Relive The Summer With New Releases
Issue   |   Wed, 09/19/2012 - 01:05
Image courtesy of baroness.bandcamp.com
"Baroness"

The summer of 2012 was a shockingly good few months for rock music, or at least I thought it was when I began compiling which albums stuck with me from this summer. I still stand by that assessment, to a degree, especially when it comes to long-established acts absent until they suddenly decided to kick themselves back into shape after years of painfully drawn-out new-release schedules. Maybe they got tired of classic rock radio playing the same few songs over and over (I know I have), or maybe they had a bone to pick with today’s more popular rock artists (after all, it’s been 11 years since a rock song topped the Billboard top 200 and shamefully, that position was occupied by Nickelback). Though last year was a banner year for newer guitar-based bands, with strong releases by The Fleet Foxes, Mastodon, My Morning Jacket, the Black Keys and TV on the Radio, 2012 was hardly lacking in quality material.

After looking back and thinking on previous years, 2012 wasn’t really any different; good music is always coming out, and you just have to look a bit harder to find some of it. Depending on your tastes (mine should be apparent) and the relative stability of the type of music receiving the heaviest airplay and advertisement over the past 10 years, it may be easy to bemoan a lack of good new music while being unaware of great artists, new and old, still hard at work producing strong material. And with that, here are some of my favorite albums released this summer, many of which I didn’t even know were to be released. And no, they aren’t all rock albums (although rock encompasses such a huge variety of music), and I don’t include more popular albums such as Frank Ocean’s neo-soul revival “Channel Orange.” I tried to stay away from albums that I feel like everyone has already heard of, for the purposes of having a dissenting voice.

Baroness: “Yellow and Green”
Like fellow Georgia sludge band Mastodon on last year’s “The Hunter,” Baroness softens things up on their third album, “Yellow and Green.” They expand on the pastoral folky psychedelia experimented with on 2009’s “Blue” while still maintaining the metallic crunch that marks them as one of the best hard rock bands of the decade. Heavier numbers such as the stellar “March to the Sea,” “Take my Bones Away,” and “The Line Between” pick up the volume (and the pace), but many of these songs seldom rise above a whisper, the contrast between the two being the album’s real masterstroke. The haunting standout track, “Eula,” has a gorgeous melody and is my pick for the best song of 2012 by any artist, but this expansive, moody album is really more suited to listening from beginning to end, and it only gets better each successive run. With “Yellow and Green,” Baroness continue to stake their claim as one of the best metal bands working today.

The Cult: “Choice of Weapon”

One of a number of strong comebacks (quality-wise, if not necessarily in sales) from bands who have flown largely under-the-radar since their 80s heydays, this intense album rocks hard and well but thankfully strays away from some of the meat-headedness that this sort of rock music has proven all-too-willing to embrace. Frontman Ian Astbury still sings like he’s got something to prove, and there’s a renewed passion and fire on rocking songs such as “Lucifer” and the churning “The Wolf,” which balance out nicely with quieter, moodier numbers such as the slowly building curiosity “Elemental Light,” which sounds anthemic yet apocalyptic, and the pain-and-anguish drenched “Wilderness Now.” The Cult’s early goth-alt sensibilities make a surprise reappearance on many of these songs, leading to a shockingly effective balance of jangly mystery and straightforward intensity.

ZZ Top: “La Futura”

The little old band from Texas has proven resilient over the years, holding the record for longest continuous run without any membership changes, having been composed of the same three players since their inception in 1969. After a dearth of studio albums since 2003, August’s “La Futura,” brings them back in fine style. A step away from the commercialized, overly-slick 80’s material that brought the band newfound popular appeal, this takes them largely back to their 70’s heyday, going between cheeky, slinking jams and dark, hard-edged 70s blues. Highlights include the first single “I Gotsta Get Paid” (a cover of a rap song, a first for the band), the groovy “Tush”-like blues of “Chartreuse,” the Motorhead-country of “Consumption” and the soulful, bitter “It’s Too Easy Mañana.” With roots-rock bands like The Black Keys being all the rage today, it’s nice to see these elder statesmen of rock stepping in to show audiences how it’s done.

Calexico: “Algiers”

One of the less-advertised releases of the summer, “Algiers” is an amalgamation of folk, jazz, Americana, indie rock and Ennio Morricone-styled theatrics, but it blends all of these disparate elements together into a sum greater than its parts. Dance influences combine with lightly-plucked Spanish guitar on songs such as “Sinner in the Sea” and “No te Vayas,” while listening to “Puerto” and the instrumental “Algiers” brings up images of a blood-and-sun-soaked quest for vengeance in the Old West. The album accomplishes what few can in that it doesn’t sacrifice variety (even approximating a folkier mid-90s Radiohead on “Para” and “Epic”) but manages to maintain a cohesive vision throughout, with every song sounding like a perfect fit for a long lost Western classic.

Smashing Pumpkins “Oceania”

The Smashing Pumpkins ostensibly justified their continued existence in 2007 with “Zeitgeist,” a mediocre affair salvaged by a few very good songs. Frontman Billy Corgan’s ego aside, “Oceania” is where the band really asserts itself as an artistic force to be reckoned with in the 21st century. As part of their ongoing “Teargarden by Kaleidoscope” project (the best song of which is still its first, the awesome “Song for a Son”), these 13 tracks are consistently strong and often very good, if not necessarily great. Shimmering pop-rockers such as “Pinwheels,” folksy ballads like “The Celestials,” scorching rockers like the musically fantastic “Panopticon” and the righteously rocking if somewhat lyrically clumsy “Quasar” combine to remind us what made the Smashing Pumpkins so special in the first place. There’s no “Cherub Rock” here, but this is still a fine return to form from a band that’s been gone for too long.

Nas: “Life is Good”

I can’t think of a single rap artist in history who has been at the top of their game for as long as Nas has. With another strong album under his belt, it’s easy to justify this entry. “Life is Good” sees Nas retaining the intensity that made him a star in the first place while also falling comfortably into place with his middle-age, something too many musicians seem unable to do. This is most apparent on the achingly personal lead single “Daughters,” which details Nas’ feelings about parenthood and the things he wishes he could have done better with his life. Neo-soul influences are much more common on this album than on his earlier material, and thus gives it a slightly more poppy overall sound, but Nas’ vocal delivery still retains its edge, just with an increased maturity and confidence, even as he picks his own brain just as much as questions society as a whole. Here, Nas paints a portrait of a man who has come to terms with his own flaws, and listening to him explore his life and how he’s gotten to where he is today is both enlightening and entertaining.

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