It’s coming on 2013, and for weeks, otherbloggers and tastemakers have been touting their 2012 picks, jostling to be the best and first match for your own preferences, inviting debate over position in the ranks. And once again, here I am, after weeks of archival digging and false starts, late out of the gate and still struggling with the sheer hubris of presenting my own Year In Review.
As I noted last December atop our Best Coverfolk of 2011 feature, my reluctance to pass judgement isn’t a cop-out. I’m a relatively fickle listener, but I’m also the sort of collector who takes more delight in discovery than digs. Our focus on the breadth of music often leans harder towards emergence, promise, and artist evolution than the next big thing because that’s the honest expression of how I think and hear. There’s no true hierarchy of artistic output in my disheveled aural infrastructure, just a spectrum of successes and partial successes. (And how does one compare the sublime to the sentimental? The transformation to the faithful revisioning? The sparse to the layered? Coverage comes in as many flavors and subtypes, and each one can be done well.)
As a general policy, then, I eschew the critical lens; our mandate, as we see it, is to tout and expose. While others rank and score, we celebrate and share that which we love as we find it, believing that if it weren’t among the best things you’d hear all year, it wasn’t worth posting in the first place. In that sense, the entirety of our year’s blogging is our recommendations list for the year. To winnow it down feels, on the one hand, like a dismissal of that joy we found in any of it when we found it.
And yet there is method in the madness of the recovery of the recent in the name of hierarchical organization. Just considering a Best Of post provides a useful and productive opportunity to revisit the archives. And though this year was perhaps not quite as generous as the last in some categories of coverage, a generous and precious handful of coverfolk EPs and covers albums have emerged this year; to come back to them before they fade from the memory has its uses.
More significantly, while I abhor the very idea of ranking songs, album-length collections seem easier to rate. Hitting the mark singly, in three minutes or so of song, is itself a hard standard; providing a rich, nuanced journey through multiple tracks without stumbling is nigh impossible. Self-selection becomes the primary criteria, then: in those very rare cases where an entire album of covers comes to us as a success, the end result is well worth repeating at year’s end. And here, the successes are so few and far between, we can count on our fingers the albums which deserve not just our respect, but our awe and appreciation, and our last dollars.
And so today, as the last days of the year wane into history, we bring you our wholly subjective picks: the best folk, roots, indie, and Americana coverfolk albums of 2012, arranged into categories much like those which we would use were we in the habit of ranking. Read, download, follow links to purchase, and then stay tuned later this weekend for an unordered mix of our favorite singletons and one-offs of the year.
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists): Leonard Cohen: The Bard of Montreal / MOJO Magazine Presents The Songs of Leonard Cohen Covered(tie)
The year in multi-genre, multi-artist tribute albums started and ended badly, in our wholly subjective estimation: Chimes of Freedom, Amnesty’s gigantic 4-CD Dylan tribute, offered several duds and but a single disc’s worth of favorites; late-year Fleetwood Mac tributes from MOJO magazine and Starbucks in-house label Hear Music leaned heavily indiepop this year, though we’ll surely see a track from one or the other in our impending “best of” single-shot mixtape, and neither made for full-bore success. But a similarly paired set of tributes to Leonard Cohen – a freebie from Canadian folklabel Herohill, and a March release from MOJO now mostly only available to collectors willing to pay for back issues – were either centrally or exclusively indiefolk albums, as befits a new generation of singer-songwriters heavily influenced by the poetry and melodic genius of the inimitable Canadian bard, and both were so strong, we’ve decided to put them up as a twinned set.
Oh Michael, Look What You’ve Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman, a little-blogged under-the-radar release from Tompkins Square Records which came to my attention via a reader just last month, deserves second-place recognition for a comprehensively strong set of folk-and-more tracks that reveal surprising nuance from the catalog of a sadly undersung jazzfolk hero of the Cornish circuit with over 30 albums to his name; check it out for slow, dreamy interpretations from Meg Baird, Two Wings, Maddy Prior, William Tyler, Hiss Golden Messenger, the ubiquitous Lucinda Williams and others who shared his stage. Strong runners-up included the decidedly twangy Nick Lowe tribute Lowe Country, andLong Distance Salvation, a double-disk tribute to Springsteen’s Nebraska, which contains at least a single album’s worth of excellence, and plenty of good besides.
