Monday, December 31, 2012

The 2012 Tinsel Twenty

Unless you hold a particularly churlish disdain for the world, and your preferred brand of curmudgeon is strong enough to knock Van Morrison into a cocked hat of irritation, it should always be possible to find twenty good albums each year. It's just the nature of the beast: if you like music and there's enough being made covering enough genres, even the most subjective tastes should be satisfied.

However, 2012 just seems to have been a stupendously boffo year for stupendously boffo stuff. Perhaps it was the unfulfilled threat of global annihilation, according to the Mayans, that pushed rock and pop's citizenry to deliver a particularly purple annum. Whatever was in the water this year, it has produced handsomely.

So as 2012 prepares to pull up its stumps and declare, What Would David Bowie Do? dares to put its neck above the parapet by pronouncing its own double-decade of listening pleasures for the last twelve months in the inaugural What Would David Bowie Do? Tinsel Twenty:

20 - Ben Folds Five - The Sound of the Life of the Mind
There are certain artists whom, it must be said, come over as a little too smart-arsed for their own good. The Ben Folds Five arrived in 1997 with a breed of piano-based songsmithing which sat more conventionally than contemporary smart arses Eels, but still suggested a certain intellectual superiority. Folds appeared to be behind a joke or at least a cynical bent, like fellow wry smile vendors David Byrne or Randy Newman. For those who know of him, think John Sessions on Whose Line Is It Anyway? after he's thrown in a particularly ripe Shakespearian reference into a skit about football hooligans.

All of which, I know, doesn't preface too positively Folds' comeback after what seemed like a neglectful age (13 years) with The Sound of the Life of the Mind. Hitherto unsigned to any record label, Folds turned to crowdfunding to get the record made, which sounds horrendous, but whatever works, works. It picks up wherever they'd left off in 1999, with Folds as asceerbic as ever, an indie Randy Newman, if you will, together with Robert Sledge, whose distinctive fuzzbox-filtered bass was an inventive sonic partner for Folds' piano on their breakthrough Whatever And Ever Amen and its hit Brick. Here's hoping the next follow-up won't take quite so long…

19 - John Mayer - Born And Raised
He may have turned into something of serial shagger (Katy Perry his latest conquest), but five studio albums in, Mayer changed spots once more with Born And Raised. Following his various forays into pure blues, white-boy soul and FM rock, this took a metaphorical journey into the canyons of LA, evoking CS&N with a brazenly old-school shot at '70s country-rock.

If you've spent any time in LA, listening to its classic rock radio stations, the endless repeats of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles do start to grate. Thankfully, Mayer found gaps in the genre worth listening to on this, to which he applied his trademark plaintiveness and heart-on-the-sleeve intimacy which, based on past efforts (Your Body Is A Wonderland has always been rumoured to be about Jennifer Love Hewitt, another name in Mayer's little black book) must have Perry worrying how she might do out of Mayer's next album.

18 - Neil Young with Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill
I'm immensely proud of my story about my personal encounter with the angriest Canadian in rock and roll. It wasn't, alas, in some debauched rock star episode or an ill-tempered meeting across the interviewer's notebook. No, it was in a WH Smith's at Heathrow Airport that I turned around in the queue for chewing gum to find Young behind me, clutching a selection of puzzle books for his impending flight. Quite the leveller that.

Having reformed Crazy Horse for the earlier 2012 album Americana (the bonkers collection of old-time songs like Oh Susannah, Clementine, This Land Is Your Land and even God Save the Queen - that's the British national anthem, not the invective-spiked Sex Pistols song…), the collective of Young, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Frank Sampedro appeared to have pitched up in a suburban garage to grunge-up their amplifiers for Psychedelic Pill, a two-CD rant about the world.

On it, the man who once sang "Old man look at my life, I'm a lot like you were", can be found spittling away about everything from MP3s to hip-hop haircuts, whatever they are. Into the bargain we get the agonisingly long - 27-minutes long! - extended jam of Driftin' Back which, perhaps should have been, 22 minutes shorter, especially as it's hard to tell where the verses and choruses stop and go round again. This might put you off, but persevere. Psychedelic Pill is exactly what you want from Neil Young: angry (clearly the puzzle books are some form of therapy), ragged and viciously honest. Long may he continue with buzzsaw guitar gems like this.

