As I did in 2010 and 2011, I'm providing my top twenty albums that came out this year. In contrast to the other two lists, I've changed the honorable mention category to come after the twentieth album.
If there are any albums that you feel are worthy of my top ten/twenty list, feel free to provide 'em in the comments section. I look forward to your recommendations.
1. Soundgarden, King Animal
It's only been, what, sixteen years since the these fine fellows from Seattle put out their last album. They're back, and now the drummer has to split his time between two hard rock icons, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. This album reminds me of Superunknown though it seems a bit harder. King Animal is forcefully consistent as though the years between albums never happened. And that, for this listener is a very good thing. Favorite songs: "Non-State Actor," "Blood on the Valley Floor," "Attrition," and "Rowing."
2. Langhorne Slim & the Law, The Way We Move
Though I don't have any of his other albums, I was a little familiar with Mr. Slim before I bought The Way We Move this year. The album is certainly one I've listened to a lot, which is how I pretty much rank these albums. If you're not familiar with this guy's work, he plays what I would describe as garage folk, and he has a distinctive voice. The album puts me in a good mood, its fare is mainly uptempo songs with interesting lyrics. Favorite songs: "Fire," "Great Divide," "Wild Soul," and "Coffee Cups."
3. Jay Farrar (Son Volt), Anders Parker, Will Johnson (Centro-matic), and Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket), New Multitudes
I highly recommend purchasing the deluxe edition because the two albums are worth it. The first disc features all four of those dudes, but the second disc only has Farrar and Parker singing. The story of the project is that Farrar spent some time researching Woody Guthrie's notebooks and sketchbooks, and other artists became interested. So what the album provides is a group of talented musicians playing 23 previously unrecorded songs by Guthrie. It's wonderful stuff, and the album inspired me to read Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life, which is the definitive biography of the man. Favorite songs: "My Revolutionary Mind," "V.D. City," "Angel's Blues," "No Fear," "Whereabouts Can I Hide," "I Was a Goner," and "San Antone Meat House."
4. Punch Brothers, Who's Feeling Young Now?
It's clear as I survey the first four albums and the one that's coming next, the first five could be ranked in any order really. What I'm saying is that any of the top five albums could be number one depending on my mood.
Regardless, this release by the Brothers de Punch is outstanding because it provides a balance of uptempo, midtempo, and slower tunes that range from traditional bluegrass to "alternative," however that may be defined. There are a couple of solid instrumentals, "Flippen (The Flip)" and "Kid A" (a cover), and the other offerings are excellent all around. I might like this even better than Antifogmatic, and I'm looking forward to going to their show in St. Louis in late January. Favorite songs: "Who's Feeling Young Now?," "Clara," "New York City," and "Don't Get Married Without Me."
5. Todd Snider, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Mr. Snider got all kinds of love in the music press for this release, and it's warranted. This album provides some of the best lines of the year. The chorus of "New Yorker Banker is "Good things happen to bad people." In "Too Soon to Tell," Snider opines, "They say that 'living well is the best revenge.' I say, bullshit. The best revenge is revenge." And in the middle of "Big Finish" there's this darkly humorous nugget: "It ain't the despair that'll get you. It's the hope." Snider explores the invention of religion, takes on the bank bailout, gives you the perspective of an unemployed person, among other personas, topics, and issues. In addition, the incredibly talented Amanda Shires plays fiddle and provides backing vocals on most of the tunes. Favorite songs: "In the Beginning," "New York Banker," "In Between Jobs," and "Too Soon to Tell."
6. Patterson Hood, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance
The frontman of the Drive-By Truckers created a fabulous solo album this year. It's thematically consistent. Listeners used to his DBT tunes will find a different m.o. on this album. I mean, there's a cello on some songs, so it's not your in-your-face rock-n-roll. The lyrics are reflective and personal -- like confessional poetry. Favorite Songs: "Disappear," "Better Off Without," "After the Damage," and "Depression Era."
7. Bela Fleck & The Marcus Roberts Trio, Across the Imaginary Divide
I suppose the "imaginary divide" the title refers to is the perception that the banjo shouldn't be used in jazz music. If that's the case, this collaboration between the best banjo player on the planet and one of the best jazz trios out there destroys that perception. It works, and the album is fine music. Favorite songs: "Some Roads Lead Home," "Across the Imaginary Divide," "Petunia," and "That Ragtime Feeling."
8. Craig Finn, Clear Heart Full Eyes
Like Hood of DBT, the frontman of The Hold Steady decided to make a solo record this year. The album is not the guitar-oriented fare of THS; Finn's vocals are the focal point. Songs explicate the tactics of womanizer, contemplate mortality, recount hard living, and other interesting narratives. "No Future," in particular, has a great line about the persona seeing the devil at the "riverside Perkins." Favorite songs: "When No One's Watching," "No Future," "Jackson," and "Balcony."
9. Joe Pug, The Great Despiser
This fellow, who at one time was going to school to be a playwright if I remember right, has his stuff together. He's probably a guy who gets labeled with the singer-songwriter moniker. He writes damn fine songs and arrangements. The title track for this album is probably one of my favorite songs of the year. It's a fairly simple song lyrically speaking, but the affective dimension is just right. Then there is "Ours": "So we took what we inherited,/ and we dug a hole to bury it,/ all our property and marriages./ All we wanted was a narrative/ that was ours." Favorite songs: "The Great Despiser," "Ours," "Neither Do I Need a Witness," and "Deep Dark Wells."
10. Brandi Carlile, Bear Creek
Where the hell have I been that I didn't know about Brandi Carlile? What's wrong with me? If last year was the year I discovered the wonderful Amanda Shires, one of the discoveries of 2012 was Ms. Carlile. A mix of folk and rock supported by an incredible voice, I'm hooked. Favorite songs: "Long Way Home," "Raise Hell," "Keep Your Heart Young," and "Rise Again."
