Another year of music has come and gone, dense with wonder and goodness. I can’t possibly articulate the qualitatively-best albums of the year, but I can mentally categorize into my favorites (something that has been a hot discussion topic this week with my musical friends). These are my favorite albums that were released in 2012 — tallied in a scientific manner of how long it took me to take the record off repeat. When I love something, I tend to love music furiously and unrelentingly, listening to it on repeat for weeks and months until I get sick of it. I’m not sick of any of these wonderful records yet, and in fact they keep getting better the more I listen.
Here are my favorite ten albums of 2012, in alphabetical order by artist. Take a listen: there are some wonderful things here you might have missed.
Ohhhh, this record. This is a strong, rootsy, growly record that is also stunningly beautiful. Philadelphia “death gospel” musician Adam Arcuragi sings from the very base of his guts, with his head back and his heart forward. Singing along with him and his Lupine Chorale Society (from lupo, the latin word for wolf) during their chapel session, with my head back and heart forward as well, was a highlight of the year for me in terms of the soul elevation, something that this music has in loads. This was definitely one for much-needed replenishment this year.
Andrew Bird has made a spry, elegant record, full of darting violin, freewheeling gypsy stomping, lugubrious plucking, and his famous whistling in true virtuoso style. It is also a complicated record: best listened to as a whole, complete with the interspersed short musical interlude songs that pepper through the larger orchestral numbers. It feels like a journey. Songs like “Lazy Projector” soundtracked long hot summer nights for me, and into the winter this record has continued to be one I reach for often.
Afie Jurvanen cut his musical touring teeth with Feist and the Broken Social Scene kids, and is now on his second record of his own songs. This record is brimming with charm and a sort of playfulness that draws on old Sun-Studios session sounds, lots of golden space and reverb in the room, and so hard not to move your hips back and forth. Afie’s voice is so warm and honeyed (he’s on the super-shortlist for Chapel Sessions in 2013) that this record is completely irresistible.
This feels like a hard-fought record, wrought by a voice who deserves to be around for a very long time. Al Spx’s voice is transfixing, and resonates with this timeless gospel weight that seems to know more than her 24 years should allow. Her video for “Holland” is one of the most perfect things to happen in a long time, visually weaving together the decay and the growth, the chaos and the intention. There is immense power in this record. When she sings: “I am, I am / I am, I am a goddamned believer,” it’s as if she is trying to convince herself, maybe. Sometimes it is hard to be a believer, goddamit. She gets it.
There is a ghostly swing to this record, the twelfth (depending on how you count) from the insanely talented and insanely prolific Seattle songwriter Damien Jurado. It’s haunting and flawless all at once, with the echo of rain on the roof and children singing in chorus – it is as unsettling and it is perfectly incisive. Another Jurado collaboration with Richard Swift, this record is so full of goodness (“I want you and the skyline / these are my demands.” ??? COME ON) that it is almost too powerful some days.
One summer night at 3am, I found myself sitting up with Field Report around my kitchen table, talking about songwriting and art and intentionality (and reading this Annie Dillard essay aloud – thanks, Jonathan). The more I heard Chris Porterfield talk about his songs, giving even small insights into them, the more I decided that this record resonates with the way my brain sees stories unfold in the world. It’s breathtaking. This album feels, to me, like an insistent wrestling with fever dreams, the small failings that slice at us, and the things we wanted and meant to do, but somehow got lost along the way. The words unravel for me like rich poems, to roll over and over in my head, hearing new things each time. Field Report is an anagram of Chris Porterfield, a Wisconsin musician who was once in the band DeYarmond Edison with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and the Megafaun guys, and he has now crafted a record of his own. These songs took him years to wrestle out, and I am so glad he kept fighting.
Man, this record. The piece of writing I worked out about it earlier this month says exactly what I want to say:
What I hear when I listen to this record is a ragged bravery, a loose-knuckled grip on any sort of stability, and a gorgeous musical honesty. It’s a complicated, outstanding record. Fiona wheels and rages and turns her scalpel alternately fiercely in on herself and outward on a lover (who she calls out by name, more than once). It feels much more raw and bloody than previous records, as she continues to push forward with letting classical prettiness go. I think that notion alone deserves a slow clap, in a society that tends to prefer our ladyfolk a bit more decorous and docile.
This humble, perfect record landed softly on my ears on Easter morning, as the world was waking up. Isaac Pierce crafts songs out of Seattle that meander and drift, thoughtfully probing before landing perfectly where they need to be. He is a songwriter who taps into the exact same navigation my brain steers by, and this EP is deeply satisfying. “We get to be alive / sleep on your porch tonight / with certain distant songs playing, remind me to thank you for bringing us out here just in time…” All bruises heal.
Isaac is playing a house show for me THIS Wednesday, on January 2, with The Changing Colors (chapel session alums from early on) and Mike Clark (whose “Smooth Sailin’” track started and titled my Summer 2012 mix). You really, really should come.
This is a slowly-building, warmly calescent record that totally took me by surprise by how much and how quickly I adored it. I think this record is what a roadtrip might sound like across the West Texas desert if I brought Fleet Foxes along in the bed of my pickup truck, and added some warm Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms.