17 - Shearwater - Animal Joy
A late entry into the Twenty, owing to the fact my good friend Steven Wilson only introduced me to Shearwater last Thursday, but I have nevertheless made space for the Texan indie outfit who bowled me over with the 11 tracks on an album that needs to be listened to.

Stupid as that statement sounds, this is not an album - and Shearwater aren't a band - you can just put on while doing something else. You need to be semi-captive. In my case, a four-hour drive through the Mojave Desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas provided a concentrated listening platform, the rarely-changing brush landscape intensifying Jonathan Meiburg's thankfully hard-to-pigeonhole material. Another friend of mine recently reminded me of '80s Aussie outfit The Church, and Shearwater could easily fit into that mould of bands from that era who matched challenging lyrics to hauntingly cold tones that dared contradict the warm, over-cooked and over-produced fare of the era. In that regard, you can easily liken Meiburg's vocals to Talk Talk's Mark Hollis, and thus, the same melodic intensity. As an introduction to Shearwater, Animal Joy has been a welcome discovery. be warned, there are seven more I need to acquire.

16 - BB King - Ladies & Gentlemen...
OK, nowhere in the rules says that compilations can't be included in the Tinsel Twenty, and a box set of this sumptuousness simply couldn't go without mention. These last two years, the CD box set, like its DVD cousin, has become something of a cash cow for the superannuated music legend. Top-of-the-heap acts have gone to great length to dish up elaborate boxed packages with which to re-flog their back catalogue, chucking in picture books, signed prints and other paraphernalia to justify the hefty price tags. This long overdue career anthology of the one and only Riley B King was, however, worth every penny, not to mention the Sunday and consecutive evenings it took to joyfully work my way though the career of the Blues' last living legend.

Ladies & Gentlemen... is an epic collection, tracing King's early origins as a bluesman playing big band on Memphis radio stations right through to his justified elevation as elder statesman of a musical genre forged in a different time and a different America. No matter how many times - and how many versions - of The Thrill Is Gone and Rock Me Baby you hear throughout this 22-disc set, you never tire of hearing one of the best loved voices and best loved guitar playing of the last six or seven decades. And at 86, he's still touring, bless him. Everyone should see him once in their lifetime.

15 - Led Zeppelin - Celebration Day
OK, so I didn't say live albums couldn't be included, either. Lifted from the surviving Zepps' one-off 2007 reunion at the O2 (actually part of a tribute show to Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun), there is temptation to level a charge of 'money for old rope' at Messrs Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham Jr for releasing Celebration Day. But, while none of the few live recordings of Led Zeppelin have ever done the old warhorses justice this, strangely, does.

Between the multi-format packages, you can indulge and immerse yourself in a band doing Led Zeppelin very well. Plant, one might suspect, may only be doing the show out of genuine love for the universally loved Ertegun, but Page lets himself go with feverish gusto as he pulls out all the Zepp live chestnuts, playing as if for the first time. The Blu-ray Disc package is worth the small investment, if only to see Page's trademark curled bottom lip evolve into more of a gurn, as he powers through Ramble OnSince I've Been Loving You, the extended freakout of Dazed And Confused and, yes, Stairway To Heaven. There are better ways to hear Led Zeppelin live - the excellent BBC Sessions album for one, and perfecting time travel being the other. But Celebration Day is a fitting tribute to a band that denied themselves a decent sendoff when their original and only drummer went off to that drum riser in the sky and they called it quits almost on the spot.

14 - Lisa Marie Presley - Storm And Grace
Yes, I had to look at that name twice, too. The King's only offspring in the Tinsel Twenty? Well, why not. The rural Kent-dwelling (honest!) rockin' mama delivered one of the albums of 2012 thanks to her own grind and perseverance, following the disappointments of her previous two AOR efforts.

Here she recruited go-to American roots producer T-Bone Burnett, and - incongruously - brought in the likes of Richard Hawley, Fran Healey and Ed Harcourt to work on the content, resulting in hard-edged country-folk, lots of tremolo-shimmering guitar (Hawley's influence) and a soul-baring confessional drawing on marriage (her current one and her second one to Michael Jackson) and growing up. Bridging the American songbook and a British indie rock sensibility, Storm And Grace was a pleasant surprise when it first came out in May, and still is since it's recent (and unexplained) re-release.

