Best Albums Of 2012

December 24, 2012
9 mins read

BEST? WHAT’S BEST, anyway? One thing the universe of new music exposed online proves is that there is no definitive ‘best of’ for any year, just what a bunch of assholes believe to be the best, viewed through their own lenses.
I’m just another of those assholes, but this year more than any other before it, I’ve become more conscious of the fact that the best things I’ve heard in 2012 are probably not the best things, per se.
I’ve now been reviewing albums, more or less continuously, since 1979. Back then, my world was defined by New Musical Express and Creem magazines, and although both were considerably broader than their 21st Century contemporaries, if I could turn back time I doubt that I’d be impressed second time round.
Had I the financial resources, my best of year list would no doubt be full of the latest electronic hybrids, and probably a fair sampling of exotic sounds from the whole world diaspora. Had I the time resources, I might have trawled through the various online portals that exist to discover new, obscure and amazing music I never knew existed. The reality is sobering – increasingly I spend my time on non-music journalism, and this year, more than any other, I’ve had to rely for my music fix on whatever the few remaining record companies, distributors and importers bother to send me.
One more thing: I’m still raging in vain against digital review samples, because – in a bold and possibly stupidly anachronistic move – I still find that music sinks in best when I’m actually listening to it in an actual lounge in the sweet spot of my actual stereo speakers. I like to engage with music, listen to music, and as much as I’m sure I will be named as curmudgeon of the year for this, I don’t see how multitasking with music on in the background can constitute genuine listening.
I’m envious of the Simon Sweetmans and Graham Reids of this world, because they have an incredible capacity for endless productivity. Reid claims to have reviewed over 200 albums on his Elsewhere site this year, and I hate to think how many Sweetman has got his fangs into on his Stuff site Blog On The Tracks. Some days, I swear, by the time I’ve gone for my dawn walk and had my first coffee, Sweetman is already online boasting about having listened to three or four albums, as well as finishing some huge biographical tome and watched a movie. And the guy’s got a new baby, too!
Yes, it’s true that I’m feeling a little old-guard in my listening habits (as opposed to the music I’m listening to), but I like to harbour the illusion (?) that it’s not necessary to change one’s modus operandi to suit the demands of the internet, and pump out loads of short, superficial reviews to get the most ‘hits’. I like the idea that somehow, if I just keep doing it my way, in my own time, then the internet will bend to my way of thinking. I can but dream.
Anyway, the main point of all this is that I know that the list below isn’t the list, it’s simply representative of what I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing this year.
One more thing: I always think the stinkers and clunkers are just as interesting as the records that really rock, so I’ve appended some of these at the end.

Best Of 2012 (in no particular order)

Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
I wrote (in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Metro):
“It’s a rare thing, this. Something from the edges of the pop industry that sounds like nothing else; something you could spend days, months or years getting into your system; something that genuinely interrogates and engages with the senses; something unfathomably bleak that’s also, somehow, comforting. And then there’s that voice. A kind of magic.”

David Byrne & St Vincent – Love This Giant
I wrote: “The fidgety, hyperthyroid nerd on drugs of early Talking Heads may be a thing of the distant past, but Byrne’s lines are as elliptical, sharp, playful and surprising as ever, and the sum total of his contributions, together with Clark’s 21st Century torch singing and the sheer joy of those horns, make for a superb album.”

Grimes – Visions
Sadly, I didn’t get to review this, but it has charmed its way into my system over the course of sporadic sessions. This is what I wanted Julee Cruise to turn into when she set herself loose from David Lynch.

Dr John – Locked Down
I wrote: “Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach clearly knew there was another Dr John worth conjuring from history, this one an early ‘70s concoction of electric juju grooves that went by the name ‘the Night Tripper’, and embraced the session slickness of LA along with a vocal style that channelled those gravel-voiced titans, Howlin’ Wolf and Captain Beefheart.”

Grizzly Bear – Shields
I wrote: “It’s as if they’ve been marinading with confit of Supertramp and the Moody Blues. But you know what? They make it work. Where Olympic themesters Muse turn their soaring, exhilarating climaxes into phallic eruptions of masturbatory pomp, the New York quartet achieve quite the opposite effect with the same technique. And it works because the voices of Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste are both natural and open and their impassioned climaxes are like open wounds searching for sensitive sutures.”

Cat Power – Sun
I wrote: “As reinventions go, Sun shines. Sure to polarise fans still stricken with the smoky blues of her last album, The Greatest (2006), Sun sees Chan Marshall alone in the studio, playing nearly everything, internalising her muse to the sound of programmed beats and a bed of electronics.”

Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral
I wrote: “There’s plenty of swagger, earthiness, intelligence and style all thrown together in a rootsy stew that then goes out of its way to annoy the purists with drum machines and atmospheric electronic textures. The perfect aesthetic mix for 4AD, really.? Sometimes, Lanegan’s music gets on a one-chord groove that has haunted rock since Bo Diddley, but other times there are walls of Mellotrons, just to evade any fitting into templates that reviewers are so prone to do.”

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
I wrote: “Laughing Len, who sounded positively geriatric on his first album back in 1968, is now a sprightly 77 and thusly, gifts us with a selection of songs clearing the cobwebs and hurt and anger from a life of love, and songs in preparation for the great eternal.”

Neil Young – Psychedelic Pill
Somehow, I haven’t gotten around to reviewing this latest double album from Old Yeller. Yet. But it’s that rare thing in a terrific line of blunders: a fantastic Neil Young album. And it’s worth is for all 26 sublime moments of the opening track, ‘Driftin’ Back’.

