Sony X Headphones: I haven’t owned a really nice set of headphones since high school — for one reason or another, it always seemed easier to rely on speakers or settle for earbuds — so when Sony came knocking with an offer to review these, it was too tempting to resist. The headphone market is full of dumb hyperbole and inflated brand value, so I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when I read that Simon Cowell designed the X Headphones to “create the best headphone in the world” — and given that I haven’t compared these with everything else on the market, I’m not going to speak to his grandiose claim. I will say, however, that they deliver on a number of other fronts — the sound is rich and powerful and the phones themselves are beautifully engineered, with hefty-feeling earpads that benefit from their dual folding design and comfortable memory foam cushions.

If anything, I guess you could accuse Sony of over-engineering the X — they come with 50mm driver units, which is arguably more than phones with an on-ear design really need, especially if you’re plugging them into an iPod and using them to play lossy files. And at bottom, they probably owe their existence to the ongoing phallus-measuring contest between Cowell and Jimmy Iovine, who shills Beats on American Idol. But having said all that, I have no complaints about my experience with these or their overall performance — in fact, I’ve found myself using them a lot more often than I would have guessed. [purchase link]


Matthew Ryan DuskMatthew Ryan, In the Dusk of Everything Matthew Ryan might be digging harder and deeper than any other American songwriter of his generation, and In the Dusk of Everything — which concludes a trilogy that started with 2010’s Dear Lover and continued with last year’s I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall — finds him paring down all the non-essential elements of his craft until there’s nothing left but the raging heart at the center of his ever-inspiring, bloody-knuckled populism. If you’ve ever hurt, hated, loved, laughed, lost, cried, dreamed, or lied, this is a record you need to hear. [purchase link]

Richard Julian, Fleur de Lis I guess this album won’t technically be out until next year, but since Richard Julian’s already mailing copies of the record to folks who pre-ordered it in 2012, I’m including it here. A bit of a sonic departure from his previous work, Fleur de Lis is basically a musical love letter to Julian’s recently adopted home of New Orleans — and it certainly sounds like it was recorded in the right spirit, with plenty of horns and barrelhouse piano being moved along by a sweaty, loose rhythm section. After the uptempo, tongue-in-cheek kick of the opening track, “Not Leaving New Orleans,” it’s hard not to wish that more of Fleur de Lis had that kind of spice, but when the result includes ballads as heartrendingly lovely as “Secret in the Stars (Galileo),” it’s also really hard to complain. [preorder link]

Bill Frisell SolosBill Frisell, Solos: The Jazz Sessions He can skronk with the best of them, but for my money, Bill Frisell is never better than when he’s applying his signature style to a lovely, languid melody — and Solos: The Jazz Sessions serves up plenty of them, interspersed with brief interview segments in which he discusses his approach and looks back on his career. He’s worked with loads of talented musicians, but it’s Frisell’s singular guitar that’s usually begging loudest to be heard, and Solos obliges, allowing the listener to soak in every line with zero interference from any bass, drums, or keys. Bring on another volume, please. [purchase link]

Cold SpecksCold Specks, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion Far from cold, this startlingly accomplished debut is one of the most bracingly intimate records I heard in 2012, a full-throated howl of self-discovery from a young artist with a beautifully old soul. I interviewed Cold Specks frontwoman Al Spx for the Village Voice in July, and you can read the article here — but you really just need to listen to the album. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here. [purchase link]

Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball I wrote about Wrecking Ball at length in a Letter from the Editor column back in March, so I’ll keep this entry brief: I dug it then, and I’m still listening to songs from it now. [purchase link]

Bill MalloneeBill Mallonee, Amber Waves Mallonee’s 50th(!) album finds him doing what he does best: Telling stories about grief, hope, death, loss, and love. There’s a noble fragility to Mallonee’s voice that can make even a half-assed song sound profound — and fortunately, there’s nothing half-assed about Amber Waves; it’s a raw, powerful reaffirmation of what he calls our capacity for “leaning on each other’s shoulders, bearing each other’s burdens as a way to incarnate a shaky faith.” [purchase link]

Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola, Not Getting Behind Is the New Getting Ahead If you’re already a Charlie Hunter fan, you know what you’re going to get here: Electric guitar as a fat, farting beast that belches fire and scoffs at overdubs. Recorded live to analog tape, the crowdfunded Not Getting Behind is vintage Hunter, alternating between slow, smoky numbers like “Assessing the Assessors, An Assessor’s Assessment” and funky strutters like “Rust Belt” while serving up track after track of that thick-toned signature sound. [purchase link]

