Best of 2012 (Albums and musings.)

The time has come again….my favorite albums of 2012, with a few “notable mentions.” Here we go, in alphabetical order.

1. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls

I will be the first to admit that this album got completely commercially overplayed – I get it. But, for a new band from Athens, Alabama, 2012 was not too shabby for the Alabama Shakes. While living in Austin, TX I was offered some luxuries in the music world, notably the access to the “up and coming”; The Alabama Shakes were on my radar long before their album Boys & Girls dropped and I was waiting with breath that is baited. The lead vocals of Brittany Howard are electric and soulful, as is the writing. The band capitalizes on a unique blend of retro with forward thinking soul that creates an addictive product for its listeners. I was impressed that the album was able to retain the amazing, organic “rawness” that is captured in their live performances (though there is something truly special about this band live) – everything is laid out on the line. Despite the eventual commercial explosion of the tunes, this album was on repeat for me for some time and with good reason.

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Image2. Alisa Weilerstein, Staatskapelle Berline and Daniel Barenboim – Edgar & Carter Cello Concertos

The only classical album to make this list this year and certainly worthy of recognition. If you are not a romantic, you will be after listening to the entrancing and provocative orchestrations found on this intimate collection, all carried out through amazingly talented classical musicians. Alisa Weilerstein has an emotional capacity as a classical musician that can be rare. When listening to her play, I feel her weeping with the cello, cradling her cello, crying, screaming, ripping; she and her instrument together are an open heart. The compositions of Edgar and Carter are dramatic and exciting, the listener is transported to another time and another world. Simply beautiful.

ImageImage3. Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man in the Universe

“The Bravest Man in the Universe is the one who has forgiven first.” Womack has called this album, “the best thing I’ve done” and I believe this is true. Womack takes the opportunity to really strip himself in this album and it produces work that is perhaps his most vulnerable and intimate, while accomplishing all this through his powerful, raw and soulful voice that navigates the different tracks with a sincere familiarity. I’m not sure I could choose a favorite track on this album because its diversity makes each track endearing and special. Womack takes on themes of age and morality through storytelling and stunning honesty. I already loved Bobby Womack, but this album is something special to this artist that allows us to fall a bit more in love with him.

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4. Carla Morrison – Déjenme Llorar

If you haven’t heard of Carla Morrison, the lovely Mexican songbird, its possible that you will soon. For this album alone the artist snatched up two Latin Grammy Awards and despite my own lack of knowledge regarding the Spanish language, I find her tunes haunting and her voice timeless. When I listen, I am reminded a bit of Gaby Moreno (another favorite of mine), but Morrison has more consistency in this album than Moreno has been able to accomplish – though both have beautiful voices. I think its possible that Morrison could explore the idea of completing an American album, though the beauty of the Spanish language compliments her enchanting voice which lightly soars above the orchestrations with a folk-like effortlessness.

Image5. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

Its no surprise that this album landed on my list – I am a fan of the Dirty Projectors. I’ve always found their music unpredictable, melodic and entrancing; a provocative combination of the blue and the bliss. Swing Lo Magellan holds their usual mix of acoustic melodies and driving beats that lends to a diverse and exciting sound. Its no secret that the Dirty Projectors have an outlandish intellectualism to all their music but this is especially present in this album and paired with music that has a touch more of the personal, creating a warmth that can be challenging to find in their repertoire. I always get the feeling that I may be “missing the joke” but their music is just so damn good.

ImageImage6. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

For those who know me, another “no-brainer” for my list. I LOVE First Aid Kit and consistently return to their music on a somewhat regular basis in my rotation. I was anxiously awaiting this album and was delighted by the outsome. In The Lion’s Roar, First Aid explores a much fuller sound that nicely amplifies the lovely voices of Swedish sisters, Johanna and Klara Söderberg and their beautiful songwriting. The sound created on this album is certainly more commercial than past albums but these sisters are no sell-outs. While the band adds to their sound with the inclusion of new instruments (most notably the drums) which produces this “fuller sound”, First Aid Kit retains the integrity of their beautiful harmonies, sentimental lyrics and acoustic presence that have always been a staple of this folk duo. I can’t get their songs out of my head (nor do I want to) and their music discovers an urge within me to abandon my theatrical endeavors to live within the comfort of a lovely folk duo singing in heavenly harmonies.

