And certainly, the second half of 2013 has some incredible music being released that could add to this list. Julie Roberts, Jason Eady, Bryan White, Travis Tritt, Chris Stapleton, Chris Young, Deana Carter, Dierks Bentley, David Nail, The Court Yard Hounds, Jack Ingram, Don Henley, Keith Urban, Joe Nichols, Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis, Angaleena Presley and Alabama are just a few of the artists that have albums scheduled or tentatively scheduled the second-half of the year.
Thus far, 15 albums have rose above all the rest and become beacons of light for what is all good and right about great quality songwriting and terrific production that lets each instrument breathe on its own. These albums are not placed in order from top to bottom (yet), that will happen later in the year. A couple of them haven't been released quite yet, but will be unveiled to the public very shortly.
We'd love to hear what you think. What is missing from this list? What do you agree with or disagree with?
Ashley Monroe- Like a Rose- Country music insiders have known about Ashley Monroe's beautiful voice and incredible songwriting skills for years. But it wasn't until the spotlight from Pistol Annies that she was able to put together this Vince Gill-produced album that was truly something special. The semi-autobiographical title track, one of the best songs of the year was co-written with the legendary songwriter himself, Guy Clark. While much of the male country world is posing with their rock and roll infused country, Monroe followed her own muse, unwrapped her outer proverbial onion layer, and let us in to here that honest inner voice discover life through traditional country music sound.
Brandy Clark- TBD- If you hear a little Kacey Musgraves (more on her album later) in this upcoming phenomenal album from Brandy Clark, there's a good reason. They're songwriting partners and friends who penned Miranda Lambert's "Mama's Broken Heart" together. She writes realistic snapshots from the underbelly of real life in this fantastic collection of tales of cheating, smoking, jail-time- all with a wit that bites the listener and won't let go. She's aware of the flaws of both herself and her community and celebrates them both in a way that gives both a depth rarely heard from an artist- especially one relatively new to country music. One of our favorite tracks of the year is "Stripes," a tale where a cheating boyfriend's only saving grace from being shot by his jealous girlfriend is that her fashionista sense won't let her wear those stripes in jail.
Chris Wall- El Western Motel- With Lloyd Maines at the producer's helm, Wall released an album full of songs that are sharply written, and, while they are plainly written and sung, the lyrics hide great subtlety and feeling. This is his first album in over a decade and each song is a new take on the oldest country themes in the business including love lost, failures and heartache. Most importantly, however, Wall writes how he deals with those with an emotional fragility that belies his rough exterior. The title track stands out as the albums best work. And if you don't believe me, trust Ray Wylie Hubbard who says, “In this lawless terminal age where music is made for the sole purpose of creating revenue for corporations, Chris Wall is a cowboy savior/hero/poet who with his words and music gives us redemption from the atrocities of this illusion that is presently known as country music.” Truer words have never been spoken.
Dailey and Vincent- Brothers of the Highway- Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent's beautiful harmonic vocal blend has garnered them 13 IBMA awards over the last six years. On this outstanding new bluegrass album, the duo takes a compelling step forward with self-penned original songs, as well as tunes by The Louvin Brothers, George Strait, Vince Gill, and the father of Bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe. "The Hills of Caroline" is a jaw-dropping combination of instrumentation, harmony and songwriting- check it out HERE.
Dale Watson- El Rancho Azul- No one else is quite carrying the flag for traditional country music quite like Dale Watson. El Rancho Azul marks his 20th album release and like many of the albums before, this is a collection of great traditional, time-honored country music with just the right mix of attitude mixed in. It's all pure Honky Tonk record filled primarily with drinking songs. Ironically, the two love songs standout above the rest except for perhaps the terrific “Where Do You Want It?” which chronicles the night that country music legend Billy Joe Shaver allegedly shot a man outside a Waco, Texas bar.
Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver- Roads Well Travelled- If Dailey and Vincent are the face of new bluegrass, Doyle Lawson certainly can be the face of classic bluegrass on this list. That being said, Lawson and the boys flirt towards a traditional country sound on a couple of tracks including the phenomenal and heartbreaking, "How Do You Say Goodbye to 60 Years?". "When Love Is All You Want (It's All You Need)" is another bluegrass/country blend that showcases the band's outstanding vocal harmonies and stunning musicianship.
Gary Allan- Set You Free- For nearly two decades now, Allan has blended his unique gravelly voice, his Bakersfield roots, career-defining ballads and a rock and roll mentality to put together a discography that can match up against any other modern-day country artist. Set You Free continues that legacy well. If it feels independent in spirit, there's a good reason. Says Allan, "I recorded the album during the transition of label heads and no one realized what I was doing until I turned it in...When you have one producer, you sometimes allow a song to get in there as an album cut. But with different producers, each one is competing to have the best songs and hopefully songs that are good enough to be released as singles, so I think the overall album and the quality of songs were better because of it. I forced myself to stretch on this one, because I had time, and I think you need to do something new to keep reinventing yourself."
