Across the great musical divide
Yes, we are undoubtedly experiencing a time of extreme political division in this great nation of ours. But that’s nothing compared to how severely we are split musically.Check out the blizzard of end of year lists, and the consensus is that there is little consensus at all. While there are a handful of albums that get repeated mentions, the fact is we are all living between our own private earbuds, getting off on our own different slices of the musical spectrum. (If there is one thing we might all agree on, it is that Rolling Stone is hopelessly out of touch as a tastemaker, having tabbed Bruce Springsteen’s middling “Wrecking Ball” as the No. 1 album of 2012.)Bully for that, I say. Whatever monumental changes have hit the recording business over the years, they haven’t decimated the creative spirit. On the contrary, the output of music is enormous, the diversity is endless, the spirit of experimentation is thriving. My desk is piled high with CDs, my inbox overflowing with downloads. And in my car, my teenage daughter commandeers the radio, putting on “her station,” and exposing me to a separate musical realm I would not have ventured into. The experience has not been unenjoyable.Here’s how 2012 sounded to me, a baker’s dozen of my favorites. I invite further suggestions.Frank Ocean, “Channel Orange”We can finally stop waiting for D’Angelo to give us a worthy follow-up to 2000’s “Voodoo.” Instead of the next D’Angelo album, we get the first album from 25-year-old singer Frank Ocean, a member of the California hip-hop collective Odd Future. “Channel Orange” exists in the same neo-soul realm as “Voodoo” – easy on the ears, but also edgy and out-there. Like D’Angelo, Ocean has a once-a-decade seductiveness to his voice. But where D’Angelo stayed more or less entirely in bedroom mode, Ocean ventures out into the world, exploring class, gender and spirituality, and mixing a wide vocabulary of sounds, from psychedelic rock to electro-funk into his groove. Let’s hope the parallel with D’Angelo ends with the neo-soul genre; I don’t want to wait a decade for Ocean’s next pronouncement.Grizzly Bear, “Shields”To my ears, this is the sound of rock music in 2012. “Shields,” the fourth album by the Brooklyn quartet Grizzly Bear, unquestionably pushes the boundaries in sound and song structure; you really don’t know what’s around the bend – a freak-folk break, a bluesy guitar hook, crunchy chords. And then they’ll throw in a catchy, tuneful segment that brings you back to something familiar and lovely.Widespread Panic, “Wood”After making some of the best studio albums to come out of jam-band world, then seemingly giving up on the idea of the studio as a creative outlet with a string of ho-hum efforts, Widespread Panic goes into live-album mode and delivers a beauty. “Wood” documents the Georgia sextet’s first true acoustic tour, and they use the opportunity for some serious reinvention. The two-disc set brings out new sides of Panic – most notably, the acoustic picking of guitarist Jimmy Herring and the wizardry of keyboardist Jojo Hermann – as they reinterpret old favorites and break out a few new covers, including John Lennon’s “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” Bonus for local listeners: four tracks from “Wood” were recorded at Belly Up Aspen.Father John Misty, “Fear Fun”Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, downplays his involvement in Seattle superstar band Fleet Foxes, in which Tillman contributed some parts to the later albums and toured as their drummer. “Fear Fun” should do plenty to establish an identity of his own. The first album released under the Father John Misty, “Fear Fun” is sweet and dark and poetic, with shades of old rock ‘n’ roll, but even more of the sense of urgency to plunge into the unknown future.Father John Misty makes his Aspen debut Friday, Jan. 4, at Belly Up.David Byrne & St. Vincent, “Love This Giant”Two offbeat artists manage to merge their talents seamlessly in this crisp, funky, original concoction. The sounds – especially the horn section, the foundation here, used in such a unique way – are so ear-turning that you can miss the statement about the environment that “Love This Giant” is making.Tift Merritt, “Traveling Alone”A lot of people heard the greatness