Now that we’re done, really done, with 2012 and the Columbia Free Times (my home publication) has issued its 2012 “Year in Review” coverage today, I can post my own lists. First up is my overall Top Ten albums list. None of these made the official Free Times music section list, which either means I’m hopelessly out of touch or just that I have much different taste than my fellow music critics.
Shovels and Rope, O Be Joyful (Dualtone)
Charleston’s husband and wife duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are the darlings of the Americana scene this year, and with good reason. O Be Joyful captures the pair at their most adorable, flippant, and musical. It’s almost scary how good Trent and Hearst sound together, with her abrasive drawl sliding off his smoother delivery while the instruments burn up the ground underneath them.
Mumford & Sons, Babel (Glass Note)
It’s not often that critical acclaim and great album sales go together any more, but that’s what has happened with the brit-folk rock of this popular act. I was a huge fan of the British and Irish folk rock of the 80’s, bands such as Hothouse Flowers, The Waterboys, and the Lilac Time; Mumford is simply this generation’s exposure to the undeniable energy and attitude of the current version of that sound.
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball (Columbia)
Springsteen hasn’t gone gently into his golden years, and while some of his latest stretch of albums have been less great than usual, this time around he manages to recapture some of those glory days while updating his sound. There are traces of his acoustic phase on “Shackled and Drawn,” a new Irish punk fervor in “Death to My Hometown” and “American Land,” and a gospel soulfulness in “Rocky Ground.” This one added more new classics to Bruce’s repertoire than the last two or three albums combined, making it a nice return to form for an old favorite.
Foxy Shazam, The Church of Rock and Roll (EMI)
Rock ‘n’ roll used to be dangerous and full of debauchery, drugs, drag queens, and drama. Foxy Shazam remembers this, and celebrates it as if Queen and the Rolling Stones had a baby and named him Bowie.
Band of Horses, Mirage Rock (Columbia)
Few bands out there have settled into the 1970s California sound of Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, and the Eagles as seriously as Band of Horses, but instead of sounding like a Holiday Inn lounge band covering “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, they inject the classic harmonies and twangy melodies with a genuine sense of discovery and openness that’s disarming and charming.
The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter (Universal Republic)
Remember when everyone wondered if Rick Rubin and the major label machine would ruin The Avett Brothers? Instead, they have leveraged the opportunity to expand their musical palette and continue the clear-eyed, emotionally resonant lyrical path they were already on.
John Fullbright, From the Ground Up (Blue Dirt)
The first glimpse I got of John Fullbright was a group tour he did a couple years ago, where he so completely blew away the other two artists I can’t even remember who they were now. This debut studio album (there’s a live one out there, too) is a wordsmith’s dream with nearly every song containing a quotable line or two; Fullbright’s a poet but not one of those inscrutable types as his songs are deceptively simple, honest, and forthright. Musically he’s a student of American forms, wrapping his songs in the same basic no-frills trappings that made musical touchstones of The Band, and he’s equally adept on guitar and piano.
The Spring Standards, Yellow//Gold (Parachute Shooter)
There’s a sweetness and light to the music of The Spring Standards that just makes me smile. This release is a dual EP that combines a more subdued, quiet set with an upbeat and more rocking one. Either way, the songs are wonderful and wide-eyed, innocent and yet not innocuous.
Bob Mould, Silver Age (Merge)
dB’s, Falling Off the Sky (Bar None)
Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, Songs from the Laundromat (Redeye)
2012 had more than its’ fair share of veteran artists releasing new music, from Van Halen to ZZ Top, but the three which affected me most were a trio of artists who I connected with initially in my formative college years. Bob Mould was the driving force behind Husker Du in the 80’s, a band which showed us how great melodies and fierce buzzsaw guitars could coexist. Through Sugar and now his solo work Mould has maintained a high level of quality; Silver Age is the farthest he has traveled back towards his more snarling youth.
The new album from the dB’s was a welcome surprise, though Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple have done a couple of duo albums this was the first time in 30 years that the original foursome had reconvened. Thanfully, the band’s whip-smart pop sensibilities are intact and even better, richer in texture and tone.
Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ has never stopped touring and recording, but this year’s model has been juiced up by the inclusion of new lead guitarist Sadler Vaden and the band sound rejuvenated on stage and on recordings; the year-long series of short EP’s they are releasing every few months was jump started by this one which includes the spot-on tribute song “R.E.M.” **K. Oliver**