hide captionThe Stray Birds released one of the finest debuts of the year.
Courtesy of the artist
The Stray Birds released one of the finest debuts of the year.
Courtesy of the artist
More than any year in recent memory, the folk and roots music of 2012 was focused on collective roots, elements of ancestry, the stories and events which unite us. The finest traditional albums released paid homage to Nova Scotia and Appalachia. The strongest singer-songwriter records told of the hard struggles of working class people — stories which haven't changed drastically from generation to generation, but continue to be provide hope and promise. And our favorite albums from new artists (The Stray Birds, The Lumineers) were full of universal coming-of-age themes: facing reality with determination, learning how to proceed with courage. This was not a year of navel-gazing, confessional songwriting. Folksingers in 2012, more often than not, were making music to highlight communities. Given that, if another wave of the folk revival has been swelling in recent years, 2012 may be remembered as a year when it crested.
The economy was on everyone's mind this year, Anais Mitchell's ode to the working class hit the zeitgeist. The story she tells across these eleven songs is about ordinary people struggling through uncertainty and love toward basic pleasures. They face the possibility their lives will never be as great as they dreamed, and seek to make peace with what they have. She sings about hard work ("Dying Day") and the tough choices whose ramifications will inform the rest of our lives ("Shepherd"). She sets the stage on the title track – a song of ambition and promise, the hopes of a generation crash head first into economic woes and the loneliness of reality. Yet, the disc never falls into the trap of feeling sorry for itself. From start to finish, it's an album about the strength of human dignity and its place in the oft-elusive American dream.
When Black Prairie burst on the scene with their debut in 2012, folks were pleasantly surprised that members of the Decemberists could really, legitimately, pick the heck out of traditional-style bluegrass. This year, they stretched their wings a little further to embrace all manner of the folk music which has influenced them for years. There are traces of everything from Simon &Garfunkel-style singer-songwriter tunes to accordion-thick Vaudeville instrumentals, folk-goth heartbreak songs and, sure, even some bluegrass...all exquisitely delivered.
There are plenty of folk troubadours tackling old-school music in an attempt at nostalgia. They step into a character to keep a certain style alive. But, while they play-act their songs, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are embodying traditional music in a way that is remarkably current and relevant. There's nothing false or put-on about the way they deliver a song like "Read 'Em John." They would bring the same energy to a fully plugged-in pop version of the same; they simply recognized they were capable of delivering it compellingly using nothing more than their voices and clapping hands. This is folk music at its truest, most artful and unadulterated.
Iris DeMent has made a career of writing and singing songs about faith and pain and perspective. But, on Sing the Delta, she has once and for all climbed into the skin of her songs. These are not songsabout life in the Delta or stories about the sorts of people you might find in the Delta. This is the closest approximation to how the Delta itself might sing, if it had a human voice. It's intensely personal, real, and raw; at once profane and profound. Where a lesser artist might have felt inclined to make a musical study of Delta life, DeMent cuts to the chase and embodies the spirit of the Delta.
Modern music is hardly wanting for collaborations, but the meeting of talents between Americana darling Rodney Crowell and memoirist Mary Karr raised some eyebrows this year. After discovering they had grown up around the same time and place, Karr and Crowell decided to tackle their roots. Families are an endless source of strengths, flaws, baggage, hope, and support, and this disc portrays each with artful aplomb. Besides, they gathered some of the most gifted artists in the roots music world to lend their voices – Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, Vince Gill, Norah Jones, and more.
Similarly to the way the Carolina Chocolate Drops embody Appalachian traditional music, so do Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac tackle the traditional Gaelic music of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Their guitar-and-fiddle matchup is beautifully balanced, behind butter-smooth vocals and timeless melodies. The songs are evenly balanced between traditional folk songs and newly penned originals, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell which is which. Lamond and MacIsaac's fluid, sea-like delivery captures the spirit of the island through stories only music can tell.
It seems, over the past several years, the Pacific Northwest has been churning out a solid scene-shaking band at a rate of one or two per year. But in 2012, the shiniest new star came from Denver in the form of The Lumineers. Carried on the strength of three voices and a collection of acoustic instruments, The Lumineers' music straddles the lines between folk and pop; modern rock and indie roots. Their sound isn't just a stylized portrayal of rainy city hipsters in suspenders, though. Sure, there's a beat to dance to, but there's also a raw authenticity in the lyrics which gives audiences something more substantial to hold tight.
Rose Cousins has won handfuls of Canadian Folk Music awards and other honors, and with good reason. She has a knack for singing the saddest song she can muster with the greatest hope. Her richly personal songs have been enthralling festival crowds for years, but she remains somewhat obscure in the States. Nonetheless, We Have Made a Spark is easily one of the finest records of the year. Thematically, it's about how much we need each other and how – from love to utter lonesomeness – we are embraced by our communities. Here she called on her community of Boston musicians (Mark Erelli, Rose Polenzani, Kris Delmhorst, others) to fill in behind her with lush emotion.
New bands seeking to make a lasting impression on a nationwide audience are often inclined to lay it all on the line from the get-go. Unleash the full throttle of your instrumental gifts through intense solos and voice-stretching vocal performances, and perhaps folks will have no option but to listen. There's more grace and artfulness, though, in exercising restraint, as The Stray Birds do beautifully on their self-titled debut. Clearly these are players with chops, songwriters with a fierce command of their craft. But they also seem to have a grip on when to lend a hand, and when to let the songs fly on their own. This record was certainly one of the finest debuts of the year from a band to watch.
This was a great year for duos and full bands – music with thick and imaginative arrangements was pouring out of every nook and cranny. But, when it comes to straight-up singer-songwriter albums, Tallest Man on Earth delivered the finest in the field this year. His poetic, passionate lyrics stand beautifully on their own, backed by the sparsest accompaniment – here a flute, there a pedal steel, elsewhere a piano. Sometimes whispering a true tale is all it takes to cut through the din. Indeed, There's No Leaving Now, with all its silence and restraint, managed to resonate with audiences across the board.