20. Andrew Bird: Break It Yourself
Andrew Bird almost certainly received straight A’s in school. On Break It Yourself, he bounces between baroque pop, rustic Americana and Celtic folk, lacing the whole thing together with brainy lyrics that reference heartbreak one minute and history the next. “Lusitania” finds him doing his best Ryan Adams impression, while “Danse Caribe” shows the full breadth of his influences, moving from a tropical-sounding introduction to a rootsy, stomping outro led by Bird’s violin. Break It Yourself was recorded live, and Bird’s backup band plays a far bigger role than usual, replacing some of the familiar parts of his earlier albums — the loops, the one-man symphonies, the ever-present whistling — with guitar solos and extended jamming. Andrew Bird is still in the driver’s seat, but this album has brawn as well as brains, a sign that this bird doesn’t have to fly solo to get to someplace interesting.
19. Frank Ocean: Channel ORANGE
Who’d have thought that one of the most broodingly introspective batch of songs released this year would arrive on an R&B album? Now that dance music’s four-on-the-floor pulse is getting all the attention in the pop realm, there’s more room for confessional voice’s like Frank Ocean’s—and Drake’s, for that matter—to rise to the surface. On the eve of Channel Orange’s release, the hot topic was Ocean describing his first love as a man, a subversion of almost every model of masculinity that’s ever ruled in R&B. But on the album itself, he makes no big distinctions between the genders of love objects—only between the requited or unrequited nature of the love—which feels very right for 2012. Musically, vocally, lyrically Ocean rarely brings things into distinct focus, but the tensions in play—the subtle hooks amidst the synthy abstraction; the moments when his dozy delivery gives way to spasms of desperation; his expressions of tender desire against a backdrop of ennui—render the album anything but numbing.
18. Dwight Yoakam: 3 Pears
Seven years is a long time between albums of original material, but Yoakam’s return to old label Warner Brothers was a thrilling, unqualified success. His new songs beautifully navigate the fertile territory between Rubber Soul pop, Byrds’ styled country and the reverbed Bakersfield twang that has always been a mainstay of his sound. His voice is becoming more burnished as he ages and that mahogany graininess brings additional poignancy to terrific lovelorn ballads like “Missing Heart” and the soulful “Trying.” Even rootsy midtempo rockers such as “Rock It All Away” and the title track feel natural and rugged. A pair of high profile collaborations with Beck don’t amount to much in terms of pushing boundaries, but fans rightly rejoiced this invigorating return to form for one of country music’s finest songwriters who hopefully won’t make us wait another seven years for its follow-up.
17. Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel…
Fiona Apple doesn’t hold anything back. Surely any singer-songwriter can draw deep into personal traumas and insecurities for their art, but Apple has a special knack for making an audience of thousands feel like a confidant. But for the level of oversharing that occurs on The Idler Wheel — almost all of which come attached to a romance gone awry — each confession is dressed up in elegant and immaculately arranged melody. Apple’s songs feel at once more intimate and gorgeously complex than before (which is saying a lot given her history of collaborating with producer extraordinaire Jon Brion). She can build from a barely-there melody as she does on “Every Single Night,” or embrace manic maximalism on a blunt, head-spinning standout like “Left Alone.” The Idler Wheel is so musically dazzling, and so endlessly entertaining, that when Apple sings “Every single night’s a fight with my brain,” having ringside seats doesn’t so much feel voyeuristic as cathartic. Rarely has a bloodletting seemed so utterly delightful.
16. Father John Misty: Fear Fun
The self-ordained Father John Misty was born Josh Tillman, recorded for a while under the name J. Tillman and did a stint in Seattle folk quintet Fleet Foxes before finding a suitably new ornate channel for his gorgeous chamber-pop tunes. And while his sweetly vulnerable, reverb-laden vocals still give off a hint of the Foxes’ rustic charms, with Fear Fun, Tillman is on to something bigger and brighter. Where stripped-down acoustic strummers once stood, there are now gently psychedelic, Dylan-esque pop jams like “I’m Writing a Novel” and lushly arranged overtures like the opening track “Funtimes In Babylon.” But the best thing Tillman has done to date is the album’s standout “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” a fuzzy, jangling anthem with drums that roar and a melody that haunts long after the three-minute tune comes to an abrupt end. Tillman, or Father John if you prefer, can and does still write a pretty tune, but never before have they seemed so rich and luxurious.
