Alabama Shakes are a buzz band in more ways than one; many months of blog love preceded their full-length debut, and it turned out to be the sort of album on which nobody had really sweated the presence of ambient amplifier hum. The buzz hadn’t yet begun when the small-town quartet first started recording, and there’s almost more of the plug-in-and-let-it-rip feel of demo sessions to Boys & Girls than a strategized attempt to make a serious studio statement. Brittany Howard is the raw, young soul shouter that fronts this wiry southern rock band, as well as its primary songwriter, and she has a surging, conversational way of arriving at moments of catharsis. The album captures a band that’s still largely unformed and wildly unruly, yet already undeniably powerful.
9. Bonnie Raitt: Slipstream
Nostalgia works in the favor of many a Baby Boomer artist, because they’re linked to an era of rock whose influence and importance still loom large, even for later generations of listeners. But that alone doesn’t explain the critical and commercial reception that Slipstream—the seventeenth album from Bonnie Raitt, who was hanging with blues pioneers around the time of her 1971 debut—has received this year. Raitt drew a good chunk of the material from recent-ish Bob Dylan, Al Anderson and Joe Henry, the latter of whom also produced several tracks, and she sounds thoroughly at ease with socially conscious, freely funky, bedroom bound and relationally perceptive songs alike. The singer-guitarist’s latest deserves a very warm reception indeed as the work of a performer who hasn’t allowed herself to become a calcified caricature, who’s kept her sensibilities supple and her horizons broad and who’s every bit the musician you’d hope she’d be at this point in her career.
8. Mumford & Sons: Babel
No sophomore slump here. The world’s most popular alt-folkies pick up right where they left off, mixing anthemic Americana with gospel harmonies, pop dynamics, and the insistent stomp of indie rock. All of this means that Babel essentially sounds like Sigh No More: Part Deux, but some improvements have been made this time around, too. The quiet/loud dynamics are stretched to the extreme on both ends, meaning songs like “I Will Wait” explode with all the ferocious fervor of a rock & roll tent revival, while ballads like “Reminder” are presented as stark, acoustic pieces, stripped free of the reverb and swelling harmonies that anchor most of these tunes. It’s a savvy record, written between breaks in the band’s busy touring schedule, and the influence of the road is everywhere. There’s a well-worn weariness to the slower songs — when Marcus Mumford sings, “I’ve been traveling so long,” you believe him — but the faster numbers are ecstatic, and you can almost hear how excited these guys must’ve been to get out of the studio and play their new material live.
7. The Avett Brothers: The Carpenter
There’s no shortage of catchy, bopping crowd-pleasers on The Carpenter, and The Avetts churn them out with gusto and pride, from the sunny pop of “I Never Knew You,” to the doo-wop of “Pretty Girl From Michigan” and the ’90s rock tone of “Geraldine.” Songs like “February Seven” and “A Father’s First Spring” start as acoustic ballads and kick into lush instrumentals, while “Down With The Shine” is a horn-embellished anthem driven by a waltzing beat. “Remember, we’re all in this together,” Seth Avett sings on “The Once And Future Carpenter” — “if I live the life I’ve given, I won’t be scared to die.” It’s one of many lines rooted in self-reflection. If there’s one thing that defines the Avetts, it’s their ability to craft these wistful phrases, often sad or lovelorn, that others might not be able to get away with, where the warmth of the vocals softly shadows the lack of self-consciousness in the lyrics.
6. Sharon Van Etten: Tramp
At first, Tramp seems like a fairly provocative title for a warmly affecting album of heartbroken indie folk songs. But in this case, Tramp’s connotation is in the “vagabond” sense of the word, rather than, say, “harlot.” Before recording the album, Sharon Van Etten spent more than a year without a permanent home, loved, lost, kept her stuff in storage and cultivated some callouses. The resulting album following this nomadic period is intimate and vulnerable, but contains some of the richest material in Van Etten’s repertoire to date. Recorded with The National’s Bryce Dessner, Tramp marks the beginning of a more ambitious approach for Van Etten, whose new bag of tricks include the ornate waltz “Leonard,” and “Serpents,” a track that finds the New Jersey native rocking out and turning the volume up louder than ever. Amid the bigger arrangements and gradual embrace of noise, there’s a sense of some hard-earned lessons, and some still left to learn, best revealed in knowingly contradictory lines like, “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/You’re the reason I need to leave.” Sharon Van Etten spends much of Tramp taking inventory of bad situations, but all the same, the album is an enchanting document of getting it all sorted out.
5. Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball
At this stage in his career, Bruce Springsteen doesn’t need to impress anyone. At 63 years old, he’s built up a discography that stands as one of the strongest collections in rock music. He sells out stadiums and has a direct line to the president. He could take up gardening and his legacy would remain intact. But the Boss is also the kind of musician that’s about more than entertainment — he’s a storyteller and a voice for those without a microphone, and even when it sounds like he’s having a blast, there’s a matter of utmost seriousness at the heart of his songs. Wrecking Ball, not coincidentally released at the dawn of an election year, is the essence of Springsteen distilled into a single hour. Yet the chilling desperation of characters in Nebraska or Darkness at the Edge of Town are swapped for optimism in the face of adversity. His outposts and hamlets are still occupied by salt-of-the-earth working class people in rockers like “We Take Care of Our Own” or gospel-tinged ballads like “This Depression,” and things still aren’t perfect. But there’s reason to be hopeful. Springsteen could have taken the year off, but with a set as heartfelt and powerful as Wrecking Ball, it’s a wondrous thing he didn’t.
4. Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas
The album title is Leonard Cohen’s little joke, implying that his latest album will have more of the same explorations of love, sex, faith, death, and all the other weighty topics he has assayed over his long recording career. Old Ideas is far from derivative of past glories though. Cohen’s self-deprecating humor perfectly balances out the philosophical stuff. Take “Going Home,” in which the singer imagines himself as God and describes his servant Leonard as “a lazy bastard living in a suit.” As usual, the instrumentation is pretty spare, allowing Cohen’s fathoms-deep voice to take center stage. That instrument is still surprisingly potent, especially when it shows its vulnerability on the questing “Show Me The Place.” Leonard may feel that God has a harsh opinion of him, but we mortals can’t help but be swayed by these Old Ideas.
3. Shovels and Rope: O’ Be Joyful
A number of coed duos of recent vintage—from She & Him to the Civil Wars—have drawn at least part of their appeal from their coy dynamics and combined attractiveness. But this year, the husband-and-wife duo Shovels & Rope came out of left field with an entirely different breed of male-female interaction. Instead of the graceful choreography of trading off between lead and supporting vocal roles, on O’ Be Joyful Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent tend to attack their robustly tuneful melodies and harmonies with equal and simultaneous force, coming off more as comrades than typical paramours. They’re no courtly couple—they’re visceral garage rockers who genuinely work up a sweat, and who didn’t feel it necessary to dress up their stomping, primitive grooves or no-frills production. Besides being a fresh approach, theirs also happens to be a phenomenally accessible one.
Neil Young whipped Crazy Horse into action, not once, but twice in 2012. First there was Americana, a scorching take on folk traditionals and gospel standards that reinvigorated those oft-heard songs. That just got the Horse warmed up for Psychedelic Pill, an orgy of relentless jams and Young’s musings on life as an aging rocker which are frequently hilarious and occasionally profound. The words are really just a diversion though from the album’s main draw, which is Young letting loose on his electric guitar while his longtime band clears a path for him. Best of these behemoth songs is “Walk Like A Giant,” which literally stomps through the landscape leaving slack-jawed listeners in its wake. Fans of Young’s more contemplative material will have to wait; this Pill should only be swallowed by those who like it loud.
1. Bob Dylan: Tempest
Not only does Bob Dylan show no signs of stopping, he is actually picking up steam past his 70th birthday. His latest is an album that can go toe-to-toe with Love And Theft to be considered the best of his late-period albums. It’s also the best album released by anyone this year. Dylan can still spin his state-of-the-world blues yarns with the best of them, as he proves on “Narrow Way” and “Duquesne Whistle.” What makes Tempest so refreshing are the stylistic detours, like the soulful ballad “Long And Wasted Years” and the gleefully vindictive “Pay In Blood,” which has, of all things, a late 70’s-era Rolling Stones’ groove. This is also his most ambitious album in quite a while. The title track retells the tale of the Titanic in idiosyncratic yet moving fashion, while “Roll On John” is a sweet valediction to his old buddy John Lennon. Tempest isn’t just a victory lap; it’s a case of Dylan lapping the entire field yet again.
Written by Jim Beviglia, Jewly Hight, Hal Horowitz, Andrew Leahey, Marissa R. Moss and Jeffrey Terich. What albums made your Best Of 2012 list? Let us know in the comments, and check out our list of The Top 50 Songs of 2012