Field Music – Plumb
I wrote: “Early contender for album of the year, Field Music’s fourth album is both rare and ravishing because, in the devalued currency of pop/rock, here’s a work that aims for the highest peaks.”

Beth Orton – Sugaring Season
I wrote: “That voice isn’t the most commanding of instruments, but she uses it with tremendous skill, painting her breath against the sonic canvas with the agility of a high-wire trapeze artist, and more importantly, sensing precisely the nuance and timing required with which to wrap her mouth around the words. Ah yes, the words. Orton has been captured and captivated by nature, and most of the time, natural phenomena is the window through which she explores her emotional psychogeography, and it’s what grounds her on this, her best yet.”

SJD – Elastic Wasteland
I wrote: “It’s maybe the best thing he’s done, though topping previous work like Lost Soul Music or Southern Lights is a tough ask. While the music itself is all electronically generated, the record feels organic because of Donnelly’s layered vocals, and the rich, almost orchestral timbres he utilises, which pile on emotive qualities. Like all SJD albums, this one needs soaking in, but right off the bat, it’s quite brilliant. No one save Donnelly’s occasional musical playmate Don McGlashan gets close to this kind of expertly forged pop symphonic.

Elbow – Dead In The Boot
I wrote: “Don’t you love it when you chance upon an odds and sods compilation by a critically revered group, and you love it, and you think, ‘if only I liked their proper albums as much as this’??Such is the case with Dead In The Boot, where 12 years’ worth of b-sides and demos allow the group to show what they’re like when they let their hair down, and when the stakes aren’t as high, commercially speaking.”

Andy Stott – Modern Love
One of the few electronic releases that have really gelled for me this year, and I almost missed it. Thanks to the friend who sent it my way, I’m in the early stages of being enraptured by this gorgeous, if wintery record.


Can – The Lost Tapes
Emerson Lake & Palmer catalogue
Frank Zappa catalogue
Jethro Tull – Thick As A Brick (40th Anniversary Set)
The Beatles – Yellow Submarine (DVD)
Captain Beefheart – Bat Chain Puller

High praise to NZ label Rattle, New Zealand’s answer to German label ECM, which keeps popping out albums that defy genre/categorisation, all of them of an extraordinarily high standard of conception, production, recording/engineering, performance and packaging. Bravo, Mr Steve Garden.

Sad & Bad

Paul McCartney – Kisses On The Bottom
I wrote: “Turns out McCartney’s favourite music was always the tunes he grew up with – smoochy, silly love songs from the American songbook by writers like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer. And now he’s recorded an album’s worth of them, with Diana Krall’s band. Sadly, even using Nat King Cole’s original microphone hasn’t stirred McCartney to turn out credible vocal performances, and that’s the project’s biggest weakness.”
The Darkness – Hot Cakes
I wrote: “Hot Cakes, right from its cover picture of honey-drenched darlings to its 11 pathetic attempts to mine the catatonic trash of every third-rate good time bunch of hopeless rock losers, reeks of a desperate attempt to connect again with the idea of fun.”

Muse – The 2nd Law
I wrote: “2nd Law, shows signs of boredom and stadium fatigue, and their reaction is to ramp everything up to preposterous levels on phallic explosions like ‘Survival’, the song they chose to exhibit to overwhelming audience bemusement at the aftermath of the Olympic Games. It may have worked if they’d carried the conceit through the whole album, but it’s only on the final two tracks that they hint musically at the theme of corporate lawlessness and resultant environmental end-of-times that runs lyrically through most of the record. Instead, they use orchestras and choirs like silly putty, fiddle with retro-disco and spend far too much time sounding like U2 if Bono went all the way to Broadway. And it’s quite horrible.”

Mark Knopfler – Privateering
So very bad it put me to sleep in record time.

Bob Dylan – Tempest
I wrote: “Approach Tempest like a debut by a new artist and its true colours are soon revealed: the band is hot, like a well-rehearsed country and western bar band, but the old codger whose name adorns the cover has a tendency to gargle lines that sound pulled from the air. But believe it or not, when the band have got their groove on, and Dylan is mumbling away like a pensioner at karaoke doing his best grizzled Tom Waits affectation, Tempest is at its best.”


Rodriguez – Searching For Sugar Man
I wrote: “Mythology building can be a hazardous job, especially when the music doesn’t live up to the promise of a fascinating backstory. Such is the case here. Listening to Rodriguez for the first time, there was no doubt in my mind why his career never got airborne. While it’s clear that he was infatuated with early Dylan, his abilities with a lyric are limited, and dated. Besides which, the orchestrations are all wrong, and so is the image. It’s not that Rodriguez couldn’t have cut it without aping Dylan visually, or that using horns and string sections necessarily spoiled his chances; just that the way it all sticks together is no more convincing than the thousands of other chancers bobbing around in Dylan’s large shadow in the early ‘70s.”

John Cale – Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood
I wrote: “Cale sounds baffled and punch-drunk, and the songs seem half-finished. I want to like Cale, because he’s a true maverick, and an old-fashioned incorrigible old auteur. But no, not this time.”

The Homebrew album. Sure, it was fun, and who wouldn’t enjoy hearing John Key being dissed on a hip-hop record? But there’s nothing special or even very contemporary about the slightly jazzy grooves on this album, and Tom Scott’s accent is so bogus it’s my guess that the hype will soon die away.

Various Artists – Time To Go: The Southern Psychedelic Moment

That the most tedious singer/songwriter ever, ever, Paul Kelly, still hasn’t retired.

Note to Witchdoctor readers: I’m sure you’ve all got your own 2012 favourites you’d love to talk about, so head over to the Witchdoctor forums here and have your say. Go on, it can’t hurt!

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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