“Don’t call it a comeback” is usually a phrase uttered self-protectively by musicians who are very much coming back from some degree of obscurity. Dr. Dre wasn’t exactly absent during the seven-year stretch between his first and second albums (“California Love,” anybody?), but his 1999 sophomore release 2001 is littered with lines like “Ladies pay homage, but haters say Dre fell off/ How, nigga? My last album was The Chronic.” If he ever gets around to releasing Detox, it’ll surely be stacked with similar “I never went away” rhetoric (and, undoubtedly, lyrics about headphones.) I’ve always found this kind of stunting a bit off-putting. All it proves is a profound lack of confidence in your own staying power. Better not to address the haters at all, or just completely own the stepping-out-of-shadows look. Hell, Ludacris called his debut album Back For The First Time, to which I respond with a dirty bird salute. Who doesn’t love “Return Of The Mack”?
Disappearing for a while ain’t so bad. If the past decade’s parade of reunions has proven anything, it’s that going away and coming back can be a brilliant career move. Give people some time to miss you, let your legend build and return to a chorus of hosannas like you’ve never heard. Just ask Pixies or Pavement how that goes. Better yet, ask their accountants. But if you’re going to come back with something new to offer, it had better be good. On tour, nobody wants half-assed filler tracks from your new LP to get in the way of hearing the hits. (The Strokes should repeat this mantra until it’s all they know.) Billy Corgan has been remarkably stubborn in his quest to avoid Smashing Pumpkins becoming a nostalgia act, but even the most generous Oceania reviews admitted that this stuff simply doesn’t measure up to his classics. His struggle to stay relevant proves how difficult it is to pull off a comeback that actually pleases your audience without resorting to the old song and dance.
In light of so many fading glimmers, this year’s genuine returns to glory should garner special appreciation. There is no guarantee an artist of repute will be able to keep backing up that reputation. To witness lightning continuing to strike is one of the great blessings of the creative connoisseur. So let’s spend some time appreciating those artists who successfully came back from the brink, whether that renewed vitality amounted to an entire album of note or just a bravura single or two.
One note before we proceed: The concept of returning from obscurity also raises the question, “Obscure to whom?” What about those musicians who fall out of the public eye but keep churning out music? And what constitutes “the public eye”? I could argue that Mount Eerie staged a remarkable comeback this year, and indeed it’s been a while since Phil Elverum released an album I felt compelled to spend time with, let alone two. But he never stopped releasing music; 2012 just marks the first time in a while that the music media at large decided to pay close attention — and by extension the first time people outside Elverum’s fiercest supporters ventured into his weird world. And what about Nas? Life Is Good was hailed as a comeback by some, but pretty much every Nas album is hailed as a comeback by somebody. With those kinds of questions in mind, I’m limiting this feature to acts that hadn’t released an album of original material in at least five years before their big 2012 bow; they’re listed here in alphabetical order. (Sorry, Neneh Cherry; if it’s any consolation, The Cherry Thing was dope.) I’m sure I missed more than a few of this year’s great comebacks, so fill in the gaps in the comments.
This was a big year for former Def Jux stars (see below), and that’s not something I ever thought I’d see. The nasal pontification of Rock’s “Daylight” days is still evident in Skelethon’s microphone detonations, but these days it’s pretty far from harmonically resolved Atmosphere-style emo rap. Now Rock spews disenchanted real talk over a cantankerous ruckus; it doesn’t go down easy, but it’s good for you.
Maybe this is just the writer in me, but you can tell a lot about a work of art’s power by the colorful expression it inspires in reviews. Fiona Apple delivered this website’s favorite album of 2012 and the only concert to freeze me solid this year, but she also was the catalyst for some of my favorite descriptive flourishes. My preview and review of her Columbus concert were among my proudest moments as a writer this year, and Tom Breihan’s Premature Evaluation piqued my interest in The Idler Wheel… more than just about any album writeup this year. But enough about me; have you heard this batshit crazy bloodletting/high wire act of a record? Of course you have.
