The Best Albums of 2012

Photo courtesy of Bruce Springsteen

In With the New, In With the Old:  From about 1975 to 1988, Bruce Springsteen pretty much owned my turntable and later CD player, his records were great, his concerts were greater, but since then not so much. So it's a huge and unexpected thrill to see Bruce atop this list. We've always a had a giant soft spot for new and independent singer-songwriters, and they are well represented (#4 through #9), but we have never had so many oldsters on a year-end review. It's amazing how many artists who have been around for 30+, 40+, or even 50 years (the Beach Boys), released albums this year that rival the best work of their careers. Here are my picks for the best albums of 2012.

1. Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball

Listen to "Wrecking Ball"

It Takes a Village, Baby:  The death of Clarence Clemons left a giant hole in Bruce Springsteen's band. The loss of keyboard player Danny Federici a few years ago also necessitated a rethink. The resulting expansion of the E Street Band could be felt both in concert and on his latest album, Wrecking Ball. On the Wrecking Ball tour, early on in each concert Bruce introduces the band, and after introducing the E Street Horns, the violinist, and the E Street Chorus, "To do what we came here to do tonight, it takes a village baby."

Wrecking Ball works both on record and live, the New York Times said "Bruce Springsteen’s redoubtable Wrecking Ball tour merged the politics of class warfare with musical uplift." Bruce made such compelling music on his first seven studio albums, that as each succeeding album grew more and more issue oriented, the music became more and more one dimensional. The genius of Wrecking Ball is that for the first time Bruce has incorporated the issues that he cares deeply about, into music that is completely compelling once again. We've seen Bruce live many times over the years, but now, forty years on in his career, he's never been better than he is right now on the Wrecking Ball tour. Read our live reviews here and here.

2. Bonnie Raitt - Slipstream

Listen to "Used To Rule The World"

Killer Slide Guitar:  On her last album, Souls Alike (2007), Bonnie Raitt had begun moving away from the Grammy winning production style that had begun to seem formulaic, producing the album herself for the first time in her long and very distinguished career. With Slipstream she gave up the major label affiliation she's had all these years and plunged headlong into complete independence, releasing the latest on her own label. After a seven year layoff Bonnie returned with a record that succeeds on every level. Great songs that roughly divide between blues and R&B drenched rockers like Randall Bramblett's "Used To Rule The World", and soulful bluesy ballads like Bob Dylan's "Standing In The Doorway".

Slipstream has tremendous guitar work throughout including Bonnie's own killer slide guitar, with a heaping helping of Hammond B3 and Wurlitzer organ; the album just sounds amazing. Bonnie did four tracks at Joe Henry's studio, with Joe producing (two Dylan songs from Time Out of Mind, and two of Joe's own compositions). Bonnie produced the rest of the record, including a Paul Brady tune and a superb reggae inflected cover of Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down the Line". The balance of the album was mostly co-written by band members and longtime friends, making them originals. Bonnie's voice and her slide have never sounded better. Forty-plus years into her career, Bonnie Raitt is at the peak of her powers, and I find Slipstream more satisfying than anything since her first album.

3. Van Morrison - Born To Sing: No Plan B

Listen to "Open the Door (To Your Heart)"

Best Album Title:  When Van Morrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was described thusly: "His travels have led him down pathways where he's explored soul, jazz, blues, rhythm & blues, rock and roll, Celtic folk, pop balladry, and more, forging a distinctive amalgam that has Morrison's passionate self-expression at its core. With a minimum of hype or fanfare, working with a craftsman's discipline and an artist-mystic's creativity, Morrison has steadily amassed one of the great bodies of recorded work in the 20th century." We wholeheartedly agree.

Van Morrison follows his muse wherever it leads, and on Born To Sing: No Plan B it finds him performing an inspired set of new original compositions with a crack jazz band with a most agreeable sound, and an uncanny ability to deliver the goods no matter what style or influence is needed, from jazz to soul to R&B, to the John Lee Hooker style blues Van uses to tribute Hooker on the wonderful "Pagan Heart".

The six piece band consists of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards (piano and Hammond organ), trombone, and tenor sax (and clarinet). In addition to the vocals and the songwriting, Van played electric guitar, piano, alto sax, and he produced the album. The arrangements, production, and engineering are so good that it feels like they are right in the room with you, especially the great sounding sax and trombone solos. Morrison sounds relaxed and on top of his game and despite his reputation for sometimes being angry or cantankerous, here he sounds like he's actuality having fun.

