5. Ha Ha Tonka – Death of a Decade [Bloodshot]
At this year’s Wakarusa Music and Arts Festival, there was a Backwoods Stage that turned out to be exactly what its name suggested: an off-the-beaten-path setup far removed from the crowds and sweltering Arkansas heat that dominated the weekend affair. With some welcome shade and a well-suited low-key environment, it was there that my friend and I first encountered Ha Ha Tonka, a four-piece outfit from nearby West Plains, Missouri. Since then, neither of us can get enough of Death of a Decade, an album that chronicles the uncertainty and loose footing that accompanies the growing up process, where the familiar is left behind and young men grow up and take an attempt at making something worthwhile of themselves.
Over a bevy of mandolin, acoustic strum, driving bass lines, pulsating drums, and harmonic harmonies, the four men of Ha Ha Tonka make a racket of sound that lends credence to the chaos of the “coming-of-age” story. Their Ozark heritage and penchant for provincial aphorisms help them stand out from some of their like-minded contemporaries and set them high atop a list of artists to watch over the next few years. — Jeff Strowe
4. Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest [Acony]
It’s been a long eight years since Soul Journey, the last Gillian Welch record. The Harrow and the Harvest is, thankfully, worth the wait, as the sonic experimentations of her last album give way to the unadorned interplay between Welch and her musical soulmate David Rawlings, who produced the record. Rawlings, for his part, plays with virtuosic flair and subtlety, and these two artists have never sounded as intuitively connected as they do here — check out the harmonies on “Dark Turn of Mind” and “Tennessee”, for instance. It’s a plaintive set that offers hard truths about “The Way It Goes” and “The Way the Whole Thing Ends”, songs that find Welch stitching American gothic imagery to her trademark rustic folk with the kind of patience and richness that has made her unique even within ancient traditions. — Steve Leftridge
3. Mount Moriah – Mount Moriah [Holidays for Quince]
Hailing from Durham, North Carolina is Mount Moriah, an ambitious young outfit led by singer Heather McIntyre and guitarist Jenks Miller. Forget the haggling over the semantics of Americana; when the gorgeous whirl of pedal steel opens the album on “Only Way Out”, it leaves no doubt as to the country-tinged influences McIntyre and company hold dear. “If you would’ve stayed, then I would’ve stayed / But the only way to love you now is to walk away” is also as fine of a sentiment as possible for a list of this type, and the remainder of the album follows suit, as McIntyre deftly explores the fragility and delicacy of discovering and perfecting the art of love, loss, and self-knowledge. Her characters are still figuring things out, and the longing in her voice and the attention to detail in her songwriting hint at shades of autobiography as only one who has experienced these ups and downs can honestly attest to. This is a genuine and honest album that continues to reveal new nuances and layers with each listen. — Jeff Strowe
2. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues [Sub Pop]
If Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold had his way, he’d probably still be futzing with the aural densities of his band’s sophomore record. Indeed, it’s Pecknold’s perfectionism and the album’s jam-packed instrumentalism — marxophones, zithers, dulcimers, what have you — that make for such a mesmerizing trip through the Foxes’ indie-folk virtuosity. More sonically ambitious than their 2008 debut, Helplessness Blues mines British psychedelia and ‘60s folk-rock on a euphoric set, containing waltzes, raga gambols, Beach Boys harmonies, baroque pop, Flamenco guitars, a capella vocal turns, and much more, all within intricate arrangements of harmonies, ethereal landscapes, and inspired mini-suite constructions. As dizzying as it all sounds, the record remains gorgeous in its complexity, and each listen is exponentially rewarding. In 2011, the Fleet Foxes pull off a rare feat in expanding their horizons with a relentlessly busy album that somehow manages to be perfectly graceful in its execution. — Steve Leftridge
1. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead [Capitol]
After a couple of epically grandiose albums, the Decemberists scaled things back this year and saw their greatest chart results ever. With a stripped-down pastoral feel, Colin Meloy and Co. made a glorious, joyful album accentuated with a harmonious conglomeration of pedal steel, fiddle, harmonica, and organ fills. Meloy’s lyrics still stand a bit on the gaudy side, but due to the rollicking accompanying rhythms, the songs on this album don’t feel forced or strained. Instead, when Meloy sings lines like, “April all an ocean away / Is this the better way to spend the day / Keeping the winter at bay,” it’s easy to bask in the glow of his wordcraft. The energy is infectious: this album is the sound of a band at peace and having a blast out in their Portland barn studio doing what they do best while providing an amazing set of sing-a-longs for grateful listeners. — Jeff Strowe
This article was originally published on 19 December 2011.