Best Listens Of 2012
This site is not necessarily about the “latest” music. Its about the past seven decades of a certain type of music. It proceeds from the viewpoint that “if I haven’t heard it, its new to me.” And, of course, “if you haven’t heard it, its new to you, too.”
So, what follows is some music I really liked in 2012. It’s in no particular order. Some of it was released in 2012. Some of it was released more than forty years ago. Some of the older music I knew previously — even liked quite a lot in the past — but which nevertheless resonated more over the past twelve months than it did in years gone by:
Cotton Mather, Kontiki (Deluxe Edition): Back in 1998 when Kontiki was originally released, music discovery was not quite what it is now. On-line resources were limited and were accessed largely by dial-up modem. My music discovery in the old days consisted of reading about something new and different, or driving to the Virgin Megastore to use its many CD listening stations.
I first heard Kontiki in its entirety after it was re-released earlier this year, along with twelve bonus tracks, following a successful Kickstarter campaign. The results are glorious, and Kontiki brings to mind The Beatles’ Revolver with straight-ahead pop songs blending seamlessly with more reflective psychedelic pieces punctuated by wood and string instruments, piano and analog tape tricks.
Starbelly, Lemonfresh (Deluxe Edition): This is another reissue of a 1998 release that I heard for the first time in the past year. Actually, this is a digital-only reissue by Futureman Records of an earlier reissue that added twelve bonus tracks to the stew. Its one one of those records that makes you think on its first listen “damn, this is good.” Its more than seventy minutes of non-stop hooks, melodies, chiming jangly guitars, occasional big beats and consistently clean production. There is not a bum track in the entire twenty-three song collection, although the eleven that comprised the original 1998 release remain the standouts.
Michael Carpenter, SOOP Sampler: Carpenter has released five records of “songs of other people” (“SOOP”) over the years. A twenty-one track digital download sampler from Futureman Records (for a whopping $7) is a good place to start exploring this substantial and consistently great body of work. The highlights on this collection include Carpenter’s versions of The Hollies’ “Look Through Any Window,” “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding” and “Wild Honey,” which bests the Beach Boys’ original. My favorite, though, is Carpenter’s version of The Zombies’ brilliant and beautiful, “This Will Be Our Year”:
The Supahip, Seize The World: Carpenter recorded this one-off back in 2006 with Mark Moldre. “They set about the idea of writing, recording and mixing a track… arriving in the morning with nothing except maybe some loose snippets of songs, and leaving with a completed track.” And it worked. Seize The World delivers twelve uncluttered, melodic pop songs (you even get “mono” versions of ten of the tracks) that go down easy and will stay in your brain for days, particular the quiet, reflective “No Tomorrow”:
Seth Swikrsy, Watercolor Day: This 2010 release was on my car stereo almost daily for a couple of months this year. Its just addictive. As I wrote previously, the Beatles are an obvious influence on Swirsky’s solo work, yet Watercolor Day feels much more like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Trumpets, french horns, violas, cellos, oboes and trombones appear seemingly out of nowhere, but nevertheless fit perfectly in the mix and saturate the sound with texture.
Cliff Hillis, Dream Good: Hillis wrote, sang and played on Starbelly’s Lemonfresh. His fourth solo outing is my favorite record that was actually released for the first time in 2012. Its a textbook example of perfect pure pop, covering all the necessary territory from mid-tempo pieces with acoustic guitars to full-fledged rockers to grand, more baroque pop, all of which is beautifully sung and played.
Myracle Brah, “Simplified”: Three-chord rock? Think one-chord rock on this one from 2001. That’s why it works. It just pounds its way relentlessly into your brain for a minute, fifty-four seconds and then refuses to leave. Its as simple and as powerful as it gets.
Doug Powell, “When She Awoke”: Powell wrote and performed this one from 1998 on cassette 8 track with Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick. Despite using a recording process that Powell calls “the audio equivalent of drawing in the sand with a stick,” the song nevertheless occupies the opposite end of the pop spectrum from “Simplified.” It’s lush, elaborate and dreamy, and filled to the brim (actually, far beyond the brim) with gorgeous harmonies.
The Jayhawks, Mockingbird Time: “Waiting For The Sun” from 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall ranks in my all-time Top 40. The Jayhawks, though, were never quite the same after Mark Olson left the band in 1996 to follow his inner-Gram Parsons. His return on Mockingbird Time, released in September 2011, marked a return to form for the band. All of the trademark Jayhawks elements are present — the sharp songwriting, the full sound and, most importantly, the beautiful harmonizing of Olson and Gary Louris.
Big Star, “The Ballad Of El Goodo”: I’ve written about Big Star on this site, and I have liked “The Ballad Of El Goodo” for years. But this year, I really came to love this song about hope and perseverance against “unbelievable odds.” It features one of Alex Chilton’s finest vocal performances, great backing harmonies and is one of the band’s best songs. It also directly or indirectly influenced everything else on this list.
So, that’s a capsule of the music that made me the happiest over the past twelve months. How about you?
I posted something about Michael Carpenter last month and got a big nothing back from nobody. The Hollies cover is particularly good & his choice of songs is interesting. I’m not sure about messing with the Beach Boys, Carpenter’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is never going to be an improvement.
Music seem so fragmented and a little random at the moment. I’m listening to the Go-Kart Mozart LP & re-discovering “Northern Lights, Southern Cross” by the Band but even my close friends think my choices are a little odd. I’ll certainly check for some of the tracks here.
Happy New Year.
I love Carpenter’s prolific output. He must constantly be in the studio. He’s a great singer, songwriter and, like many on my list, practically a one-man band.
I agree on “Wouldn’t It Ne Nice.” Carpenter’s version is certainly “good,” but there is simply no way to offer something new and different on one of the all-time great tracks without completely destroying it. So we get a straight-forward cover.
Happy New Year, too!
Here are some favorite albums of 2012:
Cliff Hillis–Dream Good
Redd Kross–Researching the Blues
Gavin Guss–On High
Nada Surf–The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy
A.C. Newman–Shut Down the Streets
The Corner Laughers–Poppy Seeds
Ben Kweller–Go Fly A Kite
The dB’s–Falling Off The Sky
Jay Gonzalez—Mess of Happiness
Brendan Benson–What Kind Of World
The Well Wishers–Dreaming Of The West Coast
Bill Lloyd–Boy King Of Tokyo
Hidden Pictures–Rainbow Records
Salim Nourallah–Hit Parade
Kurt Baker–Brand New Beat
Throwback Suburbia–Shot Glass Souvenir
I almost added Redd Kross and Brendan Benson. I just puchased Hidden Pictures’ “Rainbow Records.” Its great. It reminds me, in parts, of the Go-Betweens. I’ll have to check out some of the others on your list, some of which are very familiar.
Always hats off to Michael Carpenter! And you’re absolutely right about “Simplified”, an excellent pounding song that just won’t leave you be!
I could listen to Carpenter for hours on end. So many great songs, and wonderful interpretations of others’ work.
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