Rather than attempting a definitive list of the year’s best Americana albums, I thought I’d share 10 albums that have become personal favorites of mine. Selections range from bluegrass bands and thoughtful folk songwriters to rising roots-rock stars and Grammy-winning legends. Here are 10 of my top Americana albums of 2012, presented in alphabetical order.
The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter
This time around, the Avett Brothers focus on earthier arrangements and give a lot of thought about mortality. As a whole, it reminds me of one of the band’s acoustic EPs, just twice as long (and twice as rewarding). Far from being all doom and gloom, “Live and Die” is one of the year’s catchiest songs.
Balsam Range, Papertown
About a century ago, the community of Canton, N.C., was going gangbusters, thanks to a brand new paper mill. Today, the mill remains a cornerstone of the community and an unexpected inspiration for the bluegrass band Balsam Range, who hail from the area. The project is beautifully nostalgic without sounding dated.
Liam Fitzgerald & the Rainieros, Last Call!
If you’re in the Seattle area and crave some hardcore honky-tonk tunes, seek out Liam Fitzgerald & the Rainieros. Heavy on the steel guitar and loaded with straight-up country tunes, their lively album Last Call! earns that exclamation point. Suddenly those famous craft brews up there are calling my name.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Live From Alabama
Something about Jason Isbell’s music has always been sort of unsettling. Maybe it’s because there’s a lot of tough luck in his songwriting or because he can deliver a devastating lyric without flinching. With this compelling live album, he pulls you right into these characters’ lives — addictions, family advice and all.
Wanda Jackson, Unfinished Business
Who is the coolest person I’ve met all year? It’s gotta be Wanda Jackson. That twinkle in her eye will instantly charm you — and this dynamic album will knock you out. “Tore Down” cranks it up and “Am I Even a Memory?” is an old-school country weeper. And don’t miss the gospel number, “Two Hands.”
Old Man Luedecke, Tender is the Night
This clever songwriter from Canada reminds me of a delightful mix of Roger Miller and Steve Martin. There’s a quirky, easygoing delivery throughout this album and many a well-placed zinger. Yet he gives equal time to his adept banjo skills, which are suitable to a low-key, very likeable project such as this one.
Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream
Bonnie Raitt blew me away this year with Slipstream, thanks to impeccable songs, spot-on musicianship and that incredibly expressive voice. She makes you believe, especially when you see her perform. If you loved her music back in the day, don’t like this one slip away. It was worth the wait.
Bill Staines, Beneath Some Lucky Star
I’ve been playing Bill Staines’ eloquent new album in my car, and it’s almost like traveling with an old friend. Blessed with a rich and strong baritone, he’s a longtime folk favorite who arrived decades ago in the Boston music scene, yet this material will be fresh and relatable to those listeners with life experience.
Turnpike Troubadours, Goodbye Normal Street
Of all the albums this year, I’ll bet I’ve listened to this one the most. Is it the keen songwriting? The flawed characters? The persistent fiddle that makes these songs ache? It’s probably because these young Oklahoma musicians lay it all out there. If you tend to skip past the love songs, this one’s for you.
Various Artists, Foggy Mountain Special: A Bluegrass Tribute to Earl Scruggs
Here’s a fine tribute to a bluegrass legend we lost in 2012. About five years ago, producer Tim Austin called upon banjo pickers like Ron Block, J.D. Crowe and Tony Trischka to honor Scruggs’ influence. Boasting an all-star bluegrass team, this compilation is now a remarkable way to celebrate his life.