In the end, all of the well intentioned ambitions of creating a full collection of songs falls to the wayside if it doesn't make a connection with the listener. In reviewing the past twelve months, I was amazed to find how many full length records exhilarated me. A boundless record places the listener between heaven and hell as they attempt to reconcile their current state of affairs. 2012 was the year of the voice; not the television show of the ostentatious pyrotechnics unleashed by Chrtistina Aguilera, but the sobering sincerity of reflection that each of the artists below managed to seize upon. Joseph Arthur, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Bill Corgan, Jack White, Michael McDermott, the Alabama Shakes and the First Aid Kit shaped albums that delivered aural color to my life while providing a opulent road map for the trenches of life. These albums transcend mere entertainment values but enter a sphere of solemnity. Some are seductive, some sinking and all helped deliver answers to unanswerable questions. Not only do these records tackle societal ills, but they dive deeper into the inhuman obstacles that often present themselves. They may not be able to solve every riddle, but they do provide a prescription to the pain and guide us to a new understanding about the world and hopefully ourselves as well. An album takes you on a cinematic journey with the implicit power of healing. So without further adieu, here are my top twenty-five albums of the year that have tackled the rough terrain of our existence.
Number One: Joseph Arthur-'Redemption City'
Joseph Arthur infuses Redemption City with candor and veracity missing from so much music today. Musicians mean well but often falter in their industriousness. They construct the music to the point of manipulation with over-the-top production and choruses to be deciphered in any language. There is nothing wrong with this route, but at some point, the meaning behind the music becomes hollow as they are playing to the audience instead of pleasing themselves. Arthur tackles the draught of societal direction with relish. He has created a masterwork that serves society as a deliberate rally cry. On Redemption City Joseph Arthur takes us all down to the river for a baptismal renewal where we will all walk hand-in-hand. The album opens with "Travel as Equals", a dashing acoustic strummer with poetic beats and a lilting injection of hope. The double album may be too opaque for the casual listener to grasp as a whole, but "Travel as Equals" is a contender for the song of the decade with its underlying message of understanding. Joseph Arthur is a traveling troubadour of the human heart whose rhapsodic blend of gentle poetry and lush soundscapes represents a triumph not just of artistic expression but also of personal connection. Redemption City is available free in the highest possible MP3 quality with the option of lossless files (FLAC) on his website. Preaching a prophecy of eventual hope, Redemption City is not just one of this decade's great albums and 2012's best, it is a catalyst to a better tomorrow.
Number Two: Jack White - 'Blunderbuss'
Jack White is one of the most admired, loved and quixotic performers of the last decade. I have always viewed Jack White as the Quentin Tarantino of rock n' roll- he took an art form and amalgamated his sound from dozens of influences and yet the way he unites these sounds is unlike any other. He did not do this for one or two records, but ten. Continually challenging himself and forcing reinvention, his first solo record Blunderbuss is a marvel of musical amalgamation; R&B, soul, country, sixties rock, Zeppelin riffs and Stax soul. "Sixteen Saltines" is a powerful force while other numbers "Missing Pieces", "Hypocritical Kiss" and "Take Me With You When You Go" have an understated urgency. The soulful blues organ of "Love Interruption" sounds like a distant memory of love lost. Most artists spend their entire lives trying to find the right combination and somehow Jack White has found a multitude of musical partners allowing him to flex and embrace many genres of music on Blunderbuss, yet another organic masterwork in his short but illustrious and still flourishing career.
Number Three: Bruce Springsteen - 'Wrecking Ball'
Wrecking Ball isn't so much an album filled with Springsteen's best songs so much as it's a body of work that will psychologically wallops you. Musically it is one of his most ambitious albums fusing Celtic-countrified strumming, soulful excursions, hip-hop beats and surging guitars that as a collective whole yields several surprises. Springsteen is too smart and world weary to paint pictures of rose gardens and tell his listener that rights will be wrong, but he can inject an insurrectionary fortitude to take with you. When I hear Springsteen sing with such earnestness on Wrecking Ball I believe my struggle, the pain endured and the dread that embodied my existence was not for nothing. Bruce Springsteen's widescreen vision of America on Wrecking Ball is filled with terror, tension, tenacity and above all else, triumph that may not replenish your bank account, but it will replenish your soul.
