On we continue through more of my list of standout albums from 2012 that really shouldn’t be missed…
#15. Kimbra – Vows
Many of you will only know Kimbra as that singer who steals a shining moment on Gotye’s smash hit “Somebody That I Used To Know”. While she sounds great on that song, it’s hardly a proper introduction to the world of Kimbra. I first learned about Kimbra when I found out she would be opening for Foster the People’s tour this summer. I checked out a couple songs and what I found was impressive. Here we have a pop performer who is not tied down to any one genre. She can balance equal parts indie pop, jazz, electronic, and soul effortlessly. Beck around the time of Odelay comes to mind, speaking in terms of pure genre-bending.
The first song to draw me in was “Warrior”, a high energy collaboration with Mark Foster of Foster The People, and producer A-Track. It has the best parts of all three performers, and in my opinion was the shoulda-been hit of the year. Now “Warrior” appears as a bonus track tacked on to the end of US copies of Vows, as Vows was released in her native New Zealand in 2011, but didn’t come out here in the US until this year. The US edition dropped a few songs that must have been considered filler somehow and added a few new ones, changing the tracklist and running order considerably.
The album takes you in with the acapella “boom, bah-boom-pa” of “Settle Down”, a great choice for a leadoff song. Kimbra comes off somewhere between Lily Allen and a burlesque singer with a quirky attitude, with a strange beat that’s just left of R&B. “Something In the Way You Are” follows with a kettle drum hip hop march intro and Kimbra showing off her range alongside a dreamy chorus of herselves. Next is “Cameo Lover”, with a late 80s Miami bass freestyle beat, toy piano synth, bursting into strings and a big grand musical style chorus. After the more laid back “Two Way Street” comes the dark and brooding “Old Flame” that breaks into a hard synth beat that smacks you from under the soulful vocals, singing of longing for what once was.
A major highlight comes next with “Good Intent”. This is where Kimbra shows off her jazzy side and invites you to “step into the dwelling of the lyger’s prowl”. Because she’s that smooth that she can throw that in there. “Plain Gold Ring” follows, which according to the liner notes was cut live at the Ninja Beat Club in Atlanta, Georgia, but you’d never know it if you didn’t look. Having seen her perform I can attest. She is *this* good live. Her band is equally loose and tight in the right places.
My other top choice follows next, as Kimbra dares you to “Come Into My Head”. I included this as a third video below, because seeing the video you get a good idea of her stage persona. With quirky horn blasts, a funky slightly off-kilter beat, and Kimbra’s split-personality singing style, I actually feel more than just a little scared of her.
“Sally I Can see You” has a strange 80s alternative synth pop feel to it. “Posse” is a tougher track that declares her independence from the social scene, stating “But try as I might, I’m not your type, I don’t fit in”. “Home” feels more like a B-side, but a pleasant one at that. The final listed track “The Build Up” is a tender quiet song that feels inspired by the more cinematic moments of later period Radiohead, where she muses “I want the prize but not the race”.
The bonus tracks blast in with my favorite of the bunch “Warrior” mentioned above, and then depending what version you get, there are bonus tracks. Target’s edition, the version I own, adds the late night jazz lounge stylings of “Wandering Limbs” from the original album lineup, and the M-Phazes Remix of “Settle Down”, which reworks the track to a backdrop that transforms the same vocal into almost Jill Scott. Quite interesting and worth of addition.
So what’s different on the original New Zealand version? “Settle Down” has a longer, quite interesting but less immediate intro. “Plain Gold Ring” is the studio version, and doesn’t have the intro the live version has. You also get the rainy day funky nu-soul vibe of “Call Me”, the handclappy imaginative “Limbo”, “Wandering Limbs” in a proper place on the album, the slow building jazz of “Withdraw”, and the hidden ghostly afterthought of a last track, “Somebody Please”. But you don’t get the tracks “Something in the Way You Are”, “Come Into My Head”, “Sally Can I See You”, “Posse”, “Home” or “Warrior”. If you have the cash, invest in the New Zealand deluxe edition of Vows, and you get all of this except for the live version of “Plain Gold Ring”. Confused yet?
If I have to choose I would choose the US edition of this album. Kimbra is carving out her own place in the alternative pop world and I know I’m definitely in to stick along and see where the road leads.
