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Review of 2012: Music



Albums of the Year

Alabama Shakes -  Boys & Girls

The year's great breakthrough discovery was this down-home four-piece from Athens, Alabama, fronted by the volcanic Brittany Howard, who took their earthy raw influences, from Otis Redding to AC/DC, and forged from them a new, dynamic form of soul-rock that sounded like the Stones backing Etta James or Big Mama Thornton.

Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball

Re-connecting with his core political anger again, Springsteen's Wrecking Ball was the musical equivalent of the Occupy Wall Street movement, confronting the repercussions of the ongoing recession through a range of songs – augmenting his signature Spector-esque rock bombast and muscular hootenanny folk-rock with touches of noble gospel, poignant jazz and feisty Irish rebel music.

Bill Fay - Life Is People

At the opposite extreme from Alabama Shakes, early 1970s troubadour Bill Fay was the year's great rediscovery, this first new release in decades condensing the accumulated wisdom and compassion of a lifetime into a dozen beautiful, heartwrenching songs. But despite devastating moments of quiet emotional turmoil, it's an experience from which one emerges more hopeful and generous towards fellow fallible humans.

Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli Consort & Players - A New Venetian Coronation 1595

Paul McCreesh's latest large-scale endeavour was this extraordinary re-imagining of a 16th-century coronation celebration for a new Doge of Venice. Marshalling his usual grand forces, and re-constituting the programme from contemporary accounts of the music, McCreesh took us from a particularly vivid opening parade around St. Mark's Square, through to the triumphant re-emergence of the new Doge.

Terakaft - Kel Tamasheq

With no new album this year from the mighty Tinariwen, it was left to Terakaft to most potently reflect the traumatic disruption facing the Touareg, their infectious desert-blues stylings offering explicit criticism of the Ansar Dine fundamentalist invaders, alongside celebrations of core cultural values and poetic musings on the turmoil of war: “I am in a world like a blot of ink”.


Gigs of the year

Bruce Springsteen, Pittsburgh Consol Energy Center

I missed the UK shows, but was fortunate enough to witness one of the greatest performances I've ever seen at the Pittsburgh date of Springsteen's Wrecking Ball Tour. In over three hours of high-octane, committed excitement and devastating musical flourishes, it offered both an expression of underclass anger and a celebration of the sustained values of comradeship and family.

The Black Keys, Nottingham Capital FM Arena

Fusing maximum potency with minimum extravagance, The Black Keys' live show was a masterclass in dynamic muscularity, as the most unexpected of 1970s influences – Can, T. Rex, Gary Glitter – were riveted into riffs as strong as girders but as nimble as Jessica Ennis. And like the latter, boasting a surprisingly broad range of applications, as they slipped between blues-rock, glam boogie and outright pop.

Leonard Cohen, Wembley Arena, London

Approaching 78, Leonard Cohen was less the self-proclaimed “lazy bastard living in a suit” than workaholic entertainment dynamo. He served up three hours of wry humour and cutting emotion in that golden voice, while his identically clad band, looking like a legion of Leonards in grey suits and hats, embellished his songs with the subtlest flourishes of oud and violin, little musical raised eyebrows commenting on the lyrics.

Sparks, Bush Hall, London

For their career retrospective, Two Hands, One Mouth, the Mael brothers proved that small forces can score the most striking victories. Using just a single keyboard and Russell Mael's imposingly pitch-perfect tenor, they offered a tour of their back catalogue, whose influences – from German lieder to D'Oyly Carte comic opera, Kurt Weill to Albéniz, demonic waltz to minimal techno – were dispatched with nonchalant grace and the driest of humour.

Sinead O'Connor, Royal Festival Hall, London

Headlining the Southbank's Women of the World festival, Sinead O'Connor furnished the year's most unexpected and powerful comeback, appearing revitalised and fresh on new material reflecting the emotional upsurge of a recent marriage. Engaged as ever, she brought a keenly empathic air to songs about love and death, belief and betrayal. And she still sings like a wounded angel lamenting the fall.

Discovery of the Year: Alabama Shakes

It's been a great year for new folkie girl-groups, such as the likes of First Aid Kit and The Staves, but the year's biggest breakthrough surely has to be Southern soul-rockers Alabama Shakes, who went straight from nowhere (Athens, Alabama) to the top of the UK album charts with the gritty soul-rock of their Boys & Girls debut, buoyed by the acclaim of celebrity fans such as Adele and Jack White. Their music, rooted in the swampy grooves of Stax, Stones and Creedence, proved irresistible, and in the raw-nerve vocals of Brittany Howard, rock'n'roll found a most singular new heroine.

Turkey of the Year: will.i.am

Modern music's generic Mediocrity Man, and an apparently ubiquitous presence at every public event this year. Who does he think he is – Sir Paul McCartney? There he was, twirling in his chair on the debacle that was The Voice, and inserting himself into every situation where TV cameras were guaranteed to be present, from the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert to the Olympics – and even carrying the Olympic Torch through some poor, benighted part of the British Isles, for heaven's sake! Rarely has such brazen self-importance been so meagrely backed up with actual achievement.