Yes, it's that time of year again: the time when critics (like me) assess the best releases over the past 12 months. I've perused the "Best Albums of 2012" lists published from a variety of respected sources: Billboard, Rolling Stone, UK's The Guardian and more, and maybe it's just me, but looking back, it seems the lines have blurred between "best" and "best-selling." How else to explain the collective affirmation of manufactured pop songs by the likes of Taylor Swift, Mumford and Sons, Lady Antebellum, John Mayer, Green Day, et al?
Fact is, the music business, moreso than any other time in music history, has a stranglehold over not only what gets heard on commercial radio, but over what is considered commercially viable. Thus, it has become harder and harder for artists with a unique voice and recording ethic to break the glass ceiling of mainstream rock'n'roll. All of this is to say that, every year, it becomes harder and harder for a journalist with any sense of eclecticism or aesthetic sensibility to ferret out releases that creatively-speaking, break the popular mold and emerge with anything even remotely resembling an individual voice or message.
Luckily, I have been fortunate enough to have come across albums which do fit my criterion - some CDs were released on major labels, most were on indies however. Which just goes to show that independent labels are still the place for creativity and originality to flourish. Here now, is my best-of list, which heretofore shall be christened...
TEN ALBUMS THAT MATTERED IN 2012
THE SHEEPDOGS The Sheepdogs - Pretty amazing that a Canadian indie band could land on the cover of the Rolling Stone, but a fateful contest sponsored by the iconic magazine almost surreptitiously thrust them upon the national radar. In the age of American Idol, this doesn't seem the least bit improbable, but what's surprising is how talented The Sheepdogs are. Their music is a joyful celebration of classic rock, with an emphasis on the Southern-fried genius of artists like The Allmans, .38 Special and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Unlike The Black Keys however, their songwriting goes beyond genre-pillaging - tracks like "Alright OK", while nodding to The Allmans, are infectiously hook-laden and loaded with bright harmonies and free-form solos even the best jam bands can rally behind. Lead singer Ewan Currie's simultaneously laid-back and heartfelt vocals breathe life into the countrified twang of "Never Gonna Get My Love" and "Ewan's Blues." This album is the proverbial auspicious debut - let's just hope being on a major label wont compromise their sound or result in a sophomore slump.
BRIAN ENO Lux - Brian Eno, the undisputed master of atmospherics, has garnered a reputation as one of rock's finest producers (U2, Talking Heads, Coldplay, Paul Simon), but as this album proves, he is also one of ambient music's most prolific artists. Lux is a four-part, 75 minute suite, which appears to pick up where 1985's Thursday Afternoon left off. Again, making more out of less, Eno integrates sparse piano phrases with swirling string crescendos (courtesy of Neil Catchpole) that appear then suddenly dissolve, minimal synthesizer lines and Leo Abraham's Moog guitar providing rhythmic and tonal variances. Even though the tracks are labeled Lux 1-4, there is no question this is a work of one piece, and while the mood remains pretty consistent throughout, it does adhere to Eno's aesthetic that the music reward the listener's attention, while not necessarily demanding it. The shifts between one segment and the next are not completely divergent from each other, but they do add enough aural details to avoid the trap of being soporific. That Mr. Eno continues to work such sonic magic some thirty-plus years since his emblematic Music For Airports was released, is nothing short of stunning.
DEAD CAN DANCE Anastasis - After a sixteen-year sabbatical, the ambient/goth duo of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry reunite for what is the most fully realized DCD album since 1988's The Serpent's Egg. The lead track, "Children Of The Sun" is the perfect postscript to their hit "The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove" (informed by a similar string coda,) while "The Return Of The She-King" with it's Celtic overtones and majestic orchestration provides the perfect showcase for the haunting glossolalia of Lisa Gerrard. And when Perry and Gerrard combine their voices (as on the final verse,) their unique musical synergy becomes not only apparent, but revelatory. Highlights include the wistful "Opium", where Perry bares his introspective soul ("Sometimes, I feel like I wanna leave behind all these memories"), the political idealism lurking beneath the scathing "Amnesia", and the haunting closer, "All In Good Time" which manages to feel both hopeful and fatalistic at the same time. It's that precise dichotomy which has informed DCD's catalog - the internal struggle that wages on inside ourselves, and nobody gives it greater validation (and exaltation) like Dead Can Dance.
