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Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Top 50 Albums of 2012 (6-15)

We're getting down to the end now. Here are links if you missed 31-50 and 16-30.

15) Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again

Michael Kiwanuka is a British soul singer born to Ugandan parents. He's only 24 years old, but you wouldn't know it from listening to his music. Usually when I listen to soul music, I prefer something a bit more up-tempo but after giving Kiwanuka's smooth soul some time to settle, I really came around to it. Like JD McPherson's album that I touched upon in one of my earlier posts, "Home Again" has a timeless feel to it. The album seems like a perfect album to have on vinyl and throw on the turntable for a lazy afternoon around the house. If you're looking for a couple tracks to check out "Tell Me A Tale" and "I'll Get Along" are favorites of mine.

14) Shovels & Rope - O' Be Joyful

This album can just knock you off your feet. Shovels & Rope is South Carolina based married duo Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. The two had performed as solo artists before joining forces as Shovels & Rope. The album contains country, bluegrass, folk, and more than enough raw energy to spread around to anyone in a several mile radius. Hearst's voice is outstanding and really drives the songs forward, but it's certainly not the only positive element here. I'd love to get a chance to see one of their live shows if it's anything near as rocking and near-chaotic as the album can sound at times. I love the live intro to one song in which a bartender tells people to shut up while the band is playing. I'd pay that guy to perform that duty at every bar show I attend. The album isn't all unbridled energy. The duo also manages to pull it back from time to time with a slower song, giving the listener and the band a bit of a breather, and they do that well too. If we're all lucky, Shovels & Rope will continue making music together for many years. I recommend listening to "O' Be Joyful" and "Birmingham" but only if you're willing to have them stuck in your head for the foreseeable future.

13) Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls

Speaking of women with great voices, few can hang in there with Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. The way she just unleashes howls after a build-up in songs like "Hold On" is amazing. She doesn't hold back. I saw the band live at Sasquatch, and she can really command a stage even in a wide open outdoor venue. With all this praising of Howard, I should note that this is nothing against the rest of the band. It wouldn't work with just her voice, and the guitars, drums, and keyboard that fill in around her are exceptional as well. There is an absolute boatload of potential in front of this band. The album contains southern rock, soul, and blues. I think the only thing preventing me from rating this higher is that it still feels like they have room to improve. Some of the songs are just so great that anything merely really good seems like unfulfilled promise. "Hold On" is in the discussion for best song of the year, and "I Ain't The Same" and "You Ain't Alone" (and bonus track "Heavy Chevy") are all really great too.

12) Father John Misty - Fear Fun

Father John Misty is the newest moniker of former Fleet Foxes drummer Joshua Tillman. He claims that this album came about when he took off on a road trip with a boatload of mushrooms and nowhere to go. He ended up writing a novel, which turned into the narrative voice that became Father John Misty and led to this album. The album is a mix of elements from Fleet Foxes with a more country sound added to it. Where Fleet Foxes' songs felt carefully orchestrated and precise, Father John Misty sounds a little more carefree. There are several really good songs on the album, but "Well, You Can Do It Without Me" is my personal favorite. Lines like "If you want a page written bout you in the book / but you need a food tester cause you curse the cook / I'll take some wine, but you can dine without me" show off his lyrical chops. "Nancy From Now On" and "I'm Writing A Novel" are other favorite songs of mine.

11) Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo, Magellan

I wrote quite a bit about this album when it came out back in July. Like I said at the time, it's hard to figure out where to begin discussing "Swing Lo, Magellan." It can best be described as experimental indie rock, but that doesn't tell you too much. While lead singer David Longstreth does his thing, the rest of the band fills in with all sorts of sounds around him. Amber Coffman and company use their voices more like an instrument than would typically be the case of background singers. The band also incorporates a good deal of hand clapping along with more traditional instrumentation. It's just a really interesting album while still being their most accessible to date. "Dance For You" and "Unto Caesar" are my two favorite songs, but the single "Gun Has No Trigger" may be most representative of their sound.