Number Four: Richie Sambora - 'Aftermath of the Lowdown'
Listening to Aftermath of the Lowdown, the third solo record from Richie Sambora, it is evident that life took him down unanticipated roads over the last decade. Sambora's world has changed considerably- his daughter is now a teenager, his marriage is no more, his father passed away and there have been widely documented personal struggles that I do not need to mention, because Sambora tackles these demons head-on. The music housed within Lowdown distills decades worth of influences and largely defies categorization. Sambora knows his way around a song and his songwriting talent flourishes in ways few could have imagined while the minimalist approach to the instrumentation helps bring the emotional pacing to a hopeful climax. He takes us to a fragile place where there is no community to sustain us and a clear and informed resolution must be made in order to carry on. Aftermath of the Lowdown is a celebrated artistic declaration capturing the ecstasies and agonies of Sambora's life and it more than a consequential tale of endurance but represents explicitly how our bewilderment can be turned into an avowal of tenacity. Richie Sambora's reward is the clear conscience he carries knowing that his hard fought battles were not in vain and the listener's reward is an album full of hard fought truths and lessons for us to behold.
Number Five: Smashing Pumpkins - 'Oceania'
Billy Corgan rebuilt the Smashing Pumpkins, member-by-member and turned them into road warriors and only then took them into the studio and together as a band created a modern rock tour de force of estrangement in Oceania. This is not a hard-edged record, but like Dylan's Time Out of Mind it captures a moody aesthetic that opens a new chapter in the history of the Smashing Pumpkins. Opening with "Quasar" with a tickling tease before the four members converge and let their instruments fire away as if they were heading into battle. "The Celestials" is notable for its skipping bass line performed with punctuation by Nicole Fiorentino who is graceful and elegant. "One Diamond, One Heart" has an accessible energy that propels the song. The chorus is a simple one but the lyric of "I'm always on your side" was sung with yearning emotion you sensed this was not Corgan simply flexing his ego, but reaching for that connection. "Pinwheels" has an eclectic New Order vibe to it and yet it is a sobering love song of rare beauty. Corgan captured the alluring melodies of Zwan with the dirty doom of their 90's ghosts and infused these talents into Oceania. The Pumpkins worked on these songs diligently knowing they had one chance to grip the listener and the time and energy they put into their craft reaped huge rewards in their best record in fifteen years. Oceania is a record that deserves to be heard by everyone; it engages and enthralls.
Number Six: Leonard Cohen - 'Old Ideas'
Old Ideas captures Cohen's top tier songwriting with his more submissive arrangements. Listen to "Going Home" – it confirms that his songwriting abilities are still leap years ahead of everyone with his only true peer being Bob Dylan. Cohen transports you through tunnels of wrenching depth on "Darkness" and eclipses of the moon on "Amen". You feel that these songs have been living with you, your entire life; they offer an immense sense of comfort and familiarity.
Number Seven: Michael McDermott - 'Hit Me Back'
McDermott had my number one record of 2009 (Hey La Hey) and he returns with an autobiographical record that makes the listener feel as if they are swimming in a pool of his blood. Every note and lyric comes from within. His records are insightful statements of the events in his life. The acoustic strummer "I Know A Place" is the most stripped and confessional song he has ever committed to tape. Few artists are so willing to lay out their fears and desires continually record-after-record. Do not just discover Hit Me Back, but McDermott's entire catalog and you will unearth a treasure trove of harmonious candor.
Number Eight: First Aid Kit - 'The Lion's Roar'
First Aid Kit, a folksy sister duo from Sweden, released their sophomore record The Lion's Roar full of svelte harmonies which are dressed up with tender acoustic guitars. The fall-to-your-knees harmonies of the two sisters, Klara and Johanna Söderberg, provide a cathartic feel of purity. Their formula is unfussy yet attractive but lifts you above the swamp of pain you have been drowning in. The xylophone opening of "Blue" furthers the despair of the narrator as they look into a mirror and no longer recognize the person they see on the other side. First Aid Kit's luminosity is in their minimalism. Unlike most acts, they have the lingering gorgeousness of their lyrics to whisk the listener away to a time and place where heartache is served up three times a day. Their sorrowful voices call to mind resolute longing but also tint our outlook towards greener pastures where the pain will dissolve into eventual happiness. "Emmylou", their signature song name checks Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash and June Carter. How many acts are certain enough in their craft to compose such a striking love letter to those who opened worlds to them? Most acts would never dare whisper their influences and here is First Aid Kit wearing them on their sleeves and singing about them to its listeners. The First Aid Kit is a rare act who does not match the hype, but surpasses it.
