Pop Goes Another Year
Here are my 10 album picks from 2012.
Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (Def Jam). Modern R&B finds a refreshing pulse in the stark depths of Ocean, who sings of chasing highs and plumbing lows—including his unrequited love for a man—on this brave debut. When the Kanye West/Jay-Z associate and Odd Future member pines in falsetto, it sounds like he’s peeled open his heart.
Dr. John, Locked Down (Nonesuch). The New Orleans voodoo king resurrects his heady gumbo groove with Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach as producer. They cowrite with a loose-limbed, simpatico band that draws from Dap-Kings soul and Afrobeat, creating a sick bed to support the doctor’s laid-back growl.
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser… (Epic). Raw nerves unfurl anew in Apple’s confessional ruminations, made all the more pointed with sparse arrangements around her piano and coproducer Charley Drayton’s percussion. “I just want to feel everything,” she sings at the outset—and that’s quite a range to share.
Jack White, Blunderbuss (Third Man). Freed of commitments to the White Stripes and subsequent bands, White blasts away under his own name, spinning gothic songcraft that straddles rock, blues and country, building his persona without losing the mystique.
Tame Impala, Lonerism (Modular). The alpha in this herd of young Aussie voyagers, Kevin Parker clomps through phase-shifted psychedelic pastures steeped in analog synths and Beatles-esque harmonies. Producer Dave Fridmann gives the magical mystery tour a sheen that recalls his work for the Flaming Lips and MGMT.
Bob Dylan, Tempest (Columbia). His concerts can be a crapshoot, but at age 71, America’s folk-rock bard remains at home in the studio, his craggy voice fitting his ornery lyrics. The album culminates in a 14-minute recitation about the Titanic and an ode to John Lennon, daunting moves for anyone who’s not Dylan.
Japandroids, Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl). “We yell like hell to the heavens,” the maximalist Vancouver duo shouts on the lead track of their sophomore album, an unabashed rush of adrenalized garage-punk that compels listeners with infectious physicality. A more established producer might better define the blunt churn of noisy guitar and chaotic drums, but that could disrupt the thrust. Japandroids’ gnashing glee embodies youthful abandon.
Gary Clark Jr., Blak and Blu (Warner Brothers). The latest hot gunslinger from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s hometown of Austin, Texas, takes aim at a new generation. Clark proves he can sing as well as sting across a palette of blues, rock, soul and even hip-hop on this slickly produced yet grittily potent full-length debut.
Jay Farrar/Will Johnson/Anders Parker/Yim Yames, New Multitudes (Rounder). Indie-folk friends, including frontmen from Son Volt and My Morning Jacket, craft music and moods around Woody Guthrie lyrics, forging an apt centennial tribute. Lines between the players blur as they equally split songwriting and harmonies through forays in sepia-toned melancholy and woolly rock riffs.
Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society (Concord). This Berklee-bred bassist/singer snagged jazz’s first Best New Artist Grammy before she even dropped this impeccably crafted crossover dream. If only smooth jazz were this sophisticated. Masters Joe Lovano and Jack DeJohnette nod to Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan while hip-hop avatar Q-Tip hones beats, and producer Spalding soars like a bird with her airy vocals. Considering she began as an instrumentalist, watch out when she develops her songwriting.