The Best of 2012: Give Us Peace or (Tempering the Wild Vitality [of Current Things])

2012. That was an interesting year, wasn’t it? The world didn’t end after all – not that most of the intelligent among us really expected it to. For me, personally, the world actually seemed to ease up a bit compared to the chaos it threw at me in 2011. 2012 was kind of a year of rebirth. And the following albums and songs artists provided the highlights of its soundtrack.

2012_SarahMacintosh_Current1. Sarah Macintosh – Current
I’m wary of dooming this gorgeous album, with its luscious harps and strings, its infectious percussion, and its artful arrangements, to a niche audience by labeling it a “worship album”. While it’s lyrically quite simple and the songs are often either oriented toward congregations or heartfelt prayers to God, it’s a heck of a lot more creative than our standard expectations of the genre. I’d expect no less from the former lead singer of the long-lost Chasing Furies. Setting preconceived notions aside is a prerequisite for approaching this album, both for those who are sick of the trendiness of endless worship bands and for those who can’t get enough of the style. But the reward for doing so is great, because this is an album created by a woman who writes songs simply because her soul cannot keep quiet, which makes the material easily more passionate and inventive than any number of songwriters trying to do similarly because it’s in their job description. True to its name, listening to Current is a fully immersive and surprisingly powerful experience.

Live in Studio: “Current”

2012_PaperRoute_ThePeaceofWildThings2. Paper Route – The Peace of Wild Things
If Absence was a high-energy take on matters of the broken heart, then its follow-up seems to be more of a spacious, carefully pieced together examination of the aftermath. The sometimes overwhelming pathos of their old material finds balance with a few of the more lovesick tunes on this album, but Peace is not without its songs of loss and sacrifice and pain and doubt. Pulling all of these emotions together in merely ten tracks, with anything resembling cohesiveness, would be a tricky thing for a lot of bands. Doing all of that while adding new sonic tricks to their mostly percussion and keyboard-driven repertoire, and keeping listeners on their toes in the process, is what makes this album such a worthy companion to Absence. The group has not only survived the loss of a founding member, but they’ve thrived in a situation where many expected them not to.

Live in Concert: “Rabbit Holes”


2012_Anberlin_Vital3. Anberlin – Vital
Here, a fiercely dependable rock band gets a bit of an electronic makeover, and unlike many examples of this going horribly, it accentuates their sound nicely without overpowering it. The result is easily one of the best entries in Anberlin’s discography, because while there’s a keyboard-driven ballad or two, maybe a danceable rhythm here and there, they didn’t forget to bring the rock factor in their usual rousing manner, so the result is one of the most focused and energetic collections of songs. There isn’t a dud in the entire batch, from start to finish, and many of these songs pull double duty in that they bring a loud sonic wallop as well as an unexpected emotional one that you might not see coming. Making small course corrections rather than drastic ones is what these guys do best, so even a slight step down from this album on their next one would still result in a pretty solid effort, I think.

Lyric Video: “Self-Starter”


2012_TheTemperTrap_TheTemperTrap4. The Temper Trap – The Temper Trap
This was an album that I fell in love with easily, but that seems a bit lightweight when I try to defend it critically. It won’t turn the music world on its ear, or perhaps even have anything particularly profound to say to most people. But this Australian band’s shimmering retro-rock style seems to hit my sweet spot on nearly every song, particularly in the remarkably strong run of tunes throughout this album’s first half. It truly is a rebirth after a spotty debut album, which is good, because I hate it when bands release self-titled albums later in their career that aren’t really representatives of their strings. If a curious, wandering melody or danceable rhythm doesn’t worm its way into your brain here, Dougy Mandagi‘s warm falsetto probably will. It’s interesting, as I continue to listen to this one, how strong the hooks are despite none of the songs bashing you over the head with them or sounding like they’re itching to be on the cutting edge of cool. This is a band that finally got comfortable in its own skin, and the ease with which their blend of keyboard-driven indie rock and 80s nostalgia pulls you in is commendable.

Music Video: “Trembling Hands”

2012_DavidCrowderBand_GiveUsRestorARequiemMassinCTheHappiestofAllKeys5. David Crowder Band – Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
For their grand finale, the members of Christian music’s most restlessly creative “worship band” pulled out all the stops, trying everything they’d ever tried before and then some, and rolling it all together into an overstuffed but heartfelt farewell to their fans. Electrified, rocked-out praise songs? Plenty to choose from here. Experimental progressive passages? Some of their most ambitious ones are included. Twangy bluegrass-oriented hymns? Just check out the final segment of the album. Mellow, slow-burning anthems sure to ignite the next Passion conference? Yep, and with the usual style and grace that they manage to deliver such things. Really, the only flaw to Give Us Rest is that it tries to be all things to all fans. But hey, give ’em tons of credit for organizing it all into some semblance of a thematic narrative – based on the format of a Requiem Mass, no less. Even the more straightforward songs take on an extra layer of meaning when considered as part of the overall program. There’s as much depth here as you care to dig for – and probably plenty to spare after that. It is with a tearful gladness that we bid this band a final farewell.

Live in Concert: “Let Me Feel You Shine”

2012_Sucre_AMinorBird6. Sucré – A Minor Bird
Plenty of “dream teams” get together to collaborate on little pet projects that may or may not live up the expectations of each musician’s individual fans. Since I was previously into EisleyMuteMath, and Jeremy Larson, I figured I had a strong chance of enjoying this joint project between Larson, Eisley’s Stacey DuPree-King, and her husband, MuteMath drummer Darren King. I just had no idea how magically textured it would all come out sounding. Really, given the ethereal heights that Stacey’s voice and piano, and Larson’s stirring string arrangements, have brought me to before, those two ingredients shouldn’t surprise me. Bringing Darren into the mix adds a lot of rhythmic savvy to the proceedings, though here he has to focus more on finesse and less on the pure energy that he lets fly as part of his day job. The result is certainly mellower than any of Eisley’s output (and certainly more so than MuteMath’s), but also several times as beautiful. I have no idea how long this unusual partnership can continue when all three have their primary projects (and a newborn, in the case of the Kings) to attend to, but I definitely hope A Minor Bird won’t just be a minor blip on the radar.

Music Video: “When We Were Young”


2012_LinkinPark_LivingThings7. Linkin Park – Living Things
This one’s called “How to simplify your style without dumbing it down”. The last two albums brought a lot of growing pains and harsh words from fans as LP grew restless with the teen angst demonstrated in the rap/rock style that made them so insanely popular over a decade ago. Bringing back a lot of that same energy, while wisely tempering it with the more intricate, electronic production tricks they’d been applying to their more recent stuff, resulted in an album that might just be their most well-balanced and fun to listen to overall. While I’d still say that A Thousand Suns is their most daringly creative album (one that often gets overlooked or maligned for its glaring weak spots despite the progress they made as artists there), Living Things might just be the first time that they’ve managed to deliver true stylistic variance without any major mishaps. I don’t have to apply the nostalgia filter to enjoy this one immensely.

