With the number of albums released each year increasing, it makes sense that so many are largely ignored by mainstream music media. Many of the best albums of 2012 — Archie Powell and Prima Donna would have made my top five overall — were ones that didn't show up on Billboard's charts or retailers' shelves.
Here's how I rank the best overlooked albums for 2012:
No. 1 — Archie Powell & The Exports' "Great Ideas in Action" (Good Land Records) — Calling a CD "Great Ideas In Action" invites ridicule if the music doesn't deliver the goods. Nothing to worry about here as Powell and his band crank out one rocking pop gem after another. For fans of energetic power pop, your ship has come in.
No. 2 — Prima Donna's "Bless This Mess" (Acetate Records) — Green Day chose Prima Donna to open tours in Europe and Asia. That says something. But what speaks loudest is the music on "Bless This Mess," the band's third album. The CD brings together first-wave punk and glam rock influences and packs them within concise, boisterous and hyper-catchy tracks that will remind listeners how much fun no-frills, high-energy rock can be.
No. 3 — Kevin Bowe + The Okemah Prophets' "Natchez Trace" (Okemah Prophets Records) — Bowe has written songs for Kenny Wayne Shepherd ("Riverside"), Etta James and Paul Westerberg, to name a few. "Natchez Trace" shows why he's in demand. It touches on soul, country, pop, psychedelic and acoustic rock, and suggests Bowe should keep his songs for his own albums more often.
No. 4 — The Mastersons' "Birds Fly South" (New West Records) — The husband-and-wife duo that makes up the Mastersons — Eleanor Whitmore and Chris Masterson — have been key members of Steve Earle's latest backing group. But they're going to get noticed as major songwriting talents in their own right with this auspicious debut, which often strikes a winning balance between country twang and tuneful rock.
No. 5 — The dB's "Falling Off the Sky" (Bar/None Records) — This album brings back the original dB's (featuring Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple) — one of the best pop bands of the '80s. The band hasn't lost its touch, as "Falling Off the Sky," is a stirring reminder of the considerable talent the dB's always possessed.
No. 6 — Claude Hay's "I Love Hate You" (128 Records) — Hay is literally a one-man band, playing all the instruments on his albums himself in the studio and on stage. This doesn't stop him from creating a big, bluesy rock sound — which is matched by some great stomping blues-rock on the title song and "Don't Bring Me Down," driving rock on "Good Times," some thumping mountain soul on "Narrow Mind" and a whole lot more.
No. 7 — The Big Cats' "The Ancient Art Of Leaving: Two Parts (Max Recordings) — This Arkansas-based band has only made albums and performed live sporadically over its two-decade existence. This album, with its strong collection of classic guitar pop, makes one wish these Cats could record more often.
No. 8 — Kevin Gordon's "Gloryland" (Crowville Media Records) — The centerpiece of "Gloryland," Gordon's sixth album, is "Colfax/Step In Time," in which Gordon spins a vivid portrait of his days in a seventh-grade band that becomes a chilling and ultimately triumphant look at race relations — all set to a tense, bluesy melody that segues into the rousing, gospel-accented "Step In Time." The rest of this rootsy album is just as good, as Gordon once again shows he's one of the most overlooked songwriter/artists in music.
No. 9 — The Dirty Guv'nahs' "Somewhere Beneath These Southern Skies" (Dualtone Records) — "Somewhere Beneath These Southern Skies" is about as old-school as albums get these days. And that's just fine because The Dirty Guv'nahs have the songwriting chops and the passion to make any fan of soul-tinged guitar rock stand up and take notice.
No 10 — 8MM's "Between The Devil and Two Black Hearts" (ChelseaGirl Records) — The track record for albums featuring artists from acting, dance and other disciplines is not great. But this duo, made up of producer/mixer Sean Beavan and his wife, "Stop Staring!" model Juliette Beavan, is the exception. Their fifth release, "Between The Devil And Two Black Hearts," shows an impressive command of both Americana and epic U2-ish rock.
The best of the rest: Gregory Pepper and His Problems' "Crystal Skull Mountain" (Fake Four Inc.); Amy Cook's "Summer Skin" (Roothouse Records/Thirty Tigers); The Henry Clay People's "Twenty-Five for the Rest of Our Lives" (TBD Records); Sugar & The Hi-Lows' "Sugar & The Hi-Lows" (self-released); Amy Gore & Her Valentines' "In Love" (Space Lion); Hacienda's "Shakedown" (Collective Sounds); Jessie Baylin's "Little Spark" (Blonde Rat); Cosmo Jarvis' "Think Bigger" (25th Fame Productions/Middle Ground); Ty Segall's "Twins" (Drag City); Waco Brothers & Paul Burch's "Great Chicago Fire" (Bloodshot).