by Jon Hunt
Oh, joy – it’s time for the mid-year list, when most magazines pen a litany of hipster checkpoints (yawn) for the express purpose of letting you know that they like the same records everybody else does (including you). Yawn. It’s teeth-gnashingly dull stuff. You don’t need to read another ode to how great Father John Misty or Jack White are, do you? Here at l’étoile, we have a nobler purpose at hand – your musical edification. We’ve compiled a list of stuff from 2012 that you may not have heard – records that have been overlooked by the radio, by the critics, by your friends, or in some cases, by just about everybody in the world. Maybe they’re not the best records of the year, in all cases, but I guarantee you enjoyment from every single one of these gems.
R. Kelly, Write Me Back – Filled to bursting with the best (and stone-blastiest) R&B jams of the summer, the ’70s-drenched Write Me Back is the perfect soundtrack to a sultry backyard barbecue. Kelly channels his idols immaculately (and occasionally frighteningly) – Barry White on “Love Is” and “Share My Love,” Michael Jackson on “Feelin’ Single,” Smokey Robinson on “Fool For You.” Sure, it’s pastiche, but of the absolute highest order – Kelly elevates the songs above mere tribute with his masterful, hook-filled songwriting and unbelievable delivery. The whole thing falls apart halfway through (by the time you get to “Party Jumpin” it’s fully off the rails) but at that point, you should be getting laid anyway. You’re welcome.
The Fixx, Beautiful Friction – To get it out of the way: yeah, the Fixx are still together, thank you very much, and none the worse for the 30 years since you last heard ‘em. Beautiful Friction, featuring the original lineup that recorded the undersung classics Shuttered Room and Reach the Beach, is absolutely up to par with those albums, dropping radio-ready (well, for 1985, anyway – I’m sure modern radio won’t touch ‘em) singles like “Anyone Else” and “Shaman” alongside sly, sinewy album tracks like “Just Before Dawn” and “Follow That Cab.” Singer Cy Curnin still has the vocal power he wielded in his prime, and the band channels their ’80s selves deftly with smooth, silky neo-prog guitar and moody synth textures. A magnificent return to form (i.e., this year’s Duran Duran).
Mystery Jets, Radlands – I adored the snappy, synthy ’80s-isms of Twenty-One and Serotonin, but Radlands is another thing entirely – a moody, strummy, Americana-tinged guitar record, but with the same kind of sharp melodic sense that made those records so magnificent. Highlights abound – “You Had Me At Hello” features a magnificently transcendent hook, “Greatest Hits” sounds brilliantly bouncy and deeply sad at the same time (no mean feat), and “The Ballad of Emmerson Lonestar” is genuinely pretty and wry in the way some of Ray Davies country-isms were in the early ’70s. The best song here, though, is the throwback “The Hale Bop,” one of my favorite singles of the year, sporting a killer dance beat, an unbelievably catchy chorus and a sense of pure, cynical defeatism. Possibly the most underrated record of the year.
De La Soul’s Plug 1 and Plug 2, First Serve – Old school in all the best ways: ’70s horn stabs and unbelievable beats abound, the flow is on the beat (which, I know, is out of style, but I still love hearing it), and the hooks are everywhere. Deliberately retrogressive (the whole thing is a concept about two rising rappers, but if you told me it was set in 1988, I’d buy it) but a stone blast, filled with the kind of rollerskating jams De La made famous back in the day. A recent review said this “wasn’t the album “the game” needed from De La right now” but why not? If anything, a purely fun rap album is a tonic to all the cheeba-driven darkness lately, and a reminder that Plugs 1 and 2 have been quietly delivering some of the best flow in the world for almost 25 years.
Richard Hawley, Standing at the Sky’s Edge – Hawley, normally known for his low-key, Scott Walker-esque songwriting, takes a page from the early Verve (circa Storm In Heaven, not their inferior britpop stuff) and crafts a psychedelic album so enormous and epic the sky can barely contain it. Listen to the gorgeous lysergic sweep of “She Brings The Light” and “Time Will Bring You Winter” – you’d swear it was 1994 and reverb-drenched, delay-tinged guitar was the order du jour rather than a retro throwback. Hawley the balladeer isn’t entirely absent – “The Wood Collier’s Grave” and “Seek It” are mellow and moody, and “Standing At The Sky’s Edge” sounds like the best Lee Hazelwood song he never wrote. Pitchfork thinks its a bummer the guitars are too loud – prove ‘em wrong and crank the fuck out of it.
