25. John Fullbright, “Jericho”
His Okemah origins all but ensure he’ll be compared to hometown hero Woody Guthrie, but on “Jericho” Fullbright comes across like he idolizes his Lone Star forebears: Townes, Steve, Jerry Jeff. The chorus (“Let my trumpet blow…”) grows more heraldic every time he sings it, that harmonica solo sounds like he’s speaking in tongues, and the last minute sound like he’s actually found salvation.
24. Justin Townes Earle, “Am I That Lonely Tonight?”
Yes, he is definitely that lonely. Sucks for him, but great for us.
23. Corb Lund, “September”
The most codependent cowboy in Colorado begs a woman not to go back to the city, because how can a cramped New York apartment compete with “a thousand acres in the Rocky Mountains”? He never sounds lonelier—or more resigned to his beautiful isolation—than when he start than high, keening yodel.
22. Cory Branan, “The Corner”
The irascible Memphian perches on a barstool next to Lucero’s Ben Nichols, lets the “ashtray smoke my last cigarette,” and muses on about “daydrinking and dreaming of you.” He’s a man of words instead of actions (check out the long interval between releases), but those are some damn fine words.
21. Magnetic Fields, “Andrew In Drag”
Holy shit! Stephin Merritt believes in quasi-hetero love at first sight! Who knew?
20. Avett Brothers, “Down With The Shine”
In what could be the ultimate (and only?) anti-plastic surgery anthem, these rootsy lifers find the beauty in imperfection, in the wear of years and the wisdom of age. Suggesting in a roundabout way that we all live for the moment, they actually create a moment to live in with that sing-along chorus and those beautifully boozy, bloozy horns.
19. Mark Eitzel, “I Love You But You’re Dead”
We admired the former American Music Club president for surviving a heart attack and his long, thankless tenure as a songwriter’s songwriter, but then he goes and writes the ultimate aging-hipster ballad, in which our hero attends an indie-rock concert and finds out he’s already dead.
18. Bruce Springsteen, “Easy Money”
Our theory: This is the same couple from “Atlantic City,” even more down and out in the 2000s than they were in the 1970s and pushed right to the brink of violence (“I got a Smith & Wesson 38 / I got hellfire burning and I got me a date”). But even when he’s taking on something as big as a global financial meltdown, Springsteen remembers to take it all in from street level, and he remains his old lusty self, even asking his woman to put on her red dress before they embark on their crime spree.
17. Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”
Lyrically, there’s not a lot to the Shakes’ signature tune, but the band’s slow-motion boogie rock and Brittany Howard’s earthquake howl makes it sound like, well, “The Howl.”
16. Ashley Monroe, “Like A Rose”
“Hippie Annie” flirts with autobiography (“I was only thirteen when Daddy died”) on the title track to her loooooooong-awaited sophomore solo album, but it’s a feint: Monroe mixes and mashes up details to create a very real and very vivid character whose hard experiences have given her the right to call herself a rose.
15. Old Crow Medicine Show, “Levi”
We admit it: we just assumed this soldier’s tale was set during the Civil War. It’s Old Crow Medicine Show after all. But a closer listen revealed the telling details and the true contemporary setting, which is much less safe but much more rewarding. This anti-war song is all the more powerful for coming from such an unlikely crew.
14. Anais Mitchell, “Young Man In America”
The title track of Anais Mitchell’s latest crams an entire Great American Novel into just five-and-a-half minutes, not only recounting the tale of a neglectful father and his vengeful son but also introducing Mitchell as folk’s most sophisticated storyteller.
13. Taylor Swift featuring The Civil Wars, “Safe and Sound”
Swift’s fourth album may be doing Adele numbers, but nothing has argued more persuasively for her as a creative force than this semi-hit from the Hunger Games. With T-Bone Burnett producing and the Civil Wars (RIP) harmonizing in the background, she eloquently evokes the war on one side of the door and the sanctuary on the other.
