George East’s Top Ten Albums of 2012

by George_East on January 21, 2013

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This is a post by George East which was originally posted on 3 January 2013 but which was lost from the site during our recent difficulties.  It is not clear whether the post is complete and unfortunately all comments on the post and any graphics originally posted have been lost.

So time for the big one:  my albums of the year.

2012 was an excellent year for music even if it did not produce an overwhelmingly stand-out album in the way say, John Grant’s Queen of Denmark was in 2010, or the Fleet Foxes‘ eponymous debut in 2008.  Indeed the lack of a truly stand out album has been reflected in the diversity of the critics’ lists.  Last year PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake dominated practically every critic’s list (winning album of the year in NME, Uncut, Mojo and The Guardian, as well as the Mercury Music Prize and an all important 3rd place in my Top Albums of 2011). In contrast this year has not seen any one album get the top slot in more than one of the main critic’s lists.  Indeed if you extend the list beyond the five above to include the Rough Trade Shops Top 100 list and American On-Line Music magazine Pitchfork, there are 7 different No 1s in 7 different lists. The closest there has been to an album of the year is probably Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, which topped the Guardian list, was second placed in both the Mojo and Pitchfork lists, third placed in the NME and fifth in Uncut. It is an album I have to confess I haven’t even heard.  In fact only one of the seven critics lists’ top albums made my top 10.

In sales terms the year was marked by the break out into international stardom of the execrable Mumford & Sons, with their beige brand of bland and intensely irritating folk pop.  Their second album, Babel, was huge and they seemed to be absolutely everywhere.  Please make them go away.

It has also a year that has seen a whole bunch of veteran artists from the 1960s and 1970s release some of their best work in years. Among those oldsters who did not quite make my final cut but released albums I really liked were Neil Young (back with Crazy Horse) with his best album in 20 years, Psychedelic Pill, Leonard Cohen with Old Ideas (Uncut’s album of the year)Bob Dylan‘s Tempest, Bruce Springsteen‘s angriest album since Born In The USA, Wrecking Ball; Public Image Limited – This Is Public Image Limited (from which Lollipop Opera was my favourite dance track of the year) and Ry Cooder with Election Special, which vied with the Springsteen album for my favourite political album of the year. Sadly, I’ve not heard the Scott Walker or Dr John albums yet.

Others albums I liked but which did not quite make it included: Bonnie Prince Billy and The Trembling Bells – The Marble Downs; Alt-J‘s Mercury Music prize winning –An Awesome Wave; Sam Lee – Ground of Its Own;CalexicoAlgiers; The Mark Lanegan Band Funeral Blues, Grizzly Bear – Shields; Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes;Lana Del Rey ‘s Born To Die; The xx’s Co-Exist; NME’s album of the year, Tame Impala – Lonerism; Darren Hayman & The Long Parliament – The Violence; Field Music – Plumb.

Given Jackie South’s challenge the other day, I have to confess that my own internal jury is still out on Jake Bugg.  I probably need to listen properly to him a bit more before I make up my mind.  I loved his initial performance on Later earlier on in the year but he has become a feature of the narrow XFM playlist often on in the background in my kitchen, to the point that he is beginning to get on my nerves.

Oh and I think the excellent Toy are finally a Horrors that I can understand.

So here we go to the list:

1. Bill Fay – Life Is People

Last year I marveled at how my top two albums Gillian Welch‘s, The Harrow and The Harvest and Josh T Pearson’s Last of the Country Gentleman were the first albums by their respective artists for 8 years and 10 years respectively. A mere blink of the eyelid compared to my number one album this year. With Life Is People Bill Fay released his first album of new material since 1971.  Yep, 41 years. I had vaguely heard of him, but had not heard anything by him, until this came out. He was to me one of those slightly mythical singer songwriters of the late 1960s and early 1970s who apparently disappeared without much of a trace.  I have to confess I didn’t even know he was British.

Life Is People is only Fay’s third album.  It saw Fay release a collection of songs he had written at home but never recorded in the intervening period, as well as a stunningly beautiful cover of Wilco’s Jesus Etc ,with just Fay and a piano –  Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, a huge Fay fan, collaborates on one song.

The songs on the album have hymn like qualities, as old man looks back with profound wisdom on the lessons of his life.   It wears its religion on its sleeve, but like great gospel, and much blues and country, you don’t have to be a believer to understand its spirituality. One for the ages.  Truly sublime.

2. Django Django – Django Django

My second favourite album could not be more different from my first.Along with Alt-J, Edinburgh’s Django Django have been pigeonholed as geek pop.  The first track on the album is called + for godsake (yep, you read that right, a plus sign).  For my money Django Django was though superior to their Mercury music winning fellow geeks debut, An Awesome Wave.

Django Django with its addictively repetitive electronic beats and bass lines, sits at the point where the accessible end of Kraut Rock meets the Beach Boys, with a little dash of pyschobilly guitar and a peppering of a Spaghetti Western soundtrack thrown in to the pot. This has become my upbeat record to Fay’s downbeat record of the year (even though if you listen to the lyrics I am far from convinced that, this is the right way round).   It is an album to put on when you want to dance about a bit.  I imagine its tracks go down a storm on the indie disco dance floors that I no longer frequent. The third track on the album,  Default, is probably my favourite of the year.

