It should come as no surprise that my Platinum list covers a lot of stylistic territory. Or that most listeners out there probably haven’t heard of a number of these acts – most of the best music being made these days plays for far smaller audiences than it deserves. Still, artists are going to express themselves. Let’s give them a listen. Onward.
Best CDs of 2012: The Platinum LPs
Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls
This one is on a lot of year-end lists. Maybe all of them. Their brand of bluesy, muscular retro-Southern Soul is the sort of thing that authenticity-seeking audiences and critics alike are bound to flock to. Comparisons to The Black Keys and Sharon Jones are more than fair – in fact, I’d love to hear Brittany Howard collaborating with Jones – that could be something special. Hell, add Lisa Keukala of The Bellrays to the mix and point me to the pre-order form.
Boys & Girls is an odd one for me, though. I respect it and fully get its value at a critical level, but I didn’t like it as much as I did most of the rest of the discs on this year’s list. But that’s the way it is – sometimes the heart and the head disagree, and when that happens you can’t let taste get in the way of giving due credit.
Bat For Lashes: The Haunted Man
I discovered Natasha Khan late in the year and can’t say I fully have my head around The Haunted Man just yet. But what hooked me in was, I suppose, the intricacy of her songs. There’s a fragility and sparseness to the whole proceeding, the delicate arrangements crafted so as to never obscure the melody or the message. I tend to detest the plinky lo-fi affectations afflicting so much contemporary Indie, but with Khan, the minimalism goes in service of artistry – there’s not much you could change that would improve things.
There are a lot of next-generation Kate Bush devotees recording these days. Not many of them are striking this fine a balance between her avant and pop sides, though.
The Blueflowers: Stealing the Moon
One of the greatest thing about The Blueflowers is the uniqueness of their sound. I’ve wrestled before trying to caption it, and the closest I’ve heard anyone come is “Americana-noir.” Tony Hamera’s arrangements draw on a variety of distinct Americanisms (from “Palisades Park” style organs to surf to jangly Southern gothic guitars lifted straight from mid-1980s Peter Buck, with a little psychedelia sprinkled in for flavor) and, if you’ll indulge a fit of poetic fancy, Kate Hinote’s panoramic vocal style, equal parts intimation and evocation, shimmers like a mountain lake in the blue hour. A bit much? Sorry. Still, a sweeping, minor-key romanticism permeates every corner of Stealing the Moon, rich and layered and textured, as unconditionally committed to heartbreak as it is to love. When the Rust Archives review linked above references Patsy Cine, Roy Orbison and “David Lynch-esque Blue Velvet world of dark shadows, cigarette smoke and strong liquor” they’re really onto something (minus the seething undercurrent of menace native to a Lynch project).
The Blueflowers were on my Platinum list for 2011, too, and at one level it’s easy enough to say that if you liked that one you’ll like this one. However, In Line With The Broken-Hearted is a raw confessional, a tight cycle of songs devoted to closure. I’d love to hear the backstory, but suffice it to say that when relationships go wrong, we hit a point where we have to cleanse ourselves by saying what must be said. Maybe we say it to our ex’s face, maybe it becomes a series of poems in an as-yet unpublished book [ahem] or maybe we write an album about it.
After all the purging, we end Stealing the Moon on a sweet note, albeit one that reaffirms the willingness to internalize the pain around us:
sing me a story how you’ll steal me the moon
while i dance in its beams
a painter and poet with a spell
without it where you would you be?
when the pieces fall down around me
there’s your hands
but it goes by so fast that we barely have time left
seek out your lonely where they rest
give them just a tasting
if i could only be myself
i could keep all their pain for me
The 2011 release was also a little more given to what, once upon a time, we’d have called the “singles” (that was back when radio stations would play tracks by actual artists). Only “Hole of Sorrow” (and perhaps “My Gun”) from StM really stand alongside “Hesitate,” “The Lovely Ones” or “In Line With the Broken-Hearted” as potential jukebox-fare, but Stealing the Moon makes up for it with consistency and perhaps even a little more thematic depth. Tony and Kate recently welcomed their first baby, and if that in some way lent an extra measure of maturity to their work, so be it. We rarely complain about art borne of emotional maturity around here, do we?
Chromatics: Kill for Love
At first listen I didn’t think I was going to like Kill for Love (despite how much I dug 2007’s Night Drive). It kicks off with a bang (figuratively, not tonally), offering up a narcotic cover of Neil Young’s classic “Hey Hey My My,” here retitled, appropriately enough, “Into the Black.” If you recall what Cowboy Jumkies did for “Sweet Jane” (and if you’re one of the few people on the planet fortunate enough to hear Space Team Electra cover “Paint It Black”), that’s the territory we’re in here.
