(image of Jesse Marchant is an edited still from this video)
When I was in college I wrote a column which the odd remaining soul might remember as being primarily focused on promoting Canadian musicians. It’s heart-warming to me all these years later, then, to find that my album of the year for 2012 is Canadian Jesse Marchant’s release Stray Ashes (as JBM). So many Canadian releases received accolades this year, from Vancouver’s Grimes, to a surprise return from Godspeed, Ottawa’s Kathleen Edwards, to PEI’s Rose Cousins who squeezed her way on to this list. My son’s namesake Leonard Cohen released an album in his late 70’s, Vancouver’s Japandroids tore up alternative charts, and many of my past favourites recorded decent albums too, including Royal Wood, Doug Paisley, both Rufus and Martha Wainwright, as well as Montreal’s Patrick Watson.
Liberally dotted with European acts, a few with ties to NYC, this year’s list is full of my favourite genres, from alt-classical to chamber pop, new funk, and guitar rock.
As usual, please pass on your favourites for the year and let me know what you think of mine. Here’s a toast to the late Sam the Record Man, to a great 2012 and to an even better 2013.
JBM – Stray Ashes (Western Vinyl Records)
Montreal-born singer-songwriter Jesse Marchant tells stories of love and loss on his latest release for Brooklyn’s Partisan Records. Epic and haunting, he possesses a bard-like sentiment, writing music for his wellbeing, an almost therapeutic process that calms the soul and releases a kind of communal spirit. Album of the year in my mind.
Nils Frahm – Screws (Erased Tapes)
Berlin modern pianist makes my list for a second year in a row with a mesmerizing collection of short standards for a new era. The back story is almost as perfect as Frahm broke his thumb just short of his thirtieth birthday, but decided against doctor’s orders and continued writing music, one song for each remaining digit, and thus put out this great nine-song release.
Kim Janssen – Ancient Crime (Snowstar Records)
Young, multi-talented Dutch solo musician reinvents a past life at a boarding school in Northwest England while evoking a folksier version of Sufjan Stevens-meet Damien Rice.
Lord Huron – Lonesome Dreams (IAMSOUND)
Well-travelled Americana troubadour takes listeners on an emotion-rich journey of harmonic folk-rock that is part California sunset, part story of our lives. Singer Ben Schneider treads similar water as Fleet Foxes but personalises it in a way that makes his ownership unquestionable to those who take even a shallow listen to the art on display here. “Time to Run” performed live in the link below is probably my track of the year:
Menahan Street Band – The Crossing (Daptone Records)
Funk and hip-hop form the backbone of life itself for these Brooklyn instrumentalists. They’re frequently sampled for their horn-rich grooves and organ solos that are impossible to resist.
Andrew Bird – Break it Yourself (Bella Union)
Classically trained as a violinist, Chicago’s Bird has been plucking, tapping, bowing and squeezing every possible note and random sound out of his preferred instrument to accompany his sentimental lyrics and whistle solos for nearly twenty years. This is his most complete album to date and, at just shy of his fortieth birthday, is a sure sign of a man nearing perfection of his craft.
I am Oak – Nowhere or Tammensaari (Snowstar Records)
Dutch ambient folk artists I am Oak were new to me this year. They recorded this album in a secluded house in a quiet corner of Swedish-speaking Finland, which is somehow fitting as this release has much in common with some of the Scandinavian (and Americana) releases that have so often made my cumulative lists over the years.
Sugarman 3 – What The World Needs Now (Daptone Records)
The second retrofied release on my list this year, Neil Sugarman’s sax-led funk and soul released their first studio effort in ten years, highlighted by the stellar treatment of the Bacharach classic from which they derived their album title.
Max Richter – Vivaldi Four Seasons – recomposed (Deutsche Grammophon)
German-born alt-classic composer extraordinaire aims high as he redoes Vivaldi in a post-modern variation that is true to the original masterpiece but with obvious dazzling modern flair.
Neil Halstead – Palindrome Hunches (Brushfire)Former Slowdive frontman creates his best post-Pygmalian collection yet, getting his storytelling balanced perfectly with his moody guitarwork.
The Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now (Dead Oceans) Swedish writers of English songs have long been some of my favourites, from alt-rock group Kent to José González. Kristian Matsson covers familiar territory alternating between piano and guitar, but offers much variety and voice that grates in a way that leaves an emotional impact without leaving your mind.
Damien Jurado – Maraqopa (Secretly Canadian) I first saw Damien Jurado very early in his career when he opened for Sunny Day Real Estate’s Jeremy Enigk in Seattle near the peak of the former’s notoriety. His honesty and edginess struck me in the same way Hayden’s had around that same time period and Jurado has traveled a similar path as his Canadian counterpart, taking a generation of listeners through their wide-eyed college years, across their contemplative thirties and now maturing as smoothly as a bold red wine. Jurado is a songwriter’s songwriter who thankfully got a little more deserving notice with this album.
Port St. Willow – Holiday (self released)
Androgynous vocals (sometimes slightly Dallas Greenish) sulk and shrug their way through one of the year’s best debuts. One-man-band Nick Principe has written a complete album in the vein of those rarely scene in this day and age, worrying not that most of the tracks are too long or drawn out for radio. His sparse vocals pull you closer, whispering little morsels that keep you listening, with great rewards.
Rose Cousins – Send Off (Old Farm Pony) Canadian songwriter and pianist originally from PEI sings better and about topics that display more piercing human insight than songbird cousins Sarah Harmer or Kathleen Edwards. Pitch perfect and haunting, she would be the perfect musical companion for Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon were it not for her frequent and made-in-heaven match with Toronto’s Royal Wood, with whom she has often shared the stage. Cousins sings a sad song like it’s a tribute to every tear you ever shed, with simple and effective lyrics, in a way that makes her songs a shared experience rather the purposeful distance of many of her peers.
Sigur Rós – Valtari (Parlophone) Icelandic legends show how even a relatively mishmashish release is still head-and-shoulders above what the average even highly-touted radio friendly guitar group can muster. Spine-chilling lyrics and soaring melodic verses leave so much for the listener to internalize which has long made Sigur Ros more post-rock art project than anything with much shelf-life on ITunes or the like.
Silver Firs – Silver Firs, Lost in the Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs, The Souljazz Orchestra – Solidarity, Nick Waterhouse – Time’s All Gone, Patrick Watson – Adventures in your own Backyard