The following appear in no specific order.
Todd Snider – Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
[S]ometimes I wonder how many songs exist that I’d love if I ever just got the chance to hear. This is certainly what drives people to blog about music. “People need to hear Todd Snider.” But when I say “people,” I don’t mean blog readers. I mean that Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables should be played over loudspeakers at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial because this is what recession music sounds like. (Instead, pseudo-religious, British faux-Americana rules the charts. Where’s the justice?) In New York Banker, Todd shares the story of an Arkansas high school teacher who loses his pension because the county invested pension funds in Goldman Sachs’ Abacus Fund & lost all of the money. In In Between Jobs, he takes up the mantle of East Nashville’s poorest. And in Big Finish, he suggests that “it ain’t the dispair that gets you, it’s the hope.” The record isn’t entirely political, but each song is an honest tale for honest people, and what more can you really ask for?
John Fullbright – From the Ground Up
[I] think Levon Helm’s Grammy for Best Americana Record was deserved, but I wouldn’t have objected if John Fullbright had won. I’ll get this out of the way… it’s hard to hear this record without thinking of Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez. In my head, this record is kind of like Delta Spirit’s wiser, older brother. But that’s fine by me, because I love Matt Vasquez’s voice. And because this isn’t a record that reinvents the wheel, it’s just one good-ass wheel. John Fullbright is a songwriter’s songwriter, almost like a modern day Townes Van Zandt, but polished like Randy Newman. And, despite my m.o., I may actually prefer the ballads to the upbeat stuff. It’s been probably six years since I’ve been able to say that, since Cary Ann Hearst’s Dust & Bones (2006). If that’s not a litmus test for songwriting, I don’t know what is.
Ry Cooder – Election Special
[C]urrently in his mid 60’s, Ry Cooder is every bit the rock & roll legend that Neil Young & Bob Dylan are. There’s not room to list his accomplishments here, but they range from popularizing the 5-string open G guitar playing that defined the Rolling Stones from Let It Bleed on (6-string open E was the popular style in the UK up to that point) to bringing international attention to some of Cuba’s finest musicians on the 1996 collaboration with Buena Vista Social Club. Ry has dabbled in pretty much every style of popular music (when I say dabbled, I mean mastered), but is consistently shorted the appreciation he deserves. His last two records have been depression-era style protest records, and while he sounds more spry than Neil, more learned than Bob, & more relevant than either, he continues to land in tier two. Election Special is much more politicized than Pull Up Some Dust…, and maybe there’s a danger in writing too topically (you lose half of your audience depending on which way you lean), but that conviction is precisely what makes this album work. There’s anger, indignation, humor, blues, & a lot of truth. Ry touches on the Koch Brothers, Guantanamo, Wall Street, & the Occupy & Tea Party movements before wrapping it up with a rallying cry for securing the Constitution & Bill of Rights. And he sounds like an old legend still making music from the heart the whole time.
Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
[M]y favorite musical moment of the year was The Boss & Co doing Wrecking Ball at the Hurricane Sandy Relief Concert. There is no second or third favorites, there’s only Bruce & the E Street Band doing Wrecking Ball. There was such a deep well of pain and despair and fear and resentment just hanging in the air, and in that moment Bruce transformed it all into raw determination… it was electric. That’s music fulfilling it’s ultimate potential. You don’t often see a song crystalize in real time like that, but when you do, it’s magical. I’m not a particularly sentimental person, but I still find watching it a little overwhelming. This record is vital, & that may be the best compliment you can possibly pay a collection of songs. Let it be known, Bruce has still got it.
Dr. Dog – Be the Void
[I]t was just recently that I decided on Warrior Man as my favorite song of the year. This song, & much of the entire record, could’ve been released any year between 1965 and now & would sound just as good. John Lennon could’ve written this song. Ray Davies could’ve written this song. It could’ve been Pete Townshend or Marc Bolan. But it was Toby fucking Leaman. Melody for melody, groove for groove, I’d put Dr. Dog up against any band making music right now. I don’t think you can find a better good times record released in 2012.
Dr. John – Locked Down
[T]here’s a rare breed of artist who’s creative energy never dies, they just lose the opportunity to create. It’s a shame that performers are put out to pasture indiscriminately as they are, but Rick Ruben resurrecting Johnny Cash’s career with the American series (and the post-Grammy win middle-finger ad in Billboard magazine) seems to have set a precedent for “relevant” artists/producers creating amazing records with performers considered to be past their prime (Jack White/Loretta Lynn, which also won a grammy, Ethan Johns/Tom Jones, Jack White/Wanda Jackson, Justin Townes Earle/Wanda Jackson). One of the most successful cross-generational collaborations so far is the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach helming the new Dr. John record. Quite frankly, this ranks right up there with the Good Doctor’s best material. It’s dirty, it’s funky, it’s soulful, & Dr. John has lost nary a step on the organ. There’s just enough swamp to make it unmistakably “Dr. John,” but Auerbach’s touch isn’t lost, either… it’s planted firmly in the present. Records like this make me wonder, “What would Gris Gris sound like if it was recorded in 2012?” I guess we’ll never know, but Locked Down certainly pacifies.
