Happy Boxing Day, everyone. This is Fifty Second Week.
For the past eight years, I’ve been bidding the year goodbye with this little exercise. It clears the decks for next year, it’s fun to write, and I hope it’s fun to read. While the top 10 list is naturally more positive, I think Fifty Second Week gives you a better idea of the scope of the year. Fifty Second Week started as a way to clear out the backlog of unreviewed records. These albums weren’t necessarily passed over because they were unimpressive. In many cases, I just couldn’t find space for them during the year, so they ended up here.
What is Fifty Second Week? I have in front of me 52 albums from 2012 that I heard, but just didn’t get around to reviewing. I’m giving myself 50 seconds to write about each one. I have a timer, and when that buzzer goes off, I will stop writing, no matter where I am in a particular review. Sometimes I’ll have enough time to type three dots at the end of an incomplete thought, but sometimes I won’t. And sometimes I’ll get buzzed out halfway through a word. Wherever I am at the time, the hands come up and I move on to the next one.
All right, let’s see just how bad of a year it was. This is Fifty Second Week.
Alabama Shakes, Boys and Girls.
This barrelhouse rock band is basically just a delivery system for singer/guitarist Brittany Howard, whose raw voice and passion elevate this simple blues-rock material above a lot of similar-sounding stuff. Still, no great shakes. Heh.
Tori Amos, Gold Dust.
I’m OK with Tori’s new songs sucking, but to redo the old ones and make them suck too is just sacrilege. Tori plays with an orchestra here, and while that’s nothing new for her, these new takes on songs like “Precious Things” have all the life sucked out of them. It’s another chapter in her sad decline.
Anathema, Weather Systems.
I should have reviewed this one. This former metal band now plays wonderfully atmospheric progressive rock, full of lush keyboards and terrific melodies. This flew under the radar (Get it? Weather Systems, radar…) but it really shouldn’t have.
Animal Collective, Centipede Hz.
Man, and I really liked Merriweather Post Pavilion. This is just formless, repetitive, annoying synthy noise, and all the massed backing vocals in the world can’t save it. I suppose I should give it another go, considering the acclaim it’s getting, but I could barely make it through the first time.
Band of Horses, Mirage Rock.
Lineup changes have not done these guys any favors. They’re now bland and faceless semi-Southern rock. I’ve heard this thing more than once, and I don’t remember any of the songs. A bonus disc with five more doesn’t help matters.
Barenaked Ladies, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before.
This is one of those cases in which the band hasn’t announced it’s breaking up, but it may as well. This is a collection of leftovers and b-sides, and while it includes a few gems, it’s really just a sad reminder of how good they used to be.
Brendan Benson, What Kind of World.
Being in the Raconteurs with Jack White has brought a ton of new attention to Brendan Benson, and he uses it wisely on this album. It’s full of his usual power pop goodness, even if it is a little anonymous.
Cat Power, Sun.
Man, people went nuts over this. I just don’t get it. Repetitive electronic grooves, deficient melodies, not much in the way of substance, and an 11-minute snoozefest tucked in at the end. It’s baffling to me why this received so much attention.
For some reason, the most overlooked reunion of the year. Even I overlooked it. Cardinal is Eric Matthews and Richard Davies, and their second album after 18 years apart is more low-key melodic goodness. Keeping up with Matthews is getting more difficult, but this is worth tracking…
The Chieftains, Voice of Ages.
With this album, the venerated Irish band celebrates 50 years together. Think about that. 50 years. Now think about this – on Voice of Ages, they team with Bon Iver, the Decemberists, the Punch Brothers and the Civil Wars, to name a few, and not only keep pace, but kick ass.
The Civil Wars, Live at Amoeba.
This poorly-produced Record Store Day document nonetheless captures this duo in better times, sweetly singing tunes from their debut album Barton Hollow. It’s lovely stuff, even the cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” (Better than Chris Cornell…)
Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory.
Loud, raucous, full of sloppy energy, this record also got a lot of acclaim, but in this case it’s easy to see why. This is powerhouse rock – it comes in, fucks your shit up and leaves in about half an hour. Recorded by Steve Albini for that extra anti-shine.
Coldplay, Live 2012.
Coldplay gets a lot of crap, but this is a good reminder of how many solid songs they’ve written. It draws mainly from their last two records, which are their best, as far as I’m concerned. There are hits here, and yes, they’re still Coldplay, so this won’t make you like them if you don’t. But for fans, this is a nice document.
Elvis Costello and the Impostors, The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook.
About time we had a new live album from Costello. The Spinning Songbook tour saw the band erect a giant wheel with song titles on it, and leave the setlist up to chance. The band is in top form here, and Costello sings and plays his little heart out. The accompanying film is awesome as well.
Dirty Three, Toward the Low Sun.
More creepy, sparse instrumentals from this strange trio. They’ve been plying this trade for a long time, but they still find new ways to use their three instruments (violin, drums, guitars) as this brief yet superb little album shows.
