Updated Mon, Dec 17, 2012 4:55 am
Admittedly, I haven’t spent time with all of the awesome music that 2012 had to offer and I know that I’m leaving some great things off this list, but from what I’ve heard, here’s what I loved. My Top 12 of 2012:
Bruce Springsteen’s SXSW Keynote Speech: Let’s start this off with a little hyperbole: "Life changing." OK, that might be a little much, but I can assure you that "life affirming" is not. At least not for a rock musician. This is 50 minutes of brilliantly crafted anecdotal wisdom and insight that comes straight from that unidentifiable place in your gut that all musicians share. I can only describe it as The Commencement Speech of Rock 'n' Roll. You can stream the speech from any number of online sources and I don’t want to spoil the goose bumps for you, but just remember, "You suck!"
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly, Planetarium: On March 30, Sufjan Stevens, The National’s Bryce Dessner and composer Nico Muhly shared the stage at Cincinnati’s Memorial Hall for the premiere of their solar system-themed 11-movement song cycle, Planetarium. With Sufjan on synthesizers and vocals, Bryce on guitar, Nico on piano and a backing band that featured a string quartet and a trombone choir, the MusicNow Festival held its breath for nearly an hour. The second and final performance of this unique and fleeting collaboration was held in Amsterdam one week later and, although no official recordings have been released, fans' YouTube videos and bootleg audio recordings have captured the concerts online.
Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself: From the raw opening strum of "Desperation Breeds" to the ethereal closer, "Belles," Break it Yourself is Bird’s best and most complete record to date. Free from the meandering filler tracks that often lost me in between instant classics on the singer/songwriter/violinist/whistler’s previous releases, this is a fully realized collection of expertly written songs that weave together vaguely familiar stories and emotive melodies in a definitively Andrew Bird fashion. And there isn’t a single dud! We can attribute this unprecedented focus to a new recording process for Bird, who recorded the album live in his family’s barn with his touring band. The new approach paid off tenfold with 14 great songs and a seamless album that’s brimming with the sessions' live energy.
The Lumineers, The Lumineers: I nearly wore this record out over the summer. With the unspeakably catchy "Ho Hey" as their big breakout single, the Denver-based Americana trio’s honest songwriting shines throughout their deceptively simple 11-track debut. Rooted in the loosely buzzing energy of an intimate acoustic house show and accompanied by only the sparsest of arrangements, the natural rise and fall of this album had me listening to it from beginning to end, again and again (usually spending a little extra time on the beautiful "Slow It Down").
Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes, and Old Crow Medicine Show, Big Easy Express: A tour documentary chronicling the inaugural transcontinental trip of the Railroad Revival Tour, Big Easy Express follows Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes and Old Crow Medicine Show as they travel from San Francisco to New Orleans in vintage train cars while performing concerts, throwing impromptu all-night bar car jam sessions and pretty much embodying everything that I’ve ever wanted out of life and music along the way. For a Mumford fan, Babel is a fine 2012 record, but Big Easy Express captures the band at their best while The Magnetic Zeroes and Old Crow Medicine Show offer their own share of truly inspired moments.
Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams: This is the kind of record that perfectly and succinctly encapsulates a singular moment, capturing it so that you can relive it over and over again. It’s jangling guitar riffs and dessert horizons, dreamy vocals and pacific winds, offset drums and wanderlust. With a steady mid-tempo momentum that carries you effortlessly from one track to the next (highlighted by the unshakably addictive "Time To Run"), it’s the kind of record that you can get lost in. And, when you do, I recommend that you stay a while.
Lost in The Trees, A Church That Fits Our Needs: Ari Picker’s intricately orchestrated, deeply intimate 12-track immortalization of his late mother is heartbreakingly beautiful. While the meditation on a mother’s suicide makes up half of the record, the other half is the lush sound of strings, acoustic guitar, percussion and the thick wall of complex instrumentation that Lost in The Trees is known for. When all of these elements converge, such as in the single "Red," the effect is nothing short of haunting. A heavily nuanced album, A Church That Fits Our Needs’ darkly soundtrack-like ambiance pulled me in and held me tight, as if to whisper a closely guarded secret.
The "Return" of Jeff Mangum: The illusive singer/songwriter behind Neutral Milk Hotel has been gradually making his way back to the live stage over the last couple years with a string of sporadic appearances, but his 2012 performance at the massive Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and subsequent announcement of a full-fledged 31-date 2013 US tour, truly cemented his return. Mangum fans, most of whom assumed that they would never hear the reclusive songwriter’s masterpiece album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, played live are shocked and grateful, sometimes to the point of hysteria. No, seriously. I saw Mangum play Lexington, Kentucky’s Boomslang Festival in September and a fistfight broke out during his set because somebody was talking. A fistfight! At a solo acoustic seated theatre concert! I’ve never seen anything like it. Thank you, Jeff Mangum. Thank you.
Kishi Bashi, 151a: You may recognize K Ishibashi from of Montreal or Regina Spektor’s touring lineup. Or maybe not; I sure didn’t. I unwittingly tagged along with some friends to a Kishi Bashi show at a small Cincinnati club, not knowing what to expect, but then… The charming solo violinist’s delightful use of live loops, undeniable indie pop hooks, honest vocals, subtle Japanese pop references and occasional beatboxing left me thrilled and grinning. Rarely have I left a show with such an uncontrollable need to purchase a record, but I had to hear "It All Began With A Burst" again. Luckily, 151a lived up my expectations.
David Byrne and St. Vincent, Love This Giant: Byrne, Clark, and horns. The opening track, "Who," says it all. This album is all about voices and brass. And I’m a sucker for distinct voices and heavy brass. It’s simultaneously experimental and classic. It’s new territory with familiar edges. It pushes while it pulls. From what I’ve heard, it’s not for everyone, but it is most definitely for me.
Alabama Shakes, Boys and Girls: Brittany Howard’s voice is meant for your turntable. But regardless of how you listen to it, Alabama Shakes are an auditory time machine. With soaring rough-around-the-edges vocals straight out of '67, guitar riffs that you’d swear you know from some old song that you just can’t place, and danceable, groovable, shakable tunes, Boys and Girls is my go-to sunny day record.
The Daytrotter Vinyl Series: I’ve been proclaiming that Daytrotter.com is the Internet’s finest website for years and I’m not about to stop now. Featuring daily live sessions from your favorite and soon-to-be favorite bands for a mere $2 a month, you’d be hard-pressed to convince me otherwise. And speaking of pressed, this year Daytrotter got even better by pressing monthly limited-run 12” split LPs of some of their best sessions: The Civil Wars and The Lumineers, Delta Spirit and Doc Watson, Dawes and Justin Townes Earle, Trampled By Turtles and Lucero and White Denim and Maps & Atlases for starters. My favorite digital music now as analog? Yes.
Ohio’s Finest: Southeast Engine’s Canaanville; The Happy Maladies’ New Again; Heartless Bastards’ Arrow; Bad Veins’ The Mess We’ve Made; Pomegranates’ Heaven; and Adam Torres’ Adam Torres.
Honorable Mentions: Dr Dog’s Be The Void; Good Old War’s Come Back As Rain; Punch Brothers’ Who’s Feeling Young Now; Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan; Grizzly Bear’s Shields; Sondre Lerche’s Bootlegs; Ben Sollee’s Live From The Grocery on Home, Jack White’s Blunderbuss; Mumford & Sons’ Babel; and Frightened Rabbit’s State Hospital.
Victor Rasgaitis is a lifelong music advocate, an accomplished audience participant, and a member of the Athens-proud orchestral folk rock band The Ridges.