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Albums of the Year: 2012

December 31st, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Better late than never, here is my Top 20 of 2012. A couple of albums I’ve come by too late to evaluate, such as Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos, which after one listen I suspect would rank pretty highly on this list. I’ve prepared a compilation; tracklisting and link are in the comments section.

The tracks have all been reduced to 128kbps; if you like what you hear, please buy the album (artists’ websites are included in the text). I’d be pleased to know if any sales have been inspired by this post, so if you have bought something on strength of my recommendation, please don’t be shy to tell me.

 

20. Missy Higgins – The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle
The only person in the world who makes me look forward to hearing an Australian accent let us wait five long years for a new album. In the interim Missy Higgins,  a quality person who is engaged in all manner of causes, has done her university studies. So she is quite right to wonder, on Hello Hello, whether anyone is still there. Well, the album topped the Australia charts, so many still were. The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle isn’t as good as Higgins’ preceding album, On A Clear Night, an album that for all its hooks exercised restraint. There is also no track as great as Higgins’ stunning debut, The Sound Of White. The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle is flat when it tries to go mainstream pop (such as on the dire Temporary Love), but appealing on tracks that recall the previous albums, such as All In My Head. An album best listened to with an edited playlist. missyhiggins.com

19. Anna Ternheim – The Night Visitor
Strictly speaking, Anna Ternheim’s fifth album came out in 2011, but in many countries it was released in 2012, so it qualifies for this list. It would have sat comfortably in last year’s list as well. This is a much sparser album than its predecessors: the benefit of that is the absence of orchestration which at times seemed ostentatious; the obvious drawback is that after a while the whole thing can become a bit, well, undramatic. The melodies are lovely, however, and the Swedish singer has an appealing, warm voice which makes the album a welcome companion as background music. annaternheim.com

18. Hugh Masekela – Jabulani
There is nothing new on Hugh Masekela’s new album, but it’s a fine kicked-back album on which the master does his thing as he has since returning to South Africa from exile in the 1990s: the uncomplicated, swaying sounds of township jazz and mbaqanga. Arranged by another South African jazz great, Don Laka, Masekela sings, in isiXhosa, songs about the joys and pains of marriage, several of them traditionals. www.hughmasekela.co.za

17. Nanci Griffith – Intersection
Is there anything new to say about Nanci Griffith after some 20 albums? Intersection sounds like Griffith’s usual country-folk fare; the lyrics are a bit darker than they were in the past. At times she sounds positively angry. In the bar-singalong number she growls “Hell no, I’m not alright”. This is a thoroughly enjoyable album, and if its songs will come on the iPod shuffle I will welcome them. But if I’ll pick this album when I want a Nanci Griffith fix — ahead of, say Other Voices, Too — I don’t really know. nancigriffith.com

16. Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World
Gretchen Peters’ Hello Cruel World could serve as a companion album to Nanci Griffith’s Intersection: another country singer with a folk sensibility who observes that not everything is good in the world. Peters has a long track record of writing for others, country luminaries such as Trisha Yearwood, Patti Loveless, George Strait and Martina McBride. For the latter she wrote Independence Day, a song which the despicable Sean Hannity uses as the theme for his radio show, evidently without understanding the lyrics. The polemic truth-hater from Bullshit Mountain wouldn’t like some of the lyrics on Peters’ seventh studio album. This is a muscular, engaging country-folk album. gretchenpeters.com

15. Kelly Joe Phelps – Brother Sinner And The Whale
Bottleneck slide guitar folk-blues gospel… Here Kelly Joe Phelps riffs on the Old Testament Book of Jonah, but not in ways that will have the Westboro Baptist Church dancing in the streets while spreading the hate of their particular Lord (well, nobody will be able to dance to it anyway). This is an introspective album on which Phelps has no proselytising agenda. kellyjoephelps.net

14. Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
On the opening track, Canadian Kathleen Edwards announces that she’s “moving to America”. Her new album sounds like it. Produced by her boyfriend Justin Vernon, frontman of Bon Iver, Voyageur, Edwards’ fourth album, is a glistening piece of singer-songwriter pop. To paraphrase the title of an earlier Edwards song, if there is justice, the radio will like this or that song from Voyageur, though I wouldn’t bet on them playing it — certainly not the seven-minute elegy For The Record which closes this attractive set. kathleenedwards.com

13. Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t
The chief of Swedish indie, Lekman is a model eccentric. It shows in his wonderful, sometimes bizarre and awkward lyrics which benefit from being written by somebody whose first language is not English. It’s a break-up album with humour. Musically, the immensely likable Lekman has calmed down. Previous albums comprised catchy pop songs, with odd little turns. I Know What Love Isn’t has many melancholy, though not morose, and gentle moments, though the lovely title track with the sad name, which comes towards the end, is upbeat. Here the lyrics truly take centre-stage, which is great when the lyrics work, and discomforting on the few moments when they don’t. jenslekman.com