This is an album of heft and grief, but also of a hovering loveliness. You don’t often get those two together because the one usually crushes the other. Sharon balances both. This record strips and excoriates me, which sounds terrible but is the exact opposite: the type of brave catharsis that is so exquisitely and purely crafted that it makes all the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Her songs wrestle with the desire to love as new as she can, despite her scars, and often start quiet and thoughtfully but crescendo into a hurricane. This is a tremendous, tremendous album.
New Artist I Am Most Excited About in 2013: Night Beds
Because of a voice like this:
In the old tunnels off Gold Camp Road in Western Colorado Springs, Winston Yellen of Night Beds (debut record out February 5 on Dead Oceans) covered 1950s chanteuse Jo Stafford last night, illuminated by the car headlights.
The first Fuel/Friends Tunnel Session, and a pretty damn good way to end 2012.
On Saturday night, Seattle’s Pickwicktore through Denver on a short tour, and the energy in the Hi-Dive was palpable. Their music leans towards the toe-tapping, hip-shaking soul variety, but when they burned their way into this Damien Jurado cover and then “The Ostrich” by Lou Reed’s The Primitives as their penultimate song, they showed that they can also rage like a proper punk band. Holy mackerel, being in the front row for this just about killed me (in the best possible way).
This band keeps surprising me, and from the looks of the packed club on Saturday night, they keep surprising and converting increasingly large circles of fans. I predict good things coming with their debut full-length that they’ve almost finished. Watch out.
With his newest record, there came a small stack of 7″ singles, with six additional incredible songs. This song absolutely BREAKS MY HEART, and it is a bonus track. I mean COME ON Damien, it is unfair the crazy talent that flows out of this gentleman.
COLORADO CONTEST: Damien is playing Denver’s Hi-Dive tomorrow night. This will be one of the very best shows of the springtime in Colorado, guys. You can buy tickets here, and also email me to enter to win one of the pairs I have to give away! I can’t wait til tomorrow night. Come join me.
DAMIEN JURADO SPRING TOUR
Apr 17 – Hi-Dive – Denver, CO
Apr 18 – Velour – Provo, UT
Apr 19 – Neurolux – Boise, ID
Apr 21 – Biltmore Cabaret – Vancouver, Canada
Apr 22 – HOLOCENE – Portland, OR
May 16 – Schubas – Chicago, IL
May 17 – Warhol Museum – Pittsburgh, PA
May 18 – Davis Square Theater – Somerville, MA
May 19 – Mercury Lounge – New York, NY
May 20 – Johnny Brenda’s – Philadelphia, PA
May 21 – Black Cat – Washington, DC
May 22 – King’s Barcade – Raleigh, NC
May 23 – The EARL – Atlanta, GA
May 25 – The Basement – Nashville, TN
May 26 – Russian Recording – Bloomington, IN
May 28 – Sasquatch Music Festival – George, WA
Aug 09 – Haldern Pop – Haldern, Germany
Aug 17 – Green Man Festival – Wales, United Kingdom
One of my favorite songs off one of the albums I’ve listened to the most in the last year, this new cover of Damien Jurado’s “Beacon Hill” is suffused through the warmed-up, knowing rasp of Jon Russell (of The Head and The Heart). It’s been on constant repeat for me this week, since it was unveiled as part of an extremely cool mini-series of covers over on Andrew Matson’s music column in the Seattle Times.
Get Saint Bartlett if you never did, and stream Damien’s entire new forthcoming record, Maraqopa, here. Highly recommended — is anyone else also hung up on “Life Away From The Garden” (in addition to “Working Titles,” of course) like I am?
Keep your ears tuned to Matson’s column for the Seattle Times (check out Pickwick’s!). I don’t know what covers are coming next, but they can’t help but be amazing if this is the magnetic songwriting fodder we have to work with.
I keep trying to get further into the new Damien Jurado record, Maraqopa, but then I get stuck and stuck and stalled on this marvelous (melodic, melancholy) song. Not a bad place to be, there swimming in the ghostly doo-wop sadness. Of all them, Damien consistently slays me the most.
I didn’t listen to Saint Bartlett (2010) adequately until 2011, so it was voided from my ‘favorite albums of the year’ eligibility, but it totally was one of the very best things released that year. Maraqopa is Damien’s follow-up to Saint Bartlett, also collaborating with the production of Richard Swift, and will be out February 21 on Secretly Canadian. Damien possesses the ability to sledgehammer in on a sentiment with only a handful of words.
I fell for this Bill Fay song the first time I heard it in the Wilco movie I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. But where Jeff Tweedy’s version is a humble benediction that casts out fear (and which I’ve used on a dozen mixtapes), this version from Damien Jurado and Richard Swift rises up all spectral and echoey, like a lost gospel choir in some knockaround vacant Southern church. Affecting and fabulous.
Name: Heather Browne Location: Colorado, originally by way of California Giving context to the torrent since 2005.
"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel." —Hunter S. Thompson
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