2012: Top 10

by Mark Millan


10. Europe – Bag Of Bones

Swedish rock stalwarts Europe released their ninth studio album this year, and for fans of the band (myself included), it couldn’t have been better.  Their previous set Last Look At Eden was a very solid record that found the band sounding as good as they ever had.  With Bag Of Bones, however, they have stepped it up a notch and managed to produce what is possibly their best ever album.  Front man Joey Tempest still has the power in his pipes to handle every high note required here with ease, and there are plenty of them.  The band sounds as focused and vital as they did in their heyday, and producer Kevin Shirley did a splendid job in helping to create a very “live” sounding album. 

Highlights: “Not Supposed To Sing The Blues,” “Firebox,” “My Woman, My Friend,” “Mercy Me, Mercy You.”


9. Sinead O’Connor - How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?

This release, O’Connor’s ninth studio album, really is one of her very best.  It’s full of beautiful melodies and hopeful lyrics, which she could frankly use more of at times.  There are still the moments when O’Connor digs into her confusion and anger with her religion, and although she has covered this territory numerous times before, it is not without merit and she handles it here very well indeed.  Her layered vocals and subdued but angry guitar licks back her message superbly.  The album is one of most accomplished and driven but also very accessible for the casual admirer, too. Sonically it has no weaknesses at all.  Simply wonderful.

Highlights: “4th & Vine,” “Take Off Your Shoes,” “The Wolf Is Getting Married,” “Very Far From Home.”


8. Rickie Lee Jones – The Devil You Know

Ben Harper produced this, Jones’ twelfth album of covers, and I’m not sure if he knew what he was in for when he took the job on. But The Devil You Know is most unlike anything Jones or Harper have ever really produced before.  All of the elements that make these classic songs instantly recognizable have been removed completely to render them the exact opposite.  The spare and stark production gives Jones (a natural jazz singer) all the room in the world to move in as she gets deep into every one of these ten songs and slowly brings them to life.  Her voice is so full of character and nuance that at times it seems as if she herself is unsure with what to do with it.  This is an intriguing and engaging record that is not easy to listen to, but you will reap rewards from repeated plays.

Highlights: “Sympathy For The Devil,” “The Weight,” “Comfort You,” “Seems Like A Long Time.”


7. Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again

In the tradition of Bill Withers (the soulful folk singer) comes this 24 year old Londoner who delivered his brilliant debut alum, Home Again, this year to global acclaim.  Musically, it is a wonderful affair full of lush arrangements that complement Kiwanuka’s rich soul tones perfectly. He is one of those guys that sound so much older/worldlier than he really is.  There are a lot of folk influences throughout the set and some glorious harmonies that recall some of classic soul’s finest hours.  This album is an absolute joy to listen to and I can’t see myself tiring of it anytime soon.

Highlights:  “Tell Me A Tale,” “I’ll Get Along,” “Bones,” “Any Way Will Do Fine.”


6. Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream

2012 saw the return of one of music’s true survivors, Bonnie Raitt.  Slipstream is her first album in seven years and it is easily one of her very best ever.  Album number sixteen for Raitt is an all covers disc, but she has written a new song to throw into the mix and it fits right in without a hitch.  The album has not one weak cut, and both her distinctive voice and signature slide licks have rarely sounded better than they do here.  Raitt tackles two Dylan gems from his latter years that she handles very well, and she has chosen the rest of the material to fit around the mood and vibe she has created for those tracks.  All of it works so well and sounds as fresh and punchy as any of her previous efforts to date.  I’m so glad to have her back, she’s so cool.

Highlights: “Used To Rule The World,” “Down To You,” “Ain’t Gonna Let You Go,” “Marriage Made In Hollywood.”


5. Dr. John
– Locked Down

Meanwhile, from down South comes this raw, deep-fried logjam of swampy blues and funky soul that all comes together so well it delivers Dr. John one of his greatest albums ever. It’s possibly his best since the holy grail of all that’s left of center, 1968’s Gris-Gris.  Recorded in Nashville, TN and produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, this record sounds as if it was actually created in the distant dark ‘70s and was just unearthed and dusted off yesterday.  It’s very experimental, never boring, and always funky, which is all you could want from the good Doctor.  The mood is lighter than his previous outings, which addressed Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, but he still takes time to point the finger where it needs pointing and he does it better than most.

Highlights: “Locked Down,” “Revolution,” “Kingdom Of Izzness,” “You Lie.”


4. Tom Jones – Spirit In The Room

Old TJ is really on a good thing now; there’s simply no stopping him, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  Since the wonderfully deserved success of his previous release (2010’s Praise & Blame), TJ has again hooked up with that album’s producer Ethan Jones (no relation) and attempted to recreate the magic.  Most folks will tell us that this is an impossible task and to not even bother trying to do it, but they of course forgot to tell these two that.  This album is every bit as soulful, spiritual, and raw as its big brother, and although the mood is a little lighter here, TJ still touches on themes of mortality and lost love while still looking back on a life well lived. 

Highlights: “(I Want To) Come Home,” “Love And Blessings,” “Travelling Shoes,” “All Blues Hail Mary.”


3. Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man In The Universe

Soul veteran Bobby Womack hooked up with Damon Albarn in the hope of producing a modern soul/R&B album that Womack could use to show he still has what it takes in the current climate of an ever changing industry.  I’d suggest that the pair knew they were onto something special pretty early on in the proceedings because every track here is so damn good that when the album finishes, it leaves you wanting more.  The production is right here in the now but just funked up enough to make Womack feel at ease with this collection of co-writes that the two came up with.  The magnificent title track is worth the album’s cost alone, and there is plenty more where that came from.  What a singer this guy is. He’s too often overlooked, but hopefully this album will have something to do about that.

Highlights: “The Bravest Man In The Universe,” “Please Forgive My Heart,” “Stupid,” “If There Wasn’t Something There.”


2. Bob Dylan –

Album number….who’s still counting?  Dylan just keeps on keeping on and every now and then drops a stone-cold classic as he did this year with Tempest.  His voice now sounds like some old character of film haunting your room as he delivers these tales with a restrained vitality that only he could manage.  Produced under his alias Jack Frost, Dylan guides his road band through the murky waters of these tracks that sees him take aim at just about everyone who ever took a wrong turn in life.  These are some of his most dark and violent tales ever although there are some lighter moments and the long, long title track that tells the story of the ill-fated Titanic, as rewritten by Dylan of course.  One of his best?  No doubt about it.

Highlights: “Narrow Way,” “Pay In Blood,” “Scarlet Town,” “Tin Angel.”


1.  Frank Ocean - Channel Orange

Putting aside the fact that Ocean is apparently the first black male R&B artist to confess to falling in love with a member of the same sex (as noted in his long liner notes of this album, which he tweeted upon its release), the fact remains that the most intriguing thing about this album and its creator is the music itself.  This is just one of those all too rare releases that just appear and after working their magic on you, stay with you forever.  Ocean himself is the whole package, too; he is ridiculously handsome, busts a move better than most, and what a voice he has – a range most guys would kill for.  The minimalist approach with the production here allowed for Ocean to use that voice to astonishing effect and keep the focus on his life’s journey, which unravels beautifully as each song blends seamlessly into the next.  This album is heartfelt, sexy, funny, and funky, and it’s easily the best thing I have heard all year. I still can’t get enough of Mr. Ocean.

Highlights: “Thinkin’ ’Bout You,” “Sierra Leone,” “Pyramids,” “Monks.”

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