Best Songs of 2012: A Preview

It’s been a while since I’ve written a music-related post. As most of you know, I’m something of a music junkie. And thanks to free-streaming via Spotify, I’ve never been able to sample more new music from new bands. I’m loving it.

That said, 2012 hasn’t been filled with a lot of “great” albums or “great” songs for me. Lots of really good stuff, but few have made the transition to the “great” category through prolonged exposure and repeat listens. But here is a smattering of some of the best of 2012 that I’ve been listening to lately. (And if you like what you read, be sure to come back in another month or so for my annual “Best Of” list.)

Hold On by Alabama Shakes

Lots of reasons why I love this band. Great sound. Incredible vocals. Plus, they’re local, coming from just down the road in Athens. On “Hold On”, lead singer Brittany Howard sings with a wearisome howl that betrays her young age:

Bless my heart
Bless my soul
Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old
There must be someone up above sayin’
“Come on Brittany, you got to come on up.”
“You got to hold on…”

This is the song that’s really helped put this band on the map and I’ve been listening to it a lot lately. Actually, their entire album is really strong, especially “Heartbreaker”, a tour de force of power and restraint, all in the span of three minutes, forty-eight seconds.

February Seven by The Avett Brothers

The new Avett Brothers’ album, The Carpenter, has received somewhat mixed reviews by a fan base yearning for their earlier, banjo-centric sound. I think it also suffered by its proximity to the new Mumford release (which cashes in on the formula of earlier success — more on that in a minute). But with repeated listens, The Carpenter emerges as a logical sonic progression for a band growing more and more comfortable with their place in the mainstream market. This is less a Rick-Rubin scrubbed-down “new sound” and more of a statement of maturity. With tight songwriting and expert craftsmanship, The Carpenter sounds better and better with each listen. One of the album’s gems is “February Seven”, a song that perfectly encapsulates this band’s station in life — and the fact that they’re really, really comfortable with who they are:

I went on the search from something true
I was almost there when I found you
Sooner than my fate was wrote
A perfect blade, it slit my throat
And beads of lust released into the air
When I awoke, you were standing there

The song acknowledges the universality of questing toward meaning — on the road in pursuit of truth. But all of that meandering typically crystallizes in a relationship — with God, with a significant other, with a child — and the previous lust for purpose dissipates in light of this new reality. As the chorus echoes, “Now I’m rested and I’m ready to begin.” No more wandering; no more searching. Bono would never sing this sort of thing, but these are guys who’ve found what they were looking for…and they’re proud of it. A great song.

On The Sea by Beach House

This band specializes in the kind of Arcade Fire, multi-layered sound that I’ve really become fond of in the past couple of years. Lyrically, this song is fairly obtuse. I think it’s about coming of age while seeking to define one self in light of another relationship: In hind of sight / No peace of mind / Where you begin / And I’m defined / Daughter of unconscious fate / Time will tell in spite of me. (Like I said. Obtuse.) But musically, this song creates an atmosphere that envelopes you, much like being on the water causes you to lose your frame of reference sometimes. And sometimes, that’s the point – music as an expression of feeling, not as a linear discourse on the meaning of life. Definitely different than the straightforward earnestness of the Avetts, that’s for sure.

Little Black Submarines by The Black Keys

I love me some Black Keys, especially when I’m on the treadmill. But let’s be honest: all their songs sort of sound the same: loud guitars, distorted vocals. The thing I like about this one is that it starts off softly, and THEN it gets to the loud guitars and vocal distortion. Still just a straight up rock song, but it’s a good one.

It’s Never Alright by Dwight Yoakam

I’ve been a fan of Yoakam since my early teen years. In fact, one of the first cassette tapes I ever owned was a copy of his “Just Lookin’ For A Hit”. So I’m something of a homer, here. That said, his new 3 Pears album is the best stuff he’s put out in 15 years. Easily. Yoakam’s best stuff isn’t the honky-tonk swagger that he’s known for (although “Guitars, Cadillacs, etc.” might be one of the best country songs of all time). His country croon was tailor made for bluesy ballads (think “You’re The One”) and “It’s Never Alright” is one of the best he’s ever recorded. And believe me, that’s saying something. I could listen to this horn section all day long. You won’t hear any of this on the “country” radio that comes out of Nashville these days, but that’s all right. Or, should I say….well, nevermind.

Emmylou by First Aid Kit

Best country song of the year, but again, there is no chance that this will ever get any airplay on your favorite country station. First Aid Kit is a Swedish folk duo, two sisters whose soaring harmonies and acoustic accompaniment make them something of a female Fleet Foxes. But as weird as that sounds, the product is solid gold. On “Emmylou”, the sisters bemoan their lack of “suitable helpers” to join them as they sing along:

I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June
If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny, too
No I’m not asking much of you
Just sing, little darlin’, sing with me

Just beautiful. You should give it a listen.

Holland Road by Mumford & Sons

A lot of people are in love with these guys lately. I’ve always been more of an Avett guy, but I have to say: these dudes are strong. And their latest release, Babel, feeds the beast. If you’re looking for a departure from the signature sound of their first LP, you’re sure to be disappointed. But for most groupies, that’s precisely what the doctor ordered. If you wanted to be critical, sure: a lot of the songs sound the same. But lyrically, these guys are preaching the Gospel on a good many of their songs. On this song, “Holland Road”, I picture the Prodigal moment of hitting rock bottom. Holland Road becomes the metaphor for this journey toward something beyond the present circumstance of pain and brokenness — and the absolute insistence that this something is to be hoped for, rather than feared.

But I’ll still believe
Though there’s cracks you’ll see
When I’m on my knees, I’ll still believe
And when I’ve hit the ground
Neither lost nor found
If you’ll believe in me, I’ll still believe

I love this song for several reasons. One, it rocks. But moreover, it articulates the intricate nature of believing — how we’re all linked by what we believe and what we believe in. As I put myself on this Holland Road, I find great joy in journeying with this ragtag assemblage that I get to “do life” with. And though we don’t talk about it often, I suppose — at least not as people of faith — we are buoyed by the belief we share in one another, bringing out the best in one another as we lavish grace and love, the instruments essential to our sustained pilgrimage. Nobody that I know of is making these kinds of claims in such a mainstream way right now. Keep going, boys. We’re walking with you.
Well, there you have it. At least for now. I’ll have a full mash up of my favorite albums and songs in the weeks to come. Feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear them.

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One Response to Best Songs of 2012: A Preview

  1. mikes75 says:

    Great Picks! I’ve now seen the Alabama Shakes twice, and they’re easily one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen. I’d also recommend you check our Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, another ‘Bama band with a great sound.

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