1. The Way We Move- Langhorne Slim & The Law Ramseur Records, Released: June 5, 2012
From start to finish, the fifth studio album from folk rocker Langhorne Slim is a masterpiece. Whether it's brash songs like the opening title track or deeply introspective songs like the final track "Past Lives," Slim's latest offering is an illustration of life—his life in most cases. The bottom line on The Way We Move is that even if it wasn't a cascade of emotion, it's still a piano, organ and banjo laden country folk album that flat, out, rocks. It's an album that gets dirty and that's what makes it great.
2. The Clearing- Bowerbirds Dead Oceans, Released: March 6, 2012
North Carolina band Bowerbirds specialize in sweet sounding and slow building folk anthems paired with perfect harmonies. Their third album The Clearing is easily the most decadent album of 2012. It just feels rich. As each song progresses, especially "Walk the Furrows," you'll find that your chest pounds along to the music, increasing in strength with each verse. Heavy strings and pouncing piano flank the vocals in each song, turning the album into a sort of folk orchestra performance. It's uplifting and beautiful.
3. 151a- Kishi Bashi Joyful Noise Recordings, Released: April 10, 2012
The debut solo album from K Ishibashi—who records as Kishi Bashi, is exactly what you'd expect from an American born, Japanese violinist who attempts pop music. It ends up being neither classical nor pop—and that's why it's awesome. I don't think anyone would expect something so experimental to be so pretty, but it is. Ishibashi blends a traditional orchestra string sound with '80s Tron-like synth and melancholy vocals. Each song eventually transitions into a freeing pop song, ready for a summer day.
4. KinKonK- MOsley WOtta Independent, Released September: 14, 2012
The concept record KinKonK from Bend group MOsley WOtta is based on so many different things, it's quite insane. First you've got the layer of the 1933 King Kong movie to contend with. After that there's stuff about the slave trade, the birth of hip-hop and the inner-city ghettos. And if that wasn't enough, the entire album can be wrapped up (no pun intended) as a biography relating to front man Jason Graham's personal experience with suburban surroundings and race. If you can digest even half of that as you listen, you will have one awesome and sometimes dark hip-hop trip.
5. Break It Yourself- Andrew Bird Mom + Pop Music, Released: March 6, 2012
There can be pretty much no denying that Andrew Bird is king of experimental violin folk—though he does probably pluck it more than he bows it. On his latest studio offering Break It Yourself, Bird brings more orchestral folk to the table than ever before. Typically Bird has kept that classical sound a faint background, but this time, it is front and center. Songs like "Give It Away" rely heavily on violin and subtle harmonies to create flowing tracks that at times sound a little like something you'd listen to on a breezy beach.
6. Django Django- Django Django Ribbon Music, Released: August 30, 2012
London England newcomers Django Django are labeled as psychedelic art pop on Spotify. It's a good thing they came up with a name for it, because I couldn't. The world beat instrumentation and acid trip beats with minimal vocals sound more like a soundtrack to some futuristic sci-fi movie where the cast dance around. Maybe think a mash-up of Blade Runner and Glee. Luckily, for them and for us, they totally pulled off the riskiest album of the year.
7. The Lumineers- The Lumineers Dualtone Music, Released: April 3, 2012
If you haven't heard of The Lumineers, the only question I have for you is—how much are property taxes for that rock you live under? This Denver Colorado trio went from zero to 60 in the span of a year. I first saw these guys with about 50 other people at Portland's Mississippi Studios in February of 2011. A month ago, they sold out the Crystal Ballroom. Their long-awaited debut album is chock full of minimalist folk ballads. Translation—it's a heartfelt and heavy album with wrinkles of hopefulness that keep you smiling.
8. Blunderbuss- Jack White Third Man/Columbia, Released: April 20, 2012
When I saw Jack White in concert this year, I was struck by the notion that I was watching a man turn into a living legend right before my eyes. Sure his work with The White Stripes and The Raconteurs was epically special and everyone took notice. But I'm not sure that we all knew we were witnessing history-making music. Enter White's solo debut Blunderbuss. Now we'll all get the message loud and clear. This album is the stuff that rock n' roll is made of. It's rebellious and personal. It intoxicates the listener as it moves from raucous tunes like "Sixteen Saltiness" to troubled slow songs like "Love Interruption." A true rollercoaster of greatness.
9. Bear Creek- Brandi Carlile Columbia, Released June 1, 2012
In 2012, Brandi Carlile pulled off the most personal album recorded this year. There isn't a single song on Bear Creek that isn't deeply rooted in some tangible event, memory, or emotion experienced by either Carlile or her long time band members Phil and Tim Hanseroth, who co-wrote the album with her. Modern country dominates but includes classic touches that shine through. It's impossible to listen to this album and not have heartstrings tugged.
10. O' Be Joyful- Shovels & Rope Dualtone Music, Released: July 31, 2012
Any year-end list that doesn't acknowledge this husband-and-wife southern country band from South Carolina is kidding readers that the publication knows good music. O' Be Joyful is boot-stomping-whiskey-drinking goodness from track one to track 11. It's probably the most repeat-button-worthy album in this list and that is due in large part to sing-along tracks like "Birmingham"—which I listed as the best song of 2012. If you haven't heard this album yet, be sure to hold on to it and break it out the next time you're on a road trip.