It wasn't until I started counting that I realized how few new albums I bought this year, and how many albums of old stuff I bought. Shouldn't have been surprising, considering the amount of time I spent on the 50th Anniversary Music Project for my parents. Here are the new ones I enjoyed the most:
1. Magic, Bruce Springsteen. By this late date, everyone has made up their mind about Bruce Springsteen, so it's not as if anything I write about Magic is going to change anyone's mind. But that doesn't stop me from saying that this is one of his best; certainly his best in twenty years and maybe since Born in the U.S.A. In retrospect, the Seeger Sessions album and tour really loosened him up; the game he aims for here is just as big as it was with The Rising and Devils and Dust, but Magic tops both of those albums on the strength of its music. And if there was still such a thing as American Top 40, "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" would probably have been the biggest hit he's ever had.
2. Neon Bible, Arcade Fire. As befitting my age and my caution in buying new bands I've never heard, I was really late to the party with Arcade Fire. I still haven't heard anything of theirs beyond Neon Bible, but based on the strength and depth of this album, this is a band that will be around for a long, long time. Here they sound like Springsteen; there they sound a bit like U2 with some Joy Division or New Order thrown in; and over there they sound like something you recognize, but at the same time unlike anything you've ever heard before. "Intervention" may just be the song of the year.
3. Kala, M.I.A. Perhaps not for everyone, but as I wrote earlier this year, "the best part of it is that it just sounds exciting – music that you want to tell someone about, in the hope that they’ll give it a listen, and find something that speaks to them. "
4. Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley. Yeah, I know that many long-time devotees of the band hate this album. They're wrong.
5. Raising Sand, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. You'd have to look really hard for a more unlikely pairing, but the real auteur of this one may be T. Bone Burnett, who found just the right songs and created just the right arrangements to turn this into a mix that in the end was at least equal to the sum of its parts. Some of the selections are almost painfully slow, but throughout there is a sense of tension that makes you believe that much more is at stake than just another payday for two bonafide legends.
6. Revival, John Fogerty. Speaking of legends, I have no qualms at all saying that Revival is, by far, the best work he's done since Creedence Clearwater Revival broke up back in 1972. Fogerty is pissed about a lot of things, and while his political songs may not be subtle, they're effective. The old growl is back, and the backing band (driven by the great Kenny Aronoff on drums) is up to the task. Welcome home, John.
7. Challengers, New Pornographers. I still can't quite put my finger on why I like this band so much; art-rock never much appealed to me and that's what this sounds like more than anything else. But with hooks - and lots of them.
8 (tie). Children Running Through, Patty Griffin and West, Lucinda Williams. Both Patty and Lucinda have albums in their past that are so magnificent (1000 Kisses and Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, respectively) that it's taken me a while to get used to the fact that they're never going to reach those heights again. Which doesn't mean that they won't continue coming up with good, solid stuff. These albums are their best since their masterpieces - Griffin's arrangements are simple enough to allow the strength of the songwriting to shine through, and Hal Willner's production for Williams apparently challenged her to tone down the drawl and sell the songs.
10. Dylanesque, Bryan Ferry. Odd, but effective. And it grows on you.
Other good stuff: White Stripes' Icky Thump, Ben Harper's Lifeline, Prince's Planet Earth, Ryan Adams' Easy Tiger.
Subjects for further research: Neil Young's Chrome Dreams II, PJ Harvey's White Chalk, neither of which I've been able to give the time to fully consider within the breadth of their previous work.
Didn't live up to the hype: Eagles' Long Road Back to Eden, although a solid single album could have been created using its best songs.