Okay, so here’s the rest of the “what I did with my ears during my time off last year” blog. Which I’ve been writing instead of working on the material for my own next album. There’s probably irony at work there.
Before the “5-1″ part of the albums list, just because I said I would in Part 1 – which you might want to check out here if you find yourself whipped into a frenzy of curiousity by Part 2 – here’s a brief look at my favourite singles/songs from 2012. Of course, it’s every bit as subjective and flexibly sequenced as the albums list. Mind, most of these links are to YouTube videos and some may be “not safe for work”, as the middle-aged people say nowadays.
And now, the moment nobody’s been waiting for. Same caveat applies as with Part 1: much of the order of this nominal ‘Top 10′ is arbitrary and likely to change from day-to-day, while the choices are utterly subjective.
My Entirely Subjective, Flexibly Sequenced Personal Top 10 Albums of 2012 (Part 2)
05: ZZ Top – La Futura
Although its initial impact was slightly spoiled by the baffling decision to release the first four tracks in sequence as an EP (Texicali) a few months before the album release, this is still prime-time ZZ Top. Filthy guitar sounds, unsubtle double entendres (Big Shiny Nine, anyone? It’s about a gun, apparently), more filthy guitar sounds, they’re all here. Song-wise, it’s all good, but Have A Little Mercy may just be an instant classic.
04: The Cult – Choice Of Weapon
Continuing the theme of the year (“old bastards hitting one out of the park”), The Cult turn in easily their best since Sonic Temple. While re-establishing themselves as a stellar live act over the past decade or so, their ‘comeback’ album, Born Into This, had much in common with their previous comeback album, Beyond Good And Evil – on the surface, a perfectly serviceable Cult record, with all the right sonic signatures, but low on the one major factor in which The Cult towered over all of their contemporaries in the goth/grebo etc. scenes of the mid-to-late ’80s. Songs.
Happily, actual songs feature heavily here, rocking when they need to (Honey From A Knife, A Pale Horse) and going all goth-psych balladry in a Revolution stylee when they need to (Life>Death, Wilderness Now). Billy Duffy rules and Ian Astbury hasn’t sounded this good in years.
03: Neil Young & Crazyhorse – Psychedelic Pill
Yes, the first track comes dangerously close to half-an-hour in length. Yes the whole thing clocks in at two hours. But it’s never boring and sounds exactly like classic Neil Young & Crazyhorse. Rawest guitar sounds this side of ZZ Top, that voice, that big sloppy live-in-the-room sound. Oh yes. The title track rocks out (while admitedly sounding quite a bit like Richard Thompson’s For The Sake Of Mary), and Ramada Inn is just sublime.
02: Van Halen – A Different Kind Of Truth
From the moment this came out early last year, I had it down as album of the year, no doubt. Certainly it remains my most listened-to-in-its-entirity album of 2013, and there’s much here to love. One of my favourite guitarists, Edward Van Halen will always command my attention and here he’s so good it’s scary, while David Lee Roth remains one of the best lyricists in rock (despite the occasional reviewer dismissing these lyrics as dumb; if you think Dave’s lyrics are anything less than playful and witty, occasionally flirting with real depth, you’re just not paying attention). A Different Kind Of Truth marks their first work together since 1996, and their first really significant collaboration since the last ‘proper’ VH album in 1984.
There’s a truly joyful noise here, that of one of the Great Bands rocking out – and to top it all the songs are terrific, mixing all-new material with cherry-picked riffs and ideas from the band’s vault of unreleased recordings to recapture the essence of classic Van Halen. Just about any track on there would prove that point but check out the double-bill of Bullethead and As Is for full-on, unfeasibly hard rocking, followed by the comparatively experimental Honeybabysweetiedoll, which serves to show that they’re not going to be happy just resting on their laurels.
And yet, something else came along and pipped it to the post of album of the year after all …
01: Amanda Palmer And The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil
Much heralded due to a remarkable Kickstarter campaign, it would be too easy, amongst all the stats and admittedly startling figures, to lose sight of the fact that this is a superb album.
Out-with being only slightly familiar with the music of her punk cabaret duo, Dresden Dolls, I first became aware of Amanda Palmer a couple of years ago, when doing some industry research/reading regarding sales and distribution models (sorry to break it to you folks, but it ain’t all glamour, this business we call show). It was about the time that Palmer had ditched her previous label, Roadrunner, and released what was to me the song/single of 2010 (Do You Swear To Tell The Truth The Whole Truth And Nothing But The Truth So Help Your Black Ass). This led me to check out her sole Roadrunner release, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? and I was blown away. An effortless fusion of rock, cabaret, prog, electronica and more; great songs, all backed with a bunch of cool videos. I was sold. Then there was an excellent 2011 EP as part of art-rock supergroup project 8in8 which was, you guessed it, one of my favourite releases of that year (although I gave her ukelele-led Radiohead covers album a miss, what with not being a fan of either Radiohead or the ukulele).
Palmer’s second ‘full-on’ solo album, Theatre Is Evil – actually her first album with impressive new band The Grand Theft Orchestra, builds on everything that came before it. There are kitchen-sink arrangements, the sound is huge, and the influences are much as described before – cabaret, prog, art rock, electronica, with hints of straight-up rock, pop and punk. There are echoes of Beefheart and Zappa, Lou Reed, Floyd and Bowie which are largely subtle, part of the musical palette, while some references are made more knowingly with a pair of back-to-back tracks – Massachusetts Avenue and Melody Dean – giving nods to the same Prince song (I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man) while still managing to sound entirely distinct from each other (Melody Dean also quotes My Sharona both musically and lyrically), and on Bottomfeeder, guitarist Chad Raines stylistically quotes Count Ian Blair’s work from The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack to great effect.
Most importantly though, underneath all the ambitious instrumentation and clever intertextuality lies a set of great songs, brilliantly performed. Palmer delivers like Patti Smith meets Debby Harry by way of the theatricality of Tim Curry or Freddie Mercury, with the latter’s penchant for a piano flourish; as a lyricist she combines the raw poeticism of Smith or Lou Reed with the verbal dextrousness of Ani DiFranco and the unsettling frankness of Loudon Wainwright III, crafting pieces that are at once funny and moving. This is best illustrated by The Bed Song, the only solo piano/vocal performance on the album, telling the story of the core of a relationship unravelling from the beginning to the very end, as melancholy as it sounds but still taking time out to namecheck Van Halen and Slayer. Scoring huge “album of the year” points right there, obviously.
So there you have it. In a year when I took great joy in the on-form output of the hoary rock gods of my youth (and before), Amanda Palmer knocks me out by outdoing them all. Theatre Is Evil is a stunning album – maybe the first Great Album of the decade.
Right. That’s enough pretending to be a critic for this year. I’ve an album to write and it’s four in the morning. Again.