As 2012 draws to a close, most of the Popdose writers will painstakingly select their top albums, movies and TV shows of the year with all of the drama of the Bachelor’s “Most Shocking Rose Ceremony Ever.” I joined the staff mid-year, and by then had already amassed a stack of CDs from Amazon US, Amazon UK and a variety of local Seattle stores. By year’s end, I bought or acquired more than 100 albums. Here’s where my money and time were best spent.
Grab the free MP3’s below while you can — most will disappear within 24 hours due to our agreements with the artists, publicists and their labels. Thank you to everyone involved for making this gift-packed post possible!
UPDATE: Due to popular demand, many of the MP3s have been given an extended stay below — enjoy!
POP ALBUM OF THE YEAR:
Amanda Mair Amanda Mair (Labrador Records)
The seeds of 2012’s most fruitful tree were planted a year earlier in the summer of 2011. It was a simpler time in US history… Straw poll winner Michele Bachmann was a lock to win the Republican presidential nod, Honey Boo Boo was only a peripheral character on Toddlers & Tiaras and the blog-o-sphere was just starting sparkle with buzz over comely 16 year-old Swede Amanda Mair. Early singles, “House” and “Doubt,” delivered a heartbreaking and passionate one/two punch to the gut. On the LP, Mair effortlessly inhabits a bookshelf of characters created by Sweden’s finest songwriters. Her vocal performance exudes wisdom and compassion that far exceeds her (at the time of recording) 16 years.
Amanda Mair is an adventurous ride through tales of courtship, romance, passion and loss. The loveliest track I heard all year, “Skinnarviksberget,” alludes to a hill outside Stockholm where a fateful picnic takes place. Promises are made and hearts are broken. On a simple piano bed, Mair sips a glass of wine with one hand and offers up her heart with the other. You can feel her hands trembling as she extends the platter to her lover. Other tracks are rooted in deep 80’s FM-radio pop: Kate Bush basslines and drum fills here; Laura Branigan keyboard hooks and choruses there. Produced with limitless imagination and joy by Philip EkstrÁ¶m from the Mary Onettes, Amanda Mair reveals deeper layers and new treasures with every new listen.
Amanda Mair is available digitally at Amazon. Want a CD? Support your local record stores!
ROCK ALBUM OF THE YEAR:
Delta Spirit Delta Spirit (Rounder Records)
This sonic masterpiece presents the ultimate challenge: how do you describe an album that is adventurous, inventive, magical and twisted without over selling it? It’s impossible. Whenever it’s on, I get goosebumps. This is what the moment after love at first sight feels like. You can’t imagine how you existed before these songs came into your life. Thank heavens for happy accidents. Music enthusiasts such as myself visit record stores on a weekly basis, relentlessly scour the Hype Machine and chat hours on end with kindred spirits hoping to discover albums like this. I was perusing the bins at Easy Street Records in West Seattle when the store clerk put this on. You know that scene in the Blues Brothers where the light of God enters the church and falls solely on John Belushi — that’s exactly how my first listen felt.
Lucky was the fly perched on the studio wall when the Delta Spirit recorded this. The creativity was just flowing. They had a perfectly fine sound prior to this record — two awesome albums that play nicely alongside Mumford & Sons and My Morning Jacket. What inspired them to boldly expand their sound is beyond me; but every move they made was divine. Delta Spirit is packed with cross currents of guitars and percussion, naked emotion, giddy euphoria, hooks that grab you tight, heartbreaking lyrics, instantly hummable melodies and brazen sonic twists and turns around every corner. This is the sound of musicians at the top of their game, fearlessly riding horses into magical new territory.
I sing in the shower, sing in the car and sing when I’m happy and oddly enough, I sang “California” (which is a break-up song) more often than any other track this year — and it doesn’t even have a chorus. The music editors at Amazon just voted it “Song of the Year” for good reason. You can get it for free for the simple price of your e-mail address (a sweet deal as their newsletters are a good read and often packed with free goodies such as a recent tour EP).
Delta Spirit is available digitally at Amazon. Want a CD? Support your local record stores!
In no particular order, here are the best of the rest. All of these albums inspired and rewarded dozens of spins and got better and better with every one.