of Joni and Emmylou in the early work of North Carolina-bred singer-songwriter Tift Merritt. I failed to hear that until “Traveling Alone,” Merritt’s fifth album. Producer Tucker Martine (the Decemberists, My Morning Jacket) brings in players like guitarist Marc Ribot and violinist Rob Moose to provide an avant backdrop. But the star is Merritt’s evocative, country-folk voice (yes, shades of Emmylou) and superb songs.Leonard Cohen, “Old Ideas”On his first studio album in eight years, the 78-year-old Cohen meditates on mortality and death. He seems to know something about the subject the rest of us do not; Cohen appears to have a direct pipeline to God. His spare poetry, fragile voice and minimalist production strip away all that is extraneous, leaving only the holy. But left intact, in songs like “Show Me the Place” and the sexy “Different Sides,” is an abundant sense of humor and playfulness.Bob Dylan, “Tempest”If “Duquesne Whistle” doesn’t put a smile on your face … well, your problem. Dylan’s smile, as he slips into a Louis Armstrong-esque croak, is enormous. The song is about nothing other than Dylan himself – at 71, on his 35th studio album, Dylan retains the force of a train: “I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing/ That old oak tree, the one we used to climb.” Oh yeah, still standing tall and mighty, and not just in this chugging, joyous rocker. Dylan can access the dark (“Pay in Blood”), the tender (“Roll on John,” an homage to John Lennon), and the epic, with the 14-minute, 45-verse (!!) title track about the Titanic.Beach House, “Bloom”On their fourth album, the Maryland-based duo of instrumentalist Alex Scally and French-born singer Victoria Legrand reminds me of the ’80s – but leaving out all the dreadful parts, and saving just the best of the synthesizers, the showiness, the unapologetic melodicism. Legrand’s voice is dreamy, or what you’d hope to hear in your dreams.Glen Hansard, “Rhythm and Repose”Having done the rock band (the Frames), the folky duo (Swell Season) and taking a quick break to become a movie star (2006’s “Once), Irishman Glen Hansard, at 42, got around to the solo thing. “Rhythm and Repose” captures all the passion that Hansard put into his previous projects. Some of the songs here are great (the ambivalent “Maybe Not Tonight,” “The Storm, It’s Coming”) and some are merely good, but you’re never left with a doubt about Hansard’s desire to make you see and feel something.Punch Brothers, “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”Mandolinist Chris Thile and company take yet another big step into the future of the string quintet. Bill Monroe and bluegrass, and even progressive acoustic groups of the past like New Grass Revival, fade to the background as Punch Brothers look to Radiohead, and modern songwriters like Josh Ritter, as primary influences. There is a Radiohead cover (“Kid A”), but more telling is the opening track, the original “Movement and Location,” which is promisingly Radiohead-esque. Yes, humor, virtuosity, emotion, irony and artistic vision can coalesce.Alabama Shakes, “Boys & Girls”Resurrecting old soul, as so many singers have done of late, can seem like a fairly easy thing to do, and my first reaction to this debut album by Alabama Shakes was, “Too easy.” But on numerous listens since then, what emerged was the way the band was shaking up the soul genre, with just enough thrashing and pounding. And really, can you hold it against singer Brittany Howard that her voice is too easy to like? “Boys & Girls” is very good; I expect Alabama Shakes to produce something truly great their next time out.Donald Fagen, “Sunken Condos”Between Steely Dan and solo projects, singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen has released six albums in the past 22 years. Which might be a paucity, but in Fagen’s case it seems just right. It leaves just enough time that when we do get something new from Fagen, we are reminded of how singular a niche of the pop-jazz-rock-fusion spectrum he has invented. “Sunken Condos” is Fagen in full – the studio as a device to achieve sonic perfection. It might be too much cool precision if we were exposed, say, every two years. But Fagen’s last album was 2006’s “Morph the Cat,” and after a six-year gap, “Sunken Condos” sounds … well, perfect.