Number Nine: Rodriguez – 'Searching for Sugar Man' (Soundtrack)
I am cheating here including a soundtrack that compiles fourteen songs recorded more than forty years ago. That being said, the fourteen cuts on Searching for Sugar Man is an astounding collection of songs that soar and coalesce into this perfect union of desolation and desire. The subject of an Oscar nominated documentary, Rodriguez has a penchant for minute details that he takes and pairs with these lofty lyrics that make even the most tragic of circumstances feel beautiful. Rodriguez's voice is a thing of majesty as it treads inconceivable waters. The way "Sugar Man" fades into the darkness is eerie and haunting. It is as riveting as Dylan at his most primal. The way the track musically dissipates into space with such care that when his vocal comes through, it feels like a ghost reaching through to us from the other side. The orchestra tickles the lyrics with urgent poignancy. The third cut on the soundtrack (and the last song on his second album), "Cause" it is a hymn of mournful and distressing times. There is a weariness and acute awareness of despair in his lyrics and through it all, there is a beacon of light shimmering through. This record received so many spins from me last year; it would have been criminal to leave it off this list.
Number Ten: Alabama Shakes - 'Boys and Girls'
They hit that sweet spot between melodic wonder and the blues. What may be most astonishing to me is that much like the First Aid Kit, the Alabama Shakes tells tales of heartache years beyond their age. The blues fills, soulful vocal belting and ferocious drumming are lined with lyrics so wise and whimsical, and you think you are listening to someone with decades of life experience beyond their years. The best thing about Alabama Shakes is that I still feel they have a better record than this within them. One listen to their "Always Alright" (available exclusively on the soundtrack to Silver Linings Playbook and it's evident they've just began to scratch the surface of their full potential.
Number Eleven: Beach Boys – 'That's Why God Made the Radio'
I'll admit to leaving this out of the top ten out of spite due to their recent acrimonious break-up. The 50th Anniversary tour undertaken by the Beach Boys proved to be once-in-a-lifetime experience where one saw more than forty songs over nearly three hours. Something I did not think anyone could have anticipated was how emotionally sunny and rewarding this record could be. How they culled a whole collection of songs from their 60's DNA is beyond me. The sound of the ocean, the smell of suntan lotion, the feeling of sand between your toes, it's all here in a implausibly constructed record full of longing dreams that makes you fall in love with their music all over again. This reunion should not have been limited to one year and this album is proof that they still had tales to tell.
Number Twelve: Gaslight Anthem – 'Handwritten'
The New Jersey bred Gaslight Anthem receives a fair amount of press, but it is for good reason. The landscapes of their music are the stuff dreams and desires are made out of further accentuated on their latest, Handwritten. They speak to the human condition with accentuated compositions of yearning, dreams, desires and nightmares. The topography of their music is straightforward and unfussy yet delivered with purpose and passion not matched in the current musical climate. "'45'"and "Handwritten" flexed their muscle on the concert stage while "Howl" preached to the punks in a slap-dash ditty that clocks in under two-minutes. Like filmmaker John Hughes from three decades back, the Gaslight Anthem has a finger on the pulse of our insecurity at this particular moment and yet when you hear their music it infuses us with the drive to turn things around. To me rock n' roll has always been the sound of salvation and right now, it could be found in the beating heart of the Gaslight Anthem.
Number Thirteen: Van Halen – 'A Different Kind of Truth'
When Van Halen released their first album of new music with David Lee Roth in twenty-eight years, the world at large had their switchblades opened ready to tear them apart, however, when A Different Kind of Truth arrived it wasn't met with disdain but a collective whisper of "It's really good…isn't it?" Van Halen did the unfeasible; they created an album that stands with their preeminent work. Capturing the same energy and chemistry from decades before is an impossible feat. It's the same reason why hooking up with your high school sweetheart thirty years later is destined to fail. You've both grown and the people you were all those years ago are gone. While few in the mainstream press have ever taken Van Halen seriously, in the realm of hard rock their first six records are near perfect and are one of the greatest runs of recordings ever released. Led Zeppelin had arguably six masterpieces in a row and Bruce Springsteen did the same between 1975 and 1987. Whenever an act creates at such a high level of output and quality, any attempt at ever recreating the magic is viewed with a cynical eye. A Different Kind of Truth finds the band mining their early demos for ideas and the final thirteen song record surprisingly embodies the very ethos of Van Halen. Take one listen to "Blood and Fire" and you'll believe in time travel.
