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Best new music of 2012 – Rock, jazz, country, world, etc.

christmas stars by Flickr user mararie (Creative Commons license)
My listening habits this past year have continued to shift in a decidedly classical direction. Other things—particularly rock—quickly feel like unwelcome distractions now, giving me a kind of ‘instant listening fatigue.’ It’s never just one thing, but often boils down to the combination of endlessly derivative songwriting and overcooked production values (everything is mastered louder than everything else, nothing has true dynamics anymore).

I’m also getting older, and with age comes perspective. It’s endlessly fascinating to think about how most of our musical ‘roots’ are put down when we’re in our early teens. But of course it’s clear that the music of our youth objectively has no special status at all. I resolutely and aggressively resist anything that reeks of ‘nostalgia act,’ and I work hard to make a clear distinction between mature acts that still release relevant work and those that cynically recycle the past, targeting people who would like to be 12 years old again. One thing I’ve learned is never to assume anything when I hear new music from established acts.

Despite what I said about my fatigue of new rock, there are of course exceptions. I delight in seeking out the left of centre, the odd, the challenging. Every year, there are several releases from artists who are genuinely creating their own path, who ignore genre clichés and expectations (even though in the UK, the press will immediately hail them as the second coming, make up a genre label and ensure they appear on Jools Holland as soon as possible). The overall musicianship of new artists in the 21st century continues to be amazing and the technical means of production nothing short of astounding. Never has the technical barrier to entry been lower (studios with 48-channel desks are simply no longer necessary), and this fact is playing out in the sheer diversity of recorded music on offer today.

And I also don’t ignore the so-called mainstream deliberately. I may not be interested in Justin Bieber’s latest offering and have been disappointed by Lady Gaga’s and Nicki Minaj’s most recent albums, but I’m 100% on board with Alicia Keys’ newest, and I find Frank Ocean entirely worth exploring.

It’s a long list this year, so let’s get started. (As far as I’m concerned, each of the albums below is good enough to be a ‘best of the year’ entry and carries my unlimited ‘buy’ recommendation.)

I’m splitting this post into two installments: this one discusses all genres other than classical. Classical gets its own post (coming up in the next few days).

Best new music – Rock, jazz, country, world, etc.

Barbra Lica – That’s What I Do: This is the first album from Barbra Lica, a local Toronto jazz vocalist and songwriter. She has a lovely, clear voice; an insightful way with a standard; and a knack for writing great songs of her own. CBC Radio 1 has been playing this for weeks now, and I’m looking forward to what’s next for Lica (a great future, I hope).

Bob Dylan – Tempest: A brilliant record, not just for “Dylan at 71” but for anyone. Like a tempered version of Tom Waits, this is Dylan at his vitriolic, sarcastic, poetic best. Also, this is musically really good (which has not always been a given for Dylan in the 80s and beyond). He’s got an ace band featuring Charlie Sexton and David Hidalgo (from Los Lobos). Highly recommended.

Brad Mehldau Trio – Ode & Where Do You Start: The jazz piano trio has become a mainstay in my listening routine despite the fact that I only discovered its joys relatively recently (last 2 or 3 years). Mehldau is one of the greatest current practitioners, and—while he makes frequent sojourns into more ‘art music’ territory—every one of his trio records tends to be inspired. These two are no exception: recorded during the same recording session, they should probably have been released together. A particular pleasure of listening to the Mehldau Trio is that they treat rock songs as jazz standards, which is both amusing to rock fans and a boon to the otherwise frozen catalogue of jazz ‘standards.’

Calexico – Algiers: I wait for every new Calexico album with a teenager’s impatience. I have written about Calexico before, so perhaps I won’t wax lyrical here about their superbly engrossing sonic landscapes and clever songcraft. Enough to say that to me, Algiers is one of the best records of the year.

Counting Crows – Underwater Sunshine (or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation): The world is divided when it comes to Counting Crows. There are those, like me, who remember listening to August and Everything After ad nauseam, for whom it was the soundtrack of a certain time in their lives. Adam Duritz, their lead singer and songwriter, suffered immensely at the hands of the media and popular opinion for writing ambitious, confessional and openly poetic songs—some of which were successful, some of which were not. (The same fate at the hands of public opinion befell Billy Corgan and others.) Underwater Sunshine is a record of covers, and it’s brilliant: it showcases Counting Crows as a preternaturally competent band with great empathy for their material—and a deep sympatico between its musicians. (I love their New Amsterdam live record from a few years ago for the same reason.)

Diana Krall – Glad Rag Doll: Krall’s burnished, dark, expressive voice really lends itself to this successful departure from her typical jazz/Brazilian performances. While still on a continuum, this music shifts more towards “Americana” and a kind of laid-back Western swing, with a smattering of cabaret in the Tom Waits (not the Ute Lemper) tradition thrown in for seasoning. It’s produced by T-Bone Burnett and works beautifully.

