My Best Albums Of 2013
Reviewing the music year has a number of advantages. It enables me to reflect on the depth and quality of the music on offer over the past twelve months and it also reminds me when I first heard certain CDs and, more importantly, when I first zeroed in on their excellence.
I have listened to a lot of new releases this year – I recollect the first one being the very good Photographs by Robert Ellis around February and the last one being 12 Stories by Brandy Clark (this morning!). In fact the past two weeks I have been glued to the hi-fi, computer, iPod and car stereo as I like to give them a decent hearing before year’s end. My view is that 2013 has provided a wealth of material of the highest quality. Below I have listed my favourite twenty albums of the year in descending order (The I-Haves).
Now unfortunately I have missed quite a few new releases (I hope to do even better next year on this front) but have trawled through dozens of “best-of” lists in the past month from a variety of sources and collated the results, which are presented down below – the top twenty albums in order of frequency of appearance- eg the no.1 album has the most mentions in various lists. Thus I believe I have covered the whole field as much as is possible and most importantly here is a fertile field from which I can select future purchases. So…further below is the top twenty I-Have-Nots.
The I-Haves Top 20 CDs of 2013
20. Ramble On Privilege Creek – The Statesboro Revue (Relativity)
The Statesboro Revue goes back to 2008. Brothers Stewart and Garrett Mann are the core of a band that Rolling Stone magazine declared one of the highlights of the 2009 South by Southwest Conference and Festival.
Ramble On Privilege Creek is earthy, energetic and has some killer, catchy hooks. Soulful voices, skin-tight playing and a southern sensibility make for a sure-fire music brew.
Watch out for The Statesboro Revue. They are touring Colorado and Europe in the early part 2014.
19. Old Yellow Moon – Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell (Nonesuch)
Finally these two alt. country/Americana legends unite and they have given us a sparkling and polished collection of the best tunes that you could wish for. The affection and joy for each other is evident, the seeming effortless manner in which they present the songs (it’s not an accident that the greatest performers are those that make their craft look this easy).
The album has already won numerous awards (Best Album Of The Year and Best Duo/Group Of The Year at the 2013 Americana Awards) and there will be more to come I suspect.
18. Dear Departure – Sweet Jean (Waterfront)
This Melbourne couple issued one of my favourite Australian albums of the year. A head-to-toe collection of charming, lush and melodic songs. And it’s a really cohesive and thoughtful group of songs, fitting together seamlessly and proving to be greater than the sum of the individual components.
Sime Nugent and Alice Keath provide distinct vocals and strong tunes – they have been on high rotation in my lounge room all year.
An outstanding achievement.
17. The Stand-In – Caitlin Rose (ATO)
Caitlin Rose hails from Nashville TN and is really on the money with her third release. Growing up with music industry parents, she seems to know her way around the business and music history. Her voice is divine and you feel she could just about sing anything. There are two carefully chosen covers here – “I Was Cruel” by The Deep Vibration and “Dallas” by The Felice Brothers. All the rest of the material is written or co-written by Rose.
This is classy stuff.
16. 12 Stories – Brandy Clark (Smith)
This album has appeared on so many best of lists for the year that I have lost count. Sassy, witty and perfectly crafted, it is a joy to behold from ‘go to whoa’.
One of the songs on this album “Stripes” became a break-out hit and “Mama’s Broken Heart” has been nominated for a 2014 Grammy for “Best Country Song”.
15. World Boogie Is Coming – North Mississippi Allstars (Songs Of The South)
One of my favourite bands – these guys know how to play Southern rock, funk, country blues and boogie and there are times you feel that they are playing them all at the same time! They know their way around the Mississippi mud. Brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson are really cooking on this project, which has garnered considerable acclaim throughout the year.
The band is touring Australia this April and I am looking forward to catching them at Bluesfest 2014.
14. Runaway Freeway Blues – The Black Lillies (North Knox)
I admit this is a favourite band of mine (in case you didn’t know already!). The Black Lillies deliver the goods again with a mature offering. The album was conceived on the road, inspired by the road and completed on the road.
Front man Chris Contreras has put together some serious material and the band, which seems to have been touring constantly throughout 2013, add the finishing touches.
If only this band would tour Australia!
