5. Undun by The Roots – I bought Undun and El Camino by The Black Keys in December of last year as I finalized the 2011 lists. I forgot about El Camino after the second or third time it made the perilous transfer from my CD player back to a sleeve in my overstuffed CD wallet. But I came back to Undun all year. It’s not the perfect hip-hop album from a DV standpoint (If such a thing could even exist), but it may be close. The Roots are the best hip-hop band in America. Granted, there aren’t many of them (N.B. at least that I know about), because hip-hop is not a medium that lends itself to a band. Collectives maybe, Wu-Tang and Odd Future being prime examples. But bands, there aren’t many. The Roots are an Afro-ed head (N.B. with a pick) and shoulders above the rest. Undun, a reverse song cycle and about life and death in the streets, backed by killer samples and ever killer-er instruments, may be the best ever expression of the unique set of talents The Roots have. It may even be their magnum opus. They’ve rocked harder before, laid cooler beats, but Undun is complete. Everything they appeared to want it to be, master directors with no studio limitations to impede their vision. The Roots may one day make a better album than this, but if they don’t, Undun will be the example they leave as to what hip-hop bands can be. And that’s an achievement.
Highlights: Kool On, The Lighthouse, and The OtherSide
4. Local Business by Titus Andronicus – My favorite albums of a given year tend to follow a similar arc. (1) They drop. (2) I either read positive press about it, the artist has ascended to immediately acquire anything new they release status (N.B. DBT, Arcade Fire, Pearl Jam, The National, Waits, The Boss, The Roots, and Wilco), or the artist is in the middle ground where I really liked their previous album(s), and I just need a little affirmation (read: preview) of what they’re doing now to commit. (3) I’m immediately obsessed with given album and listen to it 24/7 for a number of weeks, convincing myself that no other album released or to be released that year will ever top it. (4) I completely forget about it for awhile. (5) It resurfaces after a few forgotten weeks and I fully assess its quality/learn how great it is. When I began sorting out these rankings, Local Business had slipped out of stage three and into stage four. That is, it almost didn’t make the first draft. As I continued to think though it, stage five began, and I began to recognize how great this album is. It’s not as convention altering as their prior release, but it rocks better, smoother maybe, with more refined points. To compare Titus to P.T. Anderson, The Monitor would have been their Magnolia, where Local Business is more their Punch Drunk Love. Equally brilliant, just smaller, more nuanced. (N.B. And let’s hope this comparison continues because next up will Titus’ There Will Be Blood, which could only a dystopian indie-punk shit show.) But what Local Business has done for certain is ensure that whatever Titus’ next album is, it will be in WD’s hands the day it drops.
Highlights: In a Big City, Still Life with Hot Deuce and a Silver Platter, and (I am the) Electric Man
3. Boys & Girls by Alabama Shakes – The first album I fell in love with in 2012. I’ll cop to a little pride since I “discovered”/recommended them fairly early only to see The Shakes now nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy. Boys & Girls was definitely my Drive-by Truckers fix for 2012. Not that they sound(or are) anything similar (N.B. Other than the Alabama shit…the southern thing), it seemed the most organic music I listened to this year. And my favorite instrument of 2012 is undoubtedly Brittany Howard’s voice. Equal parts Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin. Subtle and beautiful, but with the capacity for untold megatons when required. (N.B. And the fucking whistle to top it off.) The band behind it is tight, and if some of the live performances I’ve seen are indication will only get tighter, more thorough. While Boys & Girls in tremendously fantastic (certainly meriting its rank in this list), I have to admit that at least a portion of the praise I’ve heaped on Alabama Shakes is the vision I have for the band, what I want them to become, and the ground I want them to break on their second album (N.B. Well prolly third, because let’s be honest, most second albums suck. (N.B. as I have listed no fewer than 4 second albums in this top 15…)). I want a hybrid of Jack White, Rick Rubin, and Cody ChesnuTT to produce them, and want the result to be game changing indie-southern-neo-soul (N.B. Trademark). And then I want to go back and listen to that four song EP that guaranteed I’d buy Boys & Girls the day it dropped so I can remember this band on the verge of greatness.
Highlights: Hold On, Rise to the Sun, and You Ain’t Alone
(N.B. For you CD burning dorks (more next week) but an argument can be made that if one were to combine the first half of Boys & Girls with the last half of Celebration Rock, 2012’s rock and roll oeuvre would be complete…at least I did it, and it kills.)