Cat Power’s inessential 2008 covers record Jukebox was the main reason I specified this list was for artists who hadn’t released a set of original music in the past half-decade. I needed an excuse to tip my hat to the pop-minded, pixie-cut Sun before 2012 closed out. This being Chan Marshall, darkness is lurking between every stanza, but damn if she didn’t choose bright, snappy sounds to vanquish her breakup. Marshall’s signature style is so ingrained that no matter what aesthetic she tries on, it’s going to sound like Cat Power — even, it turns out, ’80s echo guitars, AutoTune and thumping 808s. Singles “Cherokee” and “Ruin” are instant entries in the Cat Power pantheon, “3,6,9” is one of the year’s best head trips, and as critic Zach Baron noted on Twitter, “Nothin But Time” could have gone on for 100 minutes instead of 10 and nobody would’ve minded.
As it was for many people, the Roots’ 2002 hit “The Seed 2.0” (a perfectly acceptable song that spawned a thousand unbearable hip-hop jam bands) was my primary exposure to ChesnuTT before he resurfaced this year with his first full-length in a decade. I can’t remember if I ever heard his highly immodest The Headphone Masterpiece in its heyday, but his new funk and soul opus Landing On A Hundred veers between the sleeper party record of the year and, um, a headphone masterpiece.
As January’s Album Of The Week feature explains, Old Ideas probably wouldn’t exist if not for the vile scheming of Cohen’s former manager, so: Thanks, evil manager dude! That same essay credits Cohen with releasing four albums any serious music fan would be familiar with, none of which have I heard even a minute of. Egg on my face, I know. Clearly the man is a legend, but honestly before Old Ideas he was just the dude who wrote “Hallelujah” to me. (At least I have James Jackson Toth to teach me!) Here’s the thing: Tom Waits is a circus sideshow Cookie Monster clone whose enduring popularity is almost certainly a hoax, and I can’t bring myself to pretend raspy-croak-era Bob Dylan is anything but an endurance test. This entire school of wizened iconoclastic white dude Mojo rock is just not my thing. So how pleasant to discover the preternatural aura Cohen conjured via swampy tempos and growled whispers.
Did anybody even listen to Hot Cakes beyond the ill-advised “Street Spirit” cover? If you did, you realize that within the first minute Justin Hawkins sings “Every man, woman and child wants to suck my cock.” That probably caused more than a few of you to turn the album off, and I can’t exactly question your discernment there. But if you did call it quits at “Every Inch Of Me,” you’d have missed the arena-rock gold that is “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us” and the ace guitar solo near the end of “Keep Me Hangin’ On” and the instant-classic Thin Lizzy homage “Everybody Have A Good Time.” Fortunately, the Darkness’ songwriting prowess has a much later expiration date than its gimmickry.
Dead Can Dance
Song titles on the Spotify sampler for Anastasis: “Children Of The Sun,” “Kiko,” “Opium,” “Return of the She-King.” If that reads like Enya’s cloudiest day of the year, well, you’re not reading it wrong. But Dead Can Dance’s first album in 16 years veers just as close to Sigur Ros territory. It’s a logical extension for one of 4AD’s foundational bands, still steeped in post-punk and Eastern mysticism but stretched out to a soundtrack-worthy sprawl.
There’s a case to be made for El-P as rap’s MVP this year. Besides producing Killer Mike’s snarling aggression treatise R.A.P. Music and shepherding NYC’s resurgent weird-rap coterie, the erstwhile Company Flow soundbomber and Def Jux overlord released a solo album that stands toe to toe with anybody not named Kendrick. In a year defined by maximalist thrust, few records captured the frayed nerves and sensory overload of 2012 living like Cancer For Cure.
If The Odds is what punk sounds like all grown up, there’s hope for us all in middle age. Even in the throes of domesticity, Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina sound radical and rousing.
