The music world went topsy-turvy in 2012, leaving fans with more questions than answers.
Mumford and Sons broke massive with a record that wasn’t half as good as their previous one, while comebacks from the likes of Aerosmith and reinventions by songwriters such as John Mayer fell flat. Despite all the commotion, the biggest story of 2012 was the same as the one in 2011: Adele.
The British singer continued to move millions in 2012 with a record well over a year old. In fact, 21 became the first album since Michael Jackson’s Thriller to notch the top sales spot in consecutive years.
Hers wasn’t the only curveball: Nothing and no one was safe, not even Taylor Swift — who flipped the script and flopped (critically, at least) after going full-on pop from country.
Trends leaned in the indie direction this year, a somewhat surprising storyline given the excellence of major-label releases by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, musical mainstays who stick to a formula and never stray. God love ’em for their steadfast nature, because it was in short supply this year.
Here are my favourites from 2012.
1 Japandroids, Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl Record Co.). We can’t officially call them our own, but there’s reason to be proud of Nanaimo guitarist/vocalist Brian King and Vancouver drummer David Prowse, who formed the year’s most lauded rock ’n’ roll band while studying at the University of Victoria. Celebration Rock is exactly as advertised — joyous and jubilant, a party loaded with memorable hooks and choruses wrapped inside the hallowed name of rock ’n’ roll. Drink it up.
2 Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist (Macklemore LLC). When the duo of Macklemore (rapper Ben Haggerty) and producer Ryan Lewis performed at the Rifflandia festival in September, their singalong hit Thrift Shop was just bubbling to the surface. Less than a month later, the Seattle group’s debut, The Heist, had debuted at No. 2 on the U.S. sales charts — and for good reason, too. Everything that is right and real about hip hop can be found on The Heist, from tireless party jams (Thrift Shop) to political statements (the marriage-equality anthem Same Love).
3 Jack White, Blunderbuss (Columbia). Dylan-isms are easy to spot on Blunderbuss, the solo debut of modern-day messiah Jack White, but that’s nothing to complain about: The one-man wrecking crew is channelling with glee the spirit of those who came before him, Sir Bob included. White (who wrote, recorded and produced Blunderbuss) isn’t doing something unfamiliar, but he’s managing it in grand style.
4 fun., Some Nights (Fueled By Ramen). The appropriately titled trio from New York gave catchy pop a new name in 2012, thanks to the smash hits assembled on their Queen-like debut. Some Nights, Carry On and the Janelle Monae-lifted lead single We Are Young all pack wallops, but there’s a depth to this fetching full-length that holds you at bay until multiple listens reveal a deeper well. It’s almost too busy in spots, but Some Nights certainly makes for candy-coated fun, if you’ll pardon the pun.
5 Soundgarden, King Animal (Universal). The classic Soundgarden lineup of singer Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron is fully on the same page for the band’s first album in 16 years, a slow-burning stick of dynamite that includes a few divinely bright moments. There’s too much mid-tempo muck, but when they release the hounds for songs such as the thunderous By Crooked Steps, all is right in the alt-rock nation.
6 Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls (ATO Records). The instant-impact debut of Alabama Shakes is well short of perfect, but rootsy rock rarely comes with this much passion built into its ’70s-friendly framework. The group from Athens, Alabama, is fronted by soul singer and group lyricist Brittany Howard, who is more believable than most. “Bless my heart, bless my soul/I didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old,” she sings on the group’s breakout hit Hold On. “There must be someone up above, saying ‘;Come on Brittany, you got to come on up.’ ” Here’s hoping she stays Earthbound a little while longer.
7 Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas (Columbia). At this point in his career, you either love Cohen or hate Cohen. And while some loathed it, the consensus is that the grand master reclaimed his crown on Old Ideas, the latest — and perhaps last — album of his glorious 44-year career. Should the mournful Old Ideas wind up being the Montrealer’s swan song, the 78-year-old is going out on a high note.
8 Purity Ring, Shrines (4AD). If not for Visions, the celebrated recording from Montreal act Grimes, atmospheric-pop fans likely would have championed Edmonton-bred, Montreal-based Purity Ring.
The duo of singer Megan James and instrumentalist Corin Roddick shines on Shrines, layering sounds and soundscapes on top of a spooky set of sweetly sung narratives.
“Cut open my sternum and pull my little ribs around you,” James sings on the album standout, Fineshrine. That she does so in an affecting, little-girl lilt makes for some spectacular listening.
9 Bob Mould, Silver Age (Merge). He earned exempt status decades ago, thanks to his membership in Hüsker Dü, but Bob Mould is still churning out concise, catchy and occasionally crushing rock songs long after it was expected of him.
On solo album No. 10, the guitars are noisy and Mould’s voice still pops, the results landing somewhere between the hard charge of his beloved power trio, Sugar, and the best Foo Fighters song never written.
10 Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music (Williams Street Records). The fusion of gritty Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and Brooklyn beat maestro El-P was an unexpected treat.
“Livin’ like a villain, never chillin’,” is how Killer Mike (in his trademark baritone boom) describes himself. When he busts out of the gate on his sixth album to the car-crash cacophony of Big Beast, the smart people run for cover. Hard as hard gets.
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