Ubiquitous End of Year Best Of List, 2012 Edition

Yes, it’s that time of year again. And since I’ve had a very leisurely holiday, which included a trip back to my home state of Pennsylvania, I’m late posting this list. I’m sure most lists have favorite films, books and TV shows, but I’ve been so busy as a student that I haven’t absorbed much in the way of culture and content outside of music. And so, the 2012 list is music, music, music.


RUNNER UP: I’ve been a fan of Bettye LaVette for a few years now. I learned about her from a few music blogs, then saw clips of her majestic Kennedy Center Honors performance and an appearance on Austin City Limits.

Her albums have had great tunes on them, mostly remakes – a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” stands out – but in some cases on the previous albums, the song choices kind of blurred into each other. This was especially true of her British songbook CD.

Her new album, “Thoughtful and Thankful,” is perfect from beginning to end.

LaVette also reworks an old song, “Dirty Old Town,” written by Ewen MacColl (who, in addition to being the famed songwriter of songs like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,”, is also the father of the late Kirsty MacColl).

In any other year, “Thankful and Thoughtful” would have been my number one, for its amazing songs and the way LaVette lays bare her emotions on every track. But one album featured an even more transcendent performance.

NUMBER ONE: My number one choice has been a constant on my playlists since I first fell in love with her music in 1989 and 1990. Songs like “Troy” were the soundtrack of my college days. And in 1990, she took a Prince-penned song – “Nothing Compares 2 U” – and made it her own.

I’ve followed Sinead O’Connor’s music since, and though she’s had several great albums since – “Faith and Courage,” “Theology,” – but her 2012 album, “How About I Be Me (And You Be You)” is every bit as amazing as her initial music. The themes of her music – faith, love and the loss of love, and her own struggles with mental illness – make this my favorite album of the year. In a year of pop tarts and Autotune, O’Connor’s authenticity is like a cool drink of water in the desert for me.


A number of other songs caught my ears:

Aimee Mann: I love Mann’s music, and on several new songs from “Charmer,” she injected some different sounds and a lot of levity.

I also liked “Labrador”, “Crazytown,” and “Living A Lie.” Check them out.

Miguel Migs: I’ve gone down the electronica/chill tracks road, and one of the new songs released this year that I loved came from an album produced and compiled by notable DJ Miguel Migs. This Me’shell Ndegeocello collaboration is among my favorites.

Frank Ocean: He’s on every Top 2012 list invented, and for good reason. Though I didn’t love every song on his debut album, there are several amazing tracks. And for his first public performance to be as arresting and amazing as this one? We’ll be seeing much, much more of him. Again, a true treat of unique talent and authenticity in a cesspool of corporate copycats.

Gossip: Every time The Gossip puts out music, they land on my list – and my playlist!

The Cherry Thing: I can’t wait for a new Neneh Cherry solo CD – rumored to be coming out in 2013 – but her vocals floating over the moody jazz/electronica of The Thing made for some fun beats.

Creative common sense: the value of creative work

There have been some really vivid debates happening recently centering around artists and how they are compensated for their work.

Much of the focus was a blog post by David Lowery, the leader of bands Cracker and Camper van Beethoven and an advocate for musicians. His blog The Tricordist published an excellent post yesterday as a response to an NPR intern admitting on air that of the 11,000 songs she’d downloaded, she paid for almost none of them.

I talked about this here back in January and it’s a debate that’s been raging for a decade or so now since the advent of Napster. It also seems to be primarily generational, as younger music fans simply don’t see paying for music as a necessity.

What musicians have to rely on when people don’t honor their work.

I see obvious parallels between musicians and journalists. Ironically, the NPR intern – ostensibly a journalism or broadcasting major – will soon be in a job market where paying jobs have shrunk and the few opportunities open are often internships.

The TV stations and newspapers in Chicago don’t think it’s economically wise to hire a newbie out of college, and much of their remaining budgets go to on-air talent or production needs. So those fact checkers, graphics editors and admins? All interns, all free.

In other words, Emily the NPR intern will soon be experiencing the same thing the musicians she’s downloaded have: working without compensation.

I have 13,000 tracks in my iTunes and have paid for 99% of them. Some may have been “ripped” from physical CDs but at some juncture, I paid for them. I have a small, tiny sliver of unpaid tracks that in most cases, were unavailable in any format or out of print.

Maybe this is the hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn old man coming out in me, but it IS increasingly a moral issue to me. If people don’t understand that they are stealing, then we have a serious issue.

How would most hourly employees feel if, at the end of two weeks of work, your company simply didn’t pay you for your work? We’d have riots in the street.

Why is that unacceptable for “most of us” but OK for artists, musicians and writers?

Another recent content related controversy surrounds the cartoonist Matthew Inman, better known as The Oatmeal, and a conflict he’s had with the team that runs the Web site FunnyJunk.

FunnyJunk appears to be a site where users upload content – any humor-based content they want. Inman found several hundred of his works uploaded to FJ without any attribution as to who created them.

I won’t fully recount the blow by blow here – it’s just too odd and bizarre to believe – but instead of honoring Inman’s intellectual property claims, FunnyJunk’s lawyers sued him for compensation, claiming they had been slandered.

Or in simpler terms: An artist was expected to comply with the free, uncompensated use of his work.

Sound familiar?

To me, these issues underscore how we see work in this country, what we see as valid work (often only white collar work is valued), and how we compensate people for their time and efforts.


Music Monday: Voices

Music has always been an addiction of mine, and I listen to artists from almost every genre and from every decade.

I’ve always been drawn to artists who had unique voices. Some people love the perfection that a vocal acrobat like, say, Celine Dion provides. But I like hearing an artist’s story in their voice – or at least glimmers of their personality.

Musicians (like bloggers, politicians and…well, everyone) are all WAY more interesting and compelling to me when they speak in their true voice.

Like Nina Simone. Nina’s unusually deep and husky voice is one of a kind. (The closest comparison I could make to a contemporary artist is Cee Lo Green.)

Then there’s Marianne Faithfull, one of my favorite artists. Her voice tells as strong of a story as any of her lyrics do.

Here’s Marianne in 1965, when she first came into the public eye, with “As Tears Go By”.

Marianne’s life after that song was filled with a lot of darkness and a lot of challenges – as well as enough heroin and hard drugs to sustain the GDP of an entire country. THIS is Marianne today – an astonishing difference.

I’ve just discovered an amazing artist named Bettye LaVette. She’s a well known soul/blues singer who in 1965 (the same year Marianne Faithfull’s first single came out) released her song “Let Me Down Easy.”

Her voice already had some edges to it even then, but it’s definitely changed with age. In 2008 she brought the house down at the Kennedy Center Honors singing a cover of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” What she does with this song is amazing.

There are some interesting and quirky voices coming through today’s music as well: Bjork, Joanna Newsom, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists to name just a few.

Whose voice really speaks to you?