Here is the list of 25 albums Saving Country Music deems essential for 2012 listening, and then I added an extra one I couldn’t leave off. Please note this list only includes albums that have been reviewed so far. There are a few more good and important albums in 2012 that have yet to be reviewed. The first 7 albums on the list (from Little Victories to Lee Bains) were all serious considerations for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year. PLEASE NOTE: None of the Album of the Year candidates are included on this list, so look over there before complaining about omissions. After the first 7 albums, they are listed in the order the albums were reviewed, not in order based on recommendation/quality/etc.
Saving Country Music reviewed twice as many albums as it did last year, but it is impossible to review everything. As always, your feedback is encouraged. What are your essential albums? What did we miss? What was released in 2012 that deserves a review? Please leave your feedback below.
Chris Knight – Little Victories
Every year there is one album and artist that admittedly gets screwed when it comes to Saving Country Music’s bigger awards, and this is the one that gets named the “Most Essential” album for a given year. This year, it is Chris Knight’s Little Victories.
“This is the exact album that the United States of America needs right here, right now, at this very moment in time. Finally, someone has the courage and the wisdom to use music to reassure people of the power of individual will, and the beauty of the rising action embedded in every human soul instead of as a vehicle to lay blame on everyone else for the problems the individual faces.
Little Victories is a big victory for Chris Knight, for country music, and for the level-headed, wise approach to life in an overly-politicized world.” (read full review)
Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal
“If there’s honor amongst thieves, then it only seems fitting there should be a Grifter’s Hymnal. And if there’s going to be a Grifter’s Hymnal, it’s only fitting Ray Wylie Hubbard should compose it. The ingredients of grifters are already mixed there on his palette: Tales of dead and dying things and dens of iniquity, the struggle or the soul between good and evil, and the difficulty sometimes of telling the two apart. But to have a hymnal you also must have a message, and you must be able to convey that message with eloquence, poetical prowess, wit and rhyme. Well don’t worry, it’s all here. Just open it up and sing along.” (read full review)
Rachel Brooke – A Killer’s Dream
“Rachel Brooke is one of the few select artist with enough mustard to rise out of the ashes of the country music underground and become a force in the greater roots world. Like an early Emmylou Harris, the music industry should be shuttling her across the country to lend her singular vocal texture to other projects in between putting out excellent solo albums that time finds hard to forget.
“How to grow and evolve yet still hold on to what makes you unique and who you truly are is the balance all artists must attain to continue to move forward. Rachel shows she’s up to these alchemical feats in A Killer’s Dream, and proves that she’s musical gold, worthy of the attention of the greater Americana / roots world.” (read full review)
Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
I thought this was an album of great songs, but not a great album if that makes sense. The whole Memphis vibe Earle tried to conjure worked at times, and didn’t at others. But you can’t deny the power of songs like “Unfortunately, Anna”, “Maria”, or “It Won’t Be The Last Time”. Anybody who says this is their favorite album of 2012, I wouldn’t argue with. Very solid offering from Justin Townes Earle.
“There is not a bad song on this album. We see JTE return to the honest, heavy-hearted songwriting that has become his signature. Though this album is hard to warm up to. JTE’s voice may come across as unusual at first, maybe even weak, and the production may seem out-of-place or even droning because it is such an unusual approach for him, or any artist originating out of the Americana world. But when you give it time, it all starts to work. I think time will be a great ally of this album, just as much as the short-term may be a hindrance.” (read full review)
The Calamity Cubes – Old World’s Ocean
“‘Old World’s Ocean’ puts The Calamity Cubes’ bevy of talents on glorious display. Excellent songwriting is conveyed through flawless vocal performances and inventive music. By being unafraid to display their vulnerabilities, yet having an inherent rawness to their music and releasing it through one of the most “hardcore” labels in roots circles in the form of Farmageddon Records, The Calamity Cubes create a unique and important nexus in string-based roots music, and do so while putting out creative, innovative, and entertaining tunes that touch all parts of the musical anatomy.” (read full review)
Marty Stuart - Nashville Vol.1 Tear The Woodpile Down
“Marty Stuart is on an amazing roll ladies and gentlemen. What he’s doing right now with lead guitar player “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan and The Fabulous Superlatives is stuff that legends are made of. You know those periods in an artists’ career that you look back on like they can’t do wrong, churning out amazing songs and albums one after another? Hank Jr. from Whiskey Bent & Hell Bound to The Pressure Is On, Willie & Waylon after they’d shaken loose from the grips of RCA in the mid 70′s. That’s the kind of epic and influential period were in the midst of right now with Marty Stuart, and what a blessing it is to realize this and to be able to experience it all in the present instead of trying to relive it through the past.” (Read full review)
Lee Bains & The Glory Fires – There’s A Bomb In Gillead
“This is an explosively-energetic album with influences and styles pulling from a wide range of American music. Lee Bains is well-versed in Southern modes from both sides of the tracks, and shows tremendous versatility in being able to conjure up the smoky mood of a blues singer, and the sweaty twang of a Southern rocker in the space of a breath, with The Glory Fires right on his heels with their authentic, spot-on sonic interpretations.” (read full review)
Paige Anderson & The Fearless Kin – Wild Rabbit
“One hard and fast rule around Saving Country Music is that I don’t review EP’s except for in “extreme cases.” There’s just too much music out there these days to consider half efforts, and in many cases, this is what EP’s are. I know they’re the hip thing, and a quicker way to get singles to fans in the digital age. But there’s something sacred about the album concept that I’m unwilling to let go of. So what is an “extreme case?” Well in 5 or so years, not once have I had an EP cross my desk that I felt qualified. Until now.
