01 - Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker & Yim Yames "New Multitudes"
In the absence of no clear choice for number one album – and not wanting to make it a tie – I'm giving "New Multitudes" a sentimental nod, just because it would have been Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday in 2012. In a similar vein to the "Mermaid Avenue" albums by Billy Bragg & Wilco, this album contains previously unpublished Guthrie lyrics set to new music written by the afore mentioned songwriters. It sounds like less of a cohesive band effort than the Mermaid sets do, with each singer/writer bringing a unique sound and creative approach to their own songs. I expected the Jay Farrar tracks to be my faves on the album but it's actually Anders Parker (who also collaborated with Farrar on the excellent "Gob Iron" album a few years back) who steals the show for me. "Old L.A." is easily my favourite song of the year, with his "Fly High" and "Whereabouts Can I Hide" being dandies as well. Will Johnson's gritty "No Fear" is another highlight.
02 - Leeroy Stagger "Radiant Land"
In a just and reasonable world, Leeroy Stagger would be widely recognized as one of Canada's best roots rockers. As it is he seems to toil in relative obscurity churning out awesome albums and touring Canada (and Germany, apparently) relentlessly. Do yourself a favour and check out any of his albums, but his last two – 2010's "Little Victories" and this year's "Radiant Land" – are particularly great, featuring honest, heartfelt lyrics and excellent gritty songwriting. The Woody-Guthrie-Or-Steve-Earle-Occupies-Wall-Street indignation of "Capitalism (Must Die!)" is excellent (my second favourite song of the year). As are the haunting "Nighttime Talks to Me" and the environmentally themed title track.
03 - Allah-Las "Allah-Las"
Groovy '60s surf/garage/psychedelia type stuff. Derivative for sure – right down to the production values – but so damned cool anyways. Consistently strong songwriting and full of ear-catching guitar playing and textures throughout. This years' big discovery. Many great songs but favourites include "Sandy", "Long Journey" and the instrumental "Ela Navega."
04 - Calexico "Algiers"
Super solid outing but maybe not as endearing (to me personally) as either their last studio album "Carried to Dust" or last year's collection of one-offs and outtakes "Road Atlas." This album maybe fits somewhere between the desert noir of "Carried to Dust" and the minor key pop melancholia of "Garden Ruin." Fave tracks include "Para" (the video for it is stunning), the instrumental title track and the feisty guitars and horns of "Splitter."
05 - Carolina Chocolate Drops "Leaving Eden"
I was a bit worried about this album what with the departure of Justin Robinson following their grammy-winning album "Genuine Negro Jig." There was no need to worry however, as his replacement Hubby Jenkins fills in just fine. Overall their old-timey traditional southern bluegrass/jug band sound, full of fiddle and banjo, gets just a hint of an update. With warmer, bigger production values (from Buddy Miller) and a few dollops of hip hop here and there (including a humourous a cappella cover of Run DMC's "You Be Illin'") Standout tracks include "Country Girl" and the raucous "I Truly Understand That You Love Another Man."
06 - Justin Townes Earle "Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now"
You realize an artist is super-talented and consistently great when an album this good comes along and I'm kind of like "Meh. I kind of prefer some of his other stuff." If Earle had fallen out of the sky and this was his debut album people would be falling over themselves saying how amazing it was. Alas, we're spoiled and it's taken for granted a JTE album will great. Nothing new to see here. Writing, playing and production are all beautiful. Fave tracks include "Down On the Lower East Side" and "Automobile Blues"
07 - A.C. Newman "Shut Down the Streets"
Easily my favourite solo album from the New Pornographers' frontman which, ironically (?) is also probably his least New Pornographers-ey sounding solo effort. Newman here sounds all mature and grown-up (did he have kids or something?) And while there are a few uptempo tracks the overall vibe is more mellow indie pop in the minor key. Very clean, simple arrangements that are nonetheless catchy and burrow into the brain after a few listens. Newman shows off his songwriting chops here both lyrically and musically. Faves include "Hostages," "I'm Not Talking" and "There's Money in New Wave."
08- The Sumner Brothers "I'll Be There Tomorrow"
Where to start on this one?? A sprawling, epic, ragged, style-hopping masterpiece? Pretty much. From the punk rock squall of the opener "Toughest Man in Prison Camp" to the dusty country-tinged fatalism of "Going Out West" to bittersweet melancholy of "Outside Looking In" these brothers reach for greatness on virtually every track and it's inspiring. Then throw in a great cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Colorado Girl." Well! These guys seriously deserve more recognition and sales as well...
09 - Bahamas "Barchords"
Hard for me to put my finger on why I like Bahamas so much. Bahamas is actually Afie Jurvanen, a Finnish Canadian who has played guitar on several Fiest albums and tours. This is his second solo album. It features great guitar playing (as you might expect) but also confident, melodic songs and nice backing vocals on many tracks to boot. Just a great, solid mid-tempo rock album with retro (timeless?) touches. Faves include "Your Sweet Touch," "Caught Me Thinking," "Okay Alright I'm Alive" and the gentle slide guitar of "Time and Time Again" but the whole thing is solid.
