American Songwriter’s Top 50 Albums Of 2012

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30. Punch Brothers: Who’s Feeling Young Now?

The Punch Brothers have been described as the Radiohead of string bands often enough that they came right out and owned the comparison on their third album, covering one of the least coverable, and most trippy, tracks in the Radiohead catalog: “Kid A.” The Brothers’ equally atmospheric rendition has made quite the impression; anything Radiohead could do they could, indeed, do unplugged, a pretty interesting position for a band to stake out at a moment when there’s a lot of attention focused on far flung electronic and acoustic ends of the popular music spectrum. But these virtuosos, led by the ebullient singer-mandolinist Chris Thile, really proved how serious they are about fleshing out their postmodern rock take on the string band form by making Who’s Feeling Young Now? into their most song-centric affair to date. Thile plays the wry, jaunty, elastic-voiced narrator, and, with aggressive precision, the entire band frequently locks into taut grooves punctuated by boldfaced backbeats. The result is an exhilaratingly unpredictable, and never impenetrable, album. And that’s not an easy tension to get right.

29. Andrew Combs: Worried Man

Nashville by-way-of-Texas’ Andrew Combs may draw from a bygone, denim-on-denim era of country where the only “crossover” element was with folk, not radio pop –and like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, he blends traditional southern elements with confessional, lovelorn songs so honest the steel guitar sounds like earnest tears. But on his debut LP, Worried Man, what makes Combs stand out is his taste for soulful, 70’s rock and Chicago blues that integrates seamlessly into his sound, making songs like “Big Bad Love” and the title track thump with aggression and prove that heart-broken tunes don’t always need to hang in the simplicity of gloomy ballads. Which, by the way, Combs does just as well: his beloved anthem, “Too Stoned to Cry,” could be mistaken for a country classic, if it weren’t the lyricism that proves this is a totally modern voice, not simply a throwback.

28. Justin Townes Earle: Nothings Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now

Justin Townes Earle may have been born in Nashville and spent some years wandering around New York City, but Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now draws greatly from another southern city: Memphis. Soul, blues and doo-wop horns replace a lot of the old time instrumentation of his earlier records, without ever losing the raw, lonely lyricism Earle has become known for. The best songs blend all sides: “Won’t Be the Last Time,” is a spare, aching slow burner driven by steel guitar and Earle’s quintessential hard-nailed guitar plucks, and the title track has brass soft enough to carry the solemn weight of lines like “when you wake up alone and you still smell my smoke.” Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now shows an evolving Earle, but one thing is certain: even when he swaps old-timey bass lines for horn sections, his skilful songwriting keeps its focus, melancholy as that focus may be.

27. Loudon Wainwright III: Older Than My Old Man Now

Anyone looking for a 4 minute synopsis of veteran Wainwright’s life needs only to spin this disc’s leadoff track, “The Here & the Now,” where he collapses his 66 years into a short, typically self-deprecating folk pop ditty. As its title implies, this release—his first new material since 2011’s five disc career retrospective– is a rumination on aging, specifically how it impacts blood relationships. To that end he employs his kids, including Rufus and Martha, to contribute vocals and writes songs like the waltz-time “All in the Family” about the dysfunctions of family units including his own. Some meditations get a little too smarmy and comedic for their own good as in the grandfather voice he employs for “I Remember Sex.” This is certainly no place for a Wainwright novice to start their collection: there are 23 other choices for that. But even as he winds down his extensive and prolific career, Wainwright is capable of lyrical surprises that shift from dry, often darkly, humorous to dramatic and remains a cult artist that has still not received the accolades he deserves.

26. Michael Kiwanuka: Home Again

There’s been close to universal consensus this year about the general likability of Michael Kiwanuka’s debut album. It nails the retro thing, after all, which counts for plenty these days. But if we’re going to appraise his aesthetic choices—which are part and parcel of his artistry—it’s also worth noting what stands out about them: while a good many retro soul revivalists are white, female belters, Kiwanuka’s a British guy of Ugandan descent who conjures soft-focus, singer-songwriter soul, and it’s that Bill Withers-ish soul element that sets his music apart from the also-mainly-white folk-rock revivalists. It’s a savvy choice of niche, really. And beneath the thoroughgoing ‘70s earth-tone orchestration on Home Again—swanky horns, strings and all—you find that Kiwanuka has a light touch. There’s both tenderness and dignity to his singing, and it’s been a good, long while since anyone sounded so natural deploying such earnest, throwback language of brotherhood and spiritual neediness.

