- Father John Misty, Fear Fun (Sub Pop). After the war broke out, we headed down to the bunker—Fifties-issue, concrete walls, boxes of canned food, smells a little moldy—but Cayla couldn’t stand my smoking, or my singing, so she climbed back up to join the resistance. Or the aggressors—one of the two. I sit down here still, having smoked my way through eight cartons and eaten enough canned chili to destroy my belly. The ventilation system (such as it is) cannot keep up with me. I spend my days sitting cross-legged in the corner, surrounded by the pictures I’ve spread out in a half moon in front of me, from knee to knee—every girl I’ve ever loved, their images saved as their memory could never be. I sing to them—sometimes old blues songs; sometimes love ballads; sometimes I just howl, and let my howling form a melody organically. If I ever get out of here, I’m going to write a book about each one of these women; each will have a handsome protagonist and a happy ending. Only one is missing—Cayla, of course, and I miss her most. When she went up the ladder, she did more than leave me. She buried me.
- Jack White, Blunderbuss (Third Man). Caution: gentleman/mogul/rock singer/guitarist/fitful genius at work. His first solo record is all over the place, but it’s a brilliant stew of goodness, from the dancy falsetto ‘n’ fuzz of “Sixteen Saltines” to the Stonesy stomp of “Trash Tongue Talker,” to the Tin Pan Alley turn on “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy.”
- Felice Brothers, God Bless You, Amigo (no label). Traditional songs, cover songs, and new songs; home recordings cobbled together into a record, released in order to raise money to replace the band’s deceased Winnebago and frazzled amplifiers. Loose. Looser than loose. Sometimes silly, mostly brilliant. Their take on Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Jack of Diamonds” is incisive and sharp; the new original “The Mating of the Doves” might be the best song I’ve heard this year. This could be a 21st century Basement Tapes. And it’s only five bucks.
- Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (Def Jam). RIYL: First Take; Stand!; Hot Buttered Soul; Young, Gifted, and Black; Still Bill; What’s Going On; Extension of a Man; Innervisions; That’s the Way of the World; A Quiet Storm; The Belle Album; Off the Wall; Uprising; The Night I Fell in Love; Introducing the Hardline; Sign O’ The Times; The Low End Theory; What’s the 411?; Love Deluxe; 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of…; The Chronic; Plantation Lullabies; CrazySexyCool; Miseducation; Urban Hang Suite; Voodoo; Baduizm; Songs in A Minor; The Headphone Masterpiece; Stone Love; Soulstar; Speakerboxxx / The Love Below; Late Registration; The Way I See It; How I Got Over.
- Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando (Act Music & Vision). When the noise inside my head gets louder than the noise outside it, I’ve turned to this record to help me piece things together, tidy things up, make it all more manageable, if not better. Tellingly, it’s probably the album I played most this year.
- Beach Boys, That’s Why God Made the Radio (Capitol). This is the sound a smile makes.
- Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball (Columbia). Songs for the 99 percent of 2011 and their 2012 counterparts, the 47 percent. Written and sung by a guy who’s definitely in the one percent, but who can sometimes convince the other 99 that he’s one of them, or at least remembers what it was like to be one of them, like, 40 years ago. Still, the rage he channels in “Easy Money,” “Shackled and Drawn,” and “Death to My Hometown” is palpable, and admirable, regardless of where it originated. And though I prefer the version of “Land of Hope and Dreams” I’ve been listening to for 13 years, the new version—with that spine-tingling opening chord and the final recorded work of one Clarence Anicholas Clemons, Jr.—sounds more like a call to arms than an altar call, and that’s all right. In fact, it might be just what we need.
- Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls (ATO). Sometimes, it’s good to believe the hype.
- Neil Young, Psychedelic Pill (Reprise). “Drifin’ Back”—all 27-plus minutes of it—is unforgivable, a sonic abortion, a bunch of meandering, masturbatory twaddle, the disjointed rambling of an old man clearly separated from his senses, propelled over the cliff by a band with no better prospects than to ride the whole thing out. The remainder of the record is an hour of walloping garage noise, as the Young sends shards of lyrics flying in all directions, and the Horse provides the Godzilla thump and appropriate fuzz—more Ragged Glory than Broken Arrow. Awesome stuff to hear—just skip Side 1.
- The Sword, Apocryphon (Razor & Tie). Had this band been around in 1981, they would have provided the soundtrack to the Taarna segment of the Heavy Metal movie. Such praise is better than a Grammy; just ask ’em. Mind-melting stuff.
Special Mention: Sugar reissues (Merge). Listening once again to the two LPs (Copper Gold, File Under: Easy Listening) and one EP (Beaster) Bob Mould, David Barbe, and Malcolm Travis made in the early Nineties, I was pleasantly reminded of the power and beauty of Mould’s work at its absolute poppiest extreme. Listening to these records on high-quality vinyl for the first time was a bloody revelation. Copper Gold, especially, had always sounded thin to me; now, the guitars open up and new bits and snippets of information emerge from the slabs of sound the band committed to tape. For about fifty bucks, I got the three albums, spread out over two beautiful packages (Beaster was included in the Copper Blue gatefold), including extensive (though tiny) liner notes, as well as download cards good for high-quality MP3s of all the B-sides from the sessions (there were many) and two full live shows. Easily the best money I spent on music this year.
Counting Crows, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation)
Cody ChestnuTT, Landing on a Hundred
Bob Dylan, Tempest
Brandford Marsalis Quartet, Four MFs Playin Tunes
Trampled by Turtles, Stars and Satellites
Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory
Marc Johnson & Eliane Elias, Swept Away
Ani DiFranco, Whose Side are You On
Beth Orton, The Sugaring Season
Ravi Coltrane, Spirit Fiction