The year 2013 looked good on paper: there were new records from Sam Phillips, Arcade Fire, Neko Case, and Richard Buckner. But, for me at least, most of those records fizzled, and at year’s end I find myself holding just a couple of albums that I enjoyed enough to return to again and again.
Anaïs Mitchell made a dramatic entrance a few years ago with Hadestown, a folk-opera on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice that earned a heap of critical accolades. In 2012 she followed up with Young Man in America, and the accolades continued to pile up. But she’s topped them both, to my ears, with this collection of folk ballads sung and played with Jefferson Hamer. The Child Ballads (pronounced ‘Chilled Ballads’, I believe) are all taken from a manuscript collection of English and Scottish ballads compiled by Francis James Child in the nineteenth century. These ballads, in manuscript, are texts only, and Mitchell and Hamer have apparently written their own melodies and made their own arrangements. The results are terrific. The songs themselves are outstanding: ballads about drowned lovers, supernatural encounters, doomed voyages, and riddling maidens have that authentic whiff of the culture of old England. Hamer is not as characterful a singer as Mitchell — or, more precisely, his voice is not as characterful as hers — but they make a nice pair. This was the record I listened to more frequently and with more delight than any other this year, and it is my album of the year.
The sound in this video is a bit thin, but the song is great.
Bill Fay was not known to me before I saw this record pop up on a number of “Best of 2012” lists. Apparently Fay had made two critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums in the 1970s, and then fell silent for 40 years until he was coaxed back into the studio by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. He has made a remarkably attractive record in Life is People, which shows us the work of a songwriter of quiet confidence and tenderness. If these songs are the fruit of his life’s meditation on love, wonder, family, death, and God, then it seems that he has lived well, for the songs, despite their simplicity, are marked by an unusual depth and economy of expression about matters not often well-treated in popular music. To interpret the album’s title as a rejoinder to Sartre’s “Hell is other people” would not be inappropriate, for Fay comes to give thanks for other people, for the beauty of nature, and for existence itself. The arrangements range from simple piano accompaniment (“The Never Ending Happening”) to lushly orchestrated numbers complete with gospel choir (“Be at Peace with Yourself”). It is true that not all of the songs resonate with me, but there is enough substance on this record to have absorbed my attention over many listens, and it is not through with me yet.
Apart from those found on the records I’ve already praised, there were a few songs that stood out for me this year.
If I had a songwriting award to give, I would give it to Josh Ritter for “A Certain Light”, from his record The Beast in Its Tracks. I love a song that seems to be telling one story, and then, because of a detail let drop or a turn of phrase, coyly reveals that it’s actually about something quite different. Josh Ritter does that here, in what is a pretty sweet love song — or is it?
The title track from Ashley Monroe’s Like a Rose is nothing flashy, but I don’t know that I’ve heard a better country song in a long while. It almost feels like it could have been pulled from Dolly Parton’s early records, when she could be fresh and sweet and sad all at once. It was co-written with Guy Clark, which makes sense. Too bad he didn’t help write her other songs.
First Aid Kit is a duo that was new to me this year. Their plangent voices might be an acquired taste, but I fell for “Emmylou”, which comes from their record The Lion’s Roar. Is it because of the catchy hook in the chorus? The alt-country name-dropping? The evocation of gorgeous country duets of days gone by? Yes, yes, and yes.
I’m interested to hear about other good records released this year (or any other year, for that matter).