Tag Archives: Bruce Springsteen

My Top 10 Albums of 2012

Why have end of year lists have grown in popularity over the past 10 years? What does it say about us as a species that we clamor for and around arbitrary lists created by people we don’t know? My own personal theory is that the popularity of end of year lists serves two functions:

1. Validation. Obviously we like having someone tell us that our opinions are the right ones, and seeing our favorite things on someone else’s end of year list does that. It’s comforting to know that we agree with others but it’s even more comforting when that other is a critic of stature like David Wild or Roger Ebert.

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2. Facilitating our laziness. Why go out into the world looking for the best music, books, films, or art when someone in a black turtleneck can do all the heavy lifting for us? End of year lists distill a year’s worth of media into an easy to consume morsel. I’ve met people who base all their film watching on top critics end of year lists.

I’m guilty of both: I like looking at end of year lists to see my own personal tastes validated AND I like to use them to discover things I was too lazy to find on my own. I don’t think there’s anything evil or wrong about end of year lists, but they do tend to get out of hand this time of year. I think reading end of year lists are an okay use of your time…but I think making one of your own is a far better way to kill a few hours.

Why? Well, I think a great end of year list functions as a kind of yearbook. When I sat down to write my Top 10 Albums of 2012 list I started to simply list all the albums that really knocked my socks off this year. But then I started to consider things like “Am I still listening to these albums?” and “Do I see myself still thinking about/revisiting these albums in future years?” That made things a little more difficult, which I rather liked (I always do fancy a challenge).

So once I had my albums that moved me (or whatever) and then removed the ones I wasn’t still listening to, I found I had a much shorter list. I took that list and compared it to my blog for the past 12 months, chiefly–how many of these albums did I get around to writing about? What did I say? In the case of one album in particular, I found that I wrote about it A LOT. I factored that in when arranging my list from #10 to #1.

What was the most difficult part of making this list? Figuring out what actually came out in 2012 and what came out in 2011 that I only discovered this year. There were a TON of really great records that came out at the end of last year that I sadly only discovered this year—meaning they could not appear on my list. The record I most wanted to put on my list was Metronomy’s THE ENGLISH RIVIERA. That was probably the album I enjoyed the most this summer, but wouldn’t ya know it? It came out last year. I ran into a lot of that while making this list.

Please read this list, compare it to your own personal tastes (feel slightly validated) and then use it to lazily fill-in the parts of 2012 you overlooked or missed. Once you’ve done all that, jot down your own best of 2012 list, I think you’ll find it’s an interesting mental exercise and a fantastic way to reevaluated the music you’ve heard this year. Maybe even slip me copy of your list in the comments section below (I won’t judge).

With all that in mind, I present my Top 10 Albums of 2012:

10. HARMONICRAFT by Torche. Arguably the stupidest genre name of all-time is sludge metal. I don’t even know what that means. Torche’s album HARMONICRAFT is supposed to be sludge metal, but to me it just sounds like awesomely melodic hard rock. “Roaming” and “Kicking” are brilliant hard-rockers that sound like Jane’s Addiction meets The Cult. The album is dark and has a rough edge while still being catchy and fun. If you’re like me, you’re always looking for a hard rock that isn’t super-stoopid or endless banshee screaming: HARMONICRAFT strikes a nice balance between hard rock and pop. The guitar work is great, and so is that Brony-filled rainbow wonderland on the front of the album.

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9. COBRA JUICY by Black Moth Super Rainbow. I’m not really into electronica, but every now and then an artist comes out that manages to combine the best of rock/pop and dance music. Experimental music is really hard to like and even hard to recommend, but Black Moth Super Rainbow really pull it off on COBRA JUICY. It’s a neon-rave-up that’s got rock soul. Songs like “Windshield Smasher” and “Hairspray Heart” are what the second Sleigh Bells album should have sounded like: aggressively noisy yet super-groovy. Worth noting, this one was waaay off my radar, but was pointed out to me by my super-cool friend over at TAKEN BY SOUND, which is a really cool indie-rock music blog.

