Best of 2012: The Albums

Despite all the crap you’ve been hearing on the radio, 2012 actually was quite a good year musically. That’s what I want to show you in this, the only part surrounding new year’s festivities I don’t despise. Last year, I had a few difficulties scraping enough titles together to make a sizable year list. This year, the main trouble was to keep it constrained. There have been brilliant comeback albums, new carreer highlights for seasoned artists and just plain fantastic albums by musicians you can always count on. All this has impelled me to expand this year list to twenty titles, being these:

1. Rush – Clockwork Angels

While Canada’s Prog giants stubbornly refuse to put out anything bad, ‘Clockwork Angels’ is the first fantastic album they put out since ‘Counterparts’ (1993) and their best since releasing ‘Permanent Waves’ 32 years ago. This is one of those albums where everything is just right. The mighty riff has returned to its rightful place in Rush’s music and many of them make these monumental songs. But also the brilliantly constructed songs, the warm and authentic production and every one of the three musicians delivering their best effort in three decades adds to the quality of the album. Musically, Rush covers all the periods of their rich history, with a strong emphasis on their late seventies and early eighties work. The lyrical concept adds a continuity lacking from many contemporary albums and is augmented by a fantastic artwork. A flawless album. Recommended not only to Progheads, but to any fan of Rock music.

Recommended tracks: ‘Headlong Flight’, ‘The Garden’, ‘Clockwork Angels’

2. Soundgarden – King Animal

After the dubious quality of Chris Cornell’s last solo album, it’s good that he returns to the band that made him sound best anyway. Vocally, he sounds better on ‘King Animal’ than on anything he ever did after ‘Badmotorfinger’ and it’s good to have him backed by the powerful rhythms of Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd and the unconventional guitar work of Kim Thayil. Especially the latter was greatly missed prior to the Soundgarden reunion; it’s his psychedlic and imaginative layers of guitars that make most of the best moments on this record. Also, it’s fantastic to hear the band playing at least as good – in my opinion even better – than on their last two albums before splitting up. Everyone sounds re-energized and incredibly inspired. After Alice In Chains released a comeback album that exceeded every expectation I could probably have three years ago, Soundgarden does so this year. This is almost as good as the majestic ‘Badmotorfinger’.

Recommended tracks: ‘A Thousand Days Before’, ‘Blood On The Valley Floor’, ‘Rowing’

3. Slash – Apocalyptic Love

Though it took some time to grow on me, I’ve grown rather fond of ‘Apocalyptic Love’. And honestly: it was bound to do so. This is, after all, Slash with the best Rock singer since Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder. Yes, Myles Kennedy definitely puts his stamp on this record with his powerful high voice and expert songwriting. And having the same people backing Slash for the entire album – bassist and backing vocalist Todd Kerns and drummer Brent Fitz – also helps ‘Apocalyptic Love’ have a much greater deal of continuity than its untitled predecessor. These songs drip with the joy of playing, which gives the album a sort of festive Rock ‘n’ Roll atmosphere, with much more depth than is usual for such albums. And ‘Anastasia’ is simply one of the best Rock songs I have heard in a while. So there’s killer songs, amazing hooky choruses, fantastic solos (this is Slash after all!) and an enormous dose of energy. What more does a Rock record need?

Recommended tracks: ‘Anastasia’, ‘Bad Rain’, ‘One Last Thrill

4. Drive Like Maria – Drive Like Maria

Debut album ‘Elmwood’ already knocked me off my feet completely unexpectedly over three years ago, but their self-titled follow-up really soldifies them as the best Rock bands of Holland and Belgium. With Bram van den Berg added to their lineup, Bjorn Awouters can fully concentrate on guitar and his fantastic, soulful vocals, at times creating some incomparable guitar cooperations with Nitzan Hoffman’s sleazy, filthy riffing and soloing. What makes this album better than the debut is that the songs are more streamlined, as well as the greater deal of variation on this record. Musically, it’s still seventies Rock meets Stoner, but the experimentalism makes the album a lot more interesting than the bulk of the stuff that is out there. ‘Drive Like Maria’ rocks, swings, moves and impresses. And ‘Black Horses’ is the best song any Dutch band has released last year. By far.

