu-Tang production disciple True Master in 2010? Picture KRS-One doing his metaphysical lyrical lectures over that grimy sound you’d expect from a producer off the RZA tree.

And that’s not all.

Let’s actually rewind and take it back to 2008, when Maximum Strength sounded like KRS-One was still capable of making the classic banger he hadn’t made in over a decade. Following his 90’s peak (his self-titled 1995 album), I Got Next (1997) was a hit but also signaled the beginning of the end. He’d go four years before releasing his next album, the decent but uneven Sneak Attack. The rest of the 2000’s saw a string of 10 lackluster albums that only hinted at his true genius (it’s hard to even fact check; his official discography differs from site to site, adding to this whole witness protection mystery). That’s right, approximately 10 albums from 2001 to 2007 (and those are the ones I’m discarding as mediocre).

So 2008’s Maximum Strength comes out and it’s pretty slammin. Kris sounds sharp, he’s chosen some decent beats. OK, cool. This is probably the weakest of this recent run, but it seemed to signal a shift in the right direction.

KRS-One: Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone.

The following year is when the aforementioned Survival Skills dropped, kicking off a run of collaboration albums that have all been straight fire. It’s one thing for Jay-Z and Kanye to pair up and make one great album (Watch the Throne), or for a legend like Eminem to team up with a lesser-known but respected MC like Royce da 5’9” (Bad Meets Evil: Hell the Sequel ). But KRS-One has now made FOUR such albums over the last four years:  Survival Skills with Buckshot (2009), Meta-Historical with True Master (2010), Godsville with Showbiz (2011), and the absolute ass-kicking Royalty Check with Bumpy Knuckles (2011). [That doesn’t even count the 2007 album he made with Marly Marl, Hip-Hop Lives, cuz I haven’t heard it.]

On top of all that, he also managed to release a solo EP, Back to the L.A.B. in 2010, six hard classic-sounding tracks from the Blastmaster. Fittingly, “L.A.B.” stands for Lyrical Ass Beating, and Kris delivers yet again. This one is definitely a standout among this recent run.

And oh by the way, in January of 2012 he put out The BDP Album with his brother Kenny Parker handling the production. Spoiler alert: this one is really good too. Score it as a solo record, a collaboration, or the first new “BDP” album in a generation, I don’t know. At this point I’m as confused by the details of what’s come out as I am baffled by the fact that all these amazing albums have been largely ignored by the mainstream.

He comes off as confident as ever, and yet he still sounds hungry. The verbal gymnastics are one thing, of course KRS can bring the delivery and work the wordplay on the mic, but the depth and longevity of this man is nothing short of incredible. At the risk of overstating it, it’s an embarrassment of riches. If he was quietly dropping duds and had lost his skills, turned into Jordan-on-the-Wizards without the fanfare, it might make sense. But this is a legendary pioneer, one of the best ever to rock a mic, seemingly at the peak of his powers, and no one’s noticing.

I realize that young guns and one-hit wonders will always be at the forefront of popular culture, especially in hip-hop, and maybe all the awards shows, all-star games, and late-night TV shows have all begged KRS-One to come on and he’s said no. I don’t know. He’s never really played ball with the big record labels, but “going indie” doesn’t (and shouldn’t) disappear an artist the way it may have back in the day.

So why is he practically invisible despite being an undisputed legend doing some of his best work? Don’t we usually celebrate the Jay-Zs and Eminems of the world when they drop a great album? Isn’t that part of why we mark every anniversary of the tragic murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls? Cuz we wonder what might have been, shaking our heads in the silence of their never-recorded classics.

Does KRS-One just choose to operate in the shadows, as he probably did all those years ago as a teenage graffiti artist in the Bronx? Is it simply a matter of the cliché about people not wanting to hear The Hard Truth? Is he too anti-establishment, too spiritual? Maybe. But, just as happened with his Stop The Violence Movement in 1989, once again a positive message in hip-hop is ignored (squashed?) while bling, beef, and bullet holes make the headlines.

Seems unfair; a cultural injustice. If only there were more witnesses.