Wasn't easy to whittle this list down to 10, let alone 11, so I picked 12 for 12-12-12. A few of these selections were last minute additions that knocked two other picks out of top spots. Moreover, I decided to include twelve more picks at the end of my selections to show what else was being considered.
I've not seen this album on any critics' year-end lists (aside from my managing editor Steve's list, obviously). Not sure why, because Nada Surf released a timeless collection of alt pop-rock songs. This is songwriting 101 -- verse, chorus, verse, bridge. If there is a better pop-rock band in America, let me know. Twenty years in and no sign of lazy rock star bullshit, just plenty of great chiming guitar riffs and hooky-as-hell tunes. Album of the year.
Father John Misty AKA Joshua Tillman has crafted as compelling a SOCAL folk-rock journey you'll hear this year, albeit a tad more surreal than Big Star, Palace Brothers (Will Oldham), or even On the Beach-era Neil Young (who gets name checked in "I'm Writing A Novel"). The former Seattle/current Laurel Canyon-based singer-songwriter, guitarist, and ex-Fleet Foxes drummer has certainly absorbed the musical magic dust of that creative canyon, as well as being ably assisted by the uber-cool LC alumni Jonathan Wilson. And while he said "it's a weird-ass record about weird-ass experiences," I'll grant him his poetic license any day.
Although it was released late last year, it is being considered for The Grammys this year. Arguably their best album since Rubber Factory and, in my opinion, the first effort that best marries Danger Mouse's hipster production aesthetic to the greasy blues-rock of this Akron-bred, Nashville-based duo. And without a doubt the top rock party album of year.
Waterhouse is white boy with a retro attitude in his songwriter chops, dress, and delivery. As much as a juke joint junkie meets Fats Domino meets Buddy Holly vibe as you'll hear. Horns stab the rhythm while his simple guitar hooks keep the beat for your hips and feet. Simple songs that throw aside any modern-day rock vibe. Check him out in action at Live at Daryl's House, too.
Soundgarden remains my favorite American grunge rock band. (Sorry Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Queens of the Stone Age fans.) Yes, Chris Cornell has soldiered on as a solo artist, and drummer Matt Cameron has been moonlighting with Pearl Jam, but they both wisely reunited with guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd after an 18-year layoff. Older, wiser, but still with plenty to offer -- killer guitar riffs and many heavy, memorable tunes. If your ears demand heavy, this is easily the best hard rock album of the year.
Soul and pop singers have a difficult terrain to navigate, especially if they are mining cover tunes. Few can "own" them, but when they do... Bettye is one of those chosen few who could sing the phone book and make your heart melt. Her version of The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" from 2010's Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook was devastatingly triumphant. On this new collection she tackles The Black Keys, Tom Waits, Patty Griffin, Neil Young, Dylan, Sly Stone, et al. Her two versions of "Dirty Old Town" nearly wipes out the memory of The Pogues' Shane McGowan's whiskey-soaked cover. Veteran producer Craig Street showcases her soulful vocals in a low-down, yearning Americana vibe somewhere between Tom Waits and Cassandra Wilson.
SF-based Mark Kozelek remains steadfast in his musical offerings, all so familiar, but still so comforting; alt tunings on his nylon-string guitar, heartfelt ballads, and lyrical dexterity remain firmly in place. Quiet, nostalgic ruminations about his MIA guitar repairman to bitching about his early days as a traveling rock musician. The perfect complement to lazy Sunday mornings or somber weekend evenings.
Chris and his merry pranksters released two long players in 2012, but the first flows with greater ease. Check out the funky, retro Clavinet vibe of "Rosalee" (below), offering a distinctive diversion from the jam band tendrils on the album's seven long tunes, all of them seven-plus minutes. Neal Casal's lead guitar work may recall a certain member of the Dead, but that's not a bad thing. While none of the songs have the majestic lift of "Dark Star," Chris Robinson's soulful vocals keep one's ears engaged. Perfect for road trips, especially to Washington or Colorado.
This young Cali-based git hero borrows heavy from Nuggets-era garage rock and certainly a healthy dose of Neil Young/Sonic Youth/Stooges/Jack White axe freak-out tricks. His sixth solo LP continues his thick and fuzzy campaign. He released three CDs this year, all them worthwhile, but this remains my favorite of the bunch as these tunes are his most accessible. Catch him live where he is out of control, almost.
DIY never sounded so down but inviting. Sophisticated and orchestrated pop rock with strings, horns, choral work a la Nilsson, Lampchop, Randy Newman, with a dash of Lee Hazelwood (think "Some Velvet Morning"). This is the cool folk gospel according to the Richmond, VA-based White. Hard to shake it off. Haunting melodies that creep up on you in the middle of the day and night.
The best Americana record of the year was recorded by the young Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg and their father Benkt on bass along with help from Conor Oberst and the Felice Brothers. Undeniable beauty abounds throughout -- lyrically and melodically. You'll love their homage to Gram Parsons and his first lady of country rock on the gorgeous "Emmylou." For fans of Fleet Foxes, Civil War, et al. A perfect way to wake up to the dawn of a roaring winter's day or wind down a hard day's night.
It's easy to overlook how freakin' talented Fagen really is. He's been making some of the most sophisticated FM radio-friendly pop-jazz-rock since the early '70s with both Steely Dan and as a solo artist. Sunken Condos is his fourth solo album since completing a trilogy comprised of Morph The Cat (2006), Kamakiriad (1993), and his beloved debut The Nightfly (1982). Critics easily dismiss him because they've come to expect musically and lyrically rich material coated in pin-point perfect production precision, but this effort has a looser and tad more organic feel.
Other albums pushing against my top twelve bubble include:
What rocked your boat, start to finish? Let me know. Share your list below.
Mr. Wright is a content creator and culture curator. He is a contributor to the Huffington Post, the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released four solo CDs, and is a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.