The end of the calendar year can mean only one thing: it’s time to look back at the past 12 months of music, both locally and nationally (and, might I add, it’s also the one time a year I get to write in first-person within the pages of 72 Hours! Hooray for the letter I!). OK, OK. I know — you are tired of year-end lists and you’ve had enough of hearing about how great Frank Ocean is. I get it.
But before you completely dismiss this collection, remember: Where else can you find a set of the year’s best songs in the Frederick area combined with a quick look at what made the previous 12 months of music some of the best in recent memory?! Nowhere, I tell you. Nowhere.
So behold the final goodbye to 2012. It should be noted that the local picks were drawn from each record I reviewed in 72 Hours this year, though some were released prior to 2012. With only one column every two weeks, we here at The Frederick News-Post want to give everybody a fair shake, and do our best to publish reviews for CDs sent to us, even if those releases are a few months old.
Also worth noting is the fact that because of decisions made by people far above my paygrade, the accompanying local list will consist of only songs and not full releases. That in mind, I feel it imperative to mention that for the first time in the history of For The Record, we had two releases receive a perfect four-record rating in 2012. And while that is a fairly monumental occurrence in my tiny, completely irrelevant musical orbit, it unfortunately doesn’t always mean that tracks from said pieces of perfection stand well enough on their own to be atop a best-of song list. And, for the record, had a best-of album list been compiled, Thurlow’s “Spokes” would have landed at No. 1, while Domino Falls’ “So Strange” would have been not far behind at No. 2. Unfortunately, though, “Spokes” has a sum far better than its parts, and the lone song from Thurlow on the accompanying list doesn’t appear in the top spot.
This, of course, should spark outrage.
Anyway, enough of my babbling. 2012 marked the first full year of For The Record’s existence, and for that, I must thank you for supplying us with all the local music a newspaper could ask for, and, of course, for sending me threatening emails on behalf of something called Radiolab. “You’re a talentless (expletive) Colin, please stop writing,” the email said.
Well, a Merry Christmas to you, too.
1. Domino Falls – Her Eyes
It’s just so good. If you’re looking for some type of analytical, measure-by-measure take on precisely why this rock tune is the year’s best, you’ve come to the wrong place. The thing is just so clean, so polished, so professional, so good. Sure, you might be able to argue that it lacks edge, and as far as hip picks go, this Baltimore band certainly doesn’t have the type of indie credibility that, say, Thurlow displayed on their four-song set. But if you can’t appreciate how perfectly constructed this pop gem is or how affecting lead singer Kyle Wesley’s mix of emotion and poignancy proves to be, you’re just being a dope. Besides, if nothing else, the track gave us the single best local music moment of 2012 when the tasteful “Na, Na, Nas” appeared midway through what has to be the greatest moment of Domino Falls’ short career on record. Complain all you want about a lack of drum machines or minimalism, but there is something to be said about a band that simply knows how to craft a flawless pop rock song. And in this case, “Her Eyes” says all anyone really needs to know.
2. The Hello Strangers – The World Knows Far Better Than Me
Who knew a tiny female pop country duo from Mercersburg, Pa., could sound so melancholy? They took the bulk of 2012 off (congrats to Larissa and her new baby!), but this haunting final track from their “Introducing Max Schmidt” EP made sure that it would be impossible to forget about them during their sabbatical. There is something profoundly beautiful within these two ladies’ blend of country sadness and soulful grit, and “The World Knows Far Better Than Me” is a diamond among gems. Word has it they are heading to Nashville for the follow-up, and if this reflective ballad is any indication of where their sound is heading, Baby Stranger should rest easy, knowing it will benefit from a talented musical lineage. It’s hard not to find a good song from The Hello Strangers. This one is great.
3. Thurlow – Through Your Eyes
If you gave me one word to describe Jacqueline Caruso’s unassuming yet powerful voice, it would be angelic. From the best local set I heard all year, this piece of indie pop perfection is impossible to forget. The anthemic nature of the song’s beginning synth chords promises a journey through the most honest and introspective story local music told this year, and as Caruso croons “I want your touch/ To change me” about halfway home, recalling the tones of God Help the Girl’s Catherine Ireton, your ears become thankful and your soul becomes mesmerized. Then again, none of these superlatives should come as a surprise to any of us: Remember, this is the sound of an angel after all.
