Tuesday, December 25, 2012

2012: Album(s) of the Year

Like last year's "Album(s) of the Year" post, first some meta commentary.

In reflecting on 2012 compared to 2011, it is amazing how my musical favs reflect where the rest of my life is that year. While 2011 was a year for challenging, self-reflective pieces, 2012 danced around those themes, but wimps from diving in deep on things that aren't right brain only or grounded in the familiar.  More below.

While 2011 was the year of iTunes Match helping me rediscover a newly organizationally and karmically scrubbed music collection, 2012 is the year of Murfie.com encouraging me to complete the transition to lossless and all digital.  Almost all 300+ CDs that I still own recently went on a one way trip to the great white north (sorry guys, I had to keep a couple CDs for sentimental reasons...I've owned my copy of "Tea for the Tillerman" since 1984!). All my music is now available to me digitally and lossless, without any of the physical storage issues.

I've been buying most of my used music from Murfie. With their clever business model of digital distribution of physical CDs, they very cleverly take advantage of shipping arbitrage to have a very compelling marketplace (why buy a single Elton John track for  $0.99 when you can get his entire Greatest Hits 1970-2002 album lossless for $1?).  I've been able to fill out adjacencies in my collection ($4 to complete my George Winston collection with the 4 CDs I didn't own? Check!)

If if you haven't already, check Murfie out. See here for my for sale CDs to get a flavor of the kinds of deals to be had. Highly highly recommended.

On to the goodies. As usual, first some niche winners, then my overall winner.

Best Album That Wish Came Out In 2011 So I Had Time To Really Listen To It: Monocyte (Saltillo)
2012 was a big year for my brother Kasra. After investing and working at the edges of the comic industry for years, he jumped in in a big way with Monocyte, his project with collaborator menton3 and a dream cast of 1000s from our mispent youth. Monocyte is a true passion project, and is remarkably unapologetic and challenging for a modern graphic novel. If you are looking for a read that will take you on an emtional and intellectual roller coaster like no other, give it a go. Fantastic. Then check out the work they're doing at 44FLOOD.

Besides being a phenomenally talented artist, mention3 is also a first class composer and musician (his Ganglion (Saltillo) album from several years ago remains a favorite).  As part of the Monocyte project, mention put out an album of trip hop inspired by the book. It is in every way as challenging (intellectually and emotionally) as the graphic novel.  I wish I had more time to sit with headphones and really go along for the ride.

Best 2012 Album That Is A Continuation of a Best 2011 Album: Babel (Mumford & Sons)
If this were best 2012 album that is a continuation of a 2009 album, the obivious winer would be My Head Is An Animal (Of Monsters And Men), paying tribute to Up From Below (Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) would win hands down (what a great album!).

However, I have to give the nod to Mumford & Sons who picked up almost exactly where they left off last year with Sigh No More, and delivered the goods yet again.  Recommended.

Biggest Wallop Upside the Head: Down At The Sea Hotel (Various)
For many years, I've had a special appreciation for Lucy Kaplansky. All her albums are wonderful, but each has a handful of tracks that pack an emotional wallop strong enough that I've been known to break down in tears when it comes up on iTunes shuffle. Don't believe me? Listen to this story from 2004 on NPR, then feel the raw post-9/11 emotion on the rest of her Red Thread album.

Lucy put out a new album this year (Reunion), with the usual mix of interesting covers with intensely personal and true songs. There are at least four tracks on this album that have me reaching for the tissue whenever they come up. Well worth a listen.

As I was listening to the album, I was browsing around iTunes for other Kaplansky material. Amid some gems from her early folk days, I was taken aback to see "Goodnight, My Angel" come up in the search results, from an album I had never heard of. One of my favorite Billy Joel songs, being covered by a woman who's voice so easily brings me to my emotional knees. How did I miss this before?

Needless to say, Lucy delivers the goods with a rendition even better than the original. The album is an ensemble piece of children's lullabies by several of the artists from Red House Records, to accompany a children's book of the same name. Unlike other compilations, the album was produced as a single work, and works amazingly well. As a parent, I adore this album. If you do pick it up, I recommend getting the book/cd bundle.

2012 Album of the Year: Shahen-Shah (Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn)
Earlier this year I was listening to had Peter Gabriel's Passion, his marvelous soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ.  On a lark, I hopped onto Murfie to see what the market price was for one of my favorite albums ($1! What's wrong with you people?)

In the search results was a link to Gabriel's Passion Sources, which is a compilation of many of the songs that inspired Gabriel's album. For $1, how could I say no?

The first track was Shamas-Ud-Doha Bader-Ud-Doja by Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. Holy crap! The passion and purity! I had no idea what the man was saying, but out of nowhere it lifted me and took me to a spiritual place I thought I had lost. "O the bright sun!, O the moon in darkness!" Yes indeed.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, I learned about Qawwali, and had the privilege to watch the legend that is Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn perform his invocations of the divine.  A quick return to Murfie and $5(!) later, I had three albums by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. Shahen-Shah was the first, and the first track was Shama-Ud-Doha Bader-Ud-Doja. It took me there all over again.

When a master like Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn is able to transcend, we and civilization are all raised with him. Thank you Ustad.

As a postscript to this story, a week ago someone on twitter posted a link to one of those moments that makes you believe in a connecting force that ties all together.  I won't spoil it.  Go watch it for yourself, and be glad that we live in a world where these things happen, and we have the means to share in it.

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