Monday, December 9, 2013

That Nashville Sound's Top Albums of 2013

Much has been discussed and theorized about 2013 being the Year of the Woman in country music. While the guys of the radio dial generally compete with each other about whose trucks are bigger and whose back dirt roads are better, a quiet resurgence of thoughtful and introspective female songwriters have put out some incredible music this year. Seven of this year's top ten albums- including the top three on this chart- feature a female singer/songwriter. My grandfather used to tell me that "he had my grandmother right where she wants me." Perhaps this same assessment applies this year in county music as well. These fairer sex artists have us right where they want us. And aren't we lucky bugs for it?

Over 300 different albums were reviewed, most completely, a few partially. Lyrical depth rules more often than not and grabs the proverbial attention lapels. That's not to say that a good dance song and steamy groove won't entertain. It can actually augment and build around some wonderful musical poetry found elsewhere on the album. But as a close friend once told me, "country music is an entire novel written in three minutes. It’s a Broadway show in three minutes. It’s an entire lifetime in three minutes. A great country song can be a guiding post for someone’s life." Good storytelling gets bonus points. Originality gets extra credit.

That Nashville Sound is looking back on the year behind us and reminded that in the day of digital music, the amount of quality music available to the listener is near limitless. Looking back, it rivals or bests past years. Our favorite 2007 album was the Alison Krauss & Robert Plant album Raising Sand, the top spot on our 2008 list went to Lee Ann Womack’s Call Me Crazy, 2009 went to Eric Church's Carolina, 2010 was Zac Brown Band’s You Get What You Give, 2011 was Pistol Annies' Hell on Heels and last year was Marty Stuart's Nashville Volume 1- Tear The Woodpile Down.

But 2013 had some terrific albums as well that will go down as some of my big music collection’s favorites. The 30 albums are a wide variety of country genres from more contemporary country to bluegrass to honkytonk to traditional country. We present to you… That Nashville Sound’s Top Ten Albums of 2013…

1. Brandy Clark - 12 Stories- 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.


2. 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.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison - 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.

4. Sturgill Simpson - High Top Mountain- Forget the wannabe mainstream artists that are calling themselves outlaws like the legends of Cash, Jennings and Nelson. Sturgill channels his inner-Waylon on this unbelievably great album that meets where the 1970's and modern day production collide. It's a masterpiece of outlaw country that just doesn't pay lip service to doing things different. It pays tribute to an entire genre of music the way it should be done- with an album of original materials that carry the torch and move the rock down the road.

5. 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.

6. Logan Brill - Walking Wires- The minute the album starts out with the outstanding track, "There's No Such Things As Ghosts," the listener recognizes the power in the album. The sound is fresh and the lyrics are poignant. At only 22, her storytelling belies her age. The depth of the emotions conveyed through the performances relate well to her soulful voice, particularly when singing of loss and heartache. Says Brill, “I really like putting myself into that mindset because it’s not necessarily an everyday thing to be brooding. It’s interesting to put myself into those situations in songs and experience things that way, trying to get into a character. I enjoy drama every once in a while.”

7. Erin Enderlin - I Let Her Talk-  Enderlin has achieved success (and awards) as a songwriter for country legends such as Randy Travis, Terri Clark and Joey + Rory- and covers a handful of her own compositions here including “Monday Morning Church” (Alan Jackson); “Last Call” (Lee Ann Womack) and “You Don’t Jack” (Luke Bryan).  Want a recommendation? Miranda Lambert says, "That girl is a badass." I Let Her Talk is an incredible record about emotional reactions, love, alcohol and loss. The killer of the album is “I Let Her Talk,” a tale of a woman who meets her husband’s lover in a bar, without revealing her identity. The spurned spouse then buys his lover drink after drink as she spills details of the affair.  She sings, “A careless drunk will tell the cold, hard truth”. It's three chords and the truth with a heartache chaser.

8. 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.”

9. 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.

10. Band of Heathens - Sunday Morning Record- The Band of Heathens has evolved its sound on each of its four studio albums, and Sunday Morning Record may be the most apparent departure from the band's rock and roll-ish debut - a decidedly more mellow, mature, worn sound.  They time travel back to when the Eagles were putting some of their most timeless "Hotel California"-era material. There is a healthy mix of swirling organ, rock guitar, and on point harmonies that are combined with some smart and engaging lyrics: a recipe for success.

11. 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.

12. 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.