Number Fourteen: Bob Dylan - 'Tempest'
I don't care if people think Dylan sounds like a frog. It is not the sound of his voice but the character behind it. He continually creates these immense landscapes of towering emotion where the characters find themselves at crossroads seeking guidance. The album's finale, "Roll On John" is a tribute to John Lennon and it shows that Dylan still has plenty of stories to tell and share. Tempest may not reach the heights of his best work of the last twenty-five years, but it continues to grow with every listen.
Number Fifteen: Rush – 'Clockwork Angels'
Rush has released their best and most complete record in more than two decades. It captures their musical virtuosity and takes the listener on a voyage of adversity and discovery. There is a well drawn out journey executed from the album's opener "Caravan" to its transcendent closer, "The Garden". The expressive heaviness of "Carnies" carried forward with the strings while "The Wreckers" finds a reason to strive forward in the force of unforeseen brutality. "The Wreckers" takes its name from looters who by lighting bonfires across shorelines would lead unassuming ships into a trap where their ships crashed. If the melodic charm of the song does not win you over then the searing lyrics will. Peart's lyrics tell tales that question the very fortitude of existence. The travelers we cross paths with are not always of a good heart and as complicated as this is to grasp, the band harnessed this anguish into a song with not just teeth but also a chorus ready-made for FM dials. It challenges the listener much the same way each one of us is presented with unforeseen.
Number Sixteen: Counting Crows – 'Underwater Sunshine'
Encompassing a peculiar concoction of songs spanning nearly five decades of musical depth, Underwater Sunshine is not your standard covers record. Most records contain copycat versions of well-known songs to reignite interest for a summer tour but the Crows have curated a collection of songs that embody the spirit of the band. The carefully chosen songs are distant cousins to the Crows originals because they contain the same emotional pull. Some of these records give fans an insight to where the band stole their tricks from and while Underwater Sunshine does this, it houses several songs from the last decade on it, giving them an audience they otherwise never would have found. Listened to top-to-bottom it feels like a wholly original body of work rather than a footnote in their discography. The Gram Parsons song "Return of the Grievous Angel" featured a three-guitar attack of David Bryson, David Immergluck and Dan Vickrey which coalesced and marvelously took hold and could have been one of their own. The covers are fragile but are infused with playfulness. There is immediacy to the new material, whether they wrote it or not doesn't seem to matter. The songs yield the same truths housed within the Counting Crows musical catalog. Listened to in the context of the high-spirited musicianship, they're indecipherable to more than 90% of the audience which is a testament to their talents in interpreting and delivering these songs.
Number Seventeen: Gary Clark Jr. - 'Blak and Blu'
Gary Clark Jr. is every bit as good as you hear he is. The urgency of his playing and songwriting on his debut make Clark and the blues feel potently relevant. These songs jump out of your speakers like a hyperactive freight train who left heartbreak station with no destination. Clark brings a sense of conquest to the music. While the blues is often about drowning your sorrows in the past, the tilt of his music is steeped in rejuvenation. There is a sense that even though the unknown lies before us, this is still a better situation than the one we are leaving behind. Listening to him wail on "Things Are Changin'", I am reminded that great artists do not merely perform; they paint visceral pictures of life and impart wisdom onto the listener. With the guitar as his paintbrush, Gary Clark Jr. is panting masterful pictures of not just our lives, but roadmaps for where we want to go.
Number Eighteen: fun. - 'Some Nights'
The songs that encompass Some Nights songs are driven by perfectly constructed melodies that almost sound too good to be true. While "We Are Young" is the song everyone knows and (for the most part) loves, this is a devastatingly great collection of songs. With a tip-of-the-hat to Queen, .fun is constructing songs that don't just sound fresh, but are fueled by aggression, euphoria and downright glee.