Recommended tracks: ‘Black Horses’, ‘Bury My Heart In The Desert’, ‘The Dog Died Rough’

5. Accept – Stalingrad

“Isn’t there any Metal in your top 5?” Of course there is! And not one album screamed “METAL!” over the year as much as this one did. I still remember my first encounter with this album: as soon as ‘Hung, Drawn And Quartered’ – the best opening track of the entire year – started, my skin fell victim to goosebumps as my face fell to this euphoric grin. This album is Heavy Metal. Period. ‘Blood Of The Nations’ was a great comback record for Germany’s Accept, but ‘Stalingrad’ buries that album and pisses on its grave. There’s much more variation on ‘Stalingrad’ and also, I feel there’s been more emphasis on speed and melody this time. Especially the latter: there wouldn’t have been any place for the amazing ‘Shadow Soldiers’ on ‘Blood Of The Nations’, although it’s unmistakably Accept. I even want to go as far to say that ‘Stalingrad’ is the best Accept album yet. Which just shows that Udo isn’t all that necessary when there’s Wolf Hoffmann’s songwriting.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shadow Soldiers’, ‘Hung, Drawn And Quartered’, ‘The Galley’

6. OverKill – The Electric Age

‘Ironbound’, this album’s brilliant predecessor, was hard, if not downright impossible to beat. It contained OverKill’s most inspired songwriting in 15 years and had a better production than any recent OverKill album. Knowing that, ‘The Electric Age’ does come remarkably close at times. It’s definitely a step back production-wise – Ron Lipnicki’s natural drum sound on ‘Ironbound’ was much better – but this is another batch of exciting Thrash Metal songs with an amount of energy that many bands even half their age should take note of. Also, the continued injection of NWOBHM influences into OverKill’s music – ‘Save Yourself’ and ‘Electric Rattlesnake’ this time – accounts for some of the greatest moments in OverKill history. And for all those people criticizing Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth’s high shrieks: just try and do that for over thirty years without losing any power. Ellsworth is still every bit as good now as he was in his twenties. Come and get it!

Recommended tracks: ‘Save Yourself’, ‘Good Night’, ‘All Over But The Shouting’

7. Donald Fagen – Sunken Condos

Don’t mourn over the lack of a new Steely Dan record; really, the only difference between a Steely Dan record and a solo record by mastermind Donald Fagen is the presence or absence of Walter Becker. This sounds exactly like you’d expect a record with Fagen’s involvement to sound, save for maybe the greater emphasis on funky rhythms. Having said that, ‘Sunken Condos’ did sound better than I expected it to sound: at 64, Fagen still sings incredibly well and the inspiration heard doesn’t exactly tell anyone’s resting on his laurels. Compliments also go out to Fagen’s fantastic backing band, with a special mention to Jon Herington, who throws down a couple of amazing guitar solos, most notably on the album’s highlight ‘Weather In My Head’. Awesome artwork too! At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if it’s Steely Dan or not, as long as the music has Donald Fagen’s unmistakable autograph.

Recommended tracks: ‘Weather In My Head’, ‘Out Of The Ghetto’, ‘I’m Not The Same Without You’

8. Anneke van Giersbergen – Everything Is Changing

Not loving Anneke van Giersbergen’s impeccable voice is impossible. Give it a try… See? Told you that you couldn’t do it! Despite that, I didn’t expect ‘Everything Is Changing’ to be this good. With both preceding solo albums having a strong singer-songwriter vibe, hearing an album full of catchy Rock music with a slight electronic edge was a very pleasant and welcome surprise. Also, the amount of variation heard on the album is mind blowing. Piano ballads, Arena Rock, Pop, Electro-Goth… ‘Everything Has Changing’ has it all, expertly sung by the best singer Holland has to offer. In addition, it’s just good to hear Van Giersbergen’s vocals back within a Rock context, as the following tour has also proven. I don’t know if it’s producer Daniel Cardoso or Van Giersbergen herself, but I want to thank whoever is responsible for that. That enormous wall of sound is not too shabby either!

