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Arts and Music

Best 2012 Music Releases


Not unlike noses, heartfelt opinions are something everyone has and when it comes to music, these beliefs are even more fervently embraced. There are sure to be readers who will vehemently disagree with my assertions, (“waddya mean this knucklehead didn’t include the Grizzly Bear album?”), but in my humble opinion, these are records that may have flown under the radar and more importantly, refute the assertion by music fanatics that nothing good is being recorded nowadays.

Various Artists – Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan (Amnesty International) – This 4-CD set was released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International and is just what you’d expect—a hodge-podge of artists delving into the canon of the only singer-songwriter whose legacy could measure up to that of this prestigious human rights organization. This big tent approach is such that there’s room for fellow icons (Johnny Cash, Patti Smith), punks (Rise Against, Bad Religion), pop day-trippers (Ke$ha, Miley Cyrus), rebels (Steve Earle, Tom Morello), folkies (Billy Bragg, Pete Seeger), divas (Adele, Bettye LaVette) and even the man himself. It’s a wonderful demonstration on how timeless and malleable Bob Dylan’s songs can be.  

Howlin’ Rain – The Russian Wilds (American) – The third full-length by this Bay Area band was executive produced by Rick Rubin and is Howlin’ Rain’s first studio album in four years. The time away did Ethan Miller and his crew a world of good as they managed to cram in the extended jamming and hard-hitting delivery of Blue Cheer and the bluesy boogie of Humble Pie alongside a fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms and mariachi horn arrangements and a Vince Guaraldi-jamming-with-the Allman Brothers Band flavor. It’s all quite a leap from the work of Miller’s previous group, S.F.-Santa Cruz psych-rockers Comets on Fire.

Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden (Nonesuch) – One of a small number of African-American artists doing their part for the old-time music revival, this North Carolina crew joined forces with guitar-playing singer-songwriter Buddy Miller to produce. In doing so, the CCD found a collaborator equally as knowledgeable about traditional mountain music as they are. A mix of originals along with material drawn from Alan Lomax recordings, the 1870 songbook Kerr’s Collection of Merry Melodie and South African blues guitarist Hannes Coetzee’s canon finds Carolina Chocolate Drops reinvigorating old-time music for 21st-century ears.

Ryan Bingham – Tomorrowland (Axser Bingham Records) – Most people may only know Bingham from his small role as the frontman for the band backing up Jeff Bridges’ Otis “Bad” Blake in 2009’s Crazy Heart, but the New Mexico native has been charting his own solo course since 2007. His fourth studio record breaks with longtime label Lost Highway and is self-released. It’s a sprawling 13 songs filled with righteous outrage starting with the sweeping “Beg For Broken Legs” and its refrains of “I ain’t gonna stand in line/Beg for bread from up off the floor…” to the slow-building impact of “Rising of the Ghetto.” The production can oftentimes be messy, which is actually a positive, particularly on the bombastically stunning “Western Shore,” a composition whose arrangements are antithetical to Bingham’s largely Americana-flavored oeuvre, not unlike Maria McKee’s courageous mid-’90s leap from alt-country darling to glam rock yeoman.

Jack White – Blunderbuss (Third Man Records) – Between self-contained groups like The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, and when not working with a variety of artists including Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, Alicia Keys, Norah Jones and Danger Mouse, Jack White finally got around to releasing his own solo debut. Using his recent divorce from Karen Elson, (who oddly enough sings on the album), for inspiration, White’s trademark eclecticism is on full-on display via a mix of proggy Anglo-folk, stoner rock, skewered country folk and a righteous cover of Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin’.”

Jimmy Cliff – Rebirth (Sunpower/UME) – If anyone was going to help this reggae icon find the way back to his roots it was going to be Rancid frontman/Clash fanatic Tim Armstrong. What started as last year’s stellar Sacred Fire EP sprouted into this baker’s dozen of rock-steady goodness. Horns are Skatalites-strong, cadences snap and basslines bounce while Cliff does in fact revert to the title of his first studio album in eight years. And while covers of The Clash (“Guns of Brixton”) and Rancid (“Ruby Soho”) are unsurprising slam-dunks, originals like the brassy single “One More,” chugging nostalgia trip “Reggae Music” and Occupy Wall Street anthem “World Upside Down” fuse social consciousness with musical irresistibility.

