With my regular Parlour to Parlour series taking a little nap this year (don’t worry, it’s coming back), I’ve had quite a bit more head space to pay attention to new music. And again, as with each year, there’s more than enough good stuff to fill a single column. This is the great advantage to my Popdose colleagues and myself all publishing our own individual year-end ‘best of’ lists – what one of us misses, the others will certainly have those missing pieces covered.
For 2012, I’ve grouped my best-of assessments into six categories. You can use the links below to skip to the parts you think you’ll like best, or, if you’re like me, you’ll want to read the whole thing from beginning to end. Please feel free to leave comments below on your own favorite albums, singles, live shows, and rediscoveries or reissues. I’d be curious to see what else I’ve missed! And while you’re at it, check out the year-end posts and 2012 gift guides by fellow Popdosers Rob Smith, Ken Shane, Chris Holmes, Keith Creighton, and Editor in Chief Jeff Giles.
It is also worth noting that all images in this list are linked to Amazon (except where they’re not) in the event that, at this late date, you are inclined to buy some vinyl for that special someone (and if you and your friends still think that vinyl doesn’t exist anymore, just go on and buy one of these and follow the rest of us down the rabbit hole). Enjoy!
- 10 Favorite Major Releases of 2012
- 10 Favorite San Francisco Bay Area Releases of 2012
- 12 Favorite Singles of 2012 (Please note that I am counting some individual album tracks as “singles,” kinda like how the iTunes store works.)
- Favorite Live Show of 2012
- New Festival to Watch
- 3 Favorite Rediscoveries
10 Favorite Major Releases of the Year
With the first David Lee Roth-led Van Halen album since 1984, it’s as if the Van Hagar years never happened. There was no guarantee that this album would be as great as it is, but fortunately the Van Halens and Diamond Dave delivered in a major way. Best of all, the record rocks from start to finish – no synths, no ballads, just 100% balls-to-the-wall rock. Thank you, Van Halen!
Odds were even lower that a Beach Boys album at this late stage would even be worth half a listen. The last time the “boys” released an album that was anywhere near close to “classic” was 1977’s cult favorite The Beach Boys Love You. As it turned out, the record was approached exactly the way it should be – by giving back significant control to mastermind Brian Wilson, who has spent the better part of the last 25 years re-honing his songwriting and production chops with a series of acclaimed solo projects. The first half of the album recaptures the band’s freewheeling fun-in-the-sun glory days, while the second half continues Brian’s creative arc with introspective, progressive productions. If the Beach Boys never make another album again, this one is as good a coda as anyone could have hoped for.
Dave Longstreth’s idiosyncratic songs and stunning vocal arrangements are always a welcome addition to our soundspace, and Swing Lo Magellan is no exception. Whereas 2009’s Bitte Orca leaned more towards an unlikely balance of prog rock and modern R&B, Swing Lo Magellan finds the band stepping back, delivering songs that are less obtuse and more immediately impactful. It’s clear that Dave has been listening a lot to Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding – we should have seen this coming after Dirty Projectors released two different covers from that very album (“As I Went Out One Morning” and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”) over the past couple of years.
If St. Vincent’s over-the-top productions can sometimes be a bit much, and if David Byrne’s solo material can often just pass by without much excitement, Love This Giant addresses both these areas amazingly well. The two clearly bring out the best in each other, and the excitement in the grooves is nearly uncontainable. This is easily the best St. Vincent recording to date, and certainly the best project David Byrne has been involved in since Talking Heads’ Remain In Light.
Bob’s latter day resurgence continues with arguably the best record of his post-’80s history. Musically, it’s not much different from 2009’s Together Through Life. Lyrically, however, Dylan has recaptured the muse that drove epic tunes like “Desolation Row,” “Joey,” “Brownsville Girl” and “Highlands.” That he loaded this record with two such epics (“Tin Angel” and the title track), and still others that reach for the same heights, is nothing short of a miracle.
Thanks to producer Jack Douglas – the man at the helm for ’70s classics Toys In The Attic and Rocks – Aerosmith somehow managed to actually make a solid, even at times great, album of all original tunes. While Douglas’ name might make one assume this record attempts to be the follow-up to Rocks, in actuality Music From Another Dimension is what 1993’s Get A Grip should have been – a rock record with awesome songs, and just enough ballads to satisfy the ’80s kids. Better still, the ballads here are actually really good (save “Can’t Stop Loving You,” which should have been cut for a Steven Tyler solo project) and all have their own distinct personality. To hear the Boston Bad Boys tear through ferocious rockers like “Oh Yeah,” “Street Jesus” and “Legendary Child” is nothing short of thrilling. Even the two songs Joe Perry sings have enough classic riffage to offset his less than perfect vocals.
