Best of 2012 - Classic Rock

Rush, Thin Lizzy, The Doors, ZZ Top find fountain of youth
By Peter Lindblad
Shaking off the rust that inevitably comes with old age, a number of classic-rock artists showed everybody that they refuse to go gently into that good night.
Rolling Stones - Grrr! 2012
Whether it was the Rolling Stones’ revving up their best song in years with “Doom and Gloom,” or Aerosmith bringing their own brand of “Global Warming” to the masses in live shows that were full of piss and vigor, old greats like those icons, as well as KISS and Bruce Springsteen, burned their AARP cards and did the kind of great work – be it in the studio, as with Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball or Heart’s Fanatic, or on the road – expected of them 20 or 30 years ago.
There were incredible songs, such as Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” or Joe Walsh’s “Analog Man,” and albums like KISS’s Monster that had unexpected vitality and inspired performances. And tours like the Loverboy/Journey/Pat Benatar triple bill served notice that many of these bands are still capable of delivering the goods onstage. Truly, though, one band rose above them all in 2012, putting out one of the best records of their career and finally getting their just due from critics, while other releases simply outshined the competition. Here’s the best classic rock had to offer in 2012.
Artist of the Year: Rush
Rush - Clockwork Angels 2012
Voters for the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame finally saw the light in 2012. After shunning Rush for so long, they did the right thing for once and selected the Canadian progressive-rock power trio for membership, perhaps earning them some small measure of goodwill from their harshest detractors – although they stand to be inundated with slings and arrows for denying Deep Purple again, and deservedly so. What exactly was it that tipped the scales for Rush this time around? Could it be the fact that they produced one of the year’s best albums in Clockwork Angels? Undoubtedly, that had something to do with it, especially when critics that had been unkind – to put it charitably – toward Rush in the past gave in and applauded a record of sublime beauty, complex musicianship and soaring ambition. A sci-fi concept album with a compelling anti-authoritarian narrative, steam-punk imagery and coming-of-age drama, Clockwork Angels is a tour de force of heavy, intricately constructed guitars (see “Headlong Flight” and “BU2B” for proof), crafty melodies, shifting moods and textures, and epic arrangements – in other words, a Rush album. Sometimes the Rock Hall voters need to be hit over the head a number of times before they finally get it, and it seems that Rush knocked some sense into them in 2012.
Album of the Year: ZZ Top – La Futura (Universal Republic)
ZZ Top - La Futura 2012
La Futura, as it turns out, is deeply rooted in ZZ Top’s past, and that makes it a welcome sight in 2012. A spicy, simmering pot full to the brim of Texas blues-fired boogie, with some of the tastiest licks Billy Gibbons has cooked up in quite a while – this being ZZ Top’s first album in nine years – La Futura is nasty and mean from jump-street, with tracks like “Chartreuse,” “Big Shiny Nine” and “I Don’t Wanna Lose, You” recalling the wicked, dusty Panhandle grooves of dirty classics like “La Grange,” “Tush” and “Cheap Sunglasses.” Like a strutting striptease, the tantalizing “Consumption” is trashy, honky-tonkin’ fun, while the soulful “Over You” is a surprisingly tender and heartfelt love song that comes straight out of the Stax Records playbook. And even though a lot of La Futura harkens back to 1973, it has a modern production sheen to it that doesn’t tame these lions, and the first single, “I Gotsta Get Paid,” has more swagger and tight, stop-start hooks than the Black Keys could ever hope to obtain.
Song of the Year: Rush – “The Wreckers” (off of the album Clockwork Angels on Roadrunner Records)
No one has ever accused Rush of sounding like R.E.M. or The Byrds or Matthew Sweet, and there’s good reason for that. Jangly power-pop has never been Rush’s cup of tea – that is, until now. There’s a bright, sunny quality to the guitars in the intro and the verses to “The Wreckers” that couldn’t possibly sound less like Rush, and yet there it is. And it reaches out its hand to invite you in, a warm smile on Geddy Lee’s face and Alex Lifeson’s colorful guitar licks beckoning with a shiny, happy sound that may or may not hide a dark truth. Be careful of these men, for they are not what they seem. Ultimately, they want to warn you that what is sometimes sold as the truth can often be a lie, as Lee sings in the transcendent choruses, “All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary of a miracle too good to be true.” “The Wreckers,” on the other hand, is not. At the very least it is angelic. Awash in swerving, swooping strings and cinematic keyboards, those magical, glorious choruses where a world-weary Lee dispenses that sage advice are some of the most emotionally powerful and soul-stirring moments Rush has ever brought to bear on record. And there is a bridge in “The Wreckers” that is dangerous to cross, for it traverses a deep, wide canyon of synthesizers, crashing drums and doom-laden guitars that is simply magnificent to behold. Do not be wary of “The Wreckers.” It might not be a miracle, but it’s pretty damn close.
Best Concert DVD: The Doors at the Bowl ‘68 (Eagle Vision)
The Doors - Live at The Bowl '68 2012
