As usual, I don't limit myself to works that were released in 2012, but rather those that I discovered this year. They are, in no particular order:
Todd Snider, Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables
The opening song, In the Beginning, won me over instantly. It's a talkie-song, and one of the best I've ever heard. Snider is equal parts glib humour, populist politics and awesome hooks. The first song explains religion, wealth and social hierarchy, and it's hilarious except that he kind of nails the truth, so it's only partly funny. And the great songs follow one after the other, combining folk/blues riffs with astute lyrics that range from heartfelt to angry, always slyly worded and good for repeated listening.
Django Django, Django Django
These guys are a mix of pop smarts and simplicity with artsy arrangements and a great sound palette. You can find references to pretty much every successful genre in pop music in these songs, and a great twist on the conventions of each. Clever as hell and infectious too, anybody who's in the room when I'm playing this immediately asks who it is and says they like it. Beach Boys-style harmonies are the common thread, and sing-along choruses dominate. Dance-floor savvy informs most of the songs, and there are always unexpected sounds and switch-ups. This one got lots of play in 2012, and it still works every time.
Paper Beat Scissors, Paper Beat Scissors
Tim Crabtree is a Halifax based singer-songwriter, and I've been lucky enough to catch him play a number of house concerts in Peterborough. He's a remarkable performer, but unlike many other songwriters, his recorded work brings an expanded depth to the songs that make this an outstanding listen. He has a voice unlike any other, with a naturally-strained sound that manages to effortlessly span a wide sonic range. The songs are delicate and complex, fleshed out where necessary with a range of instrumentation that always adds to the picked guitar at the heart of the song. Quiet but strong songs that reward focused listening.
Mati Zundel, Amazonico Gravitante
Mati Zundel is an Argentinian artist who combines traditional folk sounds (chacareras, huaynos and vidalas two steps) that are heavily based on accordion riffs and acoustic instrumentation with dance beats. Many times these kinds of blends are little more than cute samples repetitively pasted into fairly standard beats, but Zundel builds really compelling songs out of long samples that blur the borders between what's being played live and what's sampled. While definitely danceable, the songs are also highly listenable thanks to their inventiveness and playfulness.
Jack White, Blunderbuss
I was big fan of the White Stripes breakout album, White Blood Cells, and on his first solo album Jack White seems to return to that remarkable mix of crunchy, infectious, white-man's-overbite rock riffs and more acoustic, songwriterly fair. He does both so well that he deserves all the critical acclaim he receives. This is what happens when somebody studies his craft so thoroughly that songs of all genres fall from his guitar with an apparent ease. Great stuff.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, Look Out Mama
This is a satisfying serving of Americana for those who would blend Gillian Welch with Neko Case. There's nothing overtly outstanding about these songs, but I always really enjoy them whenever they come on, and I choose to put them on quite often. The playing is on the sloppy-but-charming side, and Alynda lee Segarra's vocals are warm and inviting, not too studied and not too loose. It's a mix of stompers, criers and yodels that charms instantly and keeps on working.
Corb Lund, Cabin Fever
Corb Lund and his Hurtin' Albertans start off Cabin Fever with Gettin' Down on the Mountain, the best country-rock stomper about peak oil ever written. And it's a perfect example of what makes Lund such a great songwriter: his blend of backwoods wisdom with modern sensibility and a good dose of humour. Dig Gravedigger Dig is the most infectious stomper I've heard in ages, and Bible on the Dash is rebel storytelling on par with the greats of the genre. A couple songs tend toward country-standard backwash, but the number of outstanding rave-ups makes it all worthwhile.
Cat Power, Sun
The last Cat Power album, The Greatest, was a favourite when it was released several years ago, so I was eager to hear the latest installment. It was a surprise, bringing a full electronic soundscape and drum machine beats to her Chan Marshall's layered vocals. It's a compelling listen from start to finish, finely crafted and emotionally vibrant. A great example of an artist challenging herself and rising to the challenge of expanding and changing her sound without losing any of the songwriting strength. This one has been on fairly constant rotation for months and hasn't lost any of its power.
Connan Mockasin, Forever Dolphin Love
This one goes in the "what planet is this from?" category. Gloriously off-kilter from start to finish, these songs don't sound like anything else. Wonky guitar lines and an other-worldly voice carry songs that have all the elements of pop hits, except that somebody keeps playing with the speed of the record and turning them into oddball masterpieces. The album contains a studio set and then a live set of the same songs. Usually, I'd ignore the live set, but in this case I think I might like it better. It's one thing to pull off songs this unusual in a studio, but to do it live and with a bit of added muscle is quite impressive. I usually listen to the whole thing all the way through... a double dose of weirdness whenever I need it.
Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal
My introduction to this band was via their set at the Osheaga Festival. It's unusual to be gripped by a band's live set having never heard a single song before, but these songs have a certain undeniable quality... they will be heard and they will be liked. I almost skipped putting this on my list, but then realized the only reason for doing so was a certain cynicism about such likeable music. But this is music that denies cynicism. It's happy music, joyous music, singalong music, and why shouldn't I like it? When bands try to be this good and likeable and fall short of the mark, it's miserable. Of Monsters and Men don't miss a trick, but don't make it sound like a trick. I want to shout "Hey" every time they do...
Matthew Dear, Beams
I usually try to avoid making musical comparisons, but Matthew Beam's album sounds like low-voice Bowie fronting LCD Soundsystem, and it's a winning comparison in my books. Inventive beats, great bass lines, lots of depth and texture to the sound, and the deep Bowie voice spouting lyrics that are thoughtful but not too thoughtful for the dance floor. This was a late discovery, but it's been getting constant rotation and I like it more every time I play it.