Music Video: “Lost in the Echo”


2012_MiikeSnow_HappytoYou8. Miike Snow – Happy to You
It might be easy to write this guys off as another club-oriented electronic group when you first hear them – the pounding piano chords and squiggly keyboards, not to mention the pounding beats, can easily give that impression. Then you see them play a few songs live, and you realize that despite the hi-tech sound, a lot of their work is driven by live instrumentation. That gives a curious and vital balance to their chosen style, which adds to the believability of what would otherwise be a bizarre collaboration between a Swedish pop production team and a shaggy American singer/songwriter who looks like he belongs in a 90s grunge band. Happy to You is great fun, with just the right amount of “deranged” lurking underneath the surface to keep you guessing.

Live on Letterman: “Paddling Out”


2012_PunchBrothers_WhosFeelingYoungNow9. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?
Chris Thile
 went so far off the deep end with the experimental “bluegrass jazz suite”, or whatever you want to call it, that was “The Blind Leading the Blind”, that I all but gave up on him for several years. It felt like really, really smart music that unfortunately left the rest of us behind. But now he and his band are creating songs that revel in both immediacy and experimentalism, remembering that sometimes a little structure can be as powerful a weapon as some seriously talented fingerwork. All five members of the bluegrass band that doesn’t play bluegrass songs (per se) have that talent in spades, leading to unusual textures where you’d expect predictable twang, and distorted melodies that turn out to be weirdly catchy according to their own skewed rules. This works perfectly for an album that seems to ask: What is youth? What is love? What is commitment? And how can we deconstruct the hell out of all these things? Collaborating with Josh Ritter on a few songs and finally putting one of their frequent Radiohead covers on an album also helps to sweeten the deal. Punch Brothers have gone from nigh unlistenable to damn near unforgettable with this solid release.

Live in Studio: “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”


2012_mewithoutYou_TenStories10. mewithoutYou – Ten Stories

I respected these guys before – I thought they wrote really thought-provoking songs and mashed up hard and soft styles of music in unconventional ways – but I couldn’t really enjoy listening to them all that much. That changed with this release, and its bizarre tales of circus animals left to fend for themselves in the aftermath of a train crash in the dead of a Montana winter. Aaron Weiss and co. seem to use every tool in the box, from harsh shouts to soft murmurs, from the gentle plucking of various folksy instruments to overwhelming drum fills and the jagged edges of harsh electric guitars, to tell these meandering stories, often turning on a dime from one mood to the next as pages are turned in the ongoing anthology. The usual spiritual and personal openness of their songs is a bit more hidden beneath the layers of allegory in this one, so whether you’ll respond to it is largely a matter of personal taste. But I can definitely say that I’ve never gotten such thorough enjoyment out of listening to a bunch of animals ruminate on their various existential quandaries.

Listen: “Fiji Mermaid”

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Pretty good albums that fell just outside of my Top Ten, but are still definitely worth a listen.

2012_HouseofHeroes_ColdHardWant11. House of Heroes – Cold Hard Want
Like a less polished Anberlin, this hard-working Ohio band continues to deliver on their fourth major-label album, examining the ups and downs of the desires and cravings and life goals that make us humans tick. It’s a bit less thematically tight than their last few albums, but some of their strongest rock anthems can be found here, as well as a few surprising experiments that mess with their sound in amusing ways without sabotaging the core trio of guitar/bass/drums that has served HoH so well for so many years now, or forcing the message to take a back seat. Sometimes these guys rally you to fight for your freedom; sometimes they convict you that you’re too addicted to it.

Music Video: “Touch This Light”


2012_Muse_The2ndLaw12. Muse – The 2nd Law
In a word: Ridiculous. Positive or negative, that seems to be the common denominator in terms of people’s reactions to this album. Muse’s dabbling in different genres, from old-school funk to minimalistic R&B to dubstep, have certainly fractured their fanbase more than it already was. I happen to enjoy it all; I’m just not sure it all fits on the same album, or belongs in the order it’s presented here. But despite the whiplash and the way it starts to feel like half of an album plus an assortment of random B-sides near the end, I find myself returning to puzzle over this one a lot. When Muse goes for an epic riff, it scales the heights of operatic bombast like nobody’s business, and even when they go for something subdued, they seem to put their own unique and memorable stamp on it. If this is the first step in a new phase of their career, hopefully the new sonic imprints will remain while finding their way into more of a cohesive presentation next time around.

Music Video: “Madness”


2012_MumfordSons_Babel13. Mumford & Sons – Babel
They’re the British folk band with the insanely fast-paced banjos and the gravelly lead singer that seems to have snowballed a fandom for themselves in no time flat, and yet that seems to get a lot of flak for being mere visitors in a land that they do not fully understand. I’m not so xenophobic as to suggest that a non-American band can’t pull off a convincing Americana record. But there are a few tracks that stick to the formula a bit too closely (even if it’s one heck of a thrilling formula), or that tend toward the “universal” school of songwriting rather than getting down into the geographical and personal specifics or the poetic abstractions that have helped other indie folk bands to stand out in the genre. What intrigues me most about this album – aside from dreaming that I’m at a concert and watching fingers fly across frets like there’s no tomorrow, of course – is the sense of religious devotion that Marcus Mumford applies equally to songs of romance and songs that question his own self-worth and mission in life. A few rather troubled lyrics suggest that he’s not just some preacher’s kid, but much like U2 in their early days, the Holy Spirit seems to haunt these songs in fascinating ways.

Live on SNL: “I Will Wait”


2012_FutureofForestry_YoungManFollow14. Future of Forestry – Young Man Follow
I’ve been sort of hard on Eric Owyoung ever since I came down off the high of his band’s first two Travel EPs. Something went wrong in the self-production department, and suddenly it was like his work went from thunderous, majestic, and larger-than-life, to tinny and trapped in a box. This seemed to culminate on the band’s first true “album” in five years, a mere ten songs that often seemed to fall short of the climaxes that they were reaching for. The characteristic, awestruck sheen of the usual FoF song was still there, but I had to listen more deeply to hear the chimes and bells and strings and keyboards and such coming together in a flurry of activity on several songs, where at first I was only hearing overly simplistic hooks paired with lyrics that were making surprisingly straightforward points in their attempts to encourage listeners toward a deeper walk with the Lord. Ultimately, I decided that this album deserved more credit than I was giving it, and I rescued it from the “merely above average” rating that I gave it in my review, once I realized it was still one of my most played albums of the entire year. The highs still outnumber the disappointing mediums on this record, and there are no real lows, so while the fleeting moments of transcendent beauty may not compel me as strongly as they did on Travel or Twilight, I still feel like I’m receiving a heartfelt letter from an old friend whenever these guys drop a new record.

