Saturday, January 5, 2013

ten in twelve

The end of the world did not come to pass last year. We all managed to move into the new year with our hopes, dreams, wishes and desires in tact. It should be interesting to see how artists manifest their creative ambitions in the brave new world of the interest as technology continues to move music from physical based configurations to the ether.

Last year saw the rise of new artists making names for themselves, some without the aid of a major label. Such is the ever changing landscape of the entertainment biz. Some longstanding artists continue to make the transition with ease. At least that's what it looks like from the outside.

2012 was also a year of life affirming, musical output from a number of artist, both new and those with years of experience. Below, are my ten favorite albums of the previous twelve months. They are listed in alphabetical order. Cue fanfare!

Bright Light Bright Light - "Make Me Believe In Hope"

In a world that continues to push melismatic vocals and samey-same, David Guetta-esque toe tappers, it's refreshing to hear classic songwriting over an interesting production landscape. "MMBIH" is an album of lyrical substance and melodic drive.

Some of the best retro touchstones from the 80s and 90s collide with contemporary sounds. Rod Thomas, for he is BLBL, has a yearning, tender, urgent quality to his voice which draws the listener in without being obscured by the beautiful ear candy in which he's wrapped.

Standout tracks are many. "Feel It", "Waiting For The Feeling", "Love Part II", "Disco Moment" and "Moves" are essential music for those in love with an artist who has a pop sensibility. Perfection. A high water mark of 2012.

Mick Hucknall - "American Soul"

The one that everyone is surprised to find on my list. I've been a Simply Red fan from the start. Mick Hucknall's brand of blue eyed soul has been a part of the fabric of my life for over 25 years. At first, without hearing a note, "American Soul" was a turn off. A covers album. Rarely a smart, creative move. But some artists can pull it off.

So, I was relieved when I heard the album. It is full of gorgeous production elements which adorn Mick's rich and passionate vocal. Most of the songs aren't well known. That's always a good place to start when putting together an album such as this.

There is one song, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", which I don't care for no matter how it gets interpreted. I can live without that one. But Mr. Hucknall makes up for it with a big surprise, "Hope There's Someone", a song originally recorded by Antony & The Johnsons. I'm not a fan of Antony, but Mick's take on the song is a beautifully touching and unexpected album closer. A great coffee table album for Sunday mornings. Sexy stuff.

Marina And The Diamonds - "Electra Heart"

Tipped for big things with her debut album, "The Family Jewels", Marina And The Diamonds didn't quite hit the heights Ellie Goulding did. However, it did solidify a fanbase which was ready for a sophomore follow up. Enter "Electra Heart" which seemed to have suffered a few false starts.

However, Marina delivered her expected blend of quirky lyrics and solid hooks with, perhaps, less Lene Lovich-isms in her vocal delivery. This allowed the songs to breathe a bit without some of the histrionics deflecting attention from the core of the album.

Wisely produced with an au current electronic flavor, "Electra Heart" still shows Ms. Diamandis' penchant for corrupt American ideology and the country's obsession with vapid conversation, self absorbed youth and reality dramas.

Pet Shop Boys - "Elysium"

For their eleventh, studio longplayer, PSB decided to bring the tempo down a bit and produce something as close to a mood piece without sacrificing their pop sensibilities.

Decamping to LA certainly played a part in the more laid back tone of the album. That and the theme of the passage of time and the melancholy that can be attached to it, put Chris and Neil in a more reflective lyrical mode.

Not what fans might have wanted, they still managed to deliver an engaging album which may have taken a few listens to sink in. Even with a couple of clunkers, the album still boasts one of their finest single moments, "Leaving", which is the lush cornerstone of the elpee.

Saint Etienne - "Words And Music By Saint Etienne"

Seven years in the making, Saint Etienne came storming back with one of their most accomplished and thoroughly satisfying pop album of their career. Always inspired by the heart of soul of London, "WAMBSE" loosely follows our fearsome threesome through the capital as they reminisce about their favorite bands and take us out among the serious music fans. The ones that live and breathe pop music in all its multifaceted glory.

Stacked with potential singles in a bygone era, ver Et have all the bases covered. There's the kind of knees up, Euro flavored, dance tracks they do so well ("DJ", "I've Got Your Music"). They do a nod to 60s Bacharach inspired pop ("Answer Song"). The early 90s are dialed in for the atmospheric, Balearic sound of "Heading For The Fair". Spooky, trip hop seems to be the basis of "Twenty Five Years". Shades of New Order weave in and out of "When I Was Seventeen".

Essentially, the entire album is a lovesong to all things British. Crammed with nostalgic influences yet it never sounds derivative. Beautifully resplendent pop music's gorgeous palate of colors from electronic to pastoral. Waving the musical Union Jack with a smile on their faces, hands on their hears and tongues firmly planted in cheek. An elpee for music lovers by music lovers.

Along with Bright Light Bright Light, Saint Etienne are a group I've had the distinct privilege to produce tracks for in 2012. Quite an amazing year for moi.

Saint Etienne - "More Words And Music By Saint Etienne"

Sarah Cracknell and co. have two albums in my year end ten. Not sure if this qualifies as a separate album because it was sold exculsively as part of "WAMBSE" at concerts on their recent concert tour of the US.