11. Gary Clark Jr., Blak and Blu
On the opening track of the album, "Ain't Messin' Around," Clark sings, "I don't believe in competition./ Ain't nobody else like me around." This year marked his first major full length album, which includes revised versions of a few songs he had on his EP last year. And there aren't many people like Gary Clark Jr. around these parts. While there are a couple of songs I skip over on the album when listening to it, he shows his range on his debut. From a old school blues number of "When My Train Pulls In" to the R&B "Blak and Blu," from the Chuck Berry-like "Travis County" to the Hendrix homage of "Third Stone from the Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say," Clark delivers. I prefer the bluesier and rock-focused affairs, but this album is a solid effort, one that makes me want much more. Favorite songs: "When My Train Pulls In," "Glitter Ain't Gold," "Ain't Messin' Around," and "Next Door Neighbor Blues."
12. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Springsteen's sparse albums seem to get all kinds of critical acclaim -- Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Devils & Dust. I like those albums, don't get me wrong, but I tend to be a bigger fan of albums like Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and The Rising. So Wrecking Ball works well for me: anthem rock. I played this album a lot in my car because my kids enjoy the Celtic-inflected tunes on the disc. "American Land" is tattooed on my brain. Favorite songs: "Jack of All Trades," "Death to My Hometown," "Wrecking Ball," and "You've Got It."
13. Shovels & Rope, O' Be Joyful
I read about the duo of Carrie Ann Hearst and Micheal Trent on Hear*Ya this year, listened to some videos on YouTube, and promptly bought this album. As far as a genre of music, I guess it's Americana because it's a mix of country and rock with a folk do-it-yourself sensibility. I bet they're a lot of fun watching live -- just those two having fun and playing tunes. Favorite songs: "Birmingham," "O' Be Joyful," "Hail Hail," and "Shank Hill Street."
14. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Live from Alabama
It was really difficult for me to not put this album in the top ten because I'm a huge fan of Isbell & the 400 Unit. This release distills songs from performances in the Birmingham and the Shoals this year. It's a great album, but because I'm a connoisseur of his work, I'm thinking about the songs I want on Live from Alabama Part II. I want more, so I might as well get it out of my system. Here's my fantasy Live from Alabama Part II track list:
- "The Day John Henry Died"
- "Never Gonna Change"
- "Chicago Promenade"
- "Seven-Mile Island"
- "However Long"
- "Soliders Get Strange"
- "We've Met"
- "Stopping By"
- "Never Could Believe"
- "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" (cover)
Favorite songs on Part I: "Goddamn Lonely Love," "In a Razor Town," "Outfit," "TVA," and "The Blue."
What a great name for a band. And what a distinctive voice the lead singer has with a fully charged band. Just wonderful. When you listen to "Marathon," you're bound to get reflective when you hear the lead singer say, "on this long road home..." I got intrigued about the band when I saw them play "Gotta Have Rock and Roll" on Letterman. Indeed, mofos. Favorite songs: "Parted Ways," "Only For You," "Skin and Bone," and "Late in the Night."
16. Regina Spektor, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats
I like an excellent pianist. Regina Spektor fills that role, and she's a damn fine singer. "Firewood," in particular, provides a powerful bundle of pathos, especially if you've ever visited someone in a hospital. And she's gets all wonderfully beat-boxy and surreal on "All The Rowboats." Then there's the lyric of "Work it. Work it, baby. Work it round that room." on "Ballad of a Politician." Brilliant work. Favorite songs: "All The Rowboats," "Firewood," "Ballad of a Politician," and "The Party."
17. Bob Mould, Silver Age
This year Mould got back to voicing his barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world. If you're looking for ballads, look elsewhere. Easy listening? Move along. This album reminds me more of his work in Husker Du than Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain, which are two very fine albums by the way. It's a great album to listen to when you're working out. Favorite songs: "Star Machine," "Fugue State," "Keep Believing," and "Silver Age."
18. The Lumineers, self-titled
Most people will recognize these folks by "Hey Ho" because it was used for some commercial, but overall it's a solid debut album. Whether they're part of this "roots revival" or whatever, this is a fun listen. Favorite songs: "Classy Girls," "Submarine," "Big Parade," and "Flapper Girl."
19. Truckstop Darlin', Hope & the Heart It Breaks
These fine fellows churned out a second album quickly. At least it doesn't seem that long ago that their debut came out. They do seem like an unlikely band to come out of Portland though. TD is pure alt-country, like the early albums from Lucero. I would imagine the best venue to hear this band's music is in a bar after a few good whiskey drinks. Favorite songs: "Southern Ghosts," "Sad Sweet Songs," "Dead Roses," and "They Don't Mind."
20. Trampled By Turtles, Stars and Satellites
TbT albums have a tendency to grow on me. I'll listen to one a couple of times, and I'll think, "Eh, it's all right." Then I listen to it a few more times, and I think, "I'm liking this more for some reason." And so on. The same goes for Stars and Satellites. Favorite songs: "Alone," "Risk," "Beautiful," and "The Calm and the Crying Wind."
Below is the Honorable Mention category. I've provided an extra ten albums (in alpha iTunes order) that I enjoyed quite a bit, but they didn't make the top twenty. I only provided the albums with image -- no commentary.
Avett Brothers, The Carpenter
The Bad Plus, Made Possible
Baroness, Yellow & Green
The Barr Brothers, self-titled
Caroline Herring, Camilla
Gaslight Anthem, Handwritten
Horse Feathers, Cynic's New Year
Justin Townes Earle, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Sara Watkins, Sun Midnight Sun