James Levy and the Blood Red Rose Pray to Be Free
This is the first of three albums on my list that deftly mine the sounds of yesteryear to create compelling modern music. James Levy looks like a street busker in a Magritte painting but damn can the man sing. His croon is so vibrant, it almost makes any musical accompaniment seem unnecessary. He enlists Allison Pierce of harmonic sister duo, The Pierces, for a musical crime spree — a Bonnie to his Clyde, a Nancy Sinatra to his Lee Hazelwood. The unseen hero on this beautiful album is Guy Berryman of Coldplay who has emerged from what’s his face’s shadow by producing TWO of my year’s top 10 albums (see The Pierces below). Berryman doesn’t overload the mix, allowing the singers to shine while backing them with heavenly orchestration and a textured instrumental palate. Their tales are dark, romantic, tragic and compelling. Skip the 50 Shades of Gray audiobook and play this instead. Hot. Hot. Hot.
A few weeks ago, we reviewed the racy video for “Hung to Dry” (here). A week from now, Popdose will publish our first interview with James Levy and Allison Pierce. Here’s a track to tide you over.
Susanna Hoffs Someday
Another dynamic trio emerged this year in the form of rock legend Susanna Hoffs, Andrew Brassell (a then unknown guitarist and songwriter half her age) and celebrated producer Mitchell Froom. While on break from the Bangles, they united to create the best album of Hoffs’ already stellar career. While rain is a running theme throughout, there is plenty of sunshine on this record. Whereas James Levy and Allison Pierce (see above) take a Noirish dead of night approach to the Sinatra/Hazelwood dynamic, Hoffs and Brassell sing in the rain and splash in the puddles. When the album came out, Susanna Hoffs walked Popdose through the album track by track; you can read that interview here. We caught up with Susanna and Andrew when their tour triumphantly concluded in Seattle; read that interview and concert review here.[youtube id=”SCVz-Kn3xEs” width=”600″ height=”350″]
Caro Emerald Deleted Scenes From The Cutting Room Floor
Amsterdam’s Caro Emerald reaches back even further into the American songbook. 20’s swing, 40’s salsa and 50’s mambo meet the modern dancefloor on Emerald’s widescreen cinematic debut. What other album could offer songs that could seamlessly fit onto the soundtracks of Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men and Gossip Girl? Last month, Carol Emerald walked Popdose through the album on the eve of her 2013 US tour. Read the full interview here.
Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor is available digitally at Amazon. Want a CD? Support your local record stores!
The Pierces You & I
The Pierces fourth album (and third perfect one) landed at the very top of my 2011 best CD list because I picked it up on import. I played this Guy Berryman-produced harmonic tour de force virtually non-stop from May to December. Their singing has always been lovely; on You & I their lush folk pop songs are fueled by increasingly wicked and clever lyrics. By the time You & I was released stateside in 2012, I was still playing it more often than most new albums. Be sure to pick-up the five absolutely essential b-sides too. Seeing and hearing is believing, so check out their incredible performance on Letterman here.
You & I is available digitally at Amazon. Want a CD? Support your local record stores!
The Mynabirds Generals
Generals, the second album from Omaha’s the Mynabirds, might as well be a debut — it is the funky, rocking, twisted younger sister of their mighty fine Rootsy Americana predecesor What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood. Sexy, sultry singer/songwriter Laura Burhenn is the most deliciously dangerous woman to front a sizable band since Joan Jett led the Blackhearts. She’s just as beautiful and just as deadly as Allison Moshart of my favorite rock duo, the Kills. Read my breathless Popdose review here.
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Generals is available digitally at Amazon. Want a CD? Support your local record stores!
Gavin Guss On High
Perhaps you’ve gone to see your favorite band in concert and also noticed that one guy on stage whose not technically in the band, but is an essential part of their live act — the auxiliary touring musician. It’s a good gig, despite the disparities in paycheck, groupies and paparazzi. Most are simply biding their time until they are in the spotlight. If Michael Jackson’s back-up singer Sheryl Crow and touring guitarist Orianthi can become front women, why can’t keyboardist Gavin Guss? You may remember him from recent tours by Nada Surf and Fountains of Wayne. He certainly honed his craft well; On High is packed with sweet, invigorating and intimate harmonic melodies; it’s a power pop record on par with Fountains’ breakthrough Welcome Interstate Managers. This Christmas, turn on fans of Elliott Smith, Beck, Fountains of Wayne, Nada Surf and Weezer to something equally worthy of center stage.
