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were tapped by Woody's daughter Nora to mine gold from the Guthrie archives by writing new music around a batch of unpublished Guthrie lyrics, resulting in a treasure of an album called “New Multitudes.”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.