- Michael Kiwanuka: Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye (orig. Leonard Cohen)
(from Mojo 2012.03: The Songs of Leonard Cohen Covered, 2012)
- Woodpigeon: Chelsea Hotel, No. 2 (orig. Leonard Cohen)
- Old Man Luedecke: Closing Time (orig. Leonard Cohen)
(from Herohill vs. Leonard Cohen: The Bard Of Montreal, 2012)
- Meg Baird: No Song To Sing (orig. Michael Chapman)
(from Oh Michael, Look What You’ve Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman, 2012)
- Juniper Tar: Atlantic City (orig. Bruce Springsteen)
(from Long Distance Salvation: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, 2012)
- Lori McKenna: What’s Shaking On The Hill (orig. Nick Lowe)
(from Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe, 2012)
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist): Rory Block, I Belong To The Band: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis
Though last year there was strong competition in this category, the reciprocal single-folk-artist tribute was much rarer this year – indeed, as noted below, since the EP category contains but a single entry, we almost abolished it entirely. In part, this is because many of the best one-artist tribute albums of 2012 lean too far away from folk to count: Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s tribute to the Nina Simone songbook, for example, is quite powerful, but far too R&B for a folkblog; indie rock duo The Rosebuds’ same-name 20-year anniversary tribute to Sade album Love Deluxe, while excellent in its own right, is truly a soul album, though it has enough elements of folk to legitimize an honorable mention. Happily, country blues counts as folk on most radio playlists, and on ours. And so despite its own issues of over-consistency, Rory Block’s otherwise excellent Rev. Gary Davis tribute, with its masterfully authentic guitarwork and more than a hint of gospel harmonies, gets the prize by default.
Also problematic, for technical reasons: David Crossland’s tribute to mentor and Kingston Trio co-founder John Stewart remains on the cusp of release as of presstime and thus will likely count as a 2013 contender. And though Love Canon’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 and Treatment Bound: A Ukulele Tribute To The Replacements got plenty of play in my car and my house this year, both get honorable mention but no awards: the former tribute to the songs of my 80′s childhood is hugely fun and eminently sunny but, despite a strong and perfectly earnest take on Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing, ultimately lacks depth (and is probably supposed to, given the tongue-in-cheek band name, Tron-parody album cover, the laughter that ends many tracks, and a playlist that includes slyly gleeful bluegrass versions of both Olivia Newton John hit Physical and Devo’sWhip It); similarly, and much less successfully, though the MTV unplugged consistency of the Replacements tribute is fun for a while, the one-take two-uke retread approach wears thin by album’s end, leaving it with little staying power.
- Rory Block: I Am The Light Of The World (orig. Rev. Gary Davis)
(from I Belong To The Band: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis, 2012)
- Love Canon: Centerfold (orig. J. Geils Band)
- Love Canon: Don’t Stop Believin’ (orig. Journey)
(from Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, 2012)
The Year’s Best Tribute EP: Hyacinth House, A Tribute to Bob
As above. This foreign-born folk-slash-indierock throwdown – technically recorded over a sequence of years, possibly not released in 2012 in the first place, and impossible to track or label otherwise with any definitive assurance – was the only EP-length reciprocal single-artist tribute we found this year. Luckily, it’s quite good enough to stand on its own.
Honorable mention goes to the four songs of Jurado Covers, which – quite unusually, for an EP-length format – has four different yet equally strong indie singer-songwriters paying tribute to the same artist, in honor of the release of Damien Jurado’s “zenlike” 2012 release Maraqopa. Download it for free at the link below.
