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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.