This year had the potential to be one of the greatest music years of my life with 3-4 of my top five artists releasing albums. Looking back it was a little disappointing, but nevertheless some quality stuff was released, whether expected or not. This list will undoubtedly change over time, but for today, here it is:
10. Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues
This album came out in late 2010 and didn’t attract my attention until this year, so I’m breaking the “year” rule here. Justin Townes Earle is the son of Steve Earle, so you kind of know what to expect. He is a bit different, though, in that some of the songs tap into different aspects of American music that his father’s music doesn’t. He’s capable of straight-up blues, country, folk and ragtime. I believe the song “Harlem River Blues” won some awards for Americana song of the year this year.
9. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest
Gillian Welch hadn’t released a new album of material in like eight years. This album is incredibly sad, which is probably the main thing against it. In an interview I read the other day she called it 10 different types of sad. Regardless, there is some good material here, including “The Way It Goes.”
8. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
Bill Callahan released this album in April. I didn’t like it as much as his two previous albums, but it does contain the baritone and usual prose fare you can expect from him. It didn’t have the orchestra instrumentation I liked so much from his previous two. I really liked “Riding For The Feeling” on this one.
7. William Elliott Whitmore – Field Songs
This album streamed on one of the music Web sites I check and I ended up really enjoying it. It’s probably the least known artist/album on this list. He plays guitar and banjo and has a pretty outstanding voice. “Not Feeling Any Pain” was a standout track for me.
6. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire
I was pretty excited for this album this year. It came out right around the same time as my 2011 No. 1. Most people considered it underwhelming. I would agree I thought parts of it were. Probably four or five songs hold up with his best songwriting, which is really saying something. I enjoyed his unique guitar takes on some of the songs, particularly the self-titled track and “Invisible Riverside.” Another pretty solid track is “Chains of Love.” I thought “Dirty Rain” was an amazing vocal performance.
5. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
If anyone was expecting another Northern folk/blues from Justin Vernon they may have been let down. This year saw a much more bright and shiny Bon Iver that included some 1980’s Bruce Cockburn synth. I’m usually not into this kind of thing, but I really liked this album. Guy has an amazing voice. Standouts: “Holocene” and “Towers.”
4. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
This is a pretty personal pick. I’ve followed her since her first album and have seen her improvement. She’s only 21 and I think this album was her most impressive work. Out of all the English folkies she seems the most genuine, even if she is predictable and boring sometimes. The album really seemed like a nice, cohesive piece to me. The undeniable standout track is probably “Sophia.” Maybe one of the best songs of the year?
3. Tom Waits – Bad As Me
The old stalwart Tom Waits came out with a new album this year and it lived up to, if not exceeded, most expectations. To me, the album is reminiscent of his mid-1980’s output. The album opens up with some R & B flavor with “Chicago.” The album’s monster single, “Bad As Me,” hits about midway through the album. My personal favorite on the album is the last track, “New Year’s Eve.” Keith Richards played an important guest spot on the album.
2. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
This is a band that I like to talk about a lot. People are always like “Feet Foxes? What does that mean.” They do a harmony thing like Crosby, Stills and Nash. I honestly think it has another dimension because of the drummer. Anyways, I wasn’t sure how to feel about this album when it first came out, but I knew it was quality. Over time it has really settled into a space in my mind. I dubbed it the “great quarter-life crisis album” some months ago. Top songs on it are the self-titled track, “Grown Ocean,” and my favorite track on the album is probably “Sim Sala Bim” for the instrumental freakout at the end.
1. Wilco – The Whole Love
When this first came out I thought it might be the best album I’d heard in 5-6 years. The hype wore down over time, but it proved to be a pretty solid pick. The first track is reminiscent of Wilco’s more experimental side (i.e. Radiohead). Some of the songs sound like they could be on Summerteeth (“Dawned on Me”, title track). “Born Alone” is a great song. The last track, “One Sunday Morning,” was one of my favorites of the year. It’s full of awkward/funny lyrics and existential dialogue. Plus it sounds really great. You should probably listen to the entire album.
Albums I left off of this list, but considered: Radiohead – The King of Limbs (No. 11), Iron and Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean, St. Vincent – Strange Mercy, The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh. I have to note that there is some stuff I haven’t listened to that might have made it on here, including The Black Keys new album, My Morning Jacket’s new one, among others.