Alabama Shakes -- "Boys & Girls"This is probably one of the best finds of the year!!! If you're a fan of rock, blues, and soul (whether individually or altogether), this is an album you MUST own! Lead singer Brittany Howard wails and swoons so well she leaves high suspicion that she must be the secret love child of Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant. It is debut albums like this one which make me believe there may still be some hope for the music industry today. "Boys & Girls" is one of those rare albums which I love all the way through and -- along with The Gaslight Anthem's "The '59 Sound" -- is one of the best albums of the past 10 years! I could listen to it on repeat for hours on end. Favorite track: "I Found You"
Dave Matthews Band -- "Away From The World"
With 2009's Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King and now the release of this album, Dave Matthews Band have been on a roll! Most might question if they ever hit a rough patch. Sorry to say, for me, that I'd like to forget all about 2005's Stand Up. They've finally returned the sound that carried them this far with their jam band music and poetic lyrics. Favorite track: "Broken Things"
Dr. Dog -- "Be The Void"
This band from West Grove, Pennsylvania, has released six albums prior to this one, but you still may have never heard of them. And if you haven't, I fully suggest checking out this album! Dr. Dog is sometimes described as a psychedelic rock band, however, this album finds them testing the waters with all kinds of different genres -- from alternative to folk. A nice little surprise from a relatively unknown band. Favorite track: (tie) "Lonesome" and "These Days"
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros -- "Here"
Their first album, Up From Below, had a bunch of good tracks and followed in the footsteps of bands like The Polyphonic Spree and the wonderful-albeit-unknown I'm From Barcelona. This newest album has a good number of likeable songs that you could pop on your iPod and play away. Favorite track: "That's What's Up"
Everclear -- "Invisible Stars"
Everclear has been on a rocky road. They were making Top 40 hits but after the band dissolved in 2003, leaving lead singer Art Alexakis to pick up the pieces and move on with his songwriting talent. And it made him a better musician. The original Everclear's last studio album, Slow Motion Daydream, was an unnoticeable, drecky album with songs that did not come close to the hooks they had produced earlier. Alexakis regrouped with two new band members and released 2006's Welcome to the Drama Club, a much-welcomed return to the magic that had raised Everclear to greatness. And while I like Drama Club better, this album continues Everclear's streak of good music that may still not make the Top 40, but is just as good, nonetheless. Favorite track: (tie) "Falling in a Good Way" and "I Am Better Without You"
Fun. -- "Some Nights"
Like Dr. Dog, this is another band who has a a studio album and E.P. album under their belt, but it is their sophomore release that launched them into household-name recognition. The first single, "We Are Young" (featuring Janelle Monae) debuted on FOX's Glee before most heard it on the radio. Soon after, it became a Pop-Rock Top 20 hit staple and paved the way for their album, which features songs that are just as -- if not, better -- songs. Favorite track: "Some Nights"
Stephen Lynch -- "Lion"
The Gaslight Anthem -- "Handwritten"
I have to admit that while it did make my 2010 list for "Top Albums," I still wasn't that crazy over The Gaslight Anthem's American Slang. I began to worry because 2008's The '59 Sound is everything I could dream of in an album; it's probably one of the very few albums that I absolutely love and could listen to over and over! Fortunately, the band wrote and released this album, Handwritten. While it's not as good as The '59 Sound, this album still follows close enough to warrant many repeat plays. With their fusion of pop punk, rock and alternative (think Bruce Springsteen meets Social Distortion), TGA performs with more heart and soul than most rock bands today. Favorite track: (tie) "45" and "Handwritten"
Will Hoge -- "Modern American Protest Music"
2012 being a presidential election year, this was probably one of the most important releases this past year! Will Hoge has always remained under the radar and made damn good music. This year was no different with his release Modern American Protest Music only being released as an mp3 album ... which is a shame because SO many more people should have access to this album. Hoge says he doesn't side with either major political party but simply speaks in what he believes. No agenda. No rallying. Just an American man who speaks his mind, his truth, his way of life and belief. Although the album is only a 7-song E.P., with songs like "Founding Fathers," "Folded Flag," "Times are Not Changing" (which tackles the question: Where are all of these protest singer/songwriters now? Dylan? Young? Baez? Fortunately, the answer is that Hoge himself has written a wonderful album!), and "Jesus Came to Tennessee," there's more substance here than in most double-disc albums. Many might not agree with Hoge's ideas or opinions, but it's his right to write them and sing them. Coincidentally, I agree with Hoge's music here. The lyrics are sometimes tongue-in-cheek but straight-forward and this is an album that evokes great questions of the true moral fabric of American society. Quite simply, this is one of the best written contemporary albums today and that makes it a very important album to hear. Favorite track: "Jesus Came to Tennessee"
Jukebox the Ghost -- "Safe Travels"
I really loved this Washington, D.C., band's first album, Live and Let Ghosts, but didn't pay much attention to their sophomore release. Now, this third album sure has gotten my attention! Their piano pop-rock (i.e., Ben Folds) is definitely sure to please any piano rock fan, with its hooky choruses and catchy lyrics. From blue-eyed soul to synth-tinged power ballads, this album is worth a try for anyone who likes prog and piano rock. Favorite track: "Don't Let Me Fall Behind"
Alicia Keys -- "Girl on Fire"
Each year that Alicia Keys releases a new album, it seems to make my "Top Album" list. And when you listen to her, it's easy to see why. Keys is a true musician and artist who grows with every album; it's like watching a person whom you love grow into a nice, respectable adult. Each album invokes more maturity and self-respect that is sorely needed in today's society among young women. With the songs on this album, Keys' marriage and motherhood has come to the forefront of the songs' subjects, letting her audience in on her new world that these events have opened up to her -- with the word "new" in two song titles -- and it's a welcomed topic. Keys has always had a special, unique voice and it continues here. Her hit single proclaims that "this girl is on fire!" With this album, she's damn right! Favorite track: "Tears Always Win"
Lianne La Havas -- "Is Your Love Big Enough?"
