Click here to see albums 21-30 and come back tomorrow to see the top 10.
Motion City Soundtrack, a band I’ve always liked but never quite loved, made the best album of their career five years ago by going all-in on their prevalent pop-music sensibilities. The result, 2007’s Even if it Kills Me was an insanely hooky and obsessively glossy album that, despite its catchiness, spent most of its runtime diving into personal themes, from break up to addiction. Go is along the same lines, structuring its themes of death and the brevity of everything around some of the strongest hooks the band has ever written, from a rousing celebration of entropy (“Circuits and Wires”) to a dysfunctional song (“True Romance”), from a nostalgic look back (“Timelines”) to a swelling symphony of a pop song (“Everyone Will Die”). But where Go‘s first half is largely grounded in stellar melodic lines and wistful lyricisms, the second side goes directly for the jugular. See “The Worst is Yet to Come,” a crashing rocker with darkness lurking just out of sight, or “Happy Anniversary,” a harrowing farewell from a narrator who feels their body giving up on them.Very few bands are able to pull off this kind of delicate balance act, between the glowing and the gloom, between heartbreak and euphoria, between pop sheen and rock edge, but that dichotomy has long been the band’s secret weapon. And when album closer “Floating Down the River” blasts off, with the same kind of vowed optimism that made “Even if it Kills Me” such a great song, that dichotomy, that balance of light and dark, has made Go one of the most emotional and triumphant listens of the year. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “True Romance,” “Timelines,” “Everyone Will Die”
Back in 2009, when fun. dropped their fantastic debut album (Aim & Ignite, which still holds their best song in “The Gambler”), I would never have predicted the popularity explosion that they would go through in 2012. I remember playing that record in the late summer nights that preceded my first year of college, hearing those songs, feeling like I was in on some great secret that only a small internet community really understood. Fast forward to now, and these guys are, arguably, the biggest breakout band of the year, with two chart-topping and ubiquitous hit singles that everyone and their mother seem to love (“Some Nights” and “We Are Young,” both as good now as they were the first time I heard them) and Grammy Nominations for Record, Song, and Album of the Year. And leaving aside the constant radio play and plentiful late night TV show appearances, Some Nights is, at its core, just one hell of a pop album. It’s also an exceedingly eclectic one, moving from the Queen-esque theatricality of its intro track, to the uplifting acoustic anthem that is “Carry On,” all the way to “Stars,” the euphoric, Kanye West-inspired, auto-tune drenched finale. Watching these guys conquer the radio waves this year has been one of my proudest, most satisfying moments as a music fan, and it goes without saying that, come February, I’ll be rooting for them to pick up each and every Grammy Award for which they are nominated. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “Some Nights,” “Stars,” “Out on the Town”
Opening an album with a haunting, slow-burning ballad would be a risk for any songwriter. Thankfully, there are only a few people in the music industry today who can pull off the balance between emotional bombast and whispered fragility the way Glen Hansard can, and the introduction to his first full-length solo record (the aforementioned “You Will Become”) is one of the most magnetic musical moments of the year. The record that follows it is no less spectacular, flitting from the atmospheric longing of “Maybe Not Tonight” (complete with a George Harrison-esque slide guitar) to the chillingly emotive, vocally strained conclusion of album highlight “High Hope,” and encompassing a relationship’s bitter end (supposedly, the one Hansard shared with Once co-star—and Swell Season counterpart—Marketa Irglova) in just 43 minutes and 11 songs. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “Maybe Not Tonight,” “High Hope,” “Bird of Sorrow”
