Old war horses and frisky colts of every color were loose and running wild in a wide-ranging field of satisfying music last year, and these are the winners I've picked from 2012.
1. Bruce Springsteen “Wrecking Ball” (Columbia) — Rousing blue-collar rock 'n' roll anthems came one after another on Bruce Springsteen's “Wrecking Ball,” reminding us that some artists working the musically rebellious, left side of the street are still alive and well, and timeless.
“Now sometimes tomorrow comes soaked in treasure and blood / We stood the drought, now we'll stand the flood ... We're gonna be all right,” the Boss proclaims on the wondrous “Jack of All Trades,” exhorting the middleclass backbone of the nation to stay strong and straight. In this past election year, Bruce had his blood up, resulting in some of the most inspired and inspiring music of 2012.
2. Neil Young with Crazy Horse “Psychedelic Pill” (Reprise) — When Neil Young declares in that high-lonesome warble, “Hey now, now, I'm driftin' back,” he's not just whistling “Alabama.” The sprawling, two-disc “Psychedelic Pill” — filled with the first new originals Young has recorded with the quintessential California garage band Crazy Horse in nine years — was a return to the grungy groove and ragged glory of his early days. The moody 16-minute-plus rock 'n' roll regret of “Ramada Inn,” the twangy, country-rocking “Twisted Road,” the cantankerous, emotionally burning “She's Always Dancing” and the defiant “Walk Like a Giant” reveal that he's still the angry, idiosyncratic artist, hanging on to the hippie dream and doing his best work in decades with his favorite backing band.
3.Band of Horses “Mirage Rock” (Columbia) — Woodsy, Northwestern-bred Band of Horses' special blend of indie-rock (check out the rollicking “Knock Knock”), country-pop (“How to Live”) and magnificently melancholic acoustic folk (“Slow Cruel Hands of Time”) came within shouting distance of perfection on the group's fourth album outing, “Mirage Rock.”
It's a recipe that won the group a Grammy nomination for its 2010 album “Infinite Arms,” and to fine-tune this tasty Americana-based formula this time out, the band called in the long-standing British king of the studio console, Glyn Johns. Good call.
4.Divine Fits “A Thing Called Divine Fits” (Merge) — The overused “supergroup” label can often mean either a messy ego-clash of frontmen from different hotshot bands that doesn't measure up to anyone's expectations, or a meeting of kindred creative minds that satisfies or exceeds everybody's expectations.
The latter was the case with the trio comprising Britt Daniel (Spoon), Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs) and Dan Boeckner (New Bomb Turks), who share a propensity for creating spare, urgent, percussive alt-pop that is consistently catchy.
Daniel's spiky guitars, rhythmically halting song structures and melodic pop hooks seem to naturally complement Boeckner's new wave synthesizer stylings from the get-go on the throbbing “My Love Is Real” and the stripped-bare, telegraphic rocker “Flaggin' a Ride.” Give us more.
5.Bonnie Raitt “Slipstream” (Redwing) — Bonnie was back and being bad in the best sense of the word, kicking off her first album in seven years with a strutting, slide-stinging cover of Georgia singer-songwriter Randall Bramblett's how-the-mighty-hath-fallen rocker, “Used to Rule the World.” When the fiery-haired blueswoman is feeling ornery she doesn't pull any punches, and “Slipstream” — her best collection of songs since 1989's “Nick of Time” — delivers plenty of solid shots to the heart, such as the combustible, roadhouse-rocking “Down to You.” But when she's feeling vulnerable, as on the atmospheric, after-hours lover's lament “Standing in the Doorway,” or the slow-dancing, troubled lover's plea for understanding, “You Can't Fail Me Now,” she can effortlessly break your heart. Playing it rough-edged or angelically gentle, Bonnie always presents a persuasive case for sweet forgiveness and singing through the pain.
