As the last days of 2013 drop away the business-as-usual music industry remains bogged in a largely self-inflicted quagmire, but don’t tell musicians this. Industry gatekeepers and financial barriers are being overrun by people with a passion for the craft, and the talent and drive of a refusal to be denied. And we, dear reader, are richer because of it.
If there’s a theme to this year’s choices it’s that women are blazing a trail between Americana and mainstream country music. Lindi Ortega, Brandy Clark, Julie Roberts, Kelly Willis, Aoife O’Donovan and Valerie June might honing their craft from different angles, but a more than cursory listening shows they are making great contemporary music drawing from a common roots music well.
2013 was also a great year for what might be called “real country music.” However you define this vague term (Jimmie Rodgers? Willie? Garth?) you’ll find much of Country Music’s Golden Eras reflected in Brandy Clark, Dale Watson, Sturgill Simpson, Robbie Fulks as well as the mighty Son Volt, who released one of the best albums of their career with “Honky Tonk.”
Also the craft of songwriting and rich, engaging narrative is alive on Jason isbell’s best solo outing yet, Southeastern. Also on the veteran Guy Clark’s “My Favorite Picture of You” and relative newcomers John Moreland and John Murry.
2013 brought us some of the most creative and daring music in the Country, Americana and Roots fields and all indicators point to 2014 being even better with releases upcoming from Roseanne Cash , The Drive-By Truckers, Jason Eady, The Ben Miller Band and many more.
And in spite of T Bone Burnett’s advice to keep their art pure and unscathed by dirty, dirty self-promotion, these folks are out there hustling to breach popular consciousness.
I hope this list helps in some small way.
it was a challenge to keep the list to just 10, so again this year I surrendered to representing excellence over some arbitrary number.
Don’t see your favorite represented? Leave it in the comments and let’s spread the twang.
20. Austin Lucas – Stay Reckless – Nobody does pedal-to-metal roots-rock like Lucas. “Stay Reckless” elevates his song to a new level.
19. Aoife O’Donovan – Fossils [Yep Roc Records] – Alison Krauss covered O’Donovan’s song “Lay My Burden Down,” O’Donovan’s album is so good you might forget that.
18. John Murry – The Graceless Age [Evangeline Recording] Dark and engaging without veraing into bleak and self-pitying. John Murry makes feeling bad sound good.
17. Dale Watson – El Rancho Azul [Red House] Watson finds his hony-tonk sweet spot and does the Lone Star State proud.
16. Julie Roberts – Good Wine & Bad Decisions [Red River Entertaintment] – Music Row’s golden girl confronts set-backs and tragedy by creating the best album of her career.
15. Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In – [ATO Records] Rose deftly proves that “pop” doesn’t have to be bad.
14.5 – Will Hoge – Never Give In – Roots rock with a hook done right. [Cumberland Recordings]
14. Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis – Cheater’s Game [Preminum Records] – Austin’s Americana power couple delivers an engaging charmer.
13. Sarah Jarosz – Build Me Up from Bones [Sugar Hill Records] Jarosz songwriting, playing and vocals hit a new level and shw her to be already beyond her young years.
12.5. Daniel Romano – Come Cry With Me – had to slip in this neo-trad gem in response to the comment reminding me of it’s badassery. Yes, I do read the comments when I agree with them.
12. Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward [Bloodshot] Fulks creates an excellent, heartfelt bluegrass album sans his signature wink and smirk.
11. Valerie June – Pushin’ Against A Stone [Concord] Newcomer June fuses roots and soul and shows why she’s an Americana rising star.
10. Holly Williams – The Highway [Georgiana Records] – The songwriting on “The Highway” moves Williams out of anyones shadow.
9. Son Volt – Honky Tonk [Rounder Records] – Jay Farrar takes up the pedal steel and re-discovers Son Volt’s soul.
8. Lindi Ortega – Tin Star [Last Gang Records] Ortega’s exceptional “Tin Star” moves her into the realm of Queen of Americana music.
7. Hiss Golden Messenger – Haw [Paradise of Bachelors] M.C. Taylor continues to explore life and faith and stake new roots music territories.
6. Gurf Morlix – Gurf Morlix Finds the Present Tense [Rootball] A legendary songwriter/musician gets existential and rewards us with a fantastic body of work.
5,5. Shonna Tucker and Eye Candy: A Tell All [Sweet Nector] – I foolishly omitted this pop-roots-soul gem on first pass. I now remedy that grievous oversight.
5. Guy Clark – My Favorite Picture of You [Dualtone] A master still makes it look easy. It ain’t.
4.John Moreland – In The Throes [Last Chance Records] Moreland is an accomplished student of song craft and “In The Throes” moves him into the master class.
3. Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain [High Top Mountain] Reluctant savior of outlaw soul creates a masterpiece in spite of expectations.
2. Jason Isbell – Southeastern [Southeastern Records] – With an already accomplished body of work Isbell surpasses himself and creates a classic.
1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories [Slate Creek Records] – It takes guts to refuse to be a cog in the Music Row machine and create an debut this daringly country.