Gary Clark, Jr.
What a year for music. There have been countless albums that rang the big bell, and even more that came very close. Favorites that made the Bentley's Bandstand Top 10 list for the first half of the year were: Amadou & Mariam, Folila; Dr. John, Locked Down; Ruthie Foster, Let It Burn; Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, Come Sunday; J.D. McPherson, Signs & Signifiers; Chuck Prophet, Temple Beautiful; Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream; Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Here; Paul Thorn, What in the Hell is Going On?; Nick Waterhouse, Time's All Gone. Following is a list of the ten releases in the second half of 2012 that made the world a very fine place to be. Now if only the Mayans are proved wrong on December 21, there'll be happy holidays for all.
Gary Clark Jr, Black and Blue. Forget the present-day histrionics about a new guitar hero being born, because Gary Clark Jr. is really a new music hero. Period. There is no doubt he can twist his Epiphone into knots mixing blues and rock for high velocity pyrotechnics, but that's only a piece of his sonic puzzle. He also has an uncanny ability to grab elements of doo wop, soul and hip hop to blend together, and sometimes even that just feels like a start. Artists with this kind of power don't appear very often, but when they do anything can and usually will happen. Be prepared for the next step forward.
Joachim Cooder, Love on a Real Train. How's this for free enterprise? Composer Joachim Cooder records what he calls space shells, which are unfinished musical pieces of undefinable description, and sends them to singers and players in a pursuit of unfettered collaboration. The results are mindbending. Everyone from Inara George, Petra Haden, Robert Francis and Juliette Commagere throw down with inspired creativity and help Cooder assemble an album of sheer abandon. Then there's the closer by trumpet player Jon Hassell called "Shinkansen" that gives ambient music a brand new lease on life, providing a universal anthem for outer space. E.T. phone home.
Iris DeMent, Sing the Delta. For songs that find the absolute essence of the gap between the earthly and the heavenly, no one approaches Iris DeMent. That she comes from a different place is an understatement. Her voice evokes an American past that has vanished, but she still never sounds dated. DeMent is singing about eternity, and let's face it, that does not age. She pulls in influences from the church and the woods, the sky and the cities, but never sounds remotely like anyone else. This is homegrown music and fills a room as surely as the Holy Spirit does a backwoods revival. Listen while you can.
Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos. Who cares what the man calls his albums, whether they're solo or by Steely Dan, because Donald Fagen's world view is so idiosyncratic that it can't be missed. He uses jazz progressions, soul inflections and literary inspiration like they're so many different ingredients to be tossed together for an always slightly demented treat. In the end his urban landscapes paint a permanent midnight somewhere between Eighth Avenue and the Hudson River, right around 42nd Street. Bebop lives on.
Jon Dee Graham, Garage Sale. A lot of rock and roll is about sheer survival. The actuary tables on many rockers can be short, and some don't get to stay around for Act II. And then there are others who push the limits past the red zone and then wonder why their ticket gets punched early. There were times when Jon Dee Graham was flirting with the latter category, but fortunately there were a few angels who thought otherwise. For the past several releases in a wondrous Act III, Graham has entered a state of grace and recorded songs that saturate the spirit and speak of a land beyond what so many of us call reality. "Yes Yes" on this set is a peek into that window, and is surrounded by songs that know true greatness. Seriously.
Jake and the Rest of the Jewels, A Lick and a Promise. Easily the winner of this year's "Whatever Happened To" contest, Jake Jacobs writes folk songs for a rock band—or is it rock songs for folkies to play? Either way doesn't really matter, because no one has the eye for emotional detail like Jacobs. He's been doing it for almost 50 years, starting in Greenwich Village right about the time Bob Dylan hit town. Through all sorts of permutations and emasculations, the musician has not quit. That he's pulled these songs out of the hat at this late date is nothing short of miraculous, except for him nothing less would be expected. Don't forget, one of Jake Jacobs' very first bands was called the Magicians. No kidding.
Eleni Mandell, I Can See the Future. Los Angeles singer Eleni Mandell outdoes even herself this time around, finding in producer Joe Chiccarelli someone who sees the same bright lights she does and thankfully knows how to take her there. These are songs that come from the center of a heart, one that knows fullness and emptiness equally, and isn't afraid to embrace both. When it comes time to look back at this time in music, expect for Mandell's album to shine like a lighthouse for all those wondering where the classics live, and for the song "Magic Summertime" to find a big-time movie home, hopefully sooner than later. The big-screen speakers beckon now.
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Mature Themes. If Frank Zappa had an illegitimate son with Phyllis Diller, and that child learned to play music from Spike Jones, maybe they would sound something like Ariel Pink. Of course, you'd need to add elements of Boris Karloff, Don Knotts, Terry Melcher and Roky Erickson to supply the spicy side of what Pink and his hallowed band Haunted Graffiti conjure up. To call them mature might be the misstatement of the year. "Symphony for the Nymph," "Pink Slime" and "Kinski Assassin" could only come from a child of Beverly Hills, and though this band isn't likely to end up on a float in the Hollywood Christmas parade, there is a chance they'll be driving a Cadillac hearse directly onto the stage of the Grammy awards someday. You've been warned.
Staff Benda Bilili, Bouger Le Monde! How could anyone not love a band of polio survivors who built their own tricycles and sometimes even made their own muscial instruments? For their debut album from two years ago, the mostly homeless aggregation who live outdoors near the city zoo got use of a Mac computer, plugged it into an electrical outlet at a park in Kinshasa and recorded music that speaks of freedom and longing and dreams and, yes, nightmares. In the Congo Republic life often borders on the surreal, the upside being that there are really no rules in danger of being broken. Anything goes for Staff Benda Bilili, which is the ultimate upside. Album number two starts in the stratosphere and takes off from there. The celebration captured in these songs lives just beyond joy, which turns out to be not such a bad place to park your trike after all.
Dwight Yoakam, 3 Pears. The so-called New Traditionalists who were kicking in Nashville record company doors during the mid-'80s were doing a service in the name of country music, but Dwight Yoakam always stayed in his own world. Based in Southern California, he gave big nods to Bakersfield but even then there was no one really like him. He obviously grooved hard on both the Beatles and Bill Monroe, but knew it was a lonesome road to the top and he never wavered on that long march. Yoakam's new music collects the best aspects of everything he's ever done, and then adds a touch of dynamite to the sound so the explosion is unmistakable. Get ready for the new frontier.
Song of the Year: "Ramada Inn" by Neil Young with Crazy Horse. There really are some things in rock and roll that get better, and this band would be one of them. Neil Young's tale of a married couple looking for a spark to light a new fire sounds like long odds until his trusty Gibson Les Paul takes off on a lengthy and inexhaustible exploration of inner space, as Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Poncho Sampedro lay down as treacherous a groove as any rockers alive. By the end of "Ramada Inn," it sounds like the marriage might still have a chance, while Young has found a gorgeous glow to help keep love alive.
Reissue of the Year: He is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes. Rarely do reissues come with an album booklet as compelling as the music, but that's what this classy set accomplishes. Writer Michael Corcoran tells the fascinating story of blind spiritual singer Arizona Dranes, and her mysterious life of singing for the Lord and living on a prayer. In 1926 and 1928 Dranes recorded 16 songs that somehow brought the Almighty down to earth and sang of a life we cannot see. There hasn't been anything like it since, and Corcoran's words capture what the music does—a place where the soul runs free and life really is sanctified. Believe.