Dirty Dozen Brass BandDirty Dozen Brass Band, Twenty Dozen They’re a New Orleans institution and a perennially busy live act, but the Dirty Dozen Brass Band have kept a low studio profile for the last several years; their last album, What’s Going On, was released in 2006 — which may not seem like such a long time ago, but is definitely far too long to go without new cuts from the DDBB. Timed to celebrate the band’s 35th anniversary, Twenty Dozen keeps things perfectly simple, delivering a dozen tracks of straight-up dirty brass, including a cover of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that somehow makes the song sound new all over again. Proud, defiant, and joyous, Twenty Dozen draws on traditional sounds while striding gracefully ever forward. Long may they blow. [purchase link]

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Preservation Hall 50th Anniversary Collection Deluxe boxes from artists like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel got a lot more press, but for my money, this loving look back at a half-century of Preservation Hall history might have been the most important collection of the year. At four CDs and over four and a half hours, it’s certainly comprehensive — but more importantly, it’s also a cohesive listening experience that hangs together as it weaves between decades (and varying levels of audio fidelity). Unlike certain other acts celebrating a 50th anniversary in 2012, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been busier than ever over the last few years, and there’s no reason to expect that to change anytime soon; this box is an encomium, not an elegy, and a mighty persuasive one at that. [purchase link]

Woody GuthrieWoody Guthrie, Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection …And here’s the other most important box of the year, a lovingly curated retrospective of a great (arguably the great) American songwriter timed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. I helped put together what I think is a pretty damn solid Woody Guthrie tribute record this year, but there’s really no substitute for the real thing — and Woody at 100 offers plenty of it, as I discussed in detail in my review back in July. Touching on enough of the standards to offer a fine (and incredibly affordable) gateway for novices while packing enough new goodies to attract hardcore fans, it’s essential listening. [purchase link]

Honorable Mention: Willie Wisely Trio, True | Mika, Origin of Love | Little Feat, Rooster Rag | Bill Lloyd, Boy King of Tokyo | Carolina Chocolate Drops, Leaving Eden | Anders Osborne, Black Eye Galaxy


How Music WorksHow Music Works, David Byrne Brimming with thought-provoking analysis but written in a really friendly, accessible voice, How Music Works is a perfect primer for anyone who’s interested in, well, how music works — as a cultural and commercial force, as a career, and as a fundamental building block of the human experience. It’s a lot to cover, and this is certainly a hefty book, but Byrne makes for a fine sherpa; he knows how to discuss heady stuff without losing the layman, and his tone is so breezily conversational that even though some of the subject matter is fairly dry, the book is still tough to put down. [purchase link]

One Last Thing Before I Go, Jonathan Tropper The “middle-aged, ne’er-do-well, layabout white guy is forced to take stock” book is a genre unto itself, and it’s been revisited so often (and, in the cases of writers like Michael Chabon and Richard Russo, so skillfully) that it’s tempting to imagine that there’s really nothing left to say about characters like Drew Silver, the exiled husband and crappy father whose largely miserable existence sits at the center of One Last Thing Before I Go. Tempting, but incorrect — or at least unproductive, because Tropper outdoes himself with this funny, thought-provoking, tender look at how the heart approaches what it yearns, even after it’s been broken. [purchase link]

Stay AwakeStay Awake: Stories, Dan Chaon This isn’t what I was expecting from Chaon — which is to say that while it’s thoroughly gripping and addictively well-written, it’s also terrifying in a thoughtful, quiet way; drenched in the sort of night sweats that don’t come from fear of the paranormal, necessarily, but instead the knowledge that you possess the capacity to irrevocably wound those you love the most, that you’ve made terrible mistakes you can never take back, that all of us are truly, deeply, bottomlessly alone. It might be the scariest book I’ve ever read. It’s also probably one of the finest. [purchase link]

The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker A terrific idea for a story, honored by a writer who knows her characters and has been blessed with uncommon narrative grace. This is definitely a sad book, one that leaves you wishing you’d been able to see its characters in happier times — but it’s also beautiful and thought-provoking. [purchase link]

We Learn Nothing, Tim Kreider At 240 pages — including a handful of cartoons — this collection of autobiographical essays is pretty slender, but it’s also rueful, funny, and wise. I loved every page. [purchase link]

The OneThe One: The Life and Music of James Brown, R.J. Smith I imagine there are JB scholars who could pick some nits with The One — it doesn’t contain a lot of insight regarding his later years, for instance — but for the casual fan looking for a way into the often inscrutable life of an American legend, this offers a fairly comprehensive (and beautifully written) entry point. [purchase link]

Books I Loved in 2012 (That Were Published in 2011): I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks | Slotback Rhapsody, Christopher Harris | Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan

Movies (Theatrical & Blu-ray)

Wreck-It Ralph A really fun movie, one that lives up to the promise of its premise with a brilliant voice cast, a plethora of clever visual touches, and countless callbacks to the glorious 8-bit youth of the parents in the audience — as well as a marvelously written script that does a more or less flawless job of balancing action, humor, and genuinely affecting drama. (Excerpted from my full-length review, posted at Movies with Butter)