“Wild Rabbit is a remarkable collection of songs that illustrate all of Paige Anderson’s singular talents, including her solitary prowess as a female flatpicking guitar player; an attribute that has landed her numerous features in Flatpicking Guitar magazine and other periodicals. But her voice is what threatens to steal the spotlight, with its inherent conveyance of pain in a tone that is both youthful and old, wildly unique and undeniably accessible.” (read full review)
Joe Buck – Who Dat?
“‘Who Dat’ is a completely different direction for Joe Buck, while still being exactly what he’s always done. That’s the root genius of it. Yes, without question this album is a lot more tame, more tame than even ‘Piss & Vinegar’. But what this approach does is bring out the roar of quiet anger. In many ways, even though this album features much less distortion and more singing than shouting or screaming, it’s even harder, even more disillusioned and unbalanced as a byproduct of it’s muted approach. Joe Buck’s anger isn’t as obvious, it is seething beneath the surface, boiling and permeating these recordings with an unsettled feeling, like a pressure tank ready to burst. (read full review)
The Foghorn Stringband – Outshine The Sun
“‘Outshine the Sun’ is an excellent album, and where it makes its mark is in the positivity of its message. There are many bands these days digging up old standards from The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers and the like, but that tend to seek out the darkness in roots music; songs about muder, and preferrably cocaine if you can find them, because they feel like those themes are what keep the music relevant.
“‘Outshine the Sun’ works boldly in the opposite direction, presenting the cheerful side of the roots from its formative years, in the lyrical content, and in the modes of the music, with bright, frolicking and fun compositions and instrumentals that make this a fresh approach to the roots despite the vintage age of the material. I grimaced when I saw 21 tracks on this album. I mean did they expect to hold my attention for that long? But they did, and they do by the sheer talent of the Foghorn roster, and the sincerity of their approach.” (read full review)
Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band – Between The Ditches
“I swear, it is almost like Reverend Peyton had a little window into my brain when making Between The Ditches, because virtually every one of the concerns I had about their sound going in was resolved, while still keeping what is at the heart of their raucous and rowdy Delta-blues sound completely alive.
“For an underground roots band, Reverend Peyton is “making it.” Worming their way on to the Warped Tour and opening for The Reverend Horton Heat, they’ve found some traction with their music by working hard and taking a professional approach as opposed to compromising their sound. That is what’s great about Between The Ditches. It’s not a change, it is a refinement. Thought Rev. Peyton still has the same bellowy voice, he’s figured out how to employ it better, keep it in check when it could be grating. Though the repetitiveness in some of the lyrics remains, it’s measured. And though there’s still the Vaudevillian feel, there seems to be new value put on the music over the show.” (read full review)
Sara Watkins - Sun Midnight Sun
“For me, Sun Midnight Sun was one of those albums that had some good songs that I latched on to, but the project never stuck to me as a whole. But those few songs though, let me tell you. I’m libel to recycle them over and over in one setting until I feel stupid about it. The opening track “The Foothills” may be the leader in the clubhouse for instrumental track of the year. This amazing folk/bluegrass composition is built in layers like a buttermilk biscuit. They stack upon each other gradually and meld in unison through a recording technique sure to be asked for its recipe by distinguishing ears for years to come. And beneath all of that is a heavy, progressive world-beat that burrows straight into your primal nerves.” (read full review)
Billy Don Burns – Nights When I’m Sober
“There are great songwriters, and then there are songwriters that define the apogee of the craft, songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt…and Billy Don Burns. There are songs on Nights When I’m Sober that will rip at your heart like nothing else. There’s a great variety on the album with sweet songs and fun songs. And where Billy Don elevates the stakes is in the production and approach to each composition. With producer/guitar player Aaron Rodgers, they reinvigorate the late-era, rock-infused Outlaw sound that had Haggard and Paycheck seeking Billy Don’s services. (read full review)
James Leg & Left Lane Cruiser – Painkillers
“Listen to me folks, GET THIS ALBUM! I know it’s my job as some high fallutin’ music writer to come up with a bunch of stuff to say about music. But after listening to Painkillers, if I were you, I’d skip all the gabbing and just go get it. And then find the biggest, loudest audio player you can procure and crank it to 10. If you want to flatter me, come back and read the rest at some other point.
