Favorite 2012 Releases: Top Three

I always enjoy reading the year-end "Best Of" lists throughout December. I'm the kind of dork that A) keeps a spreadsheet of releases, ranking them in order of preference/personal play count and 2) experiences a constant undercurrent of anxiety over the fact that I won't ever get to hear all the good music.

Here are my top three favorite releases of 2012. These are the ones that got the heaviest rotation in JJ-land. I can't recommend them highly enough. I'll be posting more of my favorites soon.

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Shovels & Rope - O' Be Joyful

I first became aware of Shovels & Rope when I saw them open for my pals Jonny Fritz & The In-Laws at the Abbey Bar in Harrisburg, PA at the beginning of April. I didn't know who they were, and was surprised when I discovered that most of the people I met that night weren't familiar with Jonny, but had come to see SnR. They blew me away, and the other folks were thoroughly entertained by Jonny and the guys, and we all left happy and with another new favorite band. 

This is the first full-length that husband-and-wife duo Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have released under the moniker Shovels & Rope. They both have wonderful solo records to their credits. Michael's solo album, The Winner (which now has a firm spot in my top 10 all-time favorite albums), was the first project Michael ever recorded on his own. He set up around a single microphone in their home, and just sort of figured it out as he went along. His second recording project was O' Be Joyful. It's a beautiful album that captures much of the spirit of their live act, which is sort of like a countrified, rockabilly answer to the White Stripes.

Michael and Cary Ann are versatile musicians that trade off playing various instruments - guitars, a snare/kick/cymbal set-up, tambourines, harmonicas, the occasional maraca - as accompaniment to gorgeous vocal harmonies.

I interviewed them this fall and Cary Ann told me that they quite literally learned to play the drums onstage. It was the only option; they have a jam-packed tour schedule, and they're on the road driving between gigs. When she was telling me about it, she said one of my favorite things anyone told me in an interview this year - that it was easy for Michael to figure it out because he is "very athletic, musically." Having seen them perform four times prior to that conversation, I couldn't agree more with that turn of phrase. They are both such gifted musicians, and so incredibly charming (HOT) onstage together.

Big, big fan. Go get this album, and everything else either of them has ever recorded (PRO TIP: include all the albums by Michael's former band, The Films, on your shopping list.)

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Delta Spirit - Delta Spirit

I get nervous when my favorite bands release new albums. What if I don't like them as much as previous releases? This is of course completely irrational, because I see my favorite bands perform live so often that on the day the new albums come out, I can pretty much sing along to every word of every road-tested song.

Such was the case with Delta Spirit's self-titled LP. Their first two full-lengths and several stellar EPs set the bar high, but this record exceeded any expectations I had and seems to have added a burst of jet fuel to their already-swift trajectory to acclaim and notoriety.

The first time I met lead singer Matt Vasquez (maybe third or fourth time seeing Delta Spirit perform) was at Kung-Fu Necktie, a tiny but deliciously loud venue in Philadelphia's Northern Liberties neighborhood. I had arrived early after a two-hour slog across the snowy PA turnpike, and the band was still setting up. MV hopped down off the stage, walked over to me, and stuck his hand out to introduce himself (this night was also my introduction to Jonny Fritz, nee Corndawg). He and other members of the band have been so very gracious every subsequent time I've run into them, at increasingly larger venues.

The last time I saw MV was when a crowd gathered in the halls of Fort Adams during the Newport Folk Festival to wait out a rainstorm that descended just as the second annual Backstage Benefit BBQ was scheduled to begin. A pick-up jam session was in progress, typical of the magic that is Newport Folk weekend. I was sitting on the stone floor, completely mesmerized, when my son began digging his elbow into my side and whispering loudly in my ear, "holy shit! It's Matt Vasquez!" I leaned forward and saw that Matt and his wife were sitting on the other side of Pants, holding hands and smiling as Joel Rafael, Sara and Sean Watkins, Ben Sollee, and others played Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan songs.

I digress...my point is, Delta Spirit has become such a well-respected and much-beloved band in such a relatively short time period. I have seen them probably 20 times, but only since the spring of 2009. The first time I saw them, I hadn't heard of them yet over here on the East Coast. It's been a pleasure watching the world discover them, and the newest album reveals a band that has grown into its ambition and fully defined its sound.

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JD McPherson - Signs & Signifiers

The first time I heard JD McPherson was on WXPN. I immediately sought out this album, which was reissued this year as McPherson's Rounder Records debut. I would have guessed it was recorded in, oh, say 1956, and was shocked when I found out it was a recent recording. Of course that was all part of McPherson's plan; he recorded in bassist Jimmy Sutton's studio using vintage equipment and analog tape - to masterful effect. I was further stunned when, the day before I was to see them live at XPN's summer festival, I saw a photo of McPherson for the first time. He plays the guitar like Chuck Berry and when he sings, I think of Fats Domino...JD McPherson is a white guy, roughly my age? Well, I'll be damned.

This is my current favorite record to spin when I'm getting ready to go out for the evening, and my favorite to spin when I get back home from being out for the evening. It makes me pine for old cars and tins of pomade. It is impossible to sit still when it's on. Now who wants to teach me to swing dance?

BONUS: this is an entire band full of dudes with most excellent hair. I swooned so hard over Jimmy Sutton's salt-and-pepper pompadour at XPN Fest that I nearly threw my back out.