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Music

The Best Country Music of 2013

Dave Heaton, Jerrick Adams, and Steve Leftridge

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" in a Nashville that's still a man's world after all.

5 - 1

Artist: Vince Gill and Paul Franklin

Album: Bakersfield

Label: MCA Nashville

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List Number: 5Vince Gill and Paul Franklin
Bakersfield

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

 
Artist: Robbie Fulks

Album: Gone Away Backward

Label: Bloodshot

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List Number: 4

Robbie Fulks
Gone Away Backward

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

 
Artist: Kacey Musgraves

Album: Same Trailer, Different Park

Label: Mercury Nashville

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List Number: 3

Kacey Musgraves
Same Trailer, Different Park

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

 
Artist: Ashley Monroe

Album: Like a Rose

Label: Warner Bros.

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List Number: 2

Ashley Monroe
Like a Rose

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

 
Artist: Brandy Clark

Album: 12 Stories

Label: Slate Creek

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List Number: 1

Brandy Clark
12 Stories

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

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