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Argo Unlike a lot of spy thrillers, Argo never confuses heady themes for an actual functioning brain, and unlike a lot of smart movies, it never forgets to grease the skids with plenty of action and humor. More than anything, it’s fun, gripping, and eminently well-crafted — two hours well spent in the dark with strangers. (Excerpted from my full-length review, posted at Movies with Butter)

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Looper Equal parts action, revisionist sci-fi, and tender drama, it provides some of the most satisfying popcorn pleasures of the year — and leaves out most of the empty calories we’ve been trained to expect from our mainstream shoot-’em-up entertainment. (Excerpted from my full-length review, posted at Movies With Butter)

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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial As you’ll see below, this was the year of Steven Spielberg for my Blu-ray collection, and while I was certainly eager to add Jaws and the Indiana Jones movies to my shelves, I anticipated E.T.‘s hi-def arrival most of all — not only for the chance to revisit a cinematic touchstone of my childhood, but to share it with my own kids. As a parent, I loved watching my kids’ reactions to the story (and realizing, yet again, how drastically modern parents have moved to embrace “safe,” squeaky-clean children’s entertainment); as a film fan and a child of the ’80s, I just loved experiencing the movie all over again. Warning: May cause spontaneous Reese’s Pieces purchases. [purchase link] [youtube id=”maotGZ7_ZCk” width=”600″ height=”350″]

Jaws While I don’t love Jaws as much as some of the other acknowledged classics in my collection, I couldn’t resist the chance to own a freshly scrubbed hi-def remaster, and I’m glad I gave into temptation — this is one of the best-looking archival Blu-ray reissues that the format has seen, and it’s stuffed with bonus materials to boot. Our Film Editor, Bob Cashill, delves into the disc’s special features in his typically well-written review here; I’ll just add a resounding “what he said.” [purchase link] [youtube id=”BU_j7fyBF-A” width=”600″ height=”350″]

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures Well, duh. Not only did I pony up for my Most Anticipated Blu-ray Box of the Year, but I drove an hour on a sunny Saturday morning to catch an IMAX screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it was worth every minute, every penny. They aren’t quite old enough yet, but this is another saga I’m looking forward to sharing with my kids — I watched the first Star Wars with them earlier this year, so maybe by 2015, they’ll be ready to experience the thrill of the (first three) Indy flicks. In the meantime, I’ll be over here re-watching some of my favorite childhood adventures and slowly digging into the copious extra features. [purchase link] [youtube id=”Ba2eMxx0oHs” width=”600″ height=”350″]

The Avengers I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises (see below), but it’s such an oppressively gloomy experience that I came out feeling like I needed a palate cleanser, and I found myself back at the theater a few hours later for a screening of the aggressively fun Avengers. If Christopher Nolan proved you can make a compelling superhero drama, Marvel has been busy exploring the other side of that coin, putting together costumed adventurer flicks that focus on the fun without resorting to (too much) cheese and/or camp. It’s loud and long as hell, but The Avengers is also a pretty guilt-free hoot, blessed with a great cast and a sharp Joss Whedon script, and loaded for bear with tons of action that (praise the cinematic Jeebus) doesn’t blur together on screen. [purchase link] [youtube id=”eOrNdBpGMv8″ width=”600″ height=”350″]

Dark Knight Trilogy I guess you can safely count me among the viewers who didn’t think Nolan truly stuck the landing with The Dark Knight Rises, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the movie — just that it didn’t live up to the crushing weight of expectations created by Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. And what could have, really? What’s (at least mildly) surprising about the trilogy, assembled here in a deeply discounted box set, is how well it flows together as a cohesive whole. Nolan’s Bat-saga still falls into “liked it a lot” rather than “modern classic” territory for me, but it’s hard not to recommend such a well-assembled, sensibly priced set — especially when it contains three films that people are going to be talking about and dissecting for years to come. [purchase link] [youtube id=”1T__uN5xmC0″ width=”600″ height=”350″]

Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day Finally, here’s a sentimental choice. I’m not a huge Zeppelin fan, but if you’re over the age of 35, I think it’s hard not to be moved by the idea of three old friends getting together to relive former glories in honor of departed comrades. And more importantly, regardless of whatever vagaries age has visited on the guys in the band, I think Celebration Day holds together pretty well as a viewing/listening experience — it’s a treat to see them enjoying themselves in front of such a massive, adoring crowd, and if the new versions of the old hits don’t often meet or exceed the studio versions, well, that’s what the old albums are for. Get this one for the greybeard on your list and get misty-eyed together. [purchase link] [youtube id=”VbusDxLekPQ” width=”600″ height=”350″]

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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