Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Folk and Country
Published Dec 11, 2012The war for the Best of 2012 continues today with our picks for Folk and Country. Let the battle begin.
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.
11. Father John Misty
Not being aware of J. Tillman's earlier solo albums and not considering myself a major Fleet Foxes fan (the group he drummed for), this album blindsided me and ranks as my favourite music surprise of the year. Thanks in strong part to the work of multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Jonathan Wilson, the album achieves a widescreen cinematic sound. That's fitting, given all the references to movies and Hollywood Babylon here. Other names dropped include Howard Hughes, Richard Brautigan, and, on "I'm Writing A Novel," Heidegger, Sartre and Malibu Neil (likely Young). Apparently Tillman's attempts at writing a novel fuelled Fear Fun, and he succeeds at being literary without being pretentious. His robust and rather unaffected vocal delivery places full accent on his lyrics, and they withstand scrutiny. After playing with and hiding behind a colourful cast of characters, Tillman gets confessional on the closing song, "Everyman Needs A Companion." "I got hung up on religion / Though I know it's a waste / I never liked the name 'Joshua' / and I got tired of 'J.'" So here he is, reborn triumphantly as Father John Misty. Can't wait to hear what musical mischief he conjures next.
10. Amelia Curran
Amelia Curran makes loss and regret sound so appealing. The St. John's, NL artist's sixth album is another chapter in her compelling exploration of the raw places in the human psyche. Since her 2009 Juno Award-winning album Hunter Hunter, Curran has sharpened her skills and come out with an album that takes her subtle melodies and devastating lyrical poetry to the next level. With John Critchley (Dan Mangan, Elliott Brood) in the producer's seat, Spectators has a richer sound than we've heard from Curran before. Her sad songs are less desolate than they've been in the past, boasting lavish horn- and string-filled arrangements. Backing vocals come courtesy of Selina Martin, Oh Susanna and the Once, and Martin Tielli contributes guitar (as well as the unsettling painting on the album cover). The more upbeat end of the album even strays into pop territory with the brief, buoyant "Blackbird on Fire." Lyrically, despite this increased warmth and camaraderie, Curran is just as achingly sad as she's always been. Her clear, vivid voice still has that ever-present sense of emotional strain that brings urgency and yearning to every line she sings. Above all, however, Spectators is the most listenable and accessible album Curran has yet produced: confident, expansive and utterly enjoyable.
9. Old Man Luedecke
Tender Is The Night
For nearly ten years, Old Man Luedecke has been producing some of the country's purest, brightest and most authentic folk music. A decade of devotion to his craft has paid off for the Chester, NS artist, whose fifth full-length album, Tender Is The Night, combines Luedecke's hooky melodies and vibrant lyrics with beautifully polished production. His familiar voice and his fingers flying over the banjo strings have never sounded warmer or more inviting thanks to the attentions of a Grammy-winning production team. The album was recorded in Nashville at the Butcher Shoppe (a studio owned by John Prine and renowned sound engineer David Ferguson) and American bluegrass musician Tim O'Brien is once again in the producer's seat. From the goofy "A&W Song" to the heartfelt "Tender Is The Night" to foot-stompers like "Tortoise and the Hare" and "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms" the songs are true to Luedecke's unique musical sensibilities: always light in spirit even when his themes are weighty. Luedecke already won two Junos for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year in 2009 and 2011. But from the sounds of Tender Is The Night, it seems this old man is only just getting started.
8. Bill Fay
Life Is People
Most artists have that one song, the song that usually appears at the end of an album that carries the weight of the world and sums up everything the songwriter has been hinting at for the last 40 minutes. It's a song that attempts to do nothing less than communicate the human condition, that has fans weeping during a dramatic centrepiece in the live show, that invariably gets scooped up by movie music supervisors for use in particularly poignant montages. It's the song that, if done well enough, ends up being "The Song" of an artist's career. Bill Fay, a long-forgotten never-was who hasn't put out a proper album in almost 40 years, has suddenly coughed up 12 of those songs. Granted, one of them is a Wilco cover, and Jeff Tweedy shows up for a duet on the one and only up-tempo number. Fay has spent literally a lifetime crafting these songs, full of wonder and enlightenment and acute observation, but he recorded quickly with a young producer who knew how to marry Fay's '70s British singer-songwriter vibe with occasional modern moody psychedelia on arrangements that place his lyrics in haunting, evocative soundscapes and lush, gospel-tinged folk. If you had no idea who Bill Fay was before hearing this album you'll be thankful he waited this long to release an album this good, and rejoice in the fact that he's still alive to get his due.