“Come Into My Head”
#14. Jack White – Blunderbuss
So what exactly is a blunderbuss? I had to look this up, but apparently it’s a muzzle-loading long barreled gun that was extremely effective up close, but not so effective from a long range.
The album starts off rather bewilderingly with an organ riff that sounds like a 90s Aaliyah track, building quickly into a southern-rock tinged jam called “Missing Pieces”. Immediately that familiar feel that made the White Stripes material so special beyond the quirkiness of only two instruments is here again. And then the bottom falls out and guitar smacks you in the face to blast off “Sixteen Saltines”, capturing Jack’s manic side with a backing falsetto double that only jack could pull off. Yeah this is best described by the album title. It may not make sense at a distance, but up close, very powerful! This could only be followed by the funky riffy groove of “Freedom at 21”. This was made even better when Jack had a video made by Hype Williams, who normally directs bright jarring hip-hop videos. And it works, because he isn’t afraid to try what shouldn’t work.
Next is the guitar and organ based 60s soul of “Love Interruption” with vocals by Ruby Amanfu. Again with that playful abandon that made White Stripes so fun to listen to. This leads to the piano and steel guitar all out country of the title track about a budding love in spite of the obstacles. “Hypocritical Kiss” then comes off like a lost outtake from Led Zeppelin III and while on the mellower side, proves to be one of the highlights.
One of the standout rockers is “I’m Shakin'”, based in traditional electric blues. Is there any style Mr. White won’t try his hand at? “Trash Tongue Talker” is based somewhat in piano bar jazz. “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” is one of the finer moments in an album full of fine moments, realizing over a somewhat jazzy shuffle that sometimes the only solution to stress and being weary is to give up and go to sleep. Simple enough and effective.
The closer, “Take Me With You When You Go” feels like if you took “My Doorbell” and had Billy Preston on “Get Back” rearrange it to give it a shuffle, then he stops midway and gets electric and falsetto. It’s simply all over the place, like he’s trying to cram all of side two of Abbey Road into one song with Meat Loaf’s “Let Me Sleep On It” backing singers. And I like it!
I heard someone say recently that they felt Jack White is possibly the Prince of his generation. Why not? He has his own label, he’s extremely creative and unafraid to adventure into unknown territory with blatant disregard for genre, and he never rests. He’s always working on something. Hence it took so long to go from The White Stripes’ breakup to a solo album. Blunderbuss is full of adventure and abandon. And the results are a blast.
“Freedom at 21”
“Sixteen Saltines” (Live)
#13. Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth
After 27 years apart, Van Halen finally releases the album that most of us Diamond Dave era fans had hoped would happen someday. But there’s a fly in the ointment in the form of the leadoff track “Tattoo” which gives a wrong first impression to what is about to unfold. “Tattoo” isn’t even a bad song per say. But compared with the rest of the album it sounds calculated and forced as a “pop” song. It’s the “I’ll Wait” of this album. But sadly it was the leadoff single and video.
So skip that. In fact in a perfect world this album would start with the blazing blistering “Chinatown”. ADKoT is full of the very thing that made us love VH in the first place. Other than David Lee Roth’s voice maturing and getting some lower grit to it, all the squeals and sound that no human can normally make are here at every turn. Although he has aged of course, it is easy to close your eyes and picture Dave with long hair and spandex doing leaps and splits and backflips to these songs. The drums are simply a powerhouse. The guitar licks.. my goodness the guitar licks! This isn’t even the Van Halen of “Jump”. This is the Van Halen of “Mean Streets”, “Outta Love Again” and “Sinners Swing”! I think Eddie Van Halen from 1982 showed up in a time machine and smacked around Eddie of today, tied him down, played him the first four albums and said “This was you! Do *that* again!”. And of note here is that Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen has now stepped in to the bass role after Michael Anthony was..umm.. fired, pushed out, quit, depends who in the band you ask. But Wolfie does not disappoint. He has to have locked himself in a room and forced himself to learn every note of the early stuff. Without disrespecting Michael Anthony as the great bassist he is, you almost don’t realize he’s missing.
For sheer energy alone, highlights include “Chinatown”, “As Is” “Bullethead”, where the band shifts from near-thrash to boogie with ease. It’s reassuring to hear Dave mumble nearly incoherent wise-ass remarks in the little breakdowns in the songs like he did on classics like “And The Cradle Will Rock”. “Say you missed me. Say it like you mean it!”.
