The New Year is fast approaching, and the folks at No Depression recently sent out a call to their bloggers for the Top 10 albums (Americana) of 2012. I tried to strike a balance in terms of genres, labels, and mainstream name recognition. Feel free to suggest your own additions in the comments.
Number 10: “Across the Imaginary Divide” by Bela Fleck & the Marcus Roberts Trio
In the early days of jazz, the banjo was the stringed rhythm instrument of choice. The guitar — particularly the electric guitar — eventually overtook the banjo. On this album, Americana and jazz pioneer Bela Fleck puts the six-stringers to shame, trading both rhythm and leads with the piano/drums/bass lineup of the Marcus Roberts Trio. It’s a classic sound with a modern twist.
Number 9: “Goodbye Normal Street” by the Turnpike Troubadours
Solid country tunesmithing for those who can’t stomach most of what’s coming out of Nashville these days. Goodbye Normal Street is evidence of a band that’s maturing and broadening its appeal, while at the same time staying true to their sound and Americana roots. Highly recommended for those who are tired of the same old same old on country radio. (full review)
Number 8: “Boys & Girls” by Alabama Shakes
A band that actually lives up to the indie hype machine. This is an exceptionally solid first album that blends rock, soul, and R&B in a roots-informed yet still original package. In addition to the killer vocals and great musicianship, the production values harken back to what great music used to sound like before Pro Tools and the loudness wars exorcised all the soul from recorded music. (full review)
Number 7: “For the Good Times” by The Little Willies
Readers of this blog know I’m a huge fan of Jim Campilongo, mad professor of the Fender Telecaster. I’m also partial to Norah Jones and classic country music. Listeners partial to any one of those three things will find something to like on the second album from the Little Willies.
Number 6: “Guitaresque” by Tony Savarino
Speaking of Tele-slingers, fans of instrumental guitar should check out this 11-tune set from Boston’s own Tony Savarino. It’s a tasteful, seamless melange of classic American guitar sounds that doesn’t overwhelm with unnecessary showboating. It’s not hard to see why Savarino’s sound is so in demand among Boston’s finest. (full review)
Number 5: “Signs & Signifiers” by J.D. McPherson
Like Alabama Shakes, J.D. McPherson is making a name putting a modern twist on vintage sounds. Few albums put out these days really deserve to be classified as “rock and roll” — this album is one of those, betraying not a hint of hipster irony or nostalgic kitsch. (full review)
Number 4: “Toward the Low Sun” by Dirty Three
The Australian trio of Warren Ellis (violin), Mick Turner (guitar), and Jim White (drums) have been crafting brooding, Americana-influenced instrumental rock for twenty years now. This is one of their most rewarding outings, reflecting the diverse musical textures the band members have lent to acts like Nick Cave, Cat Power, and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. An album for all moods from a band that usually errs in the direction of melancholy.
Number 3: “Our Lady of the Tall Trees” by Cahalen Morrison & Eli West
A flawless set of acoustic folk and bluegrass. The vocals and instrumental breaks from this duo are equally worth the price of admission. There are quite a few vocal/instrumental pairings masquerading these days as authentic American “roots” music. Very few have done their homework as well as Morrison and West.
Number 2: “I’ll Keep Calling” by J.P. Harris & the Tough Choices
My handsdown pick for best country album of 2012. Harris is an endlessly clever songwriter, the Tough Choices are a tight western swing outfit, and this album is a tremendous debut. Rumor has it that J.P. Harris now calls Nashville home; the Music City is better for it. (full review)
Number 1: “Tempest” by Bob Dylan
Yeah, the title track meanders for the better part of 14 minutes, and Dylan’s voice is a raspy instrument that refuses to age well with time. Moreover, we all wish he would strap on his acoustic guitar and pick some solo tunes for old times’ sake. But if he just played to the crowd, Dylan’s catalog wouldn’t have so many compelling twists and turns. Tempest is Dylan’s strongest collection of songs — lyrically and musically — since Love and Theft. For more than five decades, Dylan has mined America’s musical heritage for content and inspiration; this album of folk, blues, and jazz-inflected numbers proves that his interpretation of the source material is still without peer. (full review)