4. The Grey Area – Sugar, From You
This was a pretty big year for Washington’s The Grey Area. The video for this song found its way onto the likes of MTV and VH1. The duo received accolades from almost every local publication you could think of (including this one back in April). And, if Twitter is to be believed, they even got invited to the upcoming Grammy ceremony in February. The best part? None of it is undeserved, and “Sugar, From You,” the first track on their “508” EP, is proof of such. The funky/bluesy guitar line backed up by a cracking, groovy drum rhythm is enough to get you hooked … before singer Jason Steinhauer even grabs the mic. Rock duos are all the rage nowadays, and with “Sugar, From You,” The Grey Area prove that there is no reason they can’t be considered among some of the most accomplished. At this point, it’s only a matter of time.
5. The Static Trees – 7th Son
… And speaking of duos. Gettysburg, Pa., natives The Static Trees made a leap from 2011’s album “Necessary Risks” with this year’s “Dirty Lungs,” as they went from a pop-leaning pair to an outfit dependent on waltzes and the blues. This, the best track from their most recent effort, is without question the best these two have ever sounded. Maybe it’s the pounding electric guitar riff. Maybe it’s Layla West’s contemptuous voice that is only accentuated by the pristine production that accompanies it.
Maybe it’s the pounding drums and White Stripes influence that is unavoidable. Who knows? Who cares? “7th Son” caps an impressive transformation for the duo that made 2012 the year The Static Trees matured from a mere seed in the ground.
6. Dick Brewer – Dessert Flirt
OK, I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for some pop prog. I know, I know. The world of progressive rock and fusion is often ignored, especially in local circles, and that’s a shame, really. Because as Dick Brewer proved with this instrumental opening track to his “Brewer’s Brew” set, there is some pretty neat stuff going on between the lines within this type of music. The most King Crimson-esque performance of the bunch, this song has it all: tasteful and sparse keyboards, soulful horns and odd time signatures that change up on a moment’s notice. Some may dismiss this stuff as glorified Weather Channel music, but those who do aren’t listening. In fact, these five minutes are living proof that the amount of ability it takes to pull this kind of music off successfully is hard to obtain. No worries for Brewer and his friends, though — they clearly have it down.
7. Jake Lewis – Roam Far
It’s like Ryan Adams and Jeff Tweedy moved to this area, got married, had a child, raised him on old Simon and Garfunkel records, forced him to be best friends with Faroese singer-songwriter Teitur and told him to get out of their house. Got that? Good. Because that’s what Jake Lewis’ “Roam Far” sounds like, and for a guy who put out not one but two records in 2012, marking this his best moment of the year says something. The stripped-down acoustic-guitar-meetshushed- vocal-trick doesn’t always work, but for this singer, it’s like a marriage made in emo-folk heaven.
8. The Parlor Soldiers – Crazy
It’s the perfect combination: A countryfied duet between a man and woman, simultaneously telling the other how impossible they are, yet sounding completely in love. That’s what this quirky and infectious bluegrass ditty entails, and it’s precisely what made The Parlor Soldiers’ “When The Dust Settles” a spotty and effective 13song set. Alex Culbreth’s Johnny Cash plays the perfect yin to Karen Jonas’ June Carter yang, and the blunt nature of the track is equal parts profane and poignant.
Of all the great songs that came through the pipeline in 2012, this was without question the most fun.
9. Car Party Feat. Ace Enders – Please Me
It’s just so darn polished. Yeah, these Baltimore cats have crossed from a mere local act into the world of national tours with mid-major-label acts, but there’s no mistaking this absurdly catchy pop punk ride with The Early November’s Ace Enders leading the party behind the wheel. It’s crisp. It’s inescapable. And the “oh-oh-ohs” flash back to a time when romance was still chemical and boys were still falling out. It’s a sound that’s now almost retro in nature, and it’s a sound that should be enough fuel to make sure this car doesn’t break down any time soon.
10. Elon-Elon – I’m Ok
If you enjoy some soul with your sugar, Elon-Elon’s “I’m OK” might just be the best song you came across this year. It bounces like Bruno, shreds like Stevie and pops like Prince. TheFrederick singer clearly knows his way around a hook, and this melodic whirlwind is evidence of how crafty he can be when working in his wheelhouse. This is the kind of stuff that is begging to be played on VH1 Soul, and with “Ever Since …” it was clear that Elon was thinking about far bigger things than this small town. “I’m OK” proves those that those thoughts aren’t unfounded.
1. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
Assuming his position as a sad world’s poet laureate, Leonard Cohen’s “Old Ideas” was his best collection in years, a stark moment of proof that the singer truly is like the finest of wines — better with age. From the haunting low croons of opener “Going Home” to the playful, relatively upbeat nature of “Different Sides,” these 10 songs have more references to death and sex than three seasons of HBO’s “The Wire.”
He isn’t breaking new ground any more than he’s using it as a placeholder for the victory lap that this record is. That doesn’t mean the work suffers. The darkness of “Banjo” is wry and beautifully selfish, while “Crazy to Love You” is as romantic as the singer has ever been. And at seven-plus minutes, “Amen” sits next to “Dress Rehearsal Rag” as one of his longer, more breathtakingly hopeless journeys. Leonard Cohen is 78 years old now, so who knows if we’ll get another set of all-new material while he’s still able to don that derby on stages around the world. Though if “Old Ideas” does end up being his musical swan song, it’s hard to imagine two better ways to say goodbye: sad and sexy.
2. The xx – Coexist
Minimalists unite! The follow-up to their 2009 breakthrough debut, “Coexist” saw The xx do the impossible: avoid a sophomore slump after initially being crowned indie darlings. Lesser artists may crumble under the pressure, but not these guys.
From Romy Madley Croft’s haunting, trancelike recital of “As in love/ With you/ As I am” during the set’s first track “Angels,” all the way to “Our Song,” the melancholy duet that closes out the collection, these 11 songs prove The xx’s place among the most celebrated imported acts today. Sure, they aren’t redefining their approach here, but when you do what they do as well as they do it, why mess with the formula?
“Reunion” pushes forward, promising to land on dance floors across the world in about 4,000 remixed forms while “Tides” is a surprisingly colorful trip through palm trees swaying in a rainstorm. It’s just another trick in these guys’ black-and-white arsenal, though as “Coexist” illustrates so well, The xx could take any paintbrush and make the picture their own.
3. Lianne La Havas – Is Your Love Big Enough?
If you were at the Birchmere in November to check her out on a quick, three-city tour of the states, you saw firsthand how much of a star Lianne La Havas is destined to be. Her guitar might suggest she’s the British Alicia Keys (when left alone with her most prominent device, as on “Age,” it’s clear how comfortable she is with doing more than just singing). Her attitude might suggest she’s the next Adele (“Lost & Found” provided 2012 with its best musical moment as she nearly blows out the speakers during the final chorus).
And her flare may even suggest a hip version of Beyonce (“Forget” is just as anthemic and exotic as “Baby Boy” ever hoped to be). All those proclamations would be wrong, however: La Havas is her own blend of artist, and “Is Your Love Big Enough?” was without question the most promising coming-out party of the past 12 months.
4. Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts
My biggest regret of the year? Not landing tickets to see Norah Jones at Wolf Trap this summer. Why is that? “Little Broken Hearts” proved to be yet another step forward for an artist who is already miles ahead of the pack. She let her sugary side shine on the disgustingly honest “Say Goodbye” and the quirky, upbeat single “Happy Pills,” while the vengeful desires she picked up on “The Fall” proved they weren’t going anywhere with the chilling “Miriam” and thumping title track. Norah Jones makes it seem so easy to be this good, and for that we often take her for granted. “Little Broken Hearts” served as a reminder to never let those big eyes and sultry voice leave our consciousness again.
5. The Killers – Battle Born
It’s the most complete Killers album yet, and that’s saying something. There were some surprisingly good pop rock records this year (who knew Matchbox Twenty still even existed?!), but this was without question the most intriguing. The Springsteen influence is still there, like on the addictive “Runaways” and the gigantic “The Way It Was,” but it’s the maturity in songwriting that truly shines through these 12 tracks. “Deadlines and Commitments” pulls at your heart while “Here with Me” actually survives a chorus with the line “Don’t want your picture/ On my cellphone.” Gripe all you want about how great “Hot Fuss” was in 2004, but if you refuse to at least consider the evolution that “Battle Born” has completed for this Las Vegas outfit, you probably don’t even know what Instagram is.
