It's been quite clear the last few years that the worlds of folk, bluegrass, and Americana music have dominated, delivering some of the most imaginative and remarkable recordings each year. 2012 is no different, with remarkable releases from long-time folkies like Pete Seeger and newcomer artists like Anais Mitchell. As we march toward a brand new year, here's a look at some of the finest releases from the one we're leaving behind...the best folk music of 2012.
It says a lot when almost every songwriter in a given genre can't tear themselves away from the same album. I've spoken to a number of artists this year about what music they're listening to and, every time, they say something to the effect of being knocked out by Anais Mitchell's Young Man in America. Indeed, the disc is a truly notable effort, proving Mitchell herself to be quite a force in the songwriting world. Borrowing imagery and themes from the Bible and classical mythology, Mitchell delivered a disc which reflects the thoughts and feelings of so many struggling to make ends meet and find meaning in modern America. It's an ambitious and well-delivered effort and, as such, is easily the finest singer-songwriter album of the year.
Carolina Chocolate Drops have been throwing the folk world for a loop ever since they burst on the scene with their debut Dona Got A Ramblin' Mind. Now, a couple of albums and a Grammy Award later, the trio has dropped a doozy of an album weaving through old timey jug band and traditional folk tunes which underscore the ongoing relevance of these old, old songs. Leaving Eden is an intensely well-crafted album from start to finish. There's not a single track which drops the vibe for a second, and the instrumentation is deliciously sparse thanks in part to the Chocolate Drops' impeccable intuition as well as astute production by the great Buddy Miller.
Rose Cousins has been a favorite songwriter of mine for several years. Hailing from the fruitful songwriting community of Nova Scotia, coming through the filter of the incredible oasis of the Boston music scene, Cousins has made a number of wonderful songwriter albums. But, this time around, she gathered a community to present one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, hopeful, lush albums of the year. Here, the songs are fully realized, backed by the support of some incredible collaborators (Mark Erelli, Kris Delmhorst, Rose Polenzani, more). If you've yet to hear this album, don't waste any more time. It's a timeless gem about the power of support in the face of heartbreak.
Sara Watkins was the last Nickel Creek alumnus to deliver a solo album, and that self-titled 2009 effort got the folk and Americana worlds swooning right along. Though she opted for a more understated pace and vibe on that disc, this time around she went a different, much more daring and creative direction. Her approach to these songs packs a little growl and her fiddle playing is, as always, some of the best on the scene. Sun Midnight Sun grows steadily the more you spin it, ensuring it'll still be one of the best folk albums of 2012 five years down the line.
In 1960, Pete Seeger had just been blacklisted for refusing to testify about whether or not he was ever a Communist, and for refusing to name others he knew to have been affiliated with the Communist Party. He delivered an exquisite set of traditional folk standards and a few empowerment anthems during a concert at Bowdoin college which really proved to be only the beginning of a career which would prove him to be a stalwart champion of the ways music can be used for the pursuit of social justice. The songs on this album are not overtly radical, but the way Seeger gets a crowd full of students singing along with him, is powerful in itself. Anyone looking for an eye into how and why the 1950s-60s "folk boom" was so effective would be well advised to take a listen to this archival recording.
It's been four years (and a brief band hiatus) since Old Crow Medicine Show dropped their last critically acclaimed album, and Carry Me Back is proof they've still got it. Returning to the simple, straightforward approach to traditional-sounding contemporary folk music, Old Crow Medicine Show pounds through a high-speed, raw, raucous romp of an album. It's not anything drastically different or newfangled in their approach - it's just a reminder that there is still and OCMS in the world, doing what they do best: setting a standard for indie roots music which is, so far, mostly unparalleled.
Caroline Herring's sixth full-length album made incredible tribute to the small town south - a place where magic and wonder are just as rampant as fear and uncertainty, and where women are inclined to take a casserole with them when they march off to appeal to power. It's an intensely topical album, cloaked in the clothing of introspection, and the songs carry melodies which are as accessible and lovely as they are intellectually haunting. It's a beautiful album all around, and easily one of the finest of the year.
John Fullbright's remarkable debut earned the Oklahoma-based singer-songwriter a Grammy nomination this year, and with good reason. Tackling complicated themes from faith to disillusionment to lonely wandering and hope, Fullbright displayed a knack for songwriting well beyond his years and experience. Add to that a deeply rich, soulful singing voice and you've got one of the most thoughtful and provocative debuts of late.
Gospel music is all well and good, but frequently the gospel songs played in the realm of American folk music are much more complex than just singing to a powerful god. The folk music of praise and worry carries with it as long a tradition of secular humanism as it does that of Christianity. So, I was pleased to see the gospel of secularity get its due this year in an album dedicated to the kind of faith which is more universal than even religious theology. It's an incredible collection, including tunes by folks like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, the Civil Wars, Shawn Mullins, and more.
Shovels + Rope burst on the scene a couple years back, delivering some of the most delicious husband-and-wife harmonies and raucous, outlaw country energy. Based in Charleston, SC, the duo delievered music on their first full-length album, which harnessed all the raw energy and authenticity which is frequently watered down or polished around the edges for so many folk and modern country releases. Straddling the line between those two musical forms, Shovels + Rope reminded us that genre doesn't matter as much as good, honest music.