Happy New Year!
I’d invite you all to a New Year’s Eve Listening Party, but there are just too many of you, and frankly… I’m tired. I need to sit quietly with Anne, listen to some music that will instill in us a sense of gratitude, and help us lean forward into all of the changes God will bring in 2013. (Anne and I are hoping for some big changes. It feels like it’s time to step through a door and begin some new chapter of our adventure together.)
Anyway, since I can’t invite you all to a party, allow me to deliver this one to your doorstep. Here is some music from my favorite recordings of 2012. …
First, the honorable mentions, all welcome to play any time during the shuffled soundtrack of my daily commute. I bought all of these records, and have been rewarded by each one for so many reasons I don’t have time to go into it here. So, in alphabetical order, here they are. If you want a ranked list of them, choose any arbitrary order, and that’s about as close as I would get to choosing one over the other on any given day. …
- Alabama Shakes – Boys and Girls
- Alt-J – An Awesome Wave
- Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream
- Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
- Cat Power – Sun
- Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden
- David Byrne and St. Vincent – Love This Giant
- Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
- Dr. John – Locked Down
- First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
- Jack White – Blunderbuss
- Kelly Joe Phelps – Brother Sinner and the Whale
- Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Americana
- Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
- Sixpence None the Richer – Lost in Transition (Welcome back, Leigh and Matt! Wow, I’ve missed you.)
- The Shins – Point of Morrow
10. Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring – 50 Years of Amnesty International
It was a big year for Bob Dylan fans. His new album, Tempest, is on this list. And while it seems like there’s a new Dylan tribute album every year — the soundtrack for Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There remains the gold standard of Dylan tribute albums — this four-volume monster had too many great covers to ignore.
Read through the lineup of this four-disc marathon, and you’ll guess right away what some of the highlights will be: Lucinda Williams, Adele, Billy Bragg, Mark Knopfler, Dave Matthews. (And you’ll be wrong about a couple: Some big stars turn in forgettable numbers, particularly Sinead O’Connor, whose voice is buried by noise on her rowdy “Property of Jesus” cover.) Diana Krall’s take on “Simple Twist of Fate” finds the bittersweet heart of the matter, and Bettye LaVette’s blusy twist on “Most of the Time” is a joy. Sting is strong in a refreshingly simple setting for “The Girl from the North Country,” and Mark Knopfler, whose voice picks up more depth and texture as the years pass, sounds particularly world-weary on “Restless Farewell.”
But what pleases me most is that some of the best covers come from artists who aren’t in regular rotation on my playlists: The Nightwatchman’s cover of “Blind Willie McTell” is a searing electric version of a song I’ve always loved in its bootleg acoustic version. Raphael Saddiq, playing “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” is having a lot of fun, and sounding a little like Dylan without working too hard at it. Ziggy Marley dares to remake the melody of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and I’ll be damned… the gamble pays off. Mariachi El Bronx reinvents “Love Sick,” turning an extremely simple riff into a complex and exhilarating mariachi arrangement… one of those moments when I worry that the high point of the collection has come early. But it hasn’t. And that’s all on the first disc.
Disc Three is the weak one here, sounding more like a leftovers collection. But just when you can feel the crowd making for the exits, another pleasant surprise comes along. No American songwriter has come anywhere close to the achievements of Bob Dylan for the sheer number of great, literary, and unforgettably contagious songs. While Chimes of Freedom doesn’t match the I’m Not There soundtrack for consistency in vision and energy, it does great honor to Dylan by reminding us of the timeless and flexibility of his songs.
9. Damien Jurado, Maraqopa
A shout-out to the local boy who just seems to get better record by record. Maraqopa is easily my favorite of Jurado’s records, even though it finds him stepping into a new sound, somewhere in the dreamy territory between Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver record and Neil Young’s Harvest Moon… a very respectable neighborhood.
8. Richard Hawley, Standing at the Sky’s Edge
Okay, friends of mine who have been trying to get me hooked on Richard Hawley… it finally happened. But it didn’t happen on one of his mellower, Orbison-esque records. It happened when he stepped up to a big, big rock sound. Maybe I’m missing the big arena-filling rock sounds of Radiohead and U2. This record made me realize how hungry I am for a sound that fills up my car until every window and door are vibrating. This is a big noise: fighter-jet guitars scorching the air in a big red sunset horizon of keyboards. It soars into the dreamy, veers into the abrasive, and is sometimes almost too serious-minded.
But then comes “Seek It,” a sweet, comic gem of a song.
7. Bob Dylan, Tempest
6. Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas
Two more great albums from living legends who remain essential musicians by constantly exploring territories new and old, both in the world of music and the world of the spirit. Sure, we can fault them in some aspects: Cohen has never been one to care much about the production of his albums, and I suspect that these songs are much more affecting live. But the songs themselves are a master class in concentration, suggestion, and restraint. By contrast, Dylan doesn’t seem so interested in restraint. This is a massive record with long songs, including the title track that’s almost 15 minutes and 45 verses long. But he sounds as energized as ever, and I think this is his most engaging, playful, courageous, and fascinating plunge into history and mystery since 2001’s Love and Theft.
For more on Leonard Cohen’s record and much more, read Jeff Keuss’s list of the best music of 2012. (Okay, he likes Mumford & Sons, but he’s my friend, so give him a break.)
