It’s the end of the year, a time reserved for revelry, reflection and projection. We count our blessings, damn our misfortunes and, regardless of our station in life, hope for better times ahead – encapsulated, in a sense, by Bruce Springsteen in “Badlands”: “Poor man wanna be rich/rich man want to be king/and a king ain’t satisfied/’til he rules everything.”
In the entertainment arena, of course, the highs and lows of the past 12 months are recapitulated in oft-thoughtful (and sometimes snide) essays by writers who assume their pontifications are the end-all, be-all, of whatever subjects are at hand. I’m not one of them. When it comes to music, there is too much to hear in any given year to anoint one singular sensation as the absolute “best.” Add to that this: my picks are based on what I’ve purchased, and those purchases are filtered by my age and prejudices. I’m closer to 50 than 40 – decidedly middle-aged. Modern country, heavy metal and hip hop are but a few of the genres that I ignore; I’m sure there are good/great acts in each of them, mind you, as Rolling Stone and Mojo both lavish acclaim on some. But they’re not for me. No, a new Neil Young album is guaranteed to get more play on my iPod than just about anything else.
Note how I calibrated that last sentence with the inclusion of “just about.” In almost any other year Psychedelic Pill, the second of two Neil and Crazy Horse releases this year, would easily top my “best of” list. It features everything I love most about rock music: dreamlike melodies pushed, pulled and mangled by thunderous rhythms and winding guitar solos. The opening salvo, the 27-minute “Driftin’ Back,” is utterly hypnotic. And the bittersweet, near 17-minute “Walk Like a Giant” is mesmerizing. Young may not be, technically speaking, the world’s greatest guitar player, but he wrenches more emotion from it than anyone else.
But it’s not my No. 1. Instead, my 2012 Album of the Year honors go to another of my long-term musical pals, Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. Months after its release, her Someday album remains a sparkling gem. The single “Picture Me” is an utter joy – a perfect pop song. I won’t repeat everything I wrote when I reviewed the album in July, but instead will simply say that, a la Dusty in Memphis, it’s a timeless affair that will (or should) be discovered and re-discovered time and again by future generations.
Bruce Springsteen’s recession-minded Wrecking Ball comes in at No. 3, due primarily to a loving nudge from my wife Diane; Rumer’s sophomore set Boys Don’t Cry arrives at No. 4 (displaced from No. 3 as a result of said nudge); and my No. 5 represents one of my (few) regrets for the year - The Lion’s Roar by First Aid Kit, a Swedish sister duo whose harmonies are a wonder to behold. They played Philly the night after Bruce & the E Street Band’s two-show stint at the Wells Fargo Center in March and I decided it wouldn’t be the best time to see them – the memories of the nights before would overwhelm such sublime songs as “Emmylou,” “Blue” and “To a Poet.” That was my theory, at any rate, but I’ve been kicking myself ever since.
Honorable mentions abound: Bat for Lashes’ The Haunted Man, an atmospheric outing accented by the mesmerizing “Laura”; Jessie Baylin’s artful Little Spark, which I reviewed back upon its release; the Chromatics’ Kill for Love - check out their version of Neil’s “Into the Black”; First Aid Kit’s iTunes Session, which features a phenomenal version of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” plus the way cool original “Wolf”; Alicia Keys’ Girl on Fire (docked several notches due to the inclusion of a Nicki Minaj rap on the title track); Tift Merrit’s Travelin’ Alone; and Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Americana.
On the local front, Josh Harris' Places I've Been hits the sweet spot between pop and rock. Like that other Josh, Josh Rouse, he ably balances a retro-'70s vibe with a thoroughly modern, lyrical outlook on life.