2. Celebration Rock by Japandroids. I said last week that only a small percentage of me isn’t a 34 married father who likes his music eloquent and his lyrical sentiments complex. However, it’s that small percentage that sits in his house with an asleep kid and an asleep wife, sips a stout and writes this (ahem) music blog week after week. And it’s that percentage that will always need rock to be a loud and turbulent explosion that he can get passionate about, and for that percentage, Celebration Rock was the perfect album at the perfect time.
I wrote initially that Celebration Rock was aptly named given the Japandroids’ story and all that they now had to celebrate. But after several (N.B. Let’s be honest, hundreds) more listens, I want to modulate that initial analysis. The first half of CR is indeed that celebration, starting with fireworks, then the party: We yell like hell to heavens! — One night to have to hold / to let live but never let go! — wilderness is our treasure / so boldly surrender / to me and to the night!
But with each track the party starts to become more burdensome, more fraught with consequences. Maybe they’re going through the motions of that forever young party, and they realize it.
Until the final three tracks where these realizations and conclusions are made…no matter how fun it is, nothing will make us young forever: Remember saying things like we’ll sleep when we’re dead/ and thinking this feeling was never gonna end. Followed by the triumphant concession of the penultimate track about which more will be written, and ending with a conversation: and if the cold, pissing rain flooded that fire [when we’re no longer young] / would you still take my hand tonight?
And that’s the 34 year old married father telling Mr. small percentage “it’s OK, dude. We’re in this together.” The thunder is continuous…and that’s what the fireworks at the end are celebrating. Not the non-stop party, and not a fond reflection of youth, but that it can continue…Continuous Thunder…you have to let it. If not the party, then the part of you built for the party. Maybe the party should end, but the partyer doesn’t have to.
Rock is supposed to make you feel alive. Introspection is an aside sometimes worth it, sometimes not. With Celebration Rock, Japandroids find the balance, make the introspection worth it, deliver a message the resounds with me, but never sacrifices the rock. It’s an album that I’ll treasure and that I’ll need when life threatens to beat back that small percent forever buried within me.
Highlights: The House that Heaven Built, Adrenaline Nightshift, Younger Us, and Continuous Thunder.
1. 2012’s WD Album of the Year: Blunderbuss by Jack White: Nerd Alert. In the Game of Thrones novels when dragons come back into the world after a long absence they make everything that was once mystical, more powerful, better, stronger. Forces and powers long dormant are reanimated because of the re-birth of dragons. To a certain extent their presence motivates every character, maybe even the entire long (fucking long) story. Dragons ignite the world.
Jack White is rock and roll’s dragon. His re-birth as a solo artist back into the rock world made everything better. He changed the game for the entire year. Everything sounded better, seemed cooler, and was weirder because Jack Gillis, III stretched his wings for twelve tracks of his unique blues/rock bliss.
I noticed listening to it a month or so ago that musically, Blunderbuss may be better than anything The White Stripes ever did. Meg, at times the perfect counter-weight to Jack’s tendency to be weird for weird’s sake, was never a technically good drummer. Her limitations constrained what they could do musically, but the brilliance of The White Stripes was what they could do within those constraints. Think of the most beautiful black and white painting, or a perfect vanilla milkshake. That was the Stripes. Jack’s wandering genius forced to obey Meg’s percussive limits. And it worked beautifully.
But toward the end, The White Stripes’ tunes seemed frustrated by those limitations. Listen to Little Cream Soda or Conquest from Icky Thump. Like they had to get weird to keep it interesting because they couldn’t get better. Then they ended before it could insist upon itself. As heartbroken as I was at the time, after hearing Blunderbuss, I understand it was the right thing.
And now, after dabbling in some interesting sounding side projects, Jack decided it was time to come back, and to energize the world. Success. The musicians he employs on Blunderbuss exceed Meg in every way. He exploits them, and he’s free to roam. But none of it is ever unfamiliar. It’s a sampling of everything the Stripes ever did well, matured, refined, and exemplified. If you ever loved The White Stripes, when you heard Blunderbuss, you heard what the Stripes may have been at their zenith.
But what he gained in musicianship, he gave back in the chubby cheeked sweetness tender Meg gave The White Stripes. This is both good and bad. He reaches heights on Blunderbuss that he never would have with Meg. But there’s also an undercurrent of musical snobbiness that I had to catch myself ignoring. This…is how good I can be. And it’s great.
But I forgive him, because he’s a genius. He’s the dragon. And this is the album of the year.
Everyone have a Merry Christmas.