This exquisite single will break your heart and make your day:
On High is available digitally at Amazon. Want a CD? Support your local record stores! Look for another Gavin Guss MP3 in an upcoming “Download Now” Popdose feature.
New Zealand’s Ladyhawke (aka: Phillipa Margaret “Pip” Brown) had been gigging around in various bands for the past decade before striking gold as a solo act with hits “Paris is Burning” and “My Delirium” from her self-titled debut. Anxiety raises the stakes. Fat, wet beats, skuzzzy guitars and blistering new wave keys back her fearless vocals. When the rhythm kicks into “Black, White and Blue” you will just start flinging your body about in fits of detached hipster dance euphoria. Imagine Lykke Li and the Black Keys making a Lily Allen record and that gets you somewhat close to the galaxy where this planet is spinning.
Anxiety is available on Amazon.
Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes Men Without Women Live
Last summer, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes gathered the faithful at New Jersey’s legendary Stone Pony to pay tribute to Men Without Women, the lost gem of an album by Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul. The end result is one of the great live albums of our time. If you want to believe in rock and roll again, buy this album. Read the complete Popdose review here.
Men Without Women Live is available digitally at Amazon. Want a CD? Support your local record stores!
Haley Reinhart Listen Up!
This week, Interscope Records made more headlines by dropping lovely American Idol alumni Haley Reinhart from its roster than they ever did while promoting her record. This is not surprising. She was never a good fit for the label since they only know how to market mega hits like the new chart topping super blockbusters by No Doubt and Nelly Furtado.[youtube id=”LpFlGeq0P6A” width=”600″ height=”350″]
I will always be grateful to them for one reason, they funded this spectacular and ambitious album. They couldn’t sell it, but at least they made it. While Haley wrote every song but one on this album, that one is the one they picked as the single. It was greeted by a collective shrug and everyone moved on to see what Pia Toscano was up to. Had Interscope gone with the jazzy uptempo “Wasted Tears,” the horn-driven and absolutely magical “Wonderland” or the down, dirty and funky first track “Oh My!” they would have a sultry, jazzy, blonde-haired Adele on their hands.
As of this posting, Listen Up! is on sale for $7.99 exclusively at Amazon!
I am such an idiot. I spent much of the year lamenting the name of Brooke White’s dynamic duo, Jack and White, because of the similarities between their name and the leader of the White Stripes. It wasn’t until she named her new holiday CD, White Christmas, that I got it. Jack (Matranga) and (Brooke) White is a sendup of Black and White. Got it. That makes sense. Blonde-haired, new mom Brooke White has one of the loveliest, sunniest voices of our generation; Jack Matranga gives their songs just the right splash of indie rock darkness to appeal to the kids as well as old cronies like me.
Between the summer of 2011 and this fall, Jack and White released three EPs of solid FM-radio gold, quickly becoming a modern Buckingham Nicks and a better she and him than She & Him. Their first two EPs featured glorious harmonic pop originals, the third includes one cover song from every decade from the 60’s through present day. Fitz, from Fitz & The Tantrums guests on a winning version of ELO’s “Telephone Line.”
Dip your toes into the water with a free multi-track mixtape of their songs:
The Killers Battle Born
The Killers are one of the few bands still standing from that decade that shall not be named: the 2000’s. Whereas the Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes, the Libertines, the Zutons, the Coral, !!! and others have faded into irrelevance, every new track by the Killers shows they still want it. The passion! The drama! The monster hooks! The arena shattering choruses! They still have it, and it still works. In 2012, they battled Muse for the “Over the Top Album of the Year” crown and won by a squeaker. Long live them both.
Jack White Blunderbuss
Like the Killers, Jack White is just as relevant today as he was when he burst onto the scene more than a decade ago. Instead of surrounding himself with the White Stripes, the Dead Weather or the Raconteurs, he goes solo — well, kinda solo. One of his backing bands is all chicks, the other is all dudes. It’s a fight to the death where everyone wins. Easily White’s best — and most accessible — album since Elephant.
Gotye Making Mirrors
There are plenty of crappy journalists and smug hipsters who are going to try to banish Gotye to VH1’s eventual 100 One Hit Wonders of the 20teens. I disagree. This album is track-for-track FEE-NOM-IN-AL. He sounds like Sting, but you don’t want to jump out a window listening to him.
