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Best Albums of 2012

by ANDREW ELIAS

THE BEST album of 2012 (at least my favorite) comes from a young seven-piece band from Chicago called Kids These Days. Their debut album, Traphouse Rock, is a mind-bending musical collage of hard bop jazz, R & B, hip hop rap, rock, and even elements of classical music. These Kids, barely out of high school, have crafted a collection of songs that are both smart and tough, both complicated and accessible at once.

Vic Mensa is proving to be one of the best new rappers on the scene, telling tales of streetlife with both a force and wisdom that belies his youth. Macie Stewart has a sexy and jazzy voice. Nico Segal (trumpet) and J.P Floyd (trombone) have learned well from the jazz giants. The rhythm section is versatile and relentless. And guitarist Liam Cunningham holds them all together.

The album, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, is a glimpse of what popular music will be in the future – rock ‘n’ roll colored with the blues of jazz and accented with the poetry of rap. Nothing exemplifies this more than the last track on the CD, a jazzy medley of James Brown’s ‘It’s a Man’s World,’ updated with rapping and segueing into Gerwshin’s classic ballad, ‘Summertime.’ Available for free download at www.kidsthesedaysband.com.

The band’s trumpeter, Nico Segal, stepped out from behind his horn to release a solo project, Illasoul: Shades of Blue, that showcases his formidable writing and rapping skills. His poetry will touch you with its tenderness and vision, matched by his virtuoso playing. Getting help from Macie Stewart and Vic Mensa of Kids These Days, Segal’s album is every bit as remarkable as his band’s. How a guy in his teens can write and play with such confidence and originality is a wonder. Illasoul: Shades of Blue can be heard on soundcloud.com.

Dr. John has been making great music for more than 50 years, enjoying great popularity in the early ‘70s with hits like ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’ and ‘Iko Iko.’ But his most recent release, Locked Down, just may be his best yet. With The Black Key’s Dan Auerbach producing, leading the band and playing guitar, Dr. John has made an album of mostly topical songs drenched in the dense funk and R & B he’s known for. These are the best songs Dr. John has written in decades and his voice has never been stronger (at age 72!). Auerbach’s tasteful guitar playing, as always, is outstanding.

There is nothing extraordinary about Buddy and Jim, the new CD from Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale. It’s a collection of songs representing an array of what is now often called American music: some folky ballads, a few country rockers, a cajun dance tune, and some swing. What makes this album so special is the ease with which it seems these two guys make it sound so damn good.

Miller has been making great records for years – solo, with his wife Julie and as a bandleader for the likes of Emmylou Harris and Robert Plant. Lauderdale has also been making records for years, but is somewhat better known for his songwriting and adding harmonies to the work of Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, Dwight Yoakam, and others. Here, combining their songwriting and singing talents, they have created an album of traditional songs that sound fresh and new tunes that sound as if they’ve been around for years. Best of the bunch are originals, ‘I Lost My Job of Loving You’ and ‘That’s Not Even Why I Love You,’ and their take on Joe Tex’s ‘I Want to Do Everything For You.’

There might not be anyone in rock ‘n’ roll these days stranger than Jack White. And I mean that only in a good way. His first band, The White Stripes, became popular because of their quirky garage-band blues sound and even quirkier lyrics. His next band, The Raconteurs, pushed the limits of power pop to 21st century extremes. And his most recent band, Dead Weather, has redefined Goth-rock, with its dark songs and dense sound. Now on his own, White is even freer to explore his emotional demons and musical influences and visions.

His solo release, Blunderbuss, is his most daring to date, with songs extending in all directions, from country and folk to soul and funk – all the while keeping it well within his unique psycho-blues sound. And while his signature power guitar is front and center, he adds flourishes of fiddle, mandolin and pedal steel from time to time to great effect. As always, his songs are odd odes to freaky relationships. In ‘Love Interruption’ White sings. “I want love to roll over me slowly/Stick a knife inside me/And twist it all around.” You’re not sure if you should laugh or back off. But one thing is for sure – this CD will make you rock out. Play loud.

