Best of 2012 – Part 3

Here are my top 5 favourite releases of 2012, in no particular order:

Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

She can’t sing. The lyrics were phoned in by a bunch of hacks. There are a couple of really dire sub-X Factor numbers. And yet. This is a great album. ‘Off To The Races’ is utterly compelling throughout. The way the song swoops to a close for more than a minute is just sublime. There are moments on the title track, on ‘Carmen’, ‘Blue Jeans’ that transcend the usual pop schlock. They create a world. A humid, slightly seedy world. It’s not Lana’s world. Or mine. But, so what? It’s about the power of imagination. A total fabrication, but a wonderful example of where music can take you.

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John Murry – The Graceless Age

John Murry was the total antithesis of Lana Del Rey. This was the most real album of the year. Many of the songs come straight from Murry’s own experiences. They weren’t pretty. He nearly died of an overdose and he recounts the events in some detail. The results ought to be morbid, but they’re not. They’re magnificent. Flawless. Life-affirming. The sound was full. The pace often brisk. And it was clever. “What keeps me alive will kill me in the end”, he sings on ‘¿No te da ganas de reir, Sènor Malverde?’.

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Lambchop – Mr M

‘The strings sound good, Maybe add some flute”. Mr M had the lushness of It’s A Woman. The songs were slow. And there was room in them to let them utterly envelop you. But they were all tinged with sadness. Scrap that. They were thoroughly marinaded in it. The album was dedicated to the late Vic Chesnutt. Maybe it took such a loss to produce one final great Lambchop record. If that was his last act, then he can surely rest in peace.

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Giant Giant Sand – Tucson

This album should not work. Apart from the fact that after nearly 30 years of writing songs, and at a furious pace, there should be nothing left in the tank, this was officially billed as a country rock opera. Well, maybe it did work precisely because Howe Gelb is such an experienced songwriter and also because it sounded nothing like what you might imagine a country rock opera would sound like. Eclectic. Individual. Simply unique.

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Field Report

Field Report are a serious proposition. It’s hard to imagine them having much fun, or even smiling. But, if that’s the price of such a wonderful listen, then so be it. The songs on this album lingered. They were given plenty of space in which to develop, evolve. Nothing was hurried. Sure, the lyrics were a little pretentious at times. But these were genuine, organic, hand-crafted songs.

Best of 2012 – Part 2

Here are my 6th-10th favourite releases of 2012, in no particular order:

Grizzly Bear – Shields

How do you follow an album like Veckatimest? The answer. Don’t record anything for a while and then try to scale things back a little when you do. The strategy worked. Shields wasn’t quite the tour de force of its predecessor, but it still contained some great songs with ‘Sleeping Ute’ probably the best of the lot. Better than that, it contained some sublime moments that only Grizzly Bear can conjure up. When the chorus kicks in on ‘Yet Again’, there’s only one band you can be listening to. There’s no bigger compliment.

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Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America

Anais Mitchell also faced the ‘how do you follow that’ syndrome. Her previous release, Hadestown, was truly unique. With some help from Bon Iver and others, she retold a version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, setting it in Depression-era US. On this album, she reverted to the individual-song format, but more than one told its own story. The title track itself was a version of the Great American Novel. And when the protagonist of ‘Shepherd’ loses his pregnant wife, there’s not a dry eye in the house.

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Band of Horses – Mirage Rock

Band of Horses are bad boys, aren’t they? They have the tattoos, the bad teeth, and they always look like they’ve just got out of bed. So they’re best when they rock out, right? Wrong. It’s when they slow down that they’re at their best. ‘Slow Cruel Hands of Time’ is an old theme, but it’s told beautifully. ‘Long Vows’ and ‘Heartbreak on the 101’ likewise. And why did they ever leave ‘Reilly’s Dream’ off the main album? It’s as good as ‘Detlef Schrempf’ and, to Horseheads, that’s saying something.