13. Drew Kennedy - Wide Listener- Perhaps no other album on this list better represents the prioritization of putting languid melodies and introspective lyrics ahead of radio hooks and clich├ęs. Here, on Kennedy's sixth album, the listener doesn't dare take their attention from paying attention to every word as to not miss a keen observation or unique take on the mundane and universal philosophies alike. Honest. Heartfelt. Smart. They're hallmarks of previous Kennedy albums and hallmarks of this one as well.

14. 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.

15. 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.

16. Guy Clark - My Favorite Picture of You- This album might as well be called "Heavy."  The reigning sage of Texas singer/songwriters sets the stage with the incredible title track, a plainspoken paean to Susanna Clark, his wife and fellow songwriter for more than 40 years, who succumbed to cancer in 2012. Throughout the album, he intersperses poetic tributes/songs about a returning Iraq war veteran with PTSD (“Heroes”), Mexican immigrants left in a van to die (“El Coyote"), and a heartbroken young woman hitchhiking out of town (“Rain In Durango”). A voice worn down by the ages only gives each track a texture to grip on to.

17. LeAnn Rimes - Spitfire- All of the well-documented drama surrounding LeAnn's personal life over the last few years made for great fodder and inspiration on this terrific album. The project plays out like an unspooling of her diary entries from the last four years set to music. On “Borrowed,” she eloquently speaks with ache and longing from being the other woman and the haunting “What Have I Done” is centered around her lamenting the hurt that she has brought others through her infidelity. The backing vocals on the latter song by Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski only add to the emotion.
plays out like an unspooling of her diary entries from the last four years set to music
Read more at http://www.hitfix.com/news/leann-rimes-new-album-spitfire-review#WSBclfUVIw7kGAKj.99

18. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin - Bakersfield- Vince Gill has reached the point in his career where radio play (unfortunately) and record sales quantities aren't even on the radar for making music. (Not that they were ever a large driving force to begin with.) It is quite evident that, through his numerous backing vocal projects, his work with the Western band The Time Jumpers and through this project, a tribute to the legendary California sound made famous by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, it's only his muse that is driving that ship. "This is just as much a guitar record for me as it is a singing record," Gill says, "But, it was fun for me to sing a whole record of the greatest songs ever. What I'm real proud of is that when it's one of Buck's songs, I sing it very much in that vein. And the Haggard songs are very much in the vein he sang. With Buck's songs, you won't find much vibrato in my vocals, and with Merle's, it will come down to a low note and that quiver."

19. 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.

20. Joey + Rory - Made to Last- The married- and now expecting- duo of Joey and Rory Feek quietly changed their approach to records after the appropriately named Album #2. Whereas Joey played the role of main vocalist and Rory played the role of songwriter, their third project, His and Hers, was the first to feature them trading vocal duties on every other song. Both projects they released this year, this one followed a Christian release called Songs of Faith and Family, follow a similar approach. And despite having Joey's beautiful voice cut from half of the songs, the mixture of voices allow Rory's personality and songwriting prowess to shine. The key standout on this album is one that's bittersweet: Tim Johnson’s “To Do What I Do” waxes poetically on the privilege of being able to sing music for a career, but it's also a sweet dedication to their songwriter friend who passed away this past year. The album is appropriately named. There's many songs on here that will endure the tests of time.

21. Julie Roberts - Good Wine and Bad Decisions- If trials and tribulations make for good song inspirations, Miss Julie Roberts has had no shortage of material to work with. Between a Nashville flood wrecking her home to a The Voice stint that was much too short to a fairly recent public reveal that she suffers from MS, Roberts seems to have had more than her fair share of heartache to work with. She puts it to amazingly good work here on Good Wine and Bad Decisions, the first new Sun Records release in 30+ years. While only one track from the old Sun catalog made the cut- Roberts fell in love with Bobby Gentry’s "He Made a Woman Out of Me"- there's an undeniable classic feel to all 14 tracks. That soulful southern voice is as good as it's ever been and the material is outstanding. She leans on two of country's best on the two stand-out tracks. Vince Gill provides some incredible harmony on the heartbreaking "Old Strings" and the Chris Stapleton-penned "Daddy Doesn't Pray" is solid classic country gold. Here's hoping that Sun Records rises again with more projects from Roberts.

22. 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.

