ROUTES & BRANCHES
December 29, 2012
Here's where we officially put to bed the year 2012, focusing on my favorite albums of the year. Unlike last year, my choice for the top spot wasn't a done deal. Since hearing the first notes of Alabama Shakes' debut, I knew their Boys & Girls would be in the neighborhood of number one. Even once I fell hard for Fort Collins' own Arliss Nancy, it wasn't until I had spent some quality time with Simple Machines that I realized it was worthy of being more than just my favorite Colorado album. Of course, they are very different albums, so much so that it's not really fare to compare them. The Shakes' success lays solidly upon the broad shoulders of Brittany Howard, one of the most genuinely soulful vocalists I've heard in my lifetime. Arliss Nancy's appeal is more elusive. They have definite punk roots, but also demonstrate an ability to write and play with an atypical finesse. Lyrically, there is a working class mythology to Arliss Nancy's songs, a youthful disillusion that might even place them in a similar vein as later Replacements or earlier Hold Steady.
In the end, it's all about how it makes my ears feel. My wife came home from seeing Les Miserables in the theatre the other day, basking in an emotional wake from the show. Next day, we listened to an NPR movie commentator report that there was not one genuine moment in the entire movie. So to the question "Who is right?" my answer is "Yes". Acts like Alabama Shakes and Iris Dement sit at or near the top of many similar blog lists. Even Arliss Nancy and American Aquarium have had their fair share of accolades from bloggers who like that kind of thing. Denver, however, flew far under most radars, as did Spirit Family Reunion and the criminally underrated Chris Knight. Patterson Hood's 2nd solo album showed that even well-regarded veterans are capable of great steps forward, and fellow vet Dwight Yoakam just keeps playing near perfect country music (and being largely ignored by the genre's tonedeaf mainstream). 2012 releases from both Lucero and Avett Brothers were greeted with cries of "Sell out!" from longtime fans (and silly hipsters), though I find the evolution a promising sign of life. At some point, you just gotta dance with who brung ya.
My hope is to add a bit more specific reflection for each album in the days to come, so please check back for updates. I did promise, however, to post my list Sunday morning, so ... With some truly promising artists already lined up and others on the release horizon, I'm looking forward to taking a big opening bite out of 2013 next Episode!
Incidentally, make sure to tune in to my Thursday Morning Mix 10am MT when I unveil my final favorites list for the year: My Favorite Colorado Music of 2012 (I'll also post the list here by the week's end. Please don't wait up for my #1).
FAVORITE R&B ALBUMS OF 2012
1) Arliss Nancy, Simple Machines (Suburban Home, 11/27)
"I don't believe that we have been properly introduced" goes the opening line on "The Crease". While the Fort Collins band has previously released one full length and one EP, it's true that Simple Machines plays like an intro to their brand of urgent and genuine alt.country.
2) Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls (ATO, 4/03)
More than a year ago, in a written intro to my November 12, 2011 playlist, I made brief mention of an unknown band, and linked to a live recording of "You Ain't Alone". "This link," I wrote, "just might change your life".
3) Denver, Denver (Mama Bird, 8/14)
The music snob in me is sort of pleased that so few others are taking about this Northwest band that brings together members of Alela Diane's group, Blitzen Trapper and a handful of other Portland mainstays. The music fan in me is baffled that the band's decidedly dusky brand of Burrito Bros alt.country hasn't found its way to a wider audience.
4) Patterson Hood, Heat Lightning Rumbles In the Distance (ATO, 9/11)
Hood's second solo album reportedly began as a novel based on semi-autobiographical stories about the Drive-By Trucker's young adulthood. While I hope Hood is eventually able to break into the literary world, in the meantime this stands as the most worthy musical statement of his career.
5) Iris Dement, Sing the Delta (Flariella, 10/02)
Sure, Dement's '92 and '93 albums were nothing short of masterful. Sixteen years later, it is this personal statement of heartbreak and belonging that finally finds Dement really earning earliy comparisons to the legendary Southern Gothic writer Flannery O'Connor.
6) Dwight Yoakam, 3 Pears (Warner, 9/18)
I enjoyed Yoakam's first original album in seven years when I first heard it. It wasn't until I tripped across a live performance video of a couple tunes from 3 Pears that I was able to truly recognize its strength. He changed the direction of country music with his 1986 debut, but the genre still hasn't caught up to Yoakam in his ability to write such effortless-sounding tunes.
7) American Aquarium, Burn Flicker Die (Last Chance, 8/28)
This North Carolina band's fourth full length record portrays them as the possible inheritors of Lucero's bar-friendly roots rock. Burn Flicker Die rises above the pack by sheer virtue of its songwriting strength.
8) Justin Townes Earle, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now (Bloodshot, 3/27) There was nothing too cheery about Earle's 2010 Harlem River Blues. Two years later, he has traded that LP's gospel influences for the sounds of Memphis, but still hangs some wonderfully melancholy lyrics on those notes.
9) Yawpers, Capon Crusade (Self, 10/16)
I fell for this Boulder band's fuzzed-out, rootsy garage rock the moment I slid the prerelease CD into my car player. I was told that their 2011 debut EP didn't quite capture the fire of their live performance, and can only imagine that their first full length honors that wild, punky energy in spades.
10) Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Wreck & Ruin (Sugar Hill, 10/19)
Of course, the curious world of mainstream country didn't touch this second collection of duets from the husband and wife songwriters. Their loss, since I'd argue that Kasey and Shane belong in the same lineage as Conway and Loretta, George and Tammy or Porter and Dolly.
11) Kelly Hogan, I Like To Keep Myself In Pain (Anti, 6/01)
12) Chris Knight, Little Victories (Drifter's Church, 9/11)
13) Lee Bains III & Glory Fires, There Is a Bomb In Gilead (Alive Naturalsound, 3/27)
14) Sons of Bill, Sirens (Self, 3/26)
15) Ronnie Fauss, I Am the Man You Know I'm Not (Normaltown, 10/09)
16) Lindi Ortega, Cigarettes & Truckstops (Last Gang, 10/02)
17) Spirit Family Reunion, No Separation (Self, 7/12)
18) Trampled By Turtles, Stars & Satellites (Banjodad, 4/10)
19) Turnpike Troubadours, Goodbye Normal Street (Bossier City, 5/08)
20) Lucero, Women & Work (ATO, 3/13)
21) Diamond Rugs, Diamond Rugs (Partisan, 4/24)
22) Avett Brothers, Carpenter (Universal, 9/11)
23) John Fullbright, From the Ground Up (Blue Dirt, 5/08)
24) Shovels & Rope, O' Be Joyful (Dualtone, 7/31)