American Songwriter’s Top 50 Albums Of 2013

Written by December 4th, 2013 at 3:54 pm

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30. Aoife O’Donovan: Fossils

Aoife O’Donovan’s Fossils may technically be a debut, but long before it arrived, the Boston singer-songwriter built up a long and impressive resume that includes performing with progressive bluegrass group Crooked Still, collaborating with members of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, and touring with Garrison Keillor’s radio variety show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” So her first proper solo album is actually that of a seasoned and experienced performer — one whose haunting folk tunes are beautifully matched by her own mellifluous vocals. And in that sense, Fossils is ultimately a gallery of highlights, among them the gentle opening string plucks of “Lay My Burden Down,” the gritty country rock of “Beekeeper,” the barn-burning “Fire Engine,” and the hypnotic and layered arrangement of “Briar Rose.” I could go on, but here’s the gist — not a second of Fossils’ 40 minutes is wasted.

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29. Willy Mason: Carry On

Carry On isn’t flashy or trendy, just sturdy-as-hell and impeccably crafted. The western-dub of “Restless Fugitive” manages to paint John Ford-style vistas with a simmering reggae pulse before segueing into “Shadows in the Dark” which bears an eerie — and welcome — melodic similarity to Eric Bachman’s haunting Archers of Loaf-era classic “White Trash Heroes.” What Willy Mason has is a clear, inarguable mastery of songcraft. Layers unfold with each repeat listen, with split-second note shifts sticking with you as you lay down to sleep long after you’ve stepped away from the stereo. From the buried tremolo-guitar of “It’s the End” to the woozy, lyrical percussion of “Walk Me Down,” Carry On is a work of subtle charms and intimate delights. Be it the extra-wet, over-delayed ghost of a beat buried deep underneath “What Is This” or the fact that Mason can make the most over-used reference point in American music — the pickup truck — seem vital and fresh on not one but two (!!!) songs, Carry On stuns from start to finish.

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28. Josh Ritter: The Beast In Its Tracks

“All the stories I could tell, if I felt like it now,” Josh Ritter sings on his latest record. For his seventh album, Josh Ritter reeled in his literary tendencies–2010’s So Runs the World Away was full of sprawling magical realism and sparkly allusion– and instead recorded the plainly direct, intensely personal The Beast In Its Tracks. Ritter’s album is at turns despairing, cheerful, dark, and outright joyous, a rich addition to the ever-growing canon of divorce albums. The bleeding heart directness in his latest record is a new step for Ritter, and it serves him well. Beast weighs love new and old, letting past pain clash up against fresh joy, and the results are deeply moving.

“She only looks like you in a certain kind of light,” is the album’s premise of sorts, and Ritter finds a gorgeous, tense poignancy in a man’s momentary lapse into lost love. Much to its credit, The Beast In Its Tracks has a wicked sense of humor, tracing the all-too common cruelty that often follow a nasty breakup. “But if you’re sad and you are lonesome and you ain’t got nobody true/I’d be lying if I said, that didn’t make me happy too” Ritter sings with a big goofy grin on the payoff to “New Lover,” one of the many standout tracks on Beast. It’s a funny moment, but most of all, it’s honest.

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27. Brandy Clark: Twelve Stories

Brandy Clark’s debut album has received a showering of critical accolades from country revivalists, championing the Washington songwriter’s gritty Nashville realism as a welcome return to the outlaw country of Waylon and Willie. But Twelve Stories employs its formal conservatism in order to address contemporary concerns. Her debut album is full of chemical addiction, but this time around the songs are littered with pain pills. The romantic exploits, whims, and regrets of women are Clark’s main subject matter, the reason they rely on their distractions—pills, joints, and lotto tickets—so heavily.

Clark knows where to look for drama and weight. “What keeps me out of heaven will take me there tonight,” Clark sings as she waits, trembling, for the hotel elevator to take her towards an extra-marital affair. It’s one of the many moments on Twelve Stories that proves Brandy Clark will be a fixture in Nashville for a very long time.

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26. Lorde: Pure Heroine

If you’ve done much reading about buzzy pop music this year, you’re probably aware that Lorde is, in fact, a white, teenaged, New Zealand singer-songwriter named Ella Yelich-O’Connor. She scored an out-of-nowhere alternative hit with “Royals,” but broadcasts her sense of detachment and doles out her brooding critiques in a manner no member of a royal bloodline could get away with. Her debut album, Pure Heroine, has made her a sort of poster child for smart, and smart-assed, anti-pop. There are those who’ve taken her eye rolling at luxury lifestyle role-play as a presumptuous attack on aspirational African-American music, namely hip-hop. But it’s much more likely that she’s talking to her hip-hop-digging, middle-class suburban peers—and herself—highlighting the profound disconnect between singing along with champagne-and-Cadillac fantasies and recognizing that that’s hardly the path that leads to personal substance. Lorde’s perceptive point-of-view, combined with the sleek, subterranean minimalism of her electro-pop tracks, makes for one of the year’s most potent one-two punches.