But the payoff comes near the end when good ol’ Dave reminds us what Sammy Hagar never had. The pizzazz to pull off a showtune barber shop acoustic ditty, called “Stay Frosty”, that quickly turns into a huge rave-up Swing-metal stomp.
This is an album that would be a natural progression after Fair Warning if Eddie had never become fascinated with keyboards. Welcome back boys! We missed you!
Line of the album: “Last time you turned your stereo, did it return the favor?”
“She’s The Woman”
“Chinatown” (audio only)
#12. Marilyn Manson – Born Villain
Did it take losing a label deal and going indie to kick some life back into Mr. Manson? After the mediocrity of Eat Me, Drink Me, Manson showed signs of life scattered throughout 2009’s The High End Of Low. But it just didn’t feel the same for some reason. The album didn’t sell well and Manson found himself parting ways with his longtime label Interscope records. This could have been the best thing to happen to him, because the safety net was now gone. Now he’s back on the Cooking Vinyl label, with his own sub-label Hell, Etc. How fitting. So how does this album measure up?
Born Villain has an urgency that finally made me a far-too-late fan when The Golden Age of Grotesque came out. The cries of “We don’t need your faith! We’ve got fucking fate!” in the leadoff welcome back “Hey Cruel World” feel hungry again and not forced. “No Reflection” follows with a tale of twisted romance and a “huh hah uhh ahh uhh owww” to rival some of the best moments of Grotesque. Then Manson takes a darker turn on “Pistol Whipped”, an ode to a relationship based on physical pain. Abusive? Extreme mutual masochism? We’re not given a clear answer. But with its menacing beat and chunky guitar chops, it’s hard to resist. “Overneath The Path of Misery” starts quietly with a Shakespeare reading, then blasts into a riff not too much unlike “Get Your Gunn”, morphing The Rape of Persephone into “Per rape so phony”. Why? “No reason”, he answers. My favorite of the bunch is next, “Slo-Mo-Tion” with a bassline and riff similar to Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Up To Dry”, where he growls “I hate you all but somehow you find me… incredibly charming!” as he muses about morals in the YouTube age. The spoken word poetry to a beat that kicks off “The Gardner” is quite different, like a less comedic “Detachable Penis” by King Missile. Then rounding out the first half is “The Flowers Of Evil” which has the atmospherics to make you think it might be an outcast from Antichrist Superstar, but melodically sounds like Manson of the past couple albums.
The second half, because the cover art makes it a point to divide the titles in half, starts with “Children of Cain”. This one very heavy on the Nine Inch Nails style electronic underpinning, with a murky reflection on religion in “Resurrection needs your death to happen twice”. “Disengaged” takes the glammy beat of “The Dope Show” down to a slower creepier grind. “Lay Down Your Goddamn Arms” has a drum beat that tries its best to approach Tool complexity, which sounds quite interesting in a Manson song. Next is the frenzied “Murderers Are Getting Prettier Every Day”, borrowing a thing or two from Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish” and Sex Pistols at the same time. The title track here is a definite standout. “I’m born villain, don’t pretend to be a victim”. This one has a slow moody churn that builds layer by layer into a dark powerful groove. The official last track “Breaking the Same Old Ground” is definitely the wind-down track. It’s layered and cinematic, but to be honest I think “Born Villain’ would have been a better closer.
It’s a shame the hidden track is hidden. Johnny Depp guests here and joins Manson on a powerful reimagining of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”. Manson is one of the few artists that I look forward to his cover versions, because he always brings out the ugly in a song that seemed so innocent at first glance. This song should be a proper video and single. But I am sure after “Personal Jesus” and “Tainted Love” seeming not so far behind, Manson probably wanted to play this more low key and put his excellent originals out front.
All in all, this album is at the very least a return to form somewhere in the Holy Wood or The Golden Age of Grotesque era, just before the heartbreak stole some of Mr. Manson’s vicious bite and turned him dangerously close to being a caricature. “The Reverend” is back!
