Top Local Albums of 2012: The Nashville Scene Critics’ Poll  

The Year in Music 2012

The Year in Music 2012

Using an algorithm (read: spreadsheet) first concocted for 2010's Year in Music critics' poll, we at the Scene tabulated 2012's results based on the ballots of our 15 go-to music writers, both staff and contributing. Because only full-length albums were eligible for voting, critically beloved EPs such as Ponychase's Ponychase, Reid Magette and the 1020s' Shrine of Youth, Steelism's The Intoxicating Sounds of Pedal Steel and Guitar, installments of Forget Cassettes' O Cursa and Echo Group's Challtalk Record Collection (both released in three segments), Poly's 3 Songs by Poly, Little Bandit's Little Bandit, Elizabeth Cook's Gospel Plow, The Mavericks' Suited up and Lonely, Denney and the Jets' Denney and the Jets, Mystery Twins' Love Is Strange and The Weeks' Gutter Gaunt Gangster didn't make the cut. Certain would-be contenders — Ke$ha's Warrior and Nahnee Bori's Place, for instance — were released after the ballot deadline.

Just shy of making the Top 10 — and it was a very close race — were The Black Keys' El Camino (released in late 2011), Andrew Combs' Worried Man, Jack White's Blunderbuss, Wanda Jackson's Unfinished Business and Old Crow Medicine Show's Carry Me Back. Cherub's Mom and Dad, D. Watusi's Dark Party, DJ Wick-It's Grindhouse Basterds, Jamey Johnson's Living for a Song, Quichenight's Quichenight II, Justin Townes Earle's Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, Rayland Baxter's feathers & fishHooks, Todd Snider's Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables, Uncle Skeleton's All Too Human and Wild Cub's Youth all received multiple votes, as well. It was yet another big year for the locals, and while we'd love to geek out in regard to all the aforementioned records, we had to cut the list off somewhere. Without further ado, here are the top 10 local records of 2012:

10. Turbo Fruits, Butter (Serpents & Snakes)

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Set aside his other business ventures, and Turbo Fruits frontman Jonas Stein would be busy enough, co-writing, recording and touring behind three Turbo Fruits albums, each with a different band and record label. Since 2009's Echo Kid, Stein has settled in with a solid lineup, and their muscularity and cohesiveness reveals itself in the first few bars of this year's full-length, Butter. Produced by Spoon's Jim Eno and released on Kings of Leon's Serpents & Snakes imprint, Butter trades the previous albums' teetering-on-the-brink thrills for an emphasis on groove and '70s rock harmonies, effectively complementing the ways that Stein has matured without snuffing out the Fruits' youthful exuberance (or open love of marijuana, for that matter: A limited pressing of the LP, christened Cannabis Sativa Butter, was also released on translucent green "pot butter" vinyl). The guitar windmills and midair splits that mark the band's stage show don't quite come through on record, but as Stein told Billboard, the troupe has nearly finished writing a follow-up that promises to bring them back. STEPHEN TRAGESER

8. (TIE) Hammock, Departure Songs (Hammock Music)

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While other records on this list might jump out of the speakers, Hammock's magnificent double album Departure Songs instead seems to open a chasm between them — canyons within canyons of cascading shoegaze arpeggios and borderline-New-Age sound-swells. No one will ever call Hammock a blues band, but in a sense — even if 12 bars are barely enough time an echoic guitar line to finish ringing out, much less change chords, and their songs are largely wordless — their music operates on a principle similar to that of the blues: To cope with the sorrows of life, it is best, or at least necessary, to plunge as far into those sorrows as possible. In Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson's dexterous hands, the end result is far from a glum collection of bellyaches, but instead an achievement of vast, shimmering textures. This is music of majestic solemnity and rare meditative grace. STEVE HARUCH

8. (TIE) Jessie Baylin, Little Spark (Blonde Rat)

