Top 10 Albums of 2012 So Far….Part 2

5. Craig Finn – Clear Heart Full Eyes

I started off on the wrong foot with this album. What to expect from a Craig Finn solo album? Would he follow his hero Springsteen and make that deep, searing Nebraska album? Or would he follow his hero Paul Westerberg and make a play at the pop charts? It’s none and it’s both. It’s Finn’s least serious, and most fun, album.

Which I guess I miss. I love the ‘important’ songs by the Hold Steady. Initially, it made this album feel slight. But maybe it’s not all about teenagers wallowing in their own doom. How can you not love the line “It’s hard to suck with Jesus in your band”?

And it’s the songs, man. The aforementioned ‘My New Friend Jesus’, the lonely ‘Rented Room’, the wonderful ‘Jackson’ and more. Finn is at his most tuneful – he’s almost singing! But it’s a fun, relaxed record – a talented writer enjoying not rocking out and making important statements. Rather he’s just singing a tune and telling a yarn.

4. fun. – Some Nights

Well, who would have thought it would all happen for Nate Ruess? Ten years, several label label deals and bands, he finally scored big with fun. It’s mainly off the back of one track, We Are Young, currently playing over your supermarket stereo. It’s a pretty good song, with a huge chorus. In fact, every song has a HUGE chorus. Once you get your head around it, it’s a lot of – well – fun.

There’s something really exciting about this album. It’s like Ruess had something to prove and he brought his A game. The second single ‘Some Nights’ is another killer. My favourite is ‘Why Am I The One?’. There’s shadows of Graceland going on here too. Big sing-alongs with world music rhythms.

Who knows where this will go. Could well be this year’s ‘Pretty. Odd’. A wonderful, one off aberration. Because after this, Ruess has nothing to prove.

We Are Young and Some Nights are probably overplayed, so here’s an acoustic version of Why Am I The One.

3. Jack White – Blunderbuss

Thank god for Jack White. When you look around at the music world, and you wonder what will last, you know you can count on Jack White. And having worn himself thin with all the collaborations, it’s great to hear his voice on it’s own.

He’s actually reined it in a bit. It’s not that far away from later White Stripes. It drifts from piano tinkering to full rock mode, but never once losing his sense of a tune and a great lyric. I mean, it’s Jack White, the guy can do it all.

It’s worth the wait for him to get it right. And he is someone else with nothing to prove. When Icky Thump was maybe trying to hard, Blunderbuss revels in it’s simplicity. It’s a directness that White hasn’t used in years, and it’s great to have it back.

2. The Shins – Port Of Morrow

He fired the whole band, and then started again. This album could have been anything. And guess what? It’s a friggin perfect album. Every track is a highlight.

It’s ever slightly more pop than ever before, but in some weird brittle 80s way. Songs like ‘No Way Down’ or ‘Fall Of ‘82’ are so pop. Then there’s the beautiful ballads – ‘It’s Only Life’ or ’40 Mark Strasse’. And some mid tempo rockers. It’s standard operating procedure for the Shins.

They haven’t reinvented the wheel but the wheel is so good, and I’m back on the ride.

1. Joel Plaskett Emergency – Scrappy Happiness

After a crazy, schizo triple album, it’s weird to get just ten songs for a Joel Plaskett album. But it’s so clear what he’s doing – making a fun guitar rock album. It’s been a long time since he’s been so fiery with his guitar. His lyrics and his voice are the best they’ve ever been. And the songs are stunning.

The album hangs off the rockiest rockers – all six-and-a-half minutes of Lightning Bolt, he’s best ever song and his masterpiece. You’re Mine, North Star and Tough Love are about as heavy and powerful as Plaskett’s ever gotten. It’s music that illicits a physical reacton – writing about it here feels odd.

There’s lovely slower songs that break it up. Each of them are lovely. But I can’t get over the rockers. And after all this time, I’m still enthralled by a fucking fun, sparkly, heavy rock record. Some things might never change.

Top 10 Albums of 2012 So Far….Part 1

Here’s 10-6. The rest later.

10. Loudon Wainwright III – Older Than My Old Man Now

I have loved the last two LW3 albums – (“High Wide And Handsome” and “Songs For the New Depression”). In his later years, he has made thematic albums, and this time, to honour him being older than his father when he died, it’s about age. 15 songs all about getting older – either wanting life to last twice as long (‘Double Lifetime’), being nostalgic for sex (‘I Remember Sex’) or time travel (‘Date Line’) – it’s amazing that he picked a theme this time that gives and gives.

