Over the past several years I’ve gotten in the December habit of compiling lists of my favorite music releases. While I was in seminary taking preaching classes, I sought out an exercise that would help me enjoy, evaluate, and communicate texts in a creative way to an audience. Since, at the time, all I was doing was reading and reading and writing and writing about biblical and theological content, I used music reviews as a way to hone my skills. For about two years I wrote reviews for a small indie music blog out of Macon, GA called the Blue Indian (here is 2010 and 2011). It was in this time that I realized if you could charitably and critically evaluate content that you sometimes did care deeply for, and some that you just didn’t “get,” and still make a compelling presentation to an audience, you had done most of the logistical tasks of preaching (which is what I wanted to work on).
So I present to you my list of twelve (a cheap way to continue to expand my list and delay decisiveness once more each year) favorite records that came out in 2012. A brief disclaimer: these are my favorite records of this year, not necessarily the “best.” They might not be your favorites and for that I don’t apologize. I may be skewed or inconsistent. For instance, I’m well aware that half of these selections are from the South (including VA). I’m also aware that I’m a sucker for M. Ward and the Avetts and unlike the Mumford boys (who came up big last year), they’re near locks on any favorite list I’ll likely write. Again, I don’t apologize for this, everyone needs these kinds of go-tos.
I don’t have a fixed criteria for this evaluation. Some of these albums and artists operate within a decisively Christian confession and view of the world, others quite the opposite, and many wrestle somewhere in the middle. Some tilt towards the traditional, some towards the experimental, most hold both in some sort of tension. Some are household names, while others share the fate of prophets in their respective hometowns. I’ve included a Spotify playlist of this list in its entirety as well as a playlist featuring a single song from more than 40 (just wait until the year 2040!) notable releases. I’d also love to hear, in the comments, some that I may have missed. Cheers on a great year of music to have enjoyed and blessings on what I hope shapes up to be another. -CEB
12: Mirage Rock (Columbia)
Band of Horses
These bearded bards have smoothed out some of their previous rolickers into a milder but really interesting album. They’ve dusted off the legendary Glynn Johns (father of Ethan) for his first production gig in nearly three decades and it really pays off. You can really hear the Carolina hills amidst the Wilsonian harmonies.
11: The Clearing (Dead Oceans)
The earthy duo from Upper Air has expanded in number and so has their sound. This record, grouped with the most recent offerings from Bon Iver, the Rosebuds, and Megafaun, would make for a really oddly cohesive April Base box set: ranging from ambitious and bombastic to charming and homespun. Between the recurrent wildlife vagabonding and Phil Moore’s strangely entrancing songwriting meter, you are bound to get sucked in by the bare beauty and precious vulnerability of this music.
10: Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (Asthmatic Kitty)
The Welcome Wagon
This time around Pastor Vito Aiuto and wife Monique cobble together a less-overtly Sufjan Stevens-infused collection of hymns and spiritual songs. Again, the covers are outstanding, ranging from Crowder to the Cure. The hymns are imaginative appropriations of some lesser-known texts, and Vito has continued to prove himself a worthy auteur and purveyor of surprisingly sacred music in the vein of a Brooklyn-hipster-Reverend Gary Davis.
9: The Carpenter (Universal Republic)
The Avetts were in a pickle on this one. After working with Rick Rubin on I and Love and You and simultaneously getting flack from longtime fans longing for the mountain-punk of their beginnings and getting lauded by a much much larger audience, this album, their seventh full-length studio record (and 14th total release!) bore many of the pressures of a sophomore album. Somehow they managed to do it. In the midst of immense scrutiny and personal and familial trial, they produced a record with genuine warmth of sound and lyrical depth. In my mind, The Carpenter resists conflation with the Mumford phenomenon (though similarities abound and some might disagree), due in part to the band’s willingness to explore (and fall flat in some cases) while frequently tipping their caps to unabashed influences like Townes Van Zandt and Doc Watson. These influences lie very near the surface but don’t seem as forced or forceful as the literary and biblical allusioneering of their comrades.
8: Life Is People (Dead Oceans)
This record came out of nowhere for me. I had heard both Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) and Damien Jurado cover “Be Not So Fearful.” But Bill Fay was as obscure to me as he actually is. Tweedy, himself, makes an appearance on Fay’s first album of new material in 41 years. Fay returns the favor with a cover (almost in latter year Johnny Cash fashion) of Tweedy’s “Jesus, Etc” in one of the finer moments of the record. “The Healing Day” offers a cathartic, eschatological anthem for fans of Cash, Billy Prince Billy, Wilco, and Nick Cave.