Live in Concert: “Young Man Follow”


2012_ReginaSpektor_WhatWeSawFromtheCheapSeats15. Regina Spektor – What We Saw From the Cheap Seats
Regina snuck into my CD collection at the tail end of the year, so while I’ve fallen in love with her quirky charm (I kind of see her as the Russian Björk, perhaps with a side of Tori Amos), I haven’t yet had the chance to fully digest some of her more straightforward material. It’s the off-the-wall stuff that first greets the listener here, as Spektor gleefully sings of mothers unconditionally loving their babies who grow up to be mobsters, a piano’s potential usefulness as firewood, or rowboats in paintings coming to life and trying to escape the galleries that confine them like prisons. Unique perspectives like these always help a songwriter to grab a foothold in the crevasses of my mind. Plus, the woman has a flair for startling mouth sounds. I think the rule in the studio during the recording of this album must have been that if they wanted a drum or a trumpet or whatever and they didn’t have it handy, that Regina would just go ahead and do her best impression of that instrument. It’s like a weird party trick that drives away all the people who don’t like you that much so that there’s more birthday cake for you to share with the people who really get you.

Music Video: “All the Rowboats”


2012_PassionPit_Gossamer16. Passion Pit – Gossamer
I originally wrote these guys off as a hyperactive MuteMath with a veritable candy store full of synths and a helium-laced lead singer. Their music just sounds so overwhelmingly happy at first that you kind of need to take a breather from it before coming back and trying to understand it on a deeper level. I’m not sure if a lot of people are willing to listen more closely to lyrics about depression and suffering when they’re couched in zippy keyboard melodies and relentless drum sequences, so I can understand why some folks might find these guys too annoying to take seriously. But give a closer listen to a bouncy song that might initially sound like a throwaway, and you’ll soon realize, Michael Angelakos really went through some crap while he was working on this thing. Perhaps all of the happy sounds are like the firecrackers used to scare off the dragons in a Chinese New Year’s parade. The happiness isn’t superfluous; it’s there as a way of facing fears and saying you’re bigger than them.

Music Video: “Take a Walk”


2012_ButterflyBoucher_ButterflyBoucher17. Butterfly Boucher – Butterfly Boucher
I’m embarrassed to admit that I discovered Butterfly Boucher while watching a few of Katie Herzig‘s live performances on YouTube. Now I’m not embarrassed in the slightest about my love for Katie, but I am ashamed to say that I thought the bass player in her band was a dude. It’s the androgynous look and the short hair, OK? However, Butterfly is very much a girly girl on some of the more fun-loving tracks on her self-titled album, fitting in so well with her ad hoc bandmate’s work that this really feels like a Katie Herzig record with much lower, grittier vocals. Sometimes she’s all vulnerable and sweet, like a little girl, and at other times, she’s defiantly cranking out these angular, ridiculously danceable rhythm guitar riffs and she’s most definitely a grown-up grrrrrrlll. Sometimes both in the same song. It’s a pop record through and through, rife with love songs with the occasional side note about the loss of innocence. But it offers a nice yin-yang effect in comparison to Katie’s cutesier work, and now I can sort of see why the two of them were destined to sound so good in collaboration with each other.

Music Video: “5678!” (with Katie Herzig)


2012_SaraWatkins_SunMidnightSun18. Sara Watkins – Sun Midnight Sun
Speaking of feminine artists with cutesy voices, this talented fiddler, formerly my favorite member of Nickel Creek, definitely qualifies as one. Her meek and mellow approach really didn’t do her any favors on her disappointing solo debut, but here, she’s tempered it with a little rhythm, a little angst, and a lot of unpredictability. Running the gamut from grouchy alternative rock to ramshackle acoustic pop to heart-wrenching ballads, this short-but-sweet follow-up finally starts to show us the kind of voice that makes Sara stand out from her peers as a solo artist. Purists who miss the Nickel Creek sound probably won’t be satisfied with this morsel, but since I’ve gotten so used to Chris Thile coloring outside the lines with the aforementioned Punch Brothers, and Sean Watkins doing so in much more structured ways in Fiction Family, it doesn’t surprise or disappoint me to hear Sara similarly carving out her own little path.

Live in Concert: “Lock & Key” (with Sean Watkins)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfJfpNMQ6nU

2012_AndrewPeterson_LightfortheLostBoy19. Andrew Peterson – Light for the Lost Boy
Other than Carried Along, I can’t think of an Andrew Peterson record that has wowed me instantly. His take on the intersection of folk and pop tends to be very understated musically, and often very meaty lyrically. It can be a bit of a task to study his albums enough to unearth the good stuff, despite the fact that I’ve been a pretty consistent fan of his for over ten years. Strangely enough, when he’s attempted to make more immediate pop albums in the past, it hasn’t really resonated as deeply as some of his mellower material. Light for the Lost Boy is certainly out of step with his usual subdued folk style, but it would be a bit of a stretch to call it a “pop album”. Maybe “indie pop”, due to the emphasis on texture in so many of these songs. A few approach more standard pop or even rock structures. But it’s the surprise instrumental flourishes that come sneaking up out of several of the “slower” songs that really work the magic on this album. Peterson has tried his hand as a writer of children’s fiction when he’s had some time off from his day job, and while I haven’t read any of his work, I can certainly see the imaginative author peeking through in these songs, as characters struggle with death and doubt and the apparently stubborn silence of God. I’ll need a lot more time with this one to really do it justice in a review, but my impression so far is that this album could well be a defining turning point in Peterson’s already respectable career.

Music Video: “Rest Easy”

2012_DaveMatthewsBand_AwayFromtheWorld20. Dave Matthews Band – Away From the World
The first record released by the DMB in their new seven-piece format (with Tim Reynolds, Jeff Coffin, and Rashawn Ross finally considered full-time members) is a surprisingly subdued affair, serving up a few of the “jammy” sorts of party songs we’ve come to expect from the band, but often taking detours down dusty roads and coming up with slower, more soulful acoustic material. It’s not something that a lot of DMB fans, including myself, took to very easily. On the other hand, those who found Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King to be overproduced seemed to really enjoy this one by comparison. I sort of read this one as a more peaceful and optimistic response to 2002’s Busted Stuff – it’s structurally similar in some ways, but its overall worldview finds Dave leaning toward “glass half full” more often than not. A little patience is required to wring the inner beauty out of some of the subtler performances here – for every dazzling solo, there seemed to be an almost whispered passage lying in wait to explode on to the screen in its own emotionally unique way, giving us a glimpse of a band that isn’t quite content to rest on their laurels as a “jam band” for frat boys who never grew up. I might still regard those old “frat boy” days as the band’s best material, but all the same, I look forward to a future of them not needing to try and clone that material over and over again.