After that the disc sort of wafts away into the ether, a pleasantly languid sort of comfortably numb soundtrack that was fine for the background while I was working. After about 15 spins, though, the wheels caught. I can’t honestly say why it took so long. Maybe I was just distracted by other things and not paying sufficient attention, but there’s a lot more going on here than I realized. AMG sums it up neatly: “atmospheric, deeply stylish aural landscapes in pop song silhouettes, and darkly glistening electronic ‘pop’ infused with post-punk’s steely, nihilistic ennui.”
Maybe it’s that ennui thing. Take these lyrics from the title track:
Everybody’s got a secret to hide
Everyone is slipping backwards
I drank the water and I felt alright
I took a pill almost every night
In my mind I was waiting for change
While the world just stayed the same
Everybody’s got a secret to hide
Everyone is slipping backwards
I can’t remember if I like what I said
I can’t remember it went straight to my head
I kept a bottle by the foot of the bed
I put a pillow right on top of my head
But I killed for love
I said at the top of part 1 that I hadn’t really uncovered a theme for the music of 2012, that it seemed to be a “holding pattern” kind of year. Here we have a nice expression of that sentiment (and an intimation of the psychic toll it takes), don’t we? Maybe holding pattern isn’t just a descriptive for the year past, maybe it’s an active thread, characterizing a world waiting for something to happen. Underneath the ennui, though, we still care, desperately and passionately. We anesthetize ourselves because it’s the only way to deal with an endless stream of dead end days.
Apologies if I’m projecting, but it’s something to think about. Preferably while listening to Kill for Love.
The Gaslight Anthem: Handwritten
All young bands start out imitating their heroes. Slowly but surely they assimilate and grow, and the good ones eventually reach a point where they have internalized their influences and emerge with a sound that is distinctly their own. The ones who aren’t that good wind up playing Holiday Inns.
TGA is one of three major bands in recent years to find themselves confronting their significant Springsteen influences, the others being Marah and The Killers. Each dealt with the need to grow in different ways. Marah actively began evolving away from the Boss, although in doing so they failed to find new ground that was as creatively interesting. The Killers embraced the the Born to Run sound, but channeled it though a 1980s lens. The Gaslight Anthem has chosen not to worry about it, but instead to simply evolve organically and un-self-consciously. The result is that while they sound very much like the Springsteen disciples that they are, they’re driven by outstanding songwriting and an occasionally rootsy, occasionally punk edge that keeps you focused on them and not their heroes.
Gregory Heaney at All-Music feels like the band has well and truly arrived:
It feels like the Gaslight Anthem have reached some new evolutionary stage in their growth, bringing together all of their influences into a sound that’s more distinctly theirs. While there are still the strong overtones of Springsteen and Social Distortion present on Handwritten, it feels like the Gaslight Anthem have figured out how to adapt those sonic touchstones into a sound that, though familiar, is their own. Changes aside, what feels more important with a group like the Gaslight Anthem are the things that are the same. Handwritten is still possessed of the same grit and earnestness that have become staple weapons in their musical arsenal.
It’s hard to imagine that there will ever come a time when you don’t hear echoes of that Jersey sound in The Gaslight Anthem’s music, but it’s now becoming evident the ways in which they’re bent on expanding and growing a rich tradition. This is a superbly realized moment for one of America’s premier young rock bands and I’m enjoying every note.
Green Day: ¡UNO! / ¡DOS! / ¡TRÉ!
These are three distinct releases, but I’m going to treat them as one because it’s useful to highlight the larger context. As the reviewers will explain (and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, linked here, is pretty solid), ¡UNO! is the “arena rock” offering, hewing closely to the brand the band has built in recent years. ¡DOS! is a breakneck garage romp. And ¡TRÉ! is, in his view, sort of a morning-after/what’s left over collection.
Individually we have three CDs that are, well, pretty good Green Day CDs (I’m liking ¡UNO! the best, I think, although it’s possible that’s because of how much I appreciate the sentiment behind “Kill the DJ”). But considered together, this ambitious Punk/Pop trilogy further extends Green Day’s legacy of innovation through a willingness to again explore the boundaries and limits of a well-defined (and restrictive) genre. The first great moment, of course, was American Idiot. After spending several years early in their careers establishing themselves as the go-to for thoughtful three-chord Punk/Pop, Billie Joe found himself utterly fed up with the political corruption of the Bush years. The result was the core reason they became my choice for CD of the Decade.
