Engine 145′s Top Albums of 2012
It’s been a fantastic year for country and roots/Americana music, and it was no easy task for us to narrow down the list of albums released in 2012 to just a few favorites, but, after a few weeks of voting, here’s what we came up with.
Honorable Mentions that missed the cut by just a few points: Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream; Chris Knight, Little Victories; Ray Wylie Hubbard, The Grifter’s Hymnal; Justin Townes Earle, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now; Todd Snider, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables; Darrell Scott, Long Ride Home; Chuck Mead, Back at the Quonset Hut; Avett Brothers, The Carpenter; John Kraus & The Goers, Derelict; Kelly Hogan, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain
25. Brandi Carlile – Bear Creek
2012 found this pop-rock singer-songwriter releasing her rootsiest effort to date. Even as she sings about packing snowballs with rocks and childhood plans to build a rocketship (on “Keep Your Heart Young,” the record’s highlight), Carlile’s songwriting is mature beyond her years. When used with her bell-clear voice that can rattle the rafters or venture into sweet falsetto, it’s a potent combination. It’ll be fun to keep an eye–and ear–on her career. –Juli Thanki
24. Bobby Bare – Darker Than Light
Only Bare’s second new solo album since 1983, Darker Than Light comes off as a more organic continuation of his earlier work than 2005′s artsy, uptown The Moon Was Blue. Billed as a collection of folk tunes old and new, it finds Bare getting right to the heart of songs ranging from “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Tennessee Stud” to Alejandro Escovedo’s “I Was Drunk” and U2′s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Might have benefited from shedding a few of its 16 tracks–as is, it clocks in right around the 65 minute mark–but there are worse problems than too much of a good thing. –C.M. Wilcox
23. Sara Watkins – Sun Midnight Sun
Given her background in the progressive trio Nckel Creek, it’s no surprise that Watkins’ second solo work shows her experimental side. Fiddles and banjos are balanced by electric guitars and thudding percussion. An old Everly Brothers song gets remade with a creepy stalker-ish vibe as a Fiona Apple duet. Watkins’ fiddle work is exceptional, but her vocals are the star here, from “When It Pleases You,” a near-seven minute tour de force written by Adele collaborator Dan Wilson, to the lovely and understated waltz “Impossible.” –Sam Gazdziak
22. Joey + Rory – His and Hers
Joey + Rory’s quiet confidence continues on the husband-and-wife duo’s third album, with a spare focus on storytelling running through each of its songs. But throughout its range of Civil War songs, flirty role-play and straightforward love ballads, a new voice mixes things up. Rory Lee Feek lends a masculine edge to wife Joey’s spunk, stepping up as an equal vocalist as well as songwriter. His and Hers feels more complete than its predecessors, even without a standout track like “Cheater, Cheater” or ‘Sweet Emmylou” to instantly demand attention. –Karlie Justus Marlowe
21. Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World
Hello Cruel World’s opening lyric “Haven’t done as well as I thought I should/ I’m not dead but I’m damaged goods” sets the tone for this wryly-titled collection full of vividly drawn characters ranging from matadors to sideshow acts. Whether she’s singing with Rodney Crowell on a straightforward country duets (“Dark Angel”) or serving up smoky jazz on “Camille,” Peters’ pure vocals and cutting lyrics simultaneously wound and soothe on what could be the best album of her career to date. –JT
20. Zac Brown Band – Uncaged
In a genre so serious about its carefully constructed categories, the Zac Brown Band remains hard to pin down — even as it released country music’s most country single of the year, “The Wind.” That part jam band, part beach bum, part instrumental traditionalist spirit delivers again with Uncaged, countering its sometimes schizophrenic wandering with sheer enthusiasm. Extra points for excellent cover art. –KJM
19. Kathy Mattea – Calling Me Home
Calling Me Home does what the album title says, bringing Mattea back to the sounds and sights of Appalachia and its people—scars, bruises, and all. Eleven carefully chosen covers deal mostly with the coal mining that defines the region, but also deals with weighty subjects like the afterlife and the area’s dwindling natural resources. Alison Krauss brings her ethereal background vocals to the hauntingly spiritual, “Agate Hill.” Read Juli Thanki’s interview with Mattea here. –Ken Morton, Jr.
