Mark Hellenberg: My Top Tunes Of ’12

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It is always Christmas for a public radio music director. My stocking (an office mailbox) is perpetually overflowing.

I unwrap loads of packages on any given day, but unfortunately, I mostly receive the equivalent of sticks and coal.

Saying that, I do get some gems, some pleasant surprises and exposure to just about every genre of music imaginable.

Confession: The only format I know absolutely nothing about is the commercial Top 40 and the Billboard Hot 100. I wouldn't know Lady Gaga if she walked into my office right now (maybe if she was wearing one of those outfits made of raw meat or bubbles I might be able to hazard a guess on who she was).

2012 may be remembered as the year of the Indie Folk-Pop Scare. I'm not quite sure who was responsible for this development, perhaps the Avett Brothers or Mumford & Sons ( both of whom had very successful new releases this year).

Maybe the attention given to last year's darlings, The Head and the Heart, helped foster the trend. Paste Magazine called this genre "porch stompin' Americana" which is a little odd being that Mumford and Sons, the band that had the fastest climbing album ever in the history of the Americana charts, are from the U.K.

Another big breakout band this year, Of Monsters and Men, is from Iceland. Other bands that released new albums this year that favored the energetic folkie acoustic guitar (or banjo or fiddle)-driven sound with a fair share of kick drum stomping, whooping and hollering and anthemic singalong choruses sung in unison were The Lumineers ("Ho Hey" was heard everywhere this year), Langhorne Slim and The Law, Old Crow Medicine Show and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

I will admit that I am a bit suspect of what may be the flavor of the month but I will also confess that I like a lot of these bands. Many received plenty of airplay from me but they may also be conspicuous in their absence from this list of favorites for 2012.

One of the most notable musical events of this year was the celebration of the 100th birth anniversary of the great American icon, Woody Guthrie. There were lots of celebrations of the man's life and music, including deluxe editions of albums that include rarities and previously unreleased songs.

Woody Guthrie, Woody at 100: Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection (Smithsonian Folkways): This is a three-disc set containing 60 or so of Woody's songs, some familiar, some heard here for the first time, packaged in a box set with a 154-page book of essays, artwork, discographies and more. For fans and collectors, this is a dream come true.

Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Complete Sessions (Nonesuch): The classic first two volumes were released in 1998 and 2000 and were followed by the documentary of the making of these sessions, entitled Man in the Sand. This edition includes the DVD of the film, the first two volumes and an additional third volume of 17 outtakes.

Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, the keeper of the keys to the Guthrie archives and the person initially responsible for inviting Bragg and Wilco in to peruse Woody's unpublished scribblings, opened the doors again for a similar project. Jay Farrar, Anders Parker, Will Johnson and Yim Yames (Jim James from My Morning Jacket) wrote music to accompany lyrics and poems culled from the vaults. The result was New Multitudes, followed by a deluxe edition with added bonus tracks. It was a noble effort but in my opinion, not in the league of the groundbreaking Mermaid Avenue project.

One thing I noticed this year is how many artists who are eligible for AARP memberships released new material. Bob Dylan's Tempest topped a few lists, as did Neil Young and Crazy Horse's sprawling two-CD set, Psychedelic Pill.

Add to that roster Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Cliff, Leonard Cohen, Greg Brown, Wanda Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler, Rickie Lee Jones, Van Morrison and Donald Fagen. Most of this new output by these artists this year has been lauded by fans and critics alike. From that somewhat arbitrary and ageist category, four releases are standouts for me. 

Lee Ranaldo, Between the Times and the Tides (Matador): This is one of the surprise discoveries for me this year. I happened across Ranaldo and his band at the Nelsonville Music Festival and was completely blown away. I was never really that into Sonic Youth and I certainly didn't think that a solo project from their guitarist would end up on my favorites list. Well, here it is. The sound of the band is reminiscent of early R.E.M or Big Star. Most of the material that the band performed in Nelsonville was from this new project, a collection of well-crafted melodic pop songs with jangly guitars, nice vocals and the added bonus of Wilco's Nels Cline on every track.

Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream (Redwing): Bonnie never disappoints and certainly not with this 2012 release. This offering, her 17th in some 42 years of recording, is a pure pleasure. She is one of the great slide guitar players of rock and roll and has that instantly recognizable, pitch-perfect voice that has not diminished a bit over time. Saying that, the strength of this recording is in the material, including some great originals and two tastefully realized Dylan covers.

