About two years ago, I remember reading an article in Salon that argued that hipsterism had reached its saturation point. The saturation point for any sort of trend is when it appears just about everywhere. Basically, if the New York Times is reporting on something as a thing “all the kidz are raging about,” you know it’s on its way out.
Well I guess the last Radiohead album gave the hipsters in Brooklyn a new lease on life (and their apartment after their parents cut them off.)
Now the last few years have been defined much more by making fun of hipsters than actually being or hanging out with hipsters. I apparently went to a hipster school, and I still don’t really know what it is except that it’s a name I can use to make fun of people I didn’t really talk to that much and had moustaches.
Hipsterism has generally been defined in culture and music as celebration of irony and intelligence. Both qualities trumped other virtues like honesty, earnestness and being gainfully employed. Among other things, hipsters lived in Brooklyn, grew weird pornstaches (if they were men), cut their hair to Mad Men-lengths (if they were women), and mocked others who outwardly cared a little too much. These were the emo kids you heard about in high school. They wore tight jeans with blazers and cheap ties. Again, do I know any of these people? Nah, but I’m told they are somewhere, and I’m not supposed to like them. (Okay yes on tight
In music, I guess this has meant loving weird, electronic music, mixed with horns and occasional strange time signatures. For better or for worse, Radiohead has become the ultimate hipster band. See also any band that made you think “Smiths” “Cure” “Elvis Costello,” (the look, not always the music) “Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”.
Something started to change in the music, though. If you went to college, you started to notice over the last few years a lot of banjos and mandolins. The debut of the Fleet Foxes signaled that what we listened to and why we listened to was shifting.. Bands like the Fleet Foxes, the Avett Brothers, and then Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers were rooted in acoustic guitars and nods to folk, bluegrass, and country. And not the overly polished tripe of Nashville country, but the sounds of outlaws like Johnny Cash and the oft-imitated Gram Parsons.
Now this music has always been around. And really, it’s downright stupid to make any generalizations about music in the 21st century when the world of music is so fragmented. (Beautifully so, mind you.) Especially when none of what I will say here includes the biggest selling musician of the year, Ms. John Mayer’s Ex.
Still even Miley Cyrus seems to have felt the world move beneath her feet. Did you notice this?
All of which brings me at last to this list. This is my Best Music of 2012 list. I’ve broken it into two categories. We’ve got my Top 10 of 2012, which is dominated by the sounds of Americana, demonstrating that a big part of our music scene is looking backward. If the ‘70s gave us a post-hippie hangover that was built on folk, blues, and country, then 2012 has brought us a post-hipster hangover rooted in that very same deep well of American music. Plus some soul and horns for good measure. Does this music indicate that my particular demographic (mid-20s upper-middle class white kids) is becoming a little more earnest and open and authentic in our emotions. It could be, or it just means we like scraggly beards again.
Still, there’s something to a lot of this music that I feel has not applied to American music in a couple years. Every album on this list captures the fullness of a life well-lived. There’s sadness and joy mixed together as artists discover love, heartbreak, death, birth, unemployment, a good party, and come out the other side hopeful that life, even if it’s not great now, will be getting good in a little while. There are lots of things great music can do, but that to me seems to be the quality of the music that lasts.
Alright y’all ready? Let’s do this.
The Men Open Your Hearts A Brooklyn band that channels part MC5 and part- Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones. It’s a punk and country stew that does lots of things well.
- Highlight That rager of an opener “Turn it Around.” And hey speaking of revivals…
The Revivalists City of Sound Now if you’ll hear the opening track “When I’m Able,” you might notice “Hey this sounds like Kings of Leon what the fuck Mr. U?”. To which I’ll say “Yea? So what?” At which point you’ll realize that you’re not really mad at Kings of Leon’s music. You’re mad, because you liked their early stuff better, feel they sold out, and that they’re kinda dicks. The New Orleans-based roots rockers have upgraded their sound and embraced a more mainstream sound, perhaps so that a wider audience will hear them, but they have not forgotten where they got their start. After all, almost every track here has a fantastic horns section!
- Highlight Gotta go with the menacing “Criminal,” a tense and angry piece that may be the heaviest track on this whole list.
Alabama Shakes Boys and Girls That thing I said about the fullness of life? It works here for the Shakes’ introduction to the world, “Hold On.” We’ve got drums and a three chord guitar intro before Brittany Howard belts out “Bless my heart, bless my soul, didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old.” Like so many great singers, Howard sounds a little bit older and world-wary than she is, even if she knows what it’s like to be young. If you like the Black Keys, but wanted them to have a little more soul, then this should be your band.
- Highlight “Hold On.”
