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I don’t normally succumb to making “best of” lists, although I’ll confess to an almost pathological inability to not look at such lists whenever I encounter them. Once upon a time — all right, when I was in college — the most exciting part of December for me was reviewing “best albums” lists from the likes of The Onion, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. It was an opportunity for me to look up all of the music that I had missed over the course of the year, tracking down relatively obscure albums and singles at local record stores, in the pre-iTunes / digital music store nirvana of a decade ago. It was through these lists that I encountered the likes of Belle & Sebastian, Clem Snide, Spoon, and other great bands who have since rotated in and out of my regular playlists.

Work being what it has been over the past few years, I find myself falling more and more behind the curve on new releases. I’m not pretending that the following list of albums represents the most cutting edge work on the pop / rock music scene, and if rap / hip-hop is missing from this list, it isn’t because I don’t appreciate the genre, but rather because my musical tastes run towards rock and techno under most circumstances. Some of these artists are timeless, some are new — in any case, these are the five albums that kept pulling me back in for another listen, the ones that gave me a reason to put the headphones on, sit back, and just listen to what was going on.

Blak and Blu, Gary Clark Jr.

This was one of the most heavily hyped releases of the year, at least via the sources I tend to visit, and I generally avoid highly-praised first releases (remember the Strokes? Yeah…). But after listening through a few tracks at the local cd store, I was sold. In fact, it was only when listening at the store that I realized I had been hearing “When My Train Rolls In” on the radio for a few weeks — I just thought it was a new single from the Black Keys, and that’s a serious compliment. But this is the only track that could fit that rubric; nothing else on the album sounds like the Black Keys, and that’s another compliment. In fact, with this first album, Clark makes a compelling bid for immediate entry into the ranks of modern guitar gods, along with Jack White and the Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Repeated listening reveals touches of Hendrix, 60s/70s era Clapton, and maybe just a pinch of Billy Gibbons, mixed with a twist of Detroit soul. It’s a stupendous album from a rising star who has a brilliant future ahead of him — I can’t wait for his next release.

Wasteland Companion, M Ward

I love everything that M Ward does, including his collaborative work with Connor Oberst and Jim James (aka Monsters of Folk) and Zooey Deschanel (She and Him). I’m not sure that I can pick out a serious soft spot or weakness in ANY of his albums; I never get tired of listening to Post-War, and even Hold Time, which sports several tracks that I consider to be less-than-excellent (I like Lucinda Williams, but her appearance on “Oh Lonsome Me” always feels a little flat to me). But Wasteland Companion is rock-solid from start to finish. From the haunting, laid-back harmonies of “The First Time I Ran Away,” to the rousing, toe-tapping rhythms of “Primitive Girl” and the bouncy joy of “Sweetheart” (featuring vocals by Zooey), there isn’t a single disappointing moment to be found. While the video for “First Time” is magnificent (see below), my vote for best track goes to “Me and My Shadow,” a buzzing, snarling indictment of corporate rock and pop, which narrowly avoids the pit of pure bitterness thanks to brief flashes of backing harmony from Zooey. As a bonus, the admittedly bizarre video (below) features a cameo by Conan O’Brien, and makes it clear that the “mocking bird” Ward jeers at throughout the song is Justin Bieber. If you’re not a fan of M Ward already, well…I don’t know what to say to you. And if you are, and even if you’ve already heard the album, go ahead — plug back in and enjoy it again.

Tempest, Bob Dylan.