For its historic value alone, “The Doors at the Bowl ‘68” is heads and shoulders above any concert DVD released this year. Restored in painstaking fashion from the original camera negatives, the band’s entire performance from that night is included here, and it features the band in high spirits. Loose and improvisational when the occasion calls for it, the threesome of John Densmore, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger could go on endless journeys into the jungles of the musical subconscious, but they could be tight and sinewy. Playing at the famed Hollywood Bowl for the first time – in the area they called home, no less – The Doors set the night on fire, and a particularly impish and focused Jim Morrison howled and sang with a primal energy that only he could summon. An abundance of incisive and fascinating bonus features put the event into perspective and the inclusion of performances of “Hello, I Love You,” “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)” and “Spanish Caravan” that had previously been lost to time have found their way back. And it’s good to have them again.    
Best Documentary DVD: Freddie Mercury – The Great Pretender (Eagle Vision)
Onstage, Freddie Mercury was indestructible, a force of nature whose flamboyant showmanship knew no bounds and whose voice rang out as clear as a bell in loud stadiums full of adoring fans who hung on his every word – that is, when they weren’t singing along with him. That was the Freddie the world knew. But, in his personal life, Mercury was less sure of himself, a man who sometimes made mistakes and was a slave to his appetites. “Freddie Mercury – The Great Pretender” explores every facet of the singer’s extraordinary life, from his globe-trotting childhood through his wildly successful, if sometimes contentious, studio work with Queen and on to his fascination with opera and the ups and downs of his inconsistent solo work. Loaded with archival images and video footage – including sensational live material – “Freddie Mercury – The Great Pretender” also packs in revealing, insightful commentary and fascinating anecdotes from Brian May, Roger Taylor and a host of other Queen confidantes. It’s a loving portrait of an artist who died too young, and yet, it’s a completely honest rendering that pulls no punches. Mercury probably wouldn’t have it any other way. 
Best Live Album: Thin Lizzy – Live in London 2011 (Four Worlds USA)
Thin Lizzy - Live in London 2011
Phil Lynott isn’t going to come walking through that door … ever again. He’s gone, but the amazing rock ‘n’ roll he left behind deserves to be heard in a live setting, doesn’t it? And who better to play it than Thin Lizzy survivors Scott Gorham and Brian Downey. A fitting tribute to their fallen friend, this concert LP is 19 tracks of explosive hard-rock, containing all the Thin Lizzy hits and then some in a fantastic set list. The mix is primed for optimum power, and this collection of musicians performs classics like “Jailbreak,” “Cowboy Song” and “The Boys are Back in Town” with grit, enthusiasm and swashbuckling panache, those well-executed, signature twin-guitar leads tangled up so exquisitely like ballroom dancers twirling around on the edge of a switchblade. There’s a lot of ground to cover with Thin Lizzy, and this particular incarnation does its best to thumb through the catalog and pick out only the choicest cuts. It’s a flawed record, to be sure, but there’s no doubting the joy and electricity with which Lizzy performs these classics. Word has it that some of the boys from this version of Lizzy are starting a new band called Black Star Riders. Based on this release, which in my eyes becomes more thrilling with repeated listens, expectations should be exceedingly high for them.
Best Reissue: Blue Oyster Cult – The Columbia Albums Collection (Legacy Recordings
Blue Oyster Cult - The Columbia Albums Collection 2012
The word “exhaustive” doesn’t even begin to describe this archeological dig. For starters, this set, released in celebration of Blue Oyster Cult’s 40th anniversary, gathers together every last one of their studio albums released between 1972 and 1988, from their self-titled debut LP on through to Imaginos. That means it includes classic albums such as Agents of Fortune, Spectres, Fire of Unknown Origin, and Cultosaurus Erectus, among others. Oh, and did I mention the live albums? On Your Feet or on Your Knees, Some Enchanted Evening and Extraterrestrial Live are remastered for greater sonic impact and expansiveness. Packed to the gills with great photos and fascinating liner notes, there is a 40-page booklet that accompanies the collection, which is packaged so snugly and efficiently that it won’t throw your cataloging system – if you have one – completely out of whack. You want rarities? There’s a disc for that, too, plus another that gathers as many of their radio broadcasts as they can find and downloads and a bushel full of bonus tracks. Where other classic-rock artists, or rather their record labels, seem to take pleasure in releasing their past works in dribs and drabs, offering very little in the way of rare stuff, Blue Oyster Cult has done it in one fell swoop and they have given the people what they wanted.
Best Book: Gregg Allman – My Cross to Bear (William Morrow)

Gregg Allman - My Cross to Bear 2012
Written in collaboration with esteemed music journalist Alan Light, “My Cross to Bear” finds Gregg Allman in a reflective, confessional mood. Ambling easily through the past, Allman takes his time getting to the real meat of the story, but when he does, the tales he tells are sometimes unsettling, occasionally funny, and often heartbreaking. Life, love, drugs and music – that’s what Allman’s book is about, and it’s a portrayal that isn’t a flattering one. Looking into the mirror, Allman sees his flaws in sharp relief and is willing to expose them for all to read. Once you get past all the self-excoriating personal revelations, there is plenty of behind-the-scenes information on the Allman Brothers to excite fans of their music.

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