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8. WRECKING BALL by Bruce Springsteen. I know, I’m just as surprised as you are that Bruce Springsteen is on this list. I was listening to Little Steven’s Underground Garage and Little Steven (who is more than a little biased, being in the E-Street Band) talked up the record and played “Easy Money.” Before I could dismiss WRECKING BALL outright, I heard “Easy Money” and became instantly hooked. The whole album has a very electric-folk/Old-Timey feel to it. WRECKING BALL is Springsteen’s recession album, which while not much fun, does provide an excellent palette for a rough and tumble artist like The Boss. “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Death To My Hometown” are great, hardscrabble songs that could work for The Great Depression or the late 2010’s. Through it all, Springsteen remains a symbol of art nourishing us through the hardest of times. These are the times when a bard of his stature is most desperately needed. He didn’t disappoint.

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7. SLOW DAZE by Blonde Summer. Technically these 5 songs are an EP and not an LP, but after listening to SLOW DAZE on virtual infinite repeat this summer: I’m promoting it to full LP status. Blonde Summer’s amazingly breezy, super-fun album reminded me what it feels like to be young and just enjoying the warmth of summer: and that was just the title track. The rest of SLOW DAZE is top-notch indie-rock that’s fun (“Robots on Command”) and heartfelt (“Walking in Space”). Minimal and echo-y, SLOW DAZE is like a short romp with an incredible lover—it doesn’t last very long, but the warm glow it gives you lasts and lasts. Hell, I’m still tingling from the noise-rock of “December,” and it’s actually December now. SLOW DAZE owned my summer and has made me super-eager to see what these guys do next. But for now, we’ll always have this summer.

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6. LONERISM by Tame Impala. Pound for pound, LONERISM has more cosmic-freak-out-otherness than any other album on this list. If you’ve ever wanted to get high without drugs, grab a pair of headphones and take this album into a dark room. Close your eyes and prepare to go on adventure. Imagine Oasis and The Flaming Lips doing a shit ton of LSD and then merging into one band: that’s LONERISM. “Endors Toi” and “Elephant” shatter your mind and then blow away the pieces. I really liked BEARDS, WIVES, DENIM by Pond, which is essentially Tame Impala, but overall I think LONERISM is the stronger, more accessible record. But don’t take my word for it: go sit in the dark tonight with this album.

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5. CLASS CLOWN SPOTS A UFO by Guided By Voices. One of my all-time favorite bands came back, and they came back in a big way this year. Not only did the original GBV line up return to tour, they released not one…not two…but three incredible records. When was the last time a band came back after disbanding and put out ONE good album? Exactly. Robert Pollard is a rock ‘n roll Jesus (sorry Kid Rock). Picking which of the three albums to put on this list was hard, but also kinda easy: of all their 2012 records, this is the one I rock out to the most. The title track is probably the greatest GBV “single” in a decade. “Keep It In Motion” and “Forever Until It Breaks” are icing on the cake. All GBV albums have short, micro-songs that many people dismiss, but CLASS CLOWN SPOTS A UFO has the best short Pollard nuggets I’ve heard in a long time (“Roll of the Dice, Kick in the Head”). And don’t get me started on the awesome, Who-like “Billy Wire.” Okay, I’ll get started on it: “Billy Wire” fucking rocks my socks and makes me feel like I’m a badass Mod seeing a super young/virile Who tear up a small English nighclub. Long live GBV.

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4. MAJOR by Fang Island. Fang Island does what Torche does in that, they offer up heavy riffs with strong melodies. The difference is that Fang Island is more indie rock than mosh pit. “Sisterly” is so hard-charging but at the same time sweet. I don’t mean “Dude that’s sweet,” I mean little kitten hanging on a clothesline sweet. Fang Island are so cool they don’t care what you think of their earnestness. These guys are serious musicians, too. Even if you don’t usually go for instrumental rock, you’ll dig their instrumental “Dooney Rock.” It’s an interesting, tasteful, non-wankfest that will win over even the most jaded music fan. Fang Island is equally heavy and gentle; it’s hard indie rock for sensitive hearts.

