My annual ambivalence about year-end lists raises its head, along with the list itself.
[Updated] I hadn't planned to do a year-end best-of list for a host of reasons. I'm not a list person, and that's not how I think. I know people, sites and magazines that do Top 50 lists, and I couldn't imagine how or why you'd try do decide if Album A is number 42 and Album B is number 43. I'm also not sure what the use is of year-end lists. When there was still a record industry and a merely ridiculous number of albums came out of it, you could triangulate between a number of lists and get a sense of the three or four albums you missed on the year that you ought to know about. Now, with an astronomical number of releases, lists seem less valuable. Looking at Pitchfork's contributors' lists alone, I can't see what I needed to know other than the albums by Frank Orange, Kendrick Lamar, Japandroids and Fiona Apple, but if you need a year-end list to tell you about four of the most acclaimed albums of the year, you slept through 2012.
That said, when Southsounds Review asked me for a year-end list from New Orleans, I agreed. Partly, I wanted to support a cool new project. Southsounds Review is a site that aggregates music writing from websites (including My Spilt Milk) across the South, so there is now a one-stop for coverage of city-based scenes from New Orleans to Nashville. Putting a list on that site might help expose local artists to broader audiences, so I went with it.
Since I'm running the list there, I might as well run it here. The page at SSR has Soundcloud files or other audio to accompany each of the albums, I'll direct your attention there for its optimum presentation. This list comes with a number of caveats starting with the way it's dominated by releases from the front half of the year. I don't feel like that's a terrible thing because New Orleans artists tend to put out a lot of major releases in time for Mardi Gras, French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest, but since I left OffBeat, I don't hear as many local releases as I used to. For that reason, I'm not as solid on albums from the second half of the year.
Even when I was at the magazine, there were many artists who didn't send in music, and they're not sending it to me now. Indie and rock were always sketchy in their efforts to court media attention, and the hip-hop community has rarely actively sought mainstream or alternative press coverage. Its coverage has relied on people who were connected to the community or active fans who sought the music out. My list this year is more or less hip-hop-free (depending on how you think of Gypsyphonic Disko) for the first time in a few years, and I suspect that has more to do with me and my time than the quality of hip-hop right now.
I also have qualms about assessing "the best" considering how hard it is to separate music I think is good from music I simply like - if that separation can be honestly made. There are some albums that are so up my alley that I may overrate them simply because they do everything I love. In those cases, I've tried to check myself. Similarly, there are people who may be very talented in genres where only the masters speak to me. I tend to value clear, distinctive artistic visions, so those who work largely in the vocabulary of their genres - the blues spring to mind - are always going to be on an uphill road with me.
To come up with my list, I've relied on memory, working from the assumption that the best albums make an impression on you. Since writing the list and turning it in, I realized that I left out Chef Menteur's East of the Sun & West of the Moon and Curren$y's The Stoned Immaculate, both of which I really enjoyed. I attribute their omissions to the possibility that both may have become so familiar that they blend into my mental landscape. Curren$y's one of the artists I've enjoyed most in the last few years, but since he established a very clear sound and aesthetic, The Stoned Immaculate didn't distinguish itself in the way that Pilot Talk, Weekend at Burnie's and some of his mixtapes did. Chef Menteur's sprawling space rock two-album set is lovely, ominous, powerful and smart, and it's something I listen to when writing. It provides the theme music for the My Spilt Milk podcasts, and it was part of my entire year, whereas most of the albums on my list were part of distinct moments - albums that I heard, thought about, digested and moved on from. Though The Stoned Immaculate and East of the Sun & West of the Moon aren't on the list I sent to Southsounds Review, they should be thought of as among the year's best, and they deserve your attention.
Obviously, I consider this list tentative. This isn't in any order because I'd resequence it every few days, as my reconsideration of Curren$y and Chef Menteur suggests. I also didn't go for any particularly number other than the number of albums that stuck out in my memory.
Dr. John - Locked Down (Nonesuch): The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach deserves credit for getting vocals out of Dr. John that I thought were a decade or more in his past, and for helping him re-find the psychedelic weirdness that made the Dr. John persona powerful in the first place.
Lost Bayou Ramblers - Mammoth Waltz (Bayou Perdu): I may overrate this album, but I don't overrate the band right now. They developed a version of Cajun music for now, one that rock and pounds and is often noisy in ways that are deeply resonant with its traditions.