Jon Cleary, Occapella (FHQ Records): Englishman Jon Cleary has lived and played around New Orleans for ages, becoming one of the mainstay piano stylists in that city of great piano players. He is also a regular in HBO's Treme. His latest effort is a tribute to the great NOLA songwriter, Allen Toussaint. There are some classics covered, like "Southern Nights" and "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky" as well as some lesser known tunes. The standout for me is "Let's Get Low Down," where Cleary's former boss, Bonnie Raitt, and Dr. John join him on back up vocals.

Dr. John, Locked Down (Nonesuch): New Orleans icon Mac Rebennack found the perfect collaborator in Dan Auerbach. The Black Keys' guitarist helmed the producer's chair for Dr. John's stellar 2102 release. Dr. John has always been the real deal when it comes to New Orleans music but Auerbach accentuates the rawness and the funk on this politically charged, edgy romp.

Producers are often hired to put their recognizable stamp on a project's sound or to help nudge an artist to explore new terrain. Besides the successful Rebennack/Auerbach collaboration, mainstream artists like Norah Jones and Diana Krall hooked up with heavyweight producers Danger Mouse and T-Bone Burnett to push their music in a different direction. 

Dwight Yoakam employed Beck to produce a couple of songs on his latest, Three Pears. One interesting choice and one that resulted in a project that ranks high on my list is Justin Vernon's (aka Bon Iver) production of Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards' latest.

Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur (Rounder): Edwards' first album, Failer, came out a decade ago and she garnered positive reviews, Juno award nominations and alternative-country acclaim. After two more albums, feeling constrained by that alt-country label, Edwards enlisted Vernon to help her experiment with different sounds and approaches to recordings. A new sonic direction would mean little if the material and performances weren't exceptional and on Voyageur, they are. This outing is much more introspective and personal then her previous releases. Many of the songs are about moving; changing the landscape both literally and emotionally. Her willingness to explore new possibilities has produced her best work to date.

Edwards and Vernon were romantically involved during the Voyageur project which (kind of) brings us to husband-and-wife bands. There were three that topped my list:

Shovels and Rope, O' Be Joyful (Dualtone): This duo, comprised of Carrie Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, is a force to be reckoned with (as anyone who saw their performances at the Nelsonville Music Festival or at Stuart's Opera House will attest). The energy of live performances seldom translates to a studio recording, however, these two talented performers nailed it on O' Be Joyful. The album was recorded in their home studio, in their backyard and on the road in their van and various hotel rooms across the country. The couple played, or as the liner notes state, "strummed, beat, shook, blew or hacked" most of the instruments. I love this band's enthusiastic and honest approach to playing music.

Whitehorse, The Fate of the World Depends on this Kiss, (Six Shooter): Like Shovels and Rope, this couple had successful solo careers before joining forces as a duo. And like that band, the sum is a different beast than the parts. Both duos are…well… bands. I was a fan of Whitehorse's debut last year, but with The Fate of the World Depends On This Kiss, they have become truly one of my fave raves. These Canadians, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, have real chemistry and create a big sound by layering and looping instruments and vocals into expertly crafted and beautifully arranged songs. Doucet is one one helluva guitar player as well.

The Honey Dewdrops, Silver Lining (TheHoneyDewDrops.com): The third release from husband and wife team Kagey Parrish and Laura Wortman, this is a collection of traditional sounding, original material: New songs that sound as if they have been around since the dawn of American folk music. The performances are spare, haunting and heartfelt. Their sound has always been compared to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but on this collection, the duo has come more into their own with their recognizable blend of harmony and exquisite playing.

And keeping it all in the family, earlier this month I reviewed an album produced by a father/daughter partnership.

Dick Hyman and Judy Hyman, Late Last Summer (Left Ear): This is a beautiful collection of waltzes penned and performed by Judy Hyman, the fiddler of The Horse Flies (that wonderful and weird neo-trad/trance band hailing from Ithaca, N.Y.) in collaboration with her father, Dick Hyman. He is a legendary pianist, arranger and composer with over 100 albums to his credit and a dozen Woody Allen filmscores. Judy wrote of the project, "With his 85th birthday and my 60th birthday approaching, it seemed like a beautiful way for us to connect and collaborate. Musically we entered new territory for both of us…not jazz, not fiddle music, not classical. And because a number of pieces were written for family members and friends, the project turned out to be a deeply emotional experience for both of us." It is a deep listening experience as well.

There were a few albums on my list by artists whose sounds harken back to another time. Sometimes so-called "retro acts" can seem a bit affected or schticky, but these guys tastefully avoid any such pitfalls.

JD McPherson, Signs & Signifiers (Rounder): This was originally recorded in 2010 but given a major label release (I guess Rounder is a major label) in 2012. McPherson played in punk outfits and listened to the Pixies as a teenager until one day he heard Buddy Holly's Decca sides and the music of Little Richard. This Oklahoman is only 35 years-old but sounds like he just stepped out of the Sun Studios circa 1957. His original rockabilly and R&B songs, recorded on vintage equipment, are spot-on perfect.