“Hey Cruel World”
#11. Nelly Furtado – The Spirit Indestructible
Nelly, where the Furtado have you been? The last thing most people remember was Nelly Furtado’s Loose album being a runaway smash in the summer of 2006. Six years is a long time in pop music. Furtado released the all-Spanish Mi Plan in 2009, but as usually happens in the US, few paid any attention. Her Best Of Nelly Furtado in 2010 didn’t fare much better, being that Whoa, Nelly! and Loose are the only albums that had major pop hits in the US, and those can be had in the dollar bin at most music stores now. So what if she put out something breathtaking? Would it be appreciated? It turns out it’s like starting over again. Six years is a long time. Expectations are high, if they still care. Sadly, many of those fans moved on and forgot. Sad for them.
I will start out saying I think this album is every bit as good as, if not a better album than Loose. Where Loose had Timbaland as the main producer, most of this album is produced by Darkchild and by Salaam Remi, who produced “Say It Right”. Depending which version you get, the standard version has 12 tracks, the deluxe adds an additional six, and Spotify has one more additional. Only one of these 19 tracks is a remix. That’s quite a lot of material for your buck, with minimal filler.
The mistake made in promoting the album is that, not only was there little word about it, but the leadoff single “Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)” was slightly confusing. The song has a slinky head bobbing beat but at times sounds like her adaptation of Rihanna singing “Eh-eh-eh-eh”. But the song does get in your head, and the false ending rave up turns to a dizzying jungle breakdown. This song sounds much better as the second track, as the leading song and second UK single was more a statement of purpose, the title track “Spirit Indestructible” starting with Nelly acapella over a sparse synth piano, breaking into a heavy freestyle beat on par with any of the best hits on Loose that dares you to sit perfectly still.”High Life” follows these two with a beat that starts consisting of a syncopated flogger. And *that* turns into a hope for the future children’s chorus singalong. Just ’cause she can. This is followed abruptly with the big club banger of the album, “Parking Lot”, showing off all the great parts of Nelly’s sexy side. Somebody please do a mashup of this song and L’Trimm’s “Cars That Go Boom”! It sounds like it was meant to happen. Three listens and you’ll be going around everywhere singing “Na-na-na-nahh.. Leyyy! leyyy!” Then on “Something” over a surf guitar riff and shuffling hip-hop beat she is joined effectively by Nas.
Another highlight follows with “Bucket List”, a acoustic guitar meets funky backbeat track about not waiting to seize what or who you want. The strangest song comes after, “The Most Beautiful Thing”, a dreamy drift song based on a tabla drum beat that Peter Gabriel may or may not have loaned her. Then back down from the clouds we get to “Waiting For The Night”. *Not* a J-Lo cover thank goodness. But definitely rooted in a Spanish club vibe. Nice.
The rest of the album is less bombast and more looking inward. “Miracles” is a pondering of faith over a sparse laid back beat and a middle eastern flare, showing off one of Nelly’s more powerful vocals. “Circles” is funky and has a very 80s moogish keyboard thing going on. “Enemy” has a wide movie-like feel to it and is about fighting yourself inside. The proper album ending is then “Believers (Arab Spring)”, a rock track produced with Bob Rock (yes, the *Metallica* Bob Rock!), where Nelly promises “knock me down, I get back up again, again”. That rounds up the Standard version, but doesn’t quite feel like a real ending.
The bonus tracks on the deluxe edition kind of serve as a third act. “Hold Up” has a menacing electronic grind and jumps back into sexy late night out Nelly. “End Of the World” is the big power ballad here that could easily be a hit, but was regulated to bonus material sadly. “Don’t Leave Me” is Nelly taking a stab at mellow dub reggae, with strings. Even this works. “Be OK” is an acoustic guitar based mellower pop rock song and duet with Dylan Murray. Also, a potential hit but left to bonusland. Finally we reach the end, “Thoughts” an acoustic song featuring the Kenyan Boys choir of all things. It’s quite an experiment in the way Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” was with the blending of African vocals and vibes into pop music, but it conveys the emotion regardless of language. Then when you think it’s done, there’s a short Tiesto remix of “Thoughts” right after that plays like a part two, or ending credits rave up reprise.
Between the iTunes early pre-order version and the Japanese edition there are even more tracks, but “Thoughts” feels like a proper ending. In the vinyl days, this would have been a great and sprawling double album. In the days of inattention, I only hope people listen past the first few songs and take in the range of all this music, as it is some of the most joyous and interesting that Nelly Furtado has made thus far.
“Bucket List” (Live acoustic FM performance)
That wraps up this batch! Check back next week when I cover #10 through #6 and we get closer to #1. Thanks for stopping by!