By Damian Fanelli
I guess you could say this about any recent year, but 2012 often felt a lot like the late '70s.
We got high-profile studio releases by Van Halen, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Neil Young, Carlos Santana, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Rush, Kiss, Joe Walsh, Asia, Ringo Starr, Alvin Lee, Jeff Lynne and two members of The Jam, plus a live Led Zeppelin album and a pair of new songs by The Rolling Stones.
But, notwithstanding the throwback angle, it was a solid, exciting year for new music, chock full of stellar guitar music in every genre, including gypsy jazz (Check out the list below).
Anyway, here are 15 of my favorite albums of the year. Note that I kept this list to studio albums only. If I were to include a live album, Led Zeppelin's Celebration Day would be in the top five for sure. The band set out to impress that fateful night in December 2007, and that's exactly what they did.
15. Sonny Landreth — Elemental Journey
Sonny Landreth’s 11th album is his first all-instrumental effort. “From day one on the guitar, many genres of music have had an impact on me,” Landreth said. “I drew from some of those influences that I hadn’t gone to on previous albums with my vocals. Trading off the lyrics this time, I focused solely on the instrumental side and all this music poured out. Then I asked some extraordinary musicians to help me layer the tracks in hopes of inspiring a lot of imagery for the listeners.” It features guest appearances from Joe Satriani (“Gaia Tribe”) and Eric Johnson (“Passionola”).
14. Paul Gilbert — Vibrato
Paul Gilbert's Vibrato is a diverse collection of instrumentals and vocal-based tunes that sees the shredder mix rock, funk, blues, gospel and jazz. At the top of the heap are "Blue Rondo a La Turk," the Dave Brubeck classic, and "Bivalve Blues."
13. Paul Weller — Sonik Kicks
Paul Weller continues on his courageous, exploratory course, serving up a disc full of electronic sonic excursions peppered with jazz-soul-reggae grooves, backwards guitars, swathes of whining synths and other effects. Weller is, again, pushing his personal envelope.
12. Bruce Foxton — Back in the Room
Bruce Foxton, best known as the bassist for The Jam, was recorded with Jam frontman Paul Weller's assistance (at his studio, actually). It sounds like a Sound Affects-era Jam album packed with Foxton's easily identifiable bass playing.
11. Stephane Wrembel — Origins
This is a strong full-length instrumental effort by (mostly) gypsy jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel. Wrembel, who was born in France and is now based in the NJ/NYC zone, is best known for his song "Bistro Fada" from the Midnight in Paris soundtrack. There's nothing wrong with "Bistro Fada," which also appears on this album, but check out "The Edge" to see what this guy is capable of.
10. Van Halen — A Different Kind of Truth
This album features three of my favorite tracks of the year — "Tattoo," "Stay Frosty" and "She's the Woman" — not to mention a generous serving of the eternally ridiculous guitar playing of the great Eddie Van Halen. The pairing of EVH and David Lee Roth is a welcome blast from the past.
09. Band of Skulls — Sweet Sour
What sets England's Band of Skulls apart from the wrist bones, knee bones and thigh bones of modern alt rock? For me, it's their crunchy sound, sparse harmonies and super-strong melodies (not to mention videos about people who are even poorer than I am). Among the standouts are the title track, "Bruises" and "Wanderluster."
08. Neil Young & Crazy Horse — Psychedelic Pill
This is a total "guitar" album — in the Iron Butterfly sense of the term. Young leads Crazy Horse on long jams (You can watch an entire episode of Webster during the album's opener, "Driftin' Back") and tight, punchy rock that echos the tone and themes of his early work.
07. Jack White — Blunderbuss
I prefer solo Stephen Malkmus to Pavement and solo Bob Mould to Hüsker Dü. So I guess it stands to reason that I find solo Jack White more interesting than the White Stripes. I love the great-sounding guitars (including pedal steel) and the melodies that crawl into my frontal lobe and never leave (I have an exterminator coming over next Tuesday). The album shows off the many moods, the many shades, the many sides of Jack White.
06. Robert Cray Band — Nothin But Love
Cray's signature Strat tone is all over this album, but there's no beating "Blues Get Off My Shoulder" in particular. If this song were written and released in 1968, it'd be a modern blues standard by now. Of course, that sort of thing doesn't happen in 2012.
05. Great Lake Swimmers — New Wild Everywhere
Consider this my "music to listen to on Sunday mornings while putting shrink-wrap plastic on the windows to keep from freezing my ass off this winter" entry. After all, these guys are from Canada, so they know what I'm talkin' about. The title track is pure brilliance, a melange of acoustic and 12-string electric guitars — and maybe a vintage Jazzmaster or two.
04. Les Trois Accords — J'aime ta grand-mère
Yes, another entry from our friends to the north, Canada! This time we head east to Drummondville, Quebec, home of the four witty gents in Les Trois Accords. Even if you can't crack the code they're singing in (It's French), you might appreciate the sound of the album, which was recorded with vintage equipment in Brooklyn using ancient tricks borrowed from the "Street Fighting Man"-era Rolling Stones.
03. Los Straitjackets — Jet Set
These 15 or so tracks by "America's instrumentalists" offer a sampling of everything these mysterious masked marauders can do. There's wet-'n'-wild surf, a splash of reggae, a touch of spy rock and a track that recalls the fun and power of Link Wray. If you haven't seen these guys play live, you're missing a bizarre, bona-fine experience. Also, best album art of the year! (P.S.: It's nice to see guitarist Danny Amis back in action!)
02. Dinosaur Jr. — I Bet On Sky
Another throwback entry, this time from venerable Massachusetts trio Dinosaur Jr. The recipe here is simple: Take a handful of catchy melodies, liberally sprinkle in some fuzzy guitar, bass and drums, then add J Mascis' one-of-a-kind vocals. Stir occasionally. Salt and pepper to taste. Serves 11.
01. Lee Ranaldo — Between the Times and the Tides
Sonic Youth aren't around anymore (Or are they? No one is saying for sure), but 2012 gave us this fine effort by Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo with a band featuring Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Wilco's Nels Cline, who lets loose — on guitar and Kaoss Pad — on several tracks, notably "Angles.” BTW, Thurston Moore's new band, Chelsea Light Moving, also released a pair of singles in '12.
Damian Fanelli is the online managing editor at Guitar Aficionado in New York City.