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.
If we leave now, we can get to the overlook by sunset and still have time to build a fire. Over the echoey slam of our car doors we’ll start tentatively, remembering in a flood about all the bruising and fumbling, but also both hearing how the opening notes of this song on the stereo are dancing that same hesitant waltz that we are. There’s so much goodness here, so much gratitude, and a blissful reservoir that remains unknown. And still so much that we both know.
Your car wheezes and gets going on the highway right as the handclaps start in on the song and the twinned harmonies gather strength to hit their stride together. The yellow lines flick past. The road is open.
after the accident, inside the ambulance
you walked right out with a warm bruise
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
another minute would have been
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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