18. Various Artists – Kin: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
Rodney Crowell teamed with bestselling author Mary Karr to write songs, then enlisted friends like Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack, Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash, and Kris Kristofferson to help him bring them to life. Collaboration seems to tame Crowell’s abstruser impulses, resulting in a set more immediate and visceral than some of his own recent solo work. Judging from the affectionate, heartfelt performances everywhere in evidence, the end result is songs at least as much fun to sing as they are to hear. –CMW
17. Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale – Buddy and Jim
This is the feel-good album of the year by two of the busiest and most accomplished roots musicians around today. Lauderdale and Miller chug along masterfully through every musical style, from the soulful “That’s Not Even Why I Love You” (a sort of Tommy James and the Shondells meets Jerry Butler meets George Jones and John Hughley) to country train songs (“The Train That Carried My Gal from Town”), and from Cajun-tinged rhumbas (“Down South in New Orleans”) to the straight country ballad “It Hurts Me,” and flat out rock and roll in “The Wobble.” Let’s hope they’ll do this again soon. –Henry Carrigan
16. Little Big Town – Tornado
The little band that could, Little Big Town, teamed with producer Jay Joyce for a grittier and tougher sound that lent their thick harmonies a more aggressive context. “Pontoon,” their first single, was a sun-soaked time-kill celebration that also picked up the CMA Single of the Year, while “Tornado” had a witchy darkness that solidifies their seriousness. –Holly Gleason
15. Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden
With their knack for taking traditional songs and giving them fresh, contemporary arrangements, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are preserving an important piece of musical history while releasing one of the most energetic, fun albums of 2012. Older songs like “Riro’s House” and “Ruby Are You Mad at Your Man” are given a fresh coat of paint, and the original “Country Girl” shows that the band isn’t strictly tied to the past. –SG
14. Chelle Rose – Ghost of Browder Holler
Lucinda Williams meets mid-‘90s Courtney Love on this Ray Wylie Hubbard-produced record, an ass-kicking collection of what Rose calls “Appalachian rock ‘n’ roll.” The album’s a keeper from start (the haunting “Browder Holler Boy”) to finish (“Wild Violets Pretty,” a heartrending duet with Elizabeth Cook). 2012 was Chelle Rose’s breakout year, and hopefully we’ll hear a lot more from the gritty singer-songwriter in the years to come. Read Ken Morton’s interview with Rose here. –JT
13. Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson – Wreck & Ruin
Husband and wife duo Chambers and Nicholson strike out into rich musical territory in this rollicking, moving, affecting album. Fiddles ablaze, blistering banjos burning, and harmonies soaring, the duo kicks off with a lilting gospel-tinged call-and-response, “Till Death Do Us Part,” reminiscent of Emmylou Harris’ work on “Luxury Liner,” and romps through straight-ahead bluegrass tunes such as the title track and “Dustbowl,” as well as country ballads such as “The Quiet Life.” Chambers and Nicholson lend a Ralph Stanley-like high lonesome touch on “Adam and Eve.” Gorgeous vocals and virtuoso instrumentals fill the air on a wide-ranging album that contains a song for every musical taste. –Henry Carrigan
12. The Trishas – High, Wide & Handsome
Someday we will get some excellent solo albums from Liz Foster, Kelley Mickwee, Savannah Welch and Jamie Wilson, but for now let’s be grateful for The Trishas. The group’s full-length debut showcased their formidable singing and songwriting abilities, with everyone taking a turn at lead vocals. With gorgeous harmonies and catchy songs like “Mother of Invention” and “Little Sweet Cigars,” The Trishas were one of the top debuts of the year. –SG
11. Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears
Yoakam ignited hard country revivalism in the late ‘80s with his scorching guitars and plaintive voice – and that remains on Three Pears. But 25 years later, he’s given the tracks breathing room, allowed his glitter rock and soul influences to bubble up and found freedom from perfection working with Beck on two tracks. –HG
10. Corb Lund – Cabin Fever
Corb Lund is one part punk-rock smartass and one part modern cowboy singer, a back-to-basics good ol’ boy with an eclectic spirit and a postmodern sensibility. Tragicomic anti-pastoral “Cows Around” and religiosity-exploiting Hayes Carll duet “Bible on the Dash” demonstrate an impressive grasp of both country convention and the way in which it can be turned on its head and taken in genuinely new directions. –CMW
9. The Time Jumpers – The Time Jumpers