I’m an unabashed Dylan fan, albeit one whose introduction to Dylan first came via 1997’s brilliant album Time Out of Mind. In my humble opinion, Dylan has not made a single misstep since — from 2001’s Love and Theft through Modern Times, Together Through Life, and now Tempest, the last 15 years have proven that Dylan is one of the greatest musicians and poets of our age. That being said, I find it a little harder to put my finger on the pulse of this album; in some ways, it presents itself as a pastiche of the previous four albums. “Duquesne Whistle” (which has a spectacular video, as you can see below) and “Long and Wasted Years” are remniscent of the faintly sweet love-sickness of Modern Times, while “Pay in Blood” brings back the slightly sing-song, rhyme-y threats and promises displayed on Time Out of Mind. Dylan was 71 at the time of the album’s release this past fall, and it’s thrilling to hear him stronger than ever, snarling over the rumbling guitars of “Narrow Way” and crooning along with the soft strains of “Scarlet Town.” And as a magnificent bonus, another of my all-time favorite musicians, guitar god / rock legend Mark Knopfler, contributes guitar work on “Scarlet Town” and other tracks. It’s their first studio work together since Mark laid down some riffs for the track “Jokerman” off Dylan’s largely forgettable 1983 album Infidels, and it’s great to hear them together again. Sadly, I had to miss their dual tour when it passed through the state this fall, but I can still plug in and listen to their great collaboration whenever I want, and I’ll count that as a win!

Privateering, Mark Knopfler

I’ve been in love with Knopfler’s guitar work since I first heard “Sultans of Swing” on the radio nearly two decades back. In fact, it’s safe to say I was obsessed with his work throughout the tail end of high school, college, and into my mid twenties; these days, I’m no longer as willing to shell out the extra dollars to ship an import release or track down a bonus cut / b-side, but I’m still a major fan. When I found out that Dylan and Knopfler were releasing their albums on the same day this past fall, I had the pleasure of experiencing the same giddy rush of excitement I used to get when I stumbled across rare releases in cd stores during days gone by. As I mentioned above, I had to miss their concert when they came through town, but I’ve never tired of listening to Privateering. Although I’m always up for listening to Knopfler, I have to admit that part of the reason my ardor for his albums has cooled slightly over the last decade is that I’ve found his recent releases to be slightly lackluster. Following Sailing to Philadelphia in 2000, Knopfler — a notorious perfectionist — has been fairly prolific, releasing solo albums in 2002, 2004, 2005 (an EP), 2007, 2009, and now 2012, as well as a duet album with Emmylou Harris in 2006. Yes, I own all of these albums, but when the mood to listen to Knopfler at his best strikes me, I tend to reach back for either Philadelphia or Shangri-La (2004). Not anymore; Privateering is Knopfler at his best. What’s more, I’ve found my bond with Mark re-ignited via the song “Seattle,” which is at once a melancholy ode to both the Pacific Northwest and the city itself (one of my favorite places in the world), and gives voice to the thoughts of a man who is struggling with unemployment and aging. When he sings that he feels that he’s been given a key that doesn’t work in any locks, and the wilderness beyond the city skyline represents a “dream shot down,” but he’s grateful he has his wife, “the best thing I ever knew,” well…I know what he means. Other highlights on this incredible double album include “Dream of the Drowned Submariner,” “Kingdom of Gold,” and the title track, “Privateering.”

Battle Born, The Killers

I may draw some heat for this one, but I’m man enough to admit it — I LOVE The Killers. And if you’re willing to admit it to yourself, you probably do too. I remember where I was when I first heard “Mr. Brightside” on the radio, and so does everyone who ever harbored a crush for someone, only to watch them walk away someone else at the end of the night/day/week/month/school year. And likewise, I remember that I was, appropriately, cruising in my car when I first heard “Runaway,” the single from Battle Born, for the first time. What has always impressed me about The Killers, even on their dubiously catchy third album, “Day & Age,” is the clear-as-a-bell earnestness of Brandon Flowers’ vocals and the steady, Rock ‘n’ Roll 101 beats that shore up every track. And although there will only ever be ONE Springsteen, I’m also willing to toss my hat in with those fans / critics who see The Killers vying for Springsteen’s mantle, should it ever be passed along. Sure, as one critic noted, Springsteen would never sing “I swore on the head of our unborn child that I could take care of the three of us, but I got a tendency to slip when the nights get wild,” as Flowers does; the Boss is famous as the voice of the slow ‘n’ steady, solidly monogamous blue collar crowd, after all (even though his catalog is brimming with songs resonating with desire, longing, and the lonesome consolation of one-night stands). But that’s just the point — The Killers’ songs inevitably explode in a mix of frustration, desire, passion, and an unabashed, unapologetic love of life itself. A perfect example is “Miss Atomic Bomb,” which, like Springsteen’s “Glory Days” celebrates the dreams and ambition of youth, and acknowledges the bitterness of reality after youth has faded; yet “Atomic Bomb” presses on to endure as a bittersweet paean to stunning young beauty, hungry young love, and the enduring power of memories to both hurt and heal. Finally, the title track, “Battle Born,” is both a stadium-worthy personal anthem and a celebration of everything beautiful about America itself. Sure, it’s hard to miss the conservative values and imagery conjured by lines such as “Your boys have grown soft and your girls have gone wild” (it’s at moments like this that The Killers’ Mormon roots show strongest), but in the end, the song is less about a singular vision of “family values” than about giving a boost to those who are struggling to put food on the table and make ends meet during difficult times. Go ahead — put your headphones on, crank up the volume, and you’ll find yourself joining Flowers in screaming “you can’t stop now!” by the time the song ends.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (and why they didn’t make the list):

