Best albums of 2012


Lots of people might look at this list might say, “Who are all these people?” In roots/Americana music, and at my house, they’re stars. These albums are examples why.

Mark O’Connor, “America on Strings” and Mark O’Connor and Rieko Aizawa, “American Classics”
Its probably safe to say that neither of these album will appear on anyone else’s top 10 list this year, likely because they’re really, when it gets down to brass tacks, conceived as teaching tools. “America on Strings” presents the arrangements that O’Connor scored for his Orchestra Method, one that is being used in high schools across the country. Likewise, “American Classics” presents pieces that O’Connor included in his fiddle method books. There are pieces like “Rubber Dolly Rag” that perhaps don’t bear repeated listening for those without an interest in the curriculum. But there are other pieces that are breathtaking, such as, believe it or not, “Old Folks at Home” and an absolutely chilling reworking of “Bunker Hill.” Both albums are testaments to O’Connor’s breathtaking musicianship as well as his belief that the American traditional songbook is one that we dismiss at our peril.

Chris Smither, “Hundred Dollar Valentine”
This is just such a strong release from an utterly compelling artist. If you haven’t heard it, you’re missing something.

Caroline Herring, “Camilla”
This album continues, beautifully, what Herring has been up to since her first solo release, “Twilight,” in 2001: rich lyricism and spotless performance.

Steve Spurgin, “Folk Remedies”
He’s not a name that gets a lot of attention, but is a consummate professional. He’s released other solo albums during his long career as a session player and songwriter, though this is the best.

Jonathan Byrd and Chris Kokesh, “The Barn Birds”
This is a very fresh one, just coming out the first of this month. It’s also a delight from start to finish–varied, rich, and beautifully produced. Jonathan Byrd has been a bit enigmatic, perhaps because his music and his persona are so hard to reconcile. But that’s one of the things that make him so good, that plus a keen ear for a great lyric and a deceptively developed guitar style.

Mike Compton, “Rotten Taters”
Christmas came early this year for mandolin players—Compton has a storied career, has played the White House and Carnegie Hall, but this is the first time he’s done what so many have been hoping he would for some time: record a solo album. Truly, better late than never.

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, “Were Usually a Lot Better Than This”
A live recording that has been long in coming, these guys make it all look so effortless. This album is so much fun but has its serious moments, too, including the best recording ever of O’Brien’s “When There’s No One Around.”

Jimmy Gaudreau and Moondi Klein, “Home from the Mills”
Two brilliant interpreters that remain very close to the well of roots music.

Various, “Pa’s Fiddle—Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler”
I’m a sucker for stuff like this. It’s presentation of songs mentioned in the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But it’s just great music, too, right from the heart of American music.

Front Porch String Band, “Hills of Alabam”
A compilation of material from two Front Porch String Band albums, the only ones that were ever released. For fans of Claire Lynch—and frankly, who isn’t—this album is a delight. Lynch is known best for her solo career, but this material is wonderful and perhaps easily overlooked.


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