Here are my two favorite tracks from these two albums:
Bob Dylan: “Pay in Blood” – Listen to this track on Spotify5. Sufjan Stevens, Silver & Gold
I don’t usually include Christmas albums on my favorites lists. I probably should. I’ve listened to Over the Rhine’s Snow Angels as much as any album in the last five years. So how I can I ignore this 58-song monster of an album by Sufjan Stevens? I would say more, but Andy Whitman said it all so well in this review.
4. The Welcome Wagon, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices
Their first album, produced by Sufjan Stevens, sounded like… well… a Sufjan Stevens church service. Which was a wonderful thing. Now, though, they’ve got a record all their own. And yeah, it’s a church service, but on that invites us on a journey of many styles, instruments, and voices, from lament to confession to liturgy to celebration. And there’s even a song by the Cure, just to keep things interesting. I love this record, and have played it throughout the week just to remind me that none of us ever really leave church; we just allow our attention to stray. The older I get, the more I understand that my measure of joy is directly equivalent to my apprehension of each day, each hour, as an act of worship, gratitude, and celebration. This record keeps me on track.
Here’s my full review. Oh, and thanks so much to The Welcome Wagon for responding to my review with this beautiful gatefold-vinyl version of the album, which features an additional EP full of great songs!
3. Kelan Phil Cohran and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Turns out Phil Cohran has been around a long time, backing up Sun Ra and raising a family of jazz musicians. In this, a big, brash, experimental, family-band effort, he’s found a sound that I’ve never heard before. From the moment I heard “Spin” on NPR’s All Songs Considered, I was hooked. If you need some music that works like caffeine to pick you up and give you the feeling that wild, incredible things are going to happen, well… just listen to this.
Oh, and did I mention that more than halfway through the album, Cohran puts down his variety of instruments and picks up the best one — his inimitably soulful, animated, joyful voice — to share a folk tale. It’s a bright blast of storytelling the old-fashioned way that seems to root this album’s groundbreaking music in a particular time, place, and tradition.
Here’s my favorite track:
2. Anais Mitchell, Young Man in America
I thought that Anais Mitchell’s folk-rock-opera about Orpheus called Hadestown, my favorite album of 2010, was a one-of-a-kind event. I didn’t know if I would be very excited about Mitchell as a solo artist, outside that massive mythological sweep of her cast, her crew, and her big community musical. Well, what do you know. Up until December 29 this year, Young Man in America was the only record that gave me the clear impression that I’ll go on playing it for the rest of my life. Mitchell is a brilliant songwriter, a charismatic singer who can do things with her voice I’ve never heard before, and who knows how to put together a perfect combination of musicians for any particular song. This album is full of mythology, literary allusions, Bible stories, and deeply personal observations about America, love, loss, and the pain that provokes us to make art. Every time I listen to it, it invites me up new trails of imaginative inquiry.
1. Bill Fay, Life is People
My favorite record of 2012 was one I discovered on December 30, thanks to the discerning ear of Andy Whitman, who praised it as his favorite singer/songwriter album of the year. I was smitten from the opening track. The appearance of Jeff Tweedy sweetens the deal, and Fay’s cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc” is inspired (especially since it’s a show of gratitude to the musician who pulled him out of retirement).
While I love music that gives me the thrill of experiencing something new and different, I am always on a search for the albums that will mean more to me in 20 years than they mean to me right now. I have no doubt that I’ll be playing this when I’m a very old man, should I be so blessed. And it’s speaking to me directly, right now, with such tenderness, wisdom, love, and beauty that I’ve had to stop what I’m doing just to bask in this rare and wonderful experience. So pardon me while I turn it up and follow its lead into a place that only great music can take me: Prayer.
Here’s the opening track: “There is a Valley”
And here’s “This World,” with special guest Jeff Tweedy.
So there it is… my current list of favorite albums from 2012. I suspect I’ll revise it if I discover more great records that I missed. (I usually do.) I hope you find some new favorites here.
Wait, what’s that?
You want some bonus tracks?
Every summer, I enjoy the most exciting week of my year at the Glen Workshop, an arts workshop hosted by Image. There are writing workshops, visual art workshops, songwriting workshops, and more. It’s always exciting to see Glen Workshoppers get inspired, do great work, and then bless the world with what they do. Young adult novelist Sara Zarr got her start while enjoying the Glen Workshop. My four-novel series was published during four Glen Workshop years.
And now, our friend Elayna Boynton, who has attended the songwriting workshops led by Over the Rhine there, has just been struck by lightning. That is to say, one of her songs, a collaboration with Anthony Hamilton, is featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. And it’s a great song. So let’s wrap up the listening year by staring down Samuel L. Jackson and listening to Elayna and Anthony. Congratulations, Elayna!
Finally, I’ll share my favorite single of the year. Get ready to turn this up loud… Sixpence None the Richer’s “My Dear Machine.”
It’s not fair that any one band should have produced so many perfect pop songs, and this one is an “11” on a scale of 1-10. The song first appeared in 2008, but it finally has an album of its own, and it sounds as fresh today as it did 5 years ago.
Now… your turn. What did I miss? What were your favorites? Post some links so the rest of us can listen.