Time for my annual list of the best albums of 2012. Unlike my book list, I limit myself solely to music released in the last 12 months. Thanks to the advent of Spotify, it’s never been easier to listen to good (free) music. And by watching the deals at the Amazon MP3 store and eMusic, I was able to score some really good deals. No illegal downloading here; all albums are purchased legally. But thanks to Spotify, you don’t even have to own any of these in order to enjoy them. Now, on to the list!
There was some really great music that was put out this year. Many of my selections tend toward the folk rock / country genre and 2012 will go down as a high water mark for the banjo / acoustic guitar / mandolin sound.
- Babel, Mumford & Sons.
Most critics seem to have graded Babel out right around a B+ effort, expecting more of a departure from the freshman-album wonder, Sigh No More. But Marcus Mumford and his fellow bandmates have opted instead for the if-it-ain’t-broke philosophy, or so the criticism goes. But in my opinion, Babel is a natural extension of the musicianship and lyricism we were first introduced to on the Mumford debut. And, taken on its own terms, it’s a fine album.What separates Babel from Sigh No More is its much darker tone. For starters, there’s the album title, an allusion to that ancient biblical tale of pride, confusion, and displacement. By reaching into biblical pre-history, Mumford & Sons have found a pliable metaphor to provide the lyrical gravity found on these 12 tracks. The world is a messed up place, Babel preaches, and the reflection that follows is honest, personal and poignant. On the title track: “I know my weakness / Know my voice.” There’s an acknowledgement that we contribute to the problem of the world, that we, in fact, ARE the problem, consigned to crawl on our bellies in twilight (Broken Crown). Whispers In The Dark is even more forthright: “A brush with the Devil / Can clear your mind.”But such existential meandering is commonplace, especially in the alt / folk milieu. What I love about Mumford & Sons is that they make absolutely no apologies for brandishing a particular spiritual hope in spite of such brokenness and doubt. At the risk of being over-earnest, Babel is an unabashed recognition of deep faith. I’m a cad / But I’m not a fraud / I’d set out to serve the Lord.”, from Whispers in the Dark; “This ain’t no sham / I am what I am” they sing on album closer Not With Haste. From start to finish, Babel is a heart-on-the-sleeve affair.Loneliness and brokenness emerge as primary themes on this record, but they never have the last word. Threads of hope are deeply woven through these tracks, even (or especially) in the darker songs. Days of darkness are blown away by the breaking dawn of a new sun in I Will Wait. The galvanizing force of loss recreates our desire to truly live in the present (Whispers In The Dark). One of my favorite tracks is Holland Road, which gives voice to the Prodigal moment so ingrained with Christian hope: So I hit my low / But little did I know / That would not be the end / From the Holland Road / Well I rose and I rose. And the refrain that lasts: 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. This is faith from the ground up, the heartfelt plea for another to see something in you that you cannot see in yourself. To believe in someone is to call them into a better version of themselves. Therein lies the power of hope.
My favorite track is Below My Feet, a rich treasure-trove confessional. Twice in the opening stanzas Mumford sings the refrain: “Well, I was lost”. The cold blood of death courses through his veins, and his waking hours are spent tearfully. But this is the only sinner’s prayer to escape Mumford’s lips: “Keep the earth below my feet / From my sweat, my blood runs weak / Let me learn from where I have been / Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.” We pray to keep moving forward, to keep the earth below rather than above our feet, before our days of toil end and we return to the soil from whence we sprang. This is the human condition of lost-ness. By the time we reach the second stanza, our lost-ness is rightly termed as past tense and the name of Jesus is invoked: “When I was told my Jesus all was well / So all must be well.” Taken out of context, this is pithy, bumper sticker theology. But firmly entrenched near the end of the album playlist, particularly as a rejoinder to Broken Crown, the lyric brims with deep faith, an impulse to choose belief over all evidence to the contrary. To declare so boldly when brokenness so wholly engulfs is either the most faithful or the most foolish way to live. I can relate to that level of honesty.