7. Anaïs Mitchell
Young Man In America
Vermont-based Anaïs Mitchell takes us on a mesmerizing, melodic voyage with Young Man in America, the perfect follow-up to the ambitious folk-opera of Hadestown. Certainly it's more intimate, stripped down and accessible, but it's every bit as enchanting. Young Man in America is easily one of the most heartbreaking, insightful, impassioned, complex and delightful releases of the year. There's a meaningful story behind every song, but it is the title track, where she unfurls a disquieting portrait of pastoral America, that serves to really anchor the record. Part social commentary, part literary poetry, Mitchell is so sublimely genuine on all her songs you're made to believe she is recounting childhood memories. Her distinctive voice — innocent, mournful and fragile — mirrors her captivating storytelling. Young Man in America further solidifies the gifted wordsmith's upcoming place among today's most celebrated folk heavyweights. It will surely be considered an essential Anaïs Mitchell record for years to come and an excellent — albeit late — entry point for anyone who has not been following her career.
For all of the dreamy strangeness that each Lambchop album possesses, once their codes are cracked, they become a world that one wants to be totally consumed by. It often takes some serious listening to reach that point, but on Mr. M, Lambchop's Zen country (for lack of a better term) came across as magnificently as it ever has. Much of that had to do with the band's guiding force, Kurt Wagner, using much of the album to address the suicide of his close friend and fellow singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt. It was a death that could partially be blamed on Chesnutt's inability to receive health insurance, which left him unable to pay his ever-increasing medical bills. Given this context, it's hardly a surprise that the first words Wagner sings on the album are "What the fuck," and from there his questioning of the meaning of existence heads off into territory that very few other songwriters, particularly those based in Nashville, would ever dare to go. But even though Mr. M exposes many raw nerves with Wagner, the sound that the band conjures never sways from the soothing reinterpretation of vintage Nashville strings'n'syrup. Together, the music and lyrics are a jarring juxtaposition, but that is what has always made Lambchop unique, just as Wagner's image as a John Deere hat-wearing philosopher who sings like Curtis Mayfield has always made him such a compelling figure. Mr. M is easily one of Wagner's highest artistic achievements so far.
5. Cold Specks
I Predict a Graceful Expulsion
(Arts & Crafts)
To call Al Spx, lead singer-songwriter of spectacular "doom soul" outfit Cold Specks, the "black Adele" is lazy, racist and glaringly unoriginal — but to give some music journalists the benefit of the doubt, maybe they're just trying to convince mainstream audiences to take a chance on this Canadian indie artist. Say "Adele" and ears perk up and pocketbooks open. But Spx and Cold Specks deserve their own stratospheric levels of success. The band's debut, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, is sorrowful but strong, an aching depiction of some of Spx's hardest and darkest moments, and her slow, triumphant emergence. The second track, "Heavy Hands," is an almost atonal masterpiece, and the most original song of the year. Brass flourishes and perfect lines like "you know better ways to fail" fill out the frosty edges of "Winter Solstice." It's not just her own demons she's wrestling with, but faith as well. "Blank Maps" is urgent and defiant at every beat, Spx spitting lines like "I am / I am / A goddamned believer." But it's her plaintive urging to "burn this name" on the album closer "Lay Me Down" that leaves you breathless, changed and ready to hit repeat and start the cycle all over again.