Recommended tracks: ‘You Want To Be Free’,  ‘1000 Miles Away From You’, ‘Stay’

9. Pentagram – MMXII

Someone has to wake up the big Metal record companies. I really don’t get why there’s so much uninspired Metalcore crap on the shelves and I have to import Pentagram’s records from their home country Turkey. ‘MMXII’ is the first album without the fantastic singer Murat İlkan, who I considered irreplacable. His replacement Gökalp Ergen is in fact a completely different singer and once I got used to that, I found out that ‘MMXII’ is another incredible Metal record. Ergen’s Metal vocals are much rawer than İlkan’s and his clean voice perfectly suits the traditional Turkish melodies, making him especially shine during the songs in the Turkish language. The guitars by Hakan Utangaç and Metin Türkcan are crunchier than ever, which makes the album the heaviest since their early Thrash Metal days and the sound somewhat like a Middle Eastern Metal Church. Metal Mosque maybe? Now, someone please release this in Europe!

Recommended tracks: ‘Doğmadan Önce’, ‘It’s Dawn Again’, ‘Ápokalips’

10. Bad Brains – Into The Future

Another album in the category “I can’t believe they release one of their best albums so late in their carreer”. After ‘Build A Nation’ showed an uninspired, almost bored H.R. on vocals, I wasn’t expecting ‘Into The Future’ to be such a fresh, inspired record. Dr. Know’s Hardcore riffs are more vigorous than they have been the last two decades, Darryl Jenifer’s underrated bass playing is all over the place and H.R. definitely sounds like he wants to be there this time. Some of the songs have a slight Metal edge to them, making these moments sound a little like the brilliant ‘Quickness’ album (1989). The album’s highlight ‘Popcorn’, with its monstrous groove, for instance. Also, the Reggae tracks have an electronic edge to them this time, making them much more interesting than most of the earlier Reggae stuff. All this adds to the best album in over twenty years released by the best ever Punk band. The fact that I don’t even like Punk should say enough about this album’s class.

Recommended tracks: ‘Popcorn’, ‘Youth Of Today’, ‘Earnest Love’

11. Graveyard – Lights Out

I love the seventies. I often refer to the decade as “the glorious seventies” on this weblog and that is purely based on the brilliance of many musical works of that era. The members of Sweden’s Graveyard probably agree with me, since ‘Lights Out’ has – both compositionally as sonically – a warm, very authentic seventies sound unrivaled by any other contemporary band (save for maybe Stone Axe). Bluesy riffs, powerful vocals – singer/guitarist Joakim Nilsson’s voice is somewhat of a mixture between Chris Cornell and David Coverdale in his youngest years – and passionate solos… What more can a fan of seventies Hard Rock ask for? Especially when it sounds so sincere as on ‘Lights Out’; nowhere does the band seem to be forcing a retro sound like so many bands do these days. A very welcome to today’s musical canon and I’m very grateful to my chief editor Mark van Schaick for acquainting me with this great band.

Recommended tracks: ‘Endless Night’, ‘Seven Seven’, ‘Goliath’

12. Dew-Scented – Icarus

Although Dew-Scented is technically a German band, I kind of see ‘Icarus’ as a Dutch triumph. From its direct predecessor ‘Invocation’, only vocalist Leif Jensen remained in the band. The rest was replaced by an entirely Dutch pack of musicians. Especially guitarist Marvin Vriesde – who has been in the band on a stand-in basis a lot (no really, a lot!) throughout the years – puts an indelible stamp on this album. Dew-Scented still has their trademark sound on ‘Icarus’ – a high-speed, brutal blend of Thrash and Death Metal led by Jensen’s trademark bark – but Vriesde’s songwriting lifts this above what is average for the band. Also, his guitar solos are injected with a little more melody than you may have come to expect if you know Dew-Scented from their ‘Impact’ heyday. When all is said and done, ‘Icarus’ is above all a fantastic Thrash Metal record, bursting with energy and aggression. Excellent.