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25. Haim: Days Are Gone

Days Are Gone was the one of the most hyped indie-pop albums of 2013, and the greatest feat  of the Los Angeles Haim sisters’ debut was that their record lived up to anticipation. Days Are Gone is a collage of ’7os classic rock and ’80s dance-pop, and the eleven song collection is jammed with carefully constructed hooks and delicately placed bass runs. But a good part of the joy of Days are the ragged imperfections that shine through the album’s glossy, bright production. This is the type beloved debut that comes with songs that have been worked on for years, and it’s clear Haim has a rare gift for pop songwriting, tossing off each of the half-dozen single-worthy tracks here with an infectious casualness. The trio’s wonderfully imperfectly harmonies lead  the way on “The Wire” and “Days Are Gone,” while  lead singer Danielle Haim’s hiccups and stutters on “Forever” and “Don’t Save Me” give the song’s frantic nostalgia an edge and grit otherwise absent in pop that sounds this good.

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24. Johnny Flynn: Country Mile  

UK singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn first registered on listeners’ radar with 2008’s A Larum, which found him dabbling not in British folk as a peer like Laura Marling would, but in a sound more dramatically influenced by Americana and country. And after a hiatus from music spent chasing the acting bug, Flynn’s return with Country Mile found him balancing the American country that informed his previous two albums with a bigger, festival-folk sound that erupts into some inspiring and altogether fun moments. Layers of organ and trumpet turn “The Lady is Risen” into a joyous romp, while “Country Mile” sounds like a classic English folk tune channeled through a distortion pedal. But Flynn’s songwriting is just as breathtaking when stripped back to its bare essentials, as on the slow-building “Einstein’s Idea.” Whether aiming for quieter moments or big, barroom sing-alongs, Country Mile is Flynn at his strongest.

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23. Arcade Fire: Reflektor 

Viral marketing, David Bowie, SNL, James Murphy, dress codes, interactive videos and a contentious review that brought the band’s sex life into question all contributed to why Arcade Fire’s fourth album Reflektor was one of the most talked-about albums of 2013, but not necessarily why it was one of the best. Well, James Murphy does — the former LCD Soundsystem frontman brought a much-welcome layer of disco sheen to the band’s earnest indie rock, which only amplified the intensity and gravity of their work. A complex conceptual double-album surrounding personal interaction and modern technology, intertwined with Greek mythology, Reflektor looks, on the outside, like a prog opus from the 1970s (and it’s nearly as long at 80-plus minutes). None of that would matter if the songs weren’t there, and the title track, the hard rocking “Normal Person” and the anthemic “Afterlife” are some of the best Arcade Fire has ever written. Albums this ambitious carry substantial risk, but in the case of Reflektor, it’s far outweighed by the reward.

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22. Slaid Cleaves: Still Fighting The War

Billy Bragg may call himself “the Sherpa of Heartbreak,” but Slaid Cleaves is its cartographer. On this album, he maps a craggy landscape of loss, sorrow, regret and resignation that somehow sounds soothing, even though these cinematic vignettes don’t offer much hope for a happy tomorrow. You fight a war, you come home a mess. You work hard, but they take your job away. You fall in love, marry and procreate, then your mind fades as your loved ones watch. In “Rust Belt Fields,” he sings, “No one gets a bonus for bloody knuckles and scars/No one remembers your name/Just for working hard.” With a high, rust-edged tenor that eats away any protection his characters might wear, he exposes their souls along with their lives. Yet he also finds room for upbeat brevity with a pair of charmers, “Whim of Iron” (perhaps about his mother?) and the clever “Texas Love Song.” And he celebrates his beloved mentor, Don Walser, in “God’s Own Yodeler.” In the end, though, Cleaves returns to departures, considering his own in “Voice of Midnight.” But he leaves us with a pragmatic thought, singing, “The only vow I make/to live true and die well.” That’s one aspiration we should all share.

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21.Valerie June: Pushin’ Against A Stone

You may know Valerie June as the siren in red who accompanied Eric Church at the most recent ACM Awards. Or you might’ve heard her conjuring Nina Simone on Meshell Ndegeocello’s album last year, or pulling her weight in a roots revivalist string band alongside Luther Dickinson, Amy LaVere, Shannon McNally and Sharde Thomas before that, or serving as the subject of a mini-doc made by the director of Hustle & Flow even earlier. Her fourth album, Pushin’ Against A Stone shows off her own tradition-tweaking vision (she calls it “organic moonshine roots music”) and her arresting voice, veering from girl group to gospel to bluegrass to folk with ease. The album was co-produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who duets on a great acoustic cover of Estil C. Ball’s “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations.” Booker T. Jones stops by to lay down bluesy organ on June’s “Somebody To Love.” If you haven’t checked this album out yet, you’re missing out.

