Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Folk and Country:
14. Jim White
Where It Hits You
If albums are snapshots of specific periods of time, it's a miracle that Jim White managed to make Where It Hits You at all. Acclaimed as one of Americana's true eccentric geniuses since the release of his 1997 debut, Wrong-Eyed Jesus, none of that meant White's day-to-day existence was much different than anyone else's. Where It Hits You emerged out of a five-year hiatus resulting from the end of White's marriage, a time where he nearly became destitute. That sense of rootless isolation is poignantly displayed throughout the album, starting with "Chase The Dark Away" and the movingly vivid "Sunday's Refrain." However, White's keen novelist's eye has always been resistant to self-pity, and his musical eclecticism remained equally intact, as evidenced by "Here We Go!" a brief but welcome light-hearted diversion. The album's strongest moments are, as always, when White goes into pure storytelling mode, such as on "My Brother's Keeper," the tale of a misfit kid who dies from obesity after the girl he always wanted marries another man. It's the kind of song that artists like Porter Wagoner and Tom T. Hall once had hits with, but are now relegated to artists like White, misfits themselves within a country music industry that's come to discourage any attempts at originality. Where It Hits You should be considered a personal victory over adversity for White, but also acknowledged as an artistic triumph for one of America's best songwriters.
13. M. Ward
A Wasteland Companion
Everyone expected a solid album from M. Ward — he's been key to the success of both She & Him and Monsters of Folk and boasts six previous solo releases that have won him acclaim. Still, A Wasteland Companion took many by surprise. Ward hits new heights of artistic progression, delivering an instantly gratifying record of articulate ballads, with that signature nostalgic bent we've grown so fond of. He's toned down the overtly gleeful theatrics of his collaborative efforts, using his solo output to offer us more contemplative substance. Fortunately, Ward continues to engage us in the timeless fashion of a true entertainer. His songwriting has always spun a common thread through Brian Wilson, John Lennon and Nick Drake, but we can now add Louis Armstrong to the list. A Wasteland Companion features a fantastic cover of Armstrong's "I Get Ideas" but it's not the only track where Ward emulates Armstrong's gritty, jazz-inflected delivery. Whether it's a playful romantic pop tune, a buoyant ditty or a gentle strummer, Ward's soundscape is fluid and loose yet complex and fresh-sounding. String embellishments on "Crawl After You" and "Wild Goose" appear in just the right measure. On the latter, waves of sound swell and collapse with rhythmic strumming, brushed drums, and mellow piano and lap steel arrangements, giving "Wild Goose" a haunting, wistful quality. Many are those who mine their longing for times past but few have sounded as compelling and inspired as M. Ward does on this seventh release.
12. First Aid Kit
The Lion's Roar
It's easy to sell First Aid Kit as just a young, Swedish sister duo who play saccharine folk melodies, but that barely skims the surface. Klara and Johanna Söderberg have made a substantial leap between albums, partially thanks to the production skills of Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Jenny Lewis). Mogis didn't alter the formula as much as take their strengths, highlight them and coax the best out of their already promising songs. Harmonies echo more, climatic drum fills come crashing in and flutes and lap steels whistle like the wind, adding a consistent tinge throughout the record. At just 19 and 21, Klara and Johanna display a maturity beyond their years and a bittersweet quality in their voices that take singers years to develop through the pain of experience. This is all channelled through perfectly compiled couplets that are simultaneously simple and complex. When they sing, "I'll be your Emmylou, and I'll be your June/If you'll be my Gram and my Johnny, too," on the album's best track "Emmylou," it's hard not to be swept off your feet and get lost in their lovelorn plea. The Lion's Roar is a force that stacks up against musicians who have been strumming away much longer than First Aid Kit. It's not only an impressive feat, but it also keeps us on our toes, filling us with anticipation to see what the next few years will bring.