Recommended tracks: ‘Thrown To The Lions’, ‘The Fall Of Man’, ‘Sworn To Obey’

13. Heart – Fanatic

For those of you who only know their eighties work: Heart is most definitely not a Pop band. Back in the seventies, they were the band that most closely resembled Led Zeppelin. Their recent work is a little more subdued, but still fantastic Rock music. That is the main merit about ‘Fanatic’: it shows the band around the Wilson sisters as a Hard Rock band first and foremost. As always, the Rock sounds are combined with a rootsy, American Folk sound and slightly psychedelic touches, with fantastic results. ‘Fanatic’ is an album that shows Ann and Nancy Wilson remarkably comfortable with the music they’re creating. This creates quite a laidback atmosphere and if you think that contradicts with the Hard Rock elements, just check out stuff like ’59 Crunch’ or the title track to hear that these ladies can rock. Also, it’s incredible how amazing Ann Wilson’s voice still is at 62. Now all we need is a European tour!

Recommended tracks: ‘A Million Miles’, ‘Corduroy Road’, ‘Mashallah’

14. Golden Earring – Tits ‘n  Ass

Golden Earring has always made me proud to be from The Hague. ‘Tits ‘n Ass’ (please look past that title) consolidates that. It’s the first album in almost a decade for Holland’s biggest Rock band, but it’s also their best in three decades. After all the experimenting with electronic sounds in the eighties and fully acoustic music in the nineties, this album shows the band doing what they do best: they rock! It’s immediately audible that the band had a lot of fun making this album. The fourteen songs are inspired and powerful. The vocal interplay between Barry Hay and George Kooymans works as well as it always has, the rhythm section of Rinus Gerritsen and Cesar Zuiderwijk pounds harder than it has in a long time and guests Frank Carillo (guitars) and Jan Rooymans (keyboards) add a lot of depth to the album. It’s hard to believe that a band can do something so amazing five decades into their carreer, yet it’s true. And the only possible reason is that they have a hell of a lot of fun doing it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Identical’, ‘Stratosphere’, ‘Avenue Of Broken Dreams’

15. Prong – Carved Into Stone

Respect is something I will always have for Tommy Victor. A strong guitarist, a guy who doesn’t let him be told what to do and someone who doesn’t give up easily. However, I haven’t ever been able to enjoy a Prong album start to finish. Until ‘Carved Into Stone’ came out, that is. Several years ago, Victor kicked Al Jourgenson’s teeth in with his guitar work on Ministry’s recent albums and that vigor is finally used for a Prong album. ‘Carved Into Stone’ is one intense, angry and powerful son of a bitch. There is enough variation to hold the listener’s attention throughout the album, especially by switching between fast-paced Thrash Metal passages, stomping Hardcore rhythms and melodic, anthemic choruses. Bassist Tony Campos and especially drummer Alex Rodriguez do an amazing job backing up Victor as well. ‘Carved Into Stone’ is the perfect soundtrack to frustration, aggression and eventually looking down on the ones who caused those.

Recommended tracks: ‘List Of Grievances’, ‘Revenge…Best Served Cold’, ‘Eternal Heat’

16. Baroness – Yellow & Green

Many double albums suffer from a lack of enough inspiration to actually justify its length. Baroness is such an artistically sound band, that they wouldn’t let that happen. In fact ‘Yellow & Green’ is nothing less than an impressive effort. Baroness reinvents themselves on every record they do and ‘Yellow & Green’ is no exception. It’s easily recognizable as the psychedelic mixture of Rock, Hardcore and Metal they’re known for, but there’s a much more melodic quality to this album. Some of the songs are incredibly catchy, despite their strong sense of psychedelia and as such, are somewhat reminiscent of The Beatles’ later work. The first record (‘Yellow’) is somewhat more song-oriented than the second (‘Green’), but as a whole, this is an incredibly pleasant listen. And when John Dyer Baizley and Peter Adams, both extraordinary guitarists, sing together, the most beautiful moments of the albums appear. Another work of art in the Baroness canon, playing with moods and shading so much, that admiration is the only just reaction.