13. Stories Don’t End – Dawes (Hub)
The third release and I have all three from this Los Angeles-based outfit. I was a little hesitant about buying the new CD after being extremely impressed with their last, break-out CD Nothing Is Wrong and I wasn’t sure whether they could surpass or even match the earlier release.
But I was delightfully wrong. It is another mature and serious release from this young band led by Taylor Goldsmith. And it is serious.
The songwriting is at the forefront here – heartfelt and thought-provoking lyrics abound.
12. Meet Me At The Edge Of The World – Over The Rhine (Great Speckled Dog)
An Ambitious effort from this husband and wife duo – pianist/guitarist/bassist Linford Detweiler and vocalist/guitarist Karin Bergquist. A double album of material with all but one of the tracks originals (it includes a delicate interpretation of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference”) is really chancing your arm.
The concoction is vivid songs and striking harmonies with the production values of Joe Henry to boot.
The album has an in-built serenity and Bergquist’s vocals are exquisite and sublime.
11. Hammer Down – The SteelDrivers (Rounder)
My favourite “bluegrass” band released the wonderful Reckless in 2012 and then promptly lost two key personnel, including the most wonderful gravelly vocalist. How would they cope with this change? Well, pretty dang good actually. Gary Nichols takes over vocal duties and the band don’t miss a beat with Hammer Down, with its own take on growling and prowling ‘grass music. “Shallow Grave”, “I’ll Be There”, “Burnin’ The Woodshed Down” and Cry No Mississippi” are perfectly developed and delivered.
An added bonus for me was catching them as part of the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival.
10. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You – Neko Case (Anti)
Beware of albums with very long titles!! I can’t recall many classics but I can cite a few stinkers over the years. This is a fearless and breathtaking collection of songs. coming after a three-year period Case describes as full of “grief and mourning”, in the wake of her parents and close friends as well.
The rave reviews of this album resonate with me, with a recent Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album). The musicians on the album include John Convertino (from Calexico), M. Ward, Howe Gelb and members of My Morning Jacket and Los Lobos.
Case is touring Australia early 2014.
9. Powerlines – Mustered Courage
Another Australia entry. Mustered Courage are Nick Keeling, Julian Abrahams, Paddy Montgomery and Josh Bridges. This is seriously good bluegrass, but with a flexibility that rises above the sometimes-formulaic genre.
The music here is of the tough, growling mountain variety and there are no pretensions. The album is stacked with great tunes (there’s not one weak track here) and has a lovely variation. “Powerlines”, Standing By Your Side” “Towin The Chain are delivered beautifully – my favourite track is “Cruel Alibis”. Australia’s best bluegrass.
8. Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song – Amos Lee (Blue Note)
I’ve followed Lee’s career for a while culminating with his previous release excellent 2011’s Mission Bell and seeing him at New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival that year. But for me, Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song takes it to another level.
The song quality runs deeper, there’s an earthy urgency and the sounds of the South add fibre to his beautiful voice. Add dobro maestro Jerry Douglas, Patty Griffin and Alison Krauss and you have a new gravitas.
7. Trouble Will Find Me – The National (4AD)
Trouble Will Find Me has an epic sonic quality without the bombast – a magic combination of haunted lyrics, melody hooks and precision arrangements.
Matt Berenger’s vocals,the twins Dessner and the brothers Devendorf know how to make an outstanding CD or two.
If you are feeling a little low, you may have found a quality companion.
6. This River – JJ Grey & Mofro (Alligator)
What is the genre here? Well there’s Southern rock, swamp rock, blues, funk and soul at least and I think plenty more. JJ Grey’s vocals are undeniable (is there a finer voice around?) and this is my favourite outing of the band.
The sweet power funk of “”Somebody Else”, Florabama” and “99 Shades Of Crazy”, together with the slower soul of “The Ballad Of Larry Webb” propel this irresistible collection. At the foot of the album is the title track, which is one of the tunes of the year.
How would JJ Grey & Mofro go at Bluesfest? Dynamite!!
5. Build Me Up From Bones – Sarah Jarosz (Sugar Hill)
Build Me Up From Bones was co-produced by Sarah and her longtime collaborator – Grammy award-winning engineer and producer Gary Paczosa. The album features guest appearances from some luminaries – Kate Rusby, Jerry Douglas, Darrell Scott, Aoife O’Donovan, Chris Thile and Dirk Powell. The collection of tunes reflect a seasoned sensibility and are perfectly executed: two covers – a beautiful pared-back rendition of Dylan’s “Simple Twist Of Fate” and “The Book Of Right-On” by Joanna Newsom, along with nine originals. The end result of the package is delightful. Nominated for two Grammys – Best Folk Album as well as Best American Roots Song for the title song “Build Me Up From Bones.” I have lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to this.
