Underground heroes, international icons and emerging upstarts all managed to make memorable statements in the Oklahoma music arena in 2012.
The 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth turned discerning ears toward Okemah, while the emergence of singer-songwriter John Fullbright kept them there.
Garth Brooks was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame one month and threw his enthusiastic support behind former bandmate Tom Skinner's self-titled album release the next.
On the national scene, Sooner State-born and bred hit makers Carrie Underwood and All-American Rejects released LPs that showed marked maturation, while local singer-songwriters Camille Harp and John Calvin left me yearning for more with excellent self-released EPs.
Oklahomans were involved in one of the biggest and best compilation albums of the year, as Tishomingo resident Miranda Lambert and her Pistol Annies contributed a song to the soundtrack “The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 and Beyond.”
Oklahomans also were involved in one of the most star-studded and stellar tribute albums of 2012, as Vince Gill, Leon Russell and Ronnie Dunn helped Jamey Johnson with his “Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran.”
Oklahoma music was so good in 2012 that it was tough for me to limit my list of top LPs to just 10. So check out the honorable mentions at the bottom of the list:
1. Audra Mae and the Almighty Sound “Audra Mae and the Almighty Sound” (SideOneDummy Records) — The sophomore LP from the Putnam City High School graduate and her aptly named backing band has stayed on my personal playlist since its release way back in February, and I'll probably keep the swaggering romp “Little Red Wagon,” the toasty-warm ballad “Old Italian Love Songs,” the foot-stomping rave-up “Jebediah Moonshine's Friday Night Shack Party” and more in rotation for another 11 months and beyond. The Oklahoma-born and bred chanteuse wasn't bragging in the album's opening number: She is “The Real Thing.”
2. Ray Wylie Hubbard “The Grifter's Hymnal” (Bordello Records) — The 66-year-old Oklahoma-Texas music icon, who was born in Soper, throws down with a raw rock 'n' roll album that is by turns rootsy, bluesy and twangy but always uninhibited, a little bit messy and a whole lot ornery. The album opens with “Coricidin Bottle,” a blazing romp that boasts wicked-smart lyrics including “I got a Coricidin bottle that I use as slide/And a woman sweet as a Tootsie Roll/When she kissing and licking and cussing and a grindin'/Shakes the mortal coil round my amaranthine soul.” The album stays both rowdy and intelligent for 45 solid minutes. Now that's rock 'n' roll.
3. David Byrne and St. Vincent “Love This Giant” (4AD) — We already knew that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer best known for fronting the Talking Heads and the Tulsa-born singer/songwriter/guitarist also known as Annie Clark were individually capable of creating artful pop-rock. But who knew the divergent experimentalists would make such cohesive collaborators, too? Their deliciously brassy duet album goes down like the musical version of a black and tan, with a full serving of Byrne's coolly creative world music wanderings and a full serving of St. Vincent's darkly cerebral guitar rock layered in perfect balance. And all those intricate horns are like the tasty foam topping this heady sonic brew.
4. John Fullbright “From the Ground Up” (Blue Dirt Records/Thirty Tigers) — When the Grammy nominees for Best Americana Album were revealed last month, it quickly became clear that one of these things was not like the others. The Okemah-area singer-songwriter and his Kickstarter-funded studio debut will compete against Bonnie Raitt's “Slipstream,” Mumford & Sons' “Babel,” The Avett Brothers' “The Carpenter” and the self-titled debut from The Lumineers when the golden gramophones are handed out in February. If we're judging on musical merits alone, though, I wouldn't call him an underdog. From the fire-and-brimstone opener “Gawd Above” to the tender piano ballad closer “Song for a Child,” the authentic album Fullbright built proves that he deserves his shot at Grammy glory.
5. JD McPherson “Signs & Signifiers” (Rounder Records rerelease) — The Broken Arrow singer-songwriter got a well-warranted opportunity last year to take his freewheeling brand of retro rock nationwide when Rounder rereleased his celebrated 2010 indie debut. Recorded with vintage microphones into an old 1960s Berlant 1/4-inch tape machine, McPherson's fun fusion of 1950s-inspired rock, old-school R&B and rockabilly still sounds as fresh and classic as ever. Plus, the rerelease gave the Talihina-bred musician the richly deserved chance to reach a national audience, top the Billboard Heatseekers Albums chart and appear as the musical guest on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “The Late Show With David Letterman” and “Conan.”
6. The Time Jumpers “The Time Jumpers” (Rounder Records) — The 11-piece Western swing supergroup featuring Norman-born and Oklahoma City-bred Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill and many of Nashville's top session players doesn't just cover old Bob Wills songs on its studio debut. Gill, who only officially joined the group in 2010, wrote or co-wrote five of the album's nine superb original tracks, along with contributing his considerable chops as a singer and guitarist. His heartbreaker “Three Sides to Every Story” has all the hallmarks of an instant country classic.
7. Wanda Jackson “Unfinished Business” (Sugar Hill Records) — It's remarkable enough that the Oklahoma City-based Queen of Rockabilly is recording new albums at age 75. But it's even more impressive that the Maud native continues to push herself musically. In 2011, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer released the barnburner comeback album “The Party Ain't Over,” produced by respected rocker Jack White, and in 2012, she teamed with acclaimed alt-country singer/songwriter/producer Justin Townes Earle for “Unfinished Business,” a completely different sonic experience that still sounds just like her. While “The Party Ain't Over” celebrated her rock 'n' roll trailblazing with raucous horns, scorching electric guitars and forays into neo-soul, funk and calypso, Jackson and Earle (son of wild-card Texas singer-songwriter Steve Earle) planted their collaboration in her country, rockabilly and gospel roots. Here's hoping Jackson's 31st studio album won't be her last, because I can't wait to hear who she teams with next and what they come up with.
8. Tom Skinner “Tom Skinner” (598 Recordings) — Take Garth Brooks' word for it: The eponymous album from red dirt elder statesman is a “very, VERY special gift” indeed, a warm and inviting showcase for the Bristow native's vibrant storytelling and convivial voice. Although the Tulsa singer-songwriter's name often turns up in album credits for the likes of the Red Dirt Rangers, The Great Divide and The Departed, Skinner has rarely recorded himself, preferring the energy of playing live. With his stalwart pal Mike McClure, frontman of The Great Divide and co-founder of 598 Recordings, and the esteemed Joe Hardy, who has worked with the Georgia Satellites, Steve Earle and ZZ Top, coproducing, Skinner's album has the laid-back, cozy vibe of a great living room show.
9. Karen Dalton “1966” (Delmore Recordings) — The 75th birthday of the folk enigma passed with little fanfare last year beyond the release of this collection of impromptu, previously unheard tracks of the Enid-bred singer/musician and her then-husband, guitarist Richard Tucker, rehearsing for a gig at their remote, primitive cabin near Summerville, Colo. With her goose-bump-inducing croon and natural gift as a song interpreter, it's a shame Dalton — who died at the relatively young age of 55 — is hardly known outside Bob Dylan's reference to her in his 2004 biography “Chronicles: Volume One.” Bob the Bard's praise that “Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday's and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed” is right on the mark, and her cover of “God Bless the Child” is probably the only one that can hold a candle to Lady Day's original.
10. Shiny Toy Guns “III” (Five Seven Music) — The highly anticipated return of vocalist Carah Faye Charnow, whose crystalline pipes helped propel the Shinys to a 2007 Best Electronic/Dance Album Grammy nomination for “We Are Pilots,” turned out to be more than just a reunion. It was a full-blown revitalization for the electro-pop band, which bassist/synth player Jeremy Dawson and singer/guitarist Chad Petree, who hail from Shawnee, founded in 2001. It's a testament to the album's overall strength that I wind up with a new favorite track every time I listen to it.
Honorable mentions: Jimmy LaFave “Depending on the Distance” (Music Road Records); The Departed “Adventus” (Underground Sound/Thirty Tigers); Chad Sullins and the Last Call Coalition “Incommunicado” (Smith Music Group); Parker Millsap and Michael Rose “Palisade” (self released); and K.C. Clifford “The Tag Hollow Sessions” (Free Skipper Records).