Recommended tracks: ‘Take My Bones Away’, ‘Eula’, ‘Sea Lungs’, ‘Board Up The House’

17. ZZ Top – La Futura

‘La Futura’ might be a somewhat ironic title for a band that’s been around for over four decades, but then again, the album also shows that the trio is more than ready for “la futura”. Frank Beard’s typically swinging rhythms have been decorated with a contemporary, sometimes somewhat electronic sound that strangely doesn’t distract from the music. Of course, ZZ Top’s rootsy Boogie has always been quite dancable and will always be recognizable as ZZ Top when it has Billy Gibbons’ dirty, fuzz-drenched guitar licks and sandpaper voice. Having said that, ‘La Futura’ still shows Gibbons, Beard and bassist Dusty Hill playing the old-fashioned Texas blues that they are known for. The modern edge just gives the band a little more viability in the 21st century. Not that they really needed that, they just seem to be interested in laying down a good groove, a filthy riff and a swinging shuffle. And as long as they keep doing that, they’ll be viable for me.

Recommended tracks: ‘I Don’t Wanna Lose, Lose, You’, ‘Chatreuse’, ‘It’s Too Easy Mañana’

18. Picture – Warhorse

Picture was Holland’s very first Heavy Metal band and for that, they already deserve all the respect they can get. But at the time, nobody could expect that they would release their best album (yet) in 2012. All the elements are just right in place on ‘Warhorse’. The guitar riffs are undeniably old school Heavy Metal, but played with a youthful vigor and enthusiasm that is goosebumps inducing. Pete Lovell is the best singer the band has ever had (with Shmoulik Avigal being the close second) and his forceful vocals lift this record to an even higher level, as do the anthemic, shout-along choruses, all of which profits from the amazing production. But most of all, the songs on ‘Warhorse’ are just incredibly well-written. This is the album the band should have made, but was never allowed to make after ‘Eternal Dark’. The title track of that record is even reworked for this album, but it doesn’t even stand out as the best track on the album. Fantastic. Just fantastic.

Recommended tracks: ‘Killer In My Sights’, ‘Battle Plan’, ‘Edge Of Hell’

19. Enslaved – Riitiir

Not being a Black Metal fan at all, I never had a problem with Norway’s Enslaved moving increasingly further away from that genre. ‘Riitiir’ is – so far – the culmination of Enslaved moving into the realms of Progmetal, with most of the songs approaching – in one case even exceeding – the ten-minute mark and an increasing amount of effort going into unexpected twists and gradually building up songs. Also, Herbrand Larsen’s downright beautiful clean vocals and psychedelic layers of keyboards seem to receive more room than ever here and that for me the best decision the band ever could have made. In addition, the album has a warm and spacious sound enhancing the near dreamy atmosphere of many passages. Ice Dale is an incredible lead guitarist as well, as evidenced through a couple of fantastic Bluesy leads. Only Grutle Kjellson’s harsh vocals still annoy the fuck out of me, but at least they’re not all that dominant on “Riiitiir’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Roots Of The Mountain’, ‘Forsaken’, ‘Veilburner’

20. John Coffey – Bright Companions

Widely promoted as a Hardcore record, but essentially being so much more than that, ‘Bright Companions’ was one of the biggest surprises from my own country this last year. Easily combining several sub-genres of Punk with a sleazy Rock ‘n’ Roll energy and even a Stoner edge, John Coffey’s music can really only be classified as dirty, energetic and powerful. The guitars of Christoffer van Teijlingen and Alfred van Luttikhuizen get their edge from fuzz rather than distortion and the songs are full of unexpected twists and turns. As such, Refused is an obvious influence for John Coffey, but they’re not a soundalike. Instead, the band comes across as a band that just does whatever they feel like doing with little care for genre limitations and expectations. As a result, ‘Bright Companions’ is highly spontaneous and one of the best Hardcore records ever to be released by a Dutch band.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bright Companions’, ‘Oh, Oh, Calamity’, ‘Whispers’, ‘The Well’

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