With American Idiot and its sequel, 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day explored extended song cycles, concept album conceits and multi-section suites that structurally had more in common with Rush and ELP than with the Sex Pistols. Now they’re back to more conventional fare, except that these albums are arrayed as a trilogy. More noodling with form and expectation – interesting.
The bottom line is that no Punk band has ever aimed so high or been so relentlessly focused on making more of the genre. Once upon a time, Punk came bounded by a whole set of strict limitations. Now the possibility is dramatically greater than before. Whether their creative trailblazing sparks a generation of Prog-Punk disciples remains to be seen, but for the moment their own work justifies the experimentation on its own.
Jets Overhead: Boredom and Joy
This sums it up nicely:
“Boredom and Joy is an ode to freedom – the gift of having the peace of mind to find joy even in the mundane. It’s about longing for simpler times without the humdrum of our modern distractions,” Jets Overhead’s lead singer Adam Kittredge explains to Rolling Stone. “As a boy I remember being thrilled when I threw a twig in the creek near my house and watched it float down stream. It filled me with joy to wonder where the water would take it.”
When I first encountered JO on their 2006 release Bridges (my CD of the Year, by the way), the vibe was decidedly backward-facing, owing a great deal to 1960s California psychedelia (filtered through the misty, rainy murk of Pacific NW Indie). With each passing release, though, the band more fully inhabits the present. Their evolving sound also becomes more and more radio-friendly over time, albeit in ways that continually foreground the artistic intimacy that has always defined their songwriting and performances.
Boredom & Joy is perhaps their most accessible CD to date, with fresh, clean melodies and subtly layered arrangements serving a song cycle concerned with the growing complexity of relationships over time. Even in moments where the songs evoke an almost disco vibe (“Love Got in the Way” comes off like an homage to The Bee Gees, which would normally be ten points from Slytherin) the message is disarmingly direct and honest. And danceable.
The band also gets major bonus points for their video of “What You Really Want,” which features a second or so of yours truly. (That good looking bald guy at the 1:45 mark? Yeah, that’s me.) The video for the title track, by the way, is the best I saw all year.
The Raveonettes: Observator
The Raveonettes are one of our most keenly interesting bands, continually evolving and pushing the boundaries of Indie noise pop in ways that are always a little surprising. For instance, Observator is as bright as 2011’s outstanding Raven in the Grave was dark and heavy. Didn’t really see this coming, although the result is wonderful.
Listening to the disc is sort of like strolling through the history of Rock & Roll, occasionally pausing to ask “what if this band had listened to lots and lots of Jesus & Mary Chain?” On “Young and Cold,” for instance, the artist being tried on for fit is Buddy Holly. And then on through a gamut that soundchecks everything from Byrds/REM-esque jangle to Echo & the Bunnymen to Lush (admittedly, this one isn’t much of a reach) to – am I imagining an Airplane vibe about “You Hit Me (I’m Down)”? Along the way, Sharin Foo’s vocals never quite let us forget how much The Raveonettes seem to dig the likes of The Ronettes and Shangri-Las.
This nifty little Danish duo has been as consistently outstanding over their last four CDs as anybody in the business, and I’m not going to be the least bit surprised if they break out with a serious CD of the Year candidate in the future. Heck, they’ve been on the short list two years in a row now.
Ryan Shaw: Real Love
Had Ryan Shaw come along 50 years ago we wouldn’t be talking in reverential tones about Otis, Wilson, Marvin and Sam. We’d be talking in reverential tones about Otis, Wilson, Marvin, Sam and Ryan. This. Is. Not. Hyperbole. Ryan Shaw’s voice is just that stunning, and here we find it wrapped powerfully, painfully, lovingly, soulfully around a dynamite collection of original tunes.
The neo-Soul movement presents us with a huge range of approaches: the throwback Soul revivalism of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings; the girl group-infused contemporary ethic of Adele and Duffy; the updated girl-group/combo sunshine of Lucky Soul; the ’70s R&B inflected pop of Alex Clare, Fitz & the Tantrums and Mayer Hawthorne; the rootsy Southern Soul-Pop of Allen Stone. To name a few.
