Obviously it’s not quite the end of the year. It’s barely December. That being said – Thanksgiving is behind us, whiskey and a few good porters/stouts/ales are in my future, and most of the year’s major releases are out. So it’s time for…
The year-end list!
Now, let me be clear, I’m not going to do a Pitchfork/Stereogum-esque list asserting that I have some idea of what the “best” albums were that came out this year. I have no idea what the best albums are that came out this year, because I didn’t listen to EVERY album that came out this year. Also, I think it’s a really slippery slope to objectively analyze music, and even if it is possible, I’m still not sure how valuable it is. So, I’d like to present to you a list of the 25 albums that impacted me the most this year – albums that I think are phenomenal, stunning, and absolutely worth the money to buy and to treasure. If you don’t see an album you loved here, I’d love for you to comment and let me know what I’m missing, chances are I’ll listen to it and like it too. So, in no particular order:
1. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg released this follow-up to their stunning debut album The Big Black and the Blue early this year. While they retained the evocative folk sound so deeply rooted in the sound of the late 1960’s, they’ve added a drive and power to this album that makes it even more exciting than their debut. My favorite tracks on this one are “Emmylou” and “The Lion’s Roar”.
2. Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America
I deeply believe Anais Mitchell is one of the most valuable American songwriters alive today. All of her albums are treasures, and this one, while not necessarily my favorite, has still gotten an absurd number of plays at my house, on my iPod – everywhere. Her incredible carefully written lyrics, coupled with a superb sense of dynamics and an intoxicatingly unique voice – this album is a must have. Favorite tracks – “Shepherd” and “Ships”.
3. Ben Howard – Every Kingdom
While this was technically a 2011 release, its American release was 2012, so I’m counting it. This is one of the most infectious, toe-curling, “here are all the feelings” albums of the year. Ben Howard is a phenomenal guitarist, a stunning songwriter, and his voice is amazing. THis was my primary soundtrack for late spring and early summer. Favorite tracks: “Keep Your Head Up” and “The Wolves”
4. prairie empire – prairie empire
This was one of the first true gems I found using Bandcamp. It’s the perfect album to listen to while waking up, or going to sleep, or doing anything where you can let your mind and your body be at ease. Please, do yourself a favor and listen to this one. Favorite tracks – “Summer Light” and “Where You Are”
5. Field Report – Field Report
The debut album from Chris Porterfield, formerly of DeYarmond Edison (the former band of Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, as well as the guys from Megafaun) is one of the most perfect fall albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. The richness of the pedal steel, the smoky storytelling of Porterfield and his exceptional lyrics, one of the most impressive debut albums since For Emma, Forever Ago. Don’t miss this one. Favorite tracks: “Chico the American” and “Taking Alcatraz”
6. The Staves – Dead & Born & Grown
These ladies came on to my radar when they opened for Bon Iver on they’re European tour. A folk trio comprised of three sisters, they weave impossibly beautiful harmonies into an ethereal blend of nostalgic folk that’s perfect for those snowy nights ahead. Favorite tracks: “Facing West” and “Dead & Born & Grown”
7. Joe Pug – The Great Despiser
Joe Pug is one of my favorite young talents. His tireless work ethic, relentless touring, and friendships with some really strong musicians resulted in this fantastic album, in which he continues his hard-hitting Americana, conjuring images of long dusty roads home to the people we love. Favorite tracks – “Hymn #76” and “Silver Harps and Violins”
8. Cold Specks – I Predict a Grateful Expulsion
Al Spx, who performs under the name Cold Specks, is jaw dropping. This is her debut album, and she sounds like someone twice her age, who has lived through hardships and joys I will never even begin to know. At 23, I can’t even imagine what the future holds, with a debut album as incredible as this one. Favorite track: “Blank Maps”
9. Macklemore x Ryan Lewis – The Heist (Deluxe Edition)
I couldn’t be more proud of Macklemore. I picked up on him somewhere in the middle of last year, and watched his insane talent, unbelievable DIY work ethic, and his impressive relationship with producer Ryan Lewis take him from playing 100 person clubs to selling out 2,500 seat venues and larger with the surprising meteoric success of his debut album with Lewis. From introspective heartbreakers to massive party dance jams, this album is a pleasure, from start to finish. Favorite tracks – “Neon Cathedrals”, “Victory Lap”, and “Starting Over”
10. P.O.S – We Don’t Even Live Here
Stefon Alexander, ringleader of the Doomtree hip-hop collective, has been peddling his exceptional brand of angry, punk-driven hip hop for over a decade. We Don’t Even Live Here is his best album yet. It’s uncompromising pacing, its plethora of exceptional cameos, and its unflinchingly honest lyricism makes it one of those albums that I always feel the need to spin when I have to shake off any slump I’m in. Favorite tracks: “Wanted/Wasted” and “How We Land”
11. The Bowerbirds – The Clearing
I’ve loved The Bowerbirds for a few years now, and each of their albums has a special place in my heart. As I type this, I’m actually listening to this album, and its calming effect is really remarkable. This is a perfect album for a long commute, to sit with on a cold night, or to wake to on a spring morning. Not to mention, I had a chance to hang out with this band earlier this year, and they are really some of the kindest, most talented people I’ve ever met. Favorite tracks: “Overcome With Light” and “This Year”.