4. Shayna Zaid and the Catch - Lighthouse

Listen to - "It's You"

A Work of Uncommon Beauty:   Shayna Zaid has, over the past few years, assembled an amazingly talented band and together they have worked tirelessly on their music, both on stage and in the studio. The results of all that work are evident on Lighthouse, her first full length American album. The songwriting on Lighthouse is a collaboration between Shayna and the Catch that excels on every track. Shayna's voice is deep, soulful, and beautiful.

The album is almost entirely acoustic with the sound of the band being the combination of acoustic guitar and violin or acoustic guitar and mandolin. This is a work of uncommon beauty; you won't find another singer that sounds anything like Shayna and you won't hear another band that sounds remotely like The Catch. This is a totally original record that is a perfect delight for the ears as well as the heart. Read the complete review.

5. Kirsten Proffit - My Devotion

Listen to "Flood and Fire"

Not Your Father's Pop/Rock:  For her second album, Kirsten Proffit co-produced with Michael Woodrum using mostly acoustic instrumentation for a warm, rich, multi-layered sound that is positively brilliant. You can tell as soon as you drop the proverbial needle onto track one and feel the presence and texture of the acoustic guitar, then the mandolin confirms that something very special is going on here; My Devotion is not your father's pop/rock.

My Devotion is, for the most part, about love. Kirsten comes at it from almost every direction, set to some of the most tuneful songwriting you could ever want to hear. The title works on several levels. There is the devotion of love, there is Kirsten's devotion to her craft of being a singer, songwriter, and musician, and finally it is a tribute to her grandfather, whose World War Two plane (pictured on the cover) was nicknamed, "My Devotion". This record succeeds joyfully, by all three measures. Read the complete review.

6. Angel Snow - Angel Snow

Listen to "Lie Awake"

Only in Nashville:  On her self-titled second album, Angel Snow wrote about half the songs herself and half with Viktor Krauss, a highly talented acoustic bassist, composer and producer. How that happened required a little Nashville magic. The short version is that she met Allison Krauss..."One afternoon at a mutual friend's house, they were introduced and started talking. Then Krauss asked if Snow had any music she could hear..Before the day was out, she'd called Snow to say she liked what she heard and wanted to meet...Krauss may not be a songwriter herself, but she's a connoisseur of lyrics,..She thought Snow's lyric-writing would be the perfect fit for her brother Viktor's musical compositions." Read the complete story at Nashville Scene.

Allison also recorded her own version of "Lie Awake" and invited Angel to open for her at Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium. The album is a set of well written songs, sung and played beautifully by Angel, Viktor, and some of Nashville's best session musicians, with superb production by Viktor. This album is one that keeps getting better the more you listen to it.

7. Amy Cook - Summer Skin

Listen to "Waiting 4 the World 2 End"

From L.A. to Austin:  Read about Amy Cook and you'll frequently see her compared to Sheryl Crow and Lucinda Williams. These work as reference points only because she can rock like Sheryl on the album's infectious lead track, "Waiting 4 the World 2 End", and she can get rootsy and personal, like a more-in-control Lucinda on the beautiful and haunting title track. The problem with references is that she doesn't really sound like either of those artists, her voice is unique, as is her songwriting. She began her career in her native California, achieving early success playing at L.A.'s Hotel Cafe and placing her songs in movies and television series.

She relocated to Texas, eventually making her way to Austin where she has become a solid member of the thriving music community there, which is well represented on Summer Skin. "Summer Skin was produced by Criag Street, whose long list of credits includes Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Joe Henry & k.d. Lang, and was recorded in LA with an all-star band, featuring David Garza (guitar), Me Shell N Degeocelle (bass), Chris Bruce (guitar) and Jonathan Wilson (drums). Robert Plant sings harmony with Cook on the beautiful "It s Gonna Rain", and joins Patty Griffin on the moody "Airplane Driver". Ben Kweller co-wrote and sings back up on the pop rocker "Getting To You" (Amazon). Summer Skin is Amy's most cohesive and compelling album, and it is easily one of the best things we heard in 2012.

