While we all have lists in our heads for numerous things, the first time I did one for publication was in 1973 while I was in college and writing for a Philadelphia paper . That list included, in random order, John Martyn's Solid Air, Tom Waits' Closing Time, Jackson Browne's For Everyman, Bonnie Raitt's Takin' My Time, Maria Muldaur's first solo album, Willie Nelson's Shotgun Willie, Waylon Jennings' Lonesome Onry & Mean, John Prine's Sweet Revenge and Loudon Wainwright's Attempted Mustache. Save for the Muldaur, at the time it was considered by my fellow writers to be "eclectic" at best, a little obscure at worst -- heck, just Willie's album cover was enough to make some of them think I was out of touch with what "was really going on."
1973 was also significant because it was the first year that country music opened itself up. With the rise of what was going on in Texas, e.g., Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Willis Alan Ramsey and Willie, and the emergence of other artists using country as an influence, e.g. Gram Parsons, Steve Young and John Prine, two major labels finally saw the writing on the wall -- Atlantic opened a Nashville office and immediately signed Willie and RCA finally permitted Waylon to record music his way.
There is one thing that is consistent between the 1973 list and the 2012 one -- all are by individual artists (save for two collaborations) with a singular vision.
The list of the 2012 albums I listened to most during this year is not so eclectic, most the names are so well known that we perhaps take them a little too much for granted. And I saw most of the artists perform live during the year, so may have also influenced me somewhat. Some were not easy to get into, but once I did they were hard to get out of my head. Others were so good I often wondered why everyone was not raving about them.
While I had seen him perform many times before, 2012 was Justin Townes Earle's year. At his shows I stood in wonder as he put the 12 bar blues back into country while too many others were just amping it up.
The surprise was Martha Wainwright's Come Home To Mama. As with any child of an accepted member of Americana royalty, she or he must necessarily not simply live in someone else's shadow or ride on a parent's credibility. Ms. Wainwright's earlier work was brazen all over the place and she played the role of diva a little too willingly. However, the new album found her harnessing that power and creating songs that resonate even in the nooks and crannies of life . Her performance of her mother's last song, 'Proserpina' is devastating.
Three old dogs, all on the same label, made some fun, adventurous records, Dylan's Tempest, Cohen's Old Ideas and Patti Smith's Banga. It has been especially gratifying for me to see Cohen & Smith do so well late in their careers. I knew Smith slightly when she was writing for Circus (or was it Cream?) in NY and I for the Free Press in Philly. In college my room would empty when I put on Cohen (or the Velvet Undergound) and now over 40 years later he is giving 3+ hour long shows when younger folks tap out at 90 minutes.
Two of the most challenging records were Cat Power's Sun and Byrne's & St. Vincent's Love This Giant and were my most electric favorites. Not easy listening, but worth the effort. I was hoping Love This Giant would be more collaborative in nature. But still, and their show at the Ryman was worth the travel. Sun is Marshall's first album of originals since her masterpiece The Greatest and, like last year's Feist record, it upended expectations to such an extent that many listeners stayed away.
Iris DeMent (Sing the Delta) and Kelly Hogan (I Like To Keep Myself in Pain) came out of their respective respites to give us vocals like few others. Both albums were all originals, with one difference. Ms. DeMent wrote her own that sounded like you had heard them long ago. And Ms. Hogan who had put her own solo career on hold to work and tour with longtime friend and musical cohort Neko Case and Jakob Dylan called in favors from all her songwriting friends to give her new ones to do. From Robyn Hitchcock to Jon Langford, the album is a real treat and demonstrates why she is one of our finest vocalists.
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson were the hit of the Americana Music Association festival in September. I caught every song of every set and it was a rare treat
to see two folks so talented, so unassuming and so funny.
Another thing all the above have in common is that they were also released on vinyl. Hmm, maybe there is something to spinning sides at 33 1/3 and holding a real piece of 12x12 art in your hands and having liner notes that you can read without a magnifying glass.
Speaking of album covers, the best case for larger covers was Paloma Faith's Fall To Grace. It's like holding a still from an Alexander McQueen show in your hands. And the album's music was an unexpected treat as well.
Unfortunately, there was no room other noteworthy music, such as the Chocolate Drop's excellent Leaving Eden, Phil Madeira's grand project that came to fruition, Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest of Us, Red June's Beauty Will Come and an album that still has yet to arrive, Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale's duo album. Proof positive that nice guys finish first. I attended Buddy's set with Lee Ann Womack at the AMA just to see him back her up, and was oh so pleasantly pleased when it turned out to be a Miller show with Womack on supporting vocals.
The two performances to die for this year both involved Emmylou Harris. First was Mercyland live in Nashville as part of the AMA Festival at the Downtown Presbyterian Church. I could not believe I had to talk a couple of buddies into attending that show. But I did not need to convince anyone in seeing Emmylou, Daniel Lanois and Brian Blade perform Wrecking Ball in its entirety at the Marathon Music Works. In my small group in front of stage right were folks from Florida, Canada, Iowa, New York and England. Save for the UK folks, all had traveled there just to attend that show.
OK, here's the list:
Justin Townes Earle-Nothings Going To Change The Way You Feel About Me Now (Bloodshot)
Martha Wainwright-Come Home to Mama (Cooperative Music)
Leonard Cohen-Old Ideas (Columbia)
Bob Dylan-Tempest (Columbia)
Patti Smith-Banga (Columbia)
Cat Power-Sun (Matador)
Iris DeMent-Sing the Delta (Flariella Records)
David Byrne & St. Vincent-Love This Giant (4AD/Todo Mundo)
Kelly Hogan-I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (Bloodshot)
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson-Wreck and Ruin (Sugarhill)
What does 2013 hold in store? I have not looked at what's ahead, but there are notes in my in box indicating that we will see an Emmylou & Rodney Crowell duo album, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison recording together, Trixie Whitley's Fourth Corner, Richard Thompson, Ron Sexsmith, Caitlin Rose, Patty Griffin, Susan Werner and 28 Townes Van Zandt tunes that were lost for 40 years. Speaking of reissues, Tom Overby promises that part of whatever new record deal Lucinda puts together it will include her 1988 Rough Trade album, the record that, with all due respect to Uncle Tupelo & No Depression, was the first alt-country record. Tom also promises a vinyl version and perhaps a deluxe set that would also include live tracks recorded at the time and a DVD. And way too many more for me to initially get around to, so more so than before I rely on the kindness of fellow No Depressioners to point me in the right directions.
Peace, love and understanding.