I don’t have any idea the number of press releases I received over the course of the past year announcing yet another CD of music being released by someone. Conservatively, I’d say they would have to numbered well into the thousands. Based on those numbers for me to claim I can select the 10 best releases of 2012 borders on being ridiculous. However, out of the releases I reviewed I offer you the 10 I liked the most. These are the discs which have ended up on my iPod and I will be listening to them for years to come. Hopefully, you’ll be encouraged to check them out and find out why I thought they were special.
Martha Redbone Roots Project – The Garden Of Love – The Songs Of William Blake. When most people refer to Americana or roots music they tend to forget about two important musical traditions. Redbone and her band created an album which blends the Native, African, and Anglo/Irish/Scot American roots of North American music with the words of poet William Blake. The result are wonderfully vivid versions of Blake’s work. With Redbone’s splendid voice leading a masterful group of musicians, you’ll not only gain a new appreciation for the poems but broaden your definition of roots music.
Patti Smith – Patti Smith Live At Montreux 2005. As far as I’m concerned any release by Patti Smith is a special occasion. A DVD of her in concert is something to really celebrate, especially when its as well filmed and recorded as this one. Her regular band is augmented by the inclusion of lead guitarist and old friend Tom Verlaine, and they play a selection of tunes from her whole career to date. A live recording also is the chance to see her and the band step outside the box with improvised solos you won’t find on studio recordings. Listening to Smith is great; being able to her watch her perform live is even better.
Ben Folds Five – The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. The fact the Ben Folds Five are a trio should tell you something about the band even before you first listen to them. Intelligent, witty, and an ability to create finely crafted pop songs make this unlikely group of pop musicians not only fun to listen to, but interesting as well. Lyrics which make you think combined with music that veers between power pop and torch songs – sometimes in the same tune – aren’t what I’ve come to expect from most bands these days. However, that’s the beauty of this band – they defy expectations with panache.
Jason Collet – Reckon. If there were any justice in the world of pop music, everybody would have heard of Jason Collet. Funny, irreverent, and emotionally honest, he tackles both topical and personal subjects in ways everyone could take a lesson from. He manages to show how the former impacts individuals and turns the latter into statements with universal appeal. If you’ve never heard him before, do yourself a favour and pick up this disc. Your won’t regret it.
Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros – Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros – The Hellcat Years. Sure Strummer has been dead for a decade now, but as this digital download of 50+ songs culled from live concerts, unreleased tracks, and the three studio albums he released with The Mescaleros shows, his music remains as vital today as it ever was. While more musically sophisticated than his recordings with The Clash, this music retains an edge which allows him to cut through the shit and get to the heart of a subject. For all you Strummer fans out there, and those who missed out on the Mescaleros years, this collection is a must have.
Mark Knopfler – Privateering. There are some guys still playing who you wish would just do us all a favour and retire already. Knopfler isn’t one of them. This collection of songs proves he’s still a master when it comes to song writing and guitar playing. His ability to write about a variety of subjects with sensitivity and intelligence is, if anything, even stronger than ever and his guitar playing remains some of the most subtle and beguiling in the business. As comfortable as a favourite sweater, but much more exciting, this is music you’ll listen to for a long time to come.
Public Image Limited – This Is PIL. It’s been 37 years since John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) first set people’s teeth on edge with his in-your-face image and iconoclastic music (with the Sex Pistols). He might not dress to shock anymore, but his music is still as unstintingly acerbic and challenging as it ever was. With this latest album from PIL he and the band show they are still musically interesting and fiercely independent. A great reminder of pop music’s ability to unsettle and question the status quo with intelligence and wit.
Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal. One of the great Texas outlaw musicians is back with another disc of gritty and real songs. Part autobiographical and part mythological, his latest disc is an irreverent but heartfelt look at music and life. You won’t hear any of Hubbard’s music on your local country radio station, or any other radio station for that matter, mainly because he has a disturbing habit of speaking his mind. Honest, gruff, and firmly rooted in reality, it’s the best music to come out of Texas in years.
Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil. After raising over a million dollars through her Kickstarter campaign to produce, promote, and tour this album Palmer was thrust into the role of standard bearer for independent music producers. Almost lost amidst all the fuss was the excellence of the resulting album. While she made her name as a quirky and intelligent solo artist, this disc sees her step into the role of front person for a rock and roll band without missing a beat. More musically sophisticated than any of her previous releases, lyrically she’s still as insightful and thought provoking as ever. While she’s an adherent of the school of rock and roll as theatre, substance never takes a back seat to style. One of today’s most exciting and dynamic performers has finally taken centre stage and pop music will never be the same again.
Xavier Rudd – Spirit Bird. Somehow or other Rudd manages to produce record after record of topical material without ever sounding preachy or self-aggrandizing. He makes no apologies for singing about the exploitation of the environment and how it endangers life on the planet. Playing a combination of traditional and modern instruments, his music is the perfect accompaniment to his lyrics. Simple and powerful, his songs work on us both intellectually and emotionally without resorting to manipulation or guilt. He sings about facts, dreams and hope – asking us to join him and others in changing the way things are currently done. A brilliant musician and gifted songwriter, he’ll have you rethinking the way you look at the world.