12. Tift Merritt – Travelling Alone
Travelling Alone is Tift Merritt’s New York City album. Make no mistake, she is still doing the country-folk thing, with the slide guitars and everything. And the voice is still exquisite and the melodies are still utterly lovely. It’s difficult to comprehend why, but Merritt was without a record label when she made this album; still, she had the likes of Andrew Bird (with whom she duets on Drifting Apart), Calexico’s drummer Jon Convertino and guitarist Marc Ribot backing her. Travelling Alone was released by the excellent independent Yep Roc label. tiftmerritt.com

11. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
Johnny Cash’s series of American Recordings, produced by Rick Rubin, paved the way for the new albums by septuagenarian singer-songwriters, or those near to it, to be taken seriously. It wasn’t always so, but when the likes of Neil Diamond, Willie Nelson or Kris Kristofferson (and look out for his brilliant new album in January) release an album, it is an event. So it was with Laughing Len, who performed his Old Ideas album to rapturous reviews at London’s Wembley Arena. This was remarkable, since Old Ideas is all about God and the afterlife, concepts that in Britain are more likely to invite contempt than applause. And Cohen isn’t oblique about his religious aspiration — he never was, even if biblical concepts might serve as sexual metaphors — with song titles like Amen, Going Home and Come Healing. All that is delivered straight; Cohen (like Neil Diamond) doesn’t seek to impose his religious point of view, but he’ll confess his feelings about it. leonardcohen.com

10. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
The first words on Justin Towne’s Earle’s fourth album refer to the singer hearing his father, Steve Earle, singing Wheels on the radio. It’s a neat allusion to the problem a musician son of a great singer faces: the pressure to live up to expectation (complicated further by Justin’s middle name honouring another country-folk legend).  JTE’s latest effort does not quite reach the lofty levels of 2010’s astonishing Harlem River Blues, but it is a fine set which can stand alongside much of dad Steve’s work. justintownesearle.com

9. Melissa James – Day Dawns
This is the sort of retro-blues inflected album which the people down Grammy academy love so much – if it is made by somebody famous or connected. English soul/blues/jazz singer Melissa James is not famous, though this will surely change. Her impressive debut album is full of personality, though if one is looking for touchstones, well, her website astutely suggests Nina Simone and Rickie Lee Jones. I’d add Astrud Gilberto, Cassandra Wilson, Diane Schuur, Angie Stone (especially on the beautiful I Miss You) and India.Arie. melissa-james.com

8. Mindy Smith – Mindy Smith
When I first listened to Mindy Smith’s eponymous album (really, self-titling your fourth album?), I was so disappointed that I did not revisit it again for a long time. I have no explanation for my foolishness. It might not touch Smith’s astonishing debut, 2004’s One Moment More, but it is much better than the two albums that followed (though sophomore effort Long Island Shores [2006] was a good album). Here Smith’s angelic voice shines over relentlessly lovely melodies and gorgeous arrangement. And all that prettiness scores rather sad lyrics that suggest a measure of anguish in Smith’s life. Some listeners might prefer some angsty edge in the delivery of such lyrics; others might discern healing in the beautiful music… mindysmithmusic.com

7. Brandi Carlile – Bear Creek
It is a little worrying when a favourite singer fails to rise to greater heights from one album to the next.  Bear Creek is not as good an album as 2009’s exceptional Give Up The Ghost. Even then, it is a fine album without a mediocre track. It retains everything I’ll ever want from Carlile: catchy tunes, fine storytelling, that strong, slightly raspy voice which should really belong in country, the often exquisite arrangements, and that incredible, vulnerable warmth. You want to spend time with Brandi, and Bear Creek is a good way of doing so. brandicarlile.com

6. John Mayer – Born And Raised
Yeah, John Mayer. This is where Mayer channels James Taylor and Crosby, Stills & Nash with instantly memorable and entirely agreeable songs, abandoning for the moment the gurning bluesman persona (though his guitar work, liberated from the need to show off, is admirable). There is no weak moment on the album which turned out to be my go-to album when I wanted something solid and new to play in the background. Usually one is best advised to ignore Mayer’s lyrics; here Mayer is seeking redemption from his douchebag persona, repudiating the appalling dickhead we encountered  in that Playboy interview. johnmayer.com

5. Richard Hawley – Standing At The Sky’s Edge
Every Richard Hawley release is an event. 2009’s Truelove’s Gutter probably is my album of the so-called Noughties. On Standing At The Sky’s Edge the orchestral resigned sighs have for a large part given way to the angry clang of angry rock guitars. But beneath the aggressive arrangements of the opening and closing songs reside the gorgeous, instantly memorable melodies and engaging lyrics one expects from Sheffield’s greatest genius. richardhawley.co.uk

4. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis Present Lawless
The soundtrack to the depression era film is curated by Nick Cave (who also wrote the film’s script) and Warren Ellis under the moniker The Bootleggers, with Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson (with a long-lost song) and Mark Lanegan guesting, doing Bluegrass, or Bluegrass-flavoured, covers of songs by the Velvet Underground, Townes Van Zandt, Link Wray, Captain Beefheart, and Grandaddy. Some songs are repeated in very different interpretations. The Bootleggers and Mark Lanegan give Link Wray’s 1971 country-rock song Fire And Brimstone a rock treatment that would be very much in place on a Cave record; later Ralph Stanley, all of 85 years old, reprises the song in raw Appalachian style, with beautiful guitar work and an unedited throat clearing. BUY