The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist): Barrett Smith and Shannon Whitworth, Bring It On Home
By contrast, we find a huge and varied set of contenders in this category this year, many of which deserve respect and admiration at year’s end, from Pesky J. Nixon’s alternately intimate and raucous living-room-recorded Red Ducks to The Chieftains’ guest-heavy collaboration Voice Of Ages, which made the rounds of many blogs upon release, thanks to guest spots from Bon Iver, The Low Anthem, et al. But if we’re looking for album-length perfection with staying power, three strong contenders shoot to the top of the list: Peter Mulvey’s ancient, raw, ragged The Good Stuff, Rickie Lee Jones’ stunningly hushed and deconstructedThe Devil You Know, which was produced by Ben Harper and sounds like it, and Shannon Whitworth and Barrett Smith’s amazingly heartfelt Bring It On Home. Of these, the half-acoustic soul, half-folk Bring It On Home gets the nod for top honors by a razor’s edge, because we’re suckers for both masterfully produced layers of stringwork and sweet harmonies here at Cover Lay Down, and this album has got ‘em in spades.
- Shannon Whitworth & Barrett Smith: Duncan (orig. Paul Simon)
- Shannon Whitworth & Barrett Smith: You Are My Sunshine (orig. Oliver Hood)
(from Bring It On Home, 2012)
- The Chieftains ft. Bon Iver: Down In The Willow Garden (trad.)
(from Voice Of Ages, 2012)
The Year’s Best Covers Album (multiple artists): Mason Jar Music and Friends, The Storm Is Passing Over
An incredible eleventh hour collection of songs thematically joined by the narratives of flood and storm evoked by Hurricane Sandy, The Storm Is Passing Over easily leapfrogs over all previous contenders in an otherwise lightly-populated category to make its first appearance here on Cover Lay Down atop our year’s end list, leaving us with nary a runner-up in sight. The predominantly sparse songs lean heavily towards the public domain, of both the traditional and the old-school folk, gospel, and blues canons; though Bela Fleck and Roseanne Cash make an appearance, generally speaking, the artists here, most of whom share a connection to the hard-hit borough of Brooklyn and its strong new folk scene, represent a veritable cross-section of the new folk revival, from Emily Elbert, Michael Daves, and Aoife O’Donovan to Dawn Landes, Abigail Washburn, Piers Faccini, The Gundersen Family and Tift Merritt.
A project like this, with all songs recorded in the last few weeks, could have come off as hastily contrived. But the first-rate artists here, many of whom we have been following for years, come together mightily, bringing a smooth collection of songs that range from tender to triumphant, heavy on the solo singer-songwriter and country blues – which is to say the three samples below are a true indictor; it all sounds this good from start to finish. Bonus points: it’s available on the cheap by name-your-own-donation, with all proceeds going to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, so head over to the website to stream and download now and support both scene and sorrow.
- The Gundersen Family: The Flood (orig. Stanley Brothers)
- Abigail Washburn w/ Bela Fleck: Backwater Blues (orig. Bessie Smith)
- Tift Merritt: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (trad.)
(from The Storm Is Passing Over, 2012)
The Year’s Best Covers EP: Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, Old Gold
The short-set challengers in this category for 2012 run an especially broad gamut – so much so that it was tempting to create a hybrid-genre category just for Leftover Cuties and Lake Street Dive, both of which incorporate acoustic, big band, and indie elements in ways that truly defy genre. Other challenges, different in scope but similar in scale, face us with the Deschutes River Recordings series, which at three tracks, seems too light to compete, though each is a gem on its own, and with Laura Cortese‘s five-track Kickstarter Covers album, which, as we noted upon receipt, is technically not available to any but a handful of us who gave to last year’s Poison Oaks project crowdfunding campaign, though we have assurance from Laura herself that a slow track-by-track release over time is perfectly acceptable, allowing for our inclusion of a second track herein.
