Top 10 Albums of 2012
Some fans might have been wondering if country and folk great Iris DeMent was ever going to make a new album, as she waited a long time to record and release Sing The Delta, her first album of new material in 16 years (2004's Lifeline was mostly gospel covers). Slow moving, forthright, personal and very soulful, the songs on the new record sound different from DeMent's early guitar-based records Infamous Angel and My Life (she's moved almost entirely to the piano now) but are well worth the wait - this is some of her best material yet. DeMent's Husband, Greg Brown, released his new album, Hymns To What Is Left, on the same day (October 2).
2. Mike O'Neill - Wild Lines
Haligonian pop perfectionist and former Inbred Mike O'Neill also took his time to finish his third solo album, Wild Lines (eight years since 2004's The Owl). This was partly because his day job composing music and recording sound for film and television was keeping him busy, but I also suspect it had to do with how long it took for him to tweak things before he was happy with it. Imagine a fleshed out, mature version of the Inbreds, borrowing from the Beatles, Harry Nilsson, the Beach Boys and more. Great songwriting and a lovely sounding album.
3. Eleni Mandell - I Can See The Future
LA songwriter Eleni Mandell's eighth album and major label debut is a bittersweet breakup album, nostalgically tied to sweet memories of the summer, but with biting humour, flashes of optimism and odd daydreams thrown in for good measure. Mandell's a great singer: confident, mature, laid back and yet beautifully expressive, supported here by her Living Sisters bandmates Becky Stark and Inara George on backup vocals. Producer Joe Chiccarelli did a great job painting a romantic yet edgy world for these tunes to reside in.
4. Beth Orton - Sugaring Season
Brit Award-winning UK songwriter Beth Orton was also fielding questions about why it took so long for her to put out a new album - six years since 2006's Comfort Of Strangers - but in that time she had two kids and was building on her guitar chops with her late friend, mentor and collaborator Scottish folk musician Bert Jansch. Produced by Tucker Martine in Portland (his wife, Laura Veirs, and Orton's husband, Sam Amidon make appearances) Sugaring Season is folkier than Orton's earlier work, but also has classical and jazz influences. The songwriting is inspiring - touching on feminism and Orton's defiant push against the forces that were holding her back in her music, all delivered in that broken yet rich-sounding distinctive voice of hers.
5. Neil Halstead - Palindrome Hunches
Slowdrive and Mojave 3 singer Neil Halstead didn't get back to me regarding a web Q&A for NOW. However, while I was waiting for him to do so, I spent some time getting lost in his third solo album. Recorded in a rural primary school in Wallingford, UK with Nick Holton and a local group there called Band Of Hope, this is one the sparsest, mellowest, most organic and gentle albums I heard this year. Take it to the country with you, or stream it online for free (it's still up here).
6. Old Man Luedecke - Tender Is The Night
There's a reason Old Man Luedecke (Chris Luedecke) keeps winning Juno Awards - he's a great songwriter and storyteller. The Toronto-born, Chester, NS-based banjo player makes the case this time around that he's no one-trick pony, giving his guitar songs the love they deserve alongside his banjo tracks. Recorded in Nashville, the record has a bluegrass feel but the focus is still Luedecke's poetry: listen for the line about the sunflower growing in his front yard in the opening track.
7. Steve Poltz - Noineen Noiny Noin
This almost-double album by quirky Halifax-born, San Diego-based songwriter and guitarist Steve Poltz was recorded in Australia (the silly sounding title is a nod to the first year he first toured there). Psychedelic travelogues sidle up to faux soul and confessional, intimate folk songs. Also there's a fictional story about Johnny Cash and a transvestite here, told from the perspective of the man that Cash said he shot in a song.
8. Father John Misty - Fear Fun
I really enjoyed this over the top debut as Father John Misty by former Fleet Fox drummer Josh Tillman, which comes in a thick package complete with what appears to be an excerpt from a novel. Hard to tell if he's darkly joking, or earnest (or both) much of the time, but the man sings like Rufus Wainwright and spins a good yarn. He's also managed to parlay this material into a great live show with his band.