6.The dB's “Falling Off the Sky” (Bar/None) — The original lineup of New Wave, power-popping Southern boys known as the dB's were back together in the studio for the first time in 30 years, and “Falling Off the Sky” sounds like they never took off on all those solo flights. Chief guitar-slinging singer-songwriters Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple anchor this rocking reunion, which includes the garage-band twang and Vox organ strut of Holsapple's “That Time is Gone,” Stamey's guitar-driven, Brit-influenced “Before We Were Born,” and drummer Will Rigby's broken-hearted bubblegummer “Write Back,” which sweeps the listener right back to the heyday of Boyce and Hart, without losing sight of the band's modern edge. With Scott Litt (R.E.M.) and Mitch Easter (Let's Active) producing, the North Carolina-bred players serve up julep-flavored jangle that's sweet going down but still packs a wallop.
7.The Beach Boys “That's Why God Made the Radio” (Capitol) — These senior citizens of the mythic land of endless summer can still issue good vibrations like it's 1966, and their 50th anniversary reunion album is awash with sparkling waves of the Beach Boys' trademark five-part harmonies and big brother Brian Wilson's majestically complex arrangements and production. “That's Why God Made the Radio” was Wilson's first record with the band in 16 years, and the first in decades to feature all of the surviving original members. But except for the happy mid-tempo nostalgia of the title tune, the handclapping love song “Isn't It Time,” and the warm breeziness of “Spring Vacation,” Wilson is moody as he puzzles over the meaning of life amid the orchestral swirl of “Strange World,” or feels the regrets of a love eroded by time on the bittersweet, string-laden “From There to Here,” or resigns himself to the dwindling years on the autumnal and haunting “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer's Gone.” This certainly isn't all “Fun, Fun, Fun,” sounding more often like Wilson's Beach Boys swan song, but if this is the band's last sunset, it is nonetheless a beauty to behold.
8.Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Yim Yames, Anders Parker “New Multitudes” (Rounder) — For Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday, Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Gob Iron, ex-Uncle Tupelo), Will Johnson (CentroMatic, South San Gabriel, Monsters of Folk), Yim Yames (aka Jim James, My Morning Jacket, Monsters of Folk) and Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron) were tapped by Woody's daughter Nora to mine gold from the Guthrie archives by writing new music around a batch of unpublished Guthrie lyrics, resulting in a treasure of an album called “New Multitudes.”
The standout track, “Hoping Machine,” received Farrar's signature treatment of mellow acoustic strumming and low-register electric tremolo twang.
A 1949 poem called “No Fear” was set to music by Johnson, the words filled with shadowy imagery of disease and doom, but transformed into a folk-rock anthem of chiming, fuzz-tone, Byrds-like guitars behind Johnson's rasping, angst-filled vocals. Yames brought melancholy beauty to “My Revolutionary Mind,” singing words of yearning for “a progressive woman,” while Parker put electrified folk-rock touches to “Old L.A.” And there's much more where those nuggets come from in this handsome, heartfelt celebration of Woody's centennial year.
9.Nada Surf “The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy” (Barsuk Records) — Throw the new Nada Surf album in the player or on the turntable and you've got summer in January.
It's true that this alternative trio from New York often write lyrics as bleak as bare trees against a gray winter sky, but its stock-in-trade is setting words of sweet sorrow and restless longing against a blue-sky backdrop of pulse-quickening hooks and bright choruses better than anyone this side of the Beatles, the Byrds or Big Star.
They worked their power-pop manna-from-heaven magic again.
10.Father John Misty “Fear Fun” (Sub Pop) — Former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman issued this declaration of independence after being obscured behind that group's Graham Nash sound-alike frontman Robin Pecknold for too long. Reinventing himself as the right trippy “Father John Misty,” Tillman created a thing of electrifying beauty and rocking originality that included such melodic dreamworks as “Funtimes in Babylon,” a slow, breezy ballad that incorporates a small orchestra of acoustic guitars and a female choir behind Tillman's vocals, which bear a strong resemblance to the operatic stylings of Roy Orbison.
This crazily elegant mix of eccentric folk, country, mid-period Beatles and Led Zeppelin influences and Tillman's own odd muse made this one of the first really refreshing musical surprises of 2012.