By Henry Lipput
Why only five? you may ask. Well, there are two reasons. One is financial. In the past when I was more, as you might say, “flush,” I was able to buy as many as 30 new CDs over the course of a year. But things have changed and for the past few years I’ve been only buying about ten new ones (showing enormous restraint on my part). The second reason is that even with 30 albums to choose from it was always difficult to pick the second five in order to make up a Top 10. So I decided to only make a top-notch Top 5 list. Plus Rob Gordon in the film “High Fidelity” only had Top 5 lists and that‘s good enough for me.
Just one more thing before we get to the list. I’ve made a rule for myself that all albums on my Top 5 not only had to be released in 2012 but that I listened to them in 2012. That leaves out a terrific album that I only heard this month (January 2013) and unfortunately won’t be mentioned in this column. But I will be writing about it next month. You’ll also see albums on this list that I might not review during the course of the year but they’re CDs that I really like and I thought you might want to take a chance with them.
So, without further ado, here are my top 5 albums of 2012, in descending order:
1. Aimee Mann, Charmer. This is the best album Aimee Mann has released in a couple of years. The songs are really good and so are the performances, especially by Mann who sounds really engaged. The production is clean and the music jumps right out at you. In an interview with Tavis Smiley, Mann said she wanted the album to sound like something from the 70s and it does — you can hear it on the RAM mono vinyl that Paul McCartney released this year for the first time. Mann has always been a literate songwriter and the new album is full of great lines and situations — in “Labrador” she compares her relationship with a friend to that of an owner and a pet. Highlights: “Charmer,” “Labrador,” and “Crazytown.”
2. Stars, The North. This Canadian band has also released its best album in a few years. Their last two albums were 2007’s The Bedroom After The War, which I liked most of, and 2010’s The Five Ghosts, which, despite multiple listens I felt was something of a holding pattern. But The North is a return to form for this five-piece. I really like the vocal give-and-take of the band’s two singers: Torquil Campbell and Amy Milan. On this disc Torquil sounds better than ever and takes lead on most of the songs. Like Britain’s The Beautiful South, Stars writes songs that have serious lyrics on top of pretty melodies.. And they’re great with ballads, too. Two of my favorite songs on the new album, “The North” and “The 400” are great examples of this. Highlights: “The North,” “Lights Changing Color,” and “The 400.”
3. Craig Finn, Clear Heart, Full Eyes. Finn is the lead singer for the NYC-based The Hold Steady. I’ve read a lot about that band and bought a CD a couple of years ago but they didn’t do it for me. Clear Heart, Full Eyes is another matter. The songs are serious and deal with broken people and broken relationships sung in a voice that has lived — or at least knew the people who lived — these stories. The band that was put together for this disc is tight but loose at the same time (it appears such a thing is possible — sort of like the late-period Replacements) and is the perfect complement to Finn’s tales. It’s an adult album. Highlights: “New Friend Jesus,” “Rented Room,” and “Balcony.”
4. The xx, Coexist. This is the second album from a three-piece from Britain. Their first album was also a favorite the year it came out — its dark presentation with minimal instrumentation was moody and sexy. Coexist is much the same but is more assured. The band took their time in putting together the new disc and, if anything, have seemed to have stripped down there sound even more. It‘s chilling but also moving. In the songs, the two vocalists seem to be playing the former lovers they were in real life, singing past each other and letting the other know of their wants, needs, and regrets. One of my favorite songs is “Tides” which begins with an acappella vocal and it took my breath away the first time I heard it. A terrific song and terrific arrangement. Highlights: “Angels,” “Sunset,” and “Tides.”
5. Paul McCartney, Kisses On The Bottom. This album is McCartney’s tribute to the songs he heard his family sing at gatherings as he was growing up. It’s also a tribute to the singers who sung these standards in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. In fact, the album was recorded in Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, where legends like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole also recorded. McCartney was offered the use of the same microphone used by Nat King Cole and he, of course, accepted. Backing McCartney is Diana Krall and her band, giving the songs a light jazzy sound. McCartney sounds wonderful and wrote two new songs for this album, one of which, “My Valentine,” may become a new standard. Highlights: “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter, ”Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive,” and “My Valentine.”
Henry Lipput is a writer living in the Pittsburgh, PA, area. He has written for a telefundraising company, defense contractors, and engineering companies. He has also written freelance articles on specialty advertising, health care, small businesses, and general interest topics for both national and local publications, including CD reviews for the late, lamented Pittsburgh Boomers..