But although Ahoy!, the late-year half-pint release from newgrass pioneers the Punch Brothers, is an energetic delight of talent and folk hybridization, and although You Gotta Roll, the 5 song all-covers EP from Woody Pines, has a hopped-up ragtime-stringband-meets-rockabilly energy that evokes an era when blues, folk, jazz, and country were still intermingled on dustbowl radio, it’s the sheer warmth of Seattle countryfolk singer-songwriter Zoe Muth’s Old Gold that stands out among near-equals, with sweet, twangy vocals and a heady set of songs from her influences reimagined with richly-arranged abandon making for a true powerhouse of a coverset. Kudos to Signature Sounds, to producer Rob Mitchell, and to Muth herself, for their collaborative work in getting this tiny, precious Americana gem into the world.
- Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers: Heart Like A Wheel (orig. Kate & Anna McGarrigle)
(from Old Gold, 2012)
The Year’s Best Kidfolk Covers Album: Renee & Jeremy, A Little Love
This was the year I truly fell in love with California singer-songwriter duo Renee & Jeremy; indeed, I’ve probably blogged about their work more times than anyone this year, and who can blame me? A Little Love is a tidy, gleeful gem of modern kindie music, apt and ample for family fare, chock full of soft-yet-infectiously reimagined songs from R.E.M., Coldplay, Queen, Supertramp, and others that celebrate the gift that is the generous and well-lived life.
Two new albums from perennial kidfolk favorite and Smithsonian songstressElizabeth Mitchell tie for second place: both her Grammy-nominated Woody Guthrie covers album Little Seed and her more recent release Blue Clouds are excellent additions to a growing body of work, further cementing her place at the core of the modern kidfolk canon. Bonus points to Jumpin’ Through Hoops, whose Rockin’ to the Fiddle is a tiny, joyous tradfolk set of fiddle tunes and kidfolk classics from Kristen Andreassen and friends which was released too late in 2011 for consideration in last year’s tongue-in-cheek awards.
The Year’s Best Tradfolk Covers Album: Charlie Parr, Keep Your Hands On The Plow
Last year, this category existed almost exclusively to acknowledge the highly-anticipated duo release from Michael Daves and Chris Thile; this year, we keep it in the mix in order to call back to Charlie Parr’s early 2012 treatment of old gospel blues songs, which has had quite solid staying power in our home and our ears as the year has progressed. As we noted way back in January, Parr’s hoarse voice and honest workmanship make for an especially strong and consistent album, sparse and heartfelt, with the right balance of ragged gospel blues harmonies and well-crafted hill-and-holler fiddle and fingerpicking bound to tempt those who find their heart in the modern neo-trad work of Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Low Anthem while still touching a nerve in lovers of the Louvin Brothers, Dave Van Ronk, Leo Kottke, and more.
A strong second-place showing from Portland’s well-respected, internationally-known Foghorn Stringband, whose 21-track 2012 release Outshine The Sun is a perfect exemplar of a classic old-timey sound, lends credence to our category even as their recent forays into Cajun and other broad roots sounds and sources adeptly widen the lens of the traditional. Though the inclusion of songs from Hazel Dickens, the Carter Family, and the Stanley Brothers in the mix of fiddle tunes, pre-WWII country, and early bluegrass technically transcends the limitations of the public domain canon, the unified sound of fiddle, guitar, mandolin, stand-up bass, and vocal harmonies around a single microphone has a warmth and an organic authenticity that is both loving and truly timeless, making the album well worth revisiting here.
- Charlie Parr: When First Unto This Country (trad.)
- Charlie Parr: All The Good Times Are Past And Gone (trad.)
(from Keep Your Hands On The Plow, 2012)
- Foghorn Stringband: Be Kind To A Man While He’s Down (trad.)
