It's a Spongebob Christmas! Album. Any year-end list has to have a designated holiday release, and 2012 is the year for Spongebob. Whether the television show is on your playlist or not, Spongebob Squarepants supplies Christmas cheer way beyond the call of duty. And when it's time to roll back the rug and get down to some dirty dancing, "Ho Ho Hoedown" cranks up the craziness and will likely have the neighbors calling the cops, because clearly Santa Claus is getting down.
Mindy Smith. This self-titled album from one of this century's most intriguing singers brings a valuable voice back to the front. Smith has seen her ups and downs the past few years, but hearing someone grab redemption by the collar and turn hardship into high ground is to know the true power of music. Doubters are directed to "Take Me Back," "Pretending the Stars" and "If I," where Ms. Smith lights up the soul as surely as an electrical shock to the heart.
David Hidalgo, Mato Nanji, Luther Dickinson, 3 Skulls and the Truth. What could easily have been a jam album turns into an explosion of guitars and close-to-the-bone singing. Each of these three players could have made a massive statement on their own; together they find the levee and burn it down. If kicked-up playing and party-down sonics hold that elusive allure on the ears, start right here.
Charlie Peacock, No Man's Land. The Nashville Svengali looks back at his grandparents inspiration and writes a dozen songs that capture the landscape of the South as seen through the eyes of survivors. Any release that starts with "Death Trap" and ends with "Satellites" has all the bases covered, obviously, and the second song, "Mystic," will not only take you to the promised land, it'll also provide turn-down service before the journey beyond.
Grant-Lee Phillips, Walking in the Green Corn. If Los Angeles has a quiet musical hero the past quarter century, let it be Grant-Lee Phillips. In the mid-'80s he arrived with his band Grant Lee Buffalo, and over the course of several albums they fashioned an individualistic sound that refused to fit into any genres except the catch-all alternative bin, and never wavered in a devotion to chasing the muse. Their song "Mockingbirds" could have been a Phil Spector in deep reflection opus the way it mixed so many elements of grand style and scary mysticism. Today Phillips is still tapped into the cosmos, and sounds like he's got real secrets to share. Walk with him now.
Jaimoe's Jasssz Band, Renaissance Man. If there are medals to be handed out to musicians, Jaimoe Johanson gets one of the first. He's been one of the drummers in the Allman Brothers Band from the start, and in that position passed on the power of percussive wisdom to millions of people. And he's done it with a smile, which might be the most important lesson of all. In his Jasssz Band, Jaimoe gets to stretch out and hit the note with an unending wonder of swing and spirit, showing that if you give the drummer some, what you receive in return is eternal.
Bonnie Bishop, Free. A lasting litmus test for aspiring songwriters is to get Bonnie Raitt to record one of your originals. When that happens, it's like you're added to The List, and others view your work with added interest. Put Bonnie Bishop in that crowd right now, and then find out how it happened right here. The fact that Bishop is also such an exciting singer is like finding a new best friend. Raise a hand.
Calexico, Algiers. The mesmerizing collective of John Convertino and Joey Burns has established a mountain of creativity within their confines, and whether they're recording as Calexico or producing other artists one defining characteristic never varies: the music is going to hit the moon. Albums come and go while musical visitors enter and leave, but there is something about the air in Tuscon that allows the pair to always find the stairs skyward. Even when they venture to Algiers, Louisiana for sessions, they bring their Arizona vibrations with them. Plus anyone who snags Pieta Brown for a backing vocal knows how to put the sparkle in the sauce. Bueno.
John Hiatt, Mystic Pinball. How does a great singer-songwriter stay great? There is no way to really know, but for clues, asking John Hiatt might be a start. It's been 40 years since the young man ventured from Indiana to Nashville to make his mark. Of course, that it took over ten years to really turn up the heat is sometimes overlooked, but once Hiatt found a path to the front of the class he never looked back. It's a musical feast the way he continues to astound, whether it's with new songs like "We're Alright Now" or "You're All the Reason I Need," or a voice that often feels like he has uncovered secrets of the soul. Even when the machine lights up "tilt," John Hiatt never stops ringing in those lit-up lights on the scoreboard. Ding-a-ding ding.
Muddy Waters, You Shook Me: The Chess Masters Vol. 3, 1958 to 1963. The man who might be the greatest bluesman of all time has seen his Chess Records sessions repackaged sixty ways 'till Sunday, but somehow that doesn't matter because the music is so absolutely astounding it never ceases to chill and thrill. This double-disc collection is no different, and includes enough surprises in a new setting that the legacy this blues master feels even stronger. The last songs included were recorded in 1963, right as the Beatles and Rolling Stones had set their aim on America and before President Kennedy made his deadly trip to Dallas. The world was turning, and Muddy Waters' blues would soon make its way out of the ghetto and into the hearts of a whole new world. The long-distance call was coming.