10.) P.O.S. We Don’t Live Here Anymore This was a last minute addition to the list and a record that took me a while to warm up to and a good excuse to mention my guest post on One Week One Band about P.O.S collaborator, Astronautalis, last spring. I can’t pretend to be a hip-hop/R&B expert (it took me months to get around to hearing this Frank Ocean character), but P.O.S may be one of the boldest voices in the underground scene. He’s not afraid to take his punk roots to the music, collaborate with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and spit rhymes that are political, cynical, violent, or surreal. Stefon Alexander’s latest record takes him away from the punk-rap hybrid that he perfected on 2009’s Never Better, and closer to the electronic sounds of most modern rap music, and it took a little while for me to take that journey with him. Still, there’s enough variation in sound and arrangement to tell you that Alexander is still a smart and daring voice, even if music is a little bit more mainstream than it used to be.
- Highlight I just love Astronautalis too much not to give credit to the disco throwback beat and shout out to the Minneapolis hip-hop scene, “Wanted/Wasted.”
9.) Mynabirds Generals Save our number 2, this is the most political piece here. While their first album was clearly pulling from Stax Records, here we’ve got some clear electronic and punk influences in a noisy mix that is not meant for comfort. Laura Burhenn is frustrated and angry, and waiting for a revolution to come on a second record that pulls from equal parts Sleater-Kinney, Cat Power, and Of Montreal.
- Highlight The melodies of the anti-war chorus of “Disarm.”
8.) Spirit Family Reunion No Separation Killers at Floydfest this year, I’ve already said a bit about the Spirit Family Reunion and give them many thanks for making the long drive back from Virginia a little bit brighter and reminding me of what I have to come home to. This band follows in the footsteps of Old Crow Medicine Show in presentation and musical styles, except it’s hard to imagine Old Crow writing something quite as honest and raw as the ode to a lost friend, “On My Friend.” It’s bluegrass, but with no attempts to sound like Foghorn Leghorn.
- Highlight The infectious stomp of “Green Rocky Road.”
7.) Leonard Cohen Old Ideas Man, thank Buddha for that manager who bilked Mr. Cohen out of millions of dollars, which forced him to leave his Buddhist monastery make a worldwide comeback tour and first new album in 8 years. And kudos to the Producers Ed Sanders, Patrick Leonard, and Cohen himself for creating a warm and earthy mix that is at long last worthy of Mr. Cohen’s odes to aging, sex, and general darkness. No cloying synthesizers to be found for the first time in decades. Just a simple backing band of guitars, keyboards/organs, bass, and drums, the vocals of some of Cohen’s favorite backing singers (Jennifer Warnes and Sharon Robinson) and Cohen’s barely-above-a-whisper baritone over it all. Not much has changed in Cohen’s lyrics or even in his voice over the last 30 years or so. It’s just that at long last we have a band and an arrangement that properly backs them up.
- Highlight Again given the arrangement and the overall theme of this post, perhaps the plaintive and honest “Going Home” is appropriate.
6.) Justin Townes Earle Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now Your year’s resident break up album, and boy is this one to mope over. But it’s not all acoustic guitar and sadness: Kudos to the killer Memphis backing band—featuring a great horn section—for infusing this album with vitality and even a little bit of Stax-style rhythm. May this sit alongside Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” and Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” in your collection of tributes to your own self-destructive relationships. The kind that make you blame your lover, yourself and the world at large for your state of affairs, all in equal proportions, while coming out the other side feeling ever so slightly better.
- Highlight Though I love the trumpet solo on “Down on the Lower East Side”, I have to say that “Look the Other Way” sums up effectively what makes this album work.
5.) John Fullbright From the Ground Up I’m calling this one the debut of the year! John Fullbright on guitar is a young Steve Earle, and on piano is a young Randy Newman. Equal parts angry, cynical, broken, tragic, and hopeful, this native Oklahoman spits in the face of religion (see the irreverent Gawd Above), looks desperately for love, and sings too-honest lullabies to your children. There are a lot of New York coffee house singers wishing they sounded like this, but they don’t.
- Highlight The bluesy stomp and autobiographical lyrics of “All the Time in the World”
4.) The Avett Brothers The Carpenter Loves me a good sequel, and the brothers deliver nicely here. It’s another collection of songs of love, hate, and mortality with the edges smoothed over by Rick Rubin, albeit with a little less piano and a little more guitar and banjo. Their music has continued to grow and develop, combining dramatic lyrics with some of the great pop hooks of the last few years.
- Highlight“Live and Die,” a terrific single and one which is taking its place as one of the great folk-pop songs ever. There are few songs that give me a sensation of pure joy, and this is one of them.