Nick Waterhouse, Time's All Gone (Innovative Leisure): This 26 year-old's debut full length release is also rooted in 1950s R&B and pre-rock popular music with loads of jazz influences and soul horn riffs. After relocating to the West Coast, Waterhouse worked in a record shop in the Bay area where he immersed himself in singles and rarities from the era. His homework paid off, producing a sound that is authentic, yet modern, without feeling studied or dated.

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, Old Gold (Signature Sounds): This is another release by an artist who did their homework. Seattle's Zoe Muth was raised on classic rock and MTV, but later became interested in the history of America's labor movement and subsequently the songs associated with it. After listening to the field recordings of Alan Lomax and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, the young Muth began writing and performing. Her previous recordings featured mostly her originals, however this 2102 six-song EP contains only one original with five songs written by other musicians who deeply influenced her own work. My favorite is Muth's read of Anna McGarrigle's "Heart Like A Wheel." This is classic material performed by a young singer and a tasteful ensemble who understand the beauty and power of real country music.

And talking about classic material, there were a couple of stellar collections of previously unreleased demos that saw the light of day this year. 

George Harrison, Early Takes Vol. 1 (UMe): Giles Martin (son of George Martin) was invited by George Harrison's wife, Olivia, to sift through the boxes of George's tapes at his home studio. The result is this great collection of early live takes and demos of George's intimate and unadorned performances, mostly recorded around the time of All Things Must Pass.

Carole King, The Legendary Demos (Rockingdale): Carole King was just recently named to be the 2013 recipient of the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. She'll be the first woman ever to receive that prestigious award. Not only did she write hits for others in the '60s like "Up on the Roof" and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," but in the early '70s her own album Tapestry sold over 10 million copies and today is one of the biggest-selling records ever. There are some sparsely arranged, never-heard demos of songs like "Pleasant Valley Sunday," written for the Monkees, a 1962 recording of "Crying In the Rain" and a wonderfully vocalized "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." Most of the recordings date from 1966 and the 1970 Tapestry demo sessions.

2012 was a good year for exceptional recordings by women artists. I've already included a half-dozen or so. Adding to that list: Jessie Baylin, Kelly Hogan, Fiona Apple, Jennifer O'Connor, Anais Mitchell, Tift Merritt, Amy Cook, Sera Cahoone, Shawn Colvin, Beth Orton and Cat Power. Also, an honorable mention for a few bands with 2012 recordings that are fronted by women: Alabama Shakes (Brittany Howard), Best Coast (Bethany Cosentino) and Beach House (Victoria Legrand).

Aimee Mann, Charmer (Super Ego): I love Aimee Mann. I liked her way back when she had that crazy hairdo in her Til' Tuesday days and I love her more now. She is one of the most talented writers of quality pop songs and her new collection is chock full of whip-smart lyrics, giant hooks and the catchiest of melodies. "Living A Lie," a duet with James Mercer of The Shins, may be my favorite song of the year.

Sharon Van Etten, Tramp (Jagjaguwar): This is indie folk/pop singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten's breakout year. Tramp seems to be making it onto many critics' year end list (and is on mine). Recorded in Aaron Dessner's (of The National) studio, the production is powerful and the performances are confident. The songs range from her foklie hushed side to flat-out rocking out. Her label has recently released a repackaged, deluxe edition with the original CD, demos and a bonus track.

This has turned into quite the filibuster, so I'll wrap things up with some other subjectively recommended recordings from 2012:

Todd Snider, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables; Justin Townes Earle, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now; Calexico, Algiers; The Shins, Port of Morrow; Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself and Hands of Glory; Benjamin Gibbard, Former Lives; A.C. Newman, Shut Down the Streets; Winterpills, All My Lovely Goners; The Wood Brothers, Smoke Ring Halo; and Sea Wolf, Old School Romance.     

Mark Hellenberg is the Music Director at WOUB Public Media and hosts the public radio programs Audiosyncrasies and Crossing Boundaries. He often tours nationally on the weekends as a freelance musician and has over two dozen recordings to his credit, including several with the internationally acclaimed Celtic ensemble The House Band and Celtic Spectacular with Eric Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. He has performed live on NPR's Mountain Stage and All Things Considered. His Old Time band, The Ratchet Mountain Rock Farmers, won first place in the traditional band category at the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, W.Va., in 2011. He also can be heard in Ken Burns' PBS documentary Prohibition.