Let’s cut to the chase. This is my Top Ten for 2012, then I’ll explain.
1. Wrecking Ball – Bruce Springsteen
2. Dead & Born & Grown – The Staves
3. Channel Orange – Frank Ocean
4. Twins – Ty Segall
5. good kid, m.A.A.d city – Kendrick Lamar
6. Portico Quartet – Portico Quartet
7. Until The Quiet Comes – Flying Lotus
8. Lonerism – Tame Impala
9. Melody’s Echo Chamber – Melody’s Echo Chamber
10. America Give Up – Howler
And 2011 albums that I discovered in 2012, which might have been in the Top Ten if they were 2012…
1. Almanac – Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo
2. Arise Ye Sunken Ships – We Are Augustines
3. Every Kingdom – Ben Howard
4. West – Wooden Shjips
5. The Lost and Found – Gretchen Parlato
I found myself a few weeks ago with a top three – same as stated, but not much else. It was because I’ve spent most of my time this year looking back. Both for my blog and for the book I’m writing – very slowly – on my musical journey.
So I resorted initially to two sources. One was my old favourite, the paper I’ve been reading since I was 15. The bible of punk, indie and more besides: the NME. I looked through their fifty best albums, checked a few that appealed on Spotify and then did some downloading onto iTunes. Proof that Spotify actually leads to musical purchases – at least for my generation! The other was my favourite musical website, Little by Listen, three guys with a real passion for music, and plenty of overlaps with my own preferences. Compared with them I am not worthy!
And there were a few concerts that had introduced me to my favourite sounds of the year.
And one crucial reference from Whispering Bob Harris, BBC Radio 2 DJ, doyen of the Americana/country/classic rock set.
And, and… maybe the best influence of all: my son, Kieran. I always dreamed of introducing him to the great sounds of rock’n’roll. This year, he gave me two of my top five.
So, how did it all come together?
Well, let’s start at the top. I’ve put Bruce Springsteen first because “Wrecking Ball” is possibly his best album since… “Born In The USA”? Full of passion, anger about the plight of ordinary working people in these times and a love of so many different types of music. Some wonderfully simple but hard hitting tunes, the best of all for me being “Jack Of All Trades”. It is his biggest statement for years. He is still The Boss. As simple as that. If you hate Bruce or are indifferent, ‘Wrecking Ball” may not convert you. If you have ever liked Bruce, try it! You can see my full review in my Have You Heard series on the side bar. Number 12.
The Staves – three sisters from Watford, singing modern folk sounds – have a claim to the number one slot with their debut album. Which is that I played their songs more than anyone else’s this year. It all started with Whispering Bob tweeting the video of their single “Mexico”. I liked it and checked out their music. They had an EP called “Live At Cecil Sharp House’ which I strongly recommend, especially for their version of “Silver Dagger”, which has the most beautiful harmonies you could hope to hear. I saw them perform twice this year – first at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill and then at the Latitude music festival in Suffolk. They were fantastic at both. Their singing is just so lovely! I reviewed both – go to the concerts/lists series on the sidebar if you are interested in reading more. The album is satisfying mix of already released songs (including “Mexico”) and some entrancing new ones. It soothes the soul like no other music this year. You can read a review of “Dead & Born & Grown” in my Have You Heard series – number 27.
Numbers 3 and 5 are where I give the credit to my son Kieran. I remember earlier in the year when I heard some sounds coming from his room which sounded familiar – but not familiar. They had a nineties soul/jazz/rap groove, which is one of my favourite ever sounds. People like Maxwell, D’Angelo, Urban Species and Guru from Gang Starr. But they weren’t tunes I knew. The basslines were even better than before. What was it?
It was Frank Ocean. “Channel Orange”. I’ve reviewed it – check Have You Heard 18 on the side bar. A brilliant melange of jazzy, soulful sounds and rhymes. Some biting lyrics, but above all, it’s the rhythms and the beats that get me. Rooted in hip hop but soaring above it. And I’m hearing so many great artists as I listen – Stevie Wonder, Prince, even Marvin Gaye. The past, present and future, rolled into one. Wrapped around with a modern sound. Amazing.
Kendrick Lamarr is a more recent taste. I heard his sound – again thanks to Kieran – and loved the bass and drums as well as his delivery. When you listen to his headline song, “Backbeat Freestyle” you might grimace at some of the lyrics, but if you know anything about reggae dancehall music, you will spot the influence. There is a rumbling bass line which is insistent and even a bit sinister. When I heard it I just thought, how good would this be pumping out out of the mega-speakers at the Notting Hill Festival? Awesome, is the answer.