3.) Carolina Chocolate Drops Leaving Eden One more distinctly southern-fried banjo album for you from the preservers of the tradition of great black string bands from North Carolina But just as the Avett Brothers have Beatle-esque pop and hard rock in their repertoire, the Chocolate Drops are not afraid to throw down soul and hip-hop in their sound, as demonstrated by Adam Matta’s beatbox throughout this record. The real breakout star on this record, though, is multi-instrumentalist and singer Rhiannon Giddens. She’s got charisma and soul on par with every great soul singer to come down the path since her favorite string music fell out of the mainstream all those decades ago, and it is only logical that she would feature on some of the strongest tracks here. She silently mourns a dead factory town in the touching waltz “Leaving Eden,” warns a friend against anger in “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man?,” and celebrates divorce in the old blues tune “No Man’s Mama.” Don’t get me wrong, this is truly a group effort, and this band would be nothing without the brilliant arrangements courtesy of Don Flemons and Hubby Jenkins. But it is Giddens that brings this record to a higher plane.
- Highlight The song that demonstrates everything old and new in this band’s sound, “Ruby Are You Man At Your Man?”
2.) Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball Okay full disclosure: I am a massive, Bruce-o-phile. I’ve got shirts, I’ve been to concerts, I love ripping live Bruce bootlegs, I mourned for Clarence Clemons… I’ve got a Bruce thing. But trust me when I say that Wrecking Ball deservedly stands not only as one of the best records of 2012—even if no one else agrees with me—AND as one of the great Springsteen albums of his career, as well as possibly the best original Boss album since Ghost of Tom Joad back in 1995, maybe even Nebraska thirty years ago.
We all saw this coming, right? Economic troubles gripped the nation? A factory’s closing? SOMEONE GET THE BOSS OUT OF HIS JERSEY MANSION!
Springsteen is a wealthy man now, for sure, yet he can still tap into that well of working class frustration and despair than everyone else, and he has spent a career discovering and re-discovering the music and words of workers across the generation. When a generation grew up in the ‘90s rejecting undocumented immigrants, Springsteen wrote an album to address their experience. When President Bush lied us into an unjust war of invasion, the Boss found Pete Seeger’s music and mixed it with gospel and Irish folk. And as he entered his 60s, he brought all that together. There is, no short, no greater or more natural storyteller, and that’s why a large and loyal fanbase turns to him to explain the world around them when it starts to get ugly.
Wrecking Ball is a synthesis of damn near every sound of his career. We’ve got the horns from the Seeger Sessions, the thunderous stadium rock from the 80s, the blues and soul that has informed every step of his career, folk and gospel references, and even sampling that brought us Streets of Philadelphia along with a rap from newcomer Michelle Moore. This, folks, is an hour long celebration of damn near everything American music has been in the last 70 years and everything that the American people should be, even when they aren’t: loyal to each other, to their communities, defiant in the face of pain and heartache, and optimistic for a future that they are certain will be better than what has come before. And thank you, Boss, for reminding us of that.
- Highlight A title track that would make sense on any of Springsteen’s tours of the last 30 years. Originally written for the to be torn down Giants Stadium, this song has come to stand for a struggling nation that will not fall in the face of obstacles.
1.) Galactic Carnivale Electricos I first heard this record this past summer passing through New Orleans on my way to Austin. Driving out of Lafayette, Louisiana, I played this album at least four straight times and eagerly announced that this record and everything Stanten Moore and his band of NOLA funk players do should represent the future of music.
New Orleans is a city that is famously in love with itself and its own past, and for good reason. So much of American music owes its existence to this city. Save for Lil Wayne, it has not been a city known for being on the cutting edge of what music is in the present. You go there to hear John Boutte sing old jazz or the Soul Rebels Brass Band play new hip-hop in the style of old funk. It’s a city that’s fun, and not always a city that’s particularly… well… new.
Galactic started in that scene. They were a band rooted in old jazz and funk. Starting in the mid-00s, though, the band started to take note of the city’s bounce scene, NOLA’s unique brand of hip-hop and worked on how to merge that sound with their own complex arrangements. That ongoing experiment has made them the bridge between the old and new that New Orleans so desperately needed, and it has, in turn, made them the coolest and greatest and most unique band to come out of the city in quite some time.
Their last album demonstrated, Ya-Ka-May, demonstrated just how much respect their experiment was getting, with appearances from Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, the Rebirth Brass Band, Wolfman Washington, and locals names like Big Freedia. For 2012’s Carnivale Electricos, they have finally turned that experiment into a cohesive sound that is all their own. Carnivale is a Mardi Gras album; to my mind, it is THE Mardi Gras album, the one that will make your whole body move to sounds black, brown and white from New Orleans, Central America, and Brazil. Every genre bend they take on this album—whether it’s a standard rock track like Hey Na Na, a Cajun remix on Voyage ton Flag or the Brazilian rap of O Coco da Galinha—is stitched together by the funk-infused drumming of Moore, hot electric guitars, and a hip-hop production. Even as Galactic pulls influences from across the continent, no track sounds out of place, and the album never sounds like a museum piece or a show-off move. This is something new that everyone can move to, and I hope they do.
- Highlight Good God there is no one highlight. Just listen to these two tracks back to back to understand why this album is so brilliant.