6. Cody Chesnutt – Landing On A Hundred
He’s back! He’s back! A solid decade after his absurdly acclaimed debut “The Headphone Masterpiece,” Cody Chesnutt has finally returned to give us the proper follow-up we have been waiting for (and no, an EP doesn’t count). “Landing On A Hundred” is a brilliant combination of oldschool values and new-school messages that only furthers itself with the help of his ungodly funky instrumentation. “Till I Met Thee” is a serious contender for his best track ever, while “Where Is All the Money Going” provides an upstroke reggae/ska guitar that is impossible to forget. There’s a little bit of Marvin in his tone, a little bit of a reverend in his presentation, and a whole lot of individuality in his artistry. It’s the most surprising album of the year not because of its greatness, but because it happened at all. And thank God it did.
7. Jimmy Cliff – Rebirth
I spoke with Ziggy Marley earlier this month and he told me that there is no authenticity in music anymore and the commercialization of the product has overtaken its quality. He clearly hadn’t heard Jimmy Cliff’s excellent “Rebirth,” a return to greatness for the reggae music legend that proved Rancid’s Tim Armstrong’s place among the most sought-after producers today. “World Upside Down,” “Cry No More” and “Rebel Rebel” all provide enough roots to make even Questlove blush while “Reggae Music” picks up the tempo and transports any listener to the sunniest beach this side of Kingston. It’s no secret that Cliff is a living legend, but who knew that being born again could sound this good?
8. Ralph “Soul” Jackson – The Alabama Love Man
It’s the best record of 2012 that you probably didn’t hear. From the little-known Rabbit Factory imprint came an improbable story begging to be told, as after more than 50 years in the music business, Ralph Jackson was finally able to release a proper album, and these eight tracks proved to be worth the wait. The moans and grunts echoed Al Green on the funky “I Can’t Leave Your Love Alone,” while the pop persistence of “For Just One Second” was inescapable. It’s a sound that bleeds Stax Records, it’s a sound that is nothing short of timeless, and it’s a sound that is still the epitome of how soul music is supposed to be.
9. Nas – Life Is Good
It’s a breakup album. And it’s also the best hip-hop release of 2012. For a rapper who has made a career out of being introspective and intelligent, it’s awfully impressive to hear the man born Nasir Jones sound this inspired 11 records in. It makes sense, though. You can’t write something as affecting as “Daughters” or as emotive as “No Introduction” in your early 20s, especially if those years were spent battling Jay-Z. Sure, the Amy Winehouse collaboration “Cherry Wine” became a flash point in pop culture for about 20 seconds as people debated whether or not it did the late singer justice (as far as I’m concerned, it did), but all cynics aside, the one thing you can’t take away from “Life Is Good” is how battle-tested the rapper sounds through it all. You don’t get this good over night. In fact, for some, you don’t get this good … ever. He’s a lyrical mastermind, and these 14 tracks proved as much.
10. Gary Clark Jr. – Blak And Blu
The latest Guy Who Was Going to Save the Blues finally released his full-length major label debut this year and it was … pretty good. Was it the legendary statement many had hoped to see? No. But was is it a fairly illustrious showcase for how versatile this guitar prodigy can be? Well, just have a listen to the horn-driven single “Ain’t Messin ‘Round” or the epic take on Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun,” and you’ll know the answer to that. The best moments came when he spread his wings, such as on “When My Train Pulls In” and “Bright Lights,” two tracks that highlight the potential that so many critics and taste-makers have been talking about for so long. Yeah, this might not be the iconic set for which some had hoped, but as we all know by now, it takes time to work your way onto the shortlist of Greatest-Ever Guitar Players. And if nothing else, “Blak and Blu” was a fairly solid first step in a long climb toward earning a spot among that kind of company.
1. Lianne La Havas – Is Your Love Big Enough?
The best song of 2012 came from the breakout star of 2012. Britain’s Lianne La Havas burst into America’s consciousness with this infectiously simple tune that has a lazy bridge and only two real verses. No matter. That voice carries a singalong chorus that was built to pack stadiums, and as a bonus, the rhythmic claps that accompany each refrain add the perfect touch to an already-perfect pop song. “I found myself in a second/ I found myself in a second-hand guitar,” La Havas sings at the beginning of the track. Thank God for pawnshops.
2. Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe?
Come on, you know you loved it the first 59 times you heard it! Yeah, this thing has one-hit wonder written all over it (though to be fair, her Owl City collaboration “Good Time” gained some steam, too), but sometimes the musical anomalies in a 12-month span can provide us with some of the most memorable 3 1/2 minutes of fun we come across all year.
It was the song of the summer. It was cute. It was campy. It was annoying. And it was unforgettable. How’s that for a third-place finish on “Canadian Idol”?