8. Mindy Smith - Mindy Smith

Listen to "Pretending the Stars"

Pours Her Heart Out:  Mindy Smith's self titled fifth album is packed with the songwriting excellence that made the originals on My Holiday the high water mark of her career. Her music can touch more moods and emotions in the listener than you are even consciously aware of. Her voice is sweet, clear, and expressive. Her blend of country, folk, pop, and rock is expertly arranged and produced, this time by Mindy and Jason Lehning as co-producers.

Mindy's songs can be incredibly personal. "Everything Here Will Be Fine" deals with the loss of her mother and is truly touching. In the last song, "If I", with nothing more than a simple arrangement of acoustic guitar and voice, Mindy pours her heart out so intimately and so soulfully, that it's one of the most powerful performances we've ever heard.

9. Kate Havnevik - You

Listen to "Halo"

Vocal Driven Synth/Pop from Norway:  Kate Havnevik is an extraordinarily talented singer-songwriter from Oslo, Norway who has followed up her excellent debut album, Melankton (2006) with an even better second album, You. Because Kate is as comfortable with electronics as she is with conventional instruments, she often gets lumped in with Kate Bush and Björk, but she is much more accessible and direct with her music. The more apt comparison would be with Imogen Heap.

First, a little history: In the early 2000's, Imogen put her solo career on hold (she had released her debut, I Megaphone, in 1998) to form a duo, Frou Frou, with Guy Sigsworth, a producer, singer, sound shaper, songwriter, and musician. Frou Frou released one album, the ahead of its time, Details, in 2002. Building on what she had done in Frou Frou, Imogen took it to a whole new level on Speak For Yourself (2005), which she wrote, produced, and recorded DIY, over the course of one year in her flat. The Allmusic Guide said: "The U.S. debut solo album by Frou Frou vocalist Imogen Heap is a captivating record that fuses innovative electronic soundscapes with a strong female voice." We called it the best album of 2005.

But what's all this got to do with Kate Havnevik, you might ask. By 2006, Guy Sigsworth had begun working with Kate, co-writing with her on four tracks of her debut, also working in all his various capacities as a craftsman of sound. On You, Kate's partnership with Guy extends to nearly the entire album, with the two of them co-writing all but one of the eleven tracks. The end result is an album that stands as a triumph of songwriting, vocals, and production. If you liked Imogen's, Speak For Yourself, you're also going to like You, by Kate Havnevik.

10. Santana - Shape Shifter

Listen to "In the Light of a New Day"

It's All About the Guitar:  After spending the last eleven years at Arista, where Clive Davis sold gazillions of Santana records by pairing him with the hot pop singers of the moment, Carlos Santana has made a guitar record and released it on his own label, Starfaith. Carlos co-produced the record and either wrote or co-wrote all but two of the tracks. Long term Santana fans will rejoice to know that twelve of the album's thirteen tracks are instrumentals.

There are some interesting co-writes, such as "Angelica Faith", written by Carlos and Chester Thompson who also plays some nice Hammond B3 organ on it. Guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer, and one of the founding members of the Hooters, Eric Bazilian wrote "Never the Same Again" with Carlos; he also co-produced the track. "In the Light of a New Day" was co-written by Narada Michael Walden, and Carlos worked with his son, Salvador Santana to write "Canela"; Salvador also plays keyboards on it.

In his forty-plus year career, Carlos has played it all, and he's played with all the greats of jazz, blues, rock, and Latin music. His solos can be blisteringly hot, or soft and delicate, but are always tuneful and tasty. His leads are fluid and melodic and when he plays something slow, he gets a fat sweet tone, and the gorgeous melodies come pouring out. It's a treat any time Carlos picks up the guitar, and that's what Shape Shifter is all about.

Here Are Some More Albums That Excelled in 2012 (alphabetically):

Beach Boys - That's Why God Made the Radio

Greg Brown - Hymns to What Is Left

Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas

Madi Diaz - Plastic Moon

Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur

Melody Gardot - The Absence

Mark Knopfler - Privateering

Diana Krall - Glad Rag Doll

Aimee Mann - Charmer

Paul McCartney - Kisses on the Bottom

Jess Morgan - Aye Me

Grace Pettis - Two Birds

Rumer - Seasons Of My Soul

Rosie Thomas - With Love

Vinny Valentino - Double B Double V


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