It’s tough to say what constitutes a country album these days. 2013 was a year that saw arena-filling acts feud over pop’s influence in the genre, Nashville stars record with Norwegian pop Svengalis, and a country-rap collaboration become the longest-running No. 1 country hit of all time. Ten gallon hats and Wrangler jeans now feel out of place in a sea of trucker caps and wallet chains.
Plus, the rise of Americana, a somewhat amorphous genre that’s not considered fully folk, fully rock, or fully pop — but one that shares so many roots (and so much instrumentation) with county music — has further blurred the lines. Much of what we call “Americana” or “singer-songwriter” today falls more into the classic “country” category in storytelling and song structure than the pop-infused output of Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, or certainly Taylor Swift.
In short, the genre is something of a mess right now. It’s telling that the country format is both more popular and more criticized than it has been in decades. I spent quite a bit of time this year writing about country’s problems (the aforementioned feuds, the lazy lyrics, the lack of women on the radio) but even so, I’m happy to report that there was great music to be found. A lot of it. Music that has me hopeful for 2014. Some mainstream albums broke the mold, and more than a few shining stars from Nashville’s fringes made a major impression.
So, taking all of that into account — and taking into account that we all might have different definitions of what constitutes a country album — here are my picks for the genre’s ten best discs this year. (Spoiler alert: Luke Bryan, Tyler Farr, Justin Moore, Jake Owen, and Thomas Rhett definitely didn’t make the cut.)
1. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
The most strikingly honest songwriting of the year came from Jason Isbell, the former lead singer of the Drive By Truckers, who recently put down the bottle after years of fighting alcoholism. The throaty Alabama artist’s reflections on sobriety brim with cathartic (for both artist and listener) vulnerability on oaken acoustic tracks like “Cover Me Up” and “Traveling Alone.” The album’s highlight, the unflinchingly frank “Elephant,” sketches a tale of a friend dying from cancer. “I’d carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from the floor,” Isbell sings, wearing his pain like a pair of well-worn leather boots. He doesn’t wince, but you just may cry.
2. Lindi Ortega – Tin Star
Who’s Lindi Ortega? She’s a Canadian singer-songwriter breaking the status quo in Nashville. She’s a red-boot-wearing gypsy with a voice that sounds like Dolly Parton crossed with Emmylou Harris — with an obsession for all things macabre. Tin Star captures every facet of this diamond in the rough, and the title track, in particular, reveals what makes her so luminous. In it, Oretga describes herself as “an old tin star, I’m beat up and rusty/lost in the shining stars of Nashville, Tennessee.’ She cries out, “But the music keeps on running through the blood in my veins, and it just makes me stay/Oh, it makes me stay.” If only everyone in Nashville felt so passionately.
3. Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
If country music sounds too poppy for you these days, give a listen to this Kentucky native’s honky-tonk collection, which evokes the wry humor and no-frills attitude of Appalachian culture. Simpson’s songs (produced by Dave Cobb, who also produced both Isbell’s and Ortega’s albums) are rich and twangy in their instrumentation — steel guitar is alive and well — and funny, too. “They call me King Turd up here on Sh– Mountain,” he laments on “You Can Have the Crown.” But he’s not a mere huckster. He mines deep feeling when musing on his upbringing in a coal town, though Simpson’s not the kind to feel sorry for himself.
4. The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow
The Brooklyn band’s debut album contains traces of gospel-tinged soul and modern folk-pop, but it’s a country album through and through. Georgia-accented three-part harmonies (and heavy pedal steel and banjo) provide a backbone for the disc, which brims with voice-breaking passion and wide-eyed wonderment on songs about devotion and heartache. Tracks such as lead single “You Never Need Nobody” showcase unrestrained romanticism with lush lyrics like: “You could calm a storm with your tone/Yeah, the way you sing makes the mockingbird hum/The grass you walk on gives way/Saying, ‘Please, please come back this way.’”