ALANIS MORISSETTE Havoc And Bright Lights - Gotta give Mrs. Souleye credit: it takes a lot of guts to leave your longstanding major label and strike out on your own, especially given the fact that your post-Jagged Little Pill career has been affirmed by critics, but not commercially. But no matter, the domesticated Alanis Morisseette has shifted her priorities to home and family (she married rapper Mario "Souleye" Treadway last year, and is raising their first child together), and she is quite happy changing her role from pop star to wife and mother. But Havoc And Bright Lights demonstrates, in a quietly effective way, that domestic bliss does not necessarily make one complacent. Morissette may not be venting her spleen, as she did on tunes like "You Oughta Know" and "Are You Still Mad?", but there are plenty of attention-grabbing moments on this disc - "Woman Down" despite its contemporary pop sheen, is a feminist manifesto about misogyny and oppression; "Celebrity" places both fame and the media under the microscope: "I'm a tattooed sexy dancing monkey/I'll carve my face up, if you'll indulge me"; "Numb" hints at the fact that even so-called bliss may hide a dark side: "Here comes the feeling/I run from the feeling and reach for the drug/Can't sit with this feeling/I'd rather be flying and comfortably numb." Producer Guy Sigsworth (who helmed the previous Flavors Of Entanglement) keeps the proceedings radio-friendly, but even working in the pop vein, Alanis Morissette is still a voice to be reckoned with.
CUDDLE MAGIC Info Nympho - Imagine a less self-consciously artsy Animal Collective, and you'd have the Brooklyn, NY-based outfit Cuddle Magic. Recording this album live in studio, without the use of overdubbing, Info Nympho is a triumph of indie ingenuity. The instrumental support, instead of being a musical diversion, actually enhances the quirky lyricism and inspired songwriting of Alec Spiegelman and Ben Davis. "Autobiographies" fuses Brian Wilson-esque harmonies with couplets this side of Captain Beefheart: "When you texted me, almost dropped my keys into the latrine/Singing ballads to my salad isn't valid..." "Hoarders" takes a page from the Laurie Anderson playbook, with vocalist Kristin Slipp infiltrating the mind of such obsessives: "Take this plastic bag my friend/And put it in a safe place/Who knows when it might come in handy", while Ben Davis' nerdcore rap on "Moby Dickless" benefits from a vocal duet by Slipp and a melancholy trumpet. Complex rhythmic and compositional elements incorporate everything from marimba and flute to toy piano and cello. Info Nympho's exuberantly wacky songcraft is a breath of fresh air amidst the morass of pop's current landscape.
RUSH Clockwork Angels - The Canadian power trio of Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart and Geddy Lee shock and awe on Clockwork Angels. A rock band that has soldiered on for over forty years has no business sounding this energetic and focused, but Rush does, and Clockwork Angels not only meets the expectations of its loyal fan base (a conceptual narrative by lyricist Peart, ear-shredding guitar solos, and Lee's adrenaline-fuelled wail,) it surpasses them. A storyline that's equal parts 1984 and The Hunger Games is impressively told, vacillating between lilting balladry and balls-to-the-wall rockers, sometimes contained within the same piece (as on the striking "BU2B".) The flawless rock of "The Wreckers" (peppered with Beatlesque overtones) and the mesmerizing "Halo Effect" (heightened by veteran string arranger David Campbell) are but two examples of how classic rock need not be formulaic. Everyone here is playing at the top of their game - Peart, in particular shows his versatility as a drummer, going bombastic one moment, then pulling back with the nuance and restraint of a jazz musician. And Geddy Lee's instrument has lost none of its luster and impact, even when slightly buried beneath Nick Raskulinecz's production. Take that, Shinedown!
thenewno2 thefearofmissingout - Dhani Harrison, progeny of Beatle George Harrison, has no desire or interest to follow in his father's musical footsteps - to prove it, he saturates himself in the aural trappings of Portishead and Radiohead on this, the follow-up to 2009's debut, You Are Here. "Station" features a support vocal from The Child's Holly Marilyn, and has the feel of a lost Garbage 45. "Make It Home" is a dark stomp about co-dependent relationships ("Wont you let me know if you made it home alive/It's only me, being lonely/Stay where you are and I'll see you, eventually...") "Timezone" begins with a rollicking banjo and Harrison's airy falsetto, then gradually builds with spacey keyboard filigrees and a rumbling, low-end bass line. Co-conspirator Oliver Hecks keeps the propulsive beat going, working nicely against the synth programming of Paul Hicks and animated horns of Admiral Snakbar and Daddy Ching. The album even benefits from the star turn of Ben Harper (who previously worked with Harrison as part of the one-off project Fistful of Mercy) on tracks like the soulful "Hanging On", where the iridescent harmonies of Harrison and Marilyn play out like a passionate couple publicly broadcasting their uncertainty and fear. thefearofmissingout is an insinuating, fascinating slow burn of an album.