“‘Painkillers’ isn’t just a catchy idea to sketch some cover art around, it is the idea this album is built from, to take a bunch of timeless, kick ass songs, give them the dirty, heavy-handed Left Lane Cruiser/James leg punk blues treatment, with the result being an album that is perfectly concocted to kill pain. That’s what’s so genius about it. If they had released a batch of original songs under this concept, the painkilling would just be a placebo. By taking songs we all know and love already, songs that mean something to us, the medicine is potent, fast-acting, striking right at your gut.” (read full review)
Don Williams – And So It Goes
“This album has the ability to stimulate memory and reflection without coming across as dated or even nostalgic. This was the wisdom of going back and using Don’s original producer of Garth Fundis on this album. ‘And So It Goes’ is like an ice cream cone your grandfather bought you, the smell of your grandparent’s house, a tire swing on an old tree, the shade of the light when it hits a golden meadow just right at the turning of spring or fall.
‘”And So It Goes’ simply sends you to this soft place, and makes you second guess yourself if you overlooked some mainstream 70′s and 80′s country for lacking substance. It makes you wonder just how many of those Don Williams #1′s can you name. Not all of them? Well you better start digging and see what you missed.” (read full review)
Joseph Huber – Tongues of Fire
“”And that is what imbibes ‘Tongues of Fire’ with that intangible thing that makes certain albums feel warm to you. This album is about Joe searching and finding that sense of balance and purpose, while still recognizing that certain wild desires are there and will always be.
Though on the surface ‘Tongues of Fire’ may seem like a less poetic approach, after a few listens you find the poetry very much alive in songs like “An Old Mountain Tune” and “Dance Around The Daggers”. “Iron Rail” seems to speak to the hopeless, caged feeling Joe may have been laboring under in .357, while the theme can speak to frustrations in all of us. “Fell Off the Wagon” is the outright fun song that was lacking from Joe’s first release. And just about the time you wonder where Huber’s signature blazing banjo is on this album, here comes “Walkin’ Fine”.” (read full review)
Tom VandenAvond – Wreck of a Fine Man
“VandenAvond is a pure songwriter. As much as people love to babble on about how songwriting is such a noble art and pat their favorite artists on the back for being so great at it, few delve into the inner workings of the craft like Tom VandenAvond. Comparisons are made to Dylan because of VandenAvond’s voice. Artists comparisons are rarely fair to either side, yet this one is understandable because just like Dylan, VandenAvond is a writer that sings, not a singer that writes. When it feels like the music is getting in the way of the story, this can be a symptom of an upper stratosphere songwriter who it sometimes takes interpretations of their songs from other artists to make their work accessible to the wider public.” (read full review)
JP Harris & The Tough Choices – I’ll Keep Calling
“This true, honky-tonk, hard country music, with a little Western swing and rockabilly mixed in. Songs like “Badly Bent” and “Cross Your Name” tell hard-nosed stories that don’t need heavy language to drive home their heartbroken themes, and the up-tempo “Take It Back” and “Gear Jammin’ Daddy” gives this album a good variety and spice that keep it engaging throughout. All of these songs could be labeled cliche, but they’re so good, it’s hard to.
Can a long-bearded boy from Vermont make real country music? Can songs about letters stamped “Return To Sender” and and shots of whiskey to drown sorrow still be relevant? If I’ll Keep Calling is any indication, the answer is an adamant “Yes!”” (Read full review)
Willie Nelson- Heroes
This is truly a good album. It’s easy to look at it and say, “Well I’m a Willie fan so I guess I will like it,” but this is the best album he has put out in years, with great contributions from Willie’s son Lukas.
“As I said in my review of Lukas’s latest album, he is the offspring most rich with Willie blood, with top-shelf guitar playing abilities all his own to boot. If you want to know what a rock & roll version of Willie would be, look to Lukas. Close your eyes when Lukas is singing, and you can almost see Willie, with Lukas’s natural, high-register tone, and perfect pitch and control that doesn’t ape Willie, but evokes his memory.
