Top Records of 2012 Part Three: 10-1

10. Two Gallants - The Bloom and the Blight (ATO)

Aptly titled, The Bloom and the Blight restores Two Gallants to the levels they had reached with their 2007 self-titled release. Faster than that album, and certainly less ponderous than the somber What the Toll Tells, the album rages. More rockers and less slow songs, it recalls their excellent first platter, The Throes, in mood, temperament, and tempo. Two Gallants bring a lot of sound for a two piece, much like the better known Black Keys, but they are more rooted in traditional folk. Here they strip it back. Adam Stephens' vocals are more cracked, but more capable. The guitar and drums appear little more than a call-to-arms. There is little room for tenderness, Two Gallants are here to rock. Their new take on folk traditions spells it out. Dylan isn't doing anything like this in 2012. If you don't like it, go somewhere else.

9. Off! - S/T (Vice)

Punk rock super groups don't often work. Yet Off! has found a magical formula. Keith Morris seems even more pissed off than he did in the Circle Jerks or the early days of Black Flag. He sings like his life depends on it while the band sonically wails. The songs are short, fast, and more memorable than bands half their age are putting out. Off! has risen from the ashes/nadir of various other projects to beat the competition over the head. This ain't no Warped Tour punk; this is real.

8. Bowerbirds - The Clearing (Dead Oceans)

I first saw the Bowerbirds open for the Mountain Goats and instantly fell in love with their lo-fi folky vibe. At the time, they didn't have a drummer and just kept time on a bass drum. The next time that I saw them, they had a drummer and more trappings of the average Americana group. They were better musically, yet there seemed to be something missing. The vibe was different; they didn't seem half as original. On The Clearing, that vibe has been restored. The album is a love letter to lo-fi folk that still flies the freak folk banner without being too impenetrable. Lovely melodies do not interfere with solid songwriting; the band seems refreshed and important.

7. Cloud Nothings - Attack on Memory (Carpark)

The Cloud Nothings are hard to categorize. Is the music they make punk rock, noise,  or post hardcore? This record is so bright and original that it does not really matter. They tackle everything from noise forays to freakish pop on Attack on Memory with considerable flair. Comparisons to great bands from the past might be a logical reference point, but they stand alone. The record is often blistering and experimental, but more importantly it is fun.

 6. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Live From Alabama (Lightning Rod)

Isbell and the 400 Unit have been a taut, touring unit for years. Their excellent live show has never really been approximated on record, even as Isbell's southern-soaked songwriting and attention to detail has outstripped many of his contemporaries. Live From Alabama remedies this error with tight, energetic performances that make it more than a live best-of. Don't believe me: check out the rocking cover of Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane," or better yet go see them live.

5. Patterson Hood - Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance (ATO)

Hood's third solo record is his best. Better produced, yet more organic than Killers and Stars, and far more inspired than Murdering Oscar, Heat Lightning is the first not to feel like a collection of outtakes from the Drive-by Truckers. Hood's self-assured tales about familiar characters are well-worn and truthful. He captures the uncertainty and smallness of daily life, while building a narrative that remains hopeful. These songs were reportedly drawn from an uncompleted novel. Hopefully that will someday see the light of day, but we can't fault Hood if he only releases more songs (and albums) of this caliber.

4. Pig Destroyer - Book Burner (Relapse)

Grindcore veterans Pig Destroyer may just have written the book on caustic minute long shards of sheer brutality. Truthfully, they are not really burning that book on Book Burner. The record fits neatly into their long list of extreme releases and seems destined to break the band out of the genre ghetto. While not as far-reaching as Phantom Limb or extreme as Terrifyer, this platter shreds with conviction. The band is streamlining and developing their sound and finding an audience beyond the pit.

3. Micah Schnabel - I'm Dead Serious (Suburban Home)
For some reason, Two Cow Garage records never make it into my top record list. They always seem to slip through the cracks, despite being some of my all time faves. Micah Schnabel's second solo record is that rare type of record that gets by on excellent songwriting and pure bravado. Lo-fi with its bursting heart on its sleeve, this collection of love songs for the losers and the loners is the best kept secret of the year. Schnabel takes the punky ethos of a million other acoustic strummers and adds a true touch of the literary; troubadours take note, Schnabel sets a new bar.

2. Cory Branan - Mutt (Bloodshot)

What else is there to say about Cory Branan? His songwriting is great, but his records never match the enthusiasm of his live shows. Perhaps, Mutt is the first step away from that. Mutt is an excellent record replete with songs of love, loss, and boozing. Branan's lyrics reflect time spent on the road like many of his contemporaries. His trademark humor and lack of pretension help the album to rise above. His enthusiasm is more apparent than on previous records; the production attempts to match the zany, sloppy fun of his live show, but sometimes gets bogged down by attempts at experimentation. Overall, Branan shines -- his personality and heart-on-sleeve approach bring new life to what could be tired old rock cliches.

1. Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur (Zoe)

In a better world, Kathleen Edwards would be viewed as a  more important songwriter. Her songs of heartbreak, self-reliance, and struggle have all the necessary elements. She takes the personal and makes it universal, yet often gets categorized into uneasy niches, such as the Canadian songwriter category or a muse of Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Connections and genres notwithstanding, Voyageur is the best record of Edwards' career. She builds on the personal songwriting of Asking For Flowers with a set of less-guarded and more emotionally culpable songs. The warm sheen of the production enhances the real gravity and honesty of the songs. On first listen, the record is not as vibrant, but after a few spins, it feels like an old coat -- one that has weathered many storms, many years, and much baggage. Edwards handily brings us into this world, but she ensures that we leave comforted yet reluctant. Each spin of Voyageur leads to new discoveries on the road to personal acceptance, discoveries that are as varied and expected as the changing of the seasons.  It is this complexity of emotions and honesty that makes this my pick for the best record of 2012.


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