25. Norah Jones: Little Broken Hearts

The title says it all. Norah Jones talks herself through a nasty breakup during Little Broken Hearts, with Danger Mouse serving as her wing man and producer. The two first worked together on 2011’s Rome, a spaghetti western collaboration that also featured Daniele Luppi and Jack White, but Little Broken Hearts finds them on more familiar ground, adding twists and turns to Jones’ usual foundation of jazz-tinged music and NPR-approved pop/rock. “Say Goodbye” is a fizzy, electro-pop standout directed at the guy who broke Norah’s heart, while ballads like “She’s 22” — a sparse, acoustic number elevated by Danger Mouse’s airy production — are proof that she’s still hurting. Danger Mouse’s decorates each song with a heavy hand, piling reverb onto her vocals one minute and drenching the arrangements with smoky atmosphere the next, but the songwriting shines through.

24. Cory Branan: Mutt

Cory Branan is a melancholy country balladeer and a barroom troubadour. He can thrash out some loud, bruising rock ‘n’ roll, or he can soothe the soul with a gentle, acoustic finger-picked ballad. And at various points throughout his third album, Mutt, his shape-shifting aesthetic is reminiscent of Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen. True to the album’s title, Branan’s a mutt, stylistically speaking, and the album is that much more of an engrossing experience because of it. Having spent his formative years honing his chops in punk and metal bands, Branan has matured into a versatile and sophisticated songwriter whose raspy baritone lends his songs the kind of hard-luck gravitas of classic country, but with just enough of punk rock streak leftover from his youth to give them a thorny edge. The transition from a gentle folk tune like “The Corner” into a Thin Lizzy-influenced rocker such as “Survivor Blues” can seem a little jarring on paper, but one of Branan’s greatest strengths is finding common ground between disparate styles. Take away the elaborate arrangements or genre exercises, and you’re still left with a batch of truly haunting and affecting songs.

23. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes: Here

The first album from the collective known as Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros was released back in 2009, yet it was such a slow-building success that their follow-up from earlier this year seemed perfectly timed to capture the momentum. Frontman Alex Ebert takes Sharpe as his alter as a vehicle for projecting warm, folky vibes into the atmosphere, the rest of his band seconding his emotions like a benevolent gang. Even when Here veers into dark corners, Ebert always instinctively returns to the light. Album-opener “Man On Fire” snaps out of its moody acoustic guitar figure to invite the “whole damn world” to dance, while closing track “All Wash Out” advises those in the doldrums to “let it all wash out in the rain.” In between, there are some sneakily affecting melodies amid the positivity, such as the gently yearning “Dear Believer,” making Here a lovely place to be.

22. The Shins: Port of Morrow

After the success James Mercer had with Danger Mouse in the side project Broken Bells, it seemed like he might not ever go back to his day job as leader of The Shins, one of the leading lights of the indie-rock scene in the early 2000’s, especially since several core members departed since the group’s last album in 2007. Yet Port Of Morrow, which was recorded by Mercer with a rotating cast of musicians, effortlessly captures the elastic pop sound that defined the band on their first two albums, Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow. If there is a slight change, it’s in the raised accessibility level, thanks to “Simple Song,” as sure a pop shot as anybody recorded in 2012, and “It’s Only Life,” an open-hearted ballad featuring Mercer’s nimble wordplay and soaring vocals.

21. Jack White: Blunderbuss

For his first official solo album after stints as a band member of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and Dead Weather, multi-instrumentalist White jumps from blues to retro glammy pop, jazzy interludes and quirky ballads with the abandon of someone who isn’t worried whether his fans will follow him. Much of it is piano based and doesn’t sound like anything from his other associations, but borrows a little from all of them. White seems revitalized throughout, happily plunging through a bluesy take on Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin’” and the waltz-time country of the title track as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to have them both on the same album. Between this and the release of a sizzling Raconteurs live DVD, White had another in a long series of winning years.


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