The best pop music of 2012 boiled down to one thing – rebirth.
In some cases, that meant pairing veterans with new generation producers. In other instances, it meant reenergizing and even reinventing the past, reaching a more realized level of songcraft and capitalizing on solo careers that had remained in the shadows of more established ensemble projects.
Sure, there were impressive debuts by the likes of Frank Ocean and Alabama Shakes. We experienced vital comebacks by warhorses Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. Multi-stylistic works by Antibalas and John Cale also demanded attention.
All were considered for a spot on a list of the year’s finest pop recordings. But in the end, the most lasting music of 2012 came down to rediscovery.
Here, then, is a critic’s pick look at the year’s Top 10.
1. Dr. John: Locked Down – With the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach as producer and chief collaborator, Dr. John returns to his gris-gris roots. But faithful as the resulting sound is to the funky, spiritual slant of his early ‘70s records, Locked Down still echoes with the pain and neglect of present day New Orleans.
2. Kelly Hogan: I Like to Keep Myself in Pain – “A laundry list in aclenched fist,” sings one of indie pop’s great unheralded singers at the onset of this extraordinary set. As vocalists, Hogan ranks as an equal to longtime friend and collaborator Neko Case. The record’s torch song ruminations seal the deal.
3. Jimmy Cliff: Rebirth – The comeback album of 2012 surfaces in a session that teams one of reggae’s all-time greats, still possessing a voice full of gospel-esque fervor and joy, with a sympathetic disciple of a producer (Rancid’s Tim Armstrong). Worldly in tone and forever sunny in temperament, Rebirth is exactly that.
4. Andrew Bird: Break It Yourself – With each successive record, the great Chicago song stylist, violinist and, yes, whistler, equalizes his talents. With Break It Yourself, Bird’s singing and songcraft have finally caught up with his considerable musical ingenuity. An album ripe with exquisite pop expression, lyricism and imagery.
5. Patterson Hood: Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance – On his third album away from Drive-By Truckers, Hood relishes in songs that still reflect the dark, rural mystery his band is known for. But a sense of family loss and renewal serve as strong undercurrents on an album that offers an intimate yet autumnal feel.
6. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Psychedelic Pill – The second of two 2012 albums that reunite the forever restless Young with the forever unrefined Crazy Horse is a wonderful indulgence. Songs stretch on for as long as 28 minutes with ragged, electric grooves that seldom shift. What results is an album is that is playfully and purposely hypnotic.
7. Chuck Prophet: Temple Beautiful – Intended as a love song to San Francisco, Prophet concocts another crafty slab of rock ‘n’ roll jubilation. The themes grow stormy and reflective at times. But amid all the killer guitar hooks and power pop melodies, Prophet has created the best Tom Petty album that Petty never made.
8. Bob Mould: Silver Age – The former frontman of Husker Du and Sugar returns to what he does best – ultra basic power trio songs that rock with clear-headed attitude, a touch of ageless fury and the tempering element of an expertly designed melody. Silver Age is a garage rock album suitable for any age.
9. Spectrum Road: Spectrum Road – A cross-generational tribute to the very electric music of the late Tony Williams, Spectrum Road is an alliance between John Medeski, Vernon Reid, Cindy Blackman Santana and a veteran of the primal fusion wars that served alongside Williams – Jack Bruce. An instrumental volcano of an album.
10. Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale: Buddy & Jim – Miller and Lauderdale are scholars of traditional country music. But Buddy & Jim is no revivalist exercise. Rhumba beats, Cajun colors, honky tonk fiddle tunes, Louvin Brothers-style harmonies and the rocking charge of The Wobble highlight the year’s top Americana party album.