13 - Mumford & Sons - Babel
I bought a Fleet Foxes album once. It was shit. All that choral close harmony drowning in echo and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-wannabe pretence. And then came along Mumford & Sons, which, unfortunately, promised more of the depressing same. At the same time, the music press had us all believe that there was some new Nu-Folk movement being taken over by M&S, and that it was only a matter of time before moustache-less beards (√† la Michael Eavis), Aran sweaters and The Wurzels would be back in vogue. Well, thankfully, none of that has happened (although surely it must be time for a Wurzels Night on BBC4?), but the family Mumford has cemented inclusion in the inaugural Tinsel Twenty. Babel tweaks little with the formula of 2010's jaunty debut Sigh No More, but Marcus Mumford turns the street-busking up to 11 and in the process turns their brand of folksy, banjo-driven, beer tankard-swaying pop-rock into something that can - and has been - filling arenas quite nicely. Like a significantly more sober version of a St. Patrick's night out with The Pogues.

12 - Donald Fagen - Sunken Condos
To the list of musical smart arses I commenced earlier in this list, you can always add Fagen, and indeed Steely Dan themselves. The Dan were always pre-eminent lyrical clever clogs, mixing New York jazz smarts with, at-times, frustratingly obscure literary references and even more complicated character-driven narratives that were layered over gently funky, subtly soulful tunes that, in others' hands may have strayed dangerously close to muzak. Sunken Condos revived Fagen's quirky storytelling, retaining his knack for wise-ass storytelling but, more importantly, for making jazz-rock a respectable trade, and not the horror that Spinal Tap's Jazz Odyssey became.

11 - Jack White - Blunderbuss
In which rock's preeminent multi-tasking, is-he-really-just-a-Tim-Burton-character? contrarian channels the honky-tonk bars of his adopted home of Nashville into that particularly odd flavour of post-modern blues he founded with the White Stripes, and sails into the territorial waters of convention without actually dropping anchor, which is good. Blunderbuss is a gentler form of White than he's given us before, using the album to come to terms with divorce without turning it into his own version of Blood On The Tracks. There is blues, and nods to Led Zeppelin, there are traces of the South and all sorts of musical heritage references, in an album that may not be as confounding as some of White's earlier work, but doesn't suffer as some might expect such apparent normalcy would cause. A grown-up album by a musician who revels, quietly, in being pop's outsider.

10 - Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again
Aright, hands up who thought, when they first heard Kiwanuka's Tell Me A Tale, with its flutes and Young Rascals vibe, they thought they'd walked into some late '60s soundtrack album? Who sat their scratching their heads, nodding to I'm Getting Ready and wondering how they'd missed a soul legend, one who'd who'd perhaps died young or, after hanging out with Richie Havens and Gil Scott-Heron, vanished off the face of the earth, leaving this little known album to collect dust on music history's overflowing shelves for the best part of forty-odd years? The answer, I strongly suspect, is all of us. Home Again trawls the jukeboxes of Harlem and Haight-Ashbury around the time man was first playing golf on the moon to produce an utterly authentic and utterly valid homage to Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Havens and others with a collection of new, but relentlessly familiar-sounding soul and R'n'B treasures that belie Kiwanuka's ridculously young age, but exploit his stunning voice to the fullest.

9 - Rolling Stones - GRRR!
I hear you. No, really, I hear you. Having snuck in box sets and live albums, I'm now including yet another Rolling Stones compilation album which must be, like, the umpteenth cynical attempt by Sir Michael Jagger and Rolling Stones Inc. to screw more money out of the humble fan. Well, in its defence, it does present, arguably, the definitive collection of the Stones' 50-year career, with 50 tracks spanning the earliest hits (Not Fade Away, It's All Over Now and the chart-baiting blues of Little Red Rooster, right through to Doom And Gloom and One More Shot, two archetypal Stones songs recorded in Paris over 48 hours in August.

So, Reason For Owning It #1: you've never owned a Stones compilation and it's about time you did; Reason For Owning It #2: it contains all the Rolling Stones songs you've ever liked (Jumping Jack Flash, Honky Tonky Woman, Satisfaction) as well as loads you'd forgotten you liked (Tumbling Dice, Give Me Shelter and, yes, Mixed Emotions); ReasonReason For Owning It #3: there isn't another band in rock and roll who could pull off a 50-track compilation like this and ensure that none of the 50 tracks - and I mean, none of them - are duds. A feat worthy of purchase.