Emeli Sandé – Our Version of Events: Sandé shot to the top of the UK charts in that UK way, while nobody here in North America had even heard of her. While this album has since been released here, it went absolutely nowhere. Partially, this is probably because Sandé’s type of R&B doesn’t particularly slot into a category North American listeners understand. Her music is a modern pop soul, and she actually sings instead of just doing runs—and sings very well. She’s guested on Alicia Keys’ latest album, and the contrast suggests she’s the significantly better vocalist. As she’s also a gifted songwriter (she wrote commercially before deciding to become a recording artist herself), I think we’ll hear much from from her in the future.

Heritage Blues Orchestra – And Still I Rise: My original review is here. I love this record.

Jack White – Blunderbuss: Can Jack White do no wrong? Even his lesser efforts—The Ranconteurs—are nothing short of excellent, even if they may not immediately appeal. This, his first ‘solo’ album proper, is a wonderful, rambling romp that most closely reminds me of the Stones’ Exile on Main St. White’s is an effortless songcraft, and his humour—both musically and lyrically—keeps you on your toes, even if the roots-rock sound makes them tap (to mangle a metaphor). It’s a great record, and listening to it always feels like an ‘event,’ in the same way that putting on something old and dear does.

James Luther Dickinson & North Mississippi All Stars – I’m Just Dead I’m Not Missing: Recorded in 2006, this is a live set by James Luther Dickinson, an influential session musician and producer who worked with Aretha Franklin, Ry Cooder,  Dylan and others too numerous to mentioned. He’s accompanied here by his sons Luther and Cody, who are co-founders of the North Mississippi All Stars. The set is short (42 mins.), rocks hard and was recorded in mono. There’s a kind of rock ‘n roll spirit in evidence here that you don’t encounter very often, a sort of boozy celebration of life not unlike a secular gospel performance. This is definitely not a ‘major’ release of any kind, but I love this.

Liane La Havas – Is Your Love Big Enough?: La Havas is a fantastic new singer/songwriter from the UK. She occupies a sort of “indie R&B” niche, but what makes her different from others in this sub-genre (Janelle Monáe, or Raphael Saadiq) is that she looks forward, not backwards (to Prince and classic R&B, respectively). La Havas has created an interesting, richly textured album that should be attractive to an indie-oriented crowd, but also to those of us who like Alicia Keys’ latest forays into a kind of universal pop songcraft that’s 80s in its universality (but not necessarily its sound). I struggle to properly describe her music in words, but it’s clever, fragile, elegant, independent, joyful, unencumbered, soaring. She’s also a great rhythm guitarist.

Lou Reid & Carolina – Callin’ Me Back Home: The only bluegrass entry this year, Lou Reid as a solo act was a new discovery for me in 2012. He’s better known as the lead singer of Seldom Scene and has previously worked with Ricky Skaggs and other high-profile bluegrass acts. This is his own band which has a pretty uncompromising approach to playing a classic country-grass sound that does not pander to any city listeners—it’s country through and through. This overt lack of any “coolness” crossover cues is what makes this a great record. And the vocal blend of this group is nothing short of amazing—uplifting and energizing.

Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again: Michael Kiwanuka appeared in all the Starbucks’ stores somewhere in the late spring of 2012. I’m not sure he needs much of a description or introduction, but he’s a singer/songwriter from the UK who creates ‘classic,’ 60s-influenced R&B whose production values make them sound as if they were actually recorded in the 60s. And yet this never gets old because the songs are really strong. I think this is a great album.

Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts: There’s no question in my mind that this is Norah Jones’ masterpiece. Recorded as a collaboration with producer Brian Burton (Danger Mouse), it speaks to everything that is great about Norah Jones—she’s one of the most gifted vocalists working today, I think—while not pandering to any of the vectors that have previously held her back (‘jazz,’ country, etc.). Sasha Frere-Jones has a great piece in the New Yorker about Norah Jones that resonated for me (and explains it all much better than I have space for here).

Sara Watkins – Sun Midnight Sun: Sara Watkins is one of the former members of Nickel Creek, the erstwhile bluegrass Wunderkinder. While her bandmate Chris Thile has forged a superb career for himself as a sort of indie acoustic roots music oracle, it’s taken Watkins a little longer to release something truly substantial. This is that: a short but intensely brilliant record that mashes up all manner of roots music (bluegrass, folk, Celtic, R&B) and creates something rough and new and shiny from the pulp. It’s powerful and singular somehow, but if you’re looking for your categories to stay neat and your music to ‘properly’ slot into them, this won’t work for you. I’m very curious to see where she takes it next.

Various Artists – Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan: I think there’s not a track on here that’s not at least ‘very good.’ Of course, these people had some of the strongest material of all time to work with. But it’s an inspired compilation, and it’s probably the only album I’ll ever own with anything by Miley Cyrus on it.

The best reissues of the year, for me, were the following:

Honourable mentions:

  • Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day: I loved this in the cinema—a great band hard at work, all rock ‘n roll swagger and surprising vitality (despite being a nostalgia show, it didn’t feel like nostalgia at all). I didn’t like the way the audio CDs are mastered, so the album is a bit of a let-down. But the DVD is great.
  • Lisa Marie Presley – Storm & Grace: I only discovered this very recently (it’s been out since May), so I don’t really have a strong opinion on it. But my immediate reaction was very positive.

Post on the best classical releases of the year to follow.

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