Mike Doughty, The Question Jar Show.
Poor Mike Doughty. He really could have been a contender, but he’s been making the same percussive racket for way too long now. This, one of two releases in 2012, is a live album in which the between-song banter far outshines the tired songs.
Mike Doughty, The Flip is Another Honey.
Mike’s second album of 2012 is all covers, but he doesn’t cover these songs as much as he just… turns them into Mike Doughty songs. The Stone Roses’ “Tightrope” is particularly hard done by, but he also ruins songs by Cheap Trick and Low, among…
Dr. John, Locked Down.
Bought on a recommendation, and partially because it was produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. It’s not bad – swampy blues with attitude, and some genuine musty atmosphere. May be Dr. John’s best. May be his worst. Hell if I know.
Bob Dylan, Tempest.
Some records are bad, and some are experiences akin to medieval torture. This is one of the latter. Dylan’s voice is a ruin, his songs are boring, and the endless (ENDLESS) title song just repeats over and over and over until I want to set myself on fire. Not recommended.
The Early November, In Currents.
Another reunion I ignored, for no good reason. I’ve enjoyed watching Ace Enders evolve, and here he returns to his band with a set of solid, hummable songs. This is the most polished Early November album, and it’s quite good.
Farrar, Johnson, Parker, Yames, New Multitudes.
The Woody Guthrie lyrics project continues with this sumptuous double-disc set that brings four alt-country luminaries together. The results are about what you’d expect, but if you like this twangy sort of thing, this is a treasu
First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar.
No lions roaring here. Just more tender acoustic folk-rock from the Soderberg sisters, who harmonize like birds (well, birds with vocal training) over these simple, yet winning confections.
The Gaddabouts, Look Out Now.
Second record from Edie Brickell’s new band with old-time studio pros. This sounds like you’d expect – polished, spit-shined old-time folk-rock, without much to make it stand out. But for what it is, it’s not bad.
The Gaslight Anthem, Handwritten.
Three albums ago, the Gaslight Anthem decided to become a mix of Bruce Springsteen and the Alarm, and they keep that up on this new one. There are no surprises here – songs with titles like “Too Much Blood” and “National Anthem” are exactly the fist-pumping hardworking tunes you expect.
Great White, Elation.
Yes, I’m still following this band I liked in the ‘80s. This is their first without original singer Jack Russell, and the new guy is not nearly as distinctive, rendering this just another bar-band blues-rock album. It’s acceptable, but it doesn’t make me remember being 15.
Grizzly Bear, Shields.
Yes, it’s shameful that I didn’t give this a full review. But Grizzly Bear bores me, and aside from a few winners here (“Sleeping Ute,” “Sun In Your Eyes”), this album doesn’t interest me much more than any of their others. It’s sleepy, meandering acoustic with minimal melody.
Glen Hansard, Rhythm and Repose.
Hansard’s first album since breaking up with Marketa Irglova is hushed and heartfelt and, unfortunately, pretty boring. His voice is still worth loving, his songs less so, and the overall effect is one of depressed sleepiness.
Here We Go Magic, A Different Ship.
If it’s possible to be low-key and kaleidoscopic at the same time, this band manages it on this short, yet swell album. The songs are all over the place, but the tightly controlled atmosphere keeps it grounded and surprisingly quiet. The 8-minute title track is a highlight.
This one is neat. This is danceable folk music, bringing in influences from around the world. Somehow, this band has made this sound appealing to dance music lovers all over the world – they’re touring with Skrillex, for pity’s sake. One of the most interesting debuts I heard this year.
Instrumental versions of Jellyfish’s two albums doesn’t sound all that interesting, unless you’ve heard Jellyfish’s two albums. They’re immaculately produced, intricate pop affairs, and in these versions, I’m hearing things I’ve never heard before. Well worth the money.
Paul McCartney, Kisses on the Bottom.
Easily winning the Worst Album Title of 2012 contest, McCartney’s new album is a set of standards performed with Diana Krall and her band. If you like Paul the crooner, and you have an inexplicable urge to hear him sing “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” this is for you.
Metallica, Beyond Magnetic.
Desperately trying to get beyond Lulu, their disastrous collaboration with Lou Reed, Metallica has released these four leftovers from the Death Magnetic sessions. And they’re great – complex, crushing metal – but it’s still not enough to wash the stink away.
Rhett Miller, The Dreamer.
Miller is a country-punker in the Old 97s and a pop songsmith on his own. His latest solo album is another smooth collection of sorta-twangy tunes that show off his voice. It’s good stuff, and I never want him to have to choose between his two sides.
A.C. Newman, Shut Down the Streets.
The New Pornographers mastermind delivers another set of tuneful pop. If you liked Newman before, you’ll like this. There’s really not a lot more to say about it.
Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal.
I really should have reviewed this one. OMAM is another great atmospheric band from Iceland, and their debut album is a lovely, dramatic, sweeping thing. It’s so good that I forgot about it completely, putting it on my pile and not coming back to it for months. Silly of me.