Sexy, soulful and effortlessly charming are all apt descriptors of Bahamas' Barchords and of the man behind the music, Afie Jurvanen. The follow-up to Bahamas' fantastic debut, Pink Strat, avoided all the perils of the curse of the sophomore slump, building on a foundation of bone-deep lyrics, some warm alt-country riffs and deceptively simple arrangements. "Montreal" puts us on a stool next to the melancholy drunk dude at a bar, and then follows him through as he sobers up and wizens to the truth: maybe he's better off, as indicated by the upbeat ditty that follows, "Okay, Alright, I'm Alive." The following track, "Never Again," fills out its chorus with soul and fuzzed out guitars, and builds up slowly and methodically. The bittersweet notes echo on "Overjoyed," another slow burn number with Jurvanen cooing "you release me" over and over again. If Pink Strat was about slowly falling out of love, Barchords paints a vivid and occasionally devastating picture of what can happen next: full on heartbreak, hurt and the heavy burden of moving on.
3. Kathleen Edwards
There's a break-up album and then there's Kathleen Edwards' latest album, Voyageur. It's simple to discount break-ups as a multi-step process that reads like a grocery list of things: break up, return things, part ways, move on. Edwards knows this isn't the truth. These things are often torturous stretches of time where feelings are sensitive to flipping instantaneously, thoughts aren't necessarily at their clearest and everything's, for lack of a better word, a giant mess. Having gone through a recent divorce, Edwards documents these chaotic feelings. On opening track "Empty Threat," she repeatedly promises that she's "moving to America," only to later admit that it's an empty threat. The rest of the album barrels through in a similar fashion, attempting to achieve a feeling, a step towards moving on, but not necessarily seeing it through to the end, constantly getting lost in a cloud of emotions. It's something we all innately relate to and, in turn, feel that aching pinch in the chest as we listen. Not only does Edwards tear through emotions on Voyageur, she also breaks through sonically. This is the most musically adventurous we've heard her, partially thanks to the production elements instilled by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver). No longer staying within the confines of her narrow country-rock roots, Edwards has learned to embrace bigger sounds and a bigger band, and the embellishments shine throughout the album. From one of the darkest moments in a person's life, Edwards was able to pull through with one of the year's brightest moments with Voyageur – a highlight for both Canadian singer-songwriters and for Edwards herself.
2. Alabama Shakes
Boys & Girls
Sometimes nothing beats good ol' fashioned powerhouse soul, and that's exactly what Alabama Shakes delivered on their full-length debut. Led by vocalist/guitarist Brittany Howard, this young quartet seemed as though the sounds of Stax and Muscle Shoals had been imbued in their DNA, which, hailing from small-town Alabama, was probably the case. Adding just the right amount of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC swagger only strengthened their presentation, and distanced them from being labeled a purely retro act. It was hard to pin that on Howard anyway, since her natural expressiveness took command from the opening life-affirming track "Hold On." Her rough and ready band-mates merely had to follow in Howard's wake, and cover even the album's simplest charming moments like "Hang Loose" in irresistible musical molasses, something especially punctuated whenever Howard dropped in one of her "sweet baby" vocal tics. But while the entire band is obviously well schooled in classic rhythm & blues, the underlying force behind Boys & Girls is an undeniable gospel influence that could only come from the Deep South. Howard's ease at building up to the joyful climaxes of "Be Mine" and "I Ain't The Same" is mesmerizing, recalling at times the great Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the true unsung rock and roll pioneers. If nothing else, the arrival of Alabama Shakes proved that Sister Rosetta's spirit still lives, along with many other vital American musical traditions. But overall, Boys & Girls simply rocks.
1. Corb Lund
It opens with what could be a two-note AC/DC riff, before shifting into a country stomp and a matter-of-fact account of a coming social meltdown following a peak oil crisis. That's followed by a down-and-dirty, harmonica-driven stomp that pays ode to your local gravedigger, and some light-hearted advice on bribing law enforcement with feigned theological allegiance. Then we get to one of the best long-distance rural-urban love songs ever written in this country or anywhere else. The rest of the album has rockabilly songs about German motorcycles and goth girls, yodelling odes to antique pistols and a song about how "everything is better when there's cows around." Whether he's goofing off, telling yarns or getting his heart broken, Lund never wastes a single word. His band of Hurtin' Albertans — the newest of whom has now been in the group for 11 years — have never sounded better, and Lund's melodies soar, whether it's a ballad or a barn-burner. Lund rarely slouches, but he's at his finest here. Cabin Fever is Lund's seventh album—it's a lucky one.