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Entries in Cheek Mountain Thief (1)


2012: the records of the year

It was a year in which a lot of old campaigners gave a good account of themselves. In addition to those listed below, the likes of Van Morrison, John Cale, Dexys, Dr John, Kris Kristofferson and (at least in parts) Bob Dylan all made decent records with fresh ideas and little sign of the autopilot taking charge. So, a bit of a challenge for younger folk to cut through and grab their share of turntable time – but, as we'll see, some of them most definitely did...

My list for 2012 looks like this:

10. Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas. I wrote about this at length here when it first came out. I can't claim that I've played it a lot in recent months, but I remain deeply impressed. A master at work, still with engaging things to say.

9. Michael ChapmanPachyderm. A second volume of improvised instrumental music from this extraordinary guitarist. Minimal, restrained, repetitive, essentially one chord for 24 minutes (my wife just came in and asked 'is it stuck?'). But also - I would say - hypnotic and rather wonderful, like ripples on the surface of a limpid pool. Side two is a remix with some electronics added, and may be even better.

8.Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill. This was never going to win any converts, but if you're already a fan of the special noise that Neil and the Horse make together, this album is like sinking into a warm bath: inimitable guitar playing on and on against an irresistible rhythm section. The lyrics range between the casually weird ('gonna get me a hip hop haircut' etc in 'Driftin' Back'), to the spare and beautifully observed (his portrait of an aging couple in 'Ramada Inn'), to the frankly bathetic ('For The Love Of Man'). But Neil is not a reflector or an editor and we've learnt over the years to go with the flow and relish the ragged as well as the glorious. (A busy year for him and the Horse with Americana also released: this straight-faced collection of cranked-up folk chestnuts has its longeurs, but a lot of it is excellent – 'Oh Susannah' in particular.)

7. Cheek Mountain Thief, Cheek Mountain Thief. An intriguing and inventive album that repays repeated listening. Mike Lindsay, the frontman from Tunng, has relocated to Iceland and recorded there with a range of local musicians. Some densely layered arrangements, featuring credits for everything from marimbas to 'Space Echo Guitar and Vintage Noise', all wedded to the sense of fun and feel for a twisted hookline that Tunng aficionados will recognise and relish.

6. Hiss Golden Messenger, Poor Moon. HGM were one of the year's best discoveries for me, via the compilation which follows in this list. I have no idea where the band name comes from but the shifting mix of players Michael Taylor and Scott Hirsch put together do some lovely things. Lush and lovely Americana, nicely played and sung, with some edgy turns ('Jesus Shot Me In The Head' anyone?). They also put out a fine out-takes set recently, Lord I Love The Rain, ahead of their next 'proper' album due next spring.

5. Various Artists, Oh Michael, Look What You've Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman. The best tribute albums avoid an over-reverential approach to the material, fit together as an integrated listening experience and introduce you to some people you haven't heard before. Oh Michael... fits that bill perfectly, with an extraordinary mix of performers bringing their own distinctive styles to Chapman's strong but underexposed songs. Hiss Golden Messenger's 'Fennario' is one stand-out and this set also sent me out to learn more of Meg Baird and Black Twig Pickers, seeing both play great shows in Brighton this year. Other contributors include Thurston Moore and Lucinda Williams, both in fine voice here, as are the excellent Two Wings...

4. Two Wings, Love's Spring. ...who also put out a brilliant record of their own this year. I've already put them in my 'gigs of the year' list and the record has the added benefits of fuller arrangements, including brass, and a beautiful Hanna Tuulikki sleeve. It is a strikingly confident and assured debut, with strong ensemble playing and soaring harmonies and vocal swoops which repeatedly raise hairs on your neck.

3. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball. Less prominent in others' end-of-year lists than I would have expected, given Bruce's towering presence as the greatest big-stage performer, and one of the few rock performers with something coherent and interesting to say about the state of the world. I would say this bears comparison with anything he's released in the last 30 years, striking in its musical range and obvious passion. Not perfect, of course, as I noted here, but not many could hold their own against this.

2. Patti Smith, Banga. But Patti certainly can. A comparable self-belief and open-hearted commitment to her work; a comparable joy in communion with her audience - it would surprise some who can't see past her self-conscious reverence for her intellectual forebears to share the passion and pleasure she brings to a sing-a-long 'People Have The Power' in concert. Patti is another writer who doesn't always take time to amend and refine her lyrics and there are some clumsy lines here (particularly on 'April Fool' and 'This Is The Girl'). But she is in better voice than ever, the musicianship and arrangements are superb, and the best songs ('Amerigo', 'Banga', 'Constantine's Dream') are spine-tingling.

 1. Wussy, Buckeye. Regular readers will no doubt think I have raved enough about Wussy already, but, having discovered them seven years into their career, there has been a lot to catch up with and be impressed by. Buckeye, their first release in the UK, is the ideal place to start, bringing together some of the strongest songs in their oeuvre, from 2005's  Funeral Dress to 2012's Strawberry. In practice, I haven't been playing Buckeye itself all that much, having gone back and got all its predecessors... but a release that features the two very best songs I heard for the first time this year – 'Airborne' and 'Motorcycle' – has to be a strong contender for the top slot. And when the latest songs, like 'Grand Champion Steer' and 'Asteroids', are so good it's clear that 'Best of 2012' is an entirely reasonable conclusion. Brain, power, passion; thrashed guitars and yearning harmonies; a fascinating creative dynamic between the two singer-songwriters – what more could the discerning rock fan of a certain age look for?

So, those are my favourites. A final mention for Can's The Lost Tapes as clear winner of the archive release of the year: a beautifully packaged 3 CD set packed full of excavated treasures. I felt much like when first listening to Dylan's Bootleg Series Vols 1-3: if this was the only release of theirs to survive, you'd still be entirely clear that you were in the presence of real talent and significance...

I've said before that I haven't bought enough singles this year to have a proper best list. Dylan's 'Duquesne Whistle' would probably be at #3, with Wussy's fine take on 'Breakfast In Bed' at #2. But the 7" which has given me the most pleasure this year is Art Is Hard Record's Family Portrait split EP, featuring Gum's irresistible 'Cherryade'.