Ms. Krall proved a decade ago that she was way more than just a standards girl with her under-appreciated masterpiece The Girl In The Other Room. While Glad Rag Doll doesn’t return Krall to the world of original compositions, it does recapture Girl‘s adventurous spirit through the typically fantastic production of T-Bone Burnett, along with an ear opening selection of 1920s and ’30s jazz tunes that are far outside the usual standards repertoire. Proud hubby Elvis Costello also makes some cameo appearances, and how could he not? The joy of reuniting with his erstwhile Coward Brother on his über-talented wife’s exciting new project must have been impossible to resist.
These affable Kinksian rock guys from Philly keep churning out quality records year after year, and Be The Void is no exception. If anything, it’s even more true to the band’s live sound than 2010’s acclaimed Shame, Shame while the songs are as catchy as ever. “Do The Trick,” anyone?
The Johnny Cash of grunge stepped away from his usual collabo-guest role and emerged once again as a solo artist, and with perhaps his best record since Whiskey For The Holy Ghost. Blues Funeral reflects a sound that splits the difference between Mark’s gigs with the Soulsavers and Queens of the Stone Age, although as you can imagine, this record is way darker than anything either of those two bands have released. Signature lyric: “if tears were liquor / I’d have drunk myself sick.”
With my ears to the ground, I was hearing some jazz snobs (who shall remain nameless out of love and respect) sneer at the idea of a pop star like Paul McCartney doing a collaboration with Diana Krall, a bona fide jazz artist. True, Paul is no Jon Hendricks, Frank Sinatra, or even Stevie Wonder (who has been proving for years that he can hang with jazz cats). However, Paul knows this and sticks to his strengths, primarily servicing the melodies and infusing them with his own personality and perspective while feeling the lightly swinging rhythms of Diana and her band. Like it or not, Paul succeeded anyway – he made the standards record he had wanted to do for decades, snuck in two gorgeous new original tunes, and kept the proceedings pure and simple. Don’t worry, we already have one Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney has no interest in playing that role.
10 Favorite San Francisco Bay Area Releases of the Year
The girl with the golden voice bat this one clear out of the park, realizing her vision of a more pop-centric sound in the context of her jazz and folk tendencies. As full-length debuts go, These Holy Days is mighty impressive for all the right reasons: top notch musicianship, classy arrangements, and good soulful songs. The girl is going places – literally. Watch her website for upcoming tour dates.
This record, Ash Reiter’s second full-length, is a textbook example of “all killer, no filler.” Quite literally, all ten of the songs on Hola could be pushed as singles in some way, which is exactly how albums should be made these days if you want all your songs to be within the attention span of the iTunes generation. Sparkling production and thoughtful, heartfelt lyrics make this record an instant Bay Area pop classic.
This record came out rather quietly as a download via BandCamp, months after Mark Matos began performing as Trans Van Santos. It at once encapsulates everything that’s great and beautiful about psychedelic rock and folk music, or as Matos himself often calls it, “acid gospel”. Whether it’s a short folk tune like “On the Mountain” or a lengthy acid jam like “The Rise of Santos,” Matos’ songs succeed more than anyone else’s today at preserving and advancing the decades old Bay Area hippie tradition without ever coming across as hokey, irrelevant or out of touch. What’s more, Coyote and the Crosser is a well produced, well played record and a happening all its own.
It has been pretty amazing to watch this incredible Bay Area instrumental guitar-drums duo slowly build an enthusiastic fan base over the past four years. each/other upped the enthusiasm factor over previous records, and proved yet again that instrumental indie rock deserves more attention. Words often fail us, but music alone is something we can always count on. Viva Eric Kuhn and Robin Landy!
Another years in the making record, the self-titled debut by DRMS (formerly Dreams) is ultimately a showcase for pianist/composer Robert Shelton and lead singer Emily Ritz. However, with a cast of musicians as stellar as those Shelton convened for this project, DRMS keeps rewarding repeated listening with all sorts of intricate musical details. With the mixed pedigree of this group, drawing from jazz and hip hop and bossa nova and all manner of other styles, it’s clear that beyond this stellar opening statement there are probably endless other vistas for DRMS to explore in the future.
This beautiful country/folk/Americana record marks a major milestone in the life of Jessi Phillips, the band’s lead singer and songwriter. Two years after settling in the Bay Area, she gathered the material and the people together to complete an album that showcases her vivid story songs and a voice that simultaneously recalls Neko Case and Patsy Cline. When the jazz chops of her drummer, Shaun Lowecki, boil up to the top, it makes for an unforgettable combination with Phillips’ siren voice, the lock-step bass of Christian Carpenter, and the match-made-in-heaven lead guitar lines of Henry Nagle. And there’s boatloads of charm here too. Who doesn’t love charm?
