Music is important to me, and every year I listen to a lot of music. Each year, I feel compelled to share my favorite albums, and I share it here this year because I believe that art and music create spaces for the things we speak about on this blog to take shape. The poets and the artists of this world are poised to capture the mystery of the in(tension)al life in unique ways, and I am consistently floored by their creations. In my humble opinion, the following albums blessed our world with beauty and imagination this year. Happy listening!
1. the Soil & the Sun “What Wonder Is this Universe!”
I found a new favorite band this year, and as it turns out, they’re just right down the road. I picked up their 2011 record, “Wake Up, Child” early in the year when I had the joy of seeing them live here in Lansing, and then preordered “What Wonder Is This Universe!” as soon as it became available back in August. Vocals echo perfectly, strings crescendo majestically, and when the rhythm section gets into a groove, brace yourself for spontaneous head bobs, air drums, and spine chills. This is spiritual, cosmic, dare I say transcendent music. Once you get a taste, be prepared to spend a lot of time with this record. Bonus: if you pre-order the vinyl posthaste, you may still be able to claim one of the numbered woodcut prints lovingly created by the Soil & the Sun’s own Ashley McGrath.
Fave track: “Who Is He, Anyway?”
Magnum opus: “You Alone Know”
2. Fiona Apple “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do”
The early tracks I heard from this album on NPR’s All Songs Considered set me up to believe that this would be a special album. The near stadium swell “aay ay ay ay ay ay ay AY ay ay” chorus of “Every Single Night” gives a complex set of songs a level of accessibility that even my kids love. The vocal arrangements on “Hot Knife” are just the sort of thing that I’m a sucker for: harmony, syncopation, easy to sing along—it’s a perfect closing track. The album with the longest title broods, tugs, and unfolds its tragic beauty over repeated listens.
Fave track: “Hot Knife”
3. The Tallest Man on Earth “There’s No Leaving Now”
When I went to purchase this at the local record store, the store clerk couldn’t resist a “selling The Tallest Man on Earth to the tallest man on earth” joke. I chuckled, and then I started listening. I’m flabbergasted by the consistency of Kristian Mattson. On three full lengths and an EP, there’s maybe one song I don’t love. Here are ten more beautifully crafted, concise songs, sung with his bracingly powerful tenor, emotionally pitch-perfect.
Fave track: “Little Brother”
4. The Brilliance “Advent, Vol. 2”
For better or worse, everybody knows a lot of Christmas songs. Advent songs, on the other hand, are far less ubiquitous, yet often far more profound. This is the second set of Advent songs from The Brilliance (as you may have gathered from the title), and in many ways, it transcends the first. The original composition “Lift Up Your Eyes” combines most everything I love about this band: complex arrangement, tight performance, bombast, all serving to instill in listeners a sense of longing for redemption. You don’t have to love Christmas music or church music to love this music.
Fave track: “Lift Up Your Eyes”
Fave hymn adaptation: “In the Bleak Midwinter”
5. Alabama Shakes “Boys & Girls”
I discovered Alabama Shakes in 2011, but all they had in the way of recorded music were a few tracks on their Bandcamp site. “Boys & Girls” was the album I looked forward to most in 2012, and I was not disappointed. Brittany Howard has a once-in-a-generation powerhouse voice, and I don’t really know what else to say about that. “Hold On” is the first Shakes song I heard, and it’s still my favorite, but it’s “You Ain’t Alone” that showcases most fully the band’s greatest asset (Brittany’s voice). Southern rock and soul and blues at its finest.
Fave track: “You Ain’t Alone”
6. Lost in the Trees “A Church That Fits Our Needs”
The whole premise of this album weighs on the heart. During the release of their first album, front man Ari Picker’s mother took her own life, and this follow-up album is saturated with her presence (and absence). Picker’s idea with this album was to create space for her to inhabit the music. The results are astonishing, haunting, and gorgeous. These are classically trained musicians performing lushly orchestrated songs. If you’re looking for art that processes grief from a creative perspective, look no further.
Fave track: “Golden Eyelids”
7. alt-J “An Awesome Wave”
This recent discovery has crept up my list quickly with hooks, beats, grooves, and earworms. This album is carefully crafted, beautifully engineered with layers that peel back with each subsequent listen. These songs lock into a great groove that moves the body. You’ll find yourself dancing, singing along (“this is from Matildaaa-a-a-aaa”), and flat out enjoying yourself. My only qualm is that “Interlude 1,” a mesmerizing syncopated vocal track, is too short at a mere 1:12. It’s an awesome wave, y’all.
Fave track: “Fitzpleasure”
8. Jack White “Blunderbuss”
Jack White’s basically a legend at this point. For over a decade, he has defined American garage blues rock. He knows blues history, rock history, and art history. Yet for all his unbridled rocking, he’s also a master of disciplined constraint. We know about The White Stripes rules: two people, three colors, no bass guitar. White’s rule for his first solo album (two bands: one female and one male) make for more musical flexibility. The songs, as always, are great. That explosion of guitar at the beginning of “Sixteen Saltines,” that wordplay of “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy,” that fresh adaptation of “I’m Shakin’.” It seems like just the right next step for Mr. White.
Fave track: “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”
9. Sharon Van Etten “Tramp”
These are twelve songs of longing, confession, and love. Van Etten is not one to make a scene for its own sake, but is narrowly focused on crafting great songs of subtle beauty. You’ll fall in love with her vulnerable voice and keep listening when you discover the power and strength beneath the fragile exterior. “All I Can” is the first song I fell in love with in 2012, and it’s still bringing chills (and sometimes tears) today.
Fave track: “All I Can”
10. Derek Webb “Ctrl”
Sci-Fi. Sacred harp singing. Short story companion. Another EP (“Nexus” by SOLA-MI) that fits perfectly between “I Feel Everything” and “Reanimate.” The mythos, the layers of “Ctrl” are revealed a bit at a time, and with each new discovery, even more life is breathed into this album. This exploration of humanity and spirituality in a technologically dominated world is a compelling narrative. The songs are strong on their own, perhaps Webb’s best batch of songs since “Mockingbird.” This album is worthy of continued exploration.
Fave track: “Pressing on the Bruise”
Ten more favorites from this year (in no particular order):
- The Mountain Goats “Transcendental Youth”
- Father John Misty “Fear Fun”
- Paper Route “The Peace of Wild Things”
- The Avett Brothers “The Carpenter”
- Regina Spektor “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats”
- Of Monsters and Men “My Head Is an Animal”
- Mumford & Sons “Babel”
- Andrew Bird “Break It Yourself”
- Beach House “Bloom”
- The Lumineers “The Lumineers”