Live in Concert: “Snow Outside”

LEFTOVERS FROM 2011:
Albums that were technically released last year, that didn’t come to my attention until this year. These would easily qualify for my Top 20 if I considered them eligible. Click on the reviews to see why.

2011_Gotye_MakingMirrorsGotye – Making Mirrors

Music Video: “State of the Art”

2011_JonasBjerre_SkyscraperJonas Bjerre – Songs and Music from the Movie Skyscraper

Listen: “Waste It”


2011_TheEchoingGreen_InScarletandVileThe Echoing Green – In Scarlet & Vile

Music Video: “Flame”


2011_UmphreysMcGee_DeathByStereoUmphrey’s McGee – Death By Stereo

Live in Concert: “The Floor”


2011_DiaFrampton_RedDia Frampton – Red

Live in Concert: “Don’t Kick the Chair”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcXGPO5-FVE

2011_M83_HurryUpWereDreamingM83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Music Video: “Midnight City”


DISHONORABLE MENTIONS:

These are the albums that, for the most part, I couldn’t stomach listening to enough times to write a coherent review covering each and every track. Some are audaciously poorly made. Some are monotonous. Some are trying too hard to be artsy for their own good. Bad albums come in all sorts of wonderful flavors. However, in each case, just to show that I’m not completely opposed to each and every little thing these artists have ever done, I’ve attempted to find a song that I consider a “redeeming factor”, one which I actually enjoy when removed from the context of the album that I’d have to slog through in order to get to it.

2012_POD_MurderedLove10. P.O.D. – Murdered Love
I actually feel really bad for these guys, because as representatives of two often-misunderstood musical subcultures (rap-rock, which went out of style like a decade ago, and “Christian rock”, which isn’t a label they’ve ever been entirely comfortable with), I kind of want them to succeed and prove popular perceptions wrong. And for the first four tracks, this album feels like one hell of a strong comeback, bursting out of the gate with hard-hitting songs that show P.O.D. finally no longer caring if their chosen style is en vogue. Then it all goes down the toilet, as the band reminds me by way of some of their most moronic lyrics ever why I’ve never given an album of theirs (even Satellite, which I do still enjoy a great deal) the full five stars. Most of the conversation about this album centered on the controversial closing track, “I Am”, and its use of a backmasked F-word. But shoot, that isn’t even really my problem with it. I figure words are like weapons, and if you really need to get a point across, I can make allowances for careful uses of the stronger ones. My problem is that they waste it on a grammatically confusing chorus (“I know You are the one and only Son of God, but tell me, who the f*ck is he?”) that serves to undermine an otherwise powerfully written song. But this is not anywhere near the album’s low point – that award goes to the horribly misguided “Bad Boy”, which I’m sure was written just for fun, but which comes across as three full minutes of the world’s worst pickup lines, all while trying to prove how mature and committed to meaningful relationships the songwriter is. Sonny Sandoval is one of those guys who seems to have firm values and his heart in the right place… he’s honestly just terrible at communicating it in a compelling way most of the time, and that’s what makes most of this would-be comeback album an embarrassing failure.

Redeeming Factor: “Lost in Forever”


2012_fun_SomeNights9. fun. – Some Nights
I went on at some length about how I didn’t appreciate fun.’s shift from playful baroque pop to misguided hip-hop production with heavy use of Auto-tune on a few tracks… only to decide that a couple of the Auto-tuned tracks were actually the most enjoyable songs on the album. Nate Ruess really doesn’t need the help, but playing with that sound occasionally doesn’t have too many adverse effects, I think. The real issue here is that the band’s personality seems to have been left sagging beneath the dead weight of a production style that doesn’t suit their talents. And this is basically what made them popular. Look no further than the sluggish, unfortunate mega-hit “We Are Young” for the most prominent example of style over substance, but also keep in mind a handful of ho-hum ballads, the misguided “intro” track that pilfers from Queen in the worst possible way, and the frighteningly embarrassing Hellogoodbye impression heard on “It Gets Better”. I’m not upset that a band I liked when they were indie went and got popular… but I am upset that it required a dumbing down of the sound that once made them live up to their name.

Redeeming Factor: “Some Nights”


2012_GreenDay_Tre8. Green Day – ¡Tré!
A flurry of activity in 2012 led to the release of a triple album that, on the surface, seemed like quiet a generous proposition from Green Day, considering there hadn’t been that long of a gap between 21st Century Breakdown and this. Any new fans who were brought into the fold with American Idiot will probably not know what to do with the entire trilogy, myself included, but ¡Tré! seems to be the album that promises them the most refuge, with the most variety of styles and song structures to be found on any of the three discs. A few experiments drawing from classic rock influences do rise above the din, but for the most part, this is Green Day at their most inert. Most of the songs here don’t come across as terribly offensive or immature, just sort of perfunctory. Even when they throw together a five-part suite in the spirit of their “rock opera” albums, it seems to have no point to it, and the quickly changing styles seem to be directly copied from the much better songs we heard on those previous albums. The album reaches its low point with the last two tracks, where it tries a bit too late to cram pro-Occupy Wall Street propaganda down our throats in the poorly thought-out anthem “99 Revolutions”, and then they try to get all deep and sentimental on us with a generic piano ballad at the end. What could have been the end of a diverse trilogy, a career renaissance for a band tired of being boxed in, instead finishes off with a mere whimper… though that’s nothing compared to the hatred I feel for those other two albums. (We’ll get to that soon enough.)

Redeeming Factor: “Brutal Love”


2012_SigurRos_Valtari7. Sigur Rós – Valtari
Another band making a comeback after several years off the grid failed to recapture the magic that made a lot of us fall in love with them in the first place. I’m used to Sigur Rós putting together a bunch of long, ambient tracks that take their time to reach a satisfying climax… but most of these seem to never reach that climax, and never find the tranquil beauty that was exposed amidst the restrained repetition of so many of their earlier songs. The result is a long and mostly flat stretch of experimental sound collages that can be a real chore to listen to. Even as background music, this fails, and I’ve generally found even the most mediocre material on their past albums to at least be worthwhile for that. Valtari is one of those albums that seems to slowly and consistently crush the joy that I once felt while listening to these guys.

