What I’ve been listening to in 2012

But Mike, 2013 is nearly over!

True; but I won’t be able to tell you until 2014 what I’ve been listening to in 2013, so this is the moment to publish my much-delayed 2012 list.


Last year, I did this across a sequence of twelve separate posts (introduction, ten individual albums starting here, and a summary). That felt like a bit of a slog, and half of the album posts garnered no comments at all; so this year we’re back to the more compact format that I used for the 2010 list.

I listen much more to whole albums than to individual tracks, so what I’ve done is to pick the top ten albums that I listened to the most in 2010, as recorded on the two computers where I listen to most of my music. (So these counts don’t include listening in the car or on the iPod.) I limited it to no more than one album per artist, I skipped albums that have featured in previous years, and I omitted compilations. Then from each of those ten objectively selected albums, I subjectively picked one song that I felt was representative.

Here they are in ascending order of how often I listened to them.

The Beatles — 1969 — Abbey Road (4 listens)

It seems that every year, some Beatles album or another makes it into my top ten. It’s not surprising: every year I listen to all their albums several times, and it’s just a roll of the dice which one happens to come out on top.

I love Abbey Road deeply: it’s an astonishingly coherent piece of music given its genesis during the Beatles’ break-up, and there’s hardly a moment of it that I don’t love. Still, even among all the other goodness (Come Together, Because, You Never Give Me Your Money), the two standout tracks are George Harrison’s contributions: the beautiful ballad Something, and the delightfully cheery confection Here Comes The Sun (above). Writing this in late November near the Welsh border, I can really use its breezy optimism.

Joan Baez — 1997 — Gone From Danger (5 listens)

Although Joan Baez initially established herself as a singer of traditional folk songs in the early 1960s, and wrote much of her own material in the late 60s and early 70s, she felt she had exhausted herself as a writer by the 90s and reverted to interpreting other people’s songs. The result in 1997 was an album, Gone From Danger, that included three Richard Shindell songs and two Dar Williams songs — one of them the gorgeous ballad February (above).

That song is from Williams’s second album, Mortal City (1996), but deservedly remains a concert favourite seventeen years later. It traces the progression of a relationship that seems already in the late stages of disintegration, showing how a thread of constancy holds it together and brings it to a tentative, fragile rebirth. To be honest, I prefer the stark textures of Williams’s original, but the Baez version brings a valuable new reading to a classic song. (Unfortunately the video above has slightly distorted audio, but it was the only one I could find.)

Paul Simon — 1973 — There Goes Rhyming Simon (6 listens)

In a half-century career, Paul Simon’s never made an album that’s less than brilliant. It happens that There Goes Rhymin’ Simon is the one I listened to most last year, as I prepared a detailed review that I’ve not yet finished and published. [UPDATE: I have now.] Here’s part of what I wrote about American Tune:

It shares much with its antededent, America, from the 1966 Simon and Garfunkel album Bookends. Both songs are essentially intimate little anthems of disillusionment (and yes, I realise that “intimate” and “anthem” contradict each other; that reflects the paradoxical nature of the songs themselves).

But while the earlier S&G song has a pleasantly sing-along tune over relatively straightforward chords — most people in the audience sang along when I performed it at the Forest Folk Club — American Tune is built on an uncompromisingly baroque melody over distinctly non-folkish harmony, both of them lifted from a J. S. Bach piece. It’s a surprising choice for someone usually thought of a folk-singer, though in truth Simon had long been much more eclectic than that description suggests. The lyric of American Tune is a detailed, literate exploration of the decay of the American Dream, and the winding melody with its long, uneven lines is a perfect setting for that lyric — as is the sparse arrangement, very dependent on Simon’s acoustic guitar.

Has there ever been a more thoughtful songwriter than Simon?

Stephen Stills — 1970 — Stephen Stills (6 listens)

I got this album basically because I love Crosby, Stills and Nash, and wanted to see that Stills was doing outside of that context. (For the same reason, I’ve been listening to Graham Nash’s solo album Songs For Beginners in 2013; but that’s for another post.)

Conventional wisdom is that Stills was the main musical force behind the Crosby, Stills and Nash combo; and sure enough he wrote four and co-wrote one of the ten tracks on their superb debut album. But it seems to me that, just as Paul McCartney was a better songwriter when he was with John Lennon, even when Lennon wasn’t directly contributing anything, so Stills’s solo material is a level below what he produced for CS&N.

