10.The Hazards of Love
This full-fledged folk-operatic may only be appreciated in full if you’ve seen these guys (and gals) live and “get” what they’re doing. If you’ve seen them, you realize that they’re always only half serious; You realize that their fascination with the maudlin and grotesque collides head-on with a tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation that makes them endearing despite their oft pretension. Not the most accessible or easy listening album, Crane Wife (in my opinion, their masterpiece) and Picaresque are much more friendly for the newcomer, but geez, give them props for coming up with a coherent, complex bit of merged drama and musicality.
Stand-out tracks: (though it should be listened to as a whole) The Rake's Song, The Hazards of Love 3-The Hazards of Love 4
9.Gather, Form, & Fly
Pitchfork, the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of hip (just look at their list and see how many you can recognize), gave this release a whopping 8.1 on their rating scale, which on their scale amounts to a comfortable perch snuggly between Revolver and Joshua Tree. Though an 81% manages to only get you a B- at most reputable institutions, 4 stars from Rolling Stone holds currency about anywhere you go. Perhaps the most pleasant and surprising part of this album is its incredible diversity. Banjo-strewn and harmony-laced, it manages avant-folk tracks that nod to the sound of Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (the band’s former running mate), good-old-fashioned gospel throw-downs and barnstormers, along with sensitive whispering instrumentals.
Stand-out tracks: The Columns-Longest Day-Guns stretch is about as good as you can get for my money (which, it bears mentioning, is not very much).
8.Give Up The Ghost
Perhaps Brandi’s raspy caterwaul is an acquired taste. Whether it is or isn’t is beside the point. All I know is that she has a brilliant penchant for powerfully constructed ballads, vulnerable lyrics, and heady considerations of where she’s been and how she’s gonna scratch, scream, and hitchhike to get where she needs to go. Every time you listen to her, including this album, it’s a coming of age experience- kind of a Cameron Crowe movie on tape or an unshuffled road-trip mixtape.
I went out looking for the answers/and never left my town/I’m no good at understanding/but I’m good at standing ground/and when I asked a corner preacher/I couldn’t hear him for my ears/some people get religion/some people get the truth/I never get the truth
Stand-out tracks: Looking Out, Dying Day, Pride & Joy, Caroline
7.Monsters of Folk
Monsters of Folk
Mike Mogis is probably the most underrated of this team, but perhaps acts as the Bill Lambeer of the group: throwing elbows and gluing this pack of hoodlums together. Really for me though, I'd be perfectly content with an M. Ward record with some guests. That's not exactly what you get and James and Oberst are not exactly throw-ins. What results is a Wilbury-esque cohesive album with some real original thought and new ground tread.
Stand-out tracks: Say Please; Goodway; Sandman, Breakman, and Me
These RDU locals put together a full disc of unique sounds (accordian, etc.) and cunning, romantic lyrics. Loved their "Tiny Desk Concert," and with lyrics like this, I can't wait to see them next time they come through town:
You are free
You are already free
You are already free
You are free from the greed of your culture
You are free from the lust for the luster
Of the diamond houses in the city's cluster
From your own ego, from your own blunder
Yes, you own the stars, you own the thunder
But you have to share
Yes, you own the stars, you own the thunder
But you have to share it all
Stand-out tracks: Northern Lights, House of Diamonds, Crooked Lust.
Andrew Bird is one of those guys who when you talk about you normally tack on a "god-love-him." I think these videos speak for themselves, god-love-them.
Stand-out tracks: Oh No!; Effigy; Fitz & Dizzyspells, Souverian; Nomenclature
Andrew Bird with Mucca Pazza - "Fitz & The Dizzyspells”
4.It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All A Dream! It's Alright!
(Tooth & Nail)
This is a surprising and ragtag record chock-full of intensely spiritual and artistically crafted narrative. There's not a lot of folk out there that can write like Aaron Weiss, and even fewer who manage the performance and persona of one of the band's live shows. This record, as I have said before, is the perfect next step from Catch for Us the Foxes and Brother Sun, Sister Moon. If you've never heard them, picture a karaoke machine strapped to a shopping cart at a park pot-luck accompanied by the most random assortment of instruments and players possible (including animals?). Oh yeah, that's kind of what the live show is like too. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Stand-out tracks: The Fox, The Crow, and the Cookie; Bullet to Binary; Every Thought a Thought of You.
Matt Ward can hardly do wrong in my book and his only misstep on this album, in my opinion, is the duet with Lucinda Williams. Other than that he's up to his old tricks, only in a little less lo-fi. Ward weaves brilliant folk ballads about faith, God, and mortality, all while getting by with a little help from his friends. Zooey (of She & Him and Elf fame, and also my league of fictional hipster-girl crushes) makes a couple appearances (one on the cute opener and the other on a great Buddy Holly cover). Doesn't get much better than hearing about Catholic school childhoods and being fishers of men all set to gifted and subtle guitar licks.
Stand-out tracks: about every one except "Oh Lonesome Me".
2.Oh Tall Tree In The Ear
I would not be misleading to also say that no one writes like Skip does. Aaron and Skip write with similar skill and playfulness, but their styles greatly diverge. Oh Tall Tree is for me a near perfect record. It has coherence, romance, nostalgia, and tells of an overall narrative of something real and great. From the opening lines in the Garden, "There's a pine warbler sitting on a hollow limb..." to the closing "the last thing we'll leave is a love song for this vacant room, sunk in the walls, and trapped like the ocean in shells with everything else, we ever exhaled." Did I mention there is also a song about the merits of Neil Young and the helpful tragedy of "high school emo bands versing and chorusing." Like I said, original and near-perfect.
Stand-out tracks: Eden Was a Garden; Modern Radio; Big Light; I Was a Fool; Early Aubade
1.I and Love and You
The Avett Brothers
I don't really have much to say about this one that I haven't already said here. This might be a quintessential Rick Rubin-produced record, with the intensity of a late Cash record, the transparency of the Jakob Dylan album, and the occasional whimsy and playfulness of a Chili Peppers or Beastie Boys track. I'm glad these Carolina boys not only stood up to but excelled in their first major label release.
Stand-out tracks: All of them.
Not on the list but not chopped liver (in alphabetical order):
David Bazan "Curse Your Branches"
Bifrost Arts "Come O Spirit!"
Bifrost Arts "Salvation is Created"
Bon Iver "Blood Bank EP"
Neko Case "Middle Cyclone"
Dawes "North Hills"
Ryan Gustafson "Donkey LP"
Joe Henry "Blood From Stars"
Joshua James "Build Me This"
The Love Language "The Love Language"
Luego "Taped-together Stories"
The Mountain Goats "The Life of the World to Come"
Elvis Perkins in Dearland "Elvis Perkins in Dearland"
Mindy Smith "Stupid Love"
Shannon Stephens "Shannon Stevens"
Aaron Strumpel "Elephants"
Swell Season "Strict Joy"
The Tomahawks "Like A Horse On A Beach EP"
Various Artists "Dark Was the Night" Comp
Derek Webb "Stockholm Syndrome"
Zach Williams "Story Time"
Wilco "Wilco [the album]"
Let me know if I forgot any...and a happy new year of music to you.