3. Dexy’s, One Day I’m Going To Soar

It is probably no surprise that Dexy‘s (sans Midnight Runners now, for some reason) first album in 27 years appears in my top 10, given how much I raved the live show in my Top Ten Gigs of 2012 review. This was though a truly startling return to form for Kevin Rowland. This was not an album of hook driven singles. Rather it was an album, which unfolded like a novel (not necessarily a Booker Prize winning novel, more a tawdry romance).   An album about a man falling head over heels in lust with a woman, thinking he’s found love, and then running for the hills once it is reciprocated.

Rowland’s notorious perfectionism which came at such a high price in earlier manifestations of the band delivered exceptional goods on One Day I’m Going To Soar. The centerpiece two songs –I’m Always Going To Love You and Incapable of Love had more melodrama in them than a whole year of a soap opera. This may be Dexy‘s last given the history of the band, so treasure it.

4. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

My live discovery of the year was a bit late. The Lion’s Roar is the second album by the Swedish Soderberg sisters, who make up First Aid Kit.

This is a band who first came to prominence with a Youtube cover of Fleet Foxes‘ gorgeous Tiger Mountain Peasant Song. Although they are in the tradition the pastoral folk rock that has provided so many great musical moments over the last 8 years or so,  First Aid Kit are more like a alt-country indie band than a folk rock act – think Emmylou Harris meets Bright Eyes with better hair, and and you are probably in the right space. Indeed both Conor Oberst and Mike Moggis from Bright Eyes collobarate on the album.

The harmonies are beautifully realised but First Aid Kit can also really rock out. One for Jackie South I suspect.

5. Jack White – Blunderbuss

The single most consistently brilliant artist working at the moment in popular music?  Difficult to think of many others who could challenge for that accolade.

With Blunderbuss Jack White released his debut solo album and his best album, I think, since the second Raconteurs‘ album and possibly since The White Stripes‘ Elephant.

The album is jam packed full of great blues guitar rock. The most rifftastic album of the year, with White howling and screaming over the top like only he knows how.  It is an album you can sit and listen intently to or an album you can just whack up very loud and dance around to.  And in I’m Shakinâ, the best cover version of the year (I’m noivous indeed). This is what great rock music sounds like.

 

6. Lambchop – Mr M

Kurt Wagner returned with Lambchop for their first album since 2008’s disappointing OH (Ohio).

There had been rumours that Wagner had retired the band.  There had been a solo tour and a great album of covers of country songs with Courtney Tidwell, Invariable Heartache.

Mr M saw Lambchop at their best since 2002’s Is A Woman.  The sound was familiar – soul and great American song book influenced alt-country, with Wagner’s croonery almost whispered vocals, with strings . It opens with the best first line of the year: ‘Don’t know what the fuck they talk about’, and continues in Wagner’s trademark wry, funny, poetic lyrics. Gone Tomorrow with its gorgeous line about the wine tasting like sunshine in the basement makes me smile every time I hear it.

7. Richard Hawley –  Standing At The Sky’s Edge

Whereas Lambchop’s album saw a wonderful continuation of what we have come to know and love about Kurt Wagner’s band, Richard Hawley‘s new album, Standing At The Sky’s Edge saw a shift from the crooner ballads that have made his name into a more rocky sound. And it was all the better for it.

Swooping psychedelic guitars and distortion provided the perfect backdrop for a very angry Hawley, infused with bile about the direction of the country under the Coalition.nThe songs were not (or at least mostly not) directly political, but the mood was confrontational and uncompromising.

For the first time Hawley’s album was carried by the guitars rather than his voice. It showed that he is one of the most interesting British artists around and not to be pigeon holed as an ironic chamber pop crooner.

8.  Alabama Shakes – Boys and Girls

Well ‘bless my soul’ as the extraordinary Brittany Howard, lead singer of the Alabama Shakes, seems to say in every song. The Shakes appeared fully formed in April of this year when their debut album was released, after a couple of singles put out by Jack White on his Third Man record label.

They sounded like they had been around since the 1960s both in their sound and the tightness of the playing. It is hard to credit that only a couple of years before they were playing James Brown covers in bars. This was bluesy southern soul at its very best, with the benefit of garage rock guitars. Stax meets Led Zeppelin, with one of the greatest female voices to be discovered in recent years.   The band I most want to see live.

9. Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man In The Universe

Talking of great voices. Damon Albarn (following in the tradition of Rick Rubin) persuaded soul legend Bobby Womack to re-enter the studio to cut his first album in 12 years, and produced the best straight soul album for decades. As with all great soul it traversed the emotional range from cries of deep pain (Please Forgive My Heart) to the hope of redemption through love (Love Is Gonna Lift You Up).

An album of deep and profound beauty from one of the last soul greats.

10. Keaton Henson – Dear

It was just like the old days.  I bought this album on spec in Rough Trade East earlier this year.  I liked the cover.  It had a drawing of a rabbit on the front of it.

In doing so I discovered an exceptional new singer-songwriting talent. From London to boot. The 24 year old self-released this album back in 2010, but it only got a proper release this year (so I think it counts).

It is an exquisite collection of 10 songs about longing and relationships and how they fuck up and how you hope they don’t.  Just as it should be.

Sarah Minor just to take one song at random is of astounding truthful youthful beauty (‘Golden Brown was our soundtrack a long time ago, we spent all our days in lines outside shows’).  Henson’s fragile high vocals over Nick Drake style intricate guitar picking make for a perfect mix. Lovely.

My Top Ten Films of 2012 will follow in February (to coincide with the somewhat less important Oscars and Baftas).

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