Of Montreal, Paralytic Stalks.
Kevin Barnes has confused me before, but I simply have no idea what he’s up to on this overly complicated mess of an album. In some ways, it’s genius, and it sounds like it was very difficult to put together. But I think he’s finally let his complex nature get away from him.
Alanis Morissette, Havoc and Bright Lights.
I do sometimes wonder if I’m the only one still buying Alanis records. On this one she embraces electronic beats and textures, and they work just as well with her idiosyncratic lyrics and distinctive voice as any other style. She’s stuck in a rut, but it’s…
MxPx, Plans Within Plans.
The long-running pop-punk band also mixes in some electronic beats on their new album, but the focus is where it’s always been – three-chord melodic punk rock. Still, it’s better than any of the new Green Day albums, so I guess that’s something.
Our Lady Peace, Curve.
Billed as this Canadian band’s Best Record Ever, this is really just another set of 10 solid modern rock songs. There are definite highlights, like the melodic “Heavyweight,” and lowlights like “Fire in the Hen House.” So it’s really just another Our Lady Peace album, for good and ill.
The Rocket Summer, Life Will Write the Words.
Bryce Avery’s been writing these grandiose, unironic anthems for as long as I can remember, and while he’s very good at it, the sound of The Rocket Summer – big, loud, reaching for the sky – hasn’t changed a bit. This is just another in a long line of same-sounding records.
Sleigh Bells, Reign of Terror.
I officially don’t get it. This is another one critics fawned over, but it’s just abrasive drumming, over-the-top guitar riffing and no songs to speak of. Abrasive, in fact, is a good word for the whole thing. A few more might be “talentless pile of shit.”
Snow Patrol, Fallen Empires.
Like Bryce Avery, Gary Lightbody has been writing the same kind of song forever. In his case, it’s repeated-eighth-note radio pop. He makes a few strides here, adding electronic sounds to his template, but not enough to be interesting.
Regina Spektor, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats.
On the plus side, Spektor is unafraid to be goofy and unappealing. On the minus side, same thing. This album is one of her best, but she still spoils quiet moments with cartoonish voices, and sends the overall tone of her album scattering to the four winds.
Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light.
I just. Don’t. Get it. This is another critically acclaimed piece of crap. It’s basically repetitive pub rock, like the Dandy Warhols used to play, with orcheatral flourishes and no songs to hang them on. I have tried to get Spiritualized and I just don’t.
Tenacious D, Rize of the Fenix.
To their credit, the dire reaction to their film The Pick of Destiny is kind of the central theme of the D’s new album. It’s funny here and there, but not a patch on their self-titled debut. I rather liked “The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Kage,” though.
The Twilight Sad, No One Can Ever Know.
Scottish band embraces a more industrial dance sound on their third album, and it works for them. Of course, this is the first Twilight Sad album I have heard, so I don’t know if their earlier styles worked better. This sounds like Peter Murphy hanging out with a noise-rock band. Pretty cool.
Various Artists, Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us.
Again, I should have reviewed this. Phil Madeira’s dream project pairs him with an amazing roster of country and folk artists to deliver a set of songs that examine God and love and life. It’s mesmerizing, beautiful stuff.
The Violet Burning, Pentimento I.
What a great couple of years for the Violet Burning. On the heels of their triple-disc magnum opus The Story of Our Lives comes this two-part acoustic offering, full of hushed versions of their new songs. Stripped to just Michael Pritzl’s guitar and voice, with Lenny Beh on
The Violet Burning, Pentimento II.
cello, these takes are haunting and wonderful. It’s great to hear full-on rockers like “Graves” delivered acoustically, and beautiful pieces like “The Light Poured Down on Me” are made even more so in this setting. Get this now.
M. Ward, A Wasteland Companion.
Ward is better known these days for teaming up with Zooey Deschanel in She and Him, which is unfortunate. His solo work is rooted in old-time folk, and this record is a little treat. It’s simple stuff, but very effective.
The xx, Coexist.
More chilled, minimalist music from this London outfit. At points on this record, the material is stripped back almost to nonexistence – a voice, an electronic tom, maybe a bit of bass. It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it does.
Yeasayer, Fragrant World.
In much the same vein as 2009’s Odd Blood, but with weaker songs. Yeasayer’s third album isn’t difficult – I listened about half a dozen times before I gave up looking for hidden depths. It’s just a lesser effort, and I hope for more and better from this fascinating band.
And that’s that. Of course, there are more records in the to-be-reviewed pile from 2012, but I’ll get to some of those next year, during the slow months. It’s time now to put 2012 to bed, and hope that 2013 runs rings around it, at least musically. As always, I am beyond grateful for all of you who read my ramblings, and share them. You’re the reason I keep doing this. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
I’ll be taking next week off, but look for a new column on January 9. Have a happy new year, everyone. Next stop, year 13! Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.