Thursday, 27 December 2012

End of Year Review: Music - 10 Favourite Albums of 2012

Skulk, Jim Moray
Jim Moray has shown numerous glimpses of greatness over the years without producing an album that quite brought together his varied influences into a completely satisfying whole. Until Skulk, that is. Encompassing songs as old as the Child-collected “woodland rapist” ballad “Hind Etin” and as new as “If It’s True” from Anaïs Mitchell’s wonderful Hadestown (one of my favourite albums of 2010, by the way), the choice of material is superb, the arrangements fresh with space for idiosyncrasy (dig that scratchy, snuffly noise that ushers in the absolutely exquisite rendering of “Lord Douglas”), the body count satisfyingly high, and Moray has seldom been in more commanding voice. The influence of the revival Greats - Nic Jones, June Tabor, John Martyn, Martins Carthy and Simpson (and the appearance of their collaborators including Tim Harries and Andy Cutting) - connects the record firmly to the tradition. But with Moray operating his amazing arsenal of instruments, and indulging in some seamless and well-judged adaptations of the texts where he sees fit the results feel entirely distinctive, as the music shifts dynamically from acoustic intimacy to widescreen orchestral flourish. And who anticipated a Fleetwood Mac cover which Moray pulls off nicely with his roaring Banjo-led take on “Big Love”? Meanwhile, the heroine’s final declaration to her lover on the jolliest offering here, “The Golden Glove,” proves that their still ain’t no euphemism like folk-song euphemism. Way to go. Concert review here.

Sing the Delta, Iris DeMent
Good things come to those who wait, after all. My review of the long-anticipated Sing The Delta can be read here.

2, Mac DeMarco
The year’s most disarmingly laidback albums came courtesy of this here talented young Canadian. Mr. De Marco built on the promise of his debut Rock and Roll Night Club with a second record whose drifting guitar-lines, lo-fi grooves and woozy, nicotine-stained jams proved entirely beguiling. The standout song “Ode to Viceroy” (a love note to his favourite cigarette brand) sounds like the soundtrack to an Aki Kaurismaki film waiting to happen.

Born to Die, Lana Del Rey
“It’s alarming, truly, how disarming you can be,” coos Ms. Del Rey on “Carmen.” Well said. I find this Lynchian wet dream of an album to be a true guilty pleasure: dubious sentiments wrapped in slick, endlessly seductive arrangements and more killer choruses than you can shake a very big stick at. I can’t resist. Can you?

The Haunted Man, Bat For Lashes
There were a couple of songs I liked on both of Natasha Khan’s previous records but overall neither added up to the sum of their parts for me. Though still never quite becoming the narrative it seems to desire to be The Haunted Man bests both of Khan’s earlier efforts with stronger songs, more direct emotional appeal and less mystic shtick. No American accent fakery, neither.

Tempest, Bob Dylan
The unseemly over-reverence that accompanies any Dylan release these days - “Bob should get five stars just for being Bob” slavered one over-effusive fan-boy reviewer at the time of Tempest’s release - can grate, and after the badly sung kitsch of Christmas in the Heart I wasn’t too sure I wanted to hear another album by His Bobness again, to be honest. But, ever confounding, Dylan followed one of his worst-ever albums with one of his most accomplished recent efforts. Much livelier than Leonard Cohen’s rather laborious Old Ideas, Tempest proves winning throughout, with gorgeously long songs and swinging, swaying roots-rock instrumentation, adding up to Dylan’s most elegant and best-structured work since Time Out of Mind. Even the unpromising closing Lennon tribute “Roll On John” comes off. In short, more than enough great stuff to suggest there’s life in the old Bob yet.

Mirage Rock, Band of Horses
If, around 1975, The Eagles, The Band and Neil Young had formed a super-group then I do believe that the resulting album would have sounded something like Band of Horses’s Mirage Rock, a record that, with Glyn Johns on production duties, gleefully connects back to a musical era that I’d have been very happy to live in. By turns woozy and sturdy, punchy and delicate, the title says it all.

These Old Dark Hills, Robin and Linda Williams
For all its depths and splendours, Iris DeMent’s album didn’t do some things that I expected it to do. With its spirited picking and twanging, heart-warming harmonies and inimitably sympathetic Jim Rooney production, Robin and Linda Williams’s These Old Dark Hills fills those gaps with effortless, timeless grace, and material from sources including Tennyson and Springsteen. The year’s friendliest album? By a country mile.

Elysium, Pet Shop Boys
PSB never meant that much to me when I was discovering pop music as a kid in the 1980s (they weren't produced by Stock Aitken and Waterman, you see...) but I’ve come to love and admire their work more and more as the years have gone on. I wouldn’t say that Elysium ranks as one of the duo’s finest albums (there’s that Olympics uplift song for a start…) but it’s a lovely, accomplished return that features several great tracks. In addition: it’s part of the magic of music that sometimes a certain song will come along and express exactly the thing you needed to hear at exactly the moment you needed to hear it. That happened to me on a train ride home listening to the penultimate track on Elysium – the portentous yet twinkling “Everything Means Something” – and the memory of that moment makes this record particularly special for me.

Gold Dust, Tori Amos
I gave Amos’s orchestral opus a pretty hard time in my review and I still feel that the album is a significant disappointment that plays it way too safe in terms of its approach to the songs and is very far from the creative reinvention it could’ve been. And yet. This record includes so many songs that have affected me so deeply - and continue to do so - that to leave it off this round-up would be not only ungrateful but… silly. For a less reverent response check out this hilarious bit of YouTube-ery.

Dancefloor: “Starships” (Nicki Minaj), “Payphone” (Maroon 5).

From last year: The King is Dead (The Decemberists), Panic of Girls (Blondie)


  1. I missed the Mac DeMarco album, going to add "Ode to Viceroy" to top 100 list

    No surprise Tori Amos features (:

    Have you had a chance to listen to the LP Young Man in America - Anaïs Mitchell ? Pretty good tracks on that release.

  2. Nice list, Alex! I agree with you on the selections that I know: Jim Moray, Iris DeMent, Lana Del Rey, and Pet Shop Boys...actually, I need to give Elysium another listen, since I had time to listen to it only once back when it came out. I should probably give the new Bob Dylan album a try as well.

  3. Chris - Yes, Mr. DeMarco is great. I'll be sure to check out your lists shortly. And yes, no list of mine is complete without an Amos inclusion. Though I think the album as a whole is disappointing (or, at least, after the awesomeness of NIGHT OF HUNTERS, I'd hoped for more) there are several of my all-time favourite songs on there so I can't *not* include it. :-)) I haven't listened to YOUNG MAN IN AMERICA yet. Thanks for the reminder.

    Jason - Thanks. Yes, I think ELYSIUM rewards more listens. TEMPEST I found to be a very pleasant surprise. (Though some musos I know do not agree *at all*.) :-)