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

Swedish AM-friendly country rock. On paper, that’s not a great combination. But, two things make this record stand out. One, the songs are really strong. Two, boy, can these guys sing? The Söderberg sisters make Crosby, Stills and Nash sound like a bunch of old hippies. Oh, hang on. Anyhow, a good rule of thumb is that if a song sound timeless, then it probably is. And the ones on this album sound like they’ve already been around for a very long while.

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Paul Buchanan – Mid Air

Paul Buchanan’s most recent collection of musical pointillism was beautifully executed. Neo-impressionistic pictures of life at its most ordinary, combining to form an experience that was at once melancholy and uplifting. Only the slightest orchestration. Mainly just the singer, a piano, and some affecting melodies. It was as much the delivery of the songs as the songs themselves that made this such a rewarding listen.

Best of 2012 – Part 1

Here are my 11th-15th favourite releases of 2012, in no particular order:

Jack White – Blunderbuss

The best way to enjoy Jack White’s album was to forget what it was about. Was it about Meg? Was it about Karen? Was it about both? Did she – whoever it was – really do those things to him? Did he ever really say those things to her? Who knows? Who cares? In Jack’s head it’s probably about all of these things, none of them, and many others as well. Like the impenetrable cover, which must mean something but who knows what, the trick was to sit back and listen to the song craft. There’s great playing, great tunes, great drama. It’s more enjoyable than most White Stripes albums.

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Adrian Crowley – I See Three Birds Flying

Ah, this was the album with the lyric: “And I tried to write, The Saddest Song In The World”. Well, good news, Dr Crowley, you’ve won first prize. Sure, I have a soft spot for the miserabilists, a penchant for the self-pityers, an attraction to the artists of anomie, but Adrian Crowley can out do them all. He makes Leonard Cohen seem virtually jolly. But it’s not all melancholy madness. “I see three birds flying”, he sings, “One will steal your rings and, One will make you sing, And one will lead you home”. Full of wonderful imagery and poetic lyrics. This is a fine album.

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Jim White – Where It Hits You

A great thing about most of Jim White’s songs is that when they get going they often move along at a decent pace. There’s usually a good rhythm underpinning the subtle orchestration. And when he does slow it right down, then there’s always something going on in the music. Some sound. Some texture. All of which means that the songs never get boring. Plus, there’s a real sense of the south. Of chairs swinging on the porch. Of someone who’s been through quite a bit and wants to reflect on it. And, for once, not in a way that’s achingly sad, but with the sense that, hmm, that was really something.

Damien Jurado – Maraqopa

This was the latest of a string of fine albums by Damien Jurado over the last few years. He’s never going to make the big time. He’s never going to sell out big theatres. Commercially, probably the best he can hope for is to get a song played on an episode of a top US TV programme. But this doesn’t diminish the fact that he’s a wonderful songwriter. On this album, he added just a touch of psychedelia on a couple of the tracks and it sounded really good. That’s right. Just a touch. Richard Hawley please take note.

Simone Felice

Simone Felice told some of the best stories of the year. Some of them were even true. Homicidal Native Americans. Perverts from Jersey. Michael Jackson. Characters you’d cross the road to avoid. Simone Felice brought these and host of others to life in gentle-sounding songs, but ones with a hint of menace nonetheless. His retelling of the story of Charles Manson and Sharon Tate is particularly chilling. But it’s when he dreams of taking a chance and running away with Courtney Love that the shivers really kick in.

Review of 2012

So, let’s get this straight right from the start. Music appreciation is fundamentally subjective. We like different stuff and that’s the beauty. Now that’s out of the way, let me say without fear of contradiction that this year’s releases were pretty unremarkable. There were a very small number of really good albums, but there were some really big disappointments, very few new discoveries, and lots of mediocrity.

