Complete 2012 End-of-Year List

A very personal take on the best of 2012′s new music

2012 Albums of the Year – Part One

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when everyone who fancies themselves as a music critic lists the records that have defined their year.

The usual disclaimers apply, of course. They’re selected from the albums of 2012 that I’ve actually had the chance to hear over the course of the year. It’s also a personal list of albums that have made an impression on me rather than any attempt to declare them the “best” of the year, whatever that might mean. Which is why there are very obscure independent releases alongside heavily-promoted major-label albums.

My self-imposed rules exclude both live albums and studio restatements of past material, although Steve Hackett’s “Genesis Revisited II” and Heather Findlay’s “Songs From The Old Kitchen” deserve mention.

It was going to be a top 20, but once I’d got my list finalised someone went and released a record in the middle of December that really deserved to be on the list. So now it’s a top 21. I’ve given up trying to rank all 21 album in any kind of order, and have gone for grouping them under Good, Great, Superb and Legendary, the last being my album of the year.

So here are the ten Good albums, which form numbers 21 to 12 in the list, ordered alphabetically.

Joe BonamassaDriving Towards The Daylight

Excellent album of guitar-shredding blues-rock from one of the most exciting guitar players of his generation, with electrifying takes on blues standards from the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon alongside a handful of original numbers. Yes, the ever-prolific Bonamassa can probably turn out albums like this in his sleep, but that’s just a measure of his talent.

DelainWe Are The Others

A seamless blend of in-your-face metal riffs and chart-friendly pop choruses, featuring the remarkable vocals of Charlotte Wessels, all of which makes it more of a mystery why a major label sat on this record for months before releasing it. If only daytime radio wasn’t afraid of big-sounding guitars.

EnslavedRiitiir

Symphonically-dense wall-of-sound metal which mixes moments of brutal heaviness with a surprising amount of melody. There’s plenty of death-metal growling, but there are also passages that prove how well metal riffs and Gregorian chants go together.

It BitesMap Of The Past

The 80s pop-prog veterans reformed a few years back, with the talented John Mitchell at the helm.  Although the latest album doesn’t quite top 2008′s “The Tall Ships”, it’s still an impressive work that combines emotionally-rich songwriting with all the widdly soloing you could possibly want.

Mermaid KissAnother Country

A move away from the symphonic prog-rock of their previous album “Etarlis”, with a beautiful semi-acoustic record with touches of Americana and gospel. Not many bands have Cor Anglais as a principle lead instrument.

Sankara Guided By Degrees CD ArtworkSankaraGuided By Degrees

An impressive melodic hard rock début from former members of The Bluehorses and The Reasoning. It’s a rich, multilayered record in which Gareth Jones’s excellent vocal performance proves he’s more than capable fronting his own band.

Shadow Of The Sun – Monument

Former Reasoning guitarist Dylan Thompson returns with some prog-tinged hard rock/metal with guitars that go up to Eleven. A record that’s only been out a few days and I’ve only given a handful of listens. But that’s enough convince me it belongs on this list.

Howard SinclairThe Delicious Company of Freaks

Lyric-driven semi-acoustic balladry from the Bristol-based singer-songwriter who supported Panic Room on their November tour. Some memorable songs, with one high point being the spellbinding “These Dark Hills” sung as a duet with Panic Room’s Anne-Marie Helder.

SquackettA Life Within A Day

Two of the most distinctive instrumentalists in the prog-rock world combine their talents for a polished and song-focussed album. At times this collaboration sounds like Steve Hackett with a different bassist, at times it’s Yes with different guitars and vocals. “The Tall Ships” with it’s bass groove and soaring vocal harmonies is a particular highlight.

"I fireball the gazebo"Winter in EdenEchoes of Betrayal

With a great vocalist in Vicky Johnson, the Durham-based band prove if the songwriting is good enough it’s possible to do female-fronted symphonic metal without needing the choirs, orchestras and kitchen sinks of the more extravagant European bands.

