Rock radio struggled.
Arena rock shows were fewer and farther between and didn’t always attract expected numbers.
Record sales, across the board, were down, but the guys and girls with guitars were hit particularly hard. On paper, it didn’t appear 2012 would be a good year to rock.
But rock, by its nature, is unpredictable. It doesn’t play by rules and rebels against expectations given half a chance. So, despite the threat of tours tanking and acts settling for sales in the thousands rather than millions, rock seems to have revived itself.
Every act on my Top 10 list this year has some roots in rock. Some might be less obvious than others, but each understands the appeal of a well-struck power chord. Check ’em out.
10. Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet On Sky: The mighty Dinosaur has released a few records since reuniting several years ago, and they have been good. The songwriting is strong and performances professional. But they haven’t always felt essential. I Bet On Sky finds this classic underground trio churning out a set of songs that are propulsive and exciting in a way that feels an awful lot like the band’s legendary late ’80s output.
9. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls: This band’s debut album puts Muscle Shoals soul and sultry Southern rock through a filter of punk passion. The result is a record that insists on being listened to as loudly as possible. There should also probably be an occasional shimmy as well.
8. Death Grips – No Love Deep Web: Defining this duo’s music as a rap-rock hybrid means taking the easy way out. Though there are certainly elements of both in this confrontational act’s aggressive sound, what elevates it as art is the surprising song structures, the complete lack of compromise and its ability to distill the ethos of true rock rebellion into short, sharp slabs of sound.
7. Titus Andronicus – Local Business: There’s nothing complicated about this band. It is a rock band. It plays rock songs. But there’s beauty in that simplicity, particularly when the songs are as smart and infectious as these. This record is often compared to mid-career Replacements releases. That’s both fair and high praise. I concur.
6. Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man in the Universe: A true soul survivor, Bobby Womack, at 68, has outlived most of his contemporaries. That doesn’t mean he’s run out of things to talk about. This year he teamed up with Blur’s Damon Albarn to record and release a set of songs that focus on the unique timbre and texture of this master’s voice.
5. Jack White – Blunderbuss: Detractors often accuse the former White Stripe of being little more than a revivalist. That’s unfair. Though White’s solo debut does feel like a stroll through his record collection, his taste is so good and his ability to cherry pick what it is about a certain song or style that really engages an audience is so strong that you can’t fault him. A true American original.
4. Bob Mould – Silver Age: This record would have rated higher if Mould, some 30 years into his career, didn’t make putting a three-piece through its melodic-rock paces seem so easy. The easy comparison here is Sugar’s Copper Blue – another Mould project – but that might be unfair. What he has done is find a way to take his signature sound and make if feel fresh once again. That’s art.
3. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange: I had no idea I was waiting for an indie rock hip-hop neo-soul champagne jam R&B epic. I don’t think anyone did. Ocean proved to each and every one of us that we were. This is a record we’ll all be talking about for the rest of our lives.
2. Gary Clark Jr. – Blak and Blu: Clark doesn’t play guitar. He transcends it. It makes it speak and sing in the same way Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend and his obvious hero Stevie Ray Vaughn did. Stylistically Blak and Blu covers a lot of ground, but it’s all held together by Clark’s otherworldly guitar attack and release. One of the greats.
1. Japandroids – Celebration Rock: Listen casually and this record will be an exceptional example of punk-inspired indie rock. Listen carefully and it becomes an astonishing assemblage of unexpected twists and turns that confound the rigid strictures of rock music. Celebration Rock isn’t about composition. It’s about deconstructing and rebuilding, about finding, some 60 years into its history, a new way for rock to survive and thrive.