The Passing of the Night, The Lost Brothers.

To be honest, I went back-and-forth about putting this album in the top five, and frankly, I should have just called this list the “top six” albums of the year, because it really is damned good. I stumbled across this album at the cd store as well — I put on the headphones, punched up the first track, “Not Now, Warden,” and it blew me straight away. I bought the album on the spot. In some ways, the Lost Brothers fit quite neatly in with other recent bluegrass and country outfits, sounding a lot like Trampled by Turtles or The Old Crow Medicine Show on a few tracks. But what sets them apart are the softly blended dual harmonies, at once soft, lush, and bittersweet on tracks such as “Now That the Night Has Come,” yet just as able to switch into an upbeat, carefree, and light-hearted tone on tracks like “Wake Me Up.” You owe it to yourself to go and check out these tunes directly on their website, which you can find here.

Babel, Mumford and Sons

I want to make this clear — I really do like Mumford and Sons, and as an album, Babel has a lot to offer. As one of the many music fans who thoroughly enjoyed their first full-length album, Sigh No More, I was excited to hear that they had a new release planned for 2012. And the band does not disappoint; it’s a solid album all the way through, chock-full of the same thrilling mandolin riffs, impassioned vocals, and poetic lyrics that made the first album an instant classic. Furthermore, the emotional, haunting video for “Lover of the Light,” which excellent friends and fellow writers A Million Ancient Bees and Errant Ventures have already covered nicely, is a masterpiece through and through. But if Babel has a weakness, it’s that the album is quite literally indistinguishable from Sigh No More. I’ve listened to both albums dozens of times, and I still get the tracks confused — in fact, I tend to get the tracks confused even when I know which album I’m listening to. Mind you, I’m not necessarily complaining; they’re all good tunes, and having two hours of Mumford and Sons to listen to instead of a single hour is a good thing. But I hope they push the enevelope a little on their next release. I don’t need them to go into Coldplay / U2 / cheese ‘n’ schmaltz territory, just switch up the melodies and the instrumentation a little.

Blunderbuss, Jack White

My thoughts on Jack White’s first big solo release are almost identical to my thoughts on Mumford and Sons’ Babel. It’s a great album, with a big sound, lots of White’s trademark guitar riffs — a top-notch rock album through and through. But I’ve also come to really appreciate White’s celebration of his Nashville roots through bands like the Raconteurs, and collaborations with the likes of Loretta Lynn. The week the album was released, I raced down to the cd store and picked up a copy, tossed it in the cd player in the car, rolled down the windows and opened the sunroof, and blasted the album all the way home — just as I did when the White Stripes released their last album. And again, that’s my only real beef with Blunderbuss; at heart, it’s another White Stripes album. That’s fine by me on all counts, but I’d like to see White stretch his wings a little and branch out. He’s certainly one of the most unique and talented musicians of his generation, and I can’t think of a single album or project he’s worked on that I haven’t enjoyed in one fashion or another. Blunderbuss is no exception. From the bombastic awesomeness of tracks like “Sixteen Saltines” and the bluesy-stomp of “Take Me With You When You Go,” there’s a lot to love on this album. I’m still looking forward to hearing what happens when White steps out of his comfort zone just a little further. And even if he never does, that’s okay too — I’ll still enjoy the albums.

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