This was the year that retro fully conquered rock music. This shouldn't come as any surprise, considering just how omnipresent culture's nostalgic streak has become since the Internet's rise (a phenomenon critic Simon Reynolds examined in his 2011 tome, Retromania). But when you explore Napster's Top 25 Rock Albums, the genre's shift into a kind of neoclassical phase is fully driven home.
The evidence: I count no more than three titles – Baroness' Yellow & Green, Deftones' Koi No Yokan and 10 Years' Minus the Machine -- that actually sound as if they could've been made only in the 21st century. But even this insight requires qualification. In the case of Yellow & Green, Baroness -- who are still recuperating from a tragic tour-bus crash in England over the summer -- exorcised most of the sludge metal in their sound to create a song cycle laced with vintage hard rock moves (sweeping choruses, acoustic interludes, even a silky Santana groove on "Cocainium"). What's more, the double LP is clearly the band's stab at forging an epic listening experience à la The Dark Side of the Moon, Electric Ladyland, Aqualung and so on.
Consequently, most of the year's best hard rock was resolutely retro. Post-grunge is still wildly popular, yet the movement's long (and at times painful) slide into power balladry has left fans of titanic riffs and eardrum-shattering volume poking around elsewhere. This helps explain why The Sword's Apocryphon peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard charts, quite an accomplishment for a band that started life on psych-rock indie label Kemado Records. Graveyard's Lights Out is another key example; even though it didn't move nearly as many units, the record certainly received its fair share of exposure. What both albums reflect is (1) their makers' complete and utter obsession with the classics (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Budgie) and (2) in a more general sense, stoner rock's understated but profound influence on mainstream rock.
Now that I think about it, Halestorm's The Strange Case Of ... should also be mentioned here. They definitely flirt with modern pop conventions (from Auto-Tune to dance pop beats to tailored-for-radio compression), yet at their core they specialize in a snarling blend of '70s arena rock and '80s hair metal, like old-school Heart meets Shout at the Devil-era Mötley Crüe.
But where this neoclassicism is potent is in what I've long called the "New Classic Rock." I apply this tag to artists whose embrace of the retro feels directly inspired by the trend's holy trinity: Jack White/White Stripes, Jeff Tweedy/Wilco and Dan Auerbach/The Black Keys. New Classic Rock's noteworthy releases in 2012 include Alabama Shakes' Boys & Girls (Southern soul married to garage rock revivalism), Gary Clark Jr.'s Blak and Blu (Stevie Ray by way of the Keys), Heartless Bastards' Arrow (timeless heartland rock) and, of course, White's own Blunderbuss.
What's more, ZZ Top and Dr. John both dropped albums that feel distinctly inspired by the New Classic Rock. Produced by career-resuscitation guru Rick Rubin, La Futura, ZZ's first full-length in nine years, was a case of Billy Gibbons and the boys reconnecting with their uncanny ability to keep up with pop's ever-mutating tastes. Case in point: the reimaging of DJ DMD's Houston rap classic "25 Lighters" as "I Gotsta Get Paid" was utter genius. As for Locked Down, well, it was actually produced by one of said holy trinity, Dan Auerbach, and it's just awesome -- Dr. John's best in years. Sporting a funkified mélange of New Orleans rhythm and blues, rock, Southern soul, Afropop and even hip-hop (in the groove department, primarily), it's far and away the most successful example of the young-rocker-producing-old-rocker fad to date.
And those weren't the only oldies but goodies releasing top-notch albums in 2012. As a matter of fact, the year saw an inordinate amount of legends and icons rediscovering their musty muses. I have no idea how or why this occurred -- Metamucil? Adderall? -- but it did. Van Halen rose from the dead and regaled us with the hard-swinging A Different Kind of Truth. Neil Young and Crazy Horse reunited, first giving us the tepid Americana, which fortunately turned out to be but a mere warm-up for the wildly epic Psychedelic Pill. Dylan, too, unleashed his own sprawler in the cryptic Tempest.
It seems only fitting to close this out with shout-outs to Heart and Rush. They didn't make high-profile comebacks or long-anticipated reunions in 2012, nor did they hook up with young, hotshot producers. They simply kept on doing what they've been doing: making excellent music that only their longtime fans seem to genuinely appreciate. Rush's Clockwork Angels proves the power trio still gets its prog on ("Headlong Flight," a throwback to their 1974 debut, is one of the year's more ferocious jams). Fanatic, meanwhile, is now the third album in a row (following Jupiters Darling and Red Velvet Car) wherein the Wilson sisters unleash great music in Heart's classic '70s style.
And now on to Napster's Top 25 Rock Albums of 2012.
25) 10 Years, Minus the Machine
24) The Sheepdogs, The Sheepdogs
23) Xavier Rudd, Spirit Bird
22) Black Country Communion, Afterglow
21) Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
20) Mark Lanegan Band, Blues Funeral
19) The Darkness, Hot Cakes
18) Tedeschi Trucks Band, Everybody's Talkin'
17) Rush, Clockwork Angels
16) Heart, Fanatic
15) Van Halen, A Different Kind of Truth
14) Bob Dylan, Tempest
13) Gary Clark Jr., Blak and Blu
12) Graveyard, Lights Out
11) Halestorm, The Strange Case Of ...
10) The Cult, Choice of Weapon
9) Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls
8) Heartless Bastards, Arrow
7) Jack White, Blunderbuss
6) Deftones, Koi No Yokan
5) ZZ Top, La Futura
4) The Sword, Apocryphon
3) Neil Young / Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill
2) Dr. John, Locked Down
1) Baroness, Yellow & Green