For me, the best of 2013 came from the alt-country/folk/singer-songwriter domain, and I don’t mind it in the least. Not as much variety as in some past lists, hopefully just enough to pique your interest should all things slow and twangy hurt your ears.
Though few were my very favorites, 2013 saw a surprising number of decent comeback-type albums, from OMD, Adam Ant, Mazzy Star, The Mavericks, a 70 year-old Paul McCartney, and the ageless David Bowie. There was also a new but similarly disappointing Arcade Fire, who to me have become less interesting as they have become popular. Then again, you could only go downhill from a debut like Funeral, easily one of the best albums of its decade.
But I digress. Take a listen if you’re so inclined. Let me know what moves you, be it from the loosely organized pile below, or your own finds from 2013.
>> 2013 Playlist on Spotify
1. American Kid by Patty Griffin
Songs: Don’t Let Me Die in Florida, Wild Old Dog
Heretofore, I loved quite a few of Griffin’s songs, but never found an album I enjoyed all the way through. That changed, big time, with American Kid. Maybe she’s working with a new producer, or something profound inspired her, I don’t know, but after so many years of making music, this feels like a breakout of sorts, much like Fox Confessor for Neko Case or Time (The Revelator) for Gillian Welch. One of our very finest songwriters at her very best.
2. Southeastern by Jason Isbell
Songs: Stockholm, Traveling Alone
This album was at the top of a lot of 2013 music lists, and for good reason. It’s a deeply personal, powerful creation, full of failure and regret, quivering with emotion. Isbell’s characters have been rode hard and put out wet, often finding small comfort in all the wrong places. Immaculately composed, this record ascends because of Isbell’s steady intensity. It’s hard not to think this will be the defining work of his career.
3. Falling Faster Than You Can Run by Nathaniel Rateliff
Songs: Still Trying, Laborman
Whatever Rateliff offered in this album was going to be overshadowed by his last release, In the Memory of Loss. But Falling Faster is a great record in its own right. Rateliff’s voice is his greatest gift, a deep, bourbon-soaked baritone that will sometimes explode into falsetto. It’s the perfect compliment for the boozy, dispirited actors that make up his songs. A nice follow up that proves he’s here to stay.
4. Carry On by Willy Mason
Songs: What Is This, Pick Up Truck, Talk Me Down
Mason’s voice rivals Rateliff’s for its gravitas, though with a more steady and comforting touch. Mason’s style is also much more polished, and is more likely to provoke you to sing along. Mason’s narrators usually take the position of sage observer, but they’re never pompous. Like the previous entries on this list, there are no shortage of pickup trucks or bars here, but you were warned. It will be interesting to see if Mason continues to make such refined recordings.
5. The Double EP: The Sea of Split Peas by Courtney Barnett
Songs: Out of the Woodwork, Avant Gardener
What a debut. Barnett is an incredible lyricist, comfortably rambling on about quotidian, mundane nonevents in the most compelling way imaginable. Her narrative style is sleepy and self-deprecating, adding weight to her witty lines. The sound is definitively lo-fi with some occasional guitar-grinding side trips, at times just a little reminiscent of Jay-Bennett-era Wilco. Barnett is so self-assured, so talented, you have to think there’s much more to come.
6. Wise Up: Thought Remixes & Reworks by Elvis Costello and The Roots
Songs: Tripwire, Stick Out Your Tongue
I had no idea what to expect from this one. I only kind of like Costello, like the Roots a bit more, but couldn’t imagine how this collaboration would sound. Turns out they compliment each other perfectly. Costello is completely at home with the beats and samples layered into his songs, which here feature all kinds of soulful, funky grooves. The album is subtitled “Number One,” can’t wait to hear the next installment.
7. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You by Neko Case
Songs: Night Still Comes, Ragtime, Madonna of the Wasps
For whatever reason, this didn’t wear well for me the upon first listen, glad I let it ride. It really does get better with every spin, as any Neko Case album is wont to do. It’s not Fox Confessor, don’t think we’ll ever see that again, but it’s similar in that you’ll listen to the whole record for just one or two great songs, then more great songs slowly reveal themselves with each turn. Case is a remarkable talent, a true artist wholly focused on crafting songs in her own vision.
8. Big TV by White Lies
Songs: Big TV, There Goes Our Love Again, First Time Caller
Seems the critics didn’t like this one as much as I did. For me, it’s full of consistently good, brooding pop songs, full of new wave undertones reminiscent of the 80s. They put synthesizers and reverb to good use, churning out a full offering of eminently listenable, aesthetically pleasing tunes.
9. The Graceless Age by John Murry
Songs: The Ballad of the Pajama Kid, Penny Nails, Garry Gilmore 1977
Murry is from Tupelo, Mississippi, also a distant cousin of William Faulkner, and Graceless is pretty much exactly what you would expect from a man with that background. He’s the real deal, providing perspective from a hard road traveled via sweeping piano ballads and roadhouse rockers. Some real standout tracks here, with the varied song types adding to its overall appeal.
10. Once I Was an Eagle by Laura Marling
Songs: I Was an Eagle, Master Hunter
Let me start off by saying this is not an easy listen, but I’d be remiss if I left it off. Apparently, all 16 songs were recorded by Marling in one sitting, alone. All the intimacy and rawness that could come from that are what carries the record. Songs flow seamlessly from one to the next, building up tension released in restrained crescendos. As a result, the best way to take in Eagle is to just let it play, pull in bits of the experience as they come to you. There is a gravity to this album that is simply hard to explain. It may not make it into your heavy rotation, but well worth spending time with.
IN THE ARGUMENT
- Seasons of Your Day by Mazzy Star
- Evil Friends by Portugal. The Man
- The Ash & The Clay by The Milk Carton Kids
- Mug Museum by Cate Le Bon
- Corsicana Lemonade by White Denim
- Wed 21 by Juana Molina
- Balloons by Danny Malone
- San Fermin by San Fermin