TOP TEN CDs of 2012

By Dave Soyars

1.         Carolina Chocolate DropsLeaving Eden

Carolina_Chocolate_DropsIt’s not often any artist will make my top spot more than once, let alone twice within three years; there are plenty that impressed me enormously at first and then didn’t develop beyond their one good idea (see: Sons, Mumford &). The CCDs are not only starting from a very rich tradition, but have already established their ability to look outside it as well. They still apply it to contemporary songs, only this time the title track is from the workers song tradition rather than an R&B or Tom Waits cover, but there’s just as much from the African-American string band tradition, as well as vocals both brassy and sweet and sharp instrumentalism. Three-peat? It wouldn’t surprise me.

2.         Leonard CohenOld Ideas

Finally he’s backed away a bit from the icy textures; the bluesy torch songs and his ever-bassier voice backed by more gentle acoustic instrumentation and less synth programming than his past several. The result is his best record in years. His voice is obviously losing some power- not that grit was ever his strong point- but its emotional effectiveness resonates with life experience, which, as we know from Johnny Cash’s waning years, is a winning combination.

3.         Bob DylanTempest

And speaking of old voices, there is a sense of profound poetic justice in the fact that the former Mr. Zimmerman finally inhabits the voice as well as the spirit of the 90-year-old blues master he’s wanted to be since he was a teenager. His vocal chops- such as they were- may have largely deserted him, but his songwriting skills haven’t. Witness the 14-minute title track, as epic as he’s ever done. Part allegory, part traditional ballad, it mixes the characters from the real life and movie versions of the sinking of the Titanic with thoughts on the nature of life, love and mortality, complete with a hint of satire. That he’s the only one who could pull off such a song is only half the story- he’s the only one that would try.

4.         The ChieftainsVoice of Ages

The Chieftains featuring a long list of guests on a new recording is no new thing. What is a bit different this time is that most of these guests weren’t alive when the band formed. This could have been a mess or an opportunistic attempt at trendiness had it gone wrong, but it goes deliriously right. Part of that is because the guests- who include the above-mentioned Carolina Chocolate Drops, as well as the Civil Wars, The Decembrists and other trendy young folkie types, do a good job of raising their game, while the Chieftains concentrate on the common ground. The result, as the cliché goes, has appeal ‘for all ages.’

5.         Bill FayLife is People

Another example of why ’12 might be called “the year of the old man,” the 60-something Fay, who’s been around since the 1960s, has released what might actually be a finer record than his legendary (and its original form, very collectible) early 1970s release, Time of the Last Persecution. Similarly to the late Judee Sill, Protestant hymns and Bob Dylan probably inform his songwriting about equally, and the restrained way in which he delivers his songs about love and life (as well as his cover of Wilco’s Jesus, etc.) is seductive and inviting.

6.         BellowheadBroadside

The horn-inflected English folk band is so powerful and so aggressively weird that one forgets they’re basically an acoustic folk band. This, their first with an ostensibly ‘rock’ producer, tones it down a bit but not much. And their versions of hoary chestnuts like Byker Hill do justice to both the storytelling tradition and the kind of wild abandon they specialize in. Be warned, though- they play it loud. Not for the faint of heart.

7.         Loudon Wainwright IIIOlder Than My Old Man Now

Another old man, but this one was an old crank in his 20s. If anything he sounds more lively and playful now than in his previous incarnation as “New Dylan number 300-or-so.” Now instead of one man and an acoustic guitar, there’s everything from ragtime piano to NY 1970s style sax to guest appearances from his son Rufus and daughter Martha. The same things that have always obsessed him- love, hate, despair, mortality, strained relationships with friends and family- still do, but there’s something about the eclectic musical settings and the self-assured way he presents himself that…well, I won’t say belies his age, but certainly makes it irrelevant.

8.         I See Hawks in L.A.New Kind of Lonely

With so much cowboy-hatted bland mainstream rock posing as country music these days, it’s great to have an LA band carrying the Cosmic California Country torch.  Great musicianship and relaxed singing match nicely with songs about life, death (a seeming obsession behind many of their finest original songs) and loving the Grateful Dead.

9.         The Valparaiso Men’s ChorusThe Straits of Saint Claude

The project of a large group of Louisiana musicians and songwriters, developed by folks who cut their teeth singing sea shanties for Tokyo Disney, they could also be called ‘a choir of Tom Waitses’, There’s nothing polite or…err…Disney about their Louisiana brand of sea shanties and drunken sing-alongs, but lots of spirit and fun. Thanks to the wonderful Oxford American magazine, which features them in their music issue (and on the free CD that’s included), for introducing me to these guys. Still on newsstands, and full of great music, though most of it not recent.

10.       Old Crow Medicine ShowCarry Me Back

Young rather than old, but they play a style of music much older than they are. While there’s plenty of what might be called youthful enthusiasm, there’s also tight harmonies, skillful bluegrass and old-time inflected playing, and songs with concerns both modern and universal.

Dave Soyars is a guitarist, electric bass player, a singer/songwriter, and a print journalist with over fifteen years experience. His column features happenings on the folk and traditional music scene both locally and internationally, with commentary on recordings, as well as live shows, and occasionally films and books. Please feel free to e-mail him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.