3. Rumer – Boys Don’t Cry
Sometimes you have highly vaunted foghorns like Adele, and sometimes the hype is true. With British chanteuse Rumer (no relation to Bruce Willis’ daughter), the hype keeps its promise. Much has been said about Rumer being the Karen Carpenter of the 21st century (albeit without Richard’s genius arrangements), and the similarity in voice and delivery is undeniable. There is also a bit of Dusty Springfield; like Dusty, Rumer has an unobtrusive soul sensibility and a way of conveying an emotion with delicate subtlety. Boys Don’t Cry is a thoroughly lovely, engaging album. rumer.co.uk

2. Ruthie Foster – Let It Burn
Let It Burn is blues singer Ruthie Foster’s eighth album — and the first of hers I’ve heard. I have a feeling that I have missed out. Let It Burn is a collection of cover versions (other than two original compositions), which usually is a signal for alarm. Happily, Foster’s selections are almost invariably astute. She takes Adele’s Set Fire To The Rain, and schools the overrated foghorn. She takes The Black Keys’ Everlasting Light and turns in a slow-burning blues number. She takes Johnny Cash’s Ring Of Fire and delivers a sultry soul song. She takes The Band’s It Makes No Difference and breaks your heart with a Muscle Shoals take just as sure as Rick Danko did. And on You Don’t Miss Your Water she duets with the song’s writer, the soul legend William Bell (The Blind Boys of Alabama guest on a couple of songs as well). This album shines!  ruthiefoster.com/

1.  Bap Kennedy – The Sailor’s Revenge
Coming from Northern Ireland, Bap Kennedy is liable to be compared to Van Morrison. Van has declared himself a fan, and like Morrison’s music, Kennedy’s draws from Irish folk — pipes, flutes, whistles and mournful fiddles — and  with hints of American soul. Plus a generous fistful of Bob Dylan. Produced by Mark Knopfler, the trained diamond gemologist — not a traditional rock & roll background — has delivered an 11-track collection of superbly written, performed and arranged songs. bapkennedy.com

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  1. halfhearteddude
    December 31st, 2012 at 10:45 | #1

    Bap Kennedy – Shimnavale
    Ruthie Foster – It Makes No Difference
    Rumer – Be Nice To Me
    The Bootleggers feat. Mark Lanegan – Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do
    Richard Hawley – Down In The Woods
    John Mayer – Born And Raised
    Brandi Carlile – Hard Way Home
    Mindy Smith – Take Me Back
    Melissa James – Little Caged Bird
    Justin Townes Earle – Am I That Lonely Tonight
    Leonard Cohen – Different Sides
    Tift Merritt – Sweet Spot
    Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t
    Kathleen Edwards – Change The Sheets
    Kelly Joe Phelps – Goodbye To Sorrow
    Gretchen Peters – Dark Angel (with Rodney Crowell)
    Nanci Griffith – Stranded In The High Ground
    Hugh Masekela – Rosie My Girl (with Gugu Shezi)
    Anna Ternheim – Lorelie-Marie
    Missy Higgins – Hello Hello

  2. halfhearteddude
  3. Douglas
    December 31st, 2012 at 16:29 | #3

    Thanks Dude.
    This list is yet another example of why your site is bookmarked. You’ve introduced me to artists I otherwise never would have heard and I thank you for that.

  4. Lisa
    December 31st, 2012 at 18:44 | #4

    I just love your taste in music. And your blog.

  5. Eli
    December 31st, 2012 at 20:01 | #5

    Just bought the Ruthie Foster album thanks to your post reminding me that she’s great.

  6. Karen
    December 31st, 2012 at 20:16 | #6

    Yep — purchases of Rumer have been made on iTunes this morning inspired by your sample in this playlist. Thank you!

  7. Arusha
    December 31st, 2012 at 23:06 | #7

    A very happy new year and thanks for this wonderful blog.
    It is indeed very educational, lots of music to be discovered.

  8. Diane Sampson
    January 3rd, 2013 at 04:56 | #8

    @Karen
    A lot of Americans are just discovering Rumer. Both of her albums are great! There is a very nice fan group on Facebook called “Rumer Worldwide Fans” – Come join us!

  9. January 5th, 2013 at 02:37 | #9

    Thanks for the list. Ruthie Foster is amazing. Yet, I hadn’t heard of her until this compilation. I will buy the CD (or download it). Masekela: still brilliant. If you haven’t heard it, check out his “Colonial Man” from around 1976. You’re doing great work here.

  10. HW
    January 19th, 2013 at 11:39 | #10

    “OVERRATED FOGHORN”! While it’s always nice to discover shared musical tastes, it’s even better to come across a mutually shared musical distaste, especially when that artist is played relentlessly in every conceivable public space, making the victim want to abandon the trolley / restaurant etc and run out screaming.

  11. halfhearteddude
    January 19th, 2013 at 17:40 | #11

    I nearly wept when she was awarded the Golden Globe for a terrible song that was not redeemed by her vocal performance…

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