Redeeming Factor: “Varúð”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_NriRCUaXg

2012_JasonMraz_LoveIsaFourLetterWord6. Jason Mraz – Love Is a Four-Letter Word
I’ve got a few four-letter words for this album. (Yeah, I’ve been waiting all year to make that remark. Should’ve just reviewed it when it was new.) Jason Mraz’s career, once built on colorful guitar chords, smart-mouthed wordplay, and intoxicating vocal acrobatics, has definitely entered a mellow phase that shows no signs of letting up. As much as I love “I’m Yours” and “Lucky”, I didn’t need an album full of songs trying to recreate their laid-back, cast-off-all-your-cares aura, particularly when none of the songs are as melodically interesting or emotionally compelling as those two mega-hits. From the very first track, I find myself wanting to smack the guy as he rambles about the vaguest, lowest-common-denominator declarations of love and peace and chilled out vibes, as if to say he’s happily resigned himself to making ineffectual background music for retirees to listen to on Caribbean cruises. It’s like taking the most radio-friendly Dave Matthews Band tracks you can find, injecting them with a strong sedative, and removing almost all traces of quality musicianship. Even when Mraz tries to change up the mood with a funky time signature in “5/6”, a quirky story about his grandfather in “Frank D. Fixer”, or another surf-kissed duet in “Be Honest”, the approach is too light to really register. Only at the end of the album, with a song that is still unfortunately drenched in Mraz’s meaningless armchair philosophy, do we finally approach some semblance of a strong melody and a capable arrangement that does it some justice. And that’s far too long to wait for a shadow of brilliance from a musician who once exuded it over the course of an entire album.

Redeeming Factor: “The World as I See It”


2012_CorrinneMay_CrookedLines5. Corrinne May – Crooked Lines
I was really glad that Corrinne took some time off to attend to her personal life after releasing the disappointing Beautiful Seed in 2007. She was once one of my favorite songwriters, due to her coffeehouse style and her simple but effective lyrics that exuded irresistible optimism while also knowing how to tug at the heartstrings when the situation called for it. But as the years wore on, she trended more and more towards tedious piano ballads with thoroughly uninspired production – an easy problem for a songwriter to fall into when she’s got the critic-proof trifecta of total freedom from record labels, her husband as producer, and a mostly religious audience who will cheer on her habit of preaching to the choir. I was hoping that five years and the birth of her first child might change some of her habits and give her a fresh perspective – and a few songs about motherhood and finding the strength to return to her craft after a long hiatus do show a small amount of promise, and even a few unique production touches. But Crooked Lines comes nowhere near reaching the potential implied by its title – for an album inspired by the beautiful creations made my children who haven’t yet developed the motor skills to draw “correctly”, most of this thing is stubbornly polished and afraid of taking chances. It might be a step up from Beautiful Seed, but it’s hampered by similarly slow tempos and a lack of variation throughout most of it. And when she gets up on her soapbox regarding issues like abstinence and abortion – and keep in mind that I generally agree with her stance on such things – it just blows away all notions of subtlety and turns well-meaning lyrics into treacly train wrecks. Corrinne’s world has just become too sunny and sterile for the life lessons depicted in her song to have any artistic or even practical value for me. I can still reminisce about the old days, when I was falling in love to the sound of gorgeous songs like “Fall to Fly” and “Same Side of the Moon”, but at this point, I’m 99% sure it’ll never be the same again.

Redeeming Factor: “In My Arms”


2012_JohnMayer_BornandRaised4. John Mayer – Born and Raised
I feel much the same way about Mayer that I do about Mraz – I’ve been following him since his first album Room for Squares, which I thought was excellent, but my interest in the man has been gradually waning since his second album, Heavier Things. I didn’t actively dislike anything of Mayer’s until he crapped out Battle Studies three years ago, and at that point I was pretty sure I was done with the guy’s bad attitude and failure to live up to the “guitar god” hype that seems to follow him around for some strange reason. But when I heard that he had picked up an acoustic guitar again on Born and Raised, and was borrowing from a lot of 70s soft rock influences, news that might have bored some other folks actually had me pretty excited. Alas, my excitement was short-lived. Aside from a quick-fingered acoustic riff here, a slight Celtic flourish there, and one or two left-field experiments, this album failed to hold my attention. One good thing I can say is that at least, for the most part, Mayer’s bad attitude and tendency to ruminate publicly on aspects of relationships better kept private is gone. That makes Born and Raised a slight improvement over Battle Studies. But he’s traded infuriating for plain old boring, remembering to borrow the “take it easy” spirit from the soft rock genre but forgetting the compelling chord progressions and rich layering of the better bands from that era. Not long after the release of this album, Mayer had to cancel his tour and go back for another round of vocal surgery, effectively sidelining his ability to sing. I don’t want to imply that this was deserved. But if he should choose to make lemons out of lemonade and release an instrumental album in the near future that manages to make good on his reputation as a solid musician while completely sidestepping his ongoing problem with writing halfway-decent lyrics, then I say it’ll be worth it.

Redeeming Factor: “The Age of Worry”


2012_GreenDay_Uno3. Green Day – ¡Uno!
I’m gonna guess that the typical Green Day fan’s response to my panning this album would be to point out that since I never listened to Green Day’s earlier material and I’m just a bandwagon-jumper who liked them because of American Idiot, that I’ve got no room to criticize here. The thing is, I knew to expect a simple pop-punk album from the get-go. I’m not disappointed by the fact that they returned to a more simplistic musical style per se. While I tend to prefer complexity in music, I can appreciate a simple, fast-and-fun three-chord song if it’s memorable enough. Unfortunately, this first album in Green Day’s ill-advised trilogy seems to be merely painting by numbers for most of its duration. Even the occasional song that has more of an enjoyable hook or that lets loose with a strong guitar or bass solo, tends to be difficult to differentiate from the surrounding noise at first. Making matters far worse are the lyrics. I know better than to expect a mature perspective from a Green Day album that is a deliberate throwback to their old days, but when these guys feign immaturity, there’s very little comedic or cathartic value in it. It should be obvious from my mostly glowing reviews of their two previous albums that I can handle my fair share of profanity from Green Day, but some of these tracks are over the top to the point where it feels like they’re trying to prove they haven’t lost their rebellious teenaged edge, all for the approval of an audience that honestly still isn’t going to be happy with anything but a carbon copy of Dookie. It’s this attitude that kills even a surprising musical standout like the dance-punk hybrid “Kill the DJ”, which could be a hell of a lot of fun and have something meaningful to say, if it weren’t so mired in crass, uncreative phrasing. At the end of the day, I’m far too bored with this album to waste any time on being offended by it.

Redeeming Factor: “Oh Love”


2012_Kutless_Believer2. Kutless – Believer
A friend of mine asked a very observant question this year, after braving his way through the new Kutless album, and I can’t remember his exact words, so I’ll paraphrase: “How could a band from a quirky place like Portland be so stubbornly boring?” Indeed. I’ve followed this band out of sheer morbid curiosity for a full decade now, and while I was once amazed at their staggering lack of inventiveness, it’s now become old hat. It was fun to rip Jon Micah Sumrall and his bandmates a new one back when he was bellowing out bad impressions of Creed and Live on every other song, and then throwing dull praise ballads in between with little to no regard for continuity. A pair of worship albums was the band’s absolute low point, so if they’ve bounced back on Believer, it ain’t by much. It’s telling that they’ve drifted from a “hard” post-grunge sound on their early albums to the soulless adult contemporary that they largely churn out these days – it’s like they’re the worst case scenario version of Third Day or something. This anemic disc only makes two attempts at “rock”, and one of them is the utterly ridiculous opening track, “If It Ends Tonight”, which is just about the most moronic way of saying “Pump your fists in the air if you hope Jesus is coming back when the world ends in 2012!” that I could imagine. (Side note: It didn’t. Neener neener.) Honestly, most of the rest of it is bad in a nondescript way, rather than being bad in a hilarious way, so I skipped on a full review this time more to a lack of good jokes more than anything else. I really need to stop listening to Kutless – they’re threatening to kill my creativity as well.

