For reasons of a deeply personal nature—okay, there was a divorce, and then a health scare—I’m running behind in my assessment of the past year. So I should have a better idea of 2012’s top discs sometime toward the end of February, but for now here are 10 that I’ve enjoyed a lot, listed alphabetically. And, yes, I’m feeling much better now. Thanks for asking!
With Josh “Deakin” Dibb back onboard, the Animal boys drift closer to prog rock than they have in the past, but with no loss of energy, imagination, or noisy high spirits.
The Living Record
There’s no need to go over the heartbreaking facts behind this brave and hopeful third effort from local songwriter Christa Couture. One listen should be enough to convince you that after enduring what no sentient being should have to endure, she’s found her feet through the healing and consoling medium of song.
Crescendo in Duke
Strangely, the left-field surprise of the year is shocking because of its relative conservatism. Crescendo in Duke finds French pianist Benoît Delbecq mining the more obscure corners of the Duke Ellington songbook—sometimes with an all-star band of his avant-garde cronies and sometimes with Prince’s Minneapolis-based drummer and horn section. It’s all kinds of awesome.
The band is named for an obscure and ugly mushroom, but its music is beautiful—although complex and perplexing too. Devastates reveals itself slowly, with songwriters Emi Honda and Jordan McKenzie packing multiple layers of meaning into their postapocalyptic folk-noir soundscapes.
Her Eyes Illuminate
There were no doubt better records of Arabic music made this year, but we haven’t heard them. Still, nobody’s done a finer job of fusing Middle Eastern sounds with way-out East Van improv than oud player Gordon Grdina. This exciting all-star package has more kick than a pound of harissa.
François Houle 5+1
His penchant for disassembling his clarinet while playing aside, Vancouver resident François Houle is not quite the squeaky-barky noisemaker he’s sometimes made out to be. Beautifully recorded and featuring an exceptional transatlantic band, Genera concentrates on his more melodic side. It’s not exactly sweet, but it’s certainly soulful.
Icebreaker with BJ Cole
Even without the IMAX visuals, Icebreaker’s live rendition of Brian Eno’s studio ode to space travel is the loveliest chill-out disc of the year. British pedal-steel master BJ Cole more than does justice to Daniel Lanois’s original role, adding extra silk to this very luscious sonic tapestry.
Mairi Morrison & Alasdair Roberts
The cheery singer and the haunted songwriter team up for an album of mostly traditional numbers from Scotland’s Western Isles. Mairi Morrison helps tone down Alasdair Roberts’s habitual (though addictive) gloom in favour of quirky and occasionally quite surreal good humour.
Black Eye Galaxy
If you can get past its Christian undertones and blues-rock roots, Swedish-born New Orleans resident Anders Osborne’s finest record to date is an emotionally honest document of survival and recovery. The former junkie sounds bruised but never beaten, while his out-there guitar explosions suggest that he’s still reaching for the stars.
Who’s Feeling Young Now?
With the instrumentation of a classic bluegrass quintet, the pristine acoustic interplay of a great string quartet, and the eclectic flair of the Brooklyn hipsters they are, the Punch Brothers upend all forms of categorization.