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The Best Americana of 2012

Jeff Strowe and Steve Leftridge
Grunge USA Flag on wooden background © Manczurov. Image via

Americana meant different things to different people this year, with revitalized legends and young traditionalists offering new visions of American music.

Every year, when we compile our Americana list, we wrestle with the question over what the hell counts as Americana music anyway. We also publish a Country list and a Bluegrass list, and naturally attempts to keep those lists distinct is a challenge. For instance, over on the country list, we stuck mostly to records by artists categorized as “country” in today’s marketplace, an inherently divisive issue within any genre as steeped in issues of identity and tradition as country music is. Still, this year’s country list included Justin Townes Earle’s not-very-country album and Iris DeMent’s country-as-hell album, despite the fact that neither of those records has a chance of fitting in with what most people are calling “country music” in 2012. So where does that leave “Americana”? Is this music that used to be called country, before country went classic rock? Or it anything that contains any kind of instrumentation traditionally associated with rural music? Does the presence of a steel guitar or a fiddle in a mellow-rock song make for Americana, the way a rural drawl in a singer’s voice in a rock anthem makes for new country music? Is blues still Americana? How about traditional folk? Singer-songwriter? Classic country? A check of our list below would seem to support any or all of the above. In fact, many of these records themselves sprawl from one subgenre to another. One thing is certain among all of this uncertainty: This stuff is experiencing new levels of mass popularity. Mumford & Sons has shot to the top line of the big festival lineups, and acts like Of Monsters and Men and the Lumineers aren’t far behind. Of course, such a point will only ignite more grumbling about whether a group of Brits or Icelanders who happen to throw a banjo into the mix should be allowed to define today’s Americana. Perhaps not. But Americana has always been a large umbrella that’s been expanded over and over, and in that spirit, we’ve expanded our list this time for the best Americana records of the year. Here are the great 2012 records that succeeded on their own terms, whatever you happen to call those terms. Steve Leftridge

Artist: Ray Wylie Hubbard

Album: Grifter’s Hymnal

Label: Bordello


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List Number: 25

Ray Wylie Hubbard
Grifter’s Hymnal

Forty years of life on the road, making music in dives and ditches, has only deepened the bourbon-bathed gumption and almighty carnality that whips Grifter’s Hymnal into such a greasy shitkicker of a country-blues record. Hubbard’s rascally posture, though, cannot obscure the raw-boned bite in his lyrics, a spirituous inspection of modern life and sex and God and rock-and-roll, all told with the poet’s trigger-happy eye for details. “Lazarus” is about the fall of America, “Train Yard” is about the fall of your pants, and “Coochy Coochy” is about getting a Beatle to guest on the album. Hubbard remains on a vertical comeback run, which seems to be both musically feral and fundamental, and at the hands of Hubbard, that’s a thoroughly kick-ass combination. Steve Leftridge

Artist: Band of Horses

Album: Mirage Rock

Label: Columbia


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List Number: 24

Band of Horses
Mirage Rock

To follow the success of 2010’s Infinite Arms, Band of Horses enlisted legendary producer Ethan Johns for the follow-up. Predictably, then, Mirage Rock is a tour through ‘70s Americana influences -- the Eagles, Neil Young, Exile-era Stones -- all made continually gorgeous by Ben Bridwell’s gift for melody and silver tenor, abetted by his Horses’ shiny harmonies. The Band burn bright with amalgamations of vintage guitars, folk stargazing, and wayfaring country-rock -- rocking hard on the all-inclusive “Knock Knock” and sweeping the canyon with the ravishing Buffalo Springfield simulation, “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone”. This Mirage may have faded quickly from a congested scene, but a pile of vibrant rock and cosmic folk like this has every right to endure. Steve Leftridge

Artist: The Tallest Man on Earth

Album: There's No Leaving Now

Label: Dead Oceans


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List Number: 23

The Tallest Man on Earth
There's No Leaving Now

Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Mattsen’s third full-length album as the Tallest Man on Earth finds him deepening his commitment to austere, homespun solo-acoustic folk, highlighting his new old Dylan vocals and his polished guitar fingerpicking. One could grumble that the five-foot-seven-inch Mattsen isn’t pushing his art into new directions, and indeed There’s No Leaving Now has an unchanging quality, but such concerns are rendered moot by songs so consistently pretty and skillfully performed. MOE does show some versatility here, like moving to the piano for the sublime title cut and adding some steel-guitar(ish) ambience to “Bright Lanterns”. Overall, Mattsen stretches out his cracked-poetry mumbo jumbo, and his new songs tend to be longer than before, so Leaving does heighten his craft, along with his voice, frequently mining the top of his range on songs like the stirring “1904”, a song that reaches new heights for The Tallest Man indeed. Steve Leftridge

Artist: Bob Dylan

Album: Tempest

Label: Columbia


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List Number: 22

Bob Dylan

After 50-plus years of constant praise and accolades, Dylan can still amaze, confound, and surprise listeners and critics alike. What's more to say except that he follows his muse and drags those willing to follow along every bump, corridor, and crevice he wishes to explore. Here, he regales us with violent body counts, plots of revenge, crass sexually tinged come-ons ("I'm still hurtin' from an arrow / That pierced my chest / I'm gonna have to take my head / And bury it between her breasts"), tributes to kindred spirits, and a horrifyingly graphic account of the sinking of the Titanic. It's that unique mix of that "Old Weird America" that Dylan has been so adept at depicting. It's a mixture of the old and sacred (like an archivist at the Smithsonian, he continues to gently crib from long-ago source material), and the dirty, seedy underbelly that has long been the flip side of living the American Dream. Clocking in at nearly 80 minutes, it's also a long album, yet one that fascinates and keeps up the suspense, rather than meandering and shifting focus. And Dylan's road-tested, gnarly back-up band keeps things genuinely frenetic throughout the affair, slicing in and out, and framing Dylan's trademark croaks, yelps, and utterances with crackling intensity. There's a lot of divide to Dylan these days, with many claiming his recent work measures up to the treasured masters of yesteryear. Just as many find his newer material difficult, obtuse, and often unlistenable. If the two factions can find agreement, it's the fact that works like Tempest are never dull. Jeff Strowe


Artist: Joe Pug

Album: The Great Despiser

Label: Lightning Rod


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List Number: 21

Joe Pug
The Great Despiser

Chicago-based singer-songwriter Joe Pug begins his second LP, The Great Despiser with a bold proclamation: “If you are devoted to a dream / Go and light the lantern / Leave your family abandoned / Meet me by the shadow of the stream.” Following the spirit of song can be a tricky proposition that, for better or for worse, can engulf a life. You can dabble in the waters or you can jump fully in, and Pug seems to be committing to the latter with this solidly engaging album of spirited, acoustic folksongs and plaintively honest ballads. With overarching themes of accepting responsibility and coming-of-age emotional maturity, Pug's characters stub their toes, get knocked down a notch, and make failed attempts at progression. However, they live to tell the tale, and rather than hang their heads in despair, they search out truths and wisdom in hopes that the same mistakes won't again be repeated. Augmented by the deft production touches of Brian Deck, Pug's straightforward and honest delivery makes these songs worth repeated spins, and in contrast to his previous album, the arrangements are a little more sprightly and rock-oriented. It's Pug's lyrics, though, that demand attention and seem to be hurtling his career in an upward direction. Jeff Strowe

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