The number of albums getting released each year has been increasing, so it makes sense that the number of albums that go largely ignored by radio and the mainstream music media each year would be on the rise. In fact, this was one of the toughest years in the past decade to rank the best overlooked CDs. More than ever, 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 the "Billboard" magazine charts or the shelves of big box retailers. Here's how I rank the best of the overlooked albums for 2012:
1) Archie Powell & The Exports: "Great Ideas In Action" - Calling a CD "Great Ideas In Action," invites ridicule if the music doesn't deliver the goods. It turns out Powell and his band have nothing to worry about. They've made the year's best rocking pop CD, cranking out one gem after another, be it the organ-laced "Crazy Pills," the thumping rock of "Shooting Spree" or the title song (which sounds like a great lost Oasis song). For fans of energetic power pop, your ship has come in with "Great Ideas In Action."
2) Prima Donna: "Bless This Mess" -- 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.
3) Kevin Bowe + The Okemah Prophets: "Natchez Trace" -- 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. But "Natchez Trace," which touches on soul, country, pop, psychedelic and acoustic rock suggests Bowe should keep some of his songs for his own albums more often.
4) The Mastersons: "Birds Fly South" -- 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. Songs like "Tell Me It's Alright" and "The Other Shoe" strike a winning balance between country twang and tuneful rock -- and shades of pop and rock filter in throughout the album as well. However one describes the Mastersons, this duo has a bright future.
5) The dB's: "Falling Off the Sky" -- This album brings back together the original dB's lineup (featuring Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple). It features several crisp rockers ("Before We Were Born," "That Time Is Gone." "World To Cry" and "Far Away And Long Ago") and there are a few notable ballads and mid-tempo tracks, too (with "Send Me Something Real," a highlight). "Falling Off the Sky," is a stirring reminder of the considerable talent the dB's always possessed -- even if it's never translated to anything close to major success.
6) Claude Hay: "I Love Hate You" -- 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," and some thumping mountain soul on "Narrow Mind." I could go on. There's plenty more where those came from on this potent album.
7) The Big Cats: "The Ancient Art Of Leaving: Two Parts -- This Little Rock-based band has only made albums and performed live sporadically over its two-decade existence. This album makes one wish these Cats could record more often. Playing a classic style of guitar pop, the Big Cats deliver 13 songs that range from very good to downright stellar, with tight arrangements, great pop hooks and plenty of energy.
8) Kevin Gordon: "Gloryland" -- The centerpiece of "Gloryland," Gordon's sixth album, is "Colfax/Step In Time," an extended track in which Gordon spins a vivid portrait of his days in 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 sorely overlooked songwriter/artists in music.
9) The Dirty Guv'nahs: "Somewhere Beneath These Southern Skies" -- "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 honest passion to make any fan of soul-tinged guitar rock stand up and take notice.
10) 8MM: "Between The Devil And Two Black Hearts" -- 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 they have an impressive command of both Americana and epic U2-ish rock.
11) Gregory Pepper And His Problems: "Crystal Skull Mountain" (Fake Four Inc. Records) -- This 17-song suite invites comparisons to Brian Wilson and "Abbey Road"-era Beatles with its kaleidoscope of pop sounds and styles and songs that reveal one pop delight after another.
12) Amy Cook: "Summer Skin" -- Cook neatly merges the worlds of rock, country and blues into an earthy and tuneful sound that rambles, rocks, smolders and charms.
13) The Henry Clay People: "Twenty-Five for the Rest of Our Lives" -- Reunited with its original lineup, this band sounds energized here, ripping through a dozen hooky tracks in roughly 30 minutes with enough twists to get better with repeated listenings.
14) Sugar & The Hi-Lows: "Sugar & The Hi-Lows" -- Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup pool their talents in this new group, and produce a sweet, sometimes twangy, sometimes poppy sound that makes one hope this is more than a one-time pairing.
15) Amy Gore & Her Valentines: "In Love" -- Gore (of Gore Gore Girls fame) and her new band sound like a mix of the best of the Go-Go's and the Bangles. Prepare to be infatuated.
16) Hacienda: "Shakedown" -- This energetic and inventive effort that falls under the broad umbrella of roots rock, but evades easy labels, except for one -- good.
17) Jessie Baylin: "Little Spark" -- Aided by a studio band that included such notables as guitarist Waddy Wachtel, drummer Jim Keltner and pedal steel player Greg Leisz, Baylin delivers a set of sharply crafted songs that straddle the lines between retro pop, classic soul and Americana.
18) Cosmo Jarvis: "Think Bigger" -- Jarvis brings a rare level of diversity to pop music on this, his third album. Nearly every song is a gem, making "Think Bigger" even more of a rare breed.
19) Ty Segall: "Twins" -- On his third and best solo album, Segall shows other artists how to do noisy psychedelic garage rock right.
20) Waco Brothers & Paul Burch: "Great Chicago Fire" -- These Bloodshot Records labelmates bring together their rather contrasting roots music styles and rather than clashing, "Great Chicago Fire" sounds more like a match made in heaven.