A few of my favorite things about 2012: A somewhat musical review

Anais MitchellOriginally written for No Depression

I rang in 2012 at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, South Carolina, at an Avett Brothers concert. It was one of two or three times that I’d see the Avetts in 2012. Another memorable moment came at the Austin City Limits Festival. Completely exhausted and overwhelmed with the absurd crowds, the downpours, the horrendous sound systems and football-on-big-screens interludes, my partner and I bailed a couple songs into the Avetts’ set. On our way back to the car, though, we discovered we could hear the band crystal clear from the park across the street, where the competing stages and crowd noise were strangely filtered away. (By what? All the bicycles? The three or four trees?) We sat on the lawn – we could even see through the fence – and enjoyed the rest of their show from afar.

In a way, it was a good metaphor for my year in the music business. It was a year when I took a break from the absurd overcrowding of music festivals and industry events, focused in on my home and family, a book I’m trying to write, the couple of day jobs I hold down, and finding space in my heart and mind to truly, completely enjoy music again. Not just because I have to; not because it’s my job to enjoy music; but because I was once a five-year-old child craving more than anything a seat at a piano, where I dreamed I might plunk keys with so much creative energy as to play entire landscapes into being.

Music is in my blood and, at times, I’ve found being a critic is like donating platelets. It’s not a perfect existence, but it allows me to deeply, richly analyse the thing with which I have fueled my world. After six years of doing what I thought others expected of a critic, 2012 was the year where I did what I expected of myself. As a result, I found music from across the street, away from the maddening crowd, among the trees and the fields, where the sound could dance on its own, with plenty of space, without competing for anything or trying to fit into any particular scene.

I sat on a hill in Tennessee, just about halfway through 2012. It was a hill on which others have sat for 80 years. A hill at theHighlander Center, which has been borrowed from the mountains along the Tennesee-Carolina border for the purpose of figuring out how to make the world a better place. The others who have sat there have, for generations, had hard conversations, have cried and sweat and slept in fear. They’ve been raided and threatened. They’ve had incredible meals and celebrated, and danced, and dreamed. They’ve stretched and wandered and tried to come up with plans. They have challenged each other – as I was challenged that week. At the beginning and end of every day, they have sung songs which were sung by others before them, who faced other questions and struggled with larger and different injustices, and have overcome. There, I remembered music is something we have not only to entertain us, but to carry us, to help us carry each other. The history of music – specifically folk music, roots music, the stuff we call Americana – is a rope over the mountain, onto which we can grab for strength, for direction, or just when we need to rest, when we need to connect.

If you listen to the ten albums I collected into a list of some of my favorites of the year, you’ll hear all these things. You’ll hear the hand of history reaching out to pull us through. You’ll hear the struggles of everyday people, coming to terms with the cacophony of life. You’ll hear melodies which defy the din of me-me-me – the status updates and news headlines and sensationalism of political debate. Anais Mitchell, John Fullbright, Rodney Crowell, Rose Cousins, Black Prairie, the Avetts…everyone listed – these are artists who have crossed the street to sit in the empty spaces, away from everything. They’ve stepped back from the canvas and taken a look at the bigger picture, back far enough to filter out the bullshit and hone in on the parts of it which serve us. The parts which sing. Which swing us, carry us forward.

2012 was the year I lost all interest in music which does none of those things. I appreciate entertainment for entertainment’s sake, but with the world being as it is, I feel the need to hear music which pulls us forward, through, beyond the polarized madness and fear and confusion. These albums have pointed out the beautiful nature of all of us. I can’t wait to see how we all move with artists like this poised to carry us forward.

My favorite albums of 2012:

  1. Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America
  2. Iris DeMent – Sing the Delta
  3. Rose Cousins – We Have Made a Spark
  4. Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden
  5. Rodney Crowell & Mary Karr – Kin
  6. Various Artists Mercyland – Hymns for the Rest of Us
  7. John Fullbright – From the Ground Up
  8. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change
  9. Black Prairie – A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart
  10. Avett Brothers – The Carpenter

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