Kieran's Top Ten Albums of 2012
In preparing this list, a couple of things occurred to me; firstly, why a top 10? Why stop at 10? Well, it seems like a reasonable number, I mean, unlike say Rolling Stone magazine, I don't think I managed to purchase 50 new albums this year, or probably even listen to 50 new releases, so before you respond with cries of "What about One Direction?? Frank Ocean?? Lana Del Rey??" - my list is limited by both style and budget. But having said that, it's my list, if you don't like it, get y'own.
Secondly, it occurred to me that it's been an odd year for several reasons - I hardly read anything beyond my weekly Time magazine, saw far fewer movies than in years passed and apart from one week in November when I saw four live shows in one week, I didn't see many gigs either (for the record, they were reformed Swedish hardcore group Refused, Elton John, The Dandy Warhols and Ben Folds Five). I just didn't have as much spare time in 2012. However, with the help of the usual suspects turning me on to new sounds (Clayton, Dan F, Courtney, MC), I've been able to piece together a halfway respectable list.
And in the age of so much digital music, so much downloading, I'm not even getting into an argument about whether the longform 'album' is still relevant anymore. It is.
I should note, that while The Murphy Brothers album "Thick As Thieves" is one of my proudest achievements as a musician and songwriter, I didn't include it here because that would just be pretentious and sad.
Bob Dylan - Tempest
Proving time and time again that a grumpy septugenarian can mix it with the best of the new crop, Bob Dylan remains vital well into his *cough* later years. Bob's second wind (third?) which began in the mid-90's with Time Out Of Mind, continues to bear fruit more than 15 years later with the beguiling Tempest, a rollicking collection that draws on Bob's deep love of demotic musical styles and canny wordplay. Where Bob himself still seems wary and inaccessible, his songs are never less than honest and unguarded. Tracks here range from the quietly menacing (Pay In Blood) to epic (Tempest) and nostalgic (Roll On John), proving that Dylan is a master of translating moods and though the term is chronically overused, a 'master storyteller'.
Best tracks - Pay In Blood, Roll On John
Muse - The 2nd Law
Threatening to go completely OTT with their last album "The Resistance", Muse completely let go with The 2nd Law. With it's nerd rock title (it's about the second law of thermodynamics, natch) and featuring elements of dubstep and funk, Matt Bellamy has opted to expand his sonic palette rather than risk going stale. It's the sort of album that will find many of Muse's longtime fans scratching their heads at the apparent change in direction, and the connotations of the band 'doing a Bowie' are more than apparent. There should be more than enough on The 2nd Law though to satisfy fans who long for the relative simplicity of 'Knights of Cydonia' (!) As ever, drummer Dominic Howard's work here is faultless; skilled and technical but wilth great feel and bassist Chris Wolstenholme contributes more than ever before taking on songwriting and lead vocal duties on a two part musical exploration of his battle with the bottle. The only thing crazier than the final electro-prog-rock title track (in two parts, of course) is the bizarre track listing, which instead of the usual ebbs and flows of most album structures feels like songs are grouped together by style.
Best tracks- Panic Station, Animals
The Killers - Battle Born
They appeared to burn almost out as quickly as they had ascended - after three strong albums, they went on 'indefinite hiatus' - solo albums ensued with varying degrees of success, but those of us lucky enough to catch their excellent version of The Raspberries seminal 70's power pop gem "Go All The Way" at the end of the Johnny Depp movie "Dark Shadows" knew that something ver awesome was headed in our direction. The Killers are back with their unashamed retro-tinged stadium rock proving again why a new U2 album is JUST NOT NECESSARY. Featuring a co-write with Travis frontman Fran Healy (Here With Me) that is such a huge power ballad that it might melt your face, and more melodic hooks in one song than some artists can muster in an entire album, The Killers are back (which is a strange thing to say about a fourth album).
Best tracks - Runaways, Deadlines and Commitments
Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life of The Mind
Following a 12 year break - and probably one that was intended to be permanent - Ben Fold Five reformed on the back of Ben's career retrospective "Best Imitation Of Myself" with several new contributions from the revered three-piece and apparently the sessions were fruitful enough to return with an entirely new album project. Ben's solo work had never strayed that far from the piano/bass/drums with three part harmony blueprint set out by BFF, but it's easy to see that this lineup, with Darren Jessee's muscular jazz-inflected drumming (think Buddy Rich in a bad mood) and Robert Sledge's fuzz bass solos and sweet counterpoint vocals provides bandleader Ben with enough room to extend himself as a player and a songwriter. Swinging effortlessly between the serious and the playful, these vignettes (with songwriting assistance from Nick Hornby and Darren Jessee) are among the top tier of an already impressive canon.
