This is just about the only thing I ever blog anymore, I know. But like any good music geek, I spend much of the year thinking about what will go on my list of the year’s best, testing the options, replacing early selections with new contenders, re-reconsidering, mulling it all over, and—eventually—deciding. This year’s list is complete (finally!), so it’s time to share.
Anyone who reads this likely knows how fond I am of Americana, honky tonk, Red Dirt, and “roots” music of all stripes. If you didn’t know that already, you’d certainly infer it from this list. So keep that bias in mind. But no matter what your tastes, I think you’ll find something to like, maybe even love, on this list. Let me know.
Anyway, in reverse order, here are my Top 10 albums of 2012.
10. Live from Alabama, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – I really resisted putting Live from Alabama on my Top 10 list. I have a bit of a prejudice against live albums, I guess. In too many cases, a live album just brings you less-than-perfect renderings of songs you already know. And then you get the added “bonuses” of concert banter and odd audience sounds. Don’t get me wrong: I love live music, but it’s not necessarily what I want to play at home. Live from Alabama generally avoids those traps, though. Best of all, it brings you sounds that you can’t really hear on any other album: Isbell doing songs like “Goddamn Lonely Love,” “TVA,” and (my favorite) “Decoration Day” from his time with Drive-By Truckers. And the album closes with Isbell’s excellent cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.”
9. Jimmy LaFave’s Depending on the Distance – Jimmy LaFave is one of the founders, and masters, of Red Dirt music. He’s known for, among other things, the soulfulness of his voice—and his smart Dylan covers. So imagine my surprise when I realized that his new album, his first studio effort in five years, featured a cover of John Waite’s “Missing You.” Somehow, though, LaFave leaves the 80s schlock behind, finding a real emotional core in the song. Who knew?! There are also some stellar Dylan covers on Depending, including a nine-minute cover of Dylan’s “Red River Shore” that seems, if anything, to be too short. LaFave is also a masterful songwriter, as evidenced by the lead cut, “Clear Blue Sky.” Added bonus: LaFave’s “Red Dirt Night” is built around the names of Oklahoma towns, including my hometown.
8. And So It Goes by Don Williams – I really hadn’t thought about Don Williams in years. Apparently, he even retired in 2006! But he sure doesn’t sound “retired” on this new album. He sounds as smooth and elegant as ever. (Septuagenarians of the world, unite!) There was a time, of course, when Don Williams was all over country radio. (He had nearly 20 #1 songs.) Country radio has changed since then—and not for the better. And So It Goes is an album full of songs that ought to be at the top of today’s country charts. They won’t be, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t enjoy them. Standouts: “Imagine That,” the title track, and “I Just Come Here for the Music,” a duet with Alison Krauss.
7. Corb Lund’s Cabin Fever – I’ve been a fan of Corb Lund, the Canadian cowboy singer, for years. Somehow, despite all his time in the business, Cabin Fever has seemed to some critics like a breakthrough. I sure hope they’re right. The world needs more country music like Lund’s. His is a lively country that’s more than a little off-kilter, inflected by humor and little bits of punk and rockabilly. “I think I see a rip in the social fabric,” Lund sings. And all I can do is nod. Some of my favorite tracks: “Gettin’ Down on the Mountain,” “One Left in the Chamber,” and “Bible on the Dash” (Lund’s duet with Hayes Carll).
6. Tourist/Sleeper by Seams – And now for something completely different: Electronica. Yes, really. Seams is actually English musician James Welch, and Tourist/Sleeper is a collection of two of his EPs. Tourist, which is probably my favorite, is built around field recordings from Berlin. I particularly like the way Welch uses chimes and other percussive elements on Tourist. The result is intoxicating. There’s just enough repetition to remind you that these are songs. They’re beautiful songs, actually. Sleeper takes a more somber turn, but those are songs worth your attention, too.
5. Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel about Me Now, Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change is Justin Townes Earle’s follow-up to 2010’s Harlem River Blues, one of the best albums of the past decade. I don’t think Nothing’s Gonna Change is quite as strong as that, but it’s a more-than-respectable effort all the same. There’s a delicious rawness to Earle’s voice, and he uses it to good effect on these songs about love, human flaws, and making a life. Nothing’s Gonna Change is significantly more, er, soulful than Earle’s previous works (there’s some backing work on horns that, somehow or other, adds to that)—and that’s absolutely fine with me. Earle is surely one of the great
4. From the Ground Up, John Fullbright – John Fullbright grew up a couple of counties over from me, and that’s probably what caused me to pay attention to him in the first place. But once I got his debut CD in the player, I was riveted. I’ve now seen him in concert twice, and I can assure you he’s the real deal live, too. And I’m not the only one who’s noticed. For gosh sakes, he just got a Grammy nomination (watch out, Mumford & Sons). Woo hoo! From the Ground Up features some exquisite songwriting. “Gawd Above” is, (in)credibly enough, written from the point of view of a bitter, lonely God. Other standout songs include “Jericho” and “Satan and St. Paul.” (Yes, there’s a lot of religious imagery. But it’s not at all creepy.) And on top of the stellar songwriting, Fullbright’s vocals are polished and distinctive. There is a lot to like here, and you will.