Redeeming Factor: (I honestly couldn’t think of any.)

2012_GreenDay_Dos1. Green Day – ¡Dos!

Yep. You all should have seen this one coming after my comments on their other two albums. I’ve reserved the most merciless beating for this, the supposed “garage rock” installment of the trilogy, because it’s the one album of the three that, in addition to sucking, managed to truly offend me. I could talk about the illogical placement of things like acoustic ballads or guest rappers who don’t appear in the songs actually named after them, etc. I could talk about boring mid-tempo songs that sound way too polished and interchangeable with the background noise on ¡Uno! to make much sense on album that’s supposed to show us the rawer side of Green Day. But that’s all small potatoes when you get songs like the repurposed Foxboro Hot Tubs track “F*ck Time”, which ranks among the sickest things I’ve ever heard outside of extreme forms of metal or rap that are deliberately trying to shock the audience. I can handle bone-headedly stupid odes to mindless sex. They do nothing for me, but they’re a dime a dozen, so this sort of content doesn’t make Green Day special. The thing is that they take it to another level with the disturbing violence implied in songs like these. What two consenting adults do behind closed doors is honestly none of my business, but it’s just plain irresponsible to put songs out their for public consumption that depict a guy getting off on choking a girl until she’s blue in the face and so forth. Stuff like this is honestly only a minor part of the album’s content, but it taints the otherwise (relatively) harmless songs about drunken partying and extramarital dalliances and apologizing for those dalliances right before going back for more. (Honestly, did these guys even pay attention to the track order on this hideous mess of an album? Sheesh.)

Redeeming Factor: “Stray Heart”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sN0b-adUt9I

MY FAVORITE SONGS OF 2012:
As usual, many of these were released in 2011, but I didn’t discover them or didn’t come to fully appreciate them until this year. Offering my thoughts on each would be exhausting, so click over to the reviews where they’re available, if you’re curious.

1. “Glass Heart Hymn”, Paper Route (from The Peace of Wild Things)
2. “Chemical Reaction”, Sucré (from A Minor Bird)
3. “Current”, Sarah Macintosh (from Current)
4. “Madness”, Muse (from The 2nd Law)
5. “Out My Way”, House of Heroes (from Cold Hard Want)
6. “Don’t Kick the Chair”, Dia Frampton feat. Kid Cudi (from Red)
7. “State of the Art”, Gotye (from Making Mirrors)
8. “Rabbit Holes”, Paper Route (from The Peace of Wild Things)
9. “Self-Starter”, Anberlin (from Vital)
10. “Toes”, Lights (from Siberia)
11. “Troubled Waters”, Sucré (from A Minor Bird)
12. “Crags and Clay”, Gungor (from Ghosts Upon the Earth)
13. “Somebody that I Used to Know”, Gotye feat. Kimbra (from Making Mirrors)
14. “Science Fiction”, The Hawk in Paris (from His & Hers EP)
15. “Blessedness of Everlasting Light”, David Crowder Band (from Give Us Rest)
16. “Lost in the Echo”, Linkin Park (from Living Things)
17. “Love Be Your Mantra”, Future of Forestry (from Young Man Follow)
18. “Remember the Empire”, House of Heroes (from Cold Hard Want)
19. “Devil’s Work”, Miike Snow (from Happy to You)
20. “Trembling Hands”, The Temper Trap (from The Temper Trap)
21. “Eyes Wide Open”, Gotye (from Making Mirrors)
22. “Happy Pills”, Norah Jones (from Little Broken Hearts)
23. “The Wave”, Miike Snow (from Happy to You)
24. “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”, Punch Brothers (from Who’s Feeling Young Now?)
25. “No Return”, Sucré (from A Minor Bird)
26. “Snow Outside”, Dave Matthews Band (from Away From the World)
27. “Billy the Kid”, Dia Frampton (from Red)
28. “Fiji Mermaid”, mewithoutYou (from Ten Stories)
29. “All the Rowboats”, Regina Spektor (from What We Saw From the Cheap Seats)
30. “Castle of Glass”, Linkin Park (from Living Things)
31. “New Map”, M83 (from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming)
32. “Equals”, MuteMath (from Odd Soul)
33. “Closest I Get”, Katie Herzig (from The Waking Sleep)
34. “Movement and Location”, Punch Brothers (from Who’s Feeling Young Now?)
35. “Oh My God/I Am a Seed”, David Crowder Band (from Give Us Rest)
36. “Save Me”, Gotye (from Making Mirrors)
37. “Isabella”, Dia Frampton (from Red)
38. “Miracle”, The Temper Trap (from The Temper Trap)
39. “Calling, Calling”, Sarah Macintosh (from Current)
40. “Speed the Collapse”, Metric (from Synthetica)
41. “The Rifle’s Spiral”, The Shins (from Port of Morrow)
42. “Brother Moon”, Gungor (from Ghosts Upon the Earth)
43. “Take It All”, Sarah Macintosh (from Current)
44. “Wild”, Beach House (from Bloom)
45. “Hurts Like Heaven”, Coldplay (from Mylo Xyloto)
46. “Midnight City”, M83 (from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming)
47. “Right Book”, Kathryn Calder (from Bright and Vivid)
48. “The Broken Ones”, Dia Frampton (from Red)
49. “Turn a Light On”, Kathryn Calder (from Bright and Vivid)
50. “Let There Be”, Gungor (from Ghosts Upon the Earth)
51. “Innocent”, Anberlin (from Vital)
52. “Simple Machine”, The Hawk in Paris (from His & Hers EP)
53. “Switzerland”, Bison (from Quill)
54. “Prytania”, MuteMath (from Odd Soul)
55. “Waste It”, Jonas Bjerre (from Songs and Music From the Movie Skyscraper)
56. “5678!”, Butterfly Boucher feat. Katie Herzig (from Butterfly Boucher)
57. “City of Sounds”, Kathryn Calder (from Bright and Vivid)
58. “I Will Wait”, Mumford & Sons (from Babel)
59. “Settle Down”, No Doubt (from Push and Shove)
60. “Free My Mind”, Katie Herzig (from The Waking Sleep)
61. “Charlie Brown”, Coldplay (from Mylo Xyloto)
62. “Young Man Follow”, Future of Forestry (from Young Man Follow)
63. “Comfort Trap”, House of Heroes (from Cold Hard Want)
64. “Hundred Dollars”, Punch Brothers (from Who’s Feeling Young Now?)
65. “The Story of a Would-Be Traffic Light”, Jonas Bjerre (from Songs and Music From the Movie Sksycraper)
66. “High Low Middle”, My Brightest Diamond (from All Things Will Unwind)
67. “On the Sea”, Beach House (from Bloom)
68. “The Huntress”, The Echoing Green (from In Scarlet & Vile)
69. “When We Were Young”, Sucré (from A Minor Bird)
70. “Voices Carry”, The Echoing Green (from In Scarlet & Vile: Special Edition)
71. “In Your Light”, Gotye (from Making Mirrors)
72. “Youth Without Youth”, Metric (from Synthetica)
73. “Other Side”, Anberlin (from Vital)
74. “Animals”, Muse (from The 2nd Law)
75. “Reunion”, M83 (from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming)
76. “Lost and Found”, Katie Herzig (from The Waking Sleep)
77. “Lies Greed Misery”, Linkin Park (from Living Things)
78. “Not Fooling Around”, Butterfly Boucher (from Butterfly Boucher)
79. “March”, Kat Maslich-Bode (from The Road of 6 EP)
80. “Better Life”, Paper Route (from The Peace of Wild Things)
81. “Cosmogony”, Björk (from Biophilia)
82. “Anthology”, Thrice (from Major/Minor)
83. “All Circles”, mewithoutYou feat. Hayley Williams (from Ten Stories)
84. “Sleeping Ute”, Grizzly Bear (from Shields)
85. “Mirrored Sea”, Passion Pit (from Gossamer)
86. “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart”, Coldplay (from Mylo Xyloto)
87. “Gaucho”, Dave Matthews Band (from Away From the World)
88. “Walking in My Sleep”, Kathryn Calder (from Bright and Vivid)
89. “20 Years”, The Civil Wars (from Barton Hollow)
90. “The Floor”, Umphrey’s McGee (from Death By Stereo)
91. “Aubergine”, mewithoutYou (from Ten Stories)
92. “The Sea Is Calling”, The Temper Trap (from The Temper Trap)
93. “Girl with the Red Balloon”, The Civil Wars (from Barton Hollow)
94. “Revenge”, The Echoing Green (from In Scarlet & Vile)
95. “Deep Space”, Eisley (from Deep Space EP)
96. “Lost in Forever”, P.O.D. (from Murdered Love)
97. “Search 4”, Umphrey’s McGee (from Death By Stereo)
98. “Touch This Light”, House of Heroes (from Cold Hard Want)
99. “Romance”, Wild Flag (from Wild Flag)
100. “Home Is a Fire”, Death Cab for Cutie (from Codes & Keys)

