[10 December 2013]
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
“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
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
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
5Vince Gill and Paul Franklin
In a year when we were treated to reissues of long-lost Buck Owens and Don Rich recordings, Vince Gill and pedal-steel ace Paul Franklin pile on the Bakersfield love with this ten-song set of gratifying recreations of the record’s namesake sound. Gill’s silky tenor lacks the Buckaroo bite we’re used to with these songs, but the hermetically sealed harmonies and impeccable playing lend the tunes fresh beauty. Split between Buck Owens and Merle Haggard classics, these are tunes you know by heart, but these two exemplary musicians breathe new life into them while paying close homage to classic country music. They’re honoring two titans of the genre, but with Gill’s best-ever singing and snapping Telecaster breaks and Franklin’s crying steel finery, these two offer further proof that they are master inheritors of the form. Steve Leftridge
Country music didn’t begin with Hank Williams, Sr., although that remains to this day the dominant reference point. Robbie Fulks, being one of alternative country’s smartest singers and songwriters, knows that very well. Sonically, Gone Away Backward hearkens back not to the honky-tonk of the 1950s, but to the music of what Greil Marcus famously called “the old, weird America”. The form defies description. Not quite folk and not quite country, eerie, strident, and pulsing with seemingly ancient hurts, the songs here fit so easily into that unspeakable tradition that you’ll check the liners to make doubly sure that Fulks did indeed write them. If that’s not a testament to the man’s gifts, then what is? Jerrick Adams
With what has to be hands-down one of the finest country album titles of all time (so brazen, so cheeky, so sad all at once), you had to wonder whether anyone this side of Loretta Lynn had the talent and sheer nerve to pull it off. Such concerns proved moot. As a vocalist, Kacey Musgraves doesn’t lean on the phony twang that proliferates on mainstream country radio. She doesn’t have to—she’s the real deal. Oh, and did I mention the songwriting? She just so happens to be one of the best working today in any genre. On cuts like “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Blowin’ Smoke”, Musgraves renders the desolation and beat-down-to-your soul desperation of rural American life as vividly as any country artist in recent memory (and I’m measuring the recent here in decades, not years). Simply put, a stone classic. Jerrick Adams
Country fans and critics have been paying attention to Ashley Monroe for a good five years now, waiting for her moment. In 2013 it came. Along with a second great album by Pistol Annies and opening spots on superstar’s tours, she released an even better album that her first (the delayed and quietly released 2009 album Satisfied). Like a Rose has a stunner of a title track, which tells an epic tale of survival in a carefully quick way. The whole album has an economy to it which might trick those with short attention spans into thinking it’s lightweight when it’s the opposite. Monroe’s songs are smart, funny, and sad at once; the rebelliousness she carries is a quiet and the sadness elegant. The characters she voices are in desperate places; she communicates that desperation without over-selling it or under-conveying it. As the album closes with a goofy, Dolly-and-Porter-referencing duet with Blake Shelton, we’re reminded of the versatility at work within a basically 30-minute effort. Dave Heaton
The country album of the year goes to an openly gay 35-year-old woman’s debut record. Those factors themselves don’t make 12 Stories the year’s best country album, but for Nashville, Clark is an invigorating anomaly among the stud-boy spring-break country prevailing on the radio. However, 12 Stories tops our list because, quite simply, it’s the best-written set of country songs of 2013: a dozen perceptive, subtly-arranged stories about familiar struggles—loneliness, regret, cold comforts—all sung in Clark’s warm, poised alto. Drinking and Jesus songs are here, too, but they’re the old-fashioned kind: gut-punch subjects expressed through unforced melodies, intelligence, and shrewd wit. Clark had already struck it rich by writing smash singles for Miranda Lambert, the Band Perry, etc.; turns out she was saving her best material for her own superb arrival. Steve Leftridge