8 - Lana Del Ray - Born To Die
Being the most hyped new act, and therefore, the most hyped new album since the letter 'H' was invented, placed considerable expectations on the shoulders of the poutsome, doe-eyed young Lizzie Grant from suburban New York. Entering a world of female singers dominated by Adele didn't help, either, and nor did the suspicion that her photogenic qualities may have played a part in Grant/Del Rey's apparent arrival from nowhere. To her credit, Del Rey's rapid ascendancy is down to her own endeavour, the self-generated YouTube hit of Video Games setting the tone for a big-haired album of David Lynch soundtrack-par ballads and noirish torch songs, positively soaked in reverb, big soundstages and the odd twanging bottom E string, suggesting smalltown normality with a Twin Peaks hint of something not right beneath. At risk of setting even more expectations, the next album will be a strong test, but while that develops, and Grant/Del Rey racks up more lucrative advertising deals, Born To Die lives up to the hype by being, perhaps, the most important breakthrough album of 2012.

7 - Dr. John - Locked Down
Mac Rebbenack - better known as legendary New Orleans voodoo-blues, funk and jazz pianist Dr. John, as well as inspiration for The Muppet's Dr. Teeth - returned with with a career-rebooting Louisiana stew of vintage R'n'B and the jazz-tinged groove, produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. Locked Down celebrates the post-Katrina Big Easy with a dig into contemporary themes - set to deliberately retro twists - that have clearly been burning the Night Tripper up. Supported by a hand-picked (by Auerbach) roster of session players, Locked Down frees Rebbenack from his 'Professional' Louisianan persona, his Crescent City version of the Pearly King, all swamp blues, zydeco and creole. It's a delicious concoction of old and new - an allegory itself for the New Orleans emerging from its travails, reaching into Dr John's beating heart and to discover a musical essence that is added a swirling cauldron of the finest funk, rhythm and blues and soul that you'll have heard this year, last year and and maybe next year, too.

6 - The Black Keys - El Camino
Though released in December last year, it was not only close enough to 2012 to be included in this year's Tinsel Twenty, I only bought it in January, so that counts too. So there. The seventh studio album from the Ohio duo, El Camino is a sumptuous celebration of the rock that emerged decades before Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney were even born, ranging from glam rock and blues to punk and British beat pop.

It has been widely recognised as one of the albums of 2012, not least by the Grammy people, but also here by What Would David Bowie Do? for contributing handsomely to this year's listening pleasures. Yes, it may be another hats off to dad rock, or grandpa rock, or whatever snide comparison you wish to apply, but as I experienced up close last night at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, it's the likes of Auerbach and Carney who are, frankly, keeping alive the flame of exciting rock music that used to pack people into LA's Whisky A-Go-Go and the Fillmores East and West back in the day when all anyone wanted was a red guitar, three chords and the truth.

5 - Bat For Lashes - The Haunted Man
As long as I can remember, which isn't long as...what was I saying? Oh, yes... British female artists have been rigidly categorised thus: 'Pop' - Lulu, Sandy Shaw, Petula Clark, Bananarama, Alison Moyet, Annie Lennox, Kylie (yes, she's from Australia, but we count her as one of our own, OK?), Adele, Emeli Sandé; 'Rock' - Sharlene Spitteri, and, er, that's it; 'Off The Telly' - take yer pick from a mass of mediocrity; and 'Uncategorized' - Kate Bush, Florence Welch, Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes. I know there's more, but we haven't got time and, let's face it, I'm right.

Of this trio, you may as well just morph them into a single entity - Katebushflorenceandthemachinebatforlashes - as they're rarely written about in isolation. It's much like being contractually obliged to mention Sean Connery and Daniel Craig in the same sentence as they've both played James Bond. There are obvious parallels between La Bush and The Haunted Man, especially Khan's affinity with unconventional melody, of soundscapes and landscapes, of wistful, whimsical piano motifs and somewhat ethereal woozefests does, that inevitably draw you to compare it with Bush's more recent output, especially the career high and post-modern comeback, Ariel. Khan forges her own path, tackling themes like miscommunication and tragedy with a compelling blend artiness and left-field thinking, plus intrigue and enough drama to make repeated plays both acquiring and ever more richly rewarding.