Holly Williams- The Highway- Legacy. It's a word that can be a burden or it can be a word that can act as a generational compass to follow and continue on a tradition started by our forefathers. For Williams, it's the latter. In her case, the shadows of her grandfather, Hank Williams, Sr., and her father, Hank Williams, Jr., simply provided a charted course of songwriting and storytelling. Following their lead and doing in distinctively her own way, she has quietly delivered her third highly emotive album of incredible stories that puts her in the high echelon of Nashville songwriters. Co-produced by Williams and Charlie Peacock (The Civil Wars), The Highway boasts guest appearances from Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, Dierks Bentley, and actress Gwyneth Paltrow. The standout track on the album is the fragile "Drinkin" in which Williams describes: "This may not be my story at this time in my life (thankfully) but it’s the story of many people around me. Growing up in the south and seeing so many small town tales was really the catalyst for this song. It’s the sad story of a spinning wheel that won’t cease.”
Jason Isbell- Southeastern- The former lead singer of The Drive-By Truckers contemplates love and sobriety on this introspective songwriters dream of an album. It's where he contemplates life and death on "Elephant" is where he shines the brightest, however. It tells the tale of a friend, perhaps a past lover, who is facing the end of their battle with cancer. "I buried her a thousand times/ Giving up my place in line/ But I don't give a damn about that now/ There's one thing that's real clear to me/
No one dies with dignity/ We just try to ignore the elephant somehow." It's revealing, heart-wrenching, personal and a tribute to a fallen friend all wrapped up in one amazing song.
Kacey Musgraves- Same Trailer, Different Park- This album and our favorite track of the year, "Follow Your Arrow," just could be the most important album of the year, if not just our favorite. Country music hasn't been the most open-minded of genres over the years. While there has been many exceptions like Dolly Parton, social and racial evolution has been slow moving with country fans and artists alike. That's what makes Musgraves album and "Arrow" so refreshing. "Follow your arrow, wherever it points," she croons. It doesn't matter to whom, love who you love. It doesn't matter your passion, do what you do. The debate to whether the track could be a radio hit amongst the country music industry is a VERY healthy one. And despite the fact that it might not ever see a release to those same radio executives, the fact that it's being discussed is important as hell. Kudos to Sirus/XM for seeing the light and spinning the track consistently through the 2nd quarter of 2013.
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robinson- Cheater's Game- She is carrying the torch for female honkytonk singers. He is the singer/songwriter with #1 records cut by the Dixie Chicks, George Strait, and Tim McGraw. Married and singing together, they have put together an incredible album that truly belongs in the echelon of Tammy and George. Together they are the first couple of Texas music, and, they have finally recorded together. Each song is a polaroid of life, none more stripped down and revealing than "Leavin." That song is a snapshot of the album, showing the ups and downs of married life can be truth and inspiration in songwriting.
Lori McKenna- Massachusetts- My friend and incredible music writer Juli Thanki described McKenna the best, "Lori McKenna doesn’t write so much as lay open a vein with each new lyric." It's so true. As a mother and a wife, no one can detail out the trials and tribulations of the ups and downs of everyday life like McKenna. "How Romantic Is That" stands out as the perfect example. Those that have had the beautiful opportunity to fall in love and spend years, if not decades, with the one they love recognize that the expression of love isn't always done with passion and rose petals. That's where McKenna is at her best- highlighting the minute details that couples find special enough to maintain that spark. She speaks equally well from the light and the dark side of that equation and delivers another stunning collection of songwriting on this album.
Pistol Annies- Annie Up- While perhaps not as strong as their debut album, the sophomore album by Ashley Monroe, Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley is still a fantastic group of spirited and feisty women anthems that stands on it's own right. With southern sass, the ladies lower their outlaw image for a slightly more mature of life as country women. It's less woman empowerment and reverse sexism, and a little more about family and loving. Considering that the ladies are settling down, that all makes sense as they're writing what their experiencing. Here's hoping it's not all wine and roses down the road in their songwriting, making hay and hell is what they do best.
The Statesboro Revue- Ramble On Privilege Creek- Led by the strong and unique lead vocals of Stewart Mann, The Statesboro Revue have delivered a terrific surprise collection of tracks that rank amongst this year's very best. While leaning a little more on the Americana side of things, the band reminds of some of Zac Brown Band's best work. At times, the guys deliver an intimate acoustic feel, but turn right around and crank it up Southern Rock style with electric licks, organ, harmonica and steel guitar. The songwriting is impeccable, diving into great depths of relationships and love lost. If you haven't heard of this band before, do yourself a great favor and get them (quickly) on your radar. It's great work by an indie.
The Steeldrivers- Hammer Down- Murder and mayhem might sound like the recipe for a nice long stay at Folsom Prison, but for the bluegrass band, the Steeldrivers, it is a foundation for a fantastic third album that builds on the critical success of their first two. "When You Don't Come Home" exemplifies the dark genius of the album as a wife confronts her cheating husband with a .45. The musicianship on the album, lead by the great fiddle work by Tammy Rogers, is without compare. This marks the first album sung by new lead singer Gary Nichols. He has stepped in flawlessly for Chris Stapleton and retained that passion and delivery that made their first two releases so fascinating. This is one terrific album.