3. Kanye West Feat. Big Sean and Jay-Z – Clique
Was it me, or did Kanye’s “Good Music” compilation take forever to hit stores this year? Either way, the wait was worth it, if only for how declarative and confident these 4:54 are. “It’s the Dream Team meets the Supreme Team/ And all our eyes green it only means one thing,” Mr. Carter proclaims before West drops what might be the hip-hop line of the year: “Break records at Louis/ Ate breakfast at Gucci/ My girl a superstar all from a home movie.” It was only a matter of time, Kim. It was only a matter of time.
4. Fun. – Some Nights
First thing’s first: I don’t like fun. (or, as a friend patronizingly calls them, funperiod). What turned me around? The group’s “Saturday Night Live” performance of this very song. Lead singer Nate Ruess is utterly impossible to ignore as he gives life to the tone of self doubt that paints this track in such a shockingly palpable way. Add to that a marchingdrum backdrop, a truckload of “whoaohs” and a spoken-word section, and what you have is 2012’s most inspiring tune. That said, I’d still be OK if I never heard “We Are Young” again.
5. Pink – Blow Me (One Last Kiss)
Of all the female pop singers who came up in the mid-to-late-1990s, who could have ever predicted that it would be Pink who withstood the test of time?
Part of that appeal, of course, is her obsession with the profane, and that’s not lacking on this, maybe one of the more overlooked hits of 2012. Its cheeky title notwithstanding, this is everything a great Pink song should be: catchy, angry, sugary and blunt. Bonus: Listen to her stretch to hit the notes on the post-chorus. It’s beautiful because of its imperfection. Totally like Pink. Totally unlike Xtina and Brit Brit.
6. Ralph “Soul” Jackson – I Can’t Leave Your Love Alone
It’s impossible to believe this wasn’t recorded on McLemore Avenue in Memphis, Tenn., sometime in the spring of 1967. That’s how great this sound is, and that’s how true this Southern-state native stayed to the form of honest soul music. The horns are there, the groove is hot, and Jackson’s signature growl runs far deeper than a few Alabama Shakes. It took 50 years for the singer to get here.
Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait another 50 for a follow-up.
7. Norah Jones – Happy Pills
The lead single off her fantastic “Little Broken Hearts,” this track is the pinnacle of the Danger Mouse/Norah Jones musical marriage that worked out fairly well for the singer this year. The greatness lies within the contradiction between music and words as the retro-fitted shiny feel plays perfectly off such venomous lines as “Trying to pick up the pace/ Trying to make it so I never see your face again/ Time to throw this away/ Want to make sure that you never waste my time again.” Happy pills. Sad singer. Beautiful combination.
8. Cody Chesnutt – Till I Met Thee
Hey, guys. Look at this: It’s the greatest consumer-funded song in the history of the world! The first track on Cody Chesnutt’s latest record is a trip down funk lane in a car driven by Booker T.’s MGs singing along to Marvin Gaye Bsides during the summer of 1974. Or something like that. As he does, Chesnutt sticks to what he knows best — himself — while telling the redemptive tale of what one can only assume is his own life on top of some James Browngood soul. Kickstarter campaign or not, this is pretty great stuff.
9. Joss Stone – While You’re Out Looking For Sugar
Quick: What do you do when you are on the verge of becoming entirely irrelevant even AFTER you form a supergroup with Mick Jagger and release the first rock-oriented release of your career (last year’s awful “LP1”)? You call up the same producer who helped introduce you to the world, pick out some great obscure covers, and revisit the album that launched your career. Behold this 1969 Honey Cone cover from Joss Stone that emphatically reminds us all that she’s still got soul left in that powerful voice. If this is supposed to end all discussion of her rock turn, she couldn’t have picked a better Motown-esque, Four Tops-sounding tune to prove it. Welcome back, Ms. Stone.
10. Taylor Swift – We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
Don’t think for one second that Taylor Swift is a country artist anymore. And don’t think for one second that this isn’t one of the great pop songs of the past 12 months. Yeah, call the bridge corny, but you can’t deny the staying power of that chorus in your mind after “accidentally” hearing a clip of it echo from your little sister’s computer. Maybe the most fun song of Swift’s entire catalog, this cemented her place in the pop culture lexicon for at least another year, One Direction boyfriend or not. Besides: pretending that you don’t like this kind of sugar rush is kind of like pretending that you don’t like Twizzlers. And, I mean, who doesn’t like Twizzlers? Jake Gyllenhaal?