ImageImage7. Jack White – Blunderbuss

Jack White seems to just keep turning it out. He’s a worker bee and has certainly been busy between producing, various groups, Third Man Records, touring, etc., but not too busy that he cannot put out another stellar record. Blunderbuss was recorded with two different bands and consequentially contains an interesting duality as the record spins, but still retains the best of Jack White; excellent lyrics, clever melodies, tempestuous guitar riffs and his signature vocals that always seem to seduce and haunt. White is able to take on gruesome, heartbreaking topics with stirring romanticism that always feels intimate and personal to the artist himself. He gives us just enough without giving it all away, and yet, all the while remaining stunningly vulnerable and dark. His music is velvet rock and roll. This is an artist that keeps me excited, keeps me guessing and always keeps me wanting more.

Image8. Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal

This Icelandic indie band came to me in early 2012 and remains in constant rotation. My Head is an Animal is an album that I listen to in its entirety, full of the woodland imagery that speaks to my heart and yet crashes with the sound of the symbol. The vocals on the album are full, but never expand into complicated harmonies, rather flushing out octaves to to fill the void. I love the presence of the band explored throughout this album, many voices on many tracks gives a sense of ensemble that is difficult to capture on an album. Additionally, I’m a big fan of when both male and female voices are equally featured which is a staple of Of Monsters and Men. Its clear that the landscape of their native country influences the themes and aesthetic of the band, I always feel transported to the wilderness in this album, with bells in the distant. I look forward to further transportation.

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9. Patti Smith – Banga

Oh Patti Smith…how I love thee. Its hard to say anything about Patti Smith that has not been said, she and her music are legendary indeed. Banga is another example of when a veteran musician takes rather personal material, in Patti’s case her dreams and observations regarding death, nature, etc., and translates this material into an album that proves to be powerfully revealing, perhaps somewhat autobiographic. One of the great things about Patti Smith is her ability to explore the diversity found within the genre of rock, which she does with classic effortlessness in Banga. Smith has a flexibility in the craft that allows her full exploration and her unique alto voice is able to fill any mold of a song she lays out. I enjoyed this album for its ideals, its themes and like any good classic Patti Smith album, for Patti herself.

ImageImage10. Regina Spektor – What we Saw from the Cheap Seats

This artist has been a longtime favorite of mine (have I said that about most of the artists on this list? Oy). I know every lyric of this album and am slowly learning the Russian, that’s dedication and love. The Russian tracks are particularly special; so incredibly eerie, magnificent and naked. One of the many delightful things about Regina Spektor is that she is just as captivating and lovely live as she is on all her albums, including What we Saw from the Cheap Seats. Perhaps this is a cop-out but I’m going to take it – trust me and listen to this superbly colorful album by the radiant and talented Regina Spektor. Sometimes there are no words.

ImageImageImage11. Shearwater – Animal Joy

I was introduced to Shearwater by KUT, the public radio station in Austin, TX (one of the best around next to Seattle’s KEXP) and was intrigued from the start. I was a bit surprised by my liking of Shearwater, mostly due to lead singer, Jonathan Meiburg’s voice. I’m not one that is often tempted by many male rock voices, I’m very picky in that regard but Meiburg uses his voice with such exposed veracity in Shearwater’s music, that I was indeed seduced. Animal Joy has a completeness that is hard to attain, especially in the indie rock genre; every song on the album is touching and important. Every song is revealing and unique with a greater sense of momentum that is a signature of the entire album itself. Though I’m partial to the Pacific NW, Austin, TX has yielded some amazing artists and Shearwater is one of these great artists to emerge.

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12. Y La Bamba – Court the Storm

The Latin sounds of Y La Bamba seem a bit displaced considering the band is from the gray and rainy Portland, Oregon. However, this exploration is due to the heritage of the lead singer and has served their music well. Y La Bamba is hard to place into a genre as their sounds evoke jazz, Latin, pop, folk and the likes, all heard on their album Court the Storm. This album filled with alluring melodies, sublime harmonies and rhythmic changes that are both bold and playful, all while maintaining a magical soulfulness that is truly unique to Y La Bamba. The bands instrumental abilities are additionally impressive and varied, beautifully supporting each song on the album. There is true heart is what Y La Bamba does. This is an album worth discovering and an artist worth remembering.

ImageNotable Mentions:

David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant

Frank Ocean – channel Orange

Fun. – Some Nights

Kat Edmonson – Way Down Low

Mumford & Sons – Babel

 

 

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