Which I realise isn’t the most ringing endorsement of my equal-seventh most-listened-to-album of 2012. What I can say is that it’s fun. Love the One You’re With (above) is the album’s best-known song, probably justly, and benefits from the same sort of cheerfully callous quality as several of the songs on Help!.

Lucy Kaplansky — 2007 — Over the Hills (8 listens)

My confession is that this album has left hardly a trace in my mind. I couldn’t hum any of the songs if I tried. I stuck with it because I’d enjoyed Kaplansky’s Every Single Day so much, which is how it accumulated eight listens. But that may be more of a tribute to my bloody-mindedness than to the quality of the music.

The pick of the songs may be Amelia, a first-person tale of a woman who married young and thoughtlessly, and watched her life float away unregarded. The video above is a solo live version which probably serves the material better than the more produced version on the album.

Of course, if suffers badly by comparison with Joni Mitchell’s song of the same name.

Flying Colors — 2012 — Flying Colors (12 listens)

Flying Colors is side-project of prog-rock superstars Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy, Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse, Dixie Dregs bassist Dave LaRue and Alpha Rev singer Casey McPherson. The goal was to produce music with the richness of prog but the accessibility of pop.

These guys are evidently having a ton of fun, and that’s a big part of what makes the album so enjoyable to listen to. The opener is Blue Ocean (above), a song that marries an infectious bassline with a catchy melody and some gorgeous vocal harmonies. The execution is spot-on throughout. Deserves to be much better known.

Christy Moore — 1984 — Ride On (16 listens)

I got this album on the recommendation of NickS’s comment on my Blue Divide review, and love it to bits. The mood varies greatly between songs, from the sombre meditation on what might have been that is Sonny’s Dream to the bright patter of the music-festival celebration Lisdoonvarna, but it’s the title track (above) that really sticks in the memory. It’s astonishingly simple — the whole thing is played on three chords, A minor, G and F — but very atmospheric. Like so many of my favourite songs, I’d really struggle to explain what it’s about.

I’ve tried a couple of times to sing this at the folk club — once with the capo at fret 3, as Christy Moore sings it, and once without the capo and singing it an octave up — but I’ve not yet found a way to make it work. I think it might just be that it needs his voice.

Riverside — 2005 — Second Life Syndrome (19 listens)

Another album that I found through the recommendation of a Reinvigorated Programmer commenter — this time, Pedro’s comment on my review of The Incident. This is full-on prog rock: powerful, thoughtful and ambitious. Those who don’t like this kind of thing might argue about whether it achieves its goals, but they certainly can’t accuse it of not trying.

Second Life Syndrome is one of those albums that is much more than the sum of its parts. It paints a picture in successive layers — rather a dark one, of people losing themselves in the Internet — but if any one track captures the essense of the whole, it’s the title track (above). The opening passage will be sonically familiar to anyone who loves Pink Floyd’s album Wish You Were Here, but it quickly goes off in different directions.

Richard Shindell — 2000 — Somewhere Near Paterson (27 listens)

Shindell is an empathic and insightful songwriter, and a lovely singer  — one that I featured in 2010 (for Sparrows Point) and again in 2011 (for Blue Divide). This year it’s Somewhere Near Paterson, and specifically this song: Transit. Like nearly all of Shindell’s songs, it’s a short story: this time, about the traffic jam that develops when the van from St. Agnes’s Choir stop so a nun can change a flat tyre. It begins as you’d expect, with growing impatience: but then, as The War Against Silence puts it, “magic realism temporarily takes control, and the enraged drivers, having passed the bottleneck, are sucked down the highway, past their exits, into the setting sun”.

Where Transit differs from nearly all of Shindell’s songs is that it’s told in the third person from an omniscient point of view. That alone may be a clue: Shindell is so wedded to first-person storytelling that it’s tempting to imagine that we’re hearing God himself, as a first-person narrator, recounting events that he didn’t just witness but somehow affected. I don’t know, maybe I’m over analysing. But see what you think: it’s a gorgeous song, and the closing verse is a moving picture of grace.

Dar Williams — 2012 — In the Time of Gods (37 listens)

And finally, the year’s top album is from another repeat offender: Dar Williams, who was on the 2010 list for My Better Self and topped the 2009 list (with The Promised Land) by a mile.

her 2012 album, In The Time of Gods, is loosely based on the pantheon of Greek gods, with most of the songs representing modern-day versions of their stories or at least their characters. It’s a conceit that works surprisingly well: the legends, after all, became classics because they address universals. Still, I’d have to admit that it’s not among her very best albums, whether because the Greek god theme was too constraining or for some other reason. There’s lots to love about it, and it’s sonically gorgeous, but the melodies don’t seem to work together with the words as strongly as they do in her very best songs.