Best tracks - Michael Praytor Five Years Later, Draw A Crowd
fun. - Some Nights
Some Nights was one album that I did not expect to like nearly as much as I did. Firstly the band is called "Fun". Secondly, their name is styled with a lowercase 'f' and a full stop. Oh, the conceit. It started with We Are Young being played incessantly on the radio. All of the radio. Surely I would get sick of it. I did not. Second single "Some Nights" piqued my interest again. Some of the most infectious melodic pop I've ever heard, and with elements of electronic/dance/R'n'B (Autotune!) and I'm not usually of big fan of that particular crossover genre. Cherry picking the best of both worlds and with the impossible, impeccable vocals of Nate Ruess floating over the top, these guys might just be the new pretenders to Freddie's crown.
Best Tracks - Some Nights, Carry On
Ginger Wildheart - 555%
Ambitious in scope (a triple album of all-new material!) from the ever-prolific Ginger, lead singer/guitarist of The Wildhearts, the 555% project is worthy of inclusion on its own. Using the fan-funding website PledgeMusic, Ginger eventually received 555% of his original projected total from a loyal fanbase worldwide, substantial proof (if it was needed) that the relevance of major record companies in the digital age is on the wane. Ginger then allowed fans who pre-purchased the triple album to pick the final tracklisting for the single album release (dubbed 100%) which even made a dent in the UK charts…not a bad effort for a forty-something, Geordie fantapants whose musical style could best be described as 'eclectic'. 555% skips genres and styles, often mid-song but manages to never fall victim to its own cleverness.
Best tracks- Deep In The Arms of Morpheus, Another Spinning F**king Rainbow
Brendan Benson - What Kind Of World
Although it felt to me that the best of Jack White's solo effort 'Blunderbuss' and this, BB's 5th solo album, could have been combined into a third amazing Raconteurs album (it would have been so good!), I'll have to sit alone and ponder what might have been and comfort myself in the knowledge that there are still amazing alt.pop records such as this being made at all. A beautiful, warm analog recording that also features contributions from Ken and Jon from The Posies; power pop comes very much to the fore on tracks such as 'Light of Day' and the muscular, evocative title cut.
Best tracks- What Kind Of World, Bad For Me
Delta Spirit - Delta Spirit
On this, their third and self-titled album, the San Diego five piece sound assured. Gone is the nervous but channelled energy of 'Ode To Sunshine' and the self-consciousness of 'History From Below' (both excellent in their own right) with Matthew Vasquez's searing vocals front and centre driving each song like a howling call to action. Sometimes hypnotic, often poetic, always with an eye on melody, Delta Spirit draw on the best of a resurgent pride in Americana. Many of the songs are built upon the angular, staccato rhythm patterns that are becoming a Delta Spirit trademark; adventurous and dare I say it, spirited.
Best tracks - Empty House, California
Regina Spektor - What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
An unusual collection of songs; most have been warmed up and worked through on her last few tours, the album begins somewhat strangely with 'Small Town Moon' and 'Oh Marcello', representing the more experimental, less accessible side of Spektor's work before returning to sweeter territory with 'Don’t Leave Me (Ne me quitte pas)'. While the album doesn't necessarily exhibit the calculated flow of 'Begin To Hope' and 'Far', it's nevertheless compelling as each song feels like a standalone piece, retaining the hallmarks of the live performances that shaped them.
Best tracks - Don’t Leave Me (Ne me quitte pas), Firewood
Lightships - Electric Cables
The quiet achiever of Teenage Fanclub's formidable three-pronged singer/songwriter attack, Gerard Love branches out into solo album territory with this beautiful, understated collection of melodic pop. True to his reserved style, Love has opted to go by the group name 'Lightships', although the album serves to showcase his excellent songwriting and sweet, unassuming vocals. The album also features current and former members of Teenage Fanclub and Belle & Sebastian, but leaves no doubt as to who the real star is. Gerard Love manages to recall some the best moments of (the latter years of)his other band, but with courage enough to explore new directions.
Best tracks - Sweetness In Her Spark, The Warmth Of The Sun
Honourable (and some dishonourable) mentions - Neil Young, Band Of Horses, Sondre Lerche, The Shins, The Darkness, Jack White, Dr Dog, Smashing Pumpkins, Sigur Ros, Kent, Tenacious D, John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Rufus Wainwright, Alex Chilton (1970 sessions), Jellyfish (live release from 1991), Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, Soundgarden, Motion City Soundtrack, Missy Higgins, Ben Kweller, The Lumineers, Bruno Mars.