3. Goodbye Normal Street by Turnpike Troubadours – John Fullbright used to play with Turnpike Troubadours, so it somehow seems natural to find the two acts back-to-back on my Top 10 list. The Troubadours are a Red Dirt band that seems just to be on the verge of hitting it big in Nashville (God forbid). And why not? By now, the Troubadours are polished musicians, and the sound is tight. And these are very good songs. “Well, if you’ve been true, you better look me in the eye,” frontman (and songwriter) Evan Felker sings on the hard opener, “Gin, Smoke, and Lies.” “All I smell is cheap perfume—and gin, and smoke, and lies.” That’s some good stuff. Also good: the slightly less rockin’ “Good Lord Lorrie” and the much more country “Gone, Gone, Gone.”
2. T’Monde’s Making Believe – If there’s a CD on this list that you absolutely don’t know, it’s surely this one. T’Monde didn’t play at the Louisiana Cajun Zydeco Festival, but I somehow stumbled onto its debut CD while I was visiting New Orleans this year for the festival. (I can thank a listening station at the Louisiana Music Factory, I think.) The band consists of accordionist Drew Simon (also of the Pine Leaf Boys), guitarist Megan Brown, and fiddler Kelli-Jones Savoy. Each of the three provides vocals. I’m probably fondest of Simon’s, but it’s a real luxury to have a band with so much vocal range. And the band shows real range when it comes to song selection, too, on Making Believe—from famed accordionist Belton Richard’s “La Valse d’Ennui” to Lefty Frizzell’s “She’s Gone, Gone, Gone” (and, of course, the title track is a Kitty Wells song). You’ll probably have to go out of your way to hear T’Monde (or to buy this CD), but it’s absolutely worth the effort.
You can listen to some of Making Believe at this link. And you should.
1. Sing the Delta by Iris Dement – We waited 16 years for new material from Iris Dement—her The Way I Should, from 1996, was the third of three amazing albums in the 90s—and it would be silly to say that any new album could’ve been worth that much of a wait. But I’m tempted to say it. Sing the Delta (p.s. that’s the Arkansas Delta) is that good. In fact, just one of the songs on Delta, “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” about the death of a small child, might be the pinnacle of any good songwriter’s career. But Delta has two or three other songs (among the contenders are “Livin’ on the Inside,” “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” and the title track) that approach that quality. And I’ve written several sentences here, and I haven’t yet mentioned Dement’s beautiful, ethereal vocals. You can’t hear Dement without thinking of Emmylou Harris or early Loretta Lynn.
Iris Dement could be a national treasure for her singing or her songwriting. That she does both so well, and so genuinely, is downright confounding. No matter how I look at it, Sing the Delta is, easily, the year’s best for me.
Honorable Mentions: New Wild Everywhere, Great Lake Swimmers; Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, Patterson Hood; I Know What Love Isn’t, Jens Lekman; and Dýrð í dauðaþögn, by Icelandic singer-songwriter Ásgeir Trausti (which very nearly made the list).
- LEGO Architecture’s Fallingwater model
- Framed embroidery featuring one of Kanye West’s wise tweets
- A Squishable Rooster (or—wait—is the Squishable Buffalo better?)
- A steer’s head made from recycled farm machinery
- Some Mark Nason loafers that are either killer or are totally the first step toward a career as a full-time shuffleboard player
I came of age—in just about every meaningful sense of that term—in the 1980s. My interests, my worldview, and my aesthetic will, I guess, always have an 80s vibe. In fact, God willing, I’ll still be rocking out to Guadalcanal Diary when I’m in the nursing home.
Apparently, I won’t be alone.
Gotye is the project of Wouter De Backer, a Belgian-Australian songwriter and multi-instrumentalist musician. Making Mirrors is his third album, but—thanks to my album club—it’s the first that comes to my attention. And though De Backer was himself born in the 1980s (gulp!), it’s obvious that he’s wallowing in the sound and feel of that decade as much as I still am. In fact, nearly every review seems to compare his sound to Peter Gabriel, early-solo Sting, or, for gosh sakes, Hall & Oates. It’s easy to see why.
