One of my favorite questions I get from audience members at readings is about what and who I'm listening to at the moment. Here are my Top 25 from 2012--unranked and in alphabetical order--followed by ten honorable mentions.
Boys & Girls - Alabama Shakes
The first thing you notice about the Alabama Shakes is lead singer Brittany Howard's voice, which channels the likes of Janis Joplin and Bessie Smith. This is an album for grooving and chilling and everything in between. Download: "Rise to the Sun" & "I Ain't the Same"
The Carpenter - The Avett Brothers
The boys from North Carolina return in full force with an album every bit as strong as 2009's I and Love and You. Download: "Live and Die" & "February Seven"
Old Believers - Cory Chisel & the Wandering Sons
Chisel has one of the finest voices in music today, and his sterling vocals are the focal point of this record. Download: "I've Been Accused" & "Foxgloves"
Sing the Delta - Iris Dement
It took Dement eight years to release a follow-up to Lifeline, her gorgeous Southern hymns project, but the end product has been well worth the wait. Sing the Delta is full of the gritty and graceful storytelling that Americana fans have come to expect from Dement. Download: "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray" & "There's A Whole Lotta Heaven"
Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now - Justin Townes Earle
With this album--and its mile-long title--Earle pays tribute to the great soul recordings of decades past, and the results are stunning. Download: "Look the Other Way" & "Down on the Lower East Side"
Fear Fun - Father John Misty
Father John Misty is the sobriquet of former Fleet Foxes singer/drummer Joshua Tillman, and on Fear Fun, he has crafted an album that is a sheer sonic pleasure. Download: "Fun Times in Babylon" & "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings"
The Lion's Roar - First Aid Kit
This duo of sisters is from Sweden, but their sound is Americana at its finest--tight harmonies, acoustic sounds and emotional songwriting. Download: "Emmylou" & "Blue"
From the Ground Up - John Fullbright
Back in September, at the Americana Music Association Festival in Nashville, my friend Holly Gleason texted me, beckoning me to the Mercy Lounge to hear John Fullbright. "Xtian Okie philosopher poet," she wrote. "You will dig him." As usual, her instincts were right. I dug him, and so have the Grammys--From the Ground Up, his debut studio record, just got a nomination for Best Americana Album. Download: "Gawd Above" & "Daydreamer"
Halcyon - Ellie Goulding
Few are experimenting with electronic sounds like Goulding, the British pop sensation who had a minor hit here in the States with the single "Lights," the title track from her ebullient 2010 debut album. Halcyon is a joy from start to finish, pop music at its finest. Download: "Only You" & "Anything Could Happen"
Camilla - Caroline Herring
The South is the landscape of much of Herring's music, and with the addition of Camilla to her oeuvre, she has established herself as one of that region's finest writers of any genre. Tackling subjects such as race, class, gender and mountaintop removal, Herring never sounds preachy, opting for compelling, poetic stories over polemics. Download: "Black Mountain Lullaby" & "Fireflies"
Thankful n' Thoughtful - Bettye Lavette
One of the finest interpreters alive today, Lavette crosses musical genres with ease on this album, singing tunes written by the likes of Bob Dylan and Sly Stone and the Black Keys. Download: "Everything is Broken" & "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere"
A Church that Fits Our Needs - Lost in the Trees
This is a song cycle about loss, written in the aftermath of singer-songwriter Ari Picker's mother's death from suicide. The album is difficult to listen to at times, but its delicate beauty and lush orchestration provide a cushion for the listener, a place for deep contemplation. Download: "Red" & "This Dead Bird is Beautiful"
Unorthodox Jukebox - Bruno Mars
Mars is one of the most exciting singers out there today, a fact that is evidenced on his latest album, which covers a lot of musical ground, from reggae to Motown to old-school crooning. Download: "Locked Out of Heaven" & "If I Knew"
The Origin of Love - MIKA
This is what great pop music sounds like--catchy hooks and clever songwriting, all delivered with MIKA's sensuous vocals. I dare you to get the title track out of your head. Download: "The Origin of Love" & "Underwater"
Buddy & Jim - Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale
Two of Americana's finest team up for a collection of tunes that you can both dance and cry to. Not to be missed. Download: "That's Not Even Why I Love You" & "It Hurts Me"
Farthest Field - Daniel Martin Moore & Joan Shelley
