The music world suffered some deep losses in 2012. We saw pioneering talents in nearly every genre leave this world for the great beyond: Kitty Wells, Dave Brubeck, Earl Scruggs, Etta James, Whitney Houston, MCA, Duck Dunn, Ravi Shankar and one of my own personal and musical heroes, Levon Helm. And, yet, as is often the case with keeping the balance of all things, audiences were also given some of the finest new rock 'n' roll albums in recent memory.
Bob Dylan's Tempest is already being hailed as a modern-day classic, with its breezy "Duquesne Whistle" solidifying yet another musical identity for Bob as a 21st Century cowboy troubadour. John Hiatt's Mystic Pinball, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals' The Lion, The Beast, The Beat, Gary Clark Jr.'s Black and Blu and David Wax Museum's Knock, Knock, Get Up have all offered important contributions to music this year, finding niches that had yet to be found, melodies that had yet to be sung and musical hybrids that had yet to be formed.
Over the past week, I've been thinking about a top ten albums of 2012 list that I've been asked to compile. It's always nearly impossible to rank something so subjectively influenced by the moment when you first hear a song or an album. It's even more difficult to think about what would top such a list. The only way that I know how to choose is to think about that one album that I can't quite classify - the album that I always seem to hear for the first time every time I listen to it, and the album that has stuck by me as my go-to musical backdrop for any number of occasions.
It's with that understanding that Brandi Carlile's Bear Creek rings in as my number one. Bear Creek is a unique musical gift for anyone who can't define their musical tastes in one simple sentence, and for anyone who finds themselves reflecting on getting older and loosening the reins a bit on youth to embrace some of life's more intricate complexities.
I first heard Bear Creek as I was in the process of moving across the country. I can remember sitting in my Brooklyn apartment, packing boxes on a warm and humid summer Saturday when "Hard Way Home," the lead track, played through my iTunes radio. In three quick minutes, this stranger had poetically articulated my full range of emotions - particularly that uneasy excitement that comes with leaving your home in order to find it once again. It was the last thing I had expected to hear, but damn, I was hooked. I bought the album and played it endlessly during those days of packing that lay ahead.
For me, listening to Bear Creek is like following a musical roadmap back to yourself after ten years of introspective exploration. There's a type of realized freedom and confident individualism emanating from Bear Creek's soul that has continued to draw me to the album since that summer day. Maybe it's because I'm the same age as Ms. Carlile, or maybe it's because this album grabbed me at precisely the right time in life, but I've found a spark of feisty independence, softened by honest vulnerability in these songs that make the album inherently relatable and attractive.
It's as though after a decade of recording and touring the country, Brandi Carlile took bits and pieces of musical pioneers before her, embraced the fun-loving good times and heartbreak that life is all about, and set out to write her own chapter in the traditions of musical wanderlust. What came of it is an album ranging from rockabilly-punk in "Raise Hell," to the soulful McCartney-esque ballad "That Wasn't Me," to "Keep Your Heart Young," quite possibly the best country song not being played on country radio today. I imagine Loretta Lynn is smiling proudly somewhere in Butcher Hollow singing and laughing along to this illustrative third verse:
Dad took the wheels off of my bike and he pushed me down a hill
But speed got the best of me and I took my first spill
That was back when alcohol was only used on cuts
Stung like hell so I jerked my leg and mama said it would give me guts.
I've been listening to Bear Creek for seven months now, and I still find myself drawn to its resonance - like somehow I'm listening to an old college friend who's come into her own, thrown her heart upon her sleeve and is sharing important life lessons for the rest of us. Bear Creek doesn't subscribe to any forced musical or philosophical agenda; it is simply an exceptional, original album - one with its own sound, its own musical, vocal, and lyrical identity, and its own rightful place in music today.