“This album is good both because it is Willie, and because it is good. After years of navigating through a gray area in his career and having to dabble with some record labels probably less able to do a Willie release justice, he’s back with the same company who released ‘Red Headed Stranger’, and back to making albums worthy of the world stopping down to pay attention to.” (Read full review)
The Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
“This rootsy, soulful rock band is bound together by the force known as Brittany Howard, part Janis Joplin, part Kimya Dawson, both poetic, and fanatically possessed. Whenever I think of the true embodiment of the word “soul” I think of an old black woman. Whether it’s an old black female singer, or young white male guitar player, if they truly want to have soul, they must have an old black woman trapped inside of them somewhere, with 1,000 injustices fighting back tears in world-torn eyes, and infinite wisdom bred from bad choices by the self and others. Soul is anger only semi-controlled, and that is what Brittany Howard has. (“I’ll fight the planet!” she proclaims in the song “Heartbreaker”. )” (Read full review)
Jackson Taylor & The Sinners – Bad Juju
“This fiery, unfettered, full tilt assault on country music strikes that perfect chord of being both inescapably familiar yet remarkably fresh. Johnny Cash on cocaine may be the most appropriate description. More Memphis than Nashville, more madness than melancholy. But moreover, ‘Bad Juju’ is just one hell of a good time.
“This is fun music in the truest sense of the term. You don’t conjure up Bad Juju to commiserate with your pain, you conjure it up to forget about it. Jackson Taylor & The Sinners found their mojo by stripping it back to the simplest of lineups: Acoustic guitar and vocals, lead guitar, and drums. And when they found that mojo, they stuck with it, refined it, worked at it until it was perfect and its power both undeniable and universal on the human body.” (Read full review)
McDougall – A Few Towns More
“Scott McDougall from Portland, OR might be the last of the true Romantic-era troubadours: a bardic-like, almost fantasy character that arrives in town with a bass drum on his back and guitar in hand, and sets up at the local pub to sing songs, spin tales, slay lonesome moments, and save the spiritually repressed before whisking out of town like something out of a dream. The puffy beard, the cherubic features, his skill with wit, instrument, and lyric delivered with a wisp of Renaissance flair, he’s like an archetype pulled right out of the glossy illustrations of childhood fable.” (Read full review)
Davy Jay Sparrow - Olde Fashioned
“This album is just so refreshing. It’s refreshing for Western swing and for a neo-traditionalist album because it’s just so fun. This may be the most fun album I have heard in years. It’s not afraid to be spontaneous and whimsical. There’s a comic book element to it, and a Golden-Era silver screen dime store novel romanticism, yet in never crosses the line of being corny or cornpone. If anything, it’s “cool” in the traditional sense of the term. It’s like The Slow Poisoner meets The Stray Cats. With the funny names and cheese-colored cover, you may expect cheesiness, but it solves any of those concerns by being wonderfully structured and very astutely written, arranged, and performed.” (Read full review)
Lone Wolf OMB – A Walk in My Pause
“Katy bar the door and baton down the hatches folks because Lone Wolf, the Italian, trilingual, pizza spinning, gator wrestling, globe trotting, banjo plucking, banjo building, wild-assed Floridian from up North via Costa Rica has a new album headed your way. Warn the neighbors downstairs, cause it’s about to get loud and feet will be stomping!
“At this mature stage in the evolution of American music, it is extremely rare to hear something with a wholly unique approach. And to have that approach come from just one man and a very traditional, primitive instrument makes it even more exceptional. The combination of tempo and original technique derived from the clawhammer banjo style swirl for the most dizzying, disarming music experience imaginable when Lone Wolf is cued.” (Read full review)
Carolina Chocolate Drops - Leaving Eden
“The minute the Carolina Chocolate Drops were formed, the American music landscape was a much better place. Why, because we need yet another old-time juggy string band? God no. A mysterious yet very specific plague could wipe out half a hundred banjo-playing anthropology majors in suspenders busking in college town coffee shops and there would still be too many. The reason the Chocolate Drops are important is substance, sincerity, understanding of music, and rabid passion for exhuming the bones that form the skeleton that all the beauty of roots music hangs from.” (Read full review)
Restavrant – Yeah, I Carve Cheetahs
“This music comes at you like some crazy berserker dude kicking and swinging nun chucks, or a rooster with razor blades tied to its talons flying at your head. You may not exactly know what’s going on at first, but it certainly will get your heart pumping. Restavrant doesn’t play music for you, they beat you over the head with it. A two piece setup of screaming wierdo dudes originally from Victoria, TX, one armed with a gut-bending guitar and slide, and the other with common truck stop parking lot refuse that he wails on to create audible percussive-like noises. I’m pretty sure their form of expression is considered assault in certain countries. But for those with the right ear and disposition, it hurts so good.” (Read full review)