Last year was chock-a-block with great stuff – Bill Callahan, The Black Keys, Cass McCombs, Dan Michaelson, David Lowery, The Deep Dark Woods, Destroyer, Elbow, Eleanor Friedberger, Emmy The Great, Feist, The Felice Brothers, Fionn Regan, Fleet Foxes, Girls, Hiss Golden Messenger, Iron & Wine, Jonathan Wilson, Kate Bush, The Phoenix Foundation, PJ Harvey, Richmond Fontaine, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, St Vincent, The Unthanks, The War on Drugs, Wilco. Pretty much any of these albums would make my top 3 this year.

OK. Maybe 2011 was unusual. What about 2010? Well, not quite as good, but, still, there was – Anais Mitchell, Angus & Julia Stone, Avi Buffalo, Beach House, The Black Keys, Broken Bells, Damien Jurado, Danger Mouse & Sparkle Horse, Dylan LeBlanc, The Duke and the King, Fionn Regan, Girls, John Grant, Karen Elson, Phosphorescent, Strand of Oaks, Sufjan Stevens (All Delighted People, but definitely not Age of Adz), Tindersticks.

This year? Well, there were some real turkeys. Three stand out. The Shins showed that they had become a conglomerate, a multi-national, rather than an honest, simple, hard-working band. There were some great melodies, but usually they were lost inside a mess of sound. Richard Hawley discovered psychedelia quite a number of years too late and in the process ditched everything that defined him as a great artist. Hopefully, he will return in a recognisable form very soon. And then there was Cat Power. How can the creator of such emotional albums as The Greatest, The Covers Record, and Jukebox put out an album like Sun? Cat Power with autotune? A true abomination.

In addition, there were some relative disappointments, even if each one had some really nice moments – Beach House, Dylan LeBlanc, Fionn Regan, Jason Lytle, Julie Feeney, Julia Stone, Kathleen Edwards.

But there were some highlights too. Over the next couple of weeks, the best of 2012 will be posted.

What about 2013? The good news is that there’s light at the end of the Mayan calendar. Already scheduled for release in early 2013 are some tempting propositions – Christopher Owens (ex-Girls), Darwin Deez, Jim James, John Grant, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Villagers.

There’s about a month to go before the first of these see the light of day. In the meantime, what would be great to see next year? Well, we can only daydream, but how about new releases from Avi Buffalo, Bill Callahan, Blue Roses, Broken Bells, Devendra Banhart, Elvis Perkins, Jenny Lewis, John Vanderslice, Lewis & Clarke, Magnolia Electric Co., Neko Case, Ryan Adams. Ah, dream on.

Willy Mason – The New Jakob Dylan?

Willy Mason – Carry On

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Willy Mason has good credentials. The son of folky parents, he was plucked from obscurity after his music was heard on a local radio station. He ended up on Conor Oberst’s record label and was christened the ‘new Dylan’. This is now his third outing and if classic Bobster is the comparison, then it’s a bit of let down. But that shouldn’t be the reference point. This is a Willy Mason album. There’s a basic rootsy underpinning, but this is no lo-fi bedroom offering. The songs are well crafted. The production values are strong. The instrumentation is very deliberate. And at just over 37 minutes it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. On a couple of tracks, there’s barely more than just Willy and his guitar. These are the ones that stick in the mind the longest. ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’ is a quiet, reflective piece. “My mind is a nation with all of these divisions”, he sings, looking for some order. The title track is sparer still. It begins with the singer looking at a moth stuck in a lamp: “He doesn’t care from where it comes, He only knows he’s got to run, Toward the brightest promise in his eye, Now he’s circling to the ground, His wings have burned, he’s falling down”. Then, the attention turns to the moth-like singer himself. “Chasing dreams that end in pain, I’ve chased the sun, I’ve chased the rain, But nothing ever seemed to fill my cup”. The sound matches the lyrics. The phrasing matches the sentiment. There’s a good balance. On some of the other tracks, though, there’s perhaps a little too much sheen. The sounds a little too crafted. The instrumentation a touch too deliberate. In the end, perhaps because the album tries so hard to be authentic, it lacks a certain authenticity. A new Dylan? No. A new Willy Mason album? Most definitely. And in the dog days of November/December releases, that’s not a bad thing.

Willy Mason official website