Yes, nearly every track on Making Mirrors sounds like something you might’ve heard on the radio in, oh, 1985. Is that a good thing? For me, of course, the answer is yes. Is that the sign of a mature artist—or, for that matter, a mature listener? You tell me.
The first couple of tracks on Making Mirrors (a wee title track and “Easy Way Out”) certainly had me thinking of a certain breed of 80s-era “experimental” rock. Oh, hell, I just say it: The songs had me thinking Peter Gabriel-esque thoughts. From there, though, the album moves into other terrains. Other 80s-style terrains, anyway. “I Feel Better” evokes late Motown. “Eyes Wide Open” is a little INXS-ish. “State of the Art” is early techno—if one can still produce “early” techno in the 21st century. I’m thinking Gotye can.
Gotye has some real range here. Making Mirrors is a tour of the 80s. And that’s a tour I’ll always sign up for.
“Somebody That I Used to Know” is the standout on the album. De Backer’s vocals on the track—about lost love, naturally—will probably have you thinking of Sting. De Backer usefully pairs his vocals with those of Kimbra, a New Zealander who, I swear, sort of reminds me of a cross between Kate Bush and Bonnie Tyler. I just can’t stop with the 80s references! Whatever—”Somebody” has a great sound. It’s the song that’s going on my iPod.
On a scale of one to 10, Making Mirrors gets a seven.
Somehow or other, my friend Jenny convinced me to join her album club. This is really a tribute to her, and my fondness for her, because I’ve had some bad experiences with clubs. The office book club, for instance, has had me on a steady diet of Thackeray, way-too-serious nonfiction, and Thomas Pynchon for, oh, about 10 years now. I yearn for a little light reading, you know? Would it really hurt the group to—hey, just once in awhile—pick a little mystery novel? Or to read something about love? Apparently so.
I’ve actually been threatening to leave the book club. And when the Pynchon-lovers ask why, I just say something about being middle-aged. About time being short. About wanting to spend my limited free time reading what I want to read.
So, erm, maybe it’s not a good sign that I’m just not too wild about the album club’s initial selection, Over the Rhine‘s The Trumpet Child. The band—centered around a husband and wife—is from southern Ohio, and it’s apparently even named after a Cincinnati neighborhood. I took that as a good sign. After all, I’m drawn to music that’s rootsy, to music that’s marked by regionalism of some sort or other. Indeed, Americana music is one of my favorite genres. And my friends in the club were toying with the Americana label as a possible way of describing Over the Rhine’s music.
To my ear, though, this is not an Americana band. And I don’t mean that as criticism. Not really, anyway. There is just very little about this band that draws from or speaks to any sort of American roots music. Karin Bergquist’s vocals, for instance, are completely untraceable to any region. She could be from Cincinnati or Chicago or Tacoma or San Mateo. For that matter, she could be from Brussels or Munich. She has a sort of bland, mildly jazz-y vocal delivery—something on the order of what you’d expect from a contemporary Christian artist who’d suddenly forsaken Jesus for Ella. Likewise, the vibe provided by pianist/guitarist Linford Detweiler is more Suburban Strip Mall™ than Dusty Honky Tonk™.
Again, that Over the Rhine isn’t an Americana band is not criticism. But this is. Even on its own terms, the music just isn’t very compelling. The songs are banal, and Bergquist adds almost nothing in the way of interpretation. She sings well but not interestingly. If you were at a jazz club or a hotel bar, with a gin-and-tonic in one hand and your beau in the other, you’d have a pleasant enough time listening to songs like “Trouble,” “Entertaining Thoughts,” and the title track. But you wouldn’t remember the songs later. Later, you’d remember the times when (as on “I’m on a Roll,” “Who’ I Kiddin’ but Me,” and “If a Song Could Be President”) Bergquist’s delivery became too precious—almost downright twee.
For me—and know this: I’m a sucker for songs about love and desperation—what’s most unforgivable is to sing a song called “Desperate for Love” in a way that suggests neither love nor desperation. And that’s true whether the singer works in jazz, Americana, or Hotel Bar Generic™.
My favorite song on the album is actually “Don’t Wait for Tom,” a song featuring Detweiler’s mildly quirky vocals. The song is insubstantial, but Detweiler—a poor man’s Tom Waits—at least tried to have fun with it.
On a scale of 10, I’d give The Trumpet Child a three.
P.S. Despite this review, I’m looking forward to the album club’s February selection. But wait—is there a musical equivalent of a Thomas Pynchon novel?