Top Records of 2012 Part One: 29-21

29. Ryan Bingham - Tomorrowland

Bingham is a survivor. He has released several great records of rootsy rock 'n' roll, while walking a tightrope between immense popularity and guarded obscurity. His worn vocals have been compared to everyone from Tom Waits to Steve Earle; they are referred to far too often as whiskey-soaked. Yet they are an acquired taste. He garnered tons of acclaim for "The Weary Kind," from The Crazy Heart soundtrack, yet retreated to his own label for Tomorrowland. In many cases, Bingham would be seen as a country outsider, more akin to the outlaw songwriting camp of Billie Joe Shaver than that of Waylon Jennings. Tomorrowland maps this divide. Ever the iconoclast, Bingham does what he wants, whether he falls into a comfortable groove or rocks harder than Nashville has seen in years. The record isn't as big on production, nor is it as rock 'n' roll as his earlier ones, but Bingham has created an honest, heartfelt and varied record, one that does not conform to any expectations but his own.

28. Dr. Dog - Be the Void (Anti-)

The wasteland of Americana/Indie/Alt-Country music is littered with half-assed survivors that cannot touch the worst songs of Dr. Dog. From Grammy Award winners Mumford & Sons to adult contemporary radio acts like John Mayer, everyone has tried their best to create pop songs that capture an authentic, rootsy American sound. Few do it better than Dr. Dog who wield smart pop hooks and lyrics alongside Americana sign posts that don't dip too much into the well of over-produced country or bad bluegrass. This might be the funnest record released in 2012.

27. Jimmy Cliff - Rebirth (Trojan)

Jimmy Cliff does not make many top lists anymore; in fact, until this record, he has been out of the limelight. Diehard fans might buy each repackaged greatest hits collection, but no one was expecting any sort of career resurgence. I was excited when I heard that he was recording a new album with Rancid's Tim Armstrong. Last year's Sacred Fire EP was a great teaser. Although it contained mostly covers, The Clash's "Guns of Brixton," Rancid's "Ruby Soho," and Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall among them, the standout track was a Cliff original, "Ship is Sailing" that would have fit nicely on his classic albums. Rebirth builds on the spirited and visionary covers of the EP. Armstrong allows Cliff to be himself, rendering very personal takes on covers. He coaxes the best out of originals. The record is less reggae and more Ska with Cliff toasting and singing in fine form. He sounds like he is having fun as he creates a minor classic. I am leery of calling the record a "return to form," as Cliff is building on a storied career. Armstrong is the right producer; his easy touch and ability to capitalize on Cliff's strength accentuates the performance of a man who can still build on his legacy. Hopefully, Cliff will keep recording and make many more.

 26. Hot Water Music - Exister (Rise)

Hot Water Music's first record in eight years shows that they haven't lost their power. The band remains tight and rhythmic and the songwriting is compelling. Memorable hooks and lyrics abound even if at times the band seems to be treading old ground. Imitators beware; the boys from Gainesville are back in town.

25. Mixtapes - Even on the Worst Nights (No Sleep)

The Mixtapes do an excellent job with the tried and true pop punk formula. They write catchy songs with confessional lyrics that appeal to the teenager in the most jaded of rock 'n' roll stereotypes. Their music recalls other poppy punk casualties, such as the Teen Idols and early Donnas. Lyrically, they are much smarter. They pair an affectation for acoustic guitars with smart lyrics about relationships and nights spent in basements and at coffee shops. Even on the Worst Nights is a fun record that will make even the most jaded hipster take note.

24. Beth Orton - Sugaring Season (Anti-)

Beth Orton has been attempting to shake off the electronic folky tag for a long time. She has finally succeeded on Sugaring Season, for better or worse. Orton's singing is excellent, and the songs are measured and reserved without losing any bite. I miss some the experimentation and variety from the earlier records, but Sugaring Season is the mature statement that Orton has wanted to make for awhile.

23. Baroness - Yellow & Green (Relapse)

Baroness impresses more and more with each listen. Not just another genre-bending band on Relapse, they borrow from myriad sources far away from the doom or sludge camp. Traces of indie rock, Jazz, and even Prog pepper their recordings without dragging them into a swampy, progressive no man's land. The album is split into yellow and green sections; neither has a true theme, but each explores different moods and facets of the band's sound. The band seems to be moving farther away from their metal roots, but they are creating works of transitional beauty that mesh different styles and approaches almost seamlessly.

22. Otis Gibbs - Harder Than Hammered Hell (Wanamaker)

Gibbs isn't just another road weary troubadour from the Steve Earle / Bruce Springsteen camp, although it seems like more and more of those are making my list this year. His songs are about dissatisfaction with life and traveling; they speak to the same mythic American travelers who are looking for a place to rest. That place will never be found in Gibbs' songs. Yet we can take comfort that someone else is traveling with us. His songs are more folk than country with the requisite female backups in all the right places. He has a sharp ear for melody and an even sharper ear for a clever turn of phrase. Put "Made to Break" or "Christ Number Three" on your next mixtape and see what I mean. Or save this one for the early hours of the night after too many PBRs at the local watering hole.

21. The Menzingers - On The Impossible Past (Epitaph)

Pop punk is in danger in 2012. Much of it is twee and juvenile even for a genre that prides itself on its inability or refusal to grow up. Even fifteen years ago, for every Screeching Weasel there was a Mr. T Experience or a similar band to infuse the genre with a semblance of smart dorkiness. The Menzingers might just be that band. For everyone that is sick of Billie Joe's rock star posturing or impossible attempts at relevance, try the Menzingers. They draw from a deep well of poppy punk bands that want to take it to the next level. Their album is emotional and real, transcending the tired tropes of pop punk, while still drawing from it for inspiration.


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