British-born Lianne La Havas' debut album, Is Your Love Big Enough?, is a R&B/soul gem! It's not just some album full of cliche lyrics and empty beats. La Havas fills her music with deeply emotional lyrics, such as in "Lost & Found," where she gently sings, "You broke me and taught me to truly hate myself." With touches of Corinne Bailey Rae, Jill Scott and Joss Stone, La Havas plugs into an enjoyable genre with her own unique songwriting and beautiful voice. Favorite track: (tie) "Forget" and "Age"
The Lumineers -- "The Lumineers"
The Lumineers sound somewhat like a mix of Ryan Adams and Arcade Fire and just the slightest touch of Bob Dylan. That was what sold me on this album! That and their upbeat piano riffs with choral shouts. If you enjoy Of Monsters and Men or Mumford & Sons, you'll enjoy this album. Favorite track: "Ho Hey"
Stephen Lynch -- "Lion"
I was not much impressed with comedian Stephen Lynch's last album 3 Balloons, but this one is awesome! The tempo is often a lot slower on this one than his previous -- and most of his -- albums, but the music is really great. And, if you don't mind Lynch's raunchy comedy, you'll actually like the melodies and harmonizing with the talented, beautiful singer-songwriter Courtney Jaye. Even though the music is mostly slower, the insults and sharp wit are still quick, relentless and just as funny as Lynch's older stuff. Favorite track: "The Night I Laid You Down"
Kendra Morris -- "Banshee"
As 2012 saw the untimely, tragic death of Amy Winehouse, nevertheless, life went on, and Florida-born Kendra Morris is the latest to bring her version of blue-eyed soul to the masses. She sounds a lot like another of my soul/R&B favorites Alice Smith, so I'm really enjoying this album. For those wanting some more 1960s/70s soul, definitely check this out! Favorite track: "Here"
Mumford & Sons -- "Babel"
British folk rock band Mumford & Sons debuted in 2009 one of the best albums (Sigh No More) to come out in the past decade! So I'm sure there was a huge amount of pressure on the band to release a sophomore album just as big and just as good. Not many bands do well with their sophomore (second) releases -- hence the term "sophomore slump" -- and it's all it takes to soon plummet them down into obscurity. Fortunately, M&S won't go down that rotten path. Their second album, Babel, is just as good as Sigh, with many stand-out tracks. They blend American folk roots rock with Springsteen, Old Crow Medicine Show and early U2. I've heard that the band "may experiment with electric guitars and synthesizers." I don't quite know how to feel about that bit of news. Just as long as it doesn't take away their original sound and quality, AND they keep the horns section (when those horns hit at the end of "I Will Wait," it's so uplifting), I'm up for it, I guess. Favorite track: "I Will Wait"
Of Monsters and Men -- "My Head is an Animal"
With undertones of Arcade Fire, The Lumineers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Icelandic indie-folk band Of Monsters and Men put out a strong, solid debut album. There should be many more great things to come from this sextet band. I've been a big fan of Iceland's Sigur Ros for quite a few years now, and it looks like the country caught me on another good band! Their harmonies, use of horns, and catchy music will stick in your head and get your feet tapping. Favorite track: "Little Talks"
Original Cast Recording -- "Once: a new musical"
I have not been lucky to see this musical on stage yet, however, the 2006 movie, Once -- with which it is based -- I've seen probably a hundred times! I love the story, LOVE the music! The actors in this recording (Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti) do a splendid job at covering the difficult footsteps laid out by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (The Swell Season). In fact, the entire cast shines with renditions and instrumental additions to the soundtrack. Although a simple story, it has lots of heart and plenty of great music. Favorite track: "Falling Slowly (reprise)"
Bruce Springsteen -- "Wrecking Ball"
Probably one of the most important albums in the election year (next to Will Hoge's Modern American Protest Music), Wrecking Ball's first half angrily speaks of the robbing, cheating and swindling that big business and the American government have done to the average American person; the second half then transitions into hope and possible salvation. Although 2009's Working on a Dream was OK, it was not nearly as good as 2007's Magic or this album! Springsteen continues to do what he does best: write songs that are not simply good and fun to listen to, but also morally and spiritually educate and enhance. Favorite track: "Death to My Hometown"
Frank Turner -- "Last Minutes & Lost Evenings"
