I used to be able to rattle off my top 10 albums of the year by heart.
And it was always a Top 10. Because it was my job. And newspaper editors like even numbers.
I was a professional music critic from the ’70s into the ’00s, from the days when we were called rock critics to when we became pop music writers. As the name implies, things were different then, and not just for me: There used to be many (many) fewer albums released – in the ’80s, something like 3000 a year, more recently well above 100,000, to uncountable – and they came out on discs (first vinyl, then CD).
And – this is the good part – record companies (not sure what they call them now) used to send them to me in the mail. Free.
So it was a lot easier for me and everyone else to keep track of what was coming out. On the downside, it was harder for the average person to hear new music, because radio generally sucked (everywhere, but especially in my town), and if you wanted to hear something, you had to buy it.
But I didn’t. The LPs, then the CDs, in long boxes, then jewel cases, just showed up. And I had some amazing moments when albums arrived at my doorstep by artists I had never heard of, albums that came with no expectations, albums that blew my head off. I still remember the actual moment I put the needle on the record: The first albums by Crowded House, by Public Enemy, by The Smiths…moments when everything just opened up a little bit more. Or a lot.
I still get albums, but I go buy them, often just on the strength of word of mouth, or a video, or most often, because I already know the artist. And sometimes, yes, because of critical consensus, which sometimes works, and sometimes, not so much. I then load them into my computer, which is all I have left as a “stereo” in my substantially scaled-down studio apartment life, and listen to them over and over again.
That, in my opinion, how you’re supposed to listen to an album. Over and over and over. That’s how I grew up, on the Beatles and Zeppelin and Bowie and Elvis Costello and Prince and XTC and Joni Mitchell. You didn’t just listen to a record, form an opinion, and then pronounce. Well, if you were a critic you did, because of the endless press of new pressings. You had to form an opinion of one to get to the next. And the next. And the next. That, as much as anything (well, almost as much as the dispiriting imperative of reviewing the metal and country arena shows my home town favored) was why I left full time critiquing. Overload.
That’s not a problem any more. But it’s STILL hard to really give many albums the time they deserve. Art deserves time and attention. Great art sometimes doesn’t seem that way at first, and some things that appear to be great art when you first encounter them turn out to be not so special after all. And rock music, to me, is about finding records I can wear out.
So, all that said, I still didn’t want to let too much of 2013 pass before I mentioned a few albums that I have, if not exactly worn out (this being the digital age and all), I have at least returned to repeatedly for the simply pleasure they give me. There are other albums that I’m impressed with (Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel), but I don’t necessarily seek out for repeat listenings. And there are some albums I listen to and think, wow, this guy is still just amazing (Bob Dylan’s Tempest, Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas) that I nevertheless don’t often play.
And some albums I don’t get to until long after they come out. This was true even when I got them the DAY they came out, but they were lost in the jumble, or I just didn’t get them. Again: Art can take some time. And it’s worth it.
So, my favorite albums of 2012 are not the ones I think mattered the most in music, they were not the most influential, they were not the coolest, they are not particularly stylistically diverse, and they were certainly not the most popular. They were just what that word says: My favorites. Or as I used to call my mix tapes back in the day, Dave’s Faves.
And they are not an attempt to survey the enormous cultural diversity of popular music. While I had the appellation “pop music critic” under my name for many years, I am at my core, a rock critic. That is, I like rock music. My tastes were formed in the late ’60s and through the ’70s. My touchstones are Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, David Bowie, James Brown, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, the Sex Pistols, Steve Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Beck, et al. Oh, and Stephen Sondheim.
So, these are the records that got into my head and heart in 2012. I missed too much, but that’s just the way it goes. Sad to say, I don’t even have 10 albums, which shows how out of touch I really am. But what I found, I loved. And ultimately, that’s all that matters to me.
Blunderbuss by Jack White – I was late to the White Stripes party, and I still find them a little thin musically. There’s only so much you can do with guitar and drums and one singer. But as soon as White started adding in other instrumental and vocal colors, first with the Raconteurs, and now on his first real “solo” album, all the variety, veracity and verve in his soul just BURST out. This guy has it ALL going on, and there is only one other album of the last year that comes close to the depth and sheer musical firepower of Blunderbuss:
Banga by Patti Smith – In 1975, Patti Smith’s first single changed my life. She didn’t just presage punk, she instantly transcended it. In fact, transcendence has been Smith’s goal during her nearly 40 year career, and she has attained it as much as anyone, and more than nearly everyone. The woman is ferocious and delicate, carnal and spiritual, raw and artful, and Banga was, for me, the best album she’s made since her 1976 debut, Horses. Given her enormous appetite for life experience, for her endless quest to understand more, and more deeply, it’s actually even better than Horses. I could about this album for DAYS. It’s brilliant.
In fact, I have to say that I love Banga even more than Blunderbuss. White’s album is a tour de force, a showcase of a restless, relentless talent; Banga displays an artist whose sights are set higher than anyone else’s, even her hero Dylan’s. U2 and Cohen are perhaps her only peers in the quest to reveal transcendent reality through music (Pete Townsend seems to have given up, ditto Prince), and Cohen always allows himself a bemused distance; Smith dives all the way in. She doesn’t just reflect on it, she aims to recreate her experiences for the listener, driving her band as hard as she can. She also writes a nice pop tune. No album this year, or most other years, moved me as much as Banga. And it didn’t even show up on most critics lists. Critics don’t generally go for spiritual artists. Their loss.
Port of Morrow by The Shins – James Mercer’s lyrics can get a bit twee, as the Brits say, but he also writes about some great, unexpected subjects, like his ode to an older relative who gave him encouragement in a dark time (“Fall of ’82″), but the lyrics aren’t what makes The Shins so pleasurable. These guys write hooks to nail you against the wall. I’m sure they’re too slick and poppy for many rock folk, but I don’t think anyone writes classic Beatlesque songs on the level these guys do.
Mirage Rock by Band of Horses – I’m new to this band, so I have nothing to compare their earlier albums to, but as with the Shins, they write really great songs in the classic rock style. From the opening “Knock Knock,” they have a buoyancy and exuberance that is uncommon in alt.rock. They have a rootsy Americana thing, but are as close to U2′s aiming-for-the-fences as anyone making records.
Shields by Grizzly Bear – I liked the two previous albums I heard by Grizzly Bear, but this is something else again: They’re like a cross between The Band and Radiohead, combining roots Americana songwriting and prog rock chops and chance-taking like no one I’ve heard. Maybe Cafe Tacuba or Guided By Voices, but…stronger. Better melodies. Epic instrumental sections or at least momentary detours, that dazzle my ears. I missed them live, I bet they were amazing.
Rhythm and Repose by Glen Hansard – I loved “Falling Slowly,” the song that animated Once, but that was just about it for me from this guy…until this album. Starting with a lush, retro sound that echoes the quieter moments of George Harrison’s classic All Things Must Pass, Hansard has created a moody, memorable singer-songwriter vibe and songs that aim, again, to speak truth to oneself.
Boys and Girls by Alabama Shakes – Super-retro but in an age of over-produced or under-inspired, these kids put it right in the pocket. “Hold On” is one of the best songs of the year, hands down.
And since I need to post this, a few more I really liked. I may fill in the descriptions later. But I gotta post NOW:
Away from the World by Dave Matthews Band
Paralytic Stalks by Of Montreal
Born to Die by Lana Del Ray
The Carpenter by The Avett Brothers
Let’s Go Eat the Factory by Guided By Voices
Out of the Game by Rufus Wainwright