I, rather idly, started writing this at the end of last year and then promptly forgot about it, so here is the hardly-timely rundown of my favourite albums of 2012. I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing but 2012 really seemed to be an extraordinary year for quality album releases, especially from veteran artists being all flash with their respective mojos and that. Not that there were no disappointments or outright stinkers here and there, but let’s not dwell. This is just me recommending some great sounds.
Of course, much of the order of this nominal ‘Top 10’ is quite arbitrary and likely to change from day-to-day, while the choices are utterly subjective. Bearing that in mind, special mention should go to some other releases from last year that would be as likely to appear on the list below on any other day. On top of that, due to the headphone-centric workload of the second half of the year, largely focussed on the recording and release of the Hard Times: Volume 1 EP, I’ve still to fully digest (or in some cases check out at all) releases from Willie Nelson, St. Vitus, Dave Arcari, Patti Smith, Anders Osborne and more besides …
As this threatens to be an absurdly long post, I’ll split it in two, with this first part covering numbers 10-6 plus a few other gems, and Part 2 looking at 5-1 plus highlighting standout singles/songs of the year. First up, those Special Mentions:
Hawkwind – Onwards: A strong contemporary outing (similar in vibe to Blood Of The Earth, which I liked too), with metallic opener Seasons a real standout.
Neil Young and Crazyhorse – Americana: Still not sure what to make of this one, with a song selection that strongly hints at the piss being taken, but in the main it surely does sound glorious. Served at least as an appetiser for Psychedelic Pill.
Paul Gilbert – Vibrato: A return to form from someone I thought had been lost to shred instrumentalism a couple of years back (something he’s very, very good at but if its not entirely your bag it can get wearing). The album’s full of the wit and warped pop-rock sensibility typical of earlier sets like Burning Organ and Spaceship One, and if it peters out a bit towards the end, its over-generous running-time compensates.
Sleepy Eyes Nelson – Empty Pockets: JB’s blues brother, also crossing over into country territory on this wee gem of a lo-fi release.
Black Country Communion – Afterglow: Third album from the supergroup I surely had no chance of liking – on paper, ex-members of Deep Purple, Foreigner and Dream Theatre teaming up with Jo Bonamassa seemed, at least to me, positively horrific. Three albums later, and there’s no denying the sheer class. There’s been a certain element of ‘diminishing returns’ with each release – the first is a monster, a future classic no doubt, the second very good but not quite great. This one stays true to form (now more prone to near-plagiarism than before with at least a couple of clear lifts from Zeppelin and Rush), but it’s still stirring stuff.
My Entirely Subjective, Flexibly Sequenced Personal Top 10 Albums of 2012 (Part 1)
10: JB Nelson – Dead Coats
Superb stuff from the other Nelson brother, featuring the customary JB Nelson mix of gothic roots-country and dark industrial electronica this time more or less stylistically split across two discs. It’s remarkable throughout, though I can’t help favouring the first disc, home to the more explicitly ‘country’ material, and some of the very best songs ol’ JB has written, perfectly arranged with acoustic instrumentation augmented by retro electric guitar (check out My Only Friend Is The Bottle or I’m Never Gonna Be Rich). There are a couple of covers on there too and some excellent instrumentals, recalling Ennio Morricone and early Ry Cooder.
9: Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day
Zep’s one-off reunion gig, already familiar due to numerous bootlegs, finally given the full production treatment for audio and video releases and proving worth the wait. Plant avoids the pitfalls of reaching for the high notes by artfully rearranging the vocal parts and simply not reaching for them at all. For the most part Page, whose live performances have always been notoriously inconsistent even at his peak, is on form here, at his best in years. Having said all that, though, it’s John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham who really steal the show. Whatever, it makes for a great listen. Among the many standouts are In My Time Of Dying, No Quarter and Kashmir.
8: Soundgarden – King Animal
Classic sound, tough riffs and psychedelia are all present and correct for the big comeback, if slightly hampered by a particularly cheesy acoustic number, Halfway There, (reeking of the singer’s latter day solo career) and consistently short running-times, which feel overly constrictive for this kind of thing with only one track – excellent album closer Rowing – breaking the five minute barrier. Other than that though? Good stuff.
7: Gary Moore – Blues For Jimi
Moore was on fantastic form for this one-off gig celebrating Hendrix. The first two-thirds of the album feature his regular rhythm section, and it’s great stuff, visceral and raw, with the man himself paying respect to Hendrix and staying as faithful as possible to the original arrangements and solos while still opening them up and stamping his own considerable authority all over them. The last third-or-so of the album, a perfunctory Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) excepted, is rescued from ‘superstar jam’ awfulness by Moore himself, holding things together as the Experience Mk II’s rhythm section (Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell) take to the stage to join him for a somewhat sloppier take on the likes of Stone Free and Hey Joe.
6: Kris Kristofferson – Feeling Mortal
I’ve been a fan of Kris Kristofferson for almost longer than I can remember; I think the first single I ever had was Jesus Was A Capricorn (I’ve still got it), most likely passed on to me by my dad. It’s been great to see Kris’ recorded output of the past few years equalling his 1970s glory days (in the ’80s and ’90s his work, like that of many if not all of his ‘outlaw’ country contemporaries, suffered from awful over-production and glossy, keyboard saturated arrangements – a real shame as it obscured the sheer quality of a set like Repossessed in particular).
Following on from This Old Road and Closer To The Bone, Kris keeps the winning streak intact with another world-weary master-class in great lyric writing set against a raw, roots country backdrop. It’s all highlights from the opening title track (“Wide awake and feeling mortal at this moment in the dream, That old man there in the mirror and my shaky self-esteem”) to closer Ramblin’ Jack, about Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (“I’ve got a friend named Ramblin’ Jack, he’s got a face like a tumble-down shack, been lived in too long to be torn down”); my own favourites at time of writing are archetypal country number Just Suppose and honest-to-goodness love song The One You Chose.
And there you have it. I’ll post Part 2 of this time-wasting nonsense within the week.