10 Best Country Albums of 2013
Twenty-thirteen was decidedly a year in which the ladies put a collective boot in country's ass. And we’re not even talking Tay Tay, who didn’t release an LP, though Red kept selling like Saturday night longnecks at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Caitlin Rose, young women all, wrote and recorded outstanding records that shone with songwriting smarts and mostly ignored the bogus line dividing "country" and "Americana." (And three of the four, we couldn’t help noticing, wrote trenchant songs involving weed — although Musgraves got bleeped when she sang hers during primetime on the Country Music Awards.) That’s not to mention the Pistol Annies, with Monroe and Miranda Lambert — the badass who helped get this gal-led renaissance rolling — who doubled down similarly on a fine second LP.
The men, meanwhile, mostly played it safe, cranking out partytime bullshit about trucks, babes and beers. On the other hand, mainstream standardbearer Brad Paisley fumbled, spectacularly, with a hick-hop apologia for a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt that engaged LL Cool J in a well-meaning but regrettably wan exchange about southern history and slavery. (Paisley might have done better with Kanye, who was recently rocking a confederate flag emblem on his warm-up jacket.) There was more potent music from guys working country's fringes, where Sam Baker and Jason Isbell, among others, demonstrated the quiet power of storytelling craft. And in the end, we were thankful for Aussie mainstream mercenary Keith Urban, who wrote probably the year’s best song about a girl and a truck (“Cop Car”), while accessorizing with dance-pop touches that echoed those favored by Music City’s reigning crossover princess. Dude was smart enough to recognize that when you can’t beat 'em, why not join 'em? BY WILL HERMES
Robbie Fulks, ‘Gone Away Backwards’
The Yankee singer whose country songs have seemed as much genre satires as reverent craft exercises (see "Fuck this Town") makes what might be his most seamlessly integrated set. It's mostly unplugged, rooted in bluegrass and old-timey styles, and beautifully sung. And it makes peace with a tradition that Fulks is now fully part of, Ivy League wit and all. "Can't tell I'm country? Just you look closer," he sings on the potent "That's Where I'm From," one of many songs Nashville songwriters could learn a thing or two from.
Pistol Annies, ‘Annie Up’
Opening with an a capella declaration of purpose underscored by finger snaps ("I Feel A Sin Coming On"), this badass all-woman version of The Highwaymen proved their debut was more than just a one-off. With two of the genre's most accomplished singer-songwriters (Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe) and an up-and-comer (Angeleena Presley), they're supergroup proof of the woman-led sea change in mainstream country. Sharpest moment: "Being Pretty Ain't Pretty," a sufferers anthem for fashion victims and those who love them.
Caitlin Rose, ‘The Stand-In’
This 26-year-old Nashville singer is the daughter of Taylor Swift songwriter Liz Rose, but she puts a way-different spin on Nashville tradition than mom's co-worker. A former punk rocker, she brings muscle and a clear disdain for bullshit to songs rooted equally in honky-tonk and rock, with a craft that's probably genetic; see the perfect, pedal-steel-laced twisted-love inquiry "I Was Cruel." On "No One To Call," she sings about the tragedy of modern broadcasting: "My radio heart got broken/Now the songs I want to hear they never play." So she just wrote her own damn songs. Glad she did.
Jason Isbell, ‘Southeastern’
After rehab, the former Drive By Trucker comes back stronger than ever, singing about romantic love, liquor love, and on the quiet, platitude-free heartbreaker "Elephant," about a friend dying from cancer. "We burn these joints in effigy and cry about what we used to be," he sings. You may cry a little, too.
Patty Griffin, ‘American Kid’
After an innovative gospel LP (Downtown Church) and a key role in boyfriend Robert Plant's Band Of Joy, Griffin is back to her day job: singing her own artful country-folk songs. Her voice, as singer and writer, has clearly been stretched by the side projects. The haunting harmonies with Plant on "Highway Song" and "Ohio" match anything from his celebrated Raising Sand set with Alison Krauss. And Griffin somehow turns the unlikely line "God is a wild old dog/Someone left out on the highway" into a profound meditation on spirituality.
Sam Baker, ‘Say Grace’
Austin's Sam Baker isn't the only grizzled outlier to make a wise, sly, and excellent set of country-folk this year; see Terry Allen's Bottom Of The World and Guy Clark's My Favorite Picture of You. But he's the only one who wrote "Ditch," a song about a pipe-layer with a "crazy-ass wife and a baby on the way" which is hilarious, tragic, and by any worthwhile standards, one of the best country songs of the year.
Brandy Clark, ’12 Stories’
The best songs on Clark's debut involve drugs ("Get High," "Take A Little Pill") and that new genre staple, vengeful ladies with guns ("Stripes," "Crazy Women"). And her tearjerkers are remarkably nuanced – see "Hold My Hand," which interrogates jealousy, and "What Will Keep Me Out Of Heaven," which does the same for adulterous guilt. It's all airtight craftsmanship, sly wit and precise detailing that treats mainstream style like artisanal fast food. Part of the young Nashville songwriting cabal that includes Kacey Musgraves and Shane McAnally, Clark's the kind of talent who makes the term "alt-country" unnecessary.
Keith Urban, ‘Fuse’
The Australian country-pop ambassador swags out his buff crossover jams with digital stutters, synth bass, and big-box beats. Yet the soul here is still unmistakably country. See "Cop Car," a date-gone-wrong battle tale with masterful Music Row story compression and some sneaky R&B flow. Fresh, fun, and proof that in superstar country music, Taylor Swift's shadow looms over all.
Kacey Musgraves, ‘Same Trailer Different Park’
"Follow Your Arrow," a gem of Twitter pith and Music Row craft that advocates doing your thang, joint-rolling and same-sex kissin' included, was the talking point. But what's most charming about the album and its 25-year-old Texas-bred singer/co-songwriter is how matter-of-factly Musgraves made mainstream country feel artistically fertile again. Whether singing about friend-with-benefits-ship ("It Is What It Is") or more chronic afflictions ("I drink to feel/I smoke to breathe/Just look what love/has done to me" she sings in "Stupid"), she's ballsy, unsentimental, thoroughly pop and yet totally in the tradition. Don't call her the thinking woman's Taylor Swift; call her the gen-aught Loretta Lynn.
Ashley Monroe, ‘Like A Rose’
Together with the Pistol Annies' latest, this Knoxville girl (aka: "Hippie Annie") pulled off two of the year's best LPs. A juicy old-school honky-tonk set wrapped in pedal steel, it's full of characters as real as your neighbors, sung with Dolly Parton soul and sass. In fact, Monroe sums up her retro-modern dual consciousness on "You Ain't Dolly (and You Ain't Porter)," a sassy duet with Blake Shelton that has one foot in the Gran Ole Opry and one in Comedy Central. But by the time Monroe suggests ganja, whips, and whipped cream to a lover over fiddle and barrelhouse piano on "Weed Instead of Roses," it's clear this ain't your grandma's country music. Unless you have a very cool grandma.