Making Mirrors is available digitally at Amazon. Want a CD? Support your local record stores!
Girls Aloud Ten
I hate where American pop music has gone in the past decade. In the wake of Britney Spears, artistry has been thrown out the window in exchange for auto-tune, bewildering guest raps, lazy sampling and style over substance. Due to the Bieber Fever epidemic, most of us missed out on a pop music revolution that was taking place in just about every country but ours: Girls Aloud. Can you name any other reality singing competition runner-ups who scored 22 hit singles across five commercially and critically adored albums? For whatever reason, their label does not want US audiences to buy their music legally. Still, it was worth the $200 or so I plunked down to import every album, single and solo project on CD.
While the five Girls are among the most beautiful women in the history of the world — and they all can saaaaang — the real star of the show is a dude: Brian Higgins of gold record factory, Xenomania. Higgins does not believe in verse/chorus/verse. Some of his songs string together nothing but new choruses, one right after the other. Like that bridge? You won’t hear it twice. He has a dozen others up his sleeve and will happily cram them all into the same song.[youtube id=”bBPtP4t2J1k” width=”600″ height=”350″]
The Girls as we knew them flamed out in 2009 to pursue solo careers, theater and TV celebrity. To celebrate their 10th anniversary and to go out in style, they reunited for 3 amazing farewell songs (and one really shitty one) and tacked them all onto their second hits compilation. If you’re new to the Girls, it’s worth some pesky import fees.
Ten is available on CD through Amazon’s sister site, Amazon.co.uk. After shipping & handling, it was about $15.
The Gossip A Joyful Noise
With apologies to Paul Shaffer, Portland’s the Gossip used to be the world’s most dangerous band. Beth Ditto, all two tons of her, careened about the stage like a StayPuf Iggy Pop, dancing to the band’s New Order-y basslines and YeahYeahYeah-y guitar attacks. And then Ditto discovered disco. Her self-titled EP, produced by Simian Mobile Disco, is a dance pop masterpiece. So the band enlisted Xenomania (see above) to craft the Gossip a dancefloor reinvention. Artistically it worked. Sales wise, I think it tanked. But you can turn that around this holiday season.[youtube id=”12zPU-8bsTE” width=”600″ height=”350″]
A Joyful Noise is available digitally at Amazon. Want a CD? Support your local record stores!
Iggy Pop Apres
Speaking of Iggy Pop…. while not as dark, twisted, sexy, alluring and satisfying as his last outing, the originals-heavy Preliminaires, covers-heavy Apres was a good listen. Iggy’s baritone croon gets lost on his Stooges stuff, so it’s nice to hear him grow old gracefully. Both albums are primarily sung in French. Preliminaires is set in the dead of night while Apres takes place the sunny morning after. Gainsbourg, Piaf, and Porter get the Iggy treatment, as do Ono, the Beatles and Sinatra.
For whatever reason, Apres is no longer available digitally at Amazon. Try iTunes.
STOP THE PRESS: THE HAIL MARY EP OF THE YEAR
Gedeon Luke Perfect Ain’t Perfect
My 2012 “best of” list was already in the bag when a friend posted links to a Hurricane Sandy fundraiser tribute video with this song as the soundtrack. The singer sounded like Lenny Kravitz, Al Green, Prince, Ike Turner and D’Angelo all at the same time, so clearly it could be none of the above. Turns out, newcomer Gedeon Luke is all that — soul, power and funk — and a bag of chips. Produced by Marc Swersky (Joe Cocker, Roger Daltrey), Gedeon’s near-perfect debut EP, Perfect Ain’t Perfect, meshes Dap Kings-style horns with gospel revival choruses, funky guitars and sweltering blues club bass lines. The EP kicks off with “Lend Me Your Sunshine” — a rave-up so uplifting, I high-fived that Red Bull Stratus guy as he skydived from outer space. Had she been born 15 years earlier, the second song “Soul Child” would have KILLED over the opening credits of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. I could go on and on — and I will — in a feature article about Gedeon Luke that is suddenly in the Popdose pipeline.
Until then, grab your first taste here:
Perfect Ain’t Perfect is available digitally at Amazon.
That’s it. Happy shopping! What tops your 2012 “best of” list? What’s on your holiday wish list? Let us know in the comments below.