The best music of 2012: Rock, folk & Americana


For me, there was no single outstanding album this year – but that doesn't mean there weren't several very good ones.

And one which took me completely by surprise. I have never loved a Ry Cooder record before. In fact, he has irritated me rather more often than he has impressed with his curatorial passion for the lost, the forgotten and the ethnically other. But I was oddly excited all summer by Election Special, which was funny, pertinent and, although brief, full of blood. In fact, it often sounded like the Rolling Stones when they were great; at least, that nap and feel. Keith Richards can take it as a debt repaid for whatever it was the Stones did to upset Ry during the recording of Let it Bleed.

The Staves' Dead & Born & Grown was hugely seductive in the autumn, like piled-up leaves. I have reservations about what Glyn and Ethan Johns, père et fil, did to the raw Staveley sound – they overproduced it, basically – but that doesn't mean D&B&G wasn't a brilliant and charming effort, evincing huge potential. I like potential, especially during autumn.

Spring was not entirely dominated by Jim Moray's Skulk, but, as English rock-and-jazz-inflected folk albums go, it did a very fine job of making the old world speak of and to the new. Same thing went for Anaïs Mitchell's wonderful Young Man in America, which contains more good intimations about the metaphysics of shepherding than the average Samuel Palmer monograph.

Marry Waterson & Oliver Knight's Hidden brought Stratocaster and drums to bear gently on the glitchy poetry of the home, and got away with it, charmingly. And if there is a sliding scale between self-effacing domestic charm and viperous post-Freudian dyspepsia, then at the toxic end of it you'd find Aimee Mann and Charmer – which is not a criticism.

The rest of the year saw a scattering of windfalls, some ripe, others not so, some of them positively wizened. Pick any one from Dr John's Locked Down, Kelly Joe Phelps' Brother Sinner & the Whale, Chris Smither's Hundred Dollar Valentine and Loudon Wainwright III's Older Than My Old Man Now and you'll find that the middle-aged-and-upwards white American male can be a healthy mixture of rueful, questioning, reflective, funny, soulful and downright spooky when he wants to be. None of which would have stopped Betty Wright from putting him in his place. Betty Wright: The Movie put most things in their place this year, which is, of course, the point of Betty Wright. Welcome back, Betty.

I liked Arianna Savall/Petter Udland Johansen's Hirundo Maris, Sam Lee's Ground of its Own and Alabama Shakes' Boys & Girls for reasons too disparate to contain in one paragraph; but they were all impressive, one way or another. And even dear old Beth Orton delivered some goods. Sugaring Season bore the influence of the late Bert Jansch with a dignity he would have enjoyed.

Reissues/new discoveries to savour: The Marvelettes: Forever More: The Complete Motown Albums Vol 2 and The Flatlanders' The Odessa Tapes, long-lost since 1973, which contained the most beautiful song I heard all year.

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