Shelley has described Farthest Field as a daydream, and her characterization is right on the money. This languid record is perfect for curling up with a cup of Earl Grey in the afternoon, and letting this Kentucky duo transport you to another plane. Download: "First of August" & "Sweetly By"
Babel - Mumford & Sons
The boys from Britain return with an album that is essentially an extension of their debut Sigh No More, with more songs of fierce banjo rolls and foot-stomping drums and gin-soaked choruses. Babel is a fine record--and no sophomore slump--but here's to hoping they break new ground the next time around. Download: "Holland Road" & "Broken Crown"
Channel Orange - Frank Ocean
Ocean made headlines earlier this year for coming out, but the true revelation is his artistry, with shades of 1970s Stevie Wonder and an extra something as fresh as "mango, peaches and lime." Download: "Sweet Life" & "Bad Religion"
Who's Feeling Young Now? - The Punch Brothers
Chris Thile--now officially named an American genius by the MacArthur Foundation--and Company have outdone themselves with this album. Listen to the opening track, "Movement and Location," and notice that it is a dance song, featuring a throbbing bass, a catchy hook, a cool-down period and ethereal vocals by Thile--but it is all acoustic. Now that's genius. Download: "Movement and Location" & "New York City"
Our Version of Events - Emeli Sandé
My favorite pop album of the year by an artist you likely have not heard of--and that is criminal. Go now and buy this record. You heard me. Now. Download: "Heaven" & "Where I Sleep"
Half-Made Man - Ben Sollee
Half-Made Man is Sollee's finest album to date--and that's saying something. Although Learning to Bend and Inclusions were both exceptional in their own ways, Half-Made Man sees Sollee truly come into his own as a vocalist, alternately crooning and wailing and rocking with a versatility to match his cello playing. Download: "Unfinished" & "The Pursuit of Happiness"
Come Home to Mama - Martha Wainwright
Easily Wainwright's finest record since her eponymous debut in 2005, Come Home to Mama features her iconic, tortured vocals and confessional songwriting--not to mention the tune "Proserpina," the last ever written by her late mother, the great Kate McGarrigle. Download: "Can You Believe It?" & "I Wanna Make an Arrest"
Out of the Game - Rufus Wainwright
Brother Rufus keeps it all in the family with his gorgeous Out of the Game, produced by Mark Ronson, whose signature throwback influences helped to launch the late Amy Winehouse's career into the stratosphere. This sound is a change for Wainwright, who imbues it with his characteristic moxie and sensuality. Download: "Out of the Game" & "Rashida"
Blunderbuss - Jack White
The High Priest of Rock returns with a set of songs that is guaranteed to rock your face off. Download: "Weep Themselves to Sleep" & "I'm Shakin'"
3 Pears - Dwight Yoakam
After a seven-year absence from the studio, Yoakam returns to form with this rocking album, which fuses all of his influences into delicious ear candy. Download: "Long Way to Go" & "Rock It All Away"
Mirage Rock - Band of Horses
Little Spark - Jessie Baylin
Wreck & Ruin - Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson
Like A Man - Adam Cohen
Shallow Bed - Dry the River
Here - Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros
Some Nights - Fun.
Lonesome Dreams - Lord Huron
Magic Hour - Scissor Sisters
+ - Ed Sheeran
One of my favorite weekends of the year has come and gone, but what a special time it was. At this year's Southern Festival of Books, I was joined by country music icon Naomi Judd to discuss A Few Honest Words, which she is featured in. After reading a couple of passages from her chapter, we had a forty-minute onstage discussion about the influence of Kentucky on the Judds and what it means to be an Appalachian. We even joined in singing a few bars of "Hello, Stranger," the old Hazel & Alice/Carter Family song that was one of the first Naomi and Wynonna learned, and demonstrated a holler call for the audience. The event will soon be available as a podcast on Chapter 16, so stay tuned for those of you who couldn't make it to Nashville.
The next evening, I was honored to set in on a couple of songs at Marshall Chapman's annual Literary in the Round, held each year at the legendary Bluebird Cafe during the weekend of Southern Fest. This time around, Marshall was joined by singer-songwriter Matraca Berg (also featured in A Few Honest Words) and authors Silas House and George Singleton. An especially poignant moment came when Matraca's niece, who turned seventeen that day, assisted her on "Strawberry Wine." There wasn't a dry eye in the house. To read more about the show, check out the brilliant Holly Gleason's post over at No Depression.