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3. LOVE THIS GIANT by David Byrne & St. Vincent. Who knew that teaming up the dude from Talking Heads and that weird indie-chick St. Vincent would yield such a good harvest? The bombastic lead track “Who” is real stunner, but it’s the one-two-punch of two unlikely freaks getting together and letting their freak flags fly that elevates LOVE THIS GIANT beyond “Who.” This is Byrne’s strongest post-Talking Heads work, hands down. It wasn’t that I’d written him off so much as I just didn’t bother to really think too much about David Byrne at all. LOVE THIS GIANT re-establishes Byrne as a relevant artist with a lot more to say. I wasn’t super familiar with St. Vincent prior to LOVE THIS GIANT, but I’m learning. That she’s half his age and still manages to hold her own in the presence of such a legend is no small feat. I still get chills every time I hear “Optimist.” So, in summary: the triumphant return of one of rocks most unlikely superstars plus a rising indie-songstress plus crazy horns equals LOVE THIS GIANT. It’s a record that you put on and feel refreshed, challenged, and puzzled by.

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2. A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH by Van Halen. Nobody thought that a new Van Halen album was going to be a dismal failure more than me. Go back and check the endless jaded, negative, anti-Wolfgang posts. I’m a big man, I can admit when I’m wrong. Sure, “Tattoo” fucking sucks. It’s the worst song on the album and it’s slightly embarrassing…but everything else on A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH works. Maybe the songs are recycled from decades long since past, but so what? They were still re-worked and recorded by the Van Halen of today, and they don’t disappoint. It’s like it’s 1984 all over again: big choruses, crazy solos, thumpin’ drums, super-bravdo, etc. Van Halen don’t reinvent the wheel so much as get it rolling again, and thank God…because rock was starting to get so dismally boring. “Blood and Fire” recalls the pure adrenaline of “Panama.” “You and Your Blues” is like an update of “Unchained.” Van Halen shouldn’t work in 2012, but somehow they do. My favorite track, the one that gets the most play at the gym is the stupidest: the frivolous “Stay Frosty.” Why does “Stay Frosty” continue to get played? Probably because it’s a straight up rocker that’s fun and funny. While I was busy being jaded, Van Halen was busy partying. At a certain point, it’s easier to just give-in and love them. So you win guys, A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH rules.

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1. PSYCHEDELIC PILL by Neil Young & Crazy Horse. I am completely and utterly in awe of this album. Long, meandering, and epic, PSYCHEDELIC PILL was the one album this year that could have been released in 1968 or 1970 not no one would have blinked. Not because it sounds like it’s from that period in time, PSYCHEDELIC PILL is truly a record out of time: intensely personal and yet also very distant and spacy. This is a folk record. This is a jam-band record. This is a singer-songwriter album created by a full band. “Walk Like A Giant” is the work of an incredibly powerful wizard, hurling lightening bolts of rock. I had no idea Neil Young still had it in him to create such a potent work of pure genius. This doesn’t even sound like a comeback it sounds like he never left. Those who scoff at the albums longer cuts, of which there are a few, are missing the point. Like I said in my original review: “the album opens with “Drifting Back,” a 27 minute-long song that’s acts as a kind of sonic air lock, decompressing the listener into the album’s atmosphere. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be that’s a time machine. I like that better because PSYCHEDELIC PILL sounds like lost 1970’s record, with the lengthy “Drifting Back” serving as a trippy time tunnel to the past.” The free flowing extended jams are the destination, not the journey. PSYCHEDELIC PILL is an intricate album that I predict will endure as a kind of sonic evergreen, which will be studied and appreciated for decades to come. Do yourself a favor and check out this once-in-a-generation masterpiece.

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“Who” by David Byrne & St. Vincent

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I heard that David Byrne and St. Vincent had gotten together and made an album.  I just knew that I had to hear it.  A few months back I got on a Talking Heads-kick, so I was interested to find out if Byrne still had it.  And my it I mean: a propensity for the tasteful, the odd, and the tastefully-odd.