Still, Crystal Creek is haunting: a tale of Artemis, the Greek god of the hunt and also of virginity. In the original myth, Actaeon stumbles across Artemis bathing. As punishment for seeing her naked, she transforms him into a stag, and he is torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs. In the modern recasting, the transgressor wrapped in a deerskin, is (accidentally, we assume) shot by his hunting buddies. In the last verse a news crew arrives: “Who would do this thing?” the anchor asks. “I cannot hold my mic / My hands are shaking; knees are weak”. Eventually she just tells the crew “Turn the camera off”. The intrusion of the ancient story into the modern world is just too brutal.


So that was my musical 2012. As previously, it’s mostly a blend of folk singers and prog rock (this year tilted much more towards the folk) with some Beatles thrown in. The developing 2013 list looks much more prog-dominated, but we’ll see how the last five weeks of the year affect that.

17 responses to “What I’ve been listening to in 2012

  1. Glad I turned you into you a Riverside fan :)

    How had I never heard of that Flying Colors supergroup? Must check it out.

  2. It’s pretty hard to keep track of all Mike Portnoy’s projects!

    (I assume you’re familiar with The Winery Dogs? If not, try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnMBix9Zq5o)

  3. No, I wasn’t. Thanks for the tip!

  4. Ahh albums – I remember them and god how I wish I still had the time/patience/discipline to listen to them but alas (and not entirely of my own choosing) I am now firmly of the iPod shuffle play generation. I just don’t seem to have time to do ANYTHING properly these days. I squeezed 5 minutes guitar practice into the last 3 days and I had Friday off work! I haven’t read a book for about a year and I’ve been to the cinema twice since June. Which brings me to this compilation. Guess what … I don’t have time to give it the attention it deserves. So, instead of a full review (which, considering that Mike and I came to a startling realisation some time ago that a venn diagram of our music tastes had a shockingly small intersection, may be a blessing in disguise) I’ve decided to cast my votes in the form of the running time of the above tracks at which point I clicked next.

    Beatles – 0:49
    Baez – 0:31
    Simon – 1:09
    Stills – 0:15
    Kaplansky – 1:08 (minus 0:20 intro = 0:48)
    Colors – 1:34
    Moore – 0:39
    Riverside – 2:38
    Shindell – 0:37
    WIlliams – 0:51

    We have a clear winner – Riverside, which by my calculations was worthy of over 1.5 days worth of my own precious guitar practice time. High praise indeed I’m sure you’ll agree.


  5. Thank you, Alec, for finding ten minutes and eleven seconds to devote to my year in music :-) Which admittedly, is about ten minutes more than anyone else seems to have considered worthwhile.

    I’m going to take it is a positive that the two tracks you were least impatient with were the two prog ones. Perhaps the Alec that introduced me to Selling England by the Pound is not completely dead yet!

  6. I listened to the first 2 minutes of the Lucy Kaplansky, and all of “Transit.” It’s interesting to go back and look at my comments on your post on Blue Divide, and see that I was so hesitant in my reactions. In retrospect I think “Fishing” is my favorite song that you’ve posted on your blog, and one that continues to stick with me.

    I didn’t like “Transit” as much at first listen, but we’ll see . . . (it also reminds me that I should get a copy of Blue Divide I haven’t listened to any songs off of there other than “Fishing”.)

  7. Strange that the Kaplansky was one of the two songs you listened to when I’d given it such a mediocre review! I think you’ll find Transit to be a brainworm.

  8. It’s mostly just coincidence. I know Kaplansky’s name from a couple of Red House Records compilations that I have and I was curious. I already knew some of the songs (like the Christy Moore and Paul Simon), I wasn’t tempted by the prog songs, and I intended to listen to the Dar Williams but got distracted.

    Side note — as a Beatles fan you might enjoy these three posts about Beatles covers by Holly Hughes (one, two, and three). I do think it says something very impressive about the cultural reach that you can find multiple choices of covers for every song on an album — I have a hard time thinking of albums in my collection for which that would be possible.

  9. Yes, those posts are interesting. In a similar vein you may be interested in The Beatles Complete On Ukulele, which is exactly what it says.

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