To focus solely on the lyrical depth of this album is to ignore the instrumental craftsmanship Mumford & Sons have honed to perfection in the five years they’ve been together. The critics who pan this album derisively refer to it as Sigh No More 2.0, claiming too much of a good thing is a bad thing. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as too much foot stompin’ banjo and guitar pickin’. Moreover, Babel is just beautiful, even in its darker moments. The sonic scale has been expanded as the band, much like that ancient monolith of inspiration, continues to reach for the stars.
Keep reaching, fellas.
Download This: Below My Feet, I Will Wait, Whispers In The Dark, Holland Road, Lover of the Light.
- Blunderbuss, Jack White. White’s first solo LP is a genre-bending oeuvre of sheer brilliance. Classic rock guitar riffs, shimmering cymbals, pedal steel, strings, even a church organ….they all show up here, played masterfully by a host of backing players. But the real scene-stealer here is the piano work. Most of these songs are melodically carried by the keys, not the guitars — and who saw that coming? Just listen to Missing Pieces and you’ll see what I mean.This album is solid from top to bottom. I’m not a big fan of Sixteen Saltines, but otherwise, the whole thing is very strong. Heartbreak is the prevailing theme; see Love Interruption and Take Me With You When You Go as Exhibits A and B. And although we might wish him better luck with the ladies in the future, the muse of heartbreak has produced one of 2012’s finest albums. Download This: Missing Pieces, Love Interruption, Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy, Weep Themselves to Sleep.
- Heaven, The Walkmen.“I was the Duke of Earl / But it couldn’t last / I was the Pony Express / But I ran out of gas”. So begins Heaven, the latest album from indie-rockers The Walkmen. This is self-conscious rock music, made by a band that has moved from post-punk angst into something resembling middle adulthood. The results are textured, vibrant, and simply gorgeous. Note the harmonies on We Can’t Be Beat, a rumination on shattered dreams and loneliness tethered by the line “We’ll never leave”. The Walkmen seem to be making music for people who have lived long enough to recognize the significance of resiliency and commitment.Such is the inspiration for Song For Leigh, sung from father to daughter: “And I sing myself sick / Sing myself sick about you.” What father hasn’t shared such feelings of pride? And how many of us have also possessed such self-awareness in the moment, knowing we’re becoming that Dad as we incessantly talk to others about our kids, yet we do it anyway? Call it stage of life, but I can relate to that.
There’s also heartfelt desperation, as in the title track, a shimmering, unrelenting panoply of guitar and drum. “Don’t leave me / You’re my best friend / All of my life / You’ve always been.” As the gilded age draws to an end, our thoughts inevitably turn toward promise and hope, the image of something beyond. But in the present, we count ourselves blessed to share the moment with another.
Heaven is a richly ambient record, a vintage-sounding and nearly perfect meditation on life, regret, pain, and the love we find as we muddle along. Download This: Heaven, Line By Line, We Can’t Be Beat, Heartbreaker, Song For Leigh.
- The Carpenter, The Avett Brothers.This album has been a bit polarizing for long time fans who want more front porch boot stomp and less adult contemporary polish. But this effort is very solid, if not spectacular. Upon first listen, I’ll admit, I was a bit underwhelmed, but The Carpenter simply gets better with each listen. (It’s also a testimony to the quality albums that were released this year that I could only rank this at #4.) Live and Die is the most immediately engaging up-tempo number, but it’s the quieter tunes that endure three months after the album release date. Winter In My Heart is a hauntingly beautiful ode to love grown cold; the title track reflects on the relational investments great and small that make us a work in progress; Through My Prayers is one of Seth’s finest recordings to date; and A Father’s First Spring hardly needs explanation — the title says it all.My favorite track, though, is February Seven, a beautiful melody sung by Scott and accompanied by acoustic guitar and swelling strings. The song is the perfect slice of life for a band rounding into mid-life form, trading what they know for how they feel. “I’m rested and I’m ready to begin,” they sing over and over with the conviction of men who believe the best is yet to come. Count me in. Download This: February Seven, Live and Die, Winter In My Heart.