The Talking Heads were cultural anthropologists masquerading as a strange-sounding band.  It’s kind of a miracle to me that they were even popular in the 1980’s.  When I was revisiting their hits like “Burning Down The House,” “Wild Wild Life,” and the sublimely weird “Once In A Lifetime*,” I was struck by how un-pop The Talking Heads were. That they played on the radio along side Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen is utterly amazing to me.

Surely, I thought to myself before listening to “Who,” old-man Byrne has mellowed with age. Well fear not purveyors of all things freaky, David Byrne is still really strange.  I don’t really know much about St. Vincent except that she’s an indie-darling with a weird name who’s supposedly a really good guitar player.  Instead of being the chirpy song-bird I thought she was, I discovered that St. Vincent is more of a mysterious siren (color me curious about her solo-work).

Byrne and St. Vincent’s future so bright…they gotta wear shades.

The first song on LOVE THIS GIANT, “Who” is also the lead single.  It’s a daft and loopy number,  built almost entirely around horns and thumping drums (so much for St. Vincent’s guitar work).  Lyrically, “Who” is a series of semi-profound questions posed by Byrne, which is beautifully answered a single chorus from St. Vincent: “Who is an honest man?” It’s brilliant, catchy, auteur-pop that reminds me of fellow 80’s-freak Peter Gabriel’s solo-work.  LOVE THIS GIANT is a fantastic collaborative effort between the two artists, but “Who” is Bryne’s baby.  This one wormed it’s way into my heart, give it a listen and see if it doesn’t do the same to you.

Turns out Byrne still has it.  

*A song that I desperately need to analyze in a post all-to itself.

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Al Anderson’s “Ridin’ In My Car” Was Not A Hit: What The Hell 1977?

They say that life isn’t always fair, and nothing proves this adage more than the music industry.  Like a lot of show biz, the music industry operates on the whims of a fickle public and the greed of miserly record executives.  Sure, there are amazing success stories of bands and singers who are legitimately talented AND make boatloads of cash & fans–but for the most part the music biz is a landscape of dead dreams bloating in the sun.  If there was a sure-fire formula for crafting a #1 hit record, then some tycoon somewhere would have figured it out, right?  A quick glance at the Billboard charts for the last 25 years reveals a bizarre and, quite frankly, baffling array of popular/hit songs that have nothing in common–other than the fact that they were created by human beings.

As a race, human beings are always looking for answers.  We desperately seek order in the chaos that surrounds us.  I have a hard time putting my head on to my pillow each night, because I live in a world where Al Anderson’s “Ridin’ In My Car” was not a hit record.  If there truly is a higher power, why would he allow his children to suffer “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone?  Why would he place the crown of  Best Selling Single of 1977 upon a song like “You Light Up My Life” and not “Ridin’ In My Car”?  It just doesn’t make any sense, and quite frankly, only serves to underscore my own nagging suspicion that were are, in fact, truly without a higher power’s protection*.

I hope you are VERY pleased with yourself, 1977.

Who is Al Anderson?  Well he’s a guy who joined a band called the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet (NRBQ) in 1971 as a guitarist.  This is a band that I only recently discovered, but who’s legacy I’d been (unknowingly) enjoying for years.  The band was formed in 1967 in Florida and proceeded to quietly release super-fun and catchy pop-rock records.  They’ve maintained a dedicated following over the years and have actually done some pretty high-profile stuff.  What kind of stuff?  Well, when they weren’t buys touring and releasing awesome records  they wrote some songs for a little show called THE SIMPSONS** (maybe you’ve heard of it?).

And yet, you’ve still never heard of them (they’ve only recently popped up on my radar).  Now, to be fair, you probably haven’t heard of Debby Boone either and  if you have you probably hadn’t thought of her in a while.  So perhaps I’m putting an over-importance on having a “hit” single.  Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t really mean anything.  For example, it’s a famous rock anecdote that  guitar-God Jimi Hendrix only had one hit single (the Dylan cover of “All Along The Watchtower”).  Does that mean that Hendrix is in the same class as Debby Boone? I don’t think anyone would argue that, and yet I still can’t shake the Capitalist urge to judge artistic merit based on sales/popularity.

