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Top 5 San Diego Albums of 2012

A lot of incredible music came out in 2012. It’s hard to nail down a Top 5, but these records definitely deserve the high praise. Here’s our Top 5 San Diego Albums of the Year.

5. Black Market III – Songs That Shake The Cage

This album is a fistful of rough and tumble blues rockers, served up gritty and greasy with a no nonsense approach. San Diego blues veteran Scottie Blin delivers thirteen songs of mostly obscure covers with guitar and road worn vocals to give this album its punch. I love that the covers aren’t the usual classic blues standards, most beat endlessly into the ground. Black Market III chose wisely when they picked from Tom Waits (two times), Wayne Walker, Leadbelly and The Dead Weather, to name a few. If you didn’t know the original versions, it would be easy to confuse them as tunes Blinn penned himself. The three piece band (Blinn on vocals and guitar, Roxy Coverdale on bass, and Haley Allen on drums) takes complete ownership of these songs, grabs them by the throat, and chokes the truth out of them.

Black Market III locks in tight and plays it loose and loud, allowing Blinn’s guitar and vocal to form the focal point of the record. Blinn also lays down some flashy guitar solos throughout Songs That Shake The Cage. A few instrumentals, the lead track “Rumble,” followed by the surf rock run-through “Psych Ward” give Blinn’s guitar plenty of room to roam and show off his pedigree.  Some serious roof rattling, ass-kicking blues rock here!

4. Old Tiger – Love Have Mercy

Maybe Old Tiger should have called their record Love Have Mercy… and Soul. This retro sounding mix of R&B, rock, and vintage soul definitely harkens back to a time when Motown reigned supreme. Love Have Mercy has an old school feel that leans heavy on the crooning of guitarist Dustin Lothspeich to carry out its classic vibe. Easy on the ears, he delivers the vocal with a smooth warmth in its timbre.

The band is filled out by bassist Matt Phillips and drummer Eric Boone, who, without going over the top with their obvious love of R&B, have found a workable balance of different musical styles. When combined, they create something very entertaining and extremely original. There is also a guest spot from the Martin Luther King Jr. Choir of San Diego and horn tracks a-plenty.

The album was recorded and mixed at The Lost Ark Studios, where producer Mike Butler procured a tasty tone and feel from the band’s sound. This album is so easy to listen to, in fact, that the many subtle nuances of the recording could slip by unnoticed. Too bad Love Have Mercy is not available on vinyl, because all that’s missing here are some cracks and pops to complete the dated sounding goodness of this collection.

3. For The Sender

The artists that came together to support Alex Woodard’s idea to take letters he received and write songs based upon them play like an all-star team of San Diego’s finest. Jack Tempchin, Nena Anderson, Jordan Pundik, Sean Watkins, Sara Watkins, Molly Jenson, and Jon Foreman combine to create a graceful, heartfelt acoustic tour de force.

For The Sender is based on four letters: one from a director of a homeless shelter; one from the wife of a police officer who was slain; one from an Aussie medic serving victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti; and one  from a woman who lost her soul mate and wrote him letters every autumn to commemorate his passing. The close-knit family of songwriters use their collective talents to take these songs of pain, tragedy, strength, and love, to create moving tributes to the emotions. Though the songs are based on four specific letters, the themes are universal and delivered with much care and respect. For The Sender is more than just a recording of original songs by multi-talented performers; it’s a touching project that goes beyond the music and speaks to the resilience in all of us.

2. The Burning of Rome – With Us

With Us, by The Burning of Rome, is an ambitious, unique, eclectic, wildly creative, mind blowing collection of a kaleidoscope of sounds. Their musical reach seems to have very few boundaries as they bounce from rock, pop, punk, psychedelic, indie folk and dance, to name a few. There is no denying Burning of Rome’s thrash ability as displayed on “Cowboys and Cut Cigars” or the penchant for a catchy pop hook they latch onto in “The Ballad of An Onion Sprout.” The latter is one of the best, if not the best, singles released in 2012.

The album is full of addictive melodies (sometimes interrupted by forays into a psychedelic stratosphere) that have a way of sticking with you. The haunting feel and moody backdrop create an unsettling palate that keeps you guessing their next move. Though once you get a chance to fully digest Burning of Rome’s With Us more than once, you come away with an engaging, almost surreal, experience that is not easily forgotten.

1. The Howls – Rocky Ground

Released in January of 2011, this album has been my traveling companion for the last 12 months. And its bluesy, sparse, alt country, ten tracks have only seemed to grow and expand over the course of the last year. It’s a very simple record–no song is over four and a half minutes–but that’s what gives it its cohesive, natural feel.

The first thing you hear on Rocky Ground is John Cooper’s vocal. The instruments are pulled back and a line is delivered before the music settles comfortably in. Fitting, as Cooper’s yearning, simple and at times wobbly depth are what makes up this album’s foundation. You also get a taste of what the band (bassist Caleb Chial, drummer Dave Gargula and guitarist Chris Garcia) are made of on the lead track “Rio Grande.” Nothing over the top or too pronounced, it’s a collection of well-woven bass, drums, sweeping guitar, and a splattering of piano that create an early Wilco-like flow.

Stand out tracks include:

“Rocky Ground”: An alt-country sing-along full of rollicking piano and tasty guitar. The vocal takes some liberty, not taking itself too seriously, with a few hoots and hollers and even a primal scream toast to being in love again.

“Revival”: A haunting organ intro sets up this hallelujah stomp that stretches the band’s sound without moving them too far from their core. Its upbeat chorus seals the joyous celebration.

“All”: A slow builder that serves as the crescendo of the record. “All” clocks in as the longest song on Rocky Ground and reaches its peak in a U2 like finish.

“Rio Grande”: This lead track sets the bar high and introduces you to the best Album of the Year.

The Howls have only been around for a few years but have slowly started to create a following due to their straight-forward approach and the depth of these original songs. Rocky Ground plays solid as a whole record; it’s a complete, sit down and listen all the way through project. The toned-down, scruffy way in which it was recorded (they did it themselves) gives it its homey, warm feel and creates a sound and an album that stands out amongst the rest.

This year was a great year for new, original music in San Diego. Here are a few other records that filled my ears in 2012. Each is definitely worth a listen and contributed to what made last year’s releases so great.

The Black Sands
The Midnight Pine
Low Volts
Grampadrew
Jesse LaMonaca and The Dime Novels
The Paragraphs
Lord Howler

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