Jon Cleary - Occapella (FHQ): Cleary's tribute to Allen Toussaint throws out the obvious starting place - the piano - and many of the obvious songs, and instead created compelling grooves on his own and drew attention to Toussaint's true gift - melodies.
The Hot 8 Brass Band - The Life & Times of ... (Tru Thoughts): I may value this album over The Soul Rebels' excellent Unlock Your Mind because that album came out at the start of the year, while this late 2012 release is fresh with me. Whatever, the band sounds so loose that the grooves threaten to come apart but don't. I also love their version of "Bingo Bango" by Basement Jaxx, picking up Galactic's thread and translating an electronic salsa into a New Orleans street idiom. I have to admit, though, that the cover and video for their version of The Specials' "Ghost Town" almost makes me want to take them out of this list. In 2012, New Orleans isn't about to become a ghost town, and images of flooding without context is irresponsible, particularly at this late date.
Hurray for the Riff Raff - Look Out Mama (Born to Win): With this album, Alynda Lee Segarra and company found their artistic voice. Where she once sounded enervated by life, she now sounds fully engaged in their version of Americana, finding and testing nuances of meaning in conventional and unconventional lines.
Alex McMurray - I Will Never Be Alone in This Land (Threadhead): Threadhead Records has helped artists record before they were musically ready, but the fan-sourced label has done the world a service by finding the funding for Alex McMurray to get recordings into the world. He is working at a high, brave level right now, as authoritative in grim quietness as he is in raucous, high-spirited cacaphony. His music taps effortlessly into most of the sounds heard on Frenchmen Street these days, but the results are unified and very much his.
Theresa Andersson - Street Parade (Basin Street): Hummingbird, Go! was a breakthrough for Andersson as she found her musical self in looped, manipulated instruments and the sympathetic lyrics of Jessica Faust. On Street Parade, she applied herself to weightier subject matter, illuminating the unsettled moment of being between states. It doesn't seem like it has received the love that Hummingbird, Go! did, but for me it's the greater artistic statement. The first album invented a tool; the follow-up used it.
Christian Scott - Christian aTunde Adjuah (Concord): Another album I may overrate, but I really admire Scott's musical ambition (a two-CD set), his vision (a jazz/rock hybrid that is tense, terse and contemporary) and his ability to create and develop a mood that borders on an atmosphere on this album. His playing is often gestural, but cogent musical thoughts emerge from seeming wisps of musical smoke.
Empress Hotel - Heavy Halo (Independent): Empress Hotel opened for Van Hunt and played Jazz Fest - two shows that stayed with me all year. The band made both sets compelling with a hint of soul with a ton of pop and rock smarts. Heavy Halo continually surprises with hooks that come from unpredictable places and stay with you beyond the album's playing time.
Luke Winslow-King with Esther Rose - The Coming Tide (Independent): This album earned Winslow-King a contract with Bloodshot Records, which will re-release it in March. I'm often suspicious that retro acts go for vintage wardrobes and sounds to mask musical or artistic deficiences, but Winslow-King makes pre-war blues sound personal, as if the form was made to talk about his life and concerns in 2012.
Valparaiso Men's Chorus: The Straits of St. Claude (Independent): Another Alex McMurray project, and one that taps into the theme of community that I hear on I Will Never Be Alone in This Land, but in a more obvious way. His solo album features him in musical partnership with a slew of musical friends in a variety of lineups to explore the city's music; on The Straits of St. Claude, they're all together on every track bellowing sea shanties at the top of their lungs. The album could easily have sounded like a party that the listener wasn't invited to, but it doesn't, largely because McMurray and company remembered that it has to be music first.
Gypsyphonic Disko - NOLAphonic, Vol. 2 (mixtape): Ben Ellman and Quickie Mart's Balkan/bounce remix project seemed less novel and more adventurous this time around. Their affection for both sounds is obvious, and they have the chops to make the music fly on its own terms.
Updated 3:42 p.m.
The writing of the piece was too raggedy to let stand as first published. The ideas haven't changed, but most of the obvious rough spots have been addressed. There may be more.
Updated January 4, 11:18 a.m.
I had the title of Dr. John's album wrong and have corrected it.