This is the last best-of list for 2012. Many year-end surveys are tallied well before the year is done. I prefer to go the distance – some of my best rock action this year came in December – then let the reflections marinate, to see what sticks. This is not everything that mattered to me in 2012 – the year was too good for that. These are reasons why I still write about music for a living, and listen to it for my life.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood: Big Moon Ritual (Silver Arrow); The Magic Door (Silver Arrow); Irving Plaza, 11/9/12
One of my favorite bands of 2012 just went on hiatus. Robinson's other group, the Black Crowes, recently announced a spring tour. But the singer's acid-country Brotherhood, with ex-Ryan Adams guitarist Neal Casal, were a sublime time onstage and across these two albums, recorded at the same sessions and issued six months apart. The Irving Plaza show was a characteristic live high. In the second set, Robinson steered out of a rattling "Tough Mama," from Bob Dylan's Planet Waves, into the long reverie "Girl on the Mountain," a song from an earlier side trip, New Earth Mud, given fresh air and a new coat of DayGlo paint.
Green Day: "99 Revolutions," from Tré (Reprise)
Billie Joe Armstrong's public meltdown in September got more column inches than Uno, Dos and Tré combined. They deserved better, especially the rage, pop and sense of "99 Revolutions," written in the aftermath of Occupy Oakland. A week before he ran off the rails in Las Vegas, Armstrong finished Green Day's New York album-release gig at Irving Plaza with this incendiary device. It was the 40th song of the set, but he sang it with a face and voice alight with sustained fury and faith. I prefer to remember the end of his year this way.
The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream, Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, New York 12/20/12
Somehow, the band that Rolling Stone called "the Blackest White Group of All" in a 1970 cover story has become one of the most forgotten acts in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This show, produced and directed by Steven Van Zandt, incorporated archival footage and new interviews that explained how a New Jersey band of white Italians became one of the biggest soul bands of the Sixties. The real shock of memory came in the 30 songs, most of them hits, played by the reunited, original lineup, and how much of their soul was intact, especially in the voices of Eddie Brigati and organist Felix Cavaliere. The deep-catalog highlight: the Byrds-with-Jersey-attitude jangle of "Find Somebody" from 1967's Groovin'.
The Sufis: Sufis (Ample Play); The Paperhead: The Paperhead Focus in on the Looking Glass (Ample Play)
The Sufis' full-length debut is so authentically psychedelic it sounds like a newly excavated rarity from the English '67 and '68 of Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow. The Sufis are actually a young trio from Nashville whose acid-kissed mimicry comes with an extended reach into the droning minimalism of the Velvet Underground and Faust's tape manipulation. The Paperhead are kindred spirits, also from Nashville. This album, their second, was first released in 2010 – on cassette by a label run by the siblings in Jeff the Brotherhood. I got this LP version at the same time as the Sufis' record – double the trip in one shot.
Efterklang: Piramida (4 A.D.), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 9/22/12
This Danish ethereal-pop trio named its album after an abandoned Arctic mining colony where the group made field recordings that were sampled and embedded in the record's sumptuous melancholy. Efterklang gave Piramida's live New York premiere with the city's Wordless Music Orchestra, down the hall from the ghosts that haunt the Met's collection of Egyptian treasures. The afterglow: Scott Walker (evoked by singer Caspar Clausen's torch-song pathos) fronting the Roxy Music of Avalon, with more push and lift. The reason for that: Efterklang's surprise guest drummer, Budgie from Siouxsie and the Banshees.
The Best of Young Britain: Savages and Palma Violets
Last October in London, at a taping of the BBC TV show, Later With Jools Holland, I saw Eighties post-punk come back with refreshed vengeance when Savages, a female quartet, lit into the slash and caustic, chanting chorus of "Husbands" from their live EP, I Am Here (Pop Noire). A full set at Glasslands in Brooklyn during CMJ confirmed that power and frenzy across enough songs for a promising debut album, due this year.
On that trip, I also got "Best of Friends" (Rough Trade), the purple-vinyl splash of Britain's latest "Best New Band," Palma Violets. For once, the buzz is right. The quartet makes a loosely-tuned-guitar and jungle-thump racket with real hooks poking through the exuberance. There's a long streak of the Libertines in there but without the self-conscious (and prophetic) darkness. I caught Palma Violets' New York debut at Glasslands on January 23rd, and they were as much fun as the single, with more tunes.
Tom Jones: "Evil" (Third Man)
I'm not kidding. Before his volcanic baritone leveled Vegas, Jones was an authentic R&B belter in his native Wales. This 45 cover of a Willie Dixon song, originally cut in 1954 by Howlin' Wolf, is more in Jones' natural line, produced as big-band blues vioience by Jack White. Jones and White don't just stick to the scripture. The rhythm jumps into Bo Diddley spasms and, at one point, Jones veers into a roaring chunk of the Doors' "Wild Child." If Jones ever plays this live for his usual crowds, the women may think twice about throwing their hotel-room keys.
Royal Southern Brotherhood: Louisiana Music Factory, New Orleans, 4/26/12
My first set during last year's Jazz Fest was free music at the city's best record store. Royal Southern Brotherhood is a band of notable breeding and heavy-Dixie intent; the quintet includes singer-guitarist Devon Allman (son of Gregg), singer-percussionist Cyril Neville (of those brothers) and drummer Yonrico Scott, formerly with Derek Trucks. That day, they played songs from a record I hadn't heard yet – their debut, Royal Southern Brotherhood (Ruf) – but stayed with long after, especially the swamp-Stones opener "New Horizons" and a version of the Grateful Dead's "Fire on the Mountain," reset in iridescent bayou waters.
Lee Ranaldo: Between the Times and the Tides (Matador); live at Rolling Stone, July, 2012
The Sonic Youth singer-guitarist performed four songs from his solo album in our web studio, with a quartet including Ranaldo's Youth mate, drummer Steve Shelley. It was a loud, intimate shot of a record that I keep returning to, for its New-York-Crazy-Horse clatter and the songs' plaintive-Sixties grip. Of special note, in that set and on the record: "Xtina as I Knew Her," an extended memoir that suggests Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" with more tears in the storm.
The Rolling Stones: "Midnight Rambler," Barclays Center, Brooklyn, 12/8/12
This was the only "Midnight Rambler," during the Stones' 50th anniversary run, without early-Seventies guitarist Mick Taylor. But it was an ideal way to hear the native strengths of this perversely enduring band: the matured menace in Mick Jagger's singing; the barking-dog tangle of Keith Richards and Ron Wood's guitars; the tense deep breaths between Charlie Watts's cannon-drum shots in the slow-motion stretch. I expected them to come out punching. This was a new welcome height in vicious.
Phish: second set, Madison Square Garden, New York 12/28/12
Six songs, 81 minutes: On the opening night of Phish's Garden run-up to New Year's Eve, the second half was all about the new level of playing and communion – "this beautiful thing" on "a huge rolling sea" – that guitarist Trey Anastasio talked about in our interviews three months earlier. Then, for a second encore, Phish covered "Good Times, Bad Times," a perfect end note to my year in Led Zeppelin (Celebration Day, the Rolling Stone interview with Jimmy Page). Is it any wonder why I love my work?