After a seven year hiatus, The Wallflowers finally made their return to the business, hunkering down in “an old-school studio designed for live recording” and, in the words of producer Jay Joyce, making “a record the way people used to make records.” The result is a back to basics, no frills rock ‘n’ roll LP, a set of rough and real songs that range from Clash-style throwbacks (the funky “Reboot the Mission,” the loose and electric “Misfits and Lovers,” featuring former-Clash guitarist Mick Jones) to stomping Springsteenian bar-band jams (“It Won’t Be Long (Till We’re Not Wrong Anymore),” “Have Mercy on Him Now”). Sure, the album’s finest moments are the ones that see the band returning to the roots rock/alt-country territory that made them famous back in the day (the visceral and full-bodied “Love is a Country,” the classic and catchy “First One in the Car,” the lyrical, steel-guitar-laden “Constellation Blues”), but Glad All Over is an album that unfolds more and more with each listen. Everything here, from Jakob Dylan’s genetic knack for wordplay (he is, after all, the son of Bob Dylan), to Rami Jaffee’s ringing B3 organ, all the way to the roaring guitar interplay of Jones, Wallflowers guitarist Steve Mathis, and Jay Joyce, plays like an affectionate reminder of a simpler time. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “Misfits and Lovers,” “First One in the Car,” “Love is a Country”
2012 was the return of the 90s, with long-awaited albums from the likes of Matchbox Twenty and The Wallflowers (both on this list), as well as new, “return-to-form” releases from Green Day, No Doubt, Soundgarden, Ben Folds Five, and The Smashing Pumpkins (all not on this list). In the midst of this nostalgic explosion, Counting Crows quietly released a cover album and their first record in four years. Some fans denounced the album, calling frontman Adam Duritz “too lazy” or “too afraid” to write new songs; others praised it, calling the finished product their second or third favorite record in the Counting Crows discography. In my eyes, it’s hard to fault Underwater Sunshine, which sees one of America’s greatest roots-rock bands mining the catalogs of 15 favorite artists and doing so with more cohesion than a cover album has any right to have. The band has rarely sounded so gleefully freewheeling, and the eclectic range of song choices here, from the classic (Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”) to the contemporary (the entrancing “Like Teenage Gravity”), the acoustic (the lovely piano-accented “Start Again”) to the electric (the ringing build of “Untitled (Love Song)”), the claustrophobic (“Hospital”) to the wide-open (“Four White Stallions”) allow the band to cover more musical and emotional territory than they have in quite some time. Underwater Sunshine may be a set of remakes, but Adam Duritz and his band of seasoned veterans make these songs their own in such a way that it becomes, first and foremost, a terrific Counting Crows album. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “Untitled (Love Song),” “Start Again,” “Like Teenage Gravity”
Michael McDermott may have missed the boat on widespread success, but as long as he’s making albums as good as this one, he’s got my attention. Heralded once as the heir apparent to the likes of Springsteen and Dylan, McDermott fell victim to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle early on, tumbling off the mainstream map before he could make his mark. Since recovering from addiction, McDermott has turned to his music to lay his demons on the line, filling his albums with haunting paeans of regret and stirring anthems of resurrection. “Scars From Another Life,” the arena-scraping centerpiece cut from Hit Me Back fits both categories, building from a gorgeously repetitious piano arpeggiation into an uplifting affirmation of life and everything in it. “Ever After,” McDermott’s elegy for his late mother, is the album’s most bruising cut, while the hymn-like “Where the River Meets the Sea” served as her angelic funeral song. “Dreams About Trains” is appropriately atmospheric and disorienting, floating between nightmare and nostalgia, confusion and reverence without missing a step, while the splendid “The Silent Will Soon Be Singing” puts McDermott’s lyrics at the focal point of a striking acoustic arrangement. In my initial review of this record, I marveled at McDermott’s ability to tear down the walls between himself and his listeners: truth is, in today’s music business, almost no one cultivates that confessional atmosphere more fully than he does here. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “Ever After,” “Scars From Another Life,” “The Silent Will Soon Be Singing”