The Western Swing supergroup’s long-awaited first studio album is a doozy from start to finish. The eleven members have a couple centuries of musical experience among them, and that mastery is more than evident on The Time Jumpers from the lively, triple fiddle instrumental “Texoma Bound” to “The Woman of My Dreams,” a heartbreaker featuring the smooth lead vocals of Vince Gill. Ranger Doug’s loping cowboy song “Ridin’ on the Rio” puts the “Western” in “Western Swing,” while “Texas on a Saturday Night,” sung by Kenny and Dawn Sears, is made for dancing the night away. Somewhere, Bob Wills is giving this record his “A-haaaa!” of approval. –JT
8. Jason Eady – AM Country Heaven
If the searing lyric “These days we’re in AM country heaven / And FM country hell” sounds on point, Jason Eady’s fourth album will be a welcome antidote. AM Country Heaven fits comfortably alongside ‘70s country legends’ records, in both production and caliber of songwriting. Eady’s departure from his jazzy, blues-influenced Texas sound hangs naturally on his voice, making it one of the most surprising additions to the short list of instant country classics. –KJM
7. Alan Jackson – Thirty Miles West
Alan Jackson, the soft-spoken voice of populists and small towners, speaks plain dirt truths that both tug hearts or crack jokes. The dust-kicking “Dixie Highway,” with Zac Brown, ignites, while “Gonna Come Back as a Country Song” is vintage jukebox. The rest evokes Merle Haggard’s ruminations on life, love, loss and dignity in the churning storm. –HG
6. Waylon Jennings – Goin’ Down Rockin’: The Last Recordings
If this really is Waylon Jennings’ last album and there isn’t an American Recordings-sized pile of unreleased music laying somewhere, then he went out in style. Goin’ Down Rockin’ is vintage Jennings, with the title track featuring him at his lonesomest, orneriest and meanest. “Friends in California,” “Wastin’ Time” and “Wrong Road to Nashville” (with the tune borrowed from “Jole Blon”) compare nicely to some of his best work. –SG
5. Iris DeMent – Sing the Delta
In her first album of new songs in sixteen years, DeMent sings us back home again in these haunting, spare arrangements that highlight her powerful voice and her emotionally rich piano. From the first song, “Go Ahead and Go Home”—a poignant tribute to her mother and the events surrounding her mother’s illness and death—to the stark final track, “Out of the Fire,” DeMent evokes her Arkansas Delta home. Heart-wrenching, poignant, touching, and dead sure, she reveals the enduring power of place, community, and religion in her life, especially on songs about her struggles with faith and doubt such as “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray.” It’s good to have her back. –HC
4. Jamey Johnson – Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran
Tar paper-voiced Jamey Johnson celebrates Hall of Fame songwriter Hank Cochran with plenty of old school fiddle and steel guitar. Enlisting a who’s who of country credibility, he teams with Alison Kraus on “Make the World Go Away,” Merle Haggard on “I Fall To Pieces” and Willie Nelson on “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me,” plus Western swingers Asleep at the Wheel on “I Don’t Do Windows” and Elvis Costello on “She’ll Be Back,” among many others. –HG
3. Don Williams – And So It Goes
Here in the year 2012 – or 2013, as the case may be – there’s a kind of cosmic wonder in hearing a new, all-original Don Williams album that could as easily have come from any other era of his career. Whatever other changes the past four decades have wrought, Williams still knows where his strengths lie. Emerging from retirement with his first album in eight years, the savvy song sense and easygoing charisma that defined the best of his ’70s and ’80s work is all over this Garth Fundis-produced collection. With too-sweet moments like “She’s With Me” and “She’s a Natural” kept to a minimum and nice vocal assists from admirers such as Alison Krauss, Keith Urban, and Vince Gill, And So It Goes feels like an old friend. –CMW
2. Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof
As soon as opening lines “I stay torn between killing him and loving him / He stays torn between neon lights and home” roll matter-of-factly off her tongue, it’s clear 100 Proof has the honky tonk legs Kellie Pickler had promised, even before the requisite Tammy Wynette reference. The big, brassy voice that made waves on American Idol finally found the right material to grab onto, welling up on classic country weepers and demanding respect from classic country cheaters. It won over fans and critics alike–leaving only her record label and country radio at a loss–and cemented her surprising footing as a modern, mainstream traditionalist. –KJM
1. Marty Stuart – Nashville, Vol. 1. Tear the Woodpile Down
Marty Stuart celebrated two milestones in 2012: 40 years in Nashville and 20 years as a member of the Opry. The teenage bluegrass picker is now a country music statesman, and his newest record pays tribute to the sounds of classic country music without ever feeling stale. Stuart’s smooth vocals and stellar guitar work, backed by his band The Fabulous Superlatives, are firmly on point throughout Woodpile, whether they’re tearing up a breakneck instrumental like “Hollywood Boogie” or a fiddle-and-steel heartbreaker like “It’s Only a Matter of Time.” He may be in his fourth decade as a professional musicians, but he’s rarely sounded better than he does here. –JT
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