The mournful vocals of bandleader Lynn Gentry and the soothing accordion of Lemme Adams are the most important key ingredients on this stunning psych/soul/jam record with an all too apt title. Perfectly executed in concept and in practice, Requiem For The Living is a knockout of a debut and establishes Gentry as a gentle yet forceful spirit to be reckoned with. He’s generous too – the album is available to download in full for free until December 31, 2012.
Teens digging on pure punk might be taken aback by this record, but for everyone else, Youth Music Revisited presents a classy opportunity to reacquaint yourselves with classic punk tunes in a completely new and original context. You never thought a Rancid song could sound so beautiful with vibraphone, upright bass and gentle lead guitars? Neither did I. Youth Music Revisited is perhaps the most surprisingly enjoyable record of the year.
Sean Hayes added some extra funkiness to his folk sound with 2010’s Run Wolves Run. Thankfully he’s sticking with that sound, as it was a really exciting blend and a natural setting for Sean’s inner soul man to come to the fore. Before We Turn To Dust advances that sound a little further and reminds us yet again just what a gift San Francisco has in Hayes calling the city his home.
Released both as a two-song vinyl single and a four-song digital EP, Forty is at once The Lawlands’ debut and their sole studio recording documenting the original Matthew Smith fronted lineup. Led by drummer Shaun Lowecki, Forty consists of some of the band’s strongest material, from the pulsating and poetic “A Diving Soulful Love,” to the beautifully romantic “Forests.” Hearing these songs performed live was often thrilling, especially towards the end of Smith’s tenure with the band as his impending departure brought the band’s strong emotional bond to the fore. On record, one clearly hears Lowecki’s vision of jazz-trained heirs to The National.
12 Favorite Singles of the Year
Chrystian Rawk, “False Ghost”
Have you ever needed a song to console you and basically tell you that no matter what anyone tries to tell you about your dreams, you should accept and embrace yourself and never change? Well, here it is. Enjoy!
Joey Dosik, “Running Away”
After experiencing the charismatic Joey Dosik lead an enthusiastic audience through the background vocal parts on this song, it was with great joy that he gave us such a well produced, expertly crafted rendition of this standout from his live set. Joey is a contemporary soul man of the highest order, and if you’re not smiling by the time he’s finished singing a song, I fear you might actually be dead.
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The Bad Plus, “Pound For Pound”
Nearly a decade ago, this hot young jazz trio got some major attention, thanks in part to backing by a major label. Sadly, the The Bad Plus doesn’t get quite the same exposure today that they had received with their 2003 Columbia Records debut, but damn, do they still deserve it. “Pound For Pound” builds over a repeating theme, similar to Wayne Shorter’s immortal “Nefertiti,” slowly and subtly escalating in emotional intensity. And, a first – you can hear some non-acoustic sounds in this recording! Not quite sure what is going on, but at first listen it sounded to me like an omnichord.
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The Afghan Whigs, “See and Don’t See” / “Love Crimes”
One of the most welcome reunions in recent memory was The Afghan Whigs, as evidenced by the string of sold out shows they played on this year’s tour, in larger venues than they had ever headlined during their peak years in the ’90s. These two covers, by Marie Queenie Lyons and Frank Ocean respectively, were the band’s sole new recordings of the year and both featured prominently in their live set. As he always does, Greg Dulli took these songs and made them his own, and they’re both welcome additions to the Whigs’ catalog.
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Bart Davenport, “Someone2Dance” / “Cheap Words”
The two sides of this 45 RPM vinyl single find power pop torch bearer Bart Davenport in a very early ’80s synth pop mood. They sound closer to The Knack or The Cars when performed live, but on record, these tunes show a whole other side of Bart and reveal themselves to be superior pop songs, no matter how they’re performed.
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The Blank Tapes, “A’bergine”
Leave it to Matt Adams of The Blank Tapes to write the best psychedelic pop jam about an eggplant, ever. He can write and perform great pop songs about very nearly anything (like “Puppy Cuddles” – all other songs about dogs will be shining the shoes of this one for decades to come). “A’bergine” is no exception, and the video is pretty rad too.
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Gotye feat. Kimbra, “Somebody That I Used To Know”
It took an assignment from a karaoke buddy for me to really sit down and listen to this one, and when I finally did, WHOA! This is easily the year’s best pop duet, borrowing from an ’80s sensibility with a contemporary sound, sung by two great singers in their own right. I’m kind of impressed that I actually pulled off singing this one – it’s not as easy as, say, “Tequila.”
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Sugar Candy Mountain, “Hey, Look At Me”
I may be a little biased, being that I am in this band, but I’m pretty sure you’ll agree that “Hey, Look At Me” is a badass jam. It’s short, sweet, to the point, catchy as fuck, and laced with bandleader Will Halsey’s endearingly absurd brand of humor (as in “hey look at me! I got a spray-on tan!”). Dig the even more absurd video, created by my Parlour to Parlour cohort Garrett Eaton.
Vijay Iyer Trio, “Human Nature (Trio Extension)”
Though jazz pianist/composer Vijay Iyer has been releasing albums as a leader since 1995 and earned his first Grammy nomination in 2010, it wasn’t until a good friend recommended this year’s Accelerando that Iyer finally made it into my musical world view. While brimming with fine compositions, it’s the trio’s take on “Human Nature” that impressed me the most. Given its history as a smash for Michael Jackson and later a centerpiece of Miles Davis’ latter day live performances, it would take some serious reinvention to really make this song work in a fresh way. Not only does Iyer’s trio deliver, they effectively force us to ponder the question, “what are they doing with the timing of this tune and why is it actually working?” No need to think too hard about it though, it sounds great either way.
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Hélène Renaut, “Tiny Specks of Delight”
This has been a busy year for Hélène Renaut, and it’s been good to see and hear her about town singing songs off the follow-up to last year’s The Deer Convention. “Tiny Specks of Light” is the gorgeous title track of that follow-up record, and the video is also a beautiful piece of art, equal to the song itself with Hélène’s endearingly thick French accent. Best heard late at night, with candles and calm.
Frank Ocean, “Crack Rock”
Channel Orange was one of the most hyped and talked about records of the year, and its multiple Grammy nominations were well deserved. While I’m of the opinion that it’s very good rather than great, I am certain that if Frank is already this good now, he could likely be the next Stevie Wonder if he keeps at it. “Bad Religion” was the record’s “oh my God!” moment, but for me, “Crack Rock” was the “yep, dude’s one bad MF” moment.
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The Rolling Stones, “One More Shot”
Kudos to the Stones for not letting their 50th anniversary pass by without some new songs to play. The first of this year’s two new singles, “Doom and Gloom,” was merely OK (though the video was among their most entertaining). But “One More Shot” rocks with the vigor and fire that we love about the Stones. Plus it’s better than most of their last album, A Bigger Bang. At this point, I would actually prefer the Stones to release one or two smokin’ great tunes a year, rather than 16 hit-or-miss tunes every seven years.
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Favorite Live Show of the Year
The Afghan Whigs @ The Fillmore, San Francisco, 11/7/12
The band looks older and wiser more than a dozen years after their last tour, though Greg Dulli actually appeared to have not aged at all at this show, the first of two sold out dates at San Francisco’s venerable Fillmore. Dulli even lost weight, and is singing better than he ever has in his entire career. This is what quitting drugs can do for you, too. Best of all, the Afghan Whigs sound better than ever as a band. Their set drew from nearly all corners of their career and included this year’s two new covers released as free downloads. To say the set was transcendent would be an understatement, and I’m sure the sold out crowd would agree.
New Festival to Watch
As one of the most exciting and promising new jazz guitarists on the scene today, Alex Pinto has been working his excellent trio all around the Bay Area to great results. Not only that, Alex co-founded the San Francisco Offside Festival, launched in May, to fill an important gap in indie music programming by putting the spotlight exclusively on local Bay Area jazz talent. It was a bold and brilliant move, capturing a moment in time where, much like during the age of rent parties in the Harlem Renaissance and the rise of avant garde jazz in New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the hungry sounds of insanely talented musicians trying to make ends meet during a flailing economy are ripe for a new audience. Alex’s own trio, when they played the second night of the three night festival on May 25, captured all of this and more in a beautifully intense performance that recalled Pat Metheny’s mid ’70s trio, if John McLaughlin had been leading it. Look for more SF Offside shows in the coming months – San Francisco is on the cusp of becoming the epicenter for new innovations in jazz, and we have Alex Pinto and festival co-founder Laura Maguire to thank for giving the whole scene a much needed boost.
3 Favorite Rediscoveries
Until this year, the only ELO albums I owned were ELO’s Greatest Hits and the first album. I had no idea what I was missing – this record actually sounds more contemporary than one would ever expect, and has held up amazingly well.
She’s primarily known for her hit single “Band Of Gold,” but Freda Payne’s catalog is really deep. It’s full of soul, drama, sass and a jazz singer’s touch. She actually started her career as a jazz singer with When The Lights Go Down Low, on Impulse!, in 1962. And with her Invictus recordings, she sang over classic Motown styled grooves courtesy of Motown defectors Holland-Dozier-Holland, years after the Motown label had moved on to funkier territory. It’s telling that the Motown cover on her second ABC album, Out Of Payne Comes Love, is the one tune on Stevie Wonder’s Music Of My Mind that leaves the funk behind in favor of a breezy jazz groove.
This 2010 album was regularly jamming on at least two friends’ car stereos throughout the summer of 2011. I found myself asking “who is this?” so often that I finally broke down and bought my own copy. It’s full of party jams – northern soul-styled instrumentals, bleepy electro-raps, and adventures in remix land.