- The Lumineers, The Lumineers.Top to bottom, this album is imminently listenable. Unlike a few of my top album selections, there’s simply not a bad song in the batch. That said, there’s also not really a great one, either. Sure, there’s the ubiquitous Ho Hey, a heartwarming little ditty with the most singable chorus of the year. The aptly-titled Slow It Down is more reflective; and Classy Girls leaves you wanting more. Overall, a very good — but not quite great — album. But this is one band to definitely keep your eye on. Download This: Ho Hey (if you haven’t already), Slow It Down, Classy Girls.
- My Head Is An Animal, Of Monsters and Men.This Icelandic indie band has drawn comparisons to Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons; if you know anything about my musical tastes, you know that’s a good thing. Their debut LP is chock full of grand aural landscapes, rich harmonies, and evocative lyricism. One of my favorite debuts of the year. Download This: Little Talks, King and Lionheart, Mountain Sound.
- Boys and Girls, Alabama Shakes.I love these guys for several reasons. One, they’re local; their home base, Athens, AL, is just down the highway. Moreover, their mix of Southern rock infused with soul brims with a vintage sound, making it yet another member of 2012’s strong freshman class. Lead singer Brittany Howard is an absolute powerhouse; she especially shines on Hold On, Be Mine and Heartbreaker your Download This tracks from this stellar debut.
- Bloom, Beach House.The aural landscapes created here are lush and sprawling, so much so that it’s easy to get lost listening. But there’s more here than just chamber-pop background music. Victoria Legrand’s voice balances with the layers of shimmering guitars to create a pleasing pop-tinged atmosphere. Comparisons to Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear are appropriate. Download This: On The Sea, Myth, The Hours.
- Women and Work, Lucero.This Memphis-based band make brawny, working class guitar rock mixed with horns, piano / organ, and pedal steel. This is a sound honed to perfection after years on the road and in the studio. On Women & Work, they’ve never sounded better. Download this: On My Way Downtown, It May Be Too Late, Go Easy.
- Nothing Here Seems Strange, Buxton.This Houston-based band caught my eye with their unique blend of alt / folk / country. Lyrically, the first half of the album is stark and even sparse in places, creating a reflective atmosphere that permeates nearly every song. But the boys begin to flex at around the midway point, finishing out the album with a strong dose of energy and electric guitar. Download This: Lynchburg Ferry, Boy of Nine, Riverbed.
- The Lion’s Roar, First Aid Kit.Acoustic balladry and soaring harmonies are the hallmark of First Aid Kit, the Swedish sister-duo that crashed the Americana / folk party with a vengeance in 2012. Emmylou became an instant favorite the first time I heard it; give it a listen and you’ll see why. While you’re at it, you’d be hard pressed to find a more pleasant sounding song than Blue, a 60s era throwback folk rock song if you’ve ever heard one. Download This: Emmylou, Blue.
- Away From The World, Dave Matthews Band.New Dave sounds a lot like vintage 90s Dave. And that’s a great thing. I’m not a DMB junkie, but I’ve always appreciated them. On this latest LP, they sound better than they have in a decade. Download This: Mercy, Belly Belly Nice.
- A Wasteland Companion, M Ward.I was a little disappointed with this album, especially since 2009’s Hold Time was one of my favorites that year. But there are a few memorable moments here, mainly The First Time I Ran Away and Crawl After You.
- Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen.Rolling Stone hailed this as the album of the year. Ehh, not quite. Personally, I thought The Boss sounded like an angry old man on this record. On Wrecking Ball, his angst is channeled into an arena-ready anthem of collective endurance; on his more preachy moments (particularly We Take Care Of Our Own and Death To My Hometown), the same sentiment falls flat. Download This: Wrecking Ball, Land of Hopes and Dreams.
- Give Us Rest,David Crowder Band. DMB gives us quite the swan song: a 34-song opus filled with banjo, rock opera, minor chords, and ruminations on endings and the uniquely Christian hope for resurrection life to come. I still say A Collision is the best CCM album of all time. So long, boys. We’ll miss you. Download This: Oh My God, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.
So, folks, there you have it. My complete list for 2012. I’d love to read your thoughts on your favorite music from the past year.