23. Brett Eldredge - Bring You Back- When I had the opportunity to introduce Eldredge up on stage earlier this year at our Golf & Guitars Children's Charity Concert, I told the audience that when I grew up, I wanted to have the soulful swagger that Eldredge has. That soulful swagger is on full display here. With a vocal style parked somewhere between Marc Broussard and Bruce Springsteen, Eldredge lays down a groove like a country Marvin Gaye. Traditional country this isn't. But if you like your country music flavored with some Delta blues, drenched in Memphis soul, and delivered with powerhouse vocal chops, Eldredge's Bring You Back delivers in a big way.

24. Dean Brody - Crop Circles- While most in the lower 48 states aren't going to know about Brody and this terrific album, Canadian country fans know him well. Brody has won nearly every available award up north and this makes his fourth release. "Bounty" is a terrific story told and sung with Lindi Ortega" about a man who saves his love from a predator and has to move to Mexico. "Another Man’s Gold" talks about loss and treasuring what you have been given and "Kansas Cried" is a great Civil War-themed track about a song about a brave solider and his love. It's storytelling at a very high level.

25. 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."

26. Kellie Pickler - The Woman I Am- My friend and Engine 145 writer Blake Boldt said it best on his review of this outstanding album, "On The Woman I Am, her fourth album and first with new label Black River Entertainment, Pickler affirms her status as an authentic personality and, more importantly, an intelligent picker of songs. For 40 minutes, she proves how a current hitmaker can emphasize the genre’s traditions while still engaging with contemporary sounds and themes. Amidst a sea of interchangeable male performers, Pickler would be a welcome addition at country radio with her effervescent and distinctive voice. Hers is a straight-ahead twang that bends and curls around notes, trading power in favor of pure subtlety. That down-home attitude may be best represented on the title track, which reminisces about the days when traditional singers ruled the airwaves: “I miss songs like that,” she sighs, referring to Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” By keeping one foot in the door of modern-day country, Pickler is doing her part to resurrect the past and move it into the future."

27. 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.

28. 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.

29. Charlie Worsham - Rubberband- Warner Music Nashville is the new home for newcomer Charlie Worsham who presented his debut album this year, titled Rubberband. The 11 track release, which features his first radio single, "Could It Be," was entirely co-written by Worsham. The album includes a very special collaboration between Worsham, Marty Stuart and Vince Gill- two of his biggest musical idols- for the track "Tools of the Trade." The Tennessean appropriately praised Worsham s unique sound, calling out that he has an "instantly identifiable voice, a guitar style full of virtuosity, surprising shift and subtle humor... a descriptive lyrical style that is all his own."

30. Tracy Lawrence - Headlights, Taillights and Radios- Co-producing the album with his long-term collaborator Flip Anderson, Tracy offers up some great storytelling and good old-fashioned honkytonk country music. The album's high-water mark is “Saving Savannah,” where the lines, If I have to burn down Atlanta, I’m bringing Savannah back home" tell the story of a sibling going off to the big city to bring his homeless sister back home. It's powerful stuff and a welcome return from an artist we hope to continue to hear more from.

10 comments:

  1. Absolutely agree on "12 Stories" as the best album of 2013. Favorite song for me is "Hold My Hand" but there are no weak tracks on this album. As if that isn't enough, Brandy is the best female vocalist on your list.

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  2. Wonderful list. Love Drew Kennedy's lyrics and all those Texas women!

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  3. Nice list except the Woman I Am should be a lot higher.

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  4. The fans of Sturgill Simpson are excited to see him recognized by the people in "Music City"

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  5. nope all wrong the top 5 should be this

    1. King George - Love Is Everything
    2. Alan Jackson - The Bluegrass Album
    3. Joey + Rory - Made To Last
    4. Bill Anderson - Life!
    5. Garth Brooks - Country Classics (From His New Boxset)

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  6. I love the whole wide listener album. Should be #1

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  7. Sturgill Simpson! Love that album.

    This whole list is strong. The order doesn't really matter - just a matter of musical preferences. If you're anywhere on this list, you're in great company. Several records here I never listened to before, so thanks for the heads up on those.

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  8. I love the Statesboro Reveue band......I know they are moving up the charts...these guys are sooo awsome! Check them out ya'll

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  9. Sorry blogger, but only one of your Top 10 albums (and only 5 on the entire list) is country, the rest is all Americana. Big difference.

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  10. Sorry blogger, but only one of your Top 10 albums (and only 5 on the entire list) is country, the rest is all Americana. Big difference.

    First of all, I never said this was the Top 30 albums of country music. Clearly, this list casts a wide net of roots-oriented music. But I would recount. 19 of the 30 albums CLEARLY would be or have been played on at least some format of country radio.

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