(from Outshine The Sun, 2012)
The Year’s Best Rereleased Cover or Tribute Album: Lotte Kestner, Extra Covers Collection
We created this category last year as a one-shot in order to feature They Will Have Their Way, a nominally “new” release cobbled from two previous one-shot tribute albums of male and female covers of Neil and Tim Finn songs. But while technically there is some great new coverage in Trespasser’s William co-founder Lotte Kestner’s aptly if unimaginatively titled Extra Covers Collection, the majority of the slowcore collection is forged from the two 2011 EPs we discovered and touted too late to make it into last year’s “best of” feature. Both new and older tracks combine to hold up eminently well as a late night lullaby set, though we continue to wish Kestner, who trends towards covering the obscure, would include more detail in her track listing; the Billy Idol cover below is a retread, while the Gotye cover is, naturally, new, but both remain favorites.
- Lotte Kestner: Eyes Without A Face (orig. Billy Idol)
- Lotte Kestner: Somebody That I Used To Know (orig. Gotye)
(from Extra Covers Collection, 2012)
The Year’s Best Mostly Covers Album: Rayna Gellert, Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds
A kind of catch-all last year, which allowed for a nod to those albums which lean heavily on coverage, but include enough originals in the mix to knock them out of consideration as “true” covers albums. This year, consideration of such cover-heavy releases allows us to celebrate the work of several artists: a new solo outing from Uncle Earl fiddle-player Rayna Gellert, New York tradfolker Jan Bell’s well-balanced thematic soiree Dream of the Miner’s Child, bluegrass banjo wizard Bill Evans’ In Good Company, a guest-heavy album which includes a delightfully fun 4-song sequence of instrumental Beatles tunes plus coverage of John Martyn and Sarah Siskind, and Canadian crooner Reid Jamieson’s tribute to the songs of winter, which, while it garnered treatment as a covers album upon release in November, truly belongs in this category thanks to three solid original tunes.
Of these, Rayna Gellert’s Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds edges out to the top, if only because of how effectively Gellert packages and presents a perfectly-balanced mix of the traditional and the newly-penned in her triple-threat role as arranger, lead performer, and producer – indeed, the album, which finds the artist shifting from old-timey fiddle tunes to vocal-driven singer-songwriter fare, is so unified in its timelessness, it’s often hard to tell which are the old tunes, and which the new. NPR’s Bob Williams called it “an exquisite slice of Americana”, and we’re inclined to agree, recommending it to the No Depression and indiefolk crowds alike for its morphine-drip drones and atmospheres. And with its strong phrasing, Gellert’s deep alto voice, risen to new-found prominence, reminds us of none so much as Cindy Kallett’s, which is high praise indeed from this long-time fan.
- Rayna Gellert ft. Scott Miller: 1845 (trad.)
- Rayna Gellert: The Fatal Flower Garden (trad.)
(from Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds, 2012)
The Year’s Best YouTube Covers Series: ortoPilot, 2012 YouTube Advent Calendar
Finally, our sole new category this year, and one long-overdue, as the trend towards YouTube coverage sets and series seems to reached critical mass a while ago. Old Ideas with New Friends, a previously-blogged early 2012 Vimeo project designed to raise awareness of Leonard Cohen’s then-new release Old Ideas, had a diverse set of tracks but several with staying power, while Antje Dukekot’s monthly six-song-so-far Antje Sings Covers! solo set may lack the rich instrumentation and depth of her nuanced studio albums, but her lighthearted overdubbed takes on favorite songs from Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, The Wailin’ Jennys, and others make for a fine if cutesy introduction to her live performance. But in the end, appropriately enough, it’s the native YouTuber who wins out:ortoPilot’s advent calendars are always stellar, but this year’s is nearly perfect, with masterful predominantly solo guitar-and-voice driven takes on a diverse set of modern pop and indie radio tunes from Seahorses, Kings of Convenience and Foster The People to TLC, Green Day, Stevie Wonder and Smashmouth.
- ortoPilot: You’ve Got A Friend In Me (orig. Randy Newman)
- Antje Duvekot: Ford Econoline (orig. Nanci Griffith)
Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.
And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’ end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of favorite 2012 covers otherwise unblogged.
Thanks, folks. May your days be merry and bright.