Each year when I try to come up with a list of my favorite albums released during the previous 12 months, I have to add the caveat that I'm not calling them the "best" of the year, or the most significant. They are simply the albums that burrowed their way into my personal playlist and stayed there the longest. Here's my list for 2012, which is heavy on old favorites, but led by a refreshing blast of indie-rock from a band whose members are half the age of many others on the list.Click on the name of the artist to check out a video from the listed album.
1. JAPANDROIDS, Celebration Rock
The Vancouver, B.C., two-piece made what is easily my favorite rock album of the year, a short, sharp blast of undeniable anthems that firmly lodged itself in my car's CD player when Celebration Rock was release the first week of June. The timing couldn't have been better--the fireworks that open the album (and the musical fireworks created by Brian King and David Browse) were a perfect match for summertime, a joyful blast of ain't-life-grand sentiments riding riffs stretching from here to the horizon. Celebration Rock indeed.
2. MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, How Do You Plead?
This British duo created a country collection that is a loving testament to the co-ed duet balladry of folks like George Jones and Tammy Wynette. All originals written by the husband-and-wife team of Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish (Lou's the lady), the songs on How Do You Plead? are like messages sent from Nashville 30 or 40 years ago.
3. BOB MOULD, The Silver Age
For fans of Bob Mould's old bands Sugar and Husker Du, 2012 was memorable for the man's return to roaring guitar-pop on his new album The Silver Age, which came hot on the heels of Mould's acclaimed autobiography and the reissues of some Sugar classic albums. Touring and playing albums like Copper Blue to celebrate his Sugar days must have inspired Mould to return to his guitar-bass-drums roots, forgoing some of the electronic flourishes on some of his later solo material. The Silver Age is a vivid reminder of Mould's three decades of pioneering, passionate rock and roll.
4. CORIN TUCKER BAND, Kill My Blues
The former Sleater-Kinney guitarist/singer made a bold, striking set of indie-rock with her second post-Sleater collection. Part of that can be attributed to Tucker feeling more comfortable after a couple of years playing with her new band, but most of it is simply Tucker maturing into a better songwriter as she gets older. Songs like "Summer Jams" and "Neskowin" stand alongside Tucker's best Sleater-Kinney songs with ease, and the 12 songs here collectively make for one barn-burning listen.
5. THE COUP, Sorry to Bother You
For whatever reason, I didn't spend as much time as normal listening to hip-hop in 2012. But when I did, I made it count with the likes of The Coup, the incendiary Oakland group led by activist/writer Boots Riley. The tunes on this album serve as a soundtrack to a movie Riley's making, but they hold up on their own, too. Songs like "Strange Arithmetic" and "Your Parents' Cocaine" are a blast to jam in the car, and make for fine party-starters at the group's live shows--just ask anyone who was at The Coup's Thanksgiving Eve show in SLC.
6. JACK WHITE, Blunderbuss
Jack White's skills were never in question after the series of albums he's put out with The White Stripes, The Dead Weather and the Raconteurs. But Blunderbuss, his first release issued simply as Jack White, might be his best from top to bottom. Black skitters across styles, from the glammy "Freedom at 21" to the roof-raising retro of "I'm Shakin'" to the straightforward riff-rock of "Sixteen Saltines." And he pretty much knocks it out of the park throughout, offering hope for a future when he continues front-and-center as a performer, rather than hiding behind the Dead Weather drumkit or trading verses with co-writers. White is obviously a talent we're going to have around for a while--if he stays as strong on future releases as he is on Blunderbuss, we're all in luck.
7. JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Recorded in a five-day burst of activity when Justin Townes Earle was riding high on the success of his Harlem River Blues album, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now is another step in Earle's ascension among the best country songwriters working today. Adding some subtle horns to the mix, an acknowledged nod to Memphis's STAX Records sound, Earle managed to make a timeless set of songs including "Look the Other Way" and "Maria" that are sure to be favorites at his shows for years to come. And the fact that he did it so quickly after hitting such a creative peak on Harlem River Blues hopefully means Earle's songwriting hot streak, already at least three albums deep, is just getting started.
8. VAN HALEN, A Different Kind of Truth
Yes, buying this album (and going to see Van Halen in Vegas over Memorial Day) was a total nostalgia trip. But as a lifelong Van Halen geek who never thought the Van Halen brothers and over-the-top singer David Lee Roth would make another record together, A Different Kind of Truth was a joy to hear. Sure, some will complain about some of the songs being culled from old demos from the '70s and early '80s. Guess what? That's when Van Halen was at their best, and the results here are far better than even admitted VH dorks like me had reason to expect. Cue up "You and Your Blues," "Big River" or "Stay Frosty" to hear the retro pop-rock best of the bunch.
9. BOB DYLAN, Tempest
Obviously Bob Dylan is a legend whose every album is worth a listen. But at this late date in America's best rock poet's career, we have no reason to expect an album as good top to bottom, and as infused with passion, as Dylan's latest. With imagery infused with darkness and mortality, the lyrics fit Dylan's death-rattle croak perfectly, and the music remains a jaunty blend of Tin Pan Alley jazz and rootsy country and folk. Dylan's made a series of excellent albums over the past decade, and Tempest ranks with the best.
10. ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO, Big Station
Speaking of hot streaks, Escovedo's recent string of albums produced by Tony Visconti (and featuring plenty of songs co-written by the excellent Chuck Prophet) make for a collective reminder of Escovedo's prowess as a writer capable of remarkable imagery. The fact he wraps such wonderful lyrics in genuinely rocking music as timeless as any current songwriter made Escovedo one of my favorites as soon as I heard him a decade-plus ago. I look forward to every album Escovedo releases, and Big Station did not disappoint with songs like "Sally Was a Cop" and "San Antonio Rain."