Thursday, December 27, 2012

ON THE AVENUES: The musical year 2012 (part one).

ON THE AVENUES: The musical year 2012 (part one). 

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

A reader asks: “When will the annual “year in music” list be published?”

The answer: Right after the annual irrelevance disclaimer.

Verily, as cultural markers go, few are as personalized as one’s choice of music. As such, the inescapable verdict of 2011 is repeated in 2012: My musical awareness sell-by date has long since expired. Taking into account multiple “best of 2012” collections of music perused on-line, my familiarity has extended to as few as one (often none) of every ten selections cited. In terms of chronology, I’ve effectively pole vaulted the shark. I’m an old fogey, and while the kids may well be alright, their musical tastes utterly elude me.

So be it, for I remain a happy musical warrior, and shall proceed into the good tuneful night not so much gently as with shoulders shrugging, expounding the freedom to dial back my consciousness to Bix Beiderbecke, Bela Bartok and even the Beach Boys as the mood strikes me. Music of all eras and genres plays constantly inside my cranium, and has done so for as long as I remember. When it ceases, it will mean I’m dying, so let’s keep the music playing, and begin with album releases in 2012.

Creaky Aging Veterans Division

Leonard Cohen … Old Ideas
Dr. John … Locked Down
Bob Dylan … Tempest
John Hiatt … Mystic Pinball
Ian Hunter & the Rant Band … When I’m President
Van Morrison … Born to Sing: No Plan B
Rush … Clockwork Angels
Neil Young and Crazy Horse … Psychedelic Pill

Taken as a whole, 2012 was an excellent year for superannuated farts not dissimilar to me and mine.

The pleasure in listening to Bob and Van these days derives in large measure from their rich and encyclopedic musical references; the Irishman’s dyspeptic insolence and the Minnesotan’s bloody apocalyptic story-telling reveal additional nuances with each listen.

The same can be said of Dr. John’s return to swampy, dark and mystical funk. Meanwhile, the septuagenarians Hunter (late of Mott the Hoople) and a whispering Cohen get philosophical, while John Hiatt simply cannot write a bad song.

For the continued existence of the two actual long-term rock bands here, I am grateful as well as suitably deafened. The technical mastery of Rush always astounds, while the tipsy grinding clatter of Neil and the boys reassures. Rock ‘n’ roll is dead; long live rock ‘n’ roll.

Honorable Mention: Slightly More Contemporary Stuff.

Alabama Shakes … Boys & Girls
Adam Cohen … Like A Man
Cribs … In the Belly of the Brazen Bull
Neon Trees … Picture Show
Jack White … Blunderbuss

As one constantly lamenting the decline of the rock music I was raised on, I’m not happy with myself for taking so long to “get” the Alabama Shakes. That woman has her some mean pipes, and the instruments are straight and soulful. Adam Cohen, while comparable in intent with his old man, has his own unique twist on lounge poetry, and his set at the Rufus Wainwright show at Iroquois last summer was exemplary.

As for the Cribs, a very English band, it’s arguably the poor “shameless” pub-going man’s version of Oasis, the latter as yet defunct as we all await the inevitable reunion payday.

Neon Trees makes the grade for (a) being an actual band with folks who play instruments, (b) having an ex-New Albanian (Elaine Bradley) as drummer, and (c) displaying a talent for songs that remain songs even when stripped of production embellishments.

Finally, while never a huge fan of White’s previous work, I’m coming to appreciate the way he micro-targets his apparently endless creative reservoir of weirded-out musicality to anything he does.

Closer: Numbers 5, 4, 3 and 2.

Keane … Strangelands
Maroon 5 … Overexposed
Muse … The 2nd Law
Scars on 45 (eponymous)

In 2012, Keane happily awakened from recent experiments in over-produced, gimmick-driven excess, recalling those Keane-like attributes which first brought the band to prominence: Great singing and playing, clever song craft, and resulting tunes that one can sing in showers and then whistle while walking the dog. Good for them, good for me, even if I don’t own a dog.

Is it a band, or is it Memorex? Maroon 5 seems to have entered just such a period as Keane has only now exited. Overexposed features guest writers, warmth-draining production and an entirely extraneous rap couplet (on Pay Phone) that has the same approximate dampening effect on an otherwise superior pop song as a kazoo solo might if tacked to the middle of Stairway to Heaven. Still, there’s a certain charm, along with songs that easily become ear worms.

Then there’s Muse, and I piously thank the Gods of ridiculous prog-rock extravagance (and maybe the ghost of Freddie Mercury, too) for a band that knows no shame when it comes to ludicrous pretension. But sometimes overreach is exactly what we need to cope with the daily routine. Highlights might well be a deceptive, genre-shifting, damned-near-ballad called “Madness,” and two album closing sound collages serving as appropriate soundtracks to the world’s suicidal preference for unsustainability.

Coming in at number two is my biggest surprise of the year, an eponymous debut album by the band Scars on 45. The group is Brit, with both male and female lead singers, conjuring a mood not unlike the early Buckingham/Nicks era of Fleetwood Mac, except that the overall tone is far less of Lindsey’s classic quirky songs than Christine McVie’s doleful contemplations, with American roots shadings aplenty. This is highly accomplished work, and I’ll be watching for “next.”

My Album of the Year for 2012: Bruce Springsteen … Wrecking Ball

In retrospect, after the Boss went out on the road stumping for Barack Obama during the waning days of the incumbent’s wonderfully successful re-election campaign, he must have intended all along that his release be remembered as the soundtrack for Obama’s crusade, at least among those white folks of a certain age, like me, who don’t habitually inhabit the wrong side of history.

That’s ironic, because as politically militant as I tend to be, the album took quite some time to bore its way into my consciousness. The songs and sentiments are simple and strong, and the mood is anthemic. It was a slow start, but by the time Labor Day rolled around, Wrecking Ball’s songs were constant companions: “Rocky Ground,” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” “Death to My Home Town,” and many others, taking their turns in heavy rotation.

In the end, the best music is what comes to define times in our lives, good or bad. When I think about a place I visited in 1985, or a night at the bar ten years later, music begins playing, unprompted, because the connections are indelible. In the future, it will be impossible for me to separate the sheer joy of watching the white-power theocratic fascists lose states (and face) in the 2012 election without these songs of Bruce’s on Wrecking Ball starting to play.

Next Thursday in part two, I’ll write about other personal musical trends during the past year.

No comments: