Gospel Claws, Put Your Sunshine Away (Common Wall Media/President Gator Records): The men of Gospel Claws had a rough time in 2011 and 2012. Songwriter Joel Marquard fought (and beat) testicular cancer, and the band tragically lost guitarist Mark Erickson. But there's no mourning on their second LP, Put Your Sunshine Away. "I Move Around" sounds like a mythic sock hop; "Anything I Can Do" sounds like a lost Scott Walker recording, with Marquard gravely intoning "I've been in circles, I've been insane" as the organ and guitars break loose from behind a Phil Spector-style Wall of Sound. Put Your Sunshine Away isn't just the sound of a band determined to soldier on; it's the sound of one equally resolved to have a great time doing it.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, "Wrecking Ball" (Live at Jobing.com Arena, 12/6/12): "I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago," Bruce Springsteen sings at the start of "Wrecking Ball," the title track of his 17th studio album and namesake of the tour that brought him to Phoenix at the beginning of December. The song's about the demolition of Giants Stadium and sung from the point of view of the doomed sports complex itself. I'm not a big sports guy, so I can't blame the lump in my throat and tears stinging my eyes during his performance of the song at Jobing.com Arena on team loyalty. It's the message — defiance in the face of doom, bravado in facing the inevitable — and the gospel-true refrain ("Hold on to your anger / Don't fall to your fears") that makes it not only a remarkably powerful validation of Springsteen's late-career records but also a testament to what's made the Boss tick all these years. It echoes the bitter and profound lyrics of a song he didn't play that night in December: "At the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe."
Isaiah Toothtaker & Max B., Toothy Wavy (Mishka Records): Tucson MC Isaiah Toothtaker didn't get a lot of sleep in 2012. In addition to running tattoo parlor Staring Without Caring, he cranked out three recordings this year, including Sea Punk Funk for art rap collective Anticon, the Rob Zombie EP with Rapewolf, and a collaboration with Max B. and the Hood Internet. The last is his most accessible — and the strongest contender. Max B.'s lines are muffled, recorded via telephone from New Jersey State Prison, where he's serving a 75-year sentence for armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and murder, but that doesn't diminish the terse interplay between the two MCs over cut-paste-skew production from the Hood Internet on tracks like the smooth "Champion Cuffer" and grinding, indie rock-leaning "Been Told."
Chris Cohen, "Caller No. 99" (from Overgrown Path, Captured Tracks): "The station above the tuning dial is a signal that never comes," Chris Cohen sings over steady, lounging snare clicks while guitars swirl and bounce behind him. It's the headphone moment on an album full of headphone moments, the sort of song that sounds like it's about the very act of listening to music, scanning sounds for some resonance that will stick. "It is my nature," Cohen concludes emphatically.
Mitch Freedom's Phantasmagoria (live at Yucca Tap Room in Tempe, 9/25/12): The stage at Yucca Tap Room in Tempe is small. Enough space for a four-piece rock outfit, sure, but cramming a soulful mob of guitarists, keyboardists, percussionists, a funky bassist, and a quartet of singers takes some dedication. Mitch Freedom, formerly of mood-setters What Laura Says, did exactly that one balmy night at the Tempe club, conjuring up a spacey take on Sun Ra jazz, neo-soul, and dubby space rock. And to make matters even more impressive, he jammed a quick set of mod-minded garage R&B with the emerging band Samuel L. and the Cool J's — right in the middle of the expanding soul madness.
North Dakota, EP (River Jones Music): Post-punk trio North Dakota paints big pictures. There's no sprawling poetry on the band's four-song EP (titled, you know, EP) but what's there — minimal and compact — is no less affecting. It's as direct and as sparse as the band's taut guitar/keyboard/bass/drums setup, and songs like "La La La" and "China/Japan" don't need length to convey the point, nor does "Thing," summed up with three voices in distorted unison: "Oh, you may have wanted me / I never wanted you."
Saint Maybe, Things Are As They Are (Fort Lowell Records): Saint Maybe is a Tucson supergroup featuring members who've backed up Patti Smith, Warren Zevon, and Bob Dylan, and the band's fully formed debut, Things Are As They Are, sounds like the space between Phoenix and the Old Pueblo. It feels like a late-night drive, the radio tuned to some far-off AM station playing a psychedelic Van Morrison B-side you've never heard. Lest you think the vibe is too easygoing, note the implied menace in tracks like "Take It Easy (But Take It)."
Frank Ocean, Channel ORANGE (Def Jam): One of the first sounds you hear on Frank Ocean's stunning Channel ORANGE is the "Apple sound," the bloop that signifies a CD is done importing or something. It's evocative of what sets Channel ORANGE at the front of the R&B/soul pack in 2012. The retro connections are there — Stevie Wonder on "Sweet Life," Prince on the heartbreaking "Thinking Bout You," but Ocean's "FutureSex/LoveSounds" are rooted firmly in the present, incorporating post-hip-hop gauze and psychedelic EDM swoons into a remarkable debut that never slips despite its widescreen ambitions.
Father John Misty (live at the Rhythm Room, 10/10/12): In his New Times interview, Father John Misty himself, J. Tillman, confessed: "I want to do what a stripper does, and in another way, do what a carnival barker does, or a shaman, some kind of Pentecostal preacher. Those are all more interesting archetypes than a guitarist to me." Tillman tapped that charismatic vein on stage at the Rhythm Room, shaking his hips like a towering Elvis, lighting smokes, and bathing the crowd in his acerbic Los Angeles wit, drenched in liberal reverb.
Larkin Grimm, "The Road Is Paved with Leaves" (from Soul Retrieval, Bad Bitch Records): Sometimes a song needs to confront, incite, or challenge. Singer/songwriter Larkin Grimm's Soul Retrieval album has plenty of songs that do that, but its most powerful moment is when Grimm chooses to comfort with the aching soul ballad "The Road Is Paved with Leaves." "There is nothing to worry about, everything's fine," she sings as background singers sashay and "shooby-doo-waa" behind her. "Don't go out of your mind," she adds, a command that couldn't suit 2012 any more than it does.