12. Kopecky Family Band – Kids Raising Kids
Speaking of phenomenal people – you’d be hard pressed to find a whole lot of bands cooler than Kopecky Family Band. Kids Raising Kids, their debut LP, combines their fun-loving upbeat rock side with their remarkable ability to write songs that can make me cry. Get this album – be part of the family! Favorite tracks: “Change” and “Hope”
13. Andrew Bird – Hands of Glory
As much as I loved Bird’s full length Break it Yourself, this companion album spoke to me much more deeply, and reminded of what I initially came to love about Bird. His nuanced dynamism, his ability to bring the listener into the same space as him, his heart on the sleeve performances. You should pick up both, but this album is absolutely wonderful. Favorite track: “Orpheo”
14. The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t think this is The Avett Brothers’ best album. However, it is an Avett Brothers’ album, and as such, there are still a number of tracks that I probably will keep with me forever, because they’re just that good. Their ability to blend foot-stomping glee with tearful ballads never ceases to amaze me. Favorite track: “A Father’s First Spring”
15. The Lumineers – The Lumineers
After hearing their Daytrotter session, and then seeing them in April, I was unbelievably stoked about this release, and it did not disappoint. At all. Their, raw, unbridled energy is something that is hard to capture on record, and they did a damn good job of it. This was definitely one of my favorites of the year. Favorite tracks: “Slow it Down” and “Stubborn Love”
16. The Shins – Port of Morrow
I actually wasn’t much of a Shins fan until this album, and seeing them at Bonnaroo and then Lollapalooza. They manage to create very diverse, interesting rock music while maintaining a very soothing aesthetic. I really loved this record. Favorite tracks: “Simple Song” and “Bait and Switch”
17. The Oh Hellos – Through the Deep, Dark Valley
This amazing bandcamp find (a brother-sister duo from Texas) make the kind of music that I always wished Mumford and Sons would make. They embody that same foot on the gas pedal, stomp and holler mentality, but with a much greater diversity and nuance – not to mention phenomenal female vocals. I gave this album so many plays since I found it late this year. Favorite track: “I Have Made Mistakes”
18. Lost in the Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs
The haunting chamber-folk of Ari Picker and the rest of the band is both musically impressive and really overwhelming emotionally. While this album didn’t hit me quite as hard as their debut album, it still managed to take me on a really vibrant and emotional listening journey, and I find myself really excited to listen to it in its entirety pretty often.
19. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
I’m still never sure what to do with this music, other than occasionally let it wash over me and experience it in whatever meaningful way I can. It’s complicated, dense, and really, deeply engaging. This is a perfect album for just laying out and watching the world pass by. Favorite track: “Gun Has No Trigger”
20. Kalispell – Westbound
A beautiful, moving album self-released by Shane Leonard, who is currently drumming and playing various instruments for Field Report. This is one of those albums that is absolutely necessary, particularly paired with a great beer and a porch in autumn. No favorite tracks here, just listen to the whole album.
21. Mumford and Sons – Babel
I’ll be honest – had I not seen them live in August, this album probably wouldn’t be on this list. Their live energy significantly surpasses what they do on record, something they freely admit. That being said, this album is a leap forward from Sigh No More, both sonically and lyrically, and I think it’s an important album to remember – especially if you can find an opportunity to see them live. Favorite track: “Below My Feet”
22. Adam Arcuragi – Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It…
Adam Arcuragi has flown under the radar for way too long. He’s a folk-oriented sonic tidal wave, and you can’t help but get caught up in the joy of it all. This is his best album to date, and you should listen to it.
23. Delta Spirit – Delta Spirit
More often than I acknowledge, I just need a great straight-forward rock album. This fits the bill. THeir 3rd full length release, it feels like Delta Spirit really found the sound they wanted, and then pushed it as hard as they could. This was one of my favorite driving albums this year. Favorite tracks: “Empty House” and “Money Saves”
24. Various Artists – Long Distance Salvation: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska
I loved Springsteen’s Nebraska album when I was younger, and this set of covers is absolutely wonderful. Featuring covers by the likes of Joe Pug, David Wax, Strand of Oaks, Kyle Morton, and Adam Arcuragi, there isn’t a whole lot not to love. Favorite track: “Atlantic City (Bonus Track)”
25. Deep Sea Diver – History Speaks
Deep Sea Diver is a project from The Shins’ Jessica Dobson, and it covers a lot of sonic ground. There’s some rock, some melancholy piano, and a whole lot of beautiful. In my mind, a must have for any Shins fan, and probably a must have for anyone else. Favorite track: “NWO”
For all the albums that didn’t make the cut – but were really phenomenal albums that I’d like to at least mention.
1. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
2. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
3. Lord Huron – Lonesome Dreams
4. Grizzly Bear – Shields
5. Cat Power – Sun
6. Patrick Watson – Adventures In Your Own Backyard
7. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
I may have missed a few – this has been an incredible year and I’m a wee bit overwhelmed by all of the music. I can’t wait to hear/see your comments and I hope you might find an album you might otherwise have missed from this list!