Friday, July 6, 2012

My Favorite Albums of 2012 (So Far)

It's that time again!  The year is half over (ALREADY!!!) and I'm sharing my lists of my favorite books, albums, and music documentaries of 2012 so far.

Please note I didn't say "the best" of 2012 so far - these are simply my favorites.  These are books, albums, and documentaries released in calendar year 2012 that I've been lucky enough to stumble upon.  There are plenty of older things I've found and loved and I'm quite sure there are plenty of these things released this year that I won't discover for some time yet.  

There's nothing scientific about these lists - no rankings or formulas in judging them.  These are simply the ones I enjoyed enough that I thought they merited alerting a wider audience.

Dig in and enjoy!!  And let me know your thoughts; if you checked any of these out this year, share your opinions.  Or, if you want to submit your favorites of the year so far, post them in the comments section or email

(SO FAR)...

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

We used to have to wait a long time without hearing anything from Leonard Cohen. He’d go ten years between albums, seemingly accumulating pain and worldly experience before finally expelling them in one document of a few songs and retreating again.

Well into his 70s, with his last new material having been released in 2004, it was safely assumed that Cohen was, for all intents and purposes, retired.

However, following a discovery that his “people” had embezzled all of his money a few years ago, Leonard Cohen declared bankruptcy and embarked on a massive multi-year world tour to generate enough of a nest egg that he could live on for his remaining years.  Following two years of constant touring around the world, the release of two live albums and a few reissues of live performances from his early days, Leonard Cohen somehow turned into a jovial old man who enjoyed the spotlight.

He’s said that the activity led to a creative burst of writing on the tour, which led quickly to the recording of this new album.

Cohen’s “Old Ideas” sound familiar and yet completely new. He’s reinvigorated. The instrumentation is minimal – and, maybe for the first time, not over or under-produced. There is some blues here, even some country. The Casio is still here, too.

There’s more joy here than we usually find from Cohen.  Rather than a broken man, on “Old Ideas” Cohen sounds like a more confident and secure older man. With this document, the artist knows more. He’s stayed the course and is confident in his muse and himself. He knows God – or whomever he’s speaking to – will ultimately take care of him. He’s secure in his choice and commitment. He’s not scared, but he knows the race isn’t completely run. He’s resigned himself to complete the task, whatever it takes.

This is a fine work from a true “Tower of Song”.

Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

An elderly Cheyenne warrior named White Antelope was killed in the Sand Creek massacre in 1864. At Sand Creek, the United States Army laid waste to an entire village of friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, including women, children, and aged. Chief Black Kettle raised his American flag as the attack began. One of his most prized possessions. A flag that was given to him by US officials who told him that no one who stood under the stars and stripes would ever be fired upon by American forces. White Antelope stood under those stars and stripes, then walked toward the Army officials saying, "stop...stop", assuming that if they heard his words and saw the flag, they would live up to their promise. They didn't.

That’s the America that the Boss sings about throughout “Wrecking Ball”. One of unfulfilled commitments. We were promised better than this. Where is our American dream?

Dr. John – Locked Down

Like (I assume) many folks, my only real exposure to Dr. John has been his completely over-worked radio hit, “In the Right Place”.  I was familiar with who he was, with his voodoo gangster look, and his New Orleans jive lingo.  I knew he was some kind of legend around New Orleans.  Everything I’d managed to hear from him was very similar to “In the Right Place”.  I assumed his status as a major figure in New Orleans was a “New Orleans thing”; an honorary title bestowed on a once active and vital figure.  I accepted that he’d probably once done some really great work, but never set about digging past the “In the Right Place” stuff I’d heard.

What a mistake on my part.

The news that Dr. John was coming out with a new album didn’t raise my eyebrows much.  Then I heard that Dan Auerbach, of the Black Keys, was serving as producer.  I’m not a huge fan of the Black Keys, however I loved their last few records.  Likewise, I admired Auerbach’s solo album from a few years ago and liked what he did as producer of Jessica Lee Mayfield’s album last year.  I wondered if the magic that the Black Keys worked on their last few records could translate to what I wrongly assumed was a “has been” regional artist.

It did.  “Locked Down” is a funky, gritty swamp stew.  It caused me to go ahead and dig back into Dr. John’s back catalog.  While I admit I haven’t gotten very far, I have fallen head over heels in love with his debut album, “Gris Gris” – which wouldn’t have been possible if not for “Locked Down”.

Thanks to Dan Auerbach for getting my attention with this album.  And thanks to Dr. John for being a completely unique and, contrary to my previous assumption, a completely deserving legend.