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Jessie Baylin's Little Spark has garnered the singer comparisons to Dusty Springfield, and the New Jersey-born songwriter sings in a languid manner that suggests she's been listening to '60s pop. Still, Little Spark doesn't sound all that much like Dusty in Memphis or Ev'rything's Coming up Dusty — the super-pop sentiments are somewhat similar, but Baylin and producer Kevin Augunas concoct a set of dreamy tracks whose strings and moderate tempos don't conceal the kind of beautiful dissatisfaction that makes for compelling music. "Dancer" and "I Feel That Too" boast subtle melodies that stick with you. Baylin avoids retro throughout, and the great Jimmie Haskell contributes some amazing arrangements. What makes Little Spark work is Baylin's sincerity — she knows the value of concision, but her songs are both mysterious and allusive. EDD HURT

7. Taylor Swift, Red (Big Machine)

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Team Swift knew exactly what they were doing when they led with that Max Martin-produced, dubstep-ish single filled with artful post-adolescent patter — they were signaling once and for all that Swift is far more deeply invested in speaking to her peers than in sounding country. It's no big betrayal, because it's no big surprise. Red is not only selling like the year's biggest pop album, it is the year's biggest pop album. Swift thoroughly captured her moment: skipping lithely across the spectrum of presently prominent musical idioms, from the folk-inspired to the electronic and danceable; expressing with earnest self-awareness what it feels like to be the age she is; and framing her romantic kiss-offs as a natural counterpart to allowing herself to get completely swept up in young love for as long as it lasts. Immersion and immediacy — that's pop music at its best. JEWLY HIGHT

6. Diamond Rugs, Diamond Rugs (Partisan)

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To use the term casually — and trust us, casualness is the operating theme here — Diamond Rugs is a supergroup, and it features members of Deer Tick, Black Lips, Six Finger Satellite, Dead Confederate and Los Lobos. From its moniker ("D, I Am on Drugs," think about it), to its rough-hewn delivery and raw production, to the beguilingly nonchalant "Duh-duh-dah-duh" refrain of "Blue Mountains" (a song that is almost certainly about a strip club), the Rugs' eponymous debut is the very embodiment of insouciance. But just when you think the Rugs are all lazy, inebriated cool, a song like "Gimme a Beer" grabs you not only with co-frontman and recent Nashville transplant John McCauley's working-stiff, fuck-it-all wish list, but also some disarmingly lithe swaths of steel courtesy of fellow Nashvillian Spencer Cullum Jr. Throw in the veteran saxophonery of Lobos' Steve Berlin — whose raunchy horn blasts absolutely make tunes like "Call Girl Blues" — and you've got a record that is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but also among the most effortlessly undeniable releases of the year. D. PATRICK RODGERS

5. Dr. John, Locked Down (Nonesuch)

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Adding to the ingredients that make up Dr. John's time-honored gumbo stew, Black Keys guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach produced Locked Down, one of the New Orleans musician's most fascinating collections. Auerbach and the man also known as Mac Rebennack performed together at the 2011 Bonnaroo Music Festival, with Rebennack and Auerbach laying down instrumental tracks at Auerbach's Nashville studio, Easy Eye Sound. Rebennack came back and added lyrics, and the result is a wonderful synthesis of the old and the new — Auerbach encouraged Rebennack to play electric keyboards instead of piano. "Big Shot" updates classic New Orleans R&B, while "Ellegua" is a chant that recalls Rebennack's night-tripping records of the late '60s and early '70s. Locked Down modifies the sound but not the style that Dr. John has been making his own for decades, and the record gives hope to purists and experimentalists alike. EDD HURT

4. JEFF the Brotherhood, Hypnotic Nights (Warner Bros./Infinity Cat)

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It's been a banner year for Los Hombres Bogus: The boys wrecked Record Store Day at Grimey's with a Hawkwind cover, their Infinity Cat label celebrated a decade in the trenches, and Jake wore a dress on national television. But most importantly, the gruesome twosome of Jake and Jamin Orrall has at last hit its stride. Hypnotic Nights builds on a sturdy foundation of melodic punk that liberally borrows from their roots in psychedelia. JEFF's songs howl with suburban slacker ennui, banging down paths blazed by bands like The Descendents with a fuzzy third-eye vibe. For their seventh album, JTB has settled into a delivery that's distinctly Southern, more so in style than in tone, cementing the band's status as ultimate indie-rock comfort food: deceptively simple and utterly satisfying. LANCE CONZETT

