Ben Folds Five — The Sound of the Life of the Mind
Of all the reunion albums coming out this year, this was the one I dreaded the most. Not because I expected it to suck, but because I desperately wanted to love it. Ben Folds lost me a bit in recent years with his solo work, so the big question for me was whether or not this would truly be another superlative group effort or another Way to Normal-type dud.
But wow, is this ever good. From that first note of Robert Sledge’s fuzz bass on “Erase Me,” I knew everything was going to be alright. What follows is an album that more closely resembles Ben’s Rockin’ the Suburbs solo record and the Five’s last studio effort — The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner — more than the group’s more raucous early music. And that’s just fine by me, as I love both of those albums.
As mature, piano-based pop-rock efforts go, you could do a lot worse than The Sound of the Life of the Mind. But you can’t do much better.
Van Halen — A Different Kind of Truth
This album has been years in the making, and for this fan it was worth the wait. Forget all the drama surrounding Dave, Sammy, Eddie, Wolfgang or anyone else — this is simply the ass-kickingest hard rock album of the year, bar none. Sure, the Diamond One doesn’t have the pipes he used to but he still oozes charm and presence. Wolfgang and Alex, meanwhile, more than hold their own in the rhythm section.
But most importantly, Eddie Van Halen plays like a man possessed. Whether he’s resurrecting ’70s vault gems like “She’s the Woman” and “Bullethead” or leading the charge through new songs like “China Town” and “Stay Frosty,” I haven’t heard him play with such focus and fire since at least the early ’90s.
To steal a line from my review of A Different Kind of Truth in February, there is no way a group of guys this old should be making music this pulverizing. I can’t say it any more clearly than that.
Rush — Clockwork Angels
If you want to accuse me of focusing too much on music from old farts, go ahead. But remember — there’s a reason bands like Rush and Van Halen are still popular after so many decades. They know how to give their fans what they want, and they’re so damn good at it.
I was a little cold on Clockwork Angels when I first heard it. Having seen most of the album played live since then I can attribute that to its production, because hearing the songs in a live setting revealed just how excellent they are. I still don’t care that much about the story Neil Peart is trying to tell (“Heh heh, this tells a story Butt-head, it sucks!”), because I’m still just basking in the music.
It’s become di rigueur to describe a new album from a legacy act as “the best thing they’ve done since [insert random album title here],” so I’m not going to do that. What I will say is that Clockwork Angels is the most focused, intense, and satisfying album Rush has released in at least 20 years.
PolCat — PolCat
Here’s my pick for the best jazz album of the 2012. Sorry traditionalists, that’s just how I roll.
So here’s the lineup for this project — the supremely talented Sean O’Bryan Smith and Jim Gifford on bass and drums, respectively, and the great Frank Catalano on saxophone. Oh, did I forget to mention former Megadeth guitarist Chris Poland? Yeah, he’s there too.
This is jazz for people who love not just jazz, but rock and metal too. Hell, it’s jazz for rock and metal fans who may not particularly care for jazz. And no, it’s not some corny fusion garbage. This is flawlessly performed music that alternately swings, slinks, and shreds.
The New Mastersounds — Out on the Faultline
And now we take a turn for the funkier. Much funkier. The Leeds-based quartet barely had time to cool off after last year’s excellent Breaks from the Border, but they’re back and just as hot.
Go ahead, listen to this album and try to stop from moving. It can’t be done unless you’re in a full body cast. And if there’s a more impressive and funky group of musicians than the New Mastersounds working right now, I’d love to hear about them.
Don’t believe me? Behold the video for “You Mess Me Up.”
Muse — The 2nd Law
One of these days Muse is going to flame out. The human body, after all, can only withstand so much bombast. Matthew Bellamy and gang seem to be aware of this, and so typically hyperbolic Muse rock numbers like “Supremacy” and “Survival” are counterbalanced by more nuanced numbers (“Madness” and “Animals” among them).
Hard stadium rock, ’80s-flavored dance, jittery Radiohead-esque alternative rock, dubstep. It’s just another day at the office for Muse on The 2nd Law. Don’t fight it, people, just sit back and let it wash over you like an electrified wave.
High on Fire — De Vermis Mysteriis
High on Fire plays with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the groin, but man, sometimes that’s what my metal-loving inner teenager needs. I mean, look at that album cover — an old guy (Jesus maybe?) is shooting some kind of cosmic ray from his eyes, his hand is bleeding, and a space wolf is moving in for the kill.
Yup, that about sums up what is my favorite metal releases of the year.
If you long for the days when Mastodon cared less about melody and more about sandblasting your face with riffs and insane drumming, then I can’t recommend this album enough.
Imperial State Electric — Pop War
Alright, let’s mellow out a little. Because no musical year feels complete to me without at least one standout power pop album, I’m more than happy to place Pop War on this list. If you’ve not heard of Imperial State Electric, then perhaps you’ve heard of vocalist/guitarist Nicke Andersson and his last band — the late, beloved Swedish rock outfit the Hellacopters.
Andersson’s new project essentially recreates vintage Cheap Trick, and that’s never a bad thing. In fact, more bands should do that very thing. That sound is evident on excellent songs like “Waltz for Vincent,” which really do create a vintage sound and atmosphere but sound anything but derivative.
On an album full of highlights, though, closer “Enough to Break Your Heart” seals the deal with aplomb. It’s the greatest song Cheap Trick or Ted Nugent never released, and one of my 10 favorite songs of the year.
The Beach Boys — That’s Why God Made the Radio
Yup, more old people. Really, though, I can’t think of a more fitting way to end this list than with one of the great American bands of the last half century. Because of all the reunion albums to come out in recent years, this is the one I thought would never happen.
But through all the acrimony, bad feelings, lawsuits, and mental health issues — and against all odds — Brian Wilson returned to help the Beach Boys record an album that wasn’t just decent or respectable, but damn good in its own right. Sure they’re not breaking any new ground or setting new trends, but if any group has earned the right to take a victory lap it’s these guys.
The harmonies are still there — although I miss Carl just as much as you do — Brian is in fine voice, and for a brief time this album makes it possible to shed every care you have in the world and go to that sunny beach in your mind. The one where the cars are still hot and the girls are the prettiest in the world.
Yes indeed, the Beach Boys may just be why God made the radio.
The Best of the Rest
Here are the rest of the albums I dug in 2012. They didn’t get called out above either cause I didn’t love them as much, or I just didn’t have enough time to give them a fair shake.
Air – Le voyage dans le lune
Field Music – Plumb
Lambchop – Mr. M
Robert Glasper – Black Radio
The Explorers Club – Grand Hotel
Overkill – The Electric Age
The Shins – Port of Morrow
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Brendan Benson – What Kind of World
Jack White – Blunderbuss
Storm Corrosion – Storm Corrosion
Prong – Carved Into Stone
Ryan Shaw – Real Love
Django Django – Django Django
Gold Motel – Gold Motel
Return to Forever – The Mothership Returns
Tom Teasley – All the World’s a Stage
Sean O’Bryan Smith – Reflection
Baroness – Yellow & Green
Mutemath – Odd Soul Live in DC
ZZ Top – La Futura
Jim Noir – Jimmy’s Show
A.C. Newman – Shut Down the Streets
Heart – Strange Euphoria
Donald Fagen – Sunken Condos
Negroni’s Trio – On the Way
Black Country Communion – Afterglow
Geoff Tate – Kings & Thieves
Soundgarden – King Animal
Minus the Bear – Infinity Overhead
Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man