In a year when yet another music magazine (Spin) published its last print edition, rock—perennially pronounced dead—was reborn: Bruce Springsteen returned with a collection lamenting our collective loss as effectively as he once celebrated our liberation; Bob Dylan was mining similar territory, albeit with slightly less success; and a host of younger bands defined and re-defined the form for another generation. Electronic dance music ruled (after two decades on the fringes) with a number of bands and singers blurring the lines between dance and rock re-energizing both (Ron Aniello’s contemporary production techniques pushed Springsteen beyond his comfort zone and energizing him.)
After reading the outraged reactions to Rolling Stone’s recently published list of the Fifty Best Albums of the Year, I decided to put together my own list of some of the albums I (and many of our listeners at WUTC) listened to more than most in the past year. It’s not a Top 10 (or 20, or 50)—that’s a term which has become increasingly meaningless as the lists move further away from ranking the selections based on either sales or popular votes. What one or more experts rank as the best albums of the year may well be interesting to the people who know them or rate their opinion, but for most of us they’re largely a topic for debate, annoyance and even outrage, mostly from younger listeners berating their out-of-touch elders.
Springsteen’s album, Wrecking Ball, rated by Rolling Stone as the No. 1 album of the year, is a masterwork from a man whose best work has always drawn on his blue-collar roots. Despite his well-heeled insulation from the everyday problems most of us share, he’s remains rooted in the working class world he knew growing up. He’s a 21st century Woody Guthrie (part of relatively well-heeled middle-class family until his father’s business failed) with a clear-eyed take on the unbridled greed that continues to threaten most of us. In the opening song (often as misunderstood as the earlier “Born In the USA”) he curses the lassitude that left so many stranded—“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome / We yelled ‘Help’ but the cavalry stayed home.” But by the second half of the album—his anger largely dissipated, his characteristically cautious optimism rooted in his faith in his countrymen returning—he sings: “I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted / This train, faith will be rewarded.”
Other great rock records this year included the newly divorced Jack White’s Blunderbuss. White is out on his own and retooling retro-rockers (“I’m Shakin’”) and creating riffs worthy of his best in “Sixteen Saltines.” Celebration Rock, an album by the Canadian duo Japandroids, also caught many ears with old-school, fist-pumping arena anthems like the Springsteen-meets-The Ramones rocker, “The House That Heaven Built.”
Several of my favorite albums this year melded ’80s synth-pop with 21st-century dance rhythms. The more rock moves from the dance floor the more its essential energy is diluted. Apparently recognizing that Django Django, a young band from Edinburgh in Scotland, mixed Belle and Sebastian and New Order with a dash of T Rex topped by airy Beatle-ish harmonies, creating a seamless collection of catchy, groove-driven pop rockers for its self-titled debut.
Meanwhile on her latest album, Visions, Grimes (the Vancouver-based Claire Boucher) mixed a smorgasbord of sounds, including ’80s synth-pop and Kraftwerk-style robotics with soaring-to-the-rafters, spun-sugar Cocteau Twins-inspired vocals grounded in sturdy muscular rhythms, that made deliciously danceable dream pop.
But perhaps the most adept blend of downbeat electronica and dolorous lyricism since Massive Attack is Cat Power’s Sun. Few would have expected Chan Marshall to release a collection rivaling any other dance-rock release of the year. She did it by bolstering her world weary lyricism with some very funky drum and bass.
The same could be said for young Jakob Dylan. Long laboring in his dad’s lengthy shadow, he’s beginning to carve his own identity with his band. No longer simply his backing band, The Wallflowers are now a full-fledged unit with everyone reportedly being given an equal say in the final product. The resulting Glad All Over is an album which caused many who’d previously dismissed them to revise their opinion. It’s the younger Dylan’s Highway 61-style liberation, delivering him from shoe-gazing, folky moroseness in a group of rockers firing on all fours (particularly on the Mick Jones’-inspired “Reboot the Mission.”)
I’ve run out of space long before reaching the end of the list. Other notable albums from Grizzly Bear, Iris Dement, Joan Osborne, Calexico and a re-vitalized Jimmy Cliff, among many others, are as good as any I’ve mentioned. While fewer people are now writing about it (at least in print), more and more people are making it, often with the kind of results that will richly reward anyone willing to take the time to seek it out.
Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.
Richard Winham’s Un-Top 20 Best of 2012
Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls
Allah Las - Allah Las
Calexico - Algiers
Cat Power - Sun
Jimmy Cliff - Rebirth
Iris Dement - Sing The Delta
Django Django - Django Django
Justin Townes Earle - Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
Golden Void - Golden Void
Grimes - Visions
Grizzly Bear - Shields
Japandroids - Celebration Rock
Van Morrison - Born To Sing: No Plan B
Beth Orton - Sugaring Season
Joan Osborne - Bring It On Home
Kurt Rosenwinkel - Star of Jupiter
Paul Simon - Live in New York City
Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
The Wallflowers - Glad All Over
Jack White - Blunderbuss