3. Natural Child, For the Love of the Game (Burger Records)

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Natural Child is the kind of band that will hit on your wife while you're at the merch table. These lowdown, mangy cats will sleep with your sister and steal your car, and they're so good, so damn tight and powerful and fun, you might just forgive them. For the Love of the Game is one of two LPs the Nashville trio put out this year — Hard in Heaven is their more recent — and either could have appeared on our list. Game resonated more deeply with Scene voters, and there's no arguing it's an attention-grabber, from the shapely, freshly tattooed bottom on the cover to the greasy, gutbucket blues rock held within its tireless, grinding grooves. And it's all about groove, from the world-weary gait of "8 a.m. Blues" to the sex-slave shuffle and ode to the independent woman "She Got a Mind," the staggering drunken swagger of "Hey Little Girl" and the Stooge-y ramble of "DTV." We're looking forward to more from Nashville's meanest blooze-boogie trio, soon as we lock up our women. CHRIS TALBOTT

2. PUJOL, United States of Being (Saddle Creek)

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From his tenure in buzzy local house-show-punk troupe MEEMAW to PUJOL's signing last year with onetime Omaha tastemakers Saddle Creek, scholarly songster and poet Daniel Pujol has long been a ringer among Music City's garage-slash-punk scene. Handy with a reverse-engineered pop song and whip-smart, big-picture lyrics — delivered with a snarl that's almost counterintuitive given his populist outlook — Pujol guides his ever-evolving lineup through a collection of pressure-cooked punk-pop cluster bombs on United States of Being. There's the longtime live staple, "Endless Mike" — once a swift-moving rocker — suddenly stripped acoustic, backed with whirling atmospherics and landing closer to Radiohead's The Bends than to Buzzcocks' Love Bites. There's "Black Rabbit," once produced by Jack White and released as a Third Man Records single, now more about the song's naturally pulsing, burning energy than dueling guitars or lighting-fast drum fills. But there's new stuff, too, from the consumerism-critiquing "Made of Money" to the relentless, feel-good whirlwind of "Niceness." And it's all fashioned into one cohesive, ambitious, smartly arranged piece, adorned with found sounds — falling rain, cellphones buzzing and beeping — that perhaps are there to remind us that no art is made in a vacuum, and that Pujol, probably more than most, wants to say something meaningful about ... well, everything. D. PATRICK RODGERS

1. Lambchop, Mr. M (Merge)

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The name frequently invoked in reviews was Frank Sinatra — a spittake-drawing comparison for anyone who recalls the ramshackle racket Lambchop whomped up in Nashville basements nearly 20 years ago. But in its spectral beauty, shivery chill and sheer loveliness, this could indeed be the In the Wee Small Hours to the harrowing Damaged's Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely. Haunted by the loss of friend, collaborator and tourmate Vic Chesnutt, the latest from Music City's ghost orchestra is how countrypolitan music beaming from some long-gone AM signal might sound to the last man on earth: like a low yet welcome beacon in the dark night of the soul. Over never-better backing from stalwarts including Tony Crow on piano and Matt Swanson on bass, couched in string arrangements of unusual delicacy, Kurt Wagner's expressive murmur has never sounded more bracing in its man-to-man intimacy. If the apocalypse comes, Wagner hasn't just delivered a record we'll need to make it through, he serves as its own DJ calling out to anyone left alone in the void. JIM RIDLEY

Related Stories:

Most Interesting Music Stories of 2012
Blues and Jazz 2012
Classical 2012
Hip-hop haps 2012
Best Live Performances of 2012

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