Ty Segall’s “Twins” was a Little By Listen recommendation. I have massive respect for the guys and their passion for music. I’d never heard of Ty Segall. I played the album and thought wow! There is some immense guitar. All over the place. Brutal, noisy, dirty. Rock’n’roll!
I go a bit jazzy, electronic, almost prog with my selection of Portico Quartet and Fying Lotus. Both make the Gilles Peterson cut on his BBC 6 show, now on Saturday afternoons. I saw Portico Quartet at a Word magazine concert, and I loved the way they carved unusual sounds from their guitars and violins and keyboards. The spirit of Jimmy Page and his violin bow, rubbing up against Radiohead, in a jazz stylee. With Flying Lotus, add a funky, unpredictable electronica to that list. I’d heard them before – an amazing tune called “Tea Leaf Dancers” – but it was Little By Listen that alerted me to this new album. Thanks guys! Both are really intriguing albums.
8 to 10 were all NME recommendations, initially. Others too went for them, especially Tame Impala. “Lonerism” takes you back to 60/70s psychedelia, but it also has a cut and paste element which reminds me of the Avalanches’ “Since I Left You”. Melody’s Echo Chamber is a French confection, but it sounds Swedish, like The Radio Dept, who in turn, must have drawn inspiration from My Bloody Valentine, Velvet Underground and, of course, Abba. These are good influences! Howler‘s album is the best Strokes album since “Room On Fire”, rivalled only by the first Vaccines album. Which is very good too!
I wanted to mention some 2011 albums, because they were first revealed to me in 2012, and have been some of my favourite sounds this year. The Australian folk singer Emily Barker, with her band the Red Clay Halo (named after a Gillian Welch song) have been up there with The Staves as my most played band. The more I have listened to Emily’s albums, the more I appreciate their emotional depth. I saw Emily and the band three times this year: first as a support band at a Word magazine concert, then at the Half Moon Putney and finally at the Union Hall in Islington. Each concert was bigger than the one before. At every one, the music was fantastic – beautifully played and sung and wonderfully engaging. “Almanac” has the sparse electric guitar of “Pause”, which was my favourite track until I discovered ‘This Is How It’s Meant To Be” from Emily’s debut album, ” Photos.Fires.Fables” and her rendition of “The First Time Ever I saw Your Face” by Ewan MacColl. These three songs are all top ten tracks for me in 2012. Tender, sometimes sad, truly uplifting.
Were Are Augustines were brilliant live at Latitude, where I was thinking punk and Bruce Springsteen all mixed up. I saw them in September at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which just took me further into their debut album, “Arise Ye Sunken Ships’. They do good anthems and heartfelt lyrics, based on some pretty difficult personal experiences. The dogs on main street are howling!
Ben Howard is a young singer-songwriter with great guitar skills. He was second on the bill on the Sunday at Latitude, before Paul Weller, and was superb. Again, Kieran put me on to him. Wooden Shjips are a pyschedelic rock band whom I’d never heard of until I saw them at Latitude. I loved their piledriving riffs and rhythms at that gig. The latest album isn’t quite as immense, but it still rocks. And then Gretchen Parlato, a soulful jazz singer. It was a top ten from a Word Press blogger a year ago that put me on to her. I’m ashamed to say i’ve now forgotten who it was. But the album, “The Lost and Found”, is a smooth delight.
There are plenty of other tracks I’ve liked – some from 2012, other discovered this year but from earlier years. Two that stand out are “Hollywood Forever Cemetry Sings” by Father John Misty, another Little By Listen recommendation, and “Heart Attack” by Kurt Vile, which I discovered when he performed it at Latitude. See my Have You Heard 19 for a bit more on Kurt and this song, where I wish for a duet with Kylie Minogue. It’s not as implausible as it sounds!
What this blog shows, I hope, is that there has been some fantastic music this year. And that’s just the selection that I most like. There is plenty more. Alt-J won the Mercury music prize, for example. I haven’t really got into their music, but Kieran says it sounds great on his Dr Dre headphones.
So I would say, if you are looking for the best music of this year, take a look at the NME top fifty, and the Guardian equivalent too. Try what they are recommending. I’m totally biased: these are my newspapers, read and loved since my teenage days. When Little By Listen do their take, well worth reading that too.
The NME and Guardian didn’t feature Bruce, or Emily, or The Staves. Those choices, in a way, are my most personal ones. Otherwise, I think they’ll guide you to the right place.