Gary Clark, Jr. has been blowing the roofs off clubs in Austin for years but has only recently started to reach a broader audience. Eric Clapton invited him to his Crossroads Guitar Festival, he was asked to play at the White House’s Red, White and Blues event and The Rolling Stones invited him on stage to jam during their televised concert in December. Alicia Keys even had him adding guitar riffs to two of her songs. All with good reason. Clark’s major label debut, Blak and Blu showcases his blistering solos and raunchy singing. Clark’s style is clearly in the Hendrix/Stevie Ray Vaughn mold, but with a touch of the garage-band angst that Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys plays with. Although some of his lyrics are a bit clumsy and cliche, songs like ‘Ain’t Messin’ Round’ and ‘Bright Light’ prove Clark is one of the best young guitarists around. Add to that a medley of ‘Third Stone From the Sun / If You Love Me Like You Say’ that both Hendrix and Johnny Taylor would more than approve of and you have the best blues album of the year.

John Mayer joined Gary Clark, Jr. onstage at the recent Rolling Stones concert to jam on ‘Going Down’ and easily went toe-to-toe with Clark as well as Keith Richards and Ronnie Woods. But Mayer’s 2012 release, Born and Raised, offers a glimpse into another side of the young musician. The album has a more mellow sound and features songs of reflection and humility. Mayer’s guitar playing is understated and tasteful, and his singing smoother than ever – remarkable considering his recent vocal chord problems. What impresses most here is Mayer’s talents at songwriting. Always an excellent lyricist, he breaks new ground with this collection of very personal tunes. ‘Love is a Verb,’ 'A Fool to Love You’, If I Ever Get Around to Living’ and the title track and its reprise are evidence of a personal maturity and musical growth that only enhances his remarkable musical talents.

Elin Ruth is the first full-length CD by Swedish singer/songwriter Elin Ruth Sigvardsson since she dropped her last name. Nominated for a Swedish Grammy as Best New Artist, Elin Ruth now lives in New York City. Her self-produced and self-released album features her special blend of playful pop and twangy country-rock. She has a knack for writing snappy songs with empowering lyrics and horn arrangements straight out of Memphis or Muscle Shoals. And when she sings, the likes of Dusty Springfield and Loretta Lynn and even Carlene Carter come to mind. If there was any justice, the single, ‘Bang’ would be a hit. And songs like ‘Your Love is Loaded’ and ‘Higher (Super Mom)’ indicate an ability to write songs with both humor and insights. Catchy tunes, smart lyrics, strong singing, and outstanding horn arrangements and harmonies, this album is quite an accomplishment from an artist destined for greater fame this side of the Atlantic.

The Rescues are a four-piece band from Los Angeles that make incredibly infectious pop rock. Each member writes and sings as well as plays several instruments. Kyler England and Rob Giles each also have excellent solo releases and Gabriel Mann writes music for TV, including Modern Family. The fourth member of this indie super-group is Adrianne Gonzalez, better known simply as AG. AG released her own digital only EP, The Beatles, which features daring reworkings of early Beatles songs, including ‘Misery,’ ‘There’s a Place’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Man,’ for which she created a gender-bending video that must be seen.

The groups new album, Blah Blah Love and War is available through pledgemusic.com, a website where artists can raise funding for projects and fans can support the independent work of their favorite musicians. It is a wonderful and varied collection of bright pop songs full of layers of guitars and gorgeous four-part harmonies. Since everyone contributes songs and collaborates in varying combinations, the album never gets boring. Some songs are darker (‘Be My Cure’ and ‘Runaway’) and some brighter (‘Everything’s Gonna be Better Next year’ and ‘Did It Really Even Matter?’), but each is confidently complex while being easily accessible. Fans of everyone from Coldplay to Death Cab for Cutie will enjoy this album. The Rescues are not afraid to experiment with their production, instrumentation, harmonies or songwriting. And with the help of their fans – and pledgemusic.com – they are thankfully free to take their music wherever they want to go.

Last of my favorites of 2012 (and these not in numerical order) is Americana, by The 44’s, a Los Angeles-based band that plays blues-infected roots rock in the style of The Blasters, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and their Rip Cat Records’ labelmates. Influenced by bluesmen like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Albert Collins, among others, The 44s ride Johnny Main’s guitar into a world of straight-ahead no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll and Tex ‘The Weeping Willow’ Nakamura’s harmonica howling only adds to the party. The 44s are on fire on this CD. I can only imagine what they’re like when they are playing in a bar.


January-February 2013