10 - John K. Samson "Provincial"
John K. Samson is the eccentric, poetic voice of Winnipeg rockers the Weakerthans. On this – I believe his first full-length solo album – the tone is a bit quieter, but maybe even more eccentric and somehow manages to achieve a sort of whimsical melancholia (if that makes any sense…) The topics for this batch of songs run the gamut of singing a petition to get Reggie Leach inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, an Icelandic pioneer dying slowly in a prairie TB ward, car breakdowns on the trans-Canada highway, ampersands and something to do with HTML programming. All great, quirky and wonderfully written. Some are set to tasteful drums and strings, while others rock a bit like "When I Write My Master's Thesis" which would fit nicely on any recent Weakerthans album.
11 - Kid Koala "12 Bit Blues"
I saw Montreal's Kid Koala perform at the SK Jazz Festival when he opened for the Roots a few years back. Definitely made an impression so when they were streaming "12 Bit Blues" on CBC3 I had to check it out. Super interesting stuff. I don't own many blues albums but I've always been a fan and Saskatoon has a great live blues venue with Bud's on Broadway. This is not a typical Blues album. Kid Koala samples, mixes and collages various old blues albums full of old school guitar, keyboards, horns and harmonica (and some other miscellaneous odd found vignettes) set to some excellent modern beats. The result is something new and unexpected but yet entirely cool and familiar. All the tracks are similarly named but some of my favourites include "3 Bit Blues," "11 Bit Blues", "1 Bit Blues (10,000 Miles)" and "8 Bit Blues (Chicago to LA to NY)"
12 - Kathleen Edwards "Voyageur"
Wasn't especially fond of this album out of the gate but it was a grower. Edward's continues to edge towards the mainstream, losing a bit more of her twang and a bit more of her abrasiveness... Too bad in a way, but still, it seems more like an organic evolution as opposed to some sort of contrived grab at commercial success. As always, strong songwriting with gritty, often witty, honest and heart-felt lyrics... and a few good rockers to boot. "Mint", "Sidecar", "Empty Threat" and "Chameleon/comedian" are among my favourites.
13 - Stars "The North"
Stars channel their inner Human League here and it's mostly fun. "The Theory of Relativity", "Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It" and "A Song Is a Weapon" are lyrically smart with lots of 80's synth-y hooks. Amy Millan sings on the more guitar-based retro new wave tunes such as "Through the Mines" and "Backlines." Stars keeping it solid in the twenty twelve.
14 - Shovels & Rope "O' Be Joyful"
Another big discovery for me for 2012. The best songs merge Cary Ann Hearst's "ready for the Opry" old-timey-esque country vocal wallup with seemingly ramshackle, stripped-down Waits-ian rock canvas. Throw in a bit of horns or keys or harp for splashes of colour and you've got some great truly original music. "Gasoline," "Hail Hail" and "Kemba's Got the Cabbage Moth Blues" are among the awesome ones.
15 - Great Lake Swimmers "New Wild Everywhere"
Solid outing, showing evolution from 2009's "Lost Channels" (although, for some reason or another I prefer "Lost Channels" a bit). Maybe more deliberately folky. Good playing. I saw them at the Regina Folk Festival this summer and Dekker's vocals are every bit as good live as he sounds in the studio. Fave tracks might be "Changes With the Wind," "Cornflower Blue" and the title track.
16 - Joel Plaskett Emergency "Scrappy Happiness"
"Scrappy Happiness" had to be the musical social media event of 2012. (No?) Over ten weeks, Plaskett and crew recorded and released a single per week each with it's own YouTube video and "album artwork". Fun stuff. As Joel Plaskett or Joel Plaskett Emergency albums go (is there a reason to draw a distinction anymore?) I'd say it's solid. "Somewhere Else" is easily my favourite but "You're Mine" is fun too (with it's Husker Du reference) and "North Star" is a solid retro Canadian rocker.
17 - Joe Pug "The Great Despiser"
Another album I was fairly "meh" about initially, but came around as songs turned up on the shuffle and grew on me... Pug is great at at an odd turn of phrase that adds unexpected (and at times unexplainable: "If I see the mountains, they must see me") meaning that catch the ear and tweak the mind. "Deep Dark Wells" is downright inspirational, "Neither Do I Need a Witness", "Stronger Than the World" and the title track are also highlights.
18 - Andrew Bird "Break It Yourself"
I like lots of Andrew Bird songs but for some reason I've yet to hear an Andrew Bird album that I really love. "Break it Yourself" is getting close though, probably my favourite Bird collection since "Armchair Apocrypha." "Lusitania," a lovely duet with Annie Clark of St. Vincent, was one of my favourite songs of the year, as was "Eyeoneye" with it's punky electric guitars… And of course, Bird's exquisite whistling throughout!
19 - Ty Segall & White Fence "Hair"
A one-off(?) collaboration between a couple of retro-garage-surf-psychedelic artists. In a somewhat similar vein to the Allah-Las but with heavier guitars and definitly less minor key. A fun trip for sure. "Time", "Easy Rider" and "Tongues" are faves.
20 - Bob Mould "Silver Age"
Tempted to put Trampled by Turtles here but what the heck... Oldster Husker Du rocker delivers a Sugar-y high energy return to form. "Star Machine" and "First Time Joy" are faves.
Also liked: Damien Jurado "Maraqopa," Trampled by Turtles "Stars and Satellites," Aimee Mann "Charmer," Robert Pollard "Mouseman Cloud,"
Old Crow Medicine Show "Carry Me Back," Jim White "Where It Hits You," The Heavy "The Glorious Dead," and if Mike Cooley's "The Fool On Every Corner" had been released a few weeks sooner it might have made the proper list as well.