7: A Wasteland Companion (Merge)
For being a spliced-together collection of songs from the road, Companion sure doesn’t sound like it. While decidedly less lo-fi than his earlier records, and conspicuously featuring indie sweetheart, Zooey Deschanel (the “She” from his other notable project), “Clean Slate” and “Pure Joy” could fit in on an anthology of his best and most characteristic.
6: Voyageur (Zoe Records)
This past fall, I’ve countlessly heard, from both sides of the aisle, the bemoaned, “if so-and-so wins the election, I’m moving to Canada.” Canadian Kathleen Edwards diffuses this by threatening the inverse on the lead track of Voyageur and then shows her hand on this “empty threat.” Voyageur succeeds through heartbreaking lyrics and vocals, and daring and skilled arrangements. Even in some of her less poignant moments, she manages to pull off sounding sincere singing about sidecars and pink champagne in a way rivals Kim Kierkergaardashian‘s ability to combine crass and contemplative.
5: Fear Fun (Sub Pop)
Father John Misty
Best described as a trip, Fear Fun, is part Josh Tillman travelogue and part apocalyptic fantasy. Woven strands of reality and fiction are incarnated in hazy Laurel Canyon fare. The result is remarkably more interesting than either the lush harmonies of Tillman’s former gig as drumming Fleet Fox or his intense but often monotonous singing-ax solo fare. With the album, he chopped off his hair, and was seemingly and suddenly imbued with newfound frontman swagger. I’ve wondered on more than one occasion if this could this be a neo-Robert Johnston scenario? While confusing at times, hilarious at others, and shrouded in darkness even in its sunnier moments, FF has to be considered one of the oddest and most enjoyable albums of 2012.
4: Fake Blood (Removador/Harvest)
Black Mountain experimenteur Seth Kauffman teamed with Jim James of My Morning Jacket and toned down some of the sitar from last year’s wonderful but difficult Desert Etiquette to arrive at his most complete work since his solo album Research. This “conservatism” suits him well, as a little restraint helps the supreme nuance come out in fewer and less labored listens. The title of the record stems from his observation and frustration at the pervasive ability of “fake blood” (art that doesn’t hurt to make, but safely appears so) to sell records and make fans. This epitomizes Seth’s ability to surprisingly craft and juxtapose. After all, when asked about surprising interests and influences, he once listed Saabs, Paula Abdul and Karl Barth in the same sentence.
3: Boys & Girls (ATO)
“I feel so homesick. Where’s my home? Where I belong or where I was born?” questions Brittany Howard on “Rise to the Sun.” Her ability to repeatedly package such existential wonderings in, to borrow a buddy’s descriptor, such “gronky” (here think something akin to Led Zep, Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner… a funky sonic patina) containers shines. Throughout this sparkling debut, the Shakes prove that while there is nothing new under the sun, its revolution around the earth and its faithful reemergence can endlessly illumine what we already know in surprising and quite enjoyable ways.
2: Big Inner (Hometapes/Spacebomb)
Matthew E. White
Not since Illinois has it been so cool and engrossing to listen to an album that sounds, at times, like a glorified high school marching band jam session. Like Sufjan’s masterpiece, Matthew E. White (who’s arranged for the Mountain Goats, the Sounds of the South tour and whose backing band has richly ornamented the huge sounding and hugely successful eponymous Bon Iver record) has proven that once you dive in you find the brass and fanfare is actually secondary. Listen and you’ll be rewarded with a rich lyrical tapestry. The sacred and the profane touch at times, their threads crawling over each other, combined though not indistinguishable. At times you wonder if White is miming Randy Newman or Qoheleth as he muses about the sun’s hiding place on “Steady Pace.” Or when he takes up the slave-song meme of crossing the “Brazos” and explodes into a more than 5 minute long, album-ending chorus of “Jesus Christ, he is our Lord! Jesus Christ, he is your friend!”
1: Maraqopa (Secretly Canadian)
After warming up with a handful of cover songs and Jurado’s previous release, Saint Bartlett, the Jurado/Richard Swift production tandem has hit full-stride with Maraqopa. Sometimes enigmatic and others jangly and humorous, the amount of texture, attention, and the nuance kept me listening to this record throughout the whole year. While his sound has evolved, his writing has remained constant. He pens “I heard you call my name. You were outside the door. How did I not hear you before?” on “This Time Next Year” a parousia anthem whose opening doo-wop chimes are broken up by surf-guitar distortion. Lines like these are sneaky. In some ways they underwhelm, but Jurado has developed a penchant for writing such startlingly simple lyrics that lack any semblance dullness or pretension, but manage to strike the hearer as stark and unalloyed.
 Stanley Hauerwas, upon receiving the honor of “Best American Theologian” in 2001 by TIME Magazine responded, “Best is not a theological category.” Likewise, I’m not sure “best” is always a great or suitable category for artistic works.