Graham Parker & The Rumour – 3 Chords Good (Primary Wave) – You would think that 31 years apart for a group might lead to major disappointment for great expectations, as is usually the case with these kinds of reunions. But leave it to GP and The Rumour to buck that trend and instead pop out a record that easily fits alongside earlier classics like Howlin’ Wind and Squeezing Out Sparks. Adding to it all is the fact that this magic has carried over to dates on a recent tour. Furthermore, Judd Apatow apparently felt the same way about this welcome return and cast the whole crew as themselves in his new film, This is 40.

Wanda Jackson - Unfinished Business (Sugar Hill) – When the normally never-miss Jack White lent his production talents to Wanda Jackson’s 2011 comeback The Party Ain’t Over, many (myself included) expected the similar brilliance he experienced working with Loretta Lynn on 2004’s Van Lear Rose. The Jackson/White pairing instead led to an uneven and slightly over-produced affair. This time around, Steve Earle’s son Justin Townes hopped behind the board for Jackson’s 30th album. Consider this his Van Lear Rose thanks to his showcasing of the septuagenarian’s range and singular vocal talents on everything from covers of Townes Van Zandt and Bobby Womack to some material the younger Earle put pen to paper for.

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals – The Lion, The Beast, The Beat (Hollywood) – The darling of the jam-band set, Potter is the real deal. But rather than cleave to her usual straightforward roots rock sound, she and co-producer Jim Scott chose to shake things up a bit. Funky jams, psychelia and ethereal sound production, along with a creative do-si-do with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys finds Potter sounding like Shelby Lynne at her most adventurous.

Dwight Yoakam – Three Pears (Warner Brothers/Via) - is the first album of original material that Dwight Yoakam has cut since 2005’s Blame the Vain. The seven years spent cultivating an acting career hasn’t dulled Yoakam’s compositional chops. And while his requisite twang and nasally vocal phrasing reflect that the Kentucky native’s deep country music roots are never too far off, he keeps one foot in the present via solid collaborations with distinctly non-country artists Kid Rock and Beck. Clearly, Yoakam hasn’t lost his musical edge.


Not necessarily songs that have been played ad nauseum on radio, (although the success that Passion Pit tune has had via its use in a Taco Bell commercial finds it close to being in that category), these are compositions I felt would be better served by a larger audience. Consider it a PSY-free zone that contains quirky covers of the Grateful Dead (Dent May), Little Willie John (Jack White) and Frank Ocean (Afghan Whigs), previously unreleased material from decades back recast and resurrected (Van Halen), and quality outings from both old (Dion) and new (Alabama Shakes) artists.  

Van Halen – “Tattoo” (Interscope)

Dion – “Holly Brown” (Blue Horizon)

Jack White – “Shakin’” (Third Man Records)

Dent May – “Shakedown Street” (Paw Tracks)

Afghan Whigs – “Lovecrimes” (free download)

Gaslight Anthem – “Handwritten” (Mercury)

Mumford & Sons – “I Will Wait” (Glass Note)

Z.Z. Ward – “Put the Gun Down” (Hollywood)

Passion Pit – “Take a Walk” (Columbia)

Alabama Shakes – “Hold On” (ATO)


The chance to revisit record company vaults is always an intriguing proposition, particularly when so many reissues wind up with all sorts of bonus tracks and other goodies. Be it familiar blockbusters of yesteryear (Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel), lost classics (Los Lobos), rediscovered talents (Little Willie John, Donny Hathaway) or resurrected cult phenoms (Moving Sidewalks), these trips into the path generally end up being quite a rewarding musical voyage.

The Doors – L.A. Woman [Deluxe 40th Anniversary Edition][2-CD] (Elektra)

Little Willie John – Complete Hits Singles A’s & B’s [2-CD](Real Gone)

Donny Hathaway – Live + Performance (Shout! Factory)

Booker T. & the MGs – Green Onions (Stax Remasters)

Los Lobos – Kiko [25th Anniversary Reissue] (Shout! Factory)

Peter Gabriel – So: 25th Anniversary Edition [3-CD] (Real World Productions)

Moving Sidewalks – The Complete Collection  [2-CD] (Rockbeat Records)

Judas Priest – Screaming For Vengeance: Special 30th Anniversary Edition [2-CD] (Legacy/Columbia)

Paul Simon – Graceland: 25th Anniversary Edition [2-CD/1-DVD] (Legacy)

Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness [Deluxe Edition] [5-CD/1-DVD] (Virgin)