Top Records of 2012 Part Two: 20-11

20. Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth (Merge)

John Darnielle needs little introduction. He consistently writes and releases literary, life-affirming records that show up on yearly best-of lists. Since he started recording with a full band, Darnielle has crafted works of quiet beauty with an attention to more intricate instrumentation. Yet something has been missing since 2006's Get Lonely, and I found myself listening less. Darnielle's story-telling seemed to be stuck in a rut; his songs became samey and trite. Maybe I had listened for too many years and I needed a break. Transcendental Youth changes that; Darnielle seems to be back on the right path. He is less concerned with song cycles and instruments, and more focused on crafting lovely, literate songs.

19. Justin Townes Earle - Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now (Bloodshot)

While not as strong as the last two, Earle's new record is still excellent. There is never a truly bum track on his records, except when he borrows riffs from his other songs. Here Earle attempts that smoky Memphis sound with horns and all. These songs hold up under this overused barrage; Earle is growing as a songwriter with each release, but I would like to see these songs with a more stripped down approach. That would allow Earle's lyrics and voice to take center stage, and do better justice to his newer songs. The clearer production worked well for his earlier records even when his songs were more akin to old timey exercises. The album art could use an overhaul as well.

18. Brendan Benson - What Kind of World (Readymade)

Brendan Benson has been on my radar since his first album, One Mississippi, because he makes such perfect power pop. The wry confessional tone of his earlier records has been subsumed by the better production and heavier instrumentation of his later ones. Newer Brendan Benson is more like the Raspberries than early Cheap Trick, yet it still astounds. Benson's lyrics have become more opaque as he fits them to more Beatles-esque music, but he still creates works of quiet beauty. His power pop becomes more pop with each successive record, but there is a power in the production, and each one becomes a more fully realized album than the previous. His work with Jack White has only made him more of a perfectionist; while What Kind of World sometimes slips under the weight of its structure, Benson still writes pop music like no body else. In a world rife with Justin Biebers and American Idol pap, this is all too rare of a gift.

17. Damien Jurado - Maraqopa (Secretly Canadian)

Jurado has been a well-kept secret, except among jaded music snobs and aficionados, for many years, but more people are beginning to fall in line. He hides a large amount of pain behind his quiet reveries, and has often deftly showed it off in an acoustic setting. More instrumentation litters Maraqopa placing him more in the company of 70's singer-songwriters than his previous flirtations with country-tinged Americana. Secretly Canadian has always been a better fit than his former label, Subpop by allowing just such experimentation. He explores his musical muse, altering production and instrumentation as he sees fit. Jurado will continue to make albums full of cool tape experiments and sound collages which only augment his role as a singer of quiet, self-referential folk songs. Thankfully, he has not been lost in the shuffle like so many others who have come his way.

16. Simone Felice - S/T (Team Love)

A Confessional, late night singer-songwriter album that breaks Felice out of the Band-esque mold of his former band, The Felice Brothers. Felice tracks the travails of various characters with somber instrumentation, organs, and sweet back-up vocals. Some of the tracks recall Motown, while others lean towards the 70's AM folk of Simon and Garfunkel and James Taylor. More often than not, though, Felice recalls Randy Newman. His songs are sharp and crisp and even the occasional bum lyric ( for example, the cheesy Michael Jackson reference on "New York Times") works to the advantage of a strong overall vision that puts him in the first class of songwriters.

15. Unsane - Wreck (Alternative Tentacles)

Unsane rages, pure and simple. The band has been doing this for a long time, yet they seem re-energized on this red hot slab of pure emotion and vitriol. The band's hate and rage have not been tamed. Even their cover of Flipper's ubiquitous "Ha Ha Ha" becomes a smoldering barn burner in the able hands of these caustic New Yorkers. For a band to be around this long and still fly such a heavy banner without simmering takes some effort. Unsane has consistently released challenging and punishing records with only a few breaks. Wreck is in that category; a record that could teach snot nosed kids a lesson about heavy. Page Hamilton and company should take note; this is how it should be done.

14. Joe Pug - The Great Despiser (Lightning Rod)

Pug has been labelled by some as the next Dylan.While he holds more claim to the title than The Tallest Man on Earth, the Chicago artist stands own his own merits. His lyrics often seem stream of conscious, tumbling out just like early Dylan. His cleverness is tempered by attention to detail and great guitar playing. He also blows a mean harmonica. The Great Despiser travels similar confessional ground to that of earlier records, but his tales are becoming more vivid even as he integrates more instrumentation.

13. Bob Mould - Silver Age (Merge)

Don't share the old saw that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" with Bob Mould. He is liable to blast you out of the building. Silver Age is his best album since Sugar; he does not rely on electronics or club experimentation, preferring to rock out on a fast set of heavier pop songs. These songs more than ever show the pop underneath Mould's guitar sheen. Always a first class guitarist and songwriter, he continually proves it. If Husker Du is truly the golden age, Mould rejects the linear on Silver Age bringing us back to the salad days of his talent.

12. Kelly Hogan - I Like To Keep Myself In Pain (Anti-)

I Like To Keep Myself In Pain is a love letter to classic country from a very modern perspective. Each song was chosen, so it seems, to reflect certain aspects of Hogan's personality, while allowing her to flex her considerable vocals. Hogan asked friends to contribute songs, and they responded with varied material that showcases her talents considerably. She is most commonly known as a backup singer for Neko Case and others, but she shines each time she releases an album (the last being in 2001) -- I Like To Keep Myself in Pain is no exception. A modern country record without the emptiness or overproduction of Nashville, Pain should be recognized as a call-to-arms, one that should revitalize an old tired scene. At least, it will revitalize Hogan's career; it has been far too long.

11. Hop Along - Get Disowned (Hot Green)

Hop Along is a surprising punky folk record that almost escaped my radar. Frances Quinlan's voice is very unique for a band that dabbles in punk; it is more like Ani Difranco or Bjork than Penelope Houston or Exene Cervenka, and takes some getting used to. Musically, the album develops as a great mix of softly strummed acoustic guitars and indie dynamics without much pretension. Like the Mixtapes, Hop Along has a very defined sound that transcends genre expectations. With some development, their next record should make them a household name.


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