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2012 Albums of the Year – Part Two

Continuing the end-of-year list, these six are the year’s Great releases. Again, though they represent nos 11 down to 6, I haven’t attempted to rank them in order, and have just listed them alphabetically. It says something about the quality of this year’s releases in that any of these would have been top-3 contenders in many other years.

AnathemaWeather Systems

With their intense and atmospheric sound, it’s hard to imagine that Anathema started out as a death-metal band. It has a lot in common with 2010′s “We’re Here Because We’re Here”, and like that it’s best experienced as a single piece of music that builds in emotionally intensity as the album proceeds. Anathema are precisely the sort of band who deserve wider mainstream recognition.

GojiraL’Enfant Sauvage

The strongest modern-style metal release I’ve heard all year. This release by the French technical metallers is the sort of thing that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. It’s a monstrously heavy and unrelenting piledriver of a record that sounds like something out of the twenty-first century rather than anything out of the 1970s or 1980s.

MarillionSounds That Can’t Be Made

Thirty years into their career, at a stage where most bands have long since burned out and turned into their own tribute acts, Marillion prove that they’ve still got something to say in their own inimitable style. It’s an album of lengthy epics, with three songs extending past the 10-minute mark, and yet again Steve Rothery’s fantastic less-is-more guitar playing demonstrates why he’s one of the best guitarists in the business.

Morpheus RisingLet The Sleeper Awake

Classy old-school twin-guitar hard rock with echoes of NWOBHM bands like Iron Maiden and Diamond Head without ever sounding like a derivative pastiche. It contains some very strong songwriting combined with great guitar harmonies and tight arrangements. It’s all unashamedly retro, but none the worse for it. If they’d been around in 1981, they’d have been huge.

Muse 2nd LawMuseThe 2nd Law

This is the one big mainstream stadium-rock act in this list. With their mix of rock, metal, glam, funk, opera and God knows what else, they put it all in a blender resulting in prog-rock with a pop sensibility. It’s all completely and gloriously over the top, of course, and they steal shamelessly from many other bands and somehow manage to get away with it in a way that Oasis didn’t. But that’s precisely what’s great about Muse.

Storm Corrosions/t

One of the most “out there” releases of 2012, the collaboration between Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson and Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt sees them take off into uncharted territory, eschewing the expected prog-metal in favour of dark and sinister semi-acoustic soundscapes. A clearly experimental record, the result sounds like a cross between “Simon and Garfunkle on magic mushrooms” and the soundtrack of a 1970s horror film shot in grainy back-and-white.

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2012 Albums of the Year – Part Three

Counting down from Five to Two, we get to the year’s Superb releases. In many previous years any of these might have been a strong candidate for my album of the year. Indeed, the previous album by one of these bands was my album of that year, even though the album listed below is the stronger album. That’s how good a year it’s been. Again, the order is simply alphabetical; these albums are so good it’s next to impossible to rank them into any kind of order.

Big Big TrainEnglish Electric Part One

With music reminiscent of “Wind and Wuthering” era Genesis with hints of Barclay James Harvest and Gentle Giant and lyrics about the industrial revolution, this is a quintessentially English record steeped in the nation’s history and landscapes. With varied instrumentation including strings and brass, it transcends obvious influences and evokes the spirit of 70s pastoral progressive rock far more strongly than any 80s style neo-prog band can hope to.

Mostly AutumnThe Ghost Moon Orchestra

Olivia Sparnenn finds her voice on her second studio album since taking over as the band’s lead vocalist, and makes her mark with some soaring leads that make it clear just why she was shortlisted for the gig with Nightwish. With their signature guitar-driven celtic-tinged classic rock on one side, and a more modern symphonic metal feel on the other, the result is a strong record with one foot in the past and one in the future. It delivers a powerful riposte to those who wrote the band off a couple of years ago.

