Who was responsible for 2012's best rock albums? Some came from veteran acts with something to prove, while others were produced by up-and-coming bands trying to leave their mark. But whether your tastes lean more toward garage-rock or dance-rock, the year had plenty of worthy offerings.
For their first album since the mid-'90s, Soundgarden don't so much try to recapture the Seattle sound as they do recreate the sense of what those albums were like. As a result, King Animal brings grunge to the 21st century, bolstered by Chris Cornell's rich, emotive vocals. This new album doesn't match their earlier highlights, but it suggests a band still willing to grow and take risks.
Foxy Shazam draw inspiration from acts like Andrew W.K. and the Darkness, treating rock as a celebration of bombastic excess. Produced by Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins, The Church of Rock and Roll is all strutting guitar riffs and wailed vocals. "(It's) Too Late Baby" recalls classic Queen, with Eric Sean Nally channeling the operatic fervor of Freddie Mercury. The hard-stomping "I Like It" pays homage to a plump derriere, while "Wasted Feelings" practically flirts with dance-pop. Foxy Shazam make music not worth taking too seriously, which is a good thing since The Church of Rock and Roll is big shameless fun.
As much as he tries, Brian Fallon will never, ever be Bruce Springsteen. But what makes Handwritten so special is that he and his mates in the Gaslight Anthem aren't going to let that reality stop them. Delivering a rousing collection of heart-on-their-sleeve songs, the New Jersey quartet let the emotions pour from their bar-band arrangements. Not the Boss, but certainly boisterous.
With Amaryllis, Shinedown proved that 2008's The Sound of Madness was no fluke. Proudly waving the flag for anthemic arena rock, the Florida group produced another collection of instantly engaging, consistently melodic tunes that demonstrates that mainstream accessibility doesn't need to be a pejorative. It's easy to sneer at the feel-good uplift of a rousing track like "Unity," but it's very hard to deny its power.
On Americana, Neil Young got back together with his trusty backing band, Crazy Horse, for a towering garage-rock run-through of well-known folk standards like "This Land Is Your Land." Just don't expect hushed reverence for the source material: At 66, Young is as ornery as ever, transforming "Oh Susannah" into bristling, ragged rock 'n' roll that will make you pump your fist while you're singing along.
Is Uno! the best of Green Day's trilogy of albums simply because it came first? That's very possible. Nonetheless, to these ears it's the most consistently tuneful of the three, peaking with the tart dance track "Kill the DJ." After years of accomplished, ambitious concept albums, it was fun to hear these guys simply crank out the tunes, one after the other, without any larger thematic concerns.
If you've been turned off in the past by Muse's bombast, well, The 2nd Law won't do a thing to change your mind. Proudly theatrical and melodramatic, the album does everything at operatic, arena-rock level, but the strength of its ambition becomes overpowering after a while.
How best to classify the sort of laid-back indie-rock that Band of Horses play? Well, the title of the group's most recent album is a pretty decent descriptor. Assertive but also reflective and gentle, Mirage Rock emits such sunny, positive feelings that it's a balm during difficult times. Look elsewhere for gripping, urgent tunes: Frontman Ben Bridwell is quite happy simply to continue evolving as a craftsman of peaceful, easy rock 'n' roll.
As he did on 2010's Born Free, Kid Rock largely abandons his hip-hop persona for Rebel Soul, which focuses on good-time rock 'n' roll that caters to its audience with utter abandon. Whether giving it up for his native Detroit ("Detroit, Michigan") or stressing the need to party in the face or real-world ills ("3 CATT Boogie"), the album is equally shameless in its pandering and endearing in its sincerity.