What’s going to be most often said or written about the year in country music, 2013? That it was the “year of the woman”. It’s condescending hogwash, of course, to suggest that the genre that gave us Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and on and on and on is just now reaching a year when women emerge as a force. Then again, it’s easy to see where the notion comes from—the best country albums of this year were from female artists, plain and simple. The top three albums on our list are by solo women performers. And the men on the list are mainly old-timers, musicians who have been making music for decades (or, in one case, over 50 years). Then again, these women, even if they’re “debuting”, have been really making music longer than you might think—working away as singers or songwriters, having had previous albums promised and dropped or under-marketed. Nashville is a man’s world after all.
If this is the year of women, it’s mainly because most of the major male country artists of our time made mediocre, disappointing, dull, and lazy music this year, leaving a space in our collective attention for talented female singers and songwriters to hold the spotlight. One of our 10 choices did hit #1 on the Country charts, but the biggest-selling #1 albums (Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Blake Shelton) did not receive any votes from us. Neither did 2013 albums by Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw—seemingly the big male country stars of our time.
Or maybe it says less about those superstars than it does about how good the albums on our list are. This year, far more than most, we critics were in close agreement on the best country albums of the year. It was almost without question. Dave Heaton
Influences Vol. 1: The Man I Am
“The world’s greatest living country singer” had hardly been dead two weeks when folks started talking about his heirs apparent. Of course, no one could ever fill the shoes of George Jones—as contender Vince Gill puts it, “they don’t make them anymore.” Still, if ever there was an artist fit to try them on, it’s Randy Travis. This release of covers reminds us that Travis, now an elder statesman, remains one of the genre’s most exquisite vocal stylists. Travis’s tone has roughened a bit around the edges, lending his voice an added shade of character. And his phrasing has only grown more evocative with time. Cases in point: “Trouble in Mind”, “Pennies from Heaven”, and “What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana”. Granted, this isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but with a talent of Travis’s stature, it hardly needs to be. Sometimes, good enough is more than enough. Jerrick Adams
9My Darling Clementine
British husband-wife duo My Darling Clementine gained some country cred with last fall’s terrific debut, a record full of hard-hurtin’ classic-sounding duets that established Michael Weston King (him) and Lou Dalgeish (her) as the latest signs of life within an endangered musical form, regardless of their side of the pond. Score it two-for-two with their follow-up, The Reconciliation?. That question mark in the title points to the uncertainty inherent in songs about trying to hold a relationship together, and the inspiration for these heartbreak weepers is made explicit in songs like “The Gospel According to George” and “No Matter What Tammy Said (I Won’t Stand By Him)”. There’s no cheap kitsch here in such reverence, however, and MDC flash more stylistic range than before; plus, Dalgeish proves again that she’s one of the most impressive ballad belters in the game. Steve Leftridge
The Woman I Am
Kellie Pickler’s fourth album wears self-confidence, or at least comfort in her own skin, on its sleeve as a selling point, on its cover and title track. This is also its musical selling point. It seems she’s finally found out how to balance her instinct for pop-star singing with her preference for country tradition, while continuing to craft her own persona, which is rough and smooth and slightly offbeat (in an agreeable, nonthreatening way). She doesn’t come off as trying too hard this time, which helps her accomplish more, from the spunky kiss-off/divorce anthem “Ring for Sale” to the slightly sexy front-porch-sitting song “Buzzin’”, plus pessimistic ballads like “Tough All Over”, which somehow feels right for our time but probably always would. In every case, she strikes just the right note. Dave Heaton
Let’s Face the Music and Dance
Willie Nelson celebrated his 80th birthday this year with two fine albums, both produced by Buddy Cannon, who produced his underrated 2008 album Moment of Forever and last year’s Heroes. The better of the two is this loose and easygoing collection of standards. It’s a tribute to Nelson’s childhood, featuring songs he remembers from then. Of course, Nelson’s idea of standards includes not just Irving Berlin, but also Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” and Spade Cooley’s “Shame on You”. It’s a tribute to the guitar, too, with two Django Reinhardt instrumentals played nimbly by Nelson. The album is a great, relaxed showcase for Nelson’s singing, his intuitive way with a tune. Dave Heaton
The title threatens to make this sequel seem like a joke, but the album is in some ways even stronger than their debut. Less shtick, more strength. It’s sturdier than its predecessor, and more diverse, with some gospel tropes and Southern rock edges amid the honkytonk jukebox fodder. The trio (Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley) is very aware of the style/image they’re cultivating, but it’s an overall full picture. They’re incisive about the beauty industry, hypocrisy in religion, and other societal traps. Their tearjerkers, especially “Trading One Heartbreak for Another”, are among the best sad songs of the year. And they’ve got anthems that are both rebellious and bittersweet, like “Girls Like Us” or “Unhappily Married”, which takes marital bitterness to a whole new level while being darkly sweet, too. Dave Heaton