BEST LIVE PERFORMANCES OF 2012:

Gungor @ The Observatory, Santa Ana, CA, 3/9/2012
I knew from seeing this husband-and-wife duo open for the David Crowder Band on their final tour that the Gungors had some serious musical talent. Finally getting to see them play a full set of their own songs brought it to a whole new level, though. Their carefully and sometimes ornately scored songs about the relationship between God and man came bursting to life in a brilliantly conceived setlist that loosely followed the structure of their album Ghosts Upon the Earth, as it wove a narrative leading us from Creation, to The Fall, to the arrival of The Bride, and finally Re-Creation. It’s a similar concept to “The Four-Chapter Gospel”, for any theology geeks out there. Dramatic poetry readings segued between these chapters of the story quite nicely, and with a small string section and a bevy of different instruments being traded about on stage, the evening was a feast for the ears, the mind, and sometimes even the eyes. I’d say that the torch has now effectively been passed – with the David Crowder Band retiring this year, Gungor now gets to lead the way among Christian musicians who aim to approach the concept of “worship” in an artful and respectful way, with much deeper motivation than just racking up hit radio singles.

Paper Route @ Bootleg Theatre, Los Angeles, CA, 10/25/2012
Yep, this is the only other concert I went to all year. So, by “best live performances of 2012”, I’m really saying “the only concerts I managed to catch”. Not that this makes Paper Route anything less than a high quality live act. This was my first opportunity to see them since discovered the band’s nearly perfect debut record Absence back in 2010, and their set generously highlighted that album as well as the quite-nearly-as-excellent followup The Peace of Wild Things. The rhythmic, frenzied, heart-laid-bare sounds of their old material contrasted interestingly with the more cathartic and sometimes more spacious and melodic content of their new album, and despite a sound setup left wanting due to the band being off from the opening duties for a Switchfoot tour for the day, they poured every ounce of their energy into this one-off headlining performance, and the late weeknight audience at that Silverlake club that it seemed like the hipsters were only barely starting to discover was nothing less than enthusiastic in response. Imagine a more heartbroken, but also more prayerful MuteMath and you’ll sort of get the idea. From moments as intense as all three members drumming on different percussion instruments at once during the breakdown of “Gutter”, to lead singer J. T. Daly wandering through the sea of smartphone-wielding fans during the transcendent bridge of “Rabbit Holes”, to the surprise intimate encore of “Second Chances” played on acoustic guitar and out of tune piano in the bar’s foyer, the band seemed 110% into giving the crowd an amazing enough show to make up for not visiting the West Coast in three years. My only complaint was the absence (sorry) of “Glass Heart Hymn”, which is not just my favorite, and not just a fan favorite that the audience was absolutely screaming for when the band came back for their encore, but even a song that the entire band has highlighted in interviews as a personal favorite of theirs on the new album. Hopefully subsequent tours will rectify that one little glitch in an otherwise fantastic setlist.

MOST ANTICIPATED RECORDINGS OF 2013:

Jars of Clay
They’re still my all-time favorite band, largely because I like having no idea what to expect from them on each new album, and it’s often puzzling but thought-provoking. Having been trapped in the ambiguous space between Christian music and the mainstream for pretty much their entire career, they’ve decided to embrace that discomfort and write some challenging songs for their upcoming project, which Dan Haseltine has forewarned us in his blog might frustrate or even seem to betray some folks on the more “churchy” end of the spectrum. Personally? I can’t wait.

Sleeping at Last – Atlas
In general, I’m not a fan of modern artists abandoning the concept of the “album” and just deciding to release music piecemeal as it gets recorded. I like to have a finished body of work to listen to, that has thematic resonance and a reason for how it is all organized from beginning to end. However, despite a tight schedule, a member leaving the band and rendering SAL a solo project, and several other setbacks and distractions, Ryan O’Neal‘s Yearbook project turned out to contain some of his most diverse and thoughtfully composed work yet. So with pretty much no constraints in terms of deadlines, and a concept seemingly as wide as the universe itself, I’m excited to hear where Atlas will take him. With am artist that has as many understated moments of poetic resonance as he does, sometimes it’s better to take it all in a little bit at a time.