12. Patterson Hood, “Disappear”
Hood’s third solo album started life as a veiled novelization of his own experiences with women, family, drink, and rock n roll, which makes “Disappear” his protagonist’s harrowing admission of his own extreme introversion. That he’s a rock musician only makes it easier for him to disappear into the tour bus for months at a time.
11. The Black Swans, “Portsmouth, Ohio”
Stoically recounting the sunny July day when his old friend and bandmate Noel Sayre had a fluke heart attack at the local swimming pool (the same pool that’s on the cover of their latest and greatest album), this song is a touching eulogy disguised as a country tune, a monument to a tragically truncated life—hard to listen to but even harder not to listen to.
10. Sharon Van Etten, “Serpents”
After two albums of beautifully skittish indie folk, this Brooklyn transplant cut loose with a nervy, angry, electrified anthem of doubt and blame. “Serpents in my mind, looking for your crimes,” she accuses as the electric guitars spit venom.
9. Bob Dylan, “Early Roman Kings”
Call him Mannish Bob: Dylan unearths a perpetual-motion blues riff and gleefully watches Detroit in flames. Who’s fiddling? is the burning question. More than a half-century into his career, he’s still reviving folk music, now with a sly wink.
8. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “Walk Like A Giant”
Oh sure, you could listen to the four-minute edit, but to get the full effect, you have to hear Young lurch and lumber on the sixteen-minute album version, whose gargantuan guitar jam handily proves that Crazy Horse remain one of our most formidable rock bands.
7. Fiona Apple, “Every Single Night”
The music is spare and delicate, but Apple’s delivery is tense and pained and heavy as metal when she describes the “butterflies in my brain” making life hell. “Every single night’s a fight with my brain,” she confesses, before tearing that last word into a thousand violent syllables. There’s no catharsis, no resolution; the fight just never ends for her.
6. Lucinda Williams, “God I’m Missing You”
A triumvirate of talent crafted this supremely devastating lament of longing: Rodney Crowell wrote the lyrics with memoirst Mary Karr, and Lucinda sings it beautifully. “Are you gone forever? Are you gone for good?” she asks like she wrote the lines herself.
5. Todd Snider, “Too Soon To Tell”
For this East Nashville barroom theologian, the Great Recession triggered an immense crisis of faith—not in God, who he doesn’t believe in, but in his fellow man. “It’s too soon to tell what happens to you when you die,” Snider observes, making perfectly clear that the lack of an afterlife only means we should all be a lot nicer to each other.
4. Leonard Cohen, “Going Home”
Forty-five years into Leonard Cohen’s storied career, his muse finally speaks directly to the listener, revealing the singer-songwriter to be little more than a puppet: “a lazy bastard living in a suit.” It’s a deeply sober, but ultimately moving examination of the mystery of art, the tedium of life, and the comforts of death.
3. Iris DeMent, “Sing The Delta”
Someone once asked Eudora Welty why she lived in Mississippi when there was so much racism and hatred there. She replied simply that it was her home. DeMent provides an equally persuasive answer with this gorgeous remembrance, conjuring the terrain of her beloved home with soulful gospel horns and a “voice that lays like August in the shade.”
2. Lambchop, “Gone Tomorrow”
One of the finest and most distinctive American songwriters of his time, Kurt Wagner faced great tragedy to make Lambchop’s greatest album. Pontificating on the loss of friend and collaborator Vic Chesnutt, he recounts a mundane wrap party and walk along the streets of some unnamed European city, letting the slight rush in his vocals on the chorus tell the story and letting the band unravel the song completely on that long, glimmering coda.
1. Shovels & Rope, “Birmingham”
A fine introduction to Shovels & Rope’s rambunctiously inventive DIY country as well as their down-home impressionistic lyrics, “Birmingham” vividly documents how Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst came together as a band and as a couple. The song’s most quotable line could be a creative mission statement or a wedding vow: “It ain’t what you got, it’s what you make.”
What songs made your Best Of 2012 list? Let us know in the comments, and check out our picks for The Top 50 Albums of 2012