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  • tenn4

    No Dr. Dog? Huge oversight. The Avett Brothers and their ilk can only wish they were as good songwriters and performers. Dr. Dog’s “B-Room” is their sixth incredible disc in a row, approaching the Beatles for quality and quantity of a catalog.

  • Tokyo Rosenthal

    I musta been #51!

  • Sylvandro Jameson

    Many good selections. I won’t quibble with those that might’ve been included. ’tis a hard thing to pick and choose. May 2014 be as bounteous…

  • NoHick

    No Neko Case- what the Hell?

  • NoHick

    Where’s Richard’s, Electric?

  • Cat Fuller

    Great list indeed… but if you could have added one more it should have been East Nashville’s new darlings, THE SMOKING FLOWERS. I can’t get enough of this husband-wife duo and their new album “2 Guns”!

  • Paul Steele

    How is Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors’ release Good Light not on this list? Jason Isbell – solid call.

  • Joe Hillyer

    Absolutely agree about Jason Isbell’s Southeastern – tremendous craft at work.

  • Tom Moody

    Yea, that’s missing, too!

  • Rudy Connor

    While I agree with Isbell having the best of 2013, I am totally miffed at why Jimmer
    Podrasky’s “Would-be Plans” is not high on the list. It’s his first new music in 23 years since The Rave Ups “Chance” back in 1990. It is a comeback album of absolute epic proportions. Jimmer is one of our greatest songwriters. It is a must. Check it out!

  • NoHick

    Well, I guess “Good Things Happen to Bad People.”

  • the ghost of Buddy Rogers

    After all the attention you gave Another Self Portrait, it’s kind of strange that you couldn’t find a place for it on this list.

  • D. Roberson

    The Lone Bellow needs to be on here!

  • Andrew

    Whoever it was that showed me this album on some random forum that I cant remember…I want to thank you…Ironically busy listening to it right now

  • Andrew

    Caitlin Rose could have been higher….and no Okkervil River? and I wont repeat John Moreland…oops I just did

  • wallywhack

    Again, I have no issue with Super 8 as a song, nor do I have an issue with it’s thematic place on the record. My problem is aural. Super 8 is a sonic bull in a china shop and fucks up the whole vibe of the record for me. Great song otherwise.

  • James Day

    so it’s all country & americana these days…

  • Chuck Tyler

    Makes me want to steal the devil’s Cadillac and drive it down a dirt road.

  • Don Armstrong

    Useful list but seems to favor Americana artists –

  • James Day

    I agree Don, part of why I’m not renewing this year. We play in the Blues festival-New Orleans space. This mag seems like it’s for Nashvillie hipsters,I mean let’s hear all the songwriting genres, for Pete’s sake!

  • unread

    What about Hiss Golden Messenger’s Haw?

  • Pastyjournalist

    Great list – but I’m going to have to go with a pleading “Please give Kurt Vile’s ‘Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze’ and Neko Case’s new one another listen.

  • Andrew Parker-Renga

    You guys love Jason Isbell and I do too, but Southeastern isn’t even his best album. Some inside love happening? :-)

  • rebekah

    i would also add diane birch’s album “speak a little louder” and trent dabbs’ “the way we look at horses.”

  • Harold Stankard

    Stockholm is NOT about the city…and it’s not about coming home. The song is one of the most sharply written on the album. Think about the phenomenon of Stockholm Syndrome applied to an ill-fated relationship. It’s about trying to break from a bad relationship! A definite highlight on a brilliantly scribed record. As for Super 8, well yeah…a bit out of place!

  • Tommie Koch

    pity, noone mentions Lee Harvey Osmond and Bobby Bare, weren’t they from this year, too ?

  • Blah Blah Blah

    Pretty much nailed most my choices!

  • Chris

    You overlooked Kellie Pickler – The Woman I Am and it’s the best of 2013. Also her previous album 100 Proof is the best of 2012 and topped many critic lists. The Woman I Am is even better and it’s ridiculous that it’s getting overlooked.

  • Patrick Hayes

    Yeah somebody messed up somehow. Easily my number 1 this year.

  • Bill Jacobs

    I just downloaded Spotify to listen – and now I’m cruising through the selections. So many choices! Such good music! There’s only about dozens of songs that I want to listen to next. How can I wait for this song to be over to listen to the next one? I’m gong crazy…… (Thank you American Songwriter.)

  • sam quint

    Disagree about the album, but agree re Super 8. My favorite album this year, but Super 8 is the weak spot of the record. It sounds like he wrote it for someone else to record (like a lesser-talented pop country star). I wouldn’t doubt if a “new country” type scores a big hit with it one day.

  • ace

    This is a list of songwriters, Kellie Pickler is not a songwriter, she is a singer. Hence, she did not make it on the list.

  • Dimestore Saints

    100% agree with Jason Isbell being number one but how the hell is John Moreland not on this list!!???

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