Mew
No More Stories… was one of my favorite “escapist” albums of 2009, with its angular guitars and its bright splashes of color, and its near-complete dismissal of what folks might commonly think makes a rock band “cool”. Lead singer Jonas Bjerre also demonstrated a flair for film scoring with the engrossing songs and instrumental tracks he strung together for the Danish film Skyscraper in 2011. Now it’s time for the band to pull all that together into one grand package designed specifically to bring me to “manly tears”.

Vampire Weekend
VW seems to be the kind of band who knows how to bang out a lot of fun, worldbeat-driven, and perhaps secretly politically-motivated songs in a hurry, creating short but sweet albums that delight in bringing disparate genres together. So it’s a bit of a surprise that their follow-up to Contra, one of my favorite records of 2010, is taking so darn long. Best to get it right rather than getting it done quickly, I guess.

KT Tunstall
Another one of my favorite albums of 2010 was Tiger Suit, which saw this Scottish singer/songwriter with a love of live looping finally realizing the full potential of the genre. It surprised me, since by that point I was starting to expect that she would drift more and more towards adult contemporary as she became more seasoned. I hope she continues to prove the opposite, emphasizing rhythm and attitude and all that good stuff over repeating the success of past singles.

Falling Up – Hours / Midnight on Earthship
Like Jars of Clay, this band has faced a problem from the get-go: They’re creative enough to buck the trends of contemporary Christian music, but they have a lot of hangers-on from that subculture who would like some lyrics that they can actually interpret for a change. They also want to rawk. I personally wouldn’t blame a band for leaving that all behind (especially considering how much they’ve grown since starting out as a post-grunge sort of band with lots of hip-hop and electronic influence), but now that they’re indie and can do whatever they want so long as the fans fund it for them via Kickstarter, they’ve decided to honor both segments of their fanbase by working on two albums at once. Hours is already in progress, with its first few songs available to subscribers and the rest to be released like chapters of a book – but personally, I think I’m more likely to respond to a full story than pieces of one, especially since I know Jessy Ribordy‘s habit of loading his songs with intertextual references and tellies stories in anachronic order. Midnight on Earthship, on the other hand, sounds like it’s intended to be much more straightforward and in line with the group’s “Christian rock” roots. I can understand the difficulty of trying to be all things to all people on a single album, and I think this approach might neatly solve a problem that’s been plaguing them for a while. So I’m cautiously optimistic about this ambitious pair of projects.

Five Iron Frenzy
Once heralded as “the thinking man’s ska band”, this wacky septet broke a lot of hearts when they called it quits in 2004. So you can imagine the rejoicing when they announced a reunion. The enthusiasm of the fanbase was clearly demonstrated on Kickstarter, where the band’s new album was fully funded within mere hours of its announcement. That album still hasn’t manifested, even though the group’s been out touring to reconnect with old fans. A lot has changed in the interim – possibly including the personal beliefs of some band members. So I’m not expecting a reprise of their classic sound (which morphed in often cartoonish ways as it was). But I am expecting to have a lot of fun, and possibly get my toes stepped on a little in the process.

Fiction Family – Fiction Family Reunion
This’ll be the first album for this side project started by Jon Foreman and Sean Watkins that will be the work of a true band, since their debut was literally made over the Internet, by the two simply trading ideas back and forth and serving as each others’ ad hoc producers. Given that the live arrangements on their 2009 tour often sounded better than the somewhat under-baked album versions, this is likely a good thing.

U2
I recently went through and re-listened to U2’s entire discography, and you know what I realized? The 2000s have actually been their weakest decade so far. I’m one of the rare fans who loves the earnestness of their 80s material and the over-the-top irony of their 90s material pretty much equally, and it feels like they spent most of the 00s trying to bridge both sides of that gap, with uncomfortably mixed results. Still, No Line on the Horizon was probably the most convincing of the three albums released during that period, and it led to the record-setting 360 Tour, which I was thrilled to actually be part of during their landmark show at the Rose Bowl in late 2009 (generously captured on DVD so that I can tell boring stories about “real rock music” to uncaring grandkids some day). I really don’t know what to expect from the band on this follow-up album that, as usual, is taking them forever to deliver. But they realized the inherent problems with Horizon, trying to be a brave new experimental direction for the band and a hit single factory all at once and not quite delivering on either promise. So I get the sense that whatever they do, at least they’re done with trying to reconcile their past personalities. We’ll always have those classic U2 albums to hold dear. Just stick with what’s on your hearts now, boys.

ARTISTS I’LL MISS:
Not a lot of bands that I was into broke up this year, but I will say that the future of my CD collection won’t be the same without…

David Crowder Band
I mentioned them in this slot last year, since they were kind enough to announce their breakup well in advance, and give us a final tour and double album that definitely delivered the goods (perhaps even too much of a good thing in the latter case). What’s weird about the aftermath of this group parting ways is that several members are continuing on as The Digital Age, who dropped an EP this year that included two re-recorded versions of DCB songs, while David Crowder appears to be planning to make new music on his own as well. If neither party has tired of making music, this makes me wonder: Were there irreconcilable creative differences that made it prudent for the band to split while they were all still friends? Is the separation going to be short-lived? Until these questions are answered, at least I’ve got two careers to follow for the price of one beloved band who helped to ensure that my perception of “worship music” will never quite be the same.

Sherwood
I had to a dig a bit to discover that this largely unknown and underrated indie pop band from San Luis Obispo had thrown in the towel. The timing of it was sad, because they’d been hinting at a follow-up to 2009’s excellent Qu for quite a while, and then it never manifested. I suppose there’s still a back catalogue left for me to explore, but there’s something about the beautiful harmonies and plaintive love songs of Qu that leaves me with an unfulfilled wish to hear how the band would have continued to mature past that point.

The Civil Wars
Admittedly I might be calling this one prematurely, since the duo hasn’t officially called it quits yet. But it’s never a good sign when a group decides they can no longer tour together due to “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition”. Now you can throw around all the rumors you want about the unresolved sexual tension inherent in so many of Joy Williams and John Paul White‘s lyrics (not to mention the too-close-for-comfort ending of their video for “Poison & Wine”), but honestly, this sounds to me like one of them decided they were getting too famous too fast and slammed on the brakes, while the other wanted to ride that elevator to the top floor. Even if they manage to continue as a recording entity, I can’t imagine how those recording sessions would go – it’s especially dangerous to think that one of them might be gunning for hit-bound country singles while the other might prefer to keep things simple and intimate, as they were on the breathtaking Barton Hollow. If a follow-up never gets recorded, I’ll be devastated; if it does and it approaches anywhere near the same level of quality, I’ll still be heartbroken at the thought of never hearing them perform any of it live. Come on, Joy and John. I know you guys can work this out and even wring some fascinating songs out of the tension.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for this year. Stay curious, my friends.

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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