10. Women and Country- Jakob Dylan
Wallflowers’ front and legendary folk offspring continued to tick off his list of Hall of Fame producers this year. With the help of T Bone Burnett behind the board and Kelly Hogan and Neko Case in the background, he manages to craft a set typically textured and heart-rung ballads that would as easily soundtrack a John Steinbeck novel as they would a Nashville barroom.
9. Here’s to Taking It Easy- Phosphorescent
I caught onto this one pretty late, but am glad I did. A cross between Bonny “Prince” Billy’s winsome folk and Band of Horses alt-whine, Matt Houck turns in an LP without any gloss or accoutrement, just the basics. The pedal steel on tracks like “Heaven Sittin’ Down” complement his rambling vocals, and the sparse harmonious tracks like “Nothin Was Stolen” harken to Bon Iver at his de-Autotuned finest.
8. Man of Few Words- Brett Harris
From the first few strums on opener “I Found Out” to the final bluish self-pity on “Over and Over,” Man of Few Words offers a plentitude of neo-Brit-pop nostalgia. You only get this type of music when it seeps out of the pores of someone so reared on McCartney and Costello, that even “safer” alt-country breaks (“Unspoken”) bear the infectious melodies, showmanship, and profundity of such predecessors.
7. Cut Loose- The Tomahawks
Born of a songwriting backlog, Cut Loose is no haphazard dustpan of songs. Instead you find a complete and well-ordered mix of classic sounds and subjects repackaged by one of the most talented collectives (in every sense of the word) in one of the most overlooked music scenes (Raleigh-Durham-Carrboro). Moments like the first few seconds on “Hearts” or the sweeping Wilco-esque solo on Reason or Rhyme speak of more and better to come for this posse.
6. All Alone in an Empty House- Lost in the Trees
Orchestral folk music: perhaps the sub-genre with the highest potential for pretension. Instead, Ari Picker brilliantly conducts an album with so much emotion and vulnerability, anger, strife, memory, and hope that to patently discard it on those grounds discard it would be a huge mistake. My favorite tracks “Song For The Painter,” “Love on My Side,” and “A Room Were Your Paintings Hang,” display a deft self-awareness without being self-absorbed. What you get is a hybrid of Conor Oberst and Andrew Bird: screamingly honest and urgent, though playful, complex, and artistic.
5. The Suburbs- Arcade Fire
The “biggest indie album of the year” that got everyone questioning what that really means anymore anyway, got me wondering something else. Just when exactly did Arcade Fire become the heir apparent to Radiohead and U2? It wasn’t during Funeral. Not quite during the darkly topical Neon Bible. Surprisingly, it took a potentially painful concept album to get there. I wasn’t too interested in a heavy-handed hipster dirge to all things suburban, but that’s not what I got. Instead Butler and Co. put together a complex jeremiad of a spent and sometimes misspent youth.
4. Up From Below- Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros
The superlative for Weirdest Cult/Traveling Musical Gypsy Circus goes to these guys. They also wrap up the companion superlative for Least Likely Band to Pull Down Constant Car and NFL Commercial Licensing. From start to finish this album is my favorite kind of trip.
3. Wild Hunt/Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird- The Tallest Man on Earth
A powder-keg of lyrical intensity, Kristian Matsson chimes in with two solid albums. The latter EP, shows no drop-off from the brilliant early year full-length. Tracks like “Kids on the Run” or “Like a Wheel” jerk at your tear ducts, while anthemic “The Dreamer” and “King of Spain” buoy those blues. To date all of the cover art matches, and his songwriting is so strong that you get the feeling that these albums come easy, that he could do this output every year for the rest of his life and us listeners would be better for it.
2. Libraries- The Love Language
Part of a powerful triumvirate of national albums put out this year by Merge Records (including She & Him and Arcade Fire). Stu McLamb steps up his low-fi, soul-biting swagger from the eponymous debut on this crushing sophomore effort. My faves include playful yet pensive “Summer Dust,” slide guitar licked “This Blood Is Our Own,” and the less-than-Violent Femmed “Heart To Tell.”
1. Sigh No More- Mumford & Sons
I don’t know of anyone that I’ve recommended this album to this year that hasn’t been wooed by the band’s earnest and powerful brit-grass tunes. From the opening harmonies which harken Fleet Foxes at their best, to “The Cave’s” topsy-turvy image of reality, to the hopeful closer’s assurance of the “time with no more tears,” Marcus Mumford and Co. set out not only to make a brilliant and cohesive musical album, but to craft an inventive vision and definition of faith, hope, and love. Oh, and there’s banjo too.
I dug these too (in alpha order): The Black Keys; Broken Bells; Carolina Chocolate Drops; S. Carey; Johnny Cash; Justin Townes Earle; Gayngs; Ray LaMontagne; Luego; Mandolin Orange; Sandra McCracken; Megafaun; Josh Moore; Morning Benders; The Old Ceremony; Josh Ritter; She & Him; Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore; Spoon; Sufjan Stevens; Angus & Julia Stone; Sharon Van Etten; Derek Webb.