RiverseaOut Of The Ancient World

Years in the making, the collaboration between singer-songwriter Marc Atkinson and keyboard player Brendan Eyre along with an all-star cast of guest musicians resulted in one of the progressive rock surprises of the year. Marc Atkinson’s emotive vocals recall Marillion’s Steve Hogarth and the keyboard-led arrangements range from simple piano accompaniments to moments of heavy symphonic rock. An album that proved to be well worth the wait.

Stolen EarthA Far Cry From Home

The band that grew out of the short-lived final incarnation of Breathing Space get off to a very strong start with their début album. The combination of Heidi Widdop’s soulful vocals and Adam Dawson’s effects-laden guitar gives a rich sound based around big wall-of-sound rock ballads. There’s a hint of early Mostly Autumn in the Floydian atmospherics, especially with Heidi’s low whistle, but this is a band with their own sound and their own identity. It will be very interesting to see how they progress from here.

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2012 – A few more records of note

I decided to restrict my best-of-2012 list to full-length studio albums of new material with a 2012 retail release date. But there are a few great records that fall outside that definition, and would be difficult to place in any kind of ranking. But they’re all too good not to give a mention, so here they are.

The Heather Findlay BandSongs From The Old Kitchen

A delightful album of acoustic reworkings of Heather’s songs from Mostly Autumn, Odin Dragonfly and more recent solo work, with the band featuring the now-departed Dave Kilminster and Steve Vantsis. The organic chilled-out arrangements are a very good match for the natural warmth of her voice, making this perhaps the best record she’s made since going solo.

KarnatakaNew Light, Live in Concert

Live album (also an excellent DVD) capturing the band on their first tour with new vocalist Hayley Griffiths, fronting the short-lived six-piece lineup with multi-instrumentalist Colin Mold, whose violin playing enhanced the Celtic side of their music. Aside from Hayley’s imaginative re-interpretation of old favourites, this record is also a showcase for Enrico Pinna’s phenomenal guitar playing.

Crimson Sky - DawnCrimson SkyDawn

Excellent four-track EP from the new lineup of Crimson Sky with Jane Setter and Moray McDonald, with two brand new songs and two reworked older numbers. As with their previous work, it’s an intriguing blend of progressive rock and 80s-style new-wave, and benefits from a far more polished production than earlier recordings.

Twelfth Night Live and Let Live - Album CoverTwelfth NightLive and Let Live

The classic and long out-of-print single LP-length album from the seminal 80s neo-proggers, reissued and expanded into a two-hour double-CD capturing the entire two-hour show, which must have been a painstaking labour-of-love to put together.

Rob CottinghamCaptain Blue

One of those records where the pre-orders shipped in December, although the retail release isn’t until the new year There will be a full review of this forthcoming, but let’s just say this is a good one. Will it make the 2013 end-of-year list? Time will tell on that…

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2012 Album of the Year

And finally we get to the album of the year. I can’t really imagine this one’s going to be much of a surprise for most regular readers – I’ve written about this album a lot over the past year, and even interviewed the band for Trebuchet Magazine.

Panic RoomSKIN

In a year that’s seen the release of many great albums, there is still one that manages to stand out, and that’s the third album by Swansea’s Panic Room.

Their 2008 début was the sound of five supremely talented musicians searching for a new collective musical direction. The second was the sound of a band with a clear vision of what they wanted to be. With SKIN, they’ve consolidated that vision and taken it to another level. With the combination of Anne-Marie Helder’s award-winning vocals, and the amazing vituosity of the band, the result is a an ambitious cinematic work that defies simplistic genre pigeonholing. It’s a hugely varied record, with songs ranging from shimmering jazz and heartfelt stripped-down ballads to hard rock numbers that sound like Kate Bush fronting Led Zeppelin.

For years, Panic Room have been one of the British rock scene’s best-kept secrets. With “Skin”, their strongest and most assured album to date, they’ve delivered a record that deserves to be heard by a far wider audience.

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