Ben Folds Five
Playing with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee brings out the best in Ben Folds. At times, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind descended into the winking abhorrence that has defined Folds’ solo career, but there were peaks that reminded me why I loved this band so dearly in middle school. The crisp, clever, older-and-wiser confessional “Do It Anyway” was reason enough to justify this reunion.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
This band has always been in the business of teaching us patience, so 10 years between records really isn’t much of a surprise. What’s clear is how short our culture’s attention spans got while Godspeed was away. I stood staring for half an hour at a festival this summer before something resembling a song emerged from the drone. The instant gratification of Grimes’ performance nearby threw the Canadian collective’s deliberate pace into even sharper relief; this wasn’t the easiest music to reckon with. However, what was clear then was even clearer when the troubled landscapes of Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! emerged by surprise in October: When you’re waiting for Godspeed, your patience is duly rewarded.
Guided By Voices
That Guided By Voices’ “classic lineup” would return with three albums in a single year is only fitting. That all three of them would be respectable verging on awesome is a testament to the band’s enduring patch of real estate in the scrappy pop pantheon (one that’s strewn with empty beer cans, to be sure). The sheer girth also suggests they could have feasibly released the best GBV album of all time had they culled the three of them into a single powerhouse LP, but let’s be realistic — this is Robert Pollard we’re talking about here.
I would not have predicted the first track on No Doubt’s first album in 11 years to be six minutes long. Nor would I have predicted Push And Shove to feature a Diplo-produced title track, trend jumpers though they may be. Steven Hyden’s Katy Perry comparison is on-point; “One More Summer” would make a fine addition to the Teenage Dream tracklist or, like, the Eternal Summers album. Even well into her MILF phase, even on an album with an awkward melancholy streak, pop music is more fun with Gwen Stefani around.
One album every 15 years sounds about right for Redd Kross — partially because a little punk-pedigreed power pop in the vein of Researching the Blues goes a long way, and partially because these songs may take that long to get out of your head.
Though it won enough Stereogum editors’ hearts to make our top 50 of 2012, frankly I found Port Of Morrow mostly dull, a continuation of James Mercer’s gradual slide into the middle-aged mediocrity that plagued Broken Bells and, to a lesser extent, the previous Shins album Wincing The Night Away. The more spunk, the better, where Mercer’s concerned. But “Simple Song” alone would be reason to rejoice about a new Shins record. So let’s rejoice!
Like the Shins comeback, Soundgarden’s reunion LP was padded out with deep cuts that nobody needs to hear. Also like that Shins album, King Animal boasted a handful of songs that more than justified its existence. “Been Away Too Long” is Chris Cornell shot from a cannon. “By Crooked Steps” features some of the gnarliest off-kilter melodic supergenius of Kim Thayil’s career. “Bones Of Birds” shows they can still pull off a grunge slow jam.
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
On the immensely Stonesy “Bag Of Bones,” under the influence of increasingly hefty echo effects, Jon Spencer poses a few questions that seem relevant to his M.O.: “Do you remember the 1990s? Do you remember the 1980s? Do you remember the 1970s?” The man is a walking, leather-pantsed embodiment of retro. But any thoughts of Blues Explosion as a mere shadow of glories long past are rendered moot by Meat And Bones, not to mention the ferocious live show I witnessed back in October. Jon Spencer: still explosive after all these years.
Neil Young And Crazy Horse
“Here’s how I got my mantra/ Gave them 35 bucks now/ Gave it to the Maharishi/ It went to the organization/ Excuse my religion/ Dreamin’ ’bout the way things feel now/ Write it in my book/ Blockin’ out all the thoughts now.” There are two men whose clenched sinus cavity would render such blather acceptable to me. One is Columbus punk living legend Ron House (he of Great Plains and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments and Psandwich). The other is Neil Young, who happened to yelp it into existence on the diffuse but exuberant Psychedelic Pill, his first set of originals with Crazy Horse in nine years. (They also recorded a bunch of traditionals like “Oh Susanna” for a separate record called Americana; that was decent, too.) There is room in my life for long-winded guitar dawdle when these guys are pulling the strings. Doomsday seems to be closing in from all directions, but a world where Neil Young is fronting Crazy Horse is one I want to live in.