Shaw is very much the purist, although he relies on thoroughly modern production values, and readers looking for a slightly easier label might try this one: he’s a male Adele. In fact, when it comes to pipes, he’s probably a better singer than she is. Real Love is also driven by more consistently excellent tunesmithing, although there’s a certain apples-to-oranges quality about the comparison: Adele’s most recent CD was built around a tightly unified, excruciatingly intimate confessional dealing with a painful breakup, whereas Shaw’s songs are more of a traditional Soul melange favoring themes of love and infidelity.
For the time being Shaw remains comparatively lesser known, which is a damned shame. Maybe he should go on The Voice….
The Shins: Port Of Morrow
Another CD of the Year shortlister. The Shins have always been a band I respected and kind of liked, but none of James Mercer’s previous efforts really grabbed me viscerally. (Mercer has completely changed out all of the personnel here, by the way, so it might be more useful to think of Port of Morrow as a solo project.) Perhaps his songs struck me as a tad distant thanks to a certain disaffected Indie production aesthetic. Hard to say. I keep wanting to use words like “tactical” or “technician” to characterize my reaction to, say, Chutes Too Narrow.
In any case, that was then and this is now, and Port of Morrow is a thoroughly realized and engaging effort. In addition to striking me as generally more textured throughout, Mercer’s songwriting seems to be warming to the idea of a wider audience. I say this very cautiously, because the last thing I was to be seen as doing is accusing him of selling out. It’s just that this effort is gifted with tracks that have what I’d consider to be a much broader appeal than he has enjoyed in the past. “Simple Song” is positively anthemic, for instance, and is one of the most compelling down-tempo ballads I think I have ever heard, centering on an absolutely gorgeous bridge/chorus hook. Wonderful stuff.
Rick Springfield: Songs For The End Of The World
Thanks to that whole Noah Drake thing Rick Springfield has never gotten the respect he deserves. Never will. But he’s an icon for those of us who frequent the Power Pop underground, and this CD is a great illustration of why.
If Songs For The End Of The World had been released by, say, Foo Fighters, everyone would be falling all over themselves to praise its relentlessly engaging melodies, its full-speed-ahead sonic guitar attack and the thematic thoughtfulness of an artist confronting the need to sweep decades of negativity from his life. But it isn’t Dave Grohl, it’s the soap opera pretty boy.
From a public perspective, there have been four distinct phases to Springfield’s life – teen idol, General Hospital soap heartthrob, ’80s pop icon, and whatever happened to Rick Springfield? Unfortunately, while all the attention is focused on phases 2 and 3, that last phase is where so much of the really interesting stuff has transpired, including the struggle with being a creative artist after the crowd has moved on, marital strife, sexual addiction, and a lifelong battle with depression.
“It becomes the thing that you use to make you feel good. It’s not, ‘Oh, I’m feeling turned on tonight.’ It’s a power thing. It’s like, ‘If I have sex with this pretty girl that’s got to mean something — she is OK with having sex with me. So there must be something OK about me’ — because you start so far down in your own self-esteem,” Springfield said.
“That’s my home down there, and I’ve had to fight that depression all of my life. I see how it crushes my wife. I know that we all have our problems, but I’ve never personally spoken to anyone that has had a sh–tier childhood. There were times when I’ve not wanted to be in my own skin, and that’s a very scary feeling.”
Keep this in mind as you watch the video below, by the way.
Artistically, Rick is best remembered for wanting “Jessie’s Girl,” and his first couple of post-GH albums were populated by standard guitar pop fare – love and lust, mainly. But then Living in Oz rolled out, featuring some intensely personal reflections (as well as a pointed critique of the rise of impersonal synth-pop) and that was followed by Tao, where we met a more mature and surprisingly introspective artist thinking more substantively about this whole love thing.
The truth is that unlike so many artists, who have their best moments early and then fade as fame and fortune bleed away their hunger, Rick Springfield’s best work has come later in his career. And I don’t mean “best” in the way it’s used to justify latter-day offerings from a lot of artists, where they’re more intellectually and spiritually inclined but the songs themselves are about as lively as stale dishwater. No, the actual songs here, the hooks and the melodies and harmonies, are as good or better than anything he has ever produced.
A number of critics are calling SftEotW one of his best in years, which is technically true. However, I’d also point you to Shock/Denial/Anger/Acceptance (2004) and 2008’s Venus in Overdrive as evidence that Springfield has remained vital. IThe last eight years have given us three of his best albums ever and there’s no reason to look forward to his next release with anything less than high expectations.
Part 1: The Gold LPs
Part 3: CDs of the Year