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Top Ten New Albums of 2012

2012's best new studio albums from artists of the '50s, '60s, and '70s

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Strength and adaptability are the hallmarks of any survivor, and that went double for the artists of the first golden age of rock and soul in 2012. A dwindling breed, they found themselves spokesmen for a passion lacking for many fans of roots and Americana music, even as they celebrated their own continued existence. Any of these ten discs are a good way to appreciate the oldies artists we still have with us, but also to introduce others to their impressive legacies. Take a listen!

1. "Locked Down," Dr. John

Lots of folks love the Night Tripper, but it was still a pleasant shock to experience him as the greatest comeback story of the year, returning to the music scene with an album more potent and modern, yet more reflective of his persona, than any in decades. Working with the Black Keys -- fresh off their El Camino triumph -- the good doctor successfully transplanted his hoodoo into a indie-soul hybrid that sounds as fresh as tomorrow while leaving his gospel and blues roots intact. It's not the Meters, but it's not another album of Cole Porter standards, either. Somehow, Dr. John found a way to transcribe his NOLA vibe into hip Grammy gold. Which also bodes very well for his still-recovering homeland.

2. "The Bravest Man in the Universe," Bobby Womack

It was only a chance phone call from Damon Albarn of Blur that rescued this soul legend from his own musical indifference. But having helped Bobby Womack discover his muse again, Damon has crafted a slick yet airy post-Winehouse sort of lounge soul for him to rattle around in. This means Bobby occasionally sounds like a random element in the mix, but this is still pure Womack, a vocal rumination deeper than almost anyone alive, with an appropriately weary yet unbroken voice still up to the task. You may well wonder what the hell Lana Del Rey is doing here, but the sheer emotional depth of songs like the title track are enough to obliterate any reservations. Bobby may be emblematic of a more emotionally honest era, but he's not going out like an artifact.
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3. "Thankful N' Thoughtful," Bettye LaVette

Tom Waits, Neil Young, Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town," and a title track torn from Sly Stone's descent into junkie lethargy There's a Riot Goin' On? In the hands of any lesser talent, this song selection might well be an epic downer. But LaVette sang soul for 40 years before getting noticed, and she's still in the process of exploring not only her popularity but her newfound identity. She's finally made a connection that leaves her just as the title indicates, and while Norah Jones producer Craig Street keeps things as mellow as you might imagine, he also hits that Detroit-via-Memphis soul connection perfectly. The Black Keys ("I'm Not the One") and lesser Dylan ("Everything is Broken") get more than they probably deserve from Bettye, but even an instant classic like Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" sounds like it's finally been freed. A textbook example of experience trouncing affectation.
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4. "Spirit in the Room," Tom Jones

Tom Jones has picked a lot of panties up off the stage in his career, first as a '60s pop phenom and then as an 80's icon of campy cool. But this album is a real surprise, for it showcases a part of his personality that's rarely been explored -- if you've ever wondered why his vocal style was over the top, Stranger in the Room reveals that it was the Lord speaking through him. Maybe not spiritually, but definitely as a muse, the kind of pipes you get growing up listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson. Although not all of the songs are religious, they're all plenty emotionally deep; recording them live in a studio with a small band, no overdubs, was a genius move that brings out some of the realest performances of his career.
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5. "Long Wave," Jeff Lynne

A tribute to the lush pop ballads he grew up with, this former ELO leader's second solo album, coming two decades after his first, ironically sounds more like his old band than anything since disco died. With those trademark stacked harmonies, clean arrangements, and occasional glissandos, Lynne finds himself in everything from Charles Aznavour to the Everly Brothers, and while he throws in a few sharp curves (Chuck Berry, Don Covay), it's the impossibly beautiful love songs that still serve him best. There's very little orchestra here, metaphorically or otherwise, but the melodies are still somehow writ large -- and are decidedly less sterile than his later Wilburyesque productions.

6. "Bish Bosch," Scott Walker

The most insane move in a solo career defined by them, this former Walker Brother's latest album is a bizarre end to a bizarre trilogy, a double-length avant-garde masterpiece. Which is another way of saying that few outside his cult will get into this dense, abstract, musique-concrete jazz, even if Walker is floating over the top while going on and on about farting and boiling owls and Roman numerals and God only knows what else. It's fascinating, but it also seems designed to alienate those not endlessly in thrall to Scott's still-arresting voice. The music's barely ground in any sort of formal structure at all: it's like John Zorn making Metal Machine Music in a gold lame suit. Enjoy. Or beware.
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7. "Sunken Condos," Donald Fagen

His voice has lost a lot of its trademark juice -- the backup vocalists do a lot of the heavy lifting -- but Donald Fagen's still produced one of the liveliest albums since his 1982 solo debut The Nightfly. The last we heard from the former, louder half of Steely Dan was in 2006, when he supposedly completed the trilogy that Nightfly began with his album Morph the Cat. And yet, this feels like the real sequel, musically if not lyrically, mainly because the funky blues arrangements are livelier than the mid-70s Dan peak, and his songwriting is also back to being sharp as a tack, as on the Dan reunion Two Against Nature. The result is like filtering the cynicism of Pretzel Logic through a very light funk groove, and if you know anything about Steely Dan, groove, looseness, and a light touch are everything in their world.
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8. "Unfinished Business," Wanda Jackson

The year's most aptly-named oldies release finds the Fujiyama Mama, having attempted a Jack White-engineered comeback that made her look more like Jack himself than the Queen of Rockabilly, returning with a straight-up country album engineered by the son of Steve Earle and, as such, trading in her fiery persona to showcase her way with country pathos. (Mostly.) These carefully selected golden oldies and honky-tonk weepers flatter Wanda Jackson's voice more than they do her image, but even at 75, the voice is what matters most. Few surviving bar room queens can wring so much drama out of a simple situation.

9. "Born to Sing: No Plan B," Van Morrison

If you thought that Van embarking on a tour to celebrate his masterpiece Astral Weeks and then recording his latest, umpteenth comeback in his hometown of Belfast -- for the first time! -- would signal a significant change in his muse's direction, no, sorry. His burnished growl still sounds great, but after all this time, the edges are rounded off, leaving it a language unto itself; most of his late-period jazz moves are gone, too. What's left is a sort of a His Band and the Street Choir with the heat turned down to a simmer. The lyrics are more cynical, focused on one of Morrison's pet peeves: the moneygrubbing inherent in the music business. Van, however, is finally the old master he always wanted to be; there are no more surprises, but he remains a force of nature. Is getting out with his integrity and passion intact enough? Yes.
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10. "The Promise," Mitch Ryder

Producer Don Was, on the other hand, knows better than to try and recapture Mitch Ryder in full garage glory half a century after "Devil With a Blue Dress On." And Ryder's voice, perhaps due to all that screaming and shouting, is now shaky in an old bluesman's way, like B.B. King's. "The Promise," however, trades on the full weight of its subject's experience -- battles fought, hard lessons learned. Don wisely sticks to classic R&B and blues sounds, but there's still a lot of garage in Mitch's blood, especially on the harder numbers. A mostly regional musician who never had more than two hits but whose legacy stretches out far beyond Detroit, Ryder was never given his due by the rock press; thanks to Was and Mitch's new, quieter and more thoughtful approach, he may still yet.
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