2012: Best Of Tom

by Tom Haugen

It sure did seem to me that a lot of average albums came out this year. Maybe it's the relative ease at which music can be recorded these days and the even easier way it can be released, but I often found myself thinking most band's full lengths would have been better off as four song EPs. Have we come to a point where the convenience of producing music has led to an abundance of mediocrity? Of course I only heard a fraction of the music that was released in 2012 and didn't spend any time with discs by Green Day, The Deftones, or Ryan Adams (if he released anything) – all of which rarely fall short of brilliance.

Rather than just list my ten favorites of 2012, which would mostly be unknown bands that play basement shows and put out records on labels run out of someone's bedroom, here's a list of my favorites for the year from different genres.


Best Singer/Songwriter Album

Sean Rowe -- The Salesman And The Shark

Recorded in the studio live with actual instruments, this album showcases Rowe's inimitable baritone and his spiritual lyricism, which establishes him as a songwriter with a profound sense of nature and timelessness. Soulful, intimate, and observant, this disc is about as close to religious experience as music gets. The next Tom Waits? Very well could be.


Best Album By A Straightedge Band With No Straightedge Clichés

Run, Forever – Settling

With no Champion sweatshirts or black X's on their hands, these teetotalers from Pittsburgh are about as far from typical chugging, moshy straightedge as possible, instead opting for melodic indie rock with moments of unplugged campfire fun. The songwriting here is so well developed, especially for a band still in their twenties, and their formula of gritty folk rock with punk spirit warrants repeated listens.


Best Return To Form Album

Minus The BearInfinity Overhead

Who wants to write the same record repeatedly? Seattle's Minus The Bear sure didn't, and after making their name off loud, anthemic rock, they moved into more experimental electronic territory. This left some fans scratching their heads, while others welcomed the new direction. With Infinity Overhead, the band reverted back to the thundering riffage and powerful hooks of their early days, reminding us of how skilled they are at all genres they explore.


Best Supergroup Album

Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits

An outfit formed from members of Spoon, The New Bomb Turks, and Wolf Parade, the band takes strengths from their respective genres and end up with a cohesive mix of New Wave energy meets garage rock meets pop friendly hooks. Dual vocals, a good mix between organ and synth, and nods to their alt-rock/post-punk years keep us hopeful these guys will find more time for this side project in the future.


Best Soul/R&B Album

Maceo Parker – Soul Classics

The one time saxophonist for James Brown, Parker packs this disc with fiery jazz and funked out classics. It's a high-energy affair with plenty of R&B influences as he pays homage to Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin as well as contributing a few soulful originals.


Best Debut Album

The Holy Mess – Cande Ru Las Degas

All their previous EPs have hinted that The Holy Mess was capable of a well-crafted full length, and here they deliver on that. This album features everything from high speed, reckless, and rowdy tunes to more restrained moments of harmony and even a subtle hint at country (they even start the album off with an acoustic song). More refined than their EPs, this is honest, genuine punk that buzzes with charged melodies as it delves into self-reflection.


Best Metal Album

Encrust – From Birth To Soil

Chicago sludge metal at its finest, Encrust works with hard rock/classic rock riffs, deep, guttural vocals, and various elements of thrash, stoner metal, and hardcore that transpires into a unique spin on brutal music. Some atmospheric pieces and noisey interludes make this even more interesting, and unlike a lot of similar bands, this never runs together as if one long track.


Best Instrumental Album

Maserati – Maserati VII

Though they were still reeling from the untimely death of drummer Jerry Fuchs, Maserati persevered and came out with a career highlight here. Sounding post-everything and with hypnotic rhythms and carefully calculated instrumentation in check this often sounds like the soundtrack to a chase scene on a different planet. Using just the standard guitars, bass, and drums (something becoming more rare in a time of computer generated sounds) Maserati have made not only the most compelling instrumental discs but one of the best rock albums of the year.


Best Comeback Album

Larry Graham & Graham Central Station – Raise Up

After 13 years, Larry Graham and company made sure they were going to return with some fire. After assembling an all star cast of musicians and even having Prince play and sing on a few songs, Graham brought back the funk with a vengeance. With emphasis on instruments many albums relegate to the background, Raise Up often puts percussion and horns front and center, though Graham's signature slap bass technique nearly steals the show with each track. They even tackle Stevie Wonder's “Higher Ground” and pull off a great version with their own twist.


Best Compilation Album

Various Artists Kitsune Maison: Compilation 14 – The 10th Anniversary Issue

A label known for it's thumping, sultry, dance-floor friendly compilations, here Kitsune best anything they've done with a sampling of their label's finest, from world renowned sensations like Citizens!, Is Tropical, and Peter & The Magician to rising stars like Plaitum, Saint Michel, and Moonlight Matters.

If you're unfamiliar with the label, you can't go wrong finding something you'll enjoy here, but be sure you've got some space around you when listening – you'll be compelled to move your body.


Best Reissue

Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Tarkus

A band that went the opposite direction of their guitar based peers in the '70s, ELP used a meshing of classical and symphonic rock in a prog-like fashion to their advantage. Sure, at the time a lot of people scoffed at this idea, but ELP were clearly ahead of their time, as the legions of current bands playing this sound illustrate. The reissue of this 1971 classic is a three disc set: disc one is the original album remastered, disc two is an alternate versions, bonus tracks, and the 2012 stereo mixes of the original album, and disc three is a DVD of 5.1 mixes of the album and additional high resolution 2012 Stereo mixes. The amount of rare music included here is incredible – if only all reissues were this thorough.


Best Easy Listening Album

Tori Amos – Gold Dust

Rather than simply collect a 'Best Of' disc to mark her 20-year career, Amos reworks old favorites with a 52-piece orchestra. Her divine voice is as flawless as ever, and these arrangements bring new life to her stunning catalog in a moody setting, her melodies complemented by the soothing strings. It's hard to imagine her songs sounding anymore gorgeous, but here they are illuminated in a way that heightens her emotive swells.

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