15. Brandi Carlile: Bear Creek
A rootsy collection of boot-stompers, tear-jerkers and country-rockers, Bear Creek finds Brandi Carlile adding some southern twang to her Northwestern Americana sound. It’s her most countrified album to date, but the songs have more in common with Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt than Carrie Underwood, and Carlile doesn’t channel Nashville as much as the American heartland. Everything feels appropriately pastoral — even the cover art, whose evergreen trees and blue skies are straight out of a Bob Ross painting — but the real treat is her voice, a well-worn alto that swoons, coos and cracks in all the right places. She’s a barn-burning she-devil on “Raise Hell,” a guilty-feeling junkie on “That Wasn’t Me,” a heartbroken soul singer on the harmony-drenched “A Promise To Keep,” and an indie-pop folkie on “Heart’s Content.” Carlile’s voice has always been a super-sized instrument, but here, she learns how to reign it in, only unleashing its full power during key moments.
14. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit: Live From Alabama
This is how live albums are supposed to sound. Backed by the same power trio that recorded Here We Rest, Jason Isbell weaves his way through a thirteen-song setlist of Drive-By Truckers favorites, solo tunes, rarities, and the occasional cover. A three-piece horn section joins the party for a few songs, too, and the whole thing comes to a loud, screeching finish with an encore performance of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.” There are no overdubs here, just 72 minutes of loud, raw, blue-collar anthems, performed with a mix of country twang and rock & roll grit. Compared to most contemporary live albums, this one sounds more like a bootleg, with the occasional off-key harmony vocal or barely-noticeable guitar flub keeping things from sounding perfect. Instead, it sounds real, a genuine document of what Isbell actually sounded like in 2012, a year that saw him winning an Americana Award for “Alabama Pines” (performed here to an enthusiastic Alabama audience), opening a string of European shows for Ryan Adams, and cementing his role as one of the kingpins of 21st century Americana.
13. The Lumineers: The Lumineers
The stomping cheerleader chant of The Lumineers’ initial singalong single “Ho Hey” set the stage for this Denver by way of Brooklyn trio’s debut. Other tracks such as the handclap happy “Big Parade” and the Beatle-ish “Submarine” follow suit. But thankfully their roots go deeper on an album where multi-instrumentalist Neyla Pekarek’s mournful cello, piano and mandolin add depth to slower Americana songs that nearly get derailed by a surplus of singer/songwriter Jeremy Fraites’ words. With tunes as powerful, witty and instantly hummable as “Dead Sea,” The Lumineers seem to be on the right track, especially for those who love to join in with big choruses that beg to be sung by arena audiences.
12. Iris DeMent: Sing The Delta
If the songwriting and performances had been shoddy on Iris Dement’s first album of original material in a decade and a half, the excitement over her long-awaited return would no doubt have given way to disappointment rather quickly. But Sing The Delta has more than enough meat on its bones to satisfy listeners. Dement narrates her evolving, conflicted relationship to her roots—close-knit, devoutly Pentecostal Ozark dwellers-turned-California migrants—in a way that exposes her vulnerable spots without ever taking the easy out of aloofness. She delves into the particular with as much, and as perfectly plainspoken, directness as she’s shown yet, and the effect is penetrating. There’s a more bodily sort of melancholy to the music, too, since her austere country delivery and her rawboned melodies have taken a bluesy turn. To say that this is a hard album to shake off would be an understatement.
11. Todd Snider: Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Todd Snider is no simple man, but if you had to boil him down to likes and dislikes, two things are clear: he loves his hometown of East Nashville, but hates the shit its poorest residents, and those like them, are put through by a corrupt government and its money-grubbing leaders. Oh – and he also enjoys a little weed. Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is another exercise in politically-driven, everyman tales, but finds Snider at perhaps his angriest, most direct yet: like in “New York Banker,” which rails against those evil lemmings of Goldman Sachs, and “In Between Jobs,” a bluesy talker for those constantly struggling and out of work. For this record, Snider made the smart choice of recruiting vocalist and fiddle player Amanda Shires who provides an important contrast to the rough and tumble moments, making it all go down a little easier. In the age of much discontent, Snider continues to be the original Occupier, laying out his mission clearly in song that can never be evicted.