This album also features a song called “I’ve Got A Rocket In My Pocket,” which also failed to set the charts ablaze.

Chances are you’ve never heard “Ridin’ In My Car,” so you’re probably wondering what’s so special about it.  It’s a great little gem of pop-craftsmanship, and quite frankly the only astounding or truly awe-inspiring thing about it is the fact that it was not a hit song.   The song was released in 1977 (I cannot find any further information on the release date online, further evidence that history is written solely for and by the victors)  on NRBQ’s fourth album ALL HOPPED UP.  “Ridin’ In My Car”, even upon the first listen, strikes a very familiar cord.  It’s one of those songs that, as you’re listening to it, it seems like you’re already intimately familiar with it.  Like a classic Beatles cut, it’s immediately accessible and catchy.   Lyrically, the song is about the sadness of lost love and the memories of a pervious summer.  The song’s basic conceit is that this guy associates driving around with this woman that…well, things just didn’t work out between them (she found someone else):

“When I’m home alone I can think of other things to do/But when I’m rolling in forward motion I think about only you.”

It’s very pure and simple (and kind of cute),  which is exactly what a good song should be.  And even though the lyrics aren’t super-complex, they’re memorable and clever.   I specifically smile every time I hear the first verse, which despite having a very straightforward rhyme scheme (“chance” and “romance”) the phrasing is absolutely perfect:

“Remember last summer when we had the chance

To find each other, start making romance

But it didn’t come off beacuse you found another

Without one hand of a clock, what good is the other?”

I’m pretty sure that if you’d given me 1,000 years I’d have never come up with that comparison of lovers and two hands on a clock face–but it’s spectacular.  I’m not saying that this song is the greatest song of all-time or that it makes a deeply profound statement….but it beats the hell out of that other song released in 1977:

“Rollin’ at sea, adrift on the water

Could it be finally I’m turnin’ for home

Finally a chance to say “Hey, I love you”

Never again to be all alone

And you light up my life

You give me hope to carry on

You light up my days

And fill my night with song”

Poor Debby Boone, I’m glad she’s finally getting a chance to say “Hey, I love you.”  How fantastic for her.  I’m not going to beat up on Debby Boone, hell I don’t even know if she wrote “You Light Up My Life.”  In fact, now that I listen to the song I can totally see why it was a #1 hit song–it’s completely stupid and devoid of anything approaching honest emotion.  And artistry?  Forget it, this is pap…pure and simple. When I listen to “You Light Up My Life” I’m not challenged with any of the complexities of an actual human relationship.  There is metaphor and imagery in “You Light Up My Life” but it’s so basic and cliched that I know exactly what Debby’s singing upon first listen.  I don’t have to hurt my brain trying to figure out how Debby’s been “adrift” and how this new love is both a “home” for her and filling her with “song.”  This is popular entertainment at it’s finest and it was thusly rewarded.

So, to come full circle, the key to a hit song is just being completely idiotic and basic as hell…right?  Well, going back to 1977 it turns out there were SOME very popular songs that weren’t completely-lobotomized: The Eagles (the fuckin’ Eagles, man) had a monster hit with “Hotel California” which is pretty esoteric/sonically interesting (i.e. the opposite of “You Light Up My LIfe”).  Also a hit that year was Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s strange, kinda cool Springsteen cover “Blinded By The Light.”  I wouldn’t consider that (very controversial at the time) song to be a watered-down, idiot’s song.  Studying the charts for 1977 reveals just how skitzo American music tastes were/are.    I mean, 1977 was a year when the charts were topped by both the Bee Gees “I Just Want To Be Your Everything” and Meco’s “Star Wars Cantina Song.”  So in the end, the pop/rock charts for 1977 do little to explain what happened (or why) but only serve to underscore why the United States is a Republic and not a Democracy–because “popular” and “right” are often mutually exclusive.

FOOTNOTES:

*And if there is a God after all, he has one hell of a sense of humor.

** See the 8th episode of the 11th Season “Take My Wife, Sleaze” which features the (original/episode exculsive) song “Mayonnaise and Marmalade.” 

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