*Disclaimer: I live in the same neighborhood and am friendly with some of the members of this band. I have never written about them on EW.com or Entertainment Weekly magazine for that reason. I first heard the music on this album live in July 2011 (when the band was opening for The Civil Wars), and I loved it then — enough that I saw them many times after that — before I knew any of them personally.
5. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park
Part of what made 2013 a fascinating year for country music was the rise of an outspoken, revolutionary group of female singer-songwriters in the face of “bro country,” which saw the mass-market proliferation of dumbed-down lyrics about painted-on jeans, beers, and trucks from generic male artists that earned both eye rolls and platinum sales. No woman did more in 2013 to fight the tide of mainstream country music than Musgraves, whose breakout album demonstrated a knack for witty storytelling that walked a fine line between melancholic and funny — and all with undeniably catchy hooks. Her gothic reflection on small town life, “Merry Go Round” put her on the map, and sassy tracks like “Step Off” and “Follow Your Arrow” made it clear she was no one-trick-pony.
6. Holly Williams – The Highway
She’s a whole lot more than just Hank Williams’ grand daughter, even if its clear she’s got his music in her blood. Holly Williams made a hugely compelling case for her own career with The Highway, which, unlike her previous albums, showed off her powerhouse songwriting skills and whiskey-soaked rasp by stripping away unnecessary production and instrumentation. World-weary songs like “Drinkin” and “The Highway” are homespun but sturdy, painful but hopeful, and sure to captivate you.
7. The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars
If you weren’t already sad about The Civil Wars’ recent breakup, then you will be after hearing their sophomore record. John Paul White and Joy Williams’ vocals crackle with longing as their harmonies ebb and flow over hard-edged electric guitars and plaintive acoustic strumming on songs about romance and betrayal, hope and anger — and the gray areas in between. Williams, in particular, shines on two tracks: the sexy “Eavesdrop,” which contained one of the best builds of the year, and “Sacred Heart,” which found her cooing in French. The Civil Wars were experts in tantalizing restraint.
8. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories
She’s written hits for Miranda Lambert, The Band Perry, LeAnn Rimes, and Kacey Musgraves, but the Nashville dynamo stepped into the limelight this year with her own album of personally felt sketches. Clark’s songcraft is nothing short of exceptional. She highlights the subtle shades of extreme emotions on tracks like “The Day She Got Divorced” and “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven.” And her writing relies on specific imagery instead of bland pop platitudes. On “In Some Corner,” she paints a heartbroken man with the following portrait: “There’s a jukebox playin’ Jones/Keepin’ him company bein’ alone/Right where the smoke meets the neon light/He’s wrestling’ with a memory tonight.” Clark’s writing makes you realize you’ve been settling for mediocrity far too often.
9. Brad Paisley – Wheelhouse
Given the negative attention surrounding Paisley’s much-derided LL Cool J duet “Accidental Racist,” it would be easy to write off his tenth album, Wheelhouse. But that would be a mistake. Wheelhouse, in fact, contains some of Paisley’s finest work ever — songs about soul-searching and Southern identity that are delivered far more deftly than “Racist” would imply. “Southern Comfort Zone” tells Dixie-dwellers that experiences away from home will foster growth. “Those Crazy Christians” looks at religious folk with even-handed insight. At the end of the day, though, Paisley’s still a pretty jovial guy, and he hits a sweet spot with the humorous tales (“Death of a Single Man,” “Karate”) and warm-hearted love songs (“Beat This Summer,” “The Mona Lisa”) that make the collection complete.
10. Gary Allan – Set You Free
Gary Allan’s gravelly tone (along with his tragic personal experience) has often lent itself to melancholy musings — as previous hits like ”Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” attest. But on his ninth disc, he began to let a small amount of sunshine in; see: his gently tuneful ”Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain),” and his confessional support-group tale “It Ain’t The Whiskey.” Allan spins his pain into poignant beauty. Among mainstream albums in 2013, Allan’s was one of the most sorely underrated.
What were your top country albums this year? We’d love to hear your picks in the comments below.