Neil Young – Americana

Lots of elder statesmen on this here list, eh?

While the previous three entries find legendary artists mining new creative ground, Neil Young’s “Americana” sends him the other way.  Back, almost, to the beginning.  When I heard Neil was going to record an album of American folk standards, I wasn’t surprised.  No one who’s followed his career for very long is surprised by anything Neil Young does.  I didn’t expect much from it.  Neil is one of the few artists that I give a creative pass to when they release an album that doesn’t do much for me, mostly because I know eventually he’ll make up for it sometime down the line.   And one great Neil Young record more than makes up for a few lackluster ones.

But then I heard he’d brought Crazy Horse back into the studio with him.  THEN I got excited.

As I’ve said, a mediocre Neil Young is a forgivable offense.  A great Neil Young work is a beautiful thing to be treasured.  ANY Neil Young & Crazy Horse album is something special.

Is this as good as “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” or “Rust Never Sleeps”?  Of course not.  But it’s not really about measuring up to their creative peak.  It’s about them getting together.  Turning it up LOUD and jamming.

And they do that here.  Some tracks work better than others.  I think I’m one of the few who really enjoy listening to “Oh Susanna”.  “God Save the Queen” is completely listenable.  “Clementine” is maybe my favorite on the album; a song my Grandpa used to sing while he picked his guitar in his recliner when I was a kid.  A song that, in the hands of Neil Young & Crazy Horse, revealed the depth and darkness of the lyrics, whereas my Grandpa’s rendition sounded like a fun folk song.  “Tom Dooley” can become grating and as Rolling Stone Magazine critiqued, the band just doesn’t have the soulful chops to pull off the rock and roll classic “Get a Job” (which feels out of place on this album of traditional American music anyway).

Even when it’s not their greatest work, listening to the brutal creations of Neil Young and the mighty Crazy Horse just hurts so good.  The world’s a better place because of the example these old guys are still setting.

(PS – Neil supposedly has an entire album with Crazy Horse in the can for future release and they’re in talks to tour soon.  Let’s hope his infamously fickle muse persuades him to follow through on both of those.)

Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls

Alabama Shakes marks one of the rare times when all aspects of popular culture get something right; the record label, the artist, the masses.  This is the real deal.  Alabama Shakes’ four-song EP ended up on many year-end “best of” lists last year and their full-length major label debut was hotly anticipated.  It doesn’t disappoint.  I can’t say much that hasn’t already been said.  The music is soulful and lead singer Brittany Howard is a true powerhouse.

Proof once again that people WILL buy good, soulful music if the labels will just put it out!

Marty Stuart – Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down

Following his childhood years as a sidemen to legends such as Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash and his 1980’s “hillbilly rock” phase, Marty Stuart upped his game with his album, “The Pilgrim”.  Cash told Stuart that most artists are lucky to have an album like that once in their career.  Rather than resting in that satisfaction, this country music renaissance man entered a new phase of his career; one that has seen him on an undeniable creative streak for about ten years now.

For his seventh proper album with his incredibly talented – and incredibly cool – backing group, the Fabulous Superlatives, Stuart goes back to his roots; straight up country music.  Stuart was recently quoted as saying, “Today, the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tennessee is play country music.” 

This is a glorious honky-tonk record, featuring mostly original songs by Stuart.  He’s joined by country music royalty Buck Trent, Hank Williams III, and Lorrie Carter Bennett, of the Carter Family.   

This is the real deal.  It’s also the kind of creative resurgence that’s usually seen in an artist in their later years (think Johnny Cash or Charlie Louvin).  Thank goodness Stuart started when he was so young….He’s still a fairly young guy and he’s firing on all cylinders.  Hopefully we’ll have a lot more years of this great stuff coming from Marty Stuart.

Andre Williams – Hoods & Shades / Andre Williams & the Sadies – Night and Day / Andre Williams & the Goldstars – Nightclub



2012 has the year of Andre Williams so far for me.  I’ve been marginally aware of Andre for as long as he’s been associated with Bloodshot Records.  And while I always acknowledged his albums with them as “good”, I didn’t give them enough of a try for them to really click. I guess I just wasn’t ready.

Then came his first release of the year, “Hoods & Shades”.  Loved it.  Rather than raucous party music, this was a stripped down, mostly acoustic album.   For whatever reason – even that I now love those raunchy, wild albums – this was the one that flipped the switch for me.  it’s a great showcase of Andre’s writing and style.