I was introduced to Frank Turner by mutual writing acquaintance this past year by listening to his 2011 album England Keep My Bones. Wow! This guy impresses with only a couple of songs -- let alone an entire album! Turner perfectly melds folk, punk, country and rock all into one tour de force. This album is somewhat of a greatest hits package with a few b-sides and previously unreleased tracks to sweeten the pot. If you're looking for something new and good, check him out! Favorite track: (tie) "I Still Believe" and "The Ballad of Me & My Friends"
The Vaccines -- "Come of Age"
The Vaccines' second studio album, Come of Age, had a lot of high expectations. With the wonderful album What Did You Expect from The Vaccines?, no one could blame them. This time around, though, the punk pop rock band keeps their Ventures and Safaris echoing guitar sound and introduces some more ballad-type of songs. However, I'm still all for their rollicking, rocking numbers. This album is not as good as their debut, but it's enjoyable just the same. Favorite track: "Teenage Icon"
Various Artists -- "Les Miserables Soundtrack (Highlights)"
A lot of diehard fans of the original Broadway musical were awfully skeptical about the actors singing and interpretations of a musical they have loved and adored for years. And I was one of those same fans. However, let me put this to rest right now. The film version is just as good as the Broadway musical. There are pros and cons to the cinematic version. One pro is also a con in that the singers can really emote better with their voices and faces, making the film seem more real; however, their voices sometimes go a bit too soft -- although it is a very minor occurrence. Another con is Russell Crowe's singing voice as Inspector Javert. Now, I know his songs are extremely difficult to sing, and Crowe does have a singing background, but his voice just didn't "wow" me like the others did. Still, he did OK. Samantha Barks as Eponine (one of my favorite characters) was fantastic and really honed the character she'd been playing since 2010 on Westminster's Queen's Theatre. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the villainous Thenardiers did OK, but they just couldn't hold a candle to Alun Armstrong and Jenny Galloway's performances. Hugh Jackman retains his theatrical chops as Jean Valjean and has the power to both sing and heavily emote, making you believe he is the tortured, reformed man of God; also, I loved that director Tom Hooper cast the original (to me) Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, as the Bishop. But the heavy hitter here -- the Academy Award-winning performance -- is that of Anne Hathaway. If you've ever read my blog or heard me talk of her, you know I'm not the biggest fan of hers. Then, The Dark Knight Rises came out and I had to admit she did pretty well. Now, with that plus this performance, I'm eating crow. She was spectacular. Her performance while singing "I Dreamed a Dream" was the best acting -- and, at the same time, singing -- I've seen in a very long time. There's a moment in the song where she's about to hit a high note and you see her convulsing, almost hyperventilating, and think she won't hit that note. But she does. And the fact that all of the actors sang live on set lets you know that she's got talent. If she doesn't get some kind of major award for this role, then awards will be useless. A great musical and a great movie. The musical is all here (in the film) in its entirety -- singing and all! (Slight note: the only lines cut in the film is at the beginning of "Beggars at the Feast"; I guess the filmmakers wanted to be more politically correct, so they cut out the verse that contains: "Here comes a prince/There goes a Jew/This one's a queer/But what can you do?") Favorite track: (tie) "I Dreamed a Dream" and "On My Own"
Various Artists -- "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World Soundtrack"
I saw this movie and really liked it even though it was depressing. Nevertheless, a beautiful movie. One of the most effective elements of the film was its soundtrack. It is a nice mix of different genres and plays well with the film. From The Beach Boys to INXS to P.M. Dawn to Wang Chung to The Walker Brothers, this soundtrack has got every style you could like. Favorite track: "This Guy's in Love With You (Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass)"
Nick Waterhouse -- "Time's All Gone"
This guy released an EP album last year and it got such good attention that he was able to put out a full-length album, Time's All Gone. I'd like to think of Nick Waterhouse as somewhat of a modern-day Buddy Holly. Not that his music sounds completely like Holly's, but that he's writing and recording the kind of music that Holly himself would be writing and recording today if he were alive. His 1950s guitar rock echoes and hisses and reverberates with all the style of a Dick Dale tune. He also carries enough soul and '50s R&B to play for Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. If you're ever feeling like listening to music that influenced most of the music you like now, listen to Waterhouse. Favorite track: "Some Place"