The year wasn't entirely a musical wasteland. There were some decent albums released -- just not a lot of great ones. I listened to a variety of albums in 2012, but I found none I would categorize as stellar. And with the reprise of so many old geezers, I found myself enjoying the familiarity of those artists, most of whom seemed perfectly happy producing songs and albums that were in keeping with the personas they developed over the years. (The exception was Neil Young, whose Americana did attempt something different. But it, too, was rooted in the familiarity of cover tunes.)
So if you find a bit of nostalgia in my picks, don't be surprised. 2012 was a year that found me looking backward more than forward.
Below is my selection of the top 50 albums of 2012. As you read, keep in mind that these were selected in early December, in time to be considered for our annual collaborative countdown on this blog. Since that time, my colleagues here have shared some albums I missed this year, and if I had it to do all over again, the rankings might be just a bit different. The top 20 would probably stay intact, but a few of the lower-ranked works could have been supplanted by new (to me) discoveries.
A Spotify playlist of selections from these albums accompanies this list and is embedded at the end of this post. But if you just can't wait, listen now as you read.
1. Bob Dylan - Tempest
Aided by a terrific backing band that includes Los Lobos’ David Hildalgo on accordion and guitarist Charlie Sexton, Dylan gruffly plows through old-timey tunes ranging from swing (the opening track “Duquesne Whistle”) to country to Delta blues in a way only Bob Dylan can. The old folkie can still out-folk the newbies like Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe, Alabama Shakes, et. al. Even after countless listenings to this album, it remains a mystery to me why I love Dylan’s lion-in-winter vocals but am still not much of a Tom Waits fan.
2. Ben Kweller - Go Fly A Kite
Ben Kweller has been kicking around the alt-rock/indie scene for a while now. And while he’s come up with a few clever, catchy pop tunes, he’s never hit the big time. He probably never will.
But with Go Fly A Kite, Kweller hits all the right notes, in my opinion. This is a rollicking, fun dose of bombastic, rockabilly-tinged power pop. Kweller and his band deliver plenty of catchy guitar hooks, too. There isn’t a weak track on the album.
It seems that by creating Go Fly A Kite, Kweller has finally broken away from his past attempts to fit some alt-indie mold. The very title seems to be saying to the world, and to the recording industry: “Screw you, I’m making the music I want to make.” The result is a tremendous pop album that will likely be ignored by most end-of-year reviewers, on this list and others..
3. The Lumineers - The Lumineers
As 2012 began, I was looking forward to the crop of autumn offerings from folk-pop bands Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers -- so much so that I almost overlooked this gem. Fortunately, several of our group referenced this band and album in their mid-year review, and their comments convinced me to pick up this album.
I’m glad I paid attention. The Lumineers pump a fresh, distinctive sound into the banjo-and-mandolin movement. You’ve probably heard “Ho Hey,” the earworm single that garnered quite a bit of air time on satellite radio and indie-pop stations during the summer and fall, and it’s a great tune. But don’t stop there. Nearly every song on this album is a self-contained short story set to clean, simple production values. My personal favorites: “Dead Sea” and “Big Parade.”
4. Best Coast - The Only Place
Bethany Cosentino’s strong vocals carries consistently through the entire album, from the surf-and-sun opening track to the longing finale “Up All Night.” Endless Summer, indeed.
5. Dr. John - Locked Down
6. Jack White - Blunderbuss
Is this really a solo project, or is it just another side project for the wunderkind behind the Dead Weather and Raconteurs, the producer/collaborator of Wanda Jackson's great 2011 comeback album (The Party Ain't Over), etc.? Blunderbuss meanders beautifully from guitar-saturated rock to ballads to a fun cover of the '50s R&B classic "Shakin'." In other words, it's a lot like a White Stripes album. Only somehow freer and more daring.
7. Cat Power - Sun
Chan Marshall (Cat Power) cut her hair and went in an entirely different direction with this album. From the first notes of the opening track, “Cherokee,” you’ll recognize the departure from her past efforts. But the sultry, seductive, graceful vocals are still there.
8. Melody’s Echo Chamber - Melody’s Echo Chamber
Melody’s Echo Chamber is the best thing to come out of France since Plastic Bertrand (who is actually Belgian, but his big hit was written and sung in French, so that’s close enough, n’est c’est pas?) This album is drenched in dreamy, reverberating tunes, all wrapped around Melody Prochet’s lilting vocals and masterfully produced by Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker.
9. Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
Big Man Clarence Clemons -- Bruce Springsteen’s soulful sidekick with the E Street Band -- passed away in 2011. But Clemons’ passing did not diminish Springsteen’s latest offering. Wrecking Ball is as big and anthemic as much of the great early work that featured Clemons’ wailing sax. Nearly 40 years since Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., The Boss continues to create music that matters in the prophetic sense. In this case, he takes on the Wall Street investment bankers and politicians who tossed a wrecking ball into the U.S. economy in the years leading up to 2008’s crash.
