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.