I enjoyed the album and dug back into Andre’s story a bit.  He wrote “Shake a Tail Feather”, which was a hit for Ike & Tina Turner, Ray Charles, and a whole bunch of other folks.  He worked with Motown Records several different times.  He’s lived a tumultuous life, full of struggle and addiction.

I saw him in concert this spring in St. Louis and was absolutely knocked out.  Knocked out by his energy, knocked out by the songs, knocked out by the whole performance.

I was also knocked out by his backing band, the Goldstars.  At the concert, I learned he’d recorded an EP with the Goldstars called “Nightclub”.  I picked that one up and loved it, too.  It leaned more heavily toward Andre’s wild party records.  But the rough edges were a bit more refined and the Goldstars, one of the best garage bands I’ve heard, provided a perfect, unique backdrop for him.

The third release this year from Andre was with the prolific group The Sadies.  Produced by Jon Spencer, “Night and Day” is classic Andre.  Gritty, raunchy ghetto tales told with a grind in the hip and a grin on the face.

James Leg & Left Lane Cruiser – Painkillers

While his “main” band, Black Diamond Heavies, is on a break, the good Reverend James Leg is making the most of his time.  His solo debut, “Solitary Pleasures” was one of my favorite albums of last year. This time around, he’s recording with Alive/Natural Sound labelmates Left Lane Cruiser.  It’s similar enough to what Leg is already known for (his growl and organ plus drums with Black Diamond Heavies…his growl and organ plus drums and slide guitar with Left Lane Cruiser) to fit in his wheelhouse, but it adds enough new to make it interesting.  Special guest Harmonica Shah (obviously on harp) is a nice touch, too.

The crew make their way through raw, loud-ass covers of blues standards such by folks like John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal, HOwlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson and throw in some classic rock covers by Seger, the Stones, Hendrix, and Zeppelin for good measure.

This is good medicine right here.  Cures what ails you.  Take two of these and call me in the morning.

Devil’s Jukebox: Taboo 60s

This one’s going to be the oddball on my list.  This is a digital-only release.

I know, I know…to all my friends at independent record stores all over the globe, my sincerest apologies.  I truly do try and support independent brick-and-mortar music retailers as often as I can.  And, yes, this is one of those probably-shady thrown-together compilations with sketchy cover art where the artists and songwriters are most likely getting screwed by this release.  I try to avoid these things at all cost.  But this one was just too good.

While searching for a copy of psych/garage rock band The Sonics’ cover of the blues classic “I’m a Man”, I stumbled upon this collection on Amazon.  My first thought was, “Wow…101 songs for nine bucks?”  Then I realized it was “one of those” compilations and figured it was a dud.  I looked through the song list.  The first one that caught my eye was “Jack the Ripper” by Screaming Lord Sutch.  That was worth the price alone.  You can’t find that track digitally (legally anyway) and seeing as pretty much his whole catalog is out of print and highly sought after, finding a used copy of his CDs is as hard as Chinese algebra.

I found other tracks I was looking for (“Ninety Nine Years to Go” by the Wray Brothers, “Night of the Sadist” by Larry & the Blue Notes), downloads of soundbites I’d been searching for (“Sermon Against Rock and Roll” by Jimmy Snow) as well as a bunch of soundbites that were too good to pass up (vintage public service announcements on drugs, religious sex education recordings, etc.).  There’s a lot of great garage/psych stuff on here; some I knew already, some stuff that was new to me from recognized artists, some that was totally new.

I sure hope no one gets screwed by this compilation being out there.  I know I – and listeners to my radio show – have certainly benefited from all of the fun, wild stuff on here.

Willie Nelson – Heroes

At this point, a new record from Willie Nelson almost always elicits the same two-point response:

1.                   It’s not great. 
2.                   Even though it doesn’t compare to what he released during his creative peak, it’s still Willie.  And Willie at his absolute worst is infinitely better than so much of what passes as music these days.

This album is a family affair, with Willie’s sons Lukas appearing on almost every track.  His son, Micah, appears on one.  Other guests include Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson, and Snoop Dogg.

Ultimately, this most likely won’t end up being anyone’s favorite Willie Nelson record, it won’t dent the country charts, and it won’t sell a million copies.  There are hits and misses here.  In my opinion the album would have benefited from fewer duets.  But hearing Willie sing with his old pals Merle, Kris, and Billy Joe will always be special.

Willie Nelson won’t be here forever and he’s one of the last of his kind.  His purpose is to make music.  And he’s still making new stuff.  For us.  Enjoy his new stuff while it’s here.  

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