4 - Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
As denim-clad, motor oil-stained American working class as anything The Boss has committed to tape in his career, Wrecking Ball is the Springsteen album for the age of Occupy, standing up for the modern Depression-blighted America, and all those who struggle within her. Taking well-aimed potshots at Wall Street greed, corporate gorging and any interest Springsteen regards as having contributed to America's downtrodden, Wrecking Ball is, at its simplest, an album for America, by 'meat and potatoes' American, a Levis-wearing toiler, pumping away at a blond Fender Esquire, singing "There's treasure there for the taking, for any hard working man, who will make his home in the American Land."

3 - Paul Weller - Sonik Kicks
It would be hard to imagine Paul Weller wearing even a shred of denim, such is his prevailing commitment to the Mod effete, but in Sonik Kicks he dials his own TARDIS back to 1968 and gathers in the psychedelia of that moment for an album that most would consider his best in years, although that would suggest that its predecessors had been less so. They weren't. It's just that Sonik Kicks is even better.

The prolific Weller presents a third installment in his journey of free-spirited expression, following the pastoral England of 22 Dreams and the boppier Wake Up The Nation, here he rummages around in his musical box of Lego bricks to dismiss any contemporary influences and instead taste from as diverse a reference set as Lou Reed, Nick Drake and even the eccentric Englishness of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Sonik Kicks deserves attention for its sheer variety and self-assured maturity. It's an album that one moment is about jangly two-minute pop songs and the next, frantic ska, before tripping off into more psychedelia. This is an album which joins Weller's stuffed suitcase of soundtracks to England, riverside picnics, warm summer sun and blades of long grass. He may appear dour, but Sonik Kicks finds him smiling, contented and, perhaps, even more emotionally bare - and comfortably so - than at any time in his career.

2 - Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls
It's not often that you can fall for an entire album after its first few bars. But that's exactly what happened with Boys & Girls. As sweaty as The South is muggy and mosquito-infested, this is one of the most throat-grippingly brilliant debut albums I've ever heard, brilliantly capturing the Alabama Shakes' reputation for stomping live performances of southern soul and blues-infused swamp rock. Boys & Girls is an album that could easily have been recorded in a single, 38-minute session, such is its no-nonsense feel.

Such stripped-back authenticity is no affectation and, despite the obvious nods to Janice Joplin in Brittany Howard's throatsome singing or Creedence Clearwater Revival in Heath Fogg's riffs (especially on Hang Loose), this is no pastiche, no parody, but a continuation of a musical style unencumbered by contemporary garnish. Boys & Girls is an amazing debut and a relief to anyone worried that the prevalence of Simon Cowell and his television breed has in some way brought about the end of both live music and music built on the simplicity of a voice and three instruments. For the good of us all, the Shakes need to come back with a sophomore effort to reassure the casual listener that this is not a flirtation but a long-term relationship.

1 - Richard Hawley - Standing At The Sky's Edge

One Sunday morning in May, the erstwhile Sean Hannam posted on Facebook that The Observer was streaming the new album from Richard Hawley in its entirety and, as someone who'd hitherto passed Hawley by, it would be worth my Sunday morning indulgence. Thus, from the comfort of my own bed, I dialled up the stream and 2012 took an instantly different musical course. I played that stream two more times before I got out of bed. Up until this point, my musical taste had never extended much to morose Northern rockabillys who appeared happiest keeping their own company in the furthest corner of a deserted pub, a pint of Guinness and a copy of the New Statesman on the go.

Over several acclaimed albums like Lady's Bridge and the ethereal Truelove's Guitar, Hawley had attached his distinctively swoonsome 50s croon to melodic guitar rock, rockabilly, introspective country ballads and sweeping, strings-ahoy epics. Within them found Hawley making subtle commentary on life around him. On Standing At The Sky's Edge, the 45-year-old is positively shaking a fist at a troubled world via an energetic release of psychedelia, huge power chords and reverb so cavernous they only stop when they meet Dante's ice cream van somewhere near the bottom. 

Standing At The Sky's Edge has plenty of dark, plenty of shade and plenty of light. Breathtaking and then surprising by turns, it drags you by the scruff of the neck while at others it leads you by the hand, pulling you through 56 of the most invigorating musical minutes you will enjoy this year. Simply, a stunning record.


  1. You missed off Jeff Lynne, Long Wave, with the excellent track Mercy Mercy, and Paloma Faith, Fall to Grace. and Keane, Strangeland?
    Martin Poulter

    1. Alas, Keane fell just outside the Twenty, though Strangeland was a very strong contender...