4. The Ash & Clay – The Milk Carton Kids (Anti)
This has grown on me. The initial folksy, Simon and Garfunkel sound seemed a little derivative. But as you explore the lyrics and get a dose of them performing live (which I did twice this year), the depth of the material, the thoughtfulness and the arrangements comes rolling through. When Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are in the middle of one of the many instrumental pieces on the album and deep into the playing, you swear that they may have lost the tempo, but the groove always returns.
The funniest performers to witness – such delightful and seemingly impromptu wittiness. I for one cannot wait for their next step.
3. American Kid – Patty Griffin (New West)
If there was an award for the biggest Patty Griffin (sounds a bit nerdy doesn’t it?), I might just make the short list. It’s been six years since singer and songwriter Griffin last released an album of mostly original material. American Kid, recorded in Memphis, is a treasure. Most of the twelve songs on the album are about her father, a World War II veteran who returned home to live for a time in a Trappist monastery before becoming a high school science teacher and raising seven children.
The arrangements are deftly placed to accentuate her golden voice and support the strong and evocative songs. The key players here are Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars (see above), crack session guitarist Doug Lancio (who we saw with John Hiatt on his Australian tour last year) and Craig Ross on various stringed instruments. The restrained but striking performances just ooze class.
2. The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow (Descendant)
Stunningly original. This trio (Zach Williams, Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist) have built a self-titled disc, exuberant in its playing. Though the lyrics have a melancholic undercurrent, the tracks are more often stomping rave-ups than ruminations, with swelling three-part harmonies and rousing group-sung choruses, especially on the electric guitar-driven “The One You Should’ve Let Go” and “Green Eyes and A Heart of Gold”. There’s also a lot of light and shade here.
Every track on this is classy. An amazing result for a relatively short-lived outfit on debut. Having seen them live this year just amplifies my admiration for The Lone Bellow.
1. Southeastern – Jason Isbell (Southeastern)
Simply put, the finest songwriters don’t have to do much else. The songs take care of themselves and this is the best songwriting of the year. This collection of tracks are deeply personal, heart-wrenching and intimate – songs like “Elephant” “Cover Me Up”, “Travelling Alone” and “Different Days” are just the first three that come to mind. There’s variety and signs of his former self – member of the Drive-By Truckers – in the rocking “Flying Water” and “Super 8” which provides welcome relief from the starkness of the rest of the material..
Given his acknowledgement of alcohol issues and the recent marriage to the equally highly talented Amanda Shires (see below), perhaps the sense of redemption hanging over Southeastern intensifies the listening pleasure even more. Touring Australia this April.
Apologies to The Old School (Peter Rowan), Photographs (Robert Ellis), Sunday Morning Record (The Band Of Heathens) and Hully Gully (Don Walker).
The I-Have-Nots Top Albums of 2013
20. Tape Deck Heart – Frank Turner (Polydor)
19. This World Oft Can Be – Della Mae (Rounder)
18. Privateering – Mark Knopfler (Mercury)
17 In Time – The Mavericks (Valory)
16. Tin Star – Lindi Ortega (Last Gang)
15. Once I Was An Eagle – Laura Marling (Virgin)
14. The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars (Sensibility)
13 Tooth & Nail – Billy Bragg (Cooking Vinyl)
12 Love Has Come For You – Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (Rounder)
11. High Top Mountain – Sturgill Simpson (Looser)
10 Honky Tonk – Son Volt (Rounder)
9. Muchacho – Phosphorescent (Dead Ocean)
8. Down Fell The Doves – Amanda Shires (Lightning Rod)
7. Bakersfield – Vince Gill and Paul Franklin (MCA)
6. Fossils – Aoife O’Donovan (Yep Roc)
5. Memories and Moments – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott (Full Light)
4. Like A Rose – Ashley Monroe (Warner Bros)
3. Pushin’ Against A Stone – Valerie June (Sunday Best)
2. The Highway – Holly Williams (Georgiana)
1. Same Trailer Different Park – Kacey Musgraves Mercury