THE WHITE BUFFALO Once Upon A Time In The West - Jake Smith, aka The White Buffalo got his big break by virtue of songs being featured on the biker gang series, Sons of Anarchy. Once Upon A Time In The West is one of those full-fledged debuts that not only delivers on the hype generated by such product placement, it's a bonafide country rock masterpiece. "Ballad Of A Dead Man" could easily have appeared on the soundtrack of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, while "How The West Was Won" is the sort of twisted rockabilly Dwight Yoakam would give his seal of approval to. "Wish I was an outlaw, kicking ass and taking names" Smith boasts on "The Pilot" - it's his lyricism and heart-on-sleeve honesty that imbues these tunes with emotional gravitas: he's proud and cocky one moment, vulnerable and soul-searching the next (as on "One Lone Night" and "Wish It Was True"), and Smith's guitar playing puts him on par with the finest singer/songwriters of any genre. The eclecticism of the songs serve as an indicator that Smith has been equally inspired by Yoakam and Kristofferson as John Mellencamp and Eddie Vedder. Repeated listenings uncover Once Upon A Time's many charms.....Mr. Smith, consider me a willing convert.
BIG DIPPER Crashes On The Platinum Planet - From the opening bars of "Lord Scrumptious", it feels as if Boston's own Big Dipper are back on the scene, yet never left. Their signature sound, which made them the darlings of the "Bosstown sound" of the late 80's, is in full force on Crashes On The Platinum Planet, and that familiarity is not only welcome, but strangely validating. After all, the music business is an entirely different animal now, and one would not be the least bit disappointed to discover that the window has passed for such idiosyncratic, no-nonsense indie rock. That would be a shame, because Big Dipper deliver in a major way on their first release of new music in twenty years. "Robert Pollard" begins as a homage to the artist/musician of indie contemporaries Guided By Voices, but it doesn't take long for lead singer Bill Goffrier to take a pointed jab at a musical giant: "Paul McCartney, it pains me to say/That you have a great gift, but hide it away/We'll forgive the crime, if you will pen the perfect rhyme/Mine some gems this time." Who else but Big Dipper would dare tip such a sacred cow? By contrast, "Market Scare" is a Lennon-esque indictment of Wall Street, set to a waltz-like beat and vibrato-tinged lead guitar. And on the somber "Happy New Year", a stately organ and elegiac guitar lines provide a meditation on disappointment and loss. BD - it's great to have you back.
MATCHBOX TWENTY North - The extracurricular activities of singer Rob Thomas (a pair of solo albums and a guest stint on both Santana's Supernatural and Shaman CDs,) may have led many to believe that Matchbox Twenty has disbanded in the interim, but truth is, the combo never officially broke up - they may have been on an extended hiatus, but North picks up where 2002's More Than You Think You Are left off: its a sprawling, understated pop gem. Thomas is not only blessed with a distinctive vocal style, but few folks croon a pop ballad with such finesse. The lead single, "Overjoyed" is a textbook example of this - from its folksy guitar intro to the close harmonies and singalong chorus, its nothing short of pop perfection. "Parade" paints a portrait of nostalgic times and lost opportunities, alternating mid-tempo verses with a hook laden refrain and powerhouse drumming. Likewise, "The Way" (with its arpeggiated guitar lines and majestic piano chords) is an ideal choice for the second single - it manages to add an aural dimension to the Matchbox canon, while still feeling familiar and immediate. Then there's the uncharacteristic "English Town", where the soft, ethereal piano of its verses are juxtaposed against an orchestral-infused, anthemic chorus resplendent of Coldplay. The manufactured pop icons of today could stand to take a page from Matchbox Twenty, as their music doesn't sacrifice quality songwriting to artifice and over-production.