The Internet and digital recording may be making it easier than ever for young people to make and release music — and with some work, make a living with music. But when it came to the best albums of 2012, this was mainly a year for the older guard, as my picks for the top 10 feature many AARP-eligible artists.
Maybe next year, youth will be served. But to my ears, experience and skill showed, as the artists on this list made the year’s best, most interesting and developed music. Here’s how I rank the top 10 albums.
- Jack White: “Blunderbuss” (Third Man/Columbia) — White’s first solo album brings together the varied range of music he’d hinted at in his bands — The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and Dead Weather. So we get everything from a country weeper (the title song) to the rootsy honky tonk pop of “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” to the White Stripe-ish thunder of “Sixteen Saltines” to the jumping jive of “I’m Shakin’” (a Little Willie John tune). “Blunderbuss” may have been too varied for some, but along with quality of the songs, White’s command of so many styles is truly impressive.
- Bob Dylan: “Tempest” (Columbia) — Over the past decade and a half, Dylan has done something few would have predicted — he’s reinvented his sound, settling into a rough-edged rootsy sound that’s rooted in early folk and blues but has its own distinct flavor. At the same time, he’s found the songwriting magic again, and with “Tempest,” both trends continue. It’s a tough-sounding album, as Dylan sings of love, betrayal, the death of John Lennon and the fate of the Titanic, among other topics. A couple of songs don’t click musically, but most of “Tempest” is powerful and a worthy addition to the formidable Dylan canon.
- Graham Parker and the Rumour: “Three Chords Good” (Primary Wave) — Parker has made excellent albums since splitting with his original backing group, the Rumour, in 1980. But his first group was his best, and “Three Chords Good” only reinforces that opinion. Parker’s sound has softened around the edges over the years, but “Three Chords Good” has one of his best collections of songs ever — all strengthened by the supple playing of the Rumour. Good? Sorry, this is more like “Three Chords Great.”
- Dr. John: “Locked Down” (Nonesuch) — Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John) long ago established his credentials as a songwriter and artist. But “Locked Down” suggests that his producer on this album, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, unlocked some dormant creativity. Along with the usual New Orleans voodoo spice, Dr. John ventures pretty far and wide here, serving up some funky, rocking R&B, a little skittering jazzy blues and rock on “Getaway and “Ice Age,” and some poppy R&B on “God’s Sure Good.” It makes for the best Dr. John album in many years.
- Bruce Springsteen: “Wrecking Ball” (Columbia Records) — “Wrecking Ball” finds Springsteen blending his anthemic rock with the folkier influences he first explored on his 2006 CD, “We Shall Overcome/The Seeger Sessions.” It doesn’t always mesh, but “Wrecking Ball” has its share of keeper songs. What’s more, “Wrecking Ball” shows that Springsteen remains as ambitious, adventurous and
vital as ever.
- Green Day: “Dos!” (Reprise Records) — All three of Green Day’s 2012 CDs have landed in either the top 10 or honorable mention of this top albums list. “Dos!” — the second installment in the trilogy — gets the highest ranking for its consistent quality and rocking attitude. On all but a couple of tunes, Green Day goes full throttle — launching one hook-filled buzz bomb after another here. “Dos!” is the sound of a great rock band at the top of its game.
- John Fullbright: “From the Ground Up” (Blue Dirt Records) — Fullbright has been touted as the latest in the ever-lengthening line of “next Bob Dylans.” He might at least come close to living up to such hype if this first studio effort is any indication. Between his perceptive and at times moving lyrics and an ability to write uncommonly pretty melodies, Fullbright makes a heck of a first impression with this first studio effort.
- Alejandro Escovedo: “Big Station” (Fantasy/Concord) — After making the two hardest-rocking — and arguably best — records of his long career in “Real Animal” and “Street Songs of Love,” Escovedo goes for a more layered and varied sound on “Big Station.” It works because the songs are excellent, as Escovedo continues to make some of the best music rock has seen over the past decade.
- John Hiatt: “Mystic Pinball” (New West) — Since his stellar 1987 release, “Bring The Family,” John Hiatt has cranked out an unbroken string of albums that have ranged from good to downright exceptional. “Mystic Pinball” comes closer to the latter category. Overall, it’s a little more cheery and rocks a bit more than recent albums such as “Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns” and “Same Old Man” while retaining the earthy feel that has long defined Hiatt’s sound. You’ll want to play this “Pinball” over and over.
- Green Day: “Tre!” (Reprise Records) — The most diverse of this year’s trio of Green Day albums, “Tre!” sees the band transcending pop-punk in convincing style. “Dirty Rotten Bastards,” a multi-faceted track that tops six minutes, at times sounds like a cowboy and a pirate song. “Tre!” closes out the Green Day trilogy with — what else — a bang.
• Lucero: “Women & Work” (ATO).
• Ben Kweller: “Go Fly a Kite” (The Noise Company).
• Nada Surf: “The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy” (Barsuk).
• Dave Matthews Band: “Away From the World” (RCA).
• Alabama Shakes: “Boys & Girls” (ATO).
• Green Day: “Uno!” (Reprise Records).
• Mindy Smith: “Mindy Smith” (Giant Leap Records).
• Best Coast: “The Only Place” (Mexican Summer Records).
• Frank Ocean: “Channel Orange” (Island Def Jam).
• Garbage, “Not Your Kind of People” (V2).