Beachwood Sparks, The Tarnished Gold – These guys were fusing folk, country and rock when Fleet Foxes were in diapers (okay, short pants at least), and doing it with considerably more Notorious Byrds Brothers psych-twang flourish, too. The near-decade break has only focused their songwriting – the self-referential “Sparks Fly Again” and the snappy “Orange Grass Special” are tightly rocking, while mellow gold like “Water from the Well” and the gorgeous “Talk About Lonesome” are hushed, lush and harmony-laden. The whole thing sparkles with an acid-tinged, sun-dappled, canyon rock goodness, that delightful combination of twelve string, pedal steel and stacked harmony that makes for a marvelous driving record.
The Flaming Lips, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends – I love how the Lips have thrown any semblance of a normal “career” out the window and are just doing whatever batshit crazy notion flies into their head (Gummy fetuses! A 24-hour song! Human skulls!) at any given time. And they don’t half-ass it, either, not for a second. This album of collaborations with a staggering variety of artists (from Ke$ha and Biz Markie to Yoko Ono to Bon Iver) is filled with some of the weirdest and most interesting songwriting the band has ever done, from the elegiac “You, Man? Human??” (with Nick Cave) to the rather sad “Is David Bowie Dying?” (with Tame Impala) to the surprisingly pretty Edward Sharpe collabo “Helping The Retarded To Find God.” If you’re looking for pop singles like “Do You Realize,” look elsewhere – this is the Lips at their most opaque and experimental.
Rumer, Boys Don’t Cry – You’re probably sick of me talking about Rumer, but I can’t help it – her plaintive, sad little alto is the most beautiful thing going right now. This album of unusual covers is “just” a gap-filler between albums of her original songwriting, but features some gorgeous arrangements, led by the best version of Jim Webb’s “P.F. Sloan” ever recorded. Never obvious (well, once – her cover of “Sara Smile” sounds about like you’d figure it would), Boys Don’t Cry is an album of subtle, smoky delights, the kind of record Carly Simon or the Carpenters would have released in the ’70s to massive acclaim. It’s only been released in the UK so far, so you’re going to have to, ahem, track this one down.
The Cult, Choice of Weapon – I can’t even remember the last time the Cult released a solid, great record – maybe all the way back to Sonic Temple in the late ’80s. Far too often, they fall pray to half-assery (Born Into This) or failed experiment (Beyond Good And Evil and their weird, dance-beat-filled self-titled). Choice of Weapon finds them tight, taught, poised to strike and deeply rocking, delivering an album of dark, excellent ass-kickers. Standouts: the potent, Love-like “The Wolf;” the fuzzy darkness of “For The Animals;” the weird electronic throb at the heart of “Lucifer.” Singer Ian Astbury’s voice sounds a bit the worse for wear, but the added grit gives his always-slightly-silly “I’m an Indian, dammit” lyrics a little extra weight. A killer rock album, head to toe.
Old Crow Medicine Show, Carry Me Back – I know, I know – I’m always bitching about “beards and banjos” music, so what the fuck am I doing putting a band that tours with Mumford and goddamn Sons on any kind of best-of list? The way I see it, Old Crow Medicine Show take the beardiness and banjo-slinging to the ultimate extreme – they sound like nothing so much as prime-era Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, wielding a sepia-tinged revival sound like a sword and a belly full of moonshine. This ain’t watered down folky strumming, folks, this is the kind of hopped-up ‘grass that the hippies used ta dig back in the day – dig the shit-kicking “Steppin’ Out,” or the gorgeous Dead-isms of “Genevieve,” or the furious picking in “Sewanee Mountain Catfight.” The whole thing is absolutely an affectation, and a damned phony one, too, but man, does it sound great.
Van Halen, A Different Kind of Truth – if you avoided picking this up because, well, how the fuck is it even possible that Van Halen could come out with a decent record in 2012, lemme tell you: you missed out, buddy. Despite highly public drinking issues, advancing age, member-replacement issues and god knows what else, they manage to tweak your 14-year-old self (no matter what damn era you grew up in) perfectly, here, with banging, energetic rockers like “She’s The Woman” and the fast-even-for-youngsters “Bullethead.” Never does Diamond Dave sound lame, never does Eddie deliver anything less than the best and most whip-smart riffing, never do you miss Michael Anthony despite your protestations (hell, he’s in Chickenfoot – do you really wanna traffic with a guy in a band called Chickenfoot?). Pound for pound, the best rock record this year, and I defy anybody to beat it.