It’s his usual mix. A couple of witty and clever numbers, then a couple of jaw dropping songs of stark directness. ‘FCC – in C’ is my favourite of the lot. He even rocks out a little on ‘The Here And Now’. But mainly it’s his love of folk, bluegrass and since ‘High Wide And Handsome’ that banjo.

9. Lightships – Electric Cables

Lightships is Gerald Love of Teenage Fanclub. It’s his first solo record, and on his own, it’s pretty clear what he brings to his day job. It’s VERY pretty. Very twinkly. It’s close to Belle & Sebastian in many moments – or Real Estate. It’s dreamy, jangly pop or the Sarah Records variety. It sounds a little like a throwback to the British jangly 80s, but it’s warm and lovely in a modern way.

It’s a confident debut. Every note, every guitar line, every harmony is perfectly placed. It takes it time. On first listen it sounds a bit samey (it’s broken up nicely on vinyl) – but go for a walk in the sun with it. Especially by the water. It’s quiet and medative, bit it’s deep and interesting too. The vocals are lightly buried in the wall of jangly guitars – it’s an album about sound.

But some moments do threaten to break free of it’s relaxed mood – the stunning ‘Sweetness In Her Spark’ is a sure bet for the end of year playlist.

8. Regina Spektor – What We Saw From The Cheap Seats

This is at 8 because I feel like I’m still getting to know this album. And maybe because it’s not the knock-out Regina Spektor album that I keep waiting for. The single ‘All The Rowboats’ was a bit of a dummy pass. That restless, relentless single is unlike the rest of the album. Stripping away the production excesses of “Far”, there are plenty of Regina and piano moments here. She lets her voice and her songs shine through.

Pretty moments shine through on first listens. ‘How’ is breathtaking – the kind of ballad that would have probably been boring in other hands. There’s some touching intimacy, such as ‘Firewood’. And then just when it all gets a bit serious and well crafted, there’s ‘Rowboats’ and the brilliant, brilliant ‘Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)’. I mean, just calling a song that is a risky move – how could anything beat the Brel song? But it’s a bit of pure pop bliss.

It’s not as good as Begin To Hope – something has been lost. But it’s a solid yet eclectic album. I can’t wait to get to know it better.

7. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

This album has like 7 or 8 of the best songs I’ve heard all year. None of them sound like they’re from the same album. And then a couple of the worse songs I’ve heard all year as well. And that’s Springsteen for ya. He attempts to reach the heights few others do – and he’s willing to risk failing by doing it. So, we have another late era, wildly inconsistent album by the boss. But still full of lyrical fire and rock ‘n’ roll power.

I find this album rattling around in my head all the time. Those thundering moments – the chorus of ‘Shackled And Drawn’, the cry of ‘Easy Money’ and the title track itself. There’s a folky feel to the rockers – like a strng band giving it all. He’s lost little of his fire over the years

Then there’s a couple of wonderful songs about spooky suburbia. ‘Jack Of All Trades’ is probably his best character study since ‘Devils And Dust’. ‘You’ve Got It’ is a man that is not afraid to look you in the eye and tell it to you straight. Great songs by a man who is still pumping out great songs, 40 years into his career.

Then why the fuck is there crap like the hip hop fusion of ‘Rocky Ground’? This album is all over the place. But hey, great in the iPod era – great when you shuffle through a 2012 playlist. Can you fault the man for trying? Maybe just 6 places you can.

6. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls

OK, so first of all, terrible album title. And cover. It’s enough to put me off trying this band out, despite all the great notices they’ve been getting from folks I respect. But I’m glad I did. This is a soulful rock record. I’ve been obsessed by the Stones of late, and the Alabama Shakes have been occupying the same place in my ears and heart.

Brittany Howard’s voice. What an instrument. You just know this voice will be with us for a couple of decades. But it’s not just Brittany’s show. The band are firing on all cylinders here. Tasteful but all over the place. Simple but rocking hard. It’s one for the riff heads – the guitar playing is extraordinary.

The band have some sort of hazy ‘save me’ sort of thing going on. It’s very gospel – which suits their sound. It’s not the most lyrically compelling moment – but hopefully that will come. But it’s rock ‘n’ soul – and something new as well. Finally some swing is back – and for once, I’m not alone in thinking this is a good thing.