Chris Rizik: 2012 in Review - An imperfectly perfect year

A wise friend once told me that something doesn't have to be perfect to have value. And for music fans, 2012 was an imperfect year in which there was far more value than we could have reasonably expected. It was a year of tremendous losses and some disappointments. But it will be remembered most as a year when many established artists found their groove again and a shocking number of new artists arrived on the scene with a flourish. 

Here are my reflections on the good and bad of what, for me, is ultimately a year of joy and great promise for the future:

Sad Goodbyes

A wise friend once told me that something doesn't have to be perfect to have value. And for music fans, 2012 was an imperfect year in which there was far more value than we could have reasonably expected. It was a year of tremendous losses and some disappointments. But it will be remembered most as a year when many established artists found their groove again and a shocking number of new artists arrived on the scene with a flourish. 

Here are my reflections on the good and bad of what, for me, is ultimately a year of joy and great promise for the future:

Sad Goodbyes

Those who led the classic soul movement are aging and dying in uncomfortably large numbers. But in 2012, we also had too many shocking losses -- innovators whose lives ended early and unnaturally, causing us to catch our breath between tears. Those of us over 30 said goodbye to two men who were our Saturday friends for years, Don Cornelius and Dick Clark. We also tragically lost Whitney Houston, a star who loomed larger than life both on her way up and her sad trip back down. Gone also was one-third of arguably the greatest pop trio of all time (Robin Gibb), our favorite "bad girl" and icon of dance music (Donna Summer), and a classic soul singer whose legacy continued to grow even beyond the day of her death (Etta James). Unfortunately, it seemed that almost weekly a piece of our musical legacy was lost in the deaths of Terry Callier, R.B. Greaves, Larry Hoppen, Carl Davis, Hal David, Natina Reed, Dee Harvey, Billy Scott, Chuck Brown, Duck Dunn, Belita Woods, Herb Reed, Jimmy Castor, Joe Russell, Jimmy Ellis, David Peaston, Roland Bautista, Major Harris and too many more.

Welcome Backs

Even as we mourned our losses in 2012, we celebrated welcome returns of longtime favorites who delivered goods we didn't know they still had. Between periods trapped in the closet, R. Kelly  showed a mastery of old school soul on his album Write Me Back that gave us pure joy, and Betty Wright cleaned up on the charts more than three decades after her commercial peak. Eric Benet proved to his critics that he is waaaay more than a pretty face, Daryl Hall did just fine without his Oates, and 67 year old Lenny Williams proved that he was "Still" the man, with his biggest hit single in years.  We also heard new music of varying quality from old friends Bobby Caldwell, Karyn White, Johnny Gill, Boyz II Men, The Time (now the Original 7ven), Bobby Womack, Bunny Sigler and Jon Gibson. All of these were like surprise Sunday visits from old friends, and they were all much more interesting than other legacy artists who cynically jumped on the tired "covers" album bandwagon, a trend that (thankfully) finally appears to be slowing down. But when we did want to listen to some older songs, we were increasingly able to thanks to an inspiring group of entrepreneurs who raided the vaults of the major labels to reissue long lost soul albums of the 70s and 80s, many for the first time on CD.

Warm Hellos

We're often lucky if we hear one or two interesting new acts in a year, but 2012 gave us our fill and more. Ambitious new sounds from Moonchild, Sid Sriram, DJ Kemit and Daley were contrasted with old school flavors of Brian Owens, Sensere and The Endangered.  And then there was an abundance of talented new female singers who showed up bearing gifts. We welcomed new musical sisters Amma Whatt, Gloria Ry'ann, Jessica Reedy, Nayanna Holley and Kia Bennett, among others. It may have been the best rookie class in a decade, and each had their own distinct sound that went beyond simple categories.

The Transcendant

My two special artists in this year's Critics' Picks combined the best of old and new: Gregory Porter, through his music and videos, embraced a rich, classic sound and a view of Black America that was both perceptive and positive -- so countercultural in its approach and rich in its substance that his Be Good became an instant classic, disarming young listeners even as it enchanted older ones. To accomplish so many things with such apparent ease, Be Good became my easy call for Album of the Year. And Sy Smith, my Artist of the Year, showed again that an artist's walls of obstacles can fall down through hard work, smarts and a clear vision. With the musical dancefest Fast and Furious, Smith became a true frontline artist, capturing her art in its most accessible, enjoyable form. And by finishing the year with a new role on The Tonight Show, Sy not only continued an enviable career ascent, she became a role model for aspiring artists everywhere.

The Pedestrian

If there is a "Music Establishment," it showed in 2012 that it was more out-of-touch with adult music audiences than ever.  Major record labels continued to focus their attention on teenagers and electropop music, even as sales numbers showed that folks over 30 were buying the most music and that the public was ignoring new major releases in favor of "catalog" albums.  The Grammy Awards reclassified categories to essentially shut out soul artists and then put on an awards show that relegated black music to the lowest hip-hop denominator -- all before retreating amid the howls of angry fans and then, embarrassed, reinstating some of the soul music categories for 2013. And urban adult contemporary radio, once the bastion for creative adult soul acts, continued its descent toward a largely irrelevant narrowcast; its ratings went down even as it further pushed away its core audience through misguided programming that underestimated adult listeners.

What It All Means

A couple years ago I openly fretted about the direction of the independent soul music, as I observed talented but seemingly lost artists chasing popular radio trends in an unholy talent compromise designed to capture an elusive golden ring of fame. 2012 was a definitive and positive response to that concern, as both new and old artists stayed true their art and innovated in ways that took them far beyond the unimaginative, formulaic sounds now dominating urban radio.  In the process, they found that being true to their muse yielded both personal satisfaction and a real audience of believers. This year our toughest problem was not finding good music, but shining sufficient light on all the good that was out there.  The music industry is still in the middle of a huge, painful transition, but 2012 showed us that, even during these difficult times, there is an abundance of talented, creative artists finding new ways to make and provide to us the music that, as singer Paul Carrack would say, "satisfies our souls."

By Chris Rizik


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Album of the Month - Cecile McLorin Salvant - Dreams and Daggers
Listening Room - Will Downing - Soul Survivor
Listening Room - Lizz Wright - Grace
Listen Now! - "Fresh Soul" playlist from SoulTracks

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