Number Nineteen: Kaiser Chiefs – 'Start the Revolution Without Me'
The band's fourth album, Start the Revolution Without Me was released under the title of The Future Is Medieval in June of 2011 in the UK. In a wholly original marketing plan, the UK release allowed fans to make their own version of their record and even share in the profit participation if their version of the record was bought in larger quantities. The US release just came out in March of 2012, but I'm happy to say the US edition of thirteen songs is extremely strong and possibly the record that best exemplifies their stage shows with the help of producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie) and Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams)."Starts With Nothing" finds vocalist Ricky Wilson crooning like a deep throated Morrissey. While the song had several shades of the Smiths, the Kaiser Chiefs are anything but imitators. They immaculately emulate what has come before with their own fanatic passion thrown into the mixture. Bass player Simon Rix grooves are awe-inspiring as he weaves in and out of the musical traffic while drummer Nick Hodgson beautifully evokes the calming jazz tempos of Charlie Watts while being able to shift into the lunatic hysterics of Keith Moon. "Starts With Nothing" covered a lot of musical territory in less than six minutes with hushes, wails and an ending static jam that was downright glorious.
Number Twenty: The Ting Tings – 'Sounds From Nowheresville'
When the Ting Tings vocalist Katie White took to the Metro stage in Chicago last April, she whispered a "shhhhh" into her microphone before crouching down on the tip of the stage. Her band mate Jules de Martino strove from behind his drum kit with a guitar strapped around his neck and his effortless yet solemn chords as Katie set the mood in a somber tone until the chorus where their two voices solidified. On record, White's billowy vocals take center stage while the tumultuous glee of de Martino's rhythms stay grounded. Exploding onto the music scene four years ago, the UK duo sold two-million records and four-million singles but instead of straight away following it up, the Ting Tings took their time recording their second record Sounds From Nowheresville which is the sound of a band capturing their dance rhythm quintessence while forging forward to brave new waters.
Number Twenty-One: Europe - 'Bag of Bones'
Best known for "The Final Countdown", Europe has become a gnarly and gritty guitar band with four stupendously records that leave their pop metal sounds of the 1980s in the dust. Consisting of the same lineup that recorded The Final Countdown, Europe are one of the few acts of its time who has continued to grow with time and the grip on their craft is not just admirable, it's staggering.
Number Twenty-Two: Jimmy Cliff - 'Rebirth'
The greatest living reggae artist of our time, Cliff has created his best album in decades. Under the guide of Tim Armstrong of Rancid, Cliff broke these songs down to their most basic elements. Listen to "Cry No More" and prepare to be taken to a place you never imagined.
Number Twenty-Three: Lita Ford - 'Living Like A Runaway'
Lita Ford does not hold back and dives deep into the waters of despondency and dissolution taking us along for the rise. Living Like a Runaway is Lita Ford's Blood on the Tracks as she reveals the paradoxes of her existence while never allowing the cynical confusion overtake her; instead, it compliments her declaration of resolve. This record picks up where her career left off in 1995 with big sweltering guitars and contemplative lyrics. The material shifts between ominous pleas, clamorous confessionals and earnest letters to those who have been affected by the rubble. Musically, it is not a game changer, but it does not need to be. Lita Ford is not reinventing the wheel here; she is simply embodying what she does best. She is a survivor who will not hide behind her guitar, but will open her mouth and let the truth hemorrhage like Loretta Lynn.
Number Twenty-Four and Twenty-Five: Grimes- 'Visions' / Metric – 'Synthetica'
Synthpop perfection by a senior group (Metric) and a breath of freshness from a Canadian solo artist coming into her own (Grimes), these two records are proof it was a good year for synth music. Metric is finding their groove and as their tastes swing more towards the mainstream, they are making more appeasing synthy melodies that you can wrap your head around. Grimes doesn't sound like anything you have heard before and yet it's feels wholly familiar much like meeting a someone for the first time and yet you have a sneaky suspicion you've know them your whole life. Both records have a strong sense of melody without recycling the past.
Other notable albums you should check out: The Lumineers; Beach House-'Bloom'; All-American Rejects-'Kids in the Street'; Dum Dum Girls-'Only in Dreams'; Ellie Goulding-'Halcyon'; Everclear – 'Invisible Stars'; Gossip – 'A Joyful Noise'; Keith Betti- 'Company Loves Misery'; The Killers- 'Battle Born'; Santigold- 'Master of My Make-Believe'; Train-'California 37; Soundgarden-'King Animal'; Taylor Swift – 'Red'; Dr. John-'Locked Down'
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
The Best Albums of 2012
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