Cody ChesnuTT – Landing On a Hundred
[I] had ten years of built up expectations for Cody’s sophomore record, & Landing On a Hundred blew them all clear out of the water. It doesn’t sound like it was tweaked, it doesn’t sound calculated or premeditated, but it sounds like every bit of 10 years went into this record. It’s almost as if it just gestated until it was ready, & then in that moment of clarity the band convened in Memphis to lay down the dirtiest r&b/soul grooves put to tape in ~40 years. It’s fully realized. It’s Stevie level. It’s Marvin level. And Cody is emphatic, & he’s documenting the struggles & the pains & the joys of life. He’s laying his heart out there, & you can hear it reflected in the instrumentation. If this list was ordered, this record would be vying for #1.
Jim Jones Revue – The Savage Heart
[T]his is the other record vying for #1. The Savage Heart is a blistering rock & roll record from the belly of the best rock & roll act on planet earth. The playing on this record is ridiculous, & this time around they do more than just bowl you over, they actually buy you dinner first (and serve you breakfast afterwards). Read my review of the record here.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Meat & Bone
[J]SBX are back & better than ever. While Damage (2004) & Plastic Fang (2002) offered some classic grooves, it could be said that the records were a bit disjointed & overly experimental. Jon’s time in Heavy Trash has clearly reset his compass, and Meat & Bone emerges as a back-to-basics affair, their most cohesive offering in some time. And not a minute too soon, either… the world ain’t quite right when the BX aren’t laying that fuzzed out funk bottom for Jon’s neurotic, slap backed preaching.
Shovels & Rope – O’ Be Joyful
[I]’m pretty ecstatic that these guys are finally getting their due… it’s been a long time coming. They deserve every word that’s been written about them this year.
Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears
[T]hree Pears is the best record that Dwight has put out in a while. He’s got one of those voices that’s up there with Elvis & Brian Wilson & Paul McCartney & Roy Orbison… totally unmistakable. And this record sounds as fresh as anything he’s released since 1993’s This Time, largely because the approach to the record was driven by two Revolver-esque collaborations with Beck (A Heart Like Mine, Missing Heart). There’s a rockin’ cover of Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (a honkey tonk standard made popular by Flatt & Scruggs, or maybe the Flying Burrito Brothers) that sits right up there with Guitars, Cadillacs, & even a co-write with Kid Rock (Take Hold of My Hand) that may be the record’s standout track. (I’ll catch you on the flip side, indie cred.)
Ben Kweller – Go Fly A Kite
[B]en Kweller writes singles. When I listen to a Ben Kweller record, every 4 minutes I catch myself rethinking what my favorite song on the record is. Almost any of them could be… the hook will hit & in that moment I can’t imagine it bested. I really think Ben Kweller is the foremost pop songwriter of my generation, like he’s got some sort of Captain Planet thing going on except he’s the combined powers of all the Byrds. I dunno how he does it, but he just keeps getting better.
Jack White – Blunderbuss
[B]ack in 2001, someone at some New York music rag suggested that the White Stripes might be the saviors of rock & roll. And they were right. The reverb on the intro to Sixteen Saltines is the most menacing thing I heard all year.
Menahan Street Band – The Crossing
[I] wasn’t expecting to have an instrumental funk/soul record on the list. But then the Menahan Street Band’s The Crossing happened. They say that variety is the spice of life, but I think it might be the Menahan Street Band. I turn it on & I feel like I’m in a movie… life’s good, all of the sudden I hear the birds singing, I smile at the folks I encounter, it occurs to me that my car has cruise control, I do that “ahhh” thing after a sip of ice cold Dr. Pepper… all of the sudden things that I ordinarily block out begin to penetrate, everything around me begins to sink in. This year I’ve really learned to appreciate instrumental music as pleasure listening, & that’s due in large part to this record (and also the Sugarman 3’s What the World Needs Now & the New Mastersounds’ Out On the Faultline). I think I’m going to spend the new year searching for The J.B.’s’ records.
Tom Jones – Spirit In the Room
[I] wasn’t aware Tom Jones was making records with Ethan Johns until I heard the Howlin’ Wolf cover he did with Jack White (which is superb) & did some digging. So I discovered both Praise & Blame (2010) & Spirit In the Room this year. And let me tell you, there’s nothin’ like a voice with some miles on it. That’s what makes all of the old American bluesmen so great… that authority. There’s no posturing, a guy like Tom Jones has nothing to prove, just truths to tell. And these records resonate. Considering my only previous context for Tom Jones came from one Carlton Banks, a specific type of production was required for me to really take these records seriously, & Ethan nails it. They’re rich, but not flashy… tasteful, but not lazy. It’s some Goldilocks shit… just right. And while the song selections are close to perfect (Odetta, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Paul McCartney…), the Jones/Johns original track (Traveling Shoes) proves a full set of originals could be just as exciting. Here’s hoping there’s more collaborating to come.
There you have it, my 15 favorites. It ain’t the hippest list on the information superhighway, but it’s what I like. Narrowing down the field was a little easier than I thought it would be, but there’s still a handful of records that just missed the cut & I feel deserve a mention. Here’s 5 of them: Tame Impala’s Lonerism, Cowbell’s Beat Stampede, Pond’s Beards, Wives, Denim, Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man In the Universe, & Iris Dement’s Sing the Delta.
Happy new years, Savages.