10) Suburban Dirts - Suburban Dirts

Suburban Dirts is probably the least well known of the groups on this list (somehow their Facebook page has fewer than 300 likes), but for my money they belong right here with all of the others. They are a folk-rock (or "trailer trash country blues" by their own description) group from England seemingly a mix between someone like Deer Tick and and mid-60s Bob Dylan. I was first turned onto the band by a review on the blog Listen Before You Buy back in February. Since then I've found myself gravitating to this album over and over and over again especially when I'm on the road. Like Shovels & Rope, the songs burst with seemingly more energy than they can contain and often times feel right on the brink of falling apart, but the musicians are all too good to let that happen. Songs like "Stuck On You" show that the band isn't a one trick pony by slowing things down and getting a bit sentimental amidst the controlled chaos around it. Seriously this album is just so good and should be heard by many more people. I imagine Suburban Dirts would be wonderful to see in person, but as I'm stuck on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean, for now I'll just have to settle for the exceptional consolation prize of having this album to listen to whenever I want.

9) Heartless Bastards - Arrow

Heartless Bastards certainly know how to rock, but their name shouldn't scare you off. Apparently the band chose the name after seeing it as an incorrect possible answer to the question "What is the name of Tom Petty's backing band?" on one of those bar trivia consoles. Fans of the wonderful show Friday Night Lights may remember this band as the one that coach's daughter and Saracen went to go see. That's really neither here nor there though. This has been a great year for fans of strong female vocalists because like Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes and Cary Ann Hearst of Shovels & Rope lead singer Erika Wennerstrom has a phenomenal voice and she doesn't hold back. "Parted Ways" and "Skin and Bones" are my two favorite tracks, but the album is solid from beginning to end. I remember listening to their previous album a bit when it came out, but this record just stuck in my mind. Any time I need a bit of energy this is one of the first albums I think to turn to.

8) Hip Hatchet - Joy and Better Days

Hip Hatchet is the newest addition to this list. Despite the excellent bloggers at We Listen For You singing the praises of this album for months, I didn't get around to listening to it until a few days ago. Now I'm mad at myself that I've missed out on months of listening to this album. Hip Hatchet is the recording name of Portland based folk musician Philippe Bronchtein. It's hard (for me anyway) to put quite in to words why this album works so well, what makes it stand out in an overwhelming sea of seemingly similar artists. We Listen For You did it much better in their review, so I'll just link that here and highly recommend reading it (and learning a little about Nick Drake in the process). I felt weird putting an album I've only heard a few times and only been aware of for a week or so this high on my countdown, but honestly I think if I redid the list in a week or a month Hip Hatchet would be even higher. I know a lot of people don't spend money on music anymore, but I hope people can make an exception for artists like Hip Hatchet who don't have the backings of a big label behind them but are still making amazingly beautiful art. If you like the album, consider buying it here and you can pick up an old EP for free as a reward.

7) Of Monsters and Men - My Head Is An Animal

When I first heard the Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men back in February, I had seen the name around but didn't know much about them. Now it seems like the band is everywhere, but that doesn't surprise me too much given just how darn good their album is. "Little Talks" is probably my favorite song of 2012. I just can't find any fault with the song. It's wonderful. Fortunately, the band had more in them than just that song and almost the whole album is wonderful. "Mountain Sound" and "King and Lionheart" are two more of my favorites. When I make a list like this it is always a snapshot in time and I wonder how much things will change. How many of these albums will I still be listening to in two years or five years or more? It's hard to say because a lot can change, but this is one album that I can see myself continuing to play for quite some time without tiring of it. I don't often care for live videos over recorded songs, but something about this song and setting is just so perfect. Take a second to check it out. 

6) Hayden Calnin - City EP

This year has been an incredible year for music in my opinion. Part of that is artists like Of Monsters and Men, Alabama Shakes, and Michael Kiwanuka that have achieved some considerable level of success. However, a lot of it is these smaller artists that I've found that haven't yet made it big (but hopefully for their sakes someday will). Like Hip Hatchet and Suburban Dirts, the Australian Hayden Calnin has been an artist that I just couldn't believe more people weren't listening to when I first heard him. This is the only EP in my top 50 albums because usually there just isn't enough music there for me to rank it over something two or three times as long that's also good. However, Hayden Calnin made the most of his five tracks and I not only couldn't leave it off the list, I couldn't help but include it this high. It practically is an LP in my music library because it's almost impossible for me to just listen to it once through without immediately starting it right back up at the beginning.  Honestly, the only thing I'm holding against this album is that it's only an EP. That's it. You can read what I wrote about the album previously here. Meanwhile I'm going to zone out to this amazing EP. You can click here to join me in doing the same.

Only five albums to come. Feel free to share any predictions for what they may be in the comments. I'd love to hear guesses. Here's another mix of songs off today's albums to keep you busy until the last five are posted tomorrow. Enjoy!

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