9. Benjamin Gibbard Former Lives
I haven't been a huge follower of Death Cab For Cutie or The Postal Service, but I dug Ben Gibbard's debut solo album. He had a lot of material to draw from, which allowed him to sneakily bypass having this being considered a breakup album about Zooey Deshanel. Instead, it's a genre-jumping collection of songs that didn't fit in anywhere else, with Gibbard on most of the instruments. There's also a mariachi band (on Something's Rattling) and a duet with Aimee Mann (Bigger Than Love).
10. Carolyn Mark - The Queen Of Vancouver Island
Victoria's Carolyn Mark has released a lot of albums, but this new one is finding its place among my favourites. It's a warm, crisply produced kitchen party of a record, featuring a bunch of Mark's New Best Friends, including bassist Terri Upton and "the Paul's" (ie Paul Rigby and Paul Pigat), a horn player and a cellist. Mark is known for her sense of humour and conversational delivery, but I love it when she manages to be plain, silly and profound in the same song.
Top 10 Local (and near-local) Albums of 2012
1. Kat Goldman - Gypsy Girl
Folk-pop singer Kat Goldman was my Free Times Cafe open mic hero in the early 2000s (a period of time that saw her almost make it in New York while working with the guy who managed Suzanne Vega and Dar Williams). Now living in Boston and studying English Literature at Boston University, her new album Gypsy Girl charts her journey from Toronto to Boston and was recorded in both towns.
2. Wax Mannequin - No Safe Home
I know I'm cheating a little putting a Hamiltonian on my Toronto list, but Wax Mannequin's sixth album is rhythmic and addictive. He's dialed back his loudness and the in-your-face weirdness this time around to expose his songwriting talent. Though the album is on the short side, he's got lots to say.
3. Lisa Bozikovic - This Is How We Swim
Local songwriter Lisa Bozikovic's sophomore disc is an introspective and slow listen, perfect for late nights and sad moods. Partly written during a residency on the Toronto Island, the water and dream imagery and chamber arrangements offer a sense comfort.
4. Bahamas - Barchords
I'd be happy to hear Afie Jurvanen (aka Bahamas) play just about anything - and in fact, the first time I heard him play, he was doing Righteous Brothers tunes. His sophomore disc somehow manages to be the kind of breakup album that leaves the listener feeling better.
5. Great Lake Swimmers - New Wild Everywhere
Tony Dekker finally let producer Andy Magoffin work his studio magic on Great Lake Swimmers (they usually incorporate location recordings and haven't given it up - standout track The Great Exhale was recorded in Lower Bay Station). It's a beautiful-sounding poppy album, augmented by the contributions of new member Miranda Mulholland on backup vocals and violin.
6. Ivy Mairi - No Talker
Island-raised, Parkdale-based singer/songwriter Ivy Mairi was struggling with polyps when she recorded her sophomore disc, and there's a raspy crack to her voice that contributes to the album's intimate, vulnerable vibe as Mairi sings soulfully about past relationships, a lost musical instrument and hopes for a loving future. It's a grower of an album that gets better and better with repeat listens.
7. Eamon McGrath - Young Canadians
Edmontonian transplant Eamon McGrath throws a heavy dose of punk in with his folk rock, which comes across as refreshing even if it's a throwback to 80s and 90s alternative and indie scenes. This would be a great soundtrack to driving your band across Canada and making a stop in your prairie hometown.
8. Julie Doiron - So Many Days
This may be the only chance to put Sackville-based songwriter Julie Doiron on a best of Toronto list, as she was living here when she wrote and recorded many of the songs. Doiron's songs have always tended towards the personal, but this is a particularly demanding journey she takes the listener on through some inner struggles, breakups and hard times. Her vocals, however, sound totally sweet and assured.
9. Kyp Harness - The Wrong Way and Can A Poor Man Get A Fair Trial?
Kyp Harness's new album is actually two albums in one package: the Beatleseque The Wrong Way and ballad-heavy Can A Poor Man Get A Fair Trial? Harness worked with musical magician Paul Linklater on both. The cover sticker sees Harness's writing heralded by Ron Sexsmith and Daniel Lanois; and it's true, he's a great (and prolific) writer.
10. Bob Wiseman - Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying
He hasn't given it a proper launch yet (that will at the Tranzac January 24) but Bob Wiseman's got a new album out featuring a nutty cacophony of backup vocals and funky electronic indie blues that's as political as ever. There's also a beautiful pop song about Sky Gilbert and the friend they had in common.