Looking back at the list I made last year, my biggest regret is not putting Will Hoge’s fantastic Number Seven in my top ten. And while Modern American Protest Music is not quite up to the level Hoge has reached on his full-lengths (the record is a seven-song, 28-minute EP), he still makes an argument for himself as one of my favorite songwriters out there. Where his full albums generally reflect personal concerns, from autobiographical narratives to break-up songs to nostalgic slices of Americana, his EPs (this one and 2004’s America EP) are his “issue” albums. Last time around, Hoge was speaking up as his nation barreled into another four years of Bush, lamenting sweeping political corruption and lambasting the losses and costs of pointless war; eight years later, it’s remarkable how little has changed. This time, Hoge enters the scene as America barrels into another four years of Obama, still mired in war (the mournful “Folded Flag,” the thinly-veiled fury of “When Do I Get to Come Home?”), vicious prejudice (“The Ballad of Trayvon Martin,” arguably the most potent rock song Hoge has ever recorded), and the self-righteous inhumanity of the anti-gay rights crowd (“I Don’t Believe”). The highlight is “Jesus Came to Tennessee,” a funny and insightful bluegrass stomp that sees the son of God paying Hoge a personal visit, but “Founding Fathers” gets the best line: “Democrats, Republicans, who’s to blame? It’s hard to tell,” Hoge sings during the searing opener. “Sometimes I think we’d be better off if they all just went to hell.” Preach it brother. (Live review here)
Key tracks: “Founding Fathers,” “Jesus Came to Tennessee,” “The Ballad of Trayvon Martin”
It was a good year for Nashville, which saw their favorite daughter (Taylor Swift, the most successful country musician of all time) strike gold with her biggest and most critically acclaimed album yet, and launched The Civil Wars to unexpected stardom (the duo scored Grammy attention for 2011’s Barton Hallow). Only fitting then, that Rayland Baxter, a former Civil Wars opener, released one of the best folk albums of the year. Right from the humming opening track (“The Mtn Song”), Feathers & Fishhooks is an organic and resplendent debut, a conglomeration of cascading steel guitars, twangy banjos, softly-strummed acoustic, and booming bass. Within that pleasurable mix, we get introspective, road-trip-ready finger-pickers (“Dreamin'”), vaudeville-injected narratives (“Willy’s Song”), yearning lullabies (“Hoot Owl”), and flowing Americana (“Good Friend”). And then there’s “The Woman for Me,” a love song so perfect and pure that it’s almost hard to believe the guy who wrote it is only a twentysomething.
Key tracks: “The Woman for Me,” “Dreamin’,” “Hoot Owl”
Perhaps it’s the painting of my home state on the cover, or maybe the presence of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon behind the boards, but right from my first listen to Voyaguer, the record felt friendly and familiar. Credit Kathleen Edwards’ voice, a gorgeously lilting instrument with a strong emotional quotient, or Vernon’s full-bodied and atmospheric production, which surrounds that voice with a lush array of strings, pianos, and acoustic guitars. Opener “Empty Threat” drives like Fleet Foxes, while a spread of haunting ballads (“A Soft Place to Land,” “House Full of Empty Rooms,” “Pink Champagne) offer plentiful evidence for Edwards’ knack of conveying a sense of loss, loneliness, and fragility. Album highlight “Change the Sheets” trades that croon for a passionate belt, building everything around an Appalachian backing vocal melody, while closer “For the Record” is almost as good, bringing the album to its finale with a chiming electric guitar that makes the song sound like a piece of classic vinyl. For those who have missed out on the work of this Canadian singer/songwriter up to now, there’s no better place to start.
Key tracks: “Change the Sheets,” “House Full of Empty Rooms,” “For the Record”
The talents of singer/songwriter/guitarist Robert Francis effortlessly harken back to a simpler age, to the kind of folk-driven pop music that was thriving on the radio back in the 1960s, and throughout the lush and lyrical Strangers in a First Place, those talents are on full display. The gorgeous, lilting string arrangement on “The Closest Exit” carries Francis’s crisp and wistful imagery along with buoyant charm—all before a classic-rock-flavored guitar solo cuts across the texture. Francis, a virtuoso guitarist and disciple of former Red Hot Chili Peppers legend John Frusciante, could easily hide behind his skills on the instrument here, but what he does instead is almost inarguably more interesting. Indeed, Strangers is one of the most eclectic singer/songwriter records in recent memory, drifting from hook-heavy foot-tappers (“Eighteen”) to centerpiece hymns (“Star Crossed Memories”), to chilled-out California indie-pop (“Wild Thing”). Elsewhere, pieces of classic singer songwriter formulas crop up: “Perfectly Yours” is dominated by a yearning saxophone line (think Clarence Clemons on Springsteen’s “Secret Garden”), while the screeching harmonica in “Alibi” sounds like it was lifted directly from the Bob Dylan playbook. Best of all is “Dangerous Neighborhood,” the kind of cinematic finale that can only be fully appreciated by closing your eyes and letting the subtly layered arrangement wash over you.
Key tracks: “Eighteen,” “Star Crossed Memories,” “Dangerous Neighborhood: