The ten best country albums of 2012


1. Iris DeMent
Sing the Delta
Your heart plumping up in your chest. On her first album of originals in 16 years, Iris DeMent stirs such feeling again and again, once even while singing of it happening to her. Over the snaking jangle of her own Pentecostal piano, she sings of having to pull the car over while listening to Aretha Franklin singing gospel, just the kind of thing that can happen if you attend closely to Sing the Delta, a subtle, rewarding record I am not at all hesitant to call a masterpiece. It's the result of a lifetime of thinking, feeling, and singing, wise and gently propulsive, that piano the current that tugs us from one insight or beyond-words feeling to the next.

If Aretha's voice is a monument, Dement's is like some cracked but beautiful piece of pottery, something you live with and come to treasure. And her faith, unlike Aretha's, isn't mighty. Through these twelve remarkable songs, Dement admits she's not sure she believes in God, recounts the tragedy that taught her not to count on prayer, and encourages us to see heaven in the here and now. This collection is itself evidence that there's something to that.

Number of Songs I Can't Stand: 0

Lyric That Proves It's Actually Country: "The truth can be the difference between swimming and sinking/ I thank my mama for telling me her truth"
Highlights: The bluesy lilt is new to DeMent's too-small catalog, as is the rich thematic consistency. Earlier, I gushed that Carrie Underwood's "Two Cadillacs" was a song Elvis would have relished digging into; DeMent's jubilant passing-to-the-other-side hymn "Go On Ahead and Go Home" is another, but this he couldn't have got through without bawling.

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