As he has with much of his work, Springsteen continues to examine the gap between American reality and the American dream. Wrecking Ball’s best tunes -- notably “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “Shackled and Drawn” -- echo the hardscrabble protest folk of Woody Guthrie, and despite a couple of weak tracks, this album is Bruce’s most significant since The Rising.
10. The Vaccines - Come of Age
What would a top 10 list from me be like without a nod to UK punk? “Oh I could bore you with the truth,” deadpans Vaccines lead singer Justin Young on “No Hope,” the opening track of this British quartet’s sophomore album. And then he goes on to entertain us with his jaded delivery of clever lyrics, underscored by jangly surf-rock power chords. Influenced by the likes of the Libertines and the Arctic Monkeys, the Vaccines’ sophomore effort proves they are no flash in the pan.
11. Metric - Synthetica
I like this album a lot. While their previous effort, Fantasies, contained bits of brilliance, Synthetica falls together nicely. From the get-go, lead singer Emily Haines tries to disarm us, attempting to lower our expectations with the declaration that she’s “just as f***ed up as they say.” But this album is anything but. A solid but of electropop in a lackluster year.
12. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros - Here
This one snuck up on me. This folk-pop ensemble’s haunting first track, “Man on Fire,” hooked me early. The rest of the album followed suit in the typical foot-stompin’, knee-slappin’ fashion this band has made its trademark.
13. Scars on 45 - Scars on 45
Terrific, melodic Britpop that’s been in heavy rotation since spring. This year’s guilty pleasure.
14. Of Monsters and Men - My Head Is An Animal
The latest sensation from Iceland is sensational. Beautiful, melodic, warm.
15. George Harrison - Early Takes
A nostalgic album for fans of Harrison’s work, or the Beatles. It’s nice to get an unvarnished, behind-the-scenes listen to the work of a musical genius.
16. Joe Walsh - Analog Man
From the James Gang to a solo career to the Eagles and now back to flying solo after burning his wings with too much of the high life, Joe Walsh has been one of rock’s most underrated guitarists and songwriters. With the same acerbic, self-effacing humor that worked so well in ‘70s pop-rock tunes like “Life’s Been Good,” Walsh opens with a screed -- suitably accompanied by Walshian power chords -- about living life as “an analog man in a digital world.” The second track, “Wrecking Ball,” continues that thought, condemning the multitasking trap that ensnares so many of us, but it’s also a condemnation of the rock’n’roll burn-the-candle-at-both-ends lifestyle that became his trademark decades ago. He quickly turns sentimental and sweet, even grateful for life’s blessings, with later tracks, like "One Day At A Time," which could serve as a 12-step program theme song. He even throws in a fun guitar jam, “Funk 50,” that Walsh fans will recognize as a long-awaited sequel to his James Gang riff “Funk 49.”
17. The Beach Boys - That’s Why God Made the Radio
An unexpected pleasure. Who knew the Beach Boys could still harmonize and hit those high pitches after all these years, and after all of Brian Wilson's tribulations? With this release, they sound almost as sun-kissed as they did in 1966.
18. The Darkness - Hot Cakes
Lord, forgive me for loving this album as much as I do. I can’t help it. Hot Cakes rocks. Equal parts early Queen (think “Brighton Rock” and you get the idea) and Eric Carmen’s “Go All the Way” Raspberries, with a dash of theatrical KISS thrown in, this album is a fun throwback to the Stone Ages of rock’n’roll.
19. Patti Smith - Banga
The poet-prophet of New York’s proto-punk scene in the mid-1970s proves she can still create vivid word-pictures with her lyrics, all carried along by a distinctive raspy vocal style. I think a lot of people missed out on this wonderful offering.
20. M. Ward - A Wasteland Companion
Another tremendous offering from one of the best singer-songwriters of the past decade. Now if he could just ditch that Zoeey Deschanel.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill
Rodriguez - Searching for Sugar Man
Justin Townes Earle - Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Nick Waterhouse - Time’s All Gone
Norah Jones - Little Broken Hearts
Alabama Shakes - Boys and Girls
Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold
Sinead O’Connor - How About I Be Me (And You Be You)
Bonnie Raitt - Slipstream
Allo Darlin` - Europe
The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten
Mumford and Sons - Babel
The Detroit Cobras - Mink Rat or Rabbit
Green Day - !Uno!
Old Crow Medicine Show - Carry Me Back
Smashing Pumpkins - Oceania
Japandroids - Celebration Rock
Wild Nothing - Nocturne
The Shins - Port of Morrow
Beach House - Bloom
Neil Young - Americana
Heartless Bastards - Arrow
Dum Dum Girls - End of Daze (EP)
Regina Spektor - What We Saw From the Cheap Seats
fun. - Some Nights
The Avett Brothers - The Carpenter
Wanda Jackson - Unfinished Business
Lana Del Rey - Born to Die
Carina Round - Tiger Mending
Jimmy Cliff - Rebirth