Sonically, the ten song longplayer stands on its own. It doesn't have the production sheen lovingly slathered on the host album. But that's part of its charm. A more organic sounding elpee full of top notch tunes as if it was produced as a separate entity. Sometimes less is more.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't an album of demos or throwaways. Sure, there are a couple of covers ("Manhattan" and "Just Friends", originally recorded by Scott Walker and Amy Winehouse, respectively). But they are tailored to the Saint Etienne sound. There's "Lullaby", a track released as the b-side of "I've Got Your Music", which is a beautiful coda alongside previously unreleased gems. Two quirky instrumentals ("Racing Car" and the Kraftwerk-esque "Landscape") plus "Fairground Rock And Roll", a cheeky, slightly raucous, Beach Boys inspired track, keep things buoyant through.

"MWAMBSE" is a magnificent compliment to the shinier, more effervescent parent album. A gorgeous, swoonsome comedown from a night out in London town.

Sam Sparro - "Return To Paradise"

Mr. Sparro's sophomore longplayer didn't receive much commercial fanfare, but it's certainly head and shoulders above his debut. Less emphasis on the electronics, less atmosphere (ie. megahit "Black And Gold") and big on disco attitude and funky fierceness.

Sam testifies on standout track, "Happiness", an exhilarating, 90s house inspired hip wiggler that defies anyone not to get up to get down. I wish he had the good sense to produce an old school seven minute extended version.

Jam & Lewis inspired "Let The Love In" is a real gem. His obvious love of Prince is felt in the sideways "Sign O' The Times" influenced "Yellow Orange Rays". Elsewhere, Sam's tender side shows up on "Shades Of Grey", the album tearjerker. Disco moments include "Paradise People", "We Could Fly" and "Closer". Quirky, funkiness abounds on "The Shallow End".

Tracey Thorn - "Tinsel And Lights"

A Christmas themed longplayer in a year end Top 10 is not a regular occurrence. However, when it's not strictly a tried and true seasonal effort - few Christmas trees, a little light on Santa sightings, not a reindeer in sight - then it makes sense to expand the boundaries on acceptable times of year to spin it.

"Tinsel And Light" is one of those albums. Keen songwriting, not reliant on a hard and fast Christmas theme, a delicately and homespun sounding effort and songs that evoke feelings of winter rather than the spirit of Saint Nick.

Album opener and original composition, "Joy", is a contemporary carol which beautifully encapsulates what it's like to remember the youthful wonder of the Christmas season. The covers have been tastefully chosen. You could be forgiven for thinking "Hard Candy Christmas", originally recorded by Dolly Parton, is a Thorn original. Musically and lyrically, along with the rest of the album, feels very much her own rather than recordings of other people's material.

Scritti Politti makes two appearances on the album, sort of. Tracey does a jolly version of "Snow In Sun", which originally appeared on their Mercury nominated longplayer, "White Bread Black Beer". Then Scritti main man, Green Gartside, duets with Lady Thorn on a Low's "Taking Down The Tree". Randy Newman's "Snow", recorded by everyone from Claudine Longet to Saint Etienne, is given a haunting, stripped back feel with Tracey's achingly beautiful vocal placed over a simple piano arrangement. All in all a gorgeous album suitable for any season.

Jessie Ware - "Devotion"

Every now and again, a dark, seductive, soul album rises to the top of the scene in the UK. This year, "Devotion" used its sublime charm to win over wine bars and the cool cats that inhabit them. This is not a bad thing.

Jessie has a warm, velvety vocal which is lovingly placed over sparse, icy beats. It's that juxtaposition, which hearkens back to trip hop classics like "Blue Lines" by Massive Attack, that makes the album immediately appealing.

Gorgeous, standout cuts include the quietly insistent "Wildest Moments", the slinky "Running" and the swinging, early 80s R&B inspired "Sweet Talk". Intoxicating.

The 2 Bears - "Be Strong"

Fancy a little boogie around the living room? Then "Be Strong", the debut longplayer from The 2 Bears is for you. Imagine New Order meets The Specials at The Hacienda. That's sort of a sideways description of the album. It's an amalgamation of house, hip hop and two step delivered with a healthy dose of indie personality.

Packed full of house inflected choons, this album would've easily had five Top 20 singles if it had been released in the mid-90s. "Work", "Ghosts & Zombies", "Warm & Easy" and the title track are serious earworms that never tire after repeated listens. Even "Bear Hug", which I resisted initially and can sound like a bit of novelty, has a hip wiggling charm about it.

"Be Strong" is the sound of England through the eyes of and ears of Joe Goddard (from Hot Chip) and musical compatriot Raf Rundell. Witty, thoughtful and it has a great beat you can dance to. Set to make you move, just get up on this groove.


  1. Really wonderful selection of albums for 2012! PSB, Tracey Thorn, Bright Light Bright Light and Saint Etienne all make my 20 for 12. I collected so much great music in 2012 that I am still not finished working out my favorite albums to make up a list.

  2. very nice selection. not familiar with the 2 bears at all, but will go check them out asap, thx to your recommendation. for comparison, here's my top ten tunes and top ten albums of '12: