American Songwriter’s Top 50 Albums Of 2013

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

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20. Laura Marling: Once I Was An Eagle 

If Laura Marling’s fourth album, Once I Was An Eagle, ended after only five tracks, it would still be one of the strongest pieces of music to be released in 2013. The first third in a sixteen-track (plus interlude) song cycle of healing a wounded heart, the opening act of Once I Was An Eagle is a stunning, Eastern-influenced folk suite with no pauses between tracks. It’s lush and transcendent, part raga and part pop symphony — and it’s only 33 percent of the record. As the rest of the album unfolds, Marling maintains that thematic sharpness and complexity but opts for a more diverse and accessible approach, transitioning from haunting ballads (“Little Love Caster”) to Pentangle-style folk-rock (“Devil’s Resting Place”) to soulful slow-burners (“Once”). It’s a remarkably mature and confident album, both musically and lyrically, and reveals just how much new ground can still be covered with a powerful voice and a guitar.

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19. The Civil Wars: The Civil Wars

Well, it appears as if the Civil Wars really have drawn to a close, in a decidedly uncivil way. But irony aside, it’s the fans who lose this battle, because The Civil Wars, John Paul White’s and Joy Williams’ followup to their Sensibility/Columbia Records debut, Barton Hollow, was even stronger than that Grammy winner. Which means they might have reached classic status if they’d gone a third round. But what a fine swan song this is. The raw passion, energy and tension — whether sexual, as rumored, or not — that fills these tracks gives them a force Barton Hollow lacked, fine as it was. On songs such as “I Had Me a Girl,” dark, screaming chords and vocals that sound almost combative crescendo in a tight, intense spiral. That effect contrasts with the delicate, whisper-quiet drama of tracks such as “Same Old Same Old” and “Dust to Dust.” Two well-chosen covers — the R&B nugget “Tell Mama,” which they redefine as a lullaby, and absolutely elegant version of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” — point to the pair’s versatility. And add to the disappointment of their fracture. We know better than to ever say never, but if this is all there is, it’s worth savoring.

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18. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Push the Sky Away  

Nick Cave got a lot of noise and aggression out of his system with Grinderman’s two awesome full-length albums, but it’s an artistic cleansing that has served the Australian icon well. On Push the Sky Away, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ 15th album, there are no “Jack the Ripper”s or “Stagger Lee”s — the closest the band gets is “Jubilee Street,” a bluesy dirge that escalates into a maniacal rocker so gradually, the violence barely registers. Rather, what Cave & Co. have crafted on this round is one of their finest sets of music, still dark and harboring traces of menace, but gently and beautifully so. Opening track “We No Who U R” is essentially a lullaby, yet nightmares lurk within (“We know who you are, and we know where you live…”). And when Cave mentions Miley Cyrus floating in a pool in the epic “Higgs Boson Blues,” he cleverly neglects to mention which way she’s facing. Plus there’s that whole thing about having a fetus on a leash. Maybe Cave didn’t get all that harsh darkness out of his system after all. Thank God.

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17. The Milk Carton Kids: The Ash & Clay

With flawless close harmonies, contemplative, poetic lyrics and gorgeous guitar picking, The Milk Carton Kids have earned so many comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel, they’d probably like to throttle the next journalist who mentions it. Sorry. But watching them in their onstage element during a recent Austin City Limits taping reaffirmed the appropriateness of another comparison — to the Smothers Brothers. Though their comic banter isn’t present on this fine album, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are in fact the perfect pair to pull off an overdue revival of Smothers-style musical comedy. Not that there’s anything lacking in their straight-ahead songcraft; on the contrary, despite their minimalism (just two voices and two guitars) the Kids can be downright spellbinding. It’s not exactly all straight, either; there’s subversion in the bluegrassy “Heaven” and the gently mournful “Memphis” — in fact, the latter faces that first comparison head on (the Simon part, at least) with its “Graceland” reference: “This ain’t a trip/with my son/there’s no guitar/shines in the sun.” Their take on that city and what it represents is a heartbreaking coda for “the souls that shook up mine,” but whatever bleak future they envision for a city — and a nation — where dream-carriers die, at least it’s no reflection on their own. Which very much does shine in the sun.

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16. Dawes: Stories Don’t End

“Let me defend these hearts which are so rarely understood,” Taylor Goldsmith sings towards the end of Dawes’ third album. For Dawes’ anticipated follow up to their 2011 breakthrough Nothing Is Wrong, the Los Angeles band made a radically understated album. In Stories Don’t End, Dawes retreats further into own tendencies, self-releasing a collection of quietly complex and contemplative songs that dive deeper into Goldsmith’s special blend of anxious observation and shaky self-doubt. Goldsmith’s songwriting chops are paired down this time around, trading in the grand triptych beauty of 2010’s “A Little Bit of Everything” for the quiet, unassuming “Just My Luck.”

It’s doubtful that their latest record will attract as many new fans as their first two records, but that’s hardly a bad thing. It’s exciting to see a group as young and vulnerable to compromise as Dawes has decided that that becoming focused on further developing their own sound is its own form of progress and innovation. The band spent a record developing, exploring and refining its own vision, proving in Stories Don’t End, that less is more.

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15. The Avett Brothers: Magpie and the Dandelion

For their unexpected 2013 follow up to The Carpenter, the Avett Brothers doubled down on the sweet, dark Americana pop they have been crafting with Rick Rubin since 2009’s I and Love and You.It’s a god damn impossible way of life,” warned Robbie Robertson on the eve of the Band’s swan song during The Last Waltz. After a decade plus of incessant touring and several years of newfound major-label recognition, the Avetts may now know what Robertson meant. On Magpie and the Dandelion, they’ve grown tired and weary of fame, and the fatigue is a good fit for the North Carolina brothers. “I would not dare take someone in love with me where I’m going,” the brothers sing on the Magpie standout “Apart From Me.” “Skin and Bones” follows next, a mission statement for a band unsure how to escape their present life. On “Good To You,” Scott pleads for forgiveness from a touring bus after missing yet another wedding.

When the Avetts aren’t apologizing for their own shortcomings, they’re playing the part of Robertson, warning newcomers about the trappings of the spotlight on “Vanity” and “Another Is Waiting.” “It’s a fake, it’s a hoax,” they sing on the latter with a frantic urgency. The Avetts may feel too far-gone to escape their own success, but on Magpie they present a convincing case not to follow the tricky path they’ve chosen. In so doing, they may have just found a way out.

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14. Ashley Monroe: Like A Rose

There are those of us who’ve been following Ashley Monroe since she was an eager teenager, hailing from Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain stomping ground and uncannily echoing her elder’s tender Appalachian soul. After failed deals, songwriting cuts, guest spots and teaming up with the Pistol Annies, she finally got the chance to indulge in her stone-country solo fantasies and properly release the nine-song, Vince Gill-produced set Like A Rose. Framed by playing that wrings the bittersweetness from blue notes, her revivalist sensibilities and emotional intelligence feel downright radical and relevant. The salt in the wounds of her ballads is matched by the saltiness of her grounded humor. And even though it came out early in the year—ages ago by length of the contemporary attention span—the impression it made has yet to wilt.

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13. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell: Old Yellow Moon

There’s something so right about hearing old friends Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell trading lyrics and sharing harmonies on this long-overdue reunion album — an even bigger kick because it also reunites almost every alum from their old Hot Band days, when Crowell was a young new discovery and Harris was adjusting to life after Gram Parsons. They clinch the coolness of the deal with guests such as Vince Gill and a batch of well-chosen covers including Patty Scialfa’s “Spanish Dancer” and Matraca Berg’s aching “Back When We Were Beautiful,” along with four Crowell compositions. His “Open Season On My Heart” (co-written by James Thomas Slater) sighs with the poignant regret of dying love, in contrast to the peppier, classic-country treatments of Hank DiVito’s “Hanging Up My Heart” and Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues.” Crowell and Harris skulk like gators migrating from the Big Muddy to the bayou in the slinky “Black Caffeine,” then romp blithely through Crowell’s revisited “Bluebird Wine.” But it’s their lullaby-like “Dreaming My Dreams” that reminds us this silver-haired pair shares a dynamic — and an ageless friendship — that’s pure gold.

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12. Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires Of The City

Anyone who heard Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut back in 2008 probably got a kick out of it but could have been excused for thinking that the Ivy Leaguers-at-the-beach shtick would grow wearisome fast. Instead, the quartet has reeled off back-to-back killer albums to complete a trilogy that will stand out someday whenever anyone looks back at this fractured era in music. Following up on 2010’s excellent Contra, the music on Modern Vampires Of The City is always ambitious but never loses sight of the emotional direction of the lyrics. Songs like “Ya Hey” and “Step” are endlessly inventive and surprisingly heart-tugging, while “Unbelievers” and “Diane Young” achieve a breathless momentum that suggest that Ezra Koenig’s characters are afraid to slow down. And you can’t blame them, for when they do stop for a moment, they realize that their romances have stagnated (“Hannah Hunt”), they’re losing their homes (“Obvious Bicycle”), and that time’s relentless march is catching up with them (“Don’t Lie.”) That beach doesn’t sound so sunny anymore, but, man, is it captivating.

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11. Bill Callahan: Dream River

Nothing much happens in a Bill Callahan song, and yet the stakes are always almost unbearably high. That’s because a long, dreary day in a bar or a short airplane flight or even a ride on a snow-covered road are all it takes to set Callahan off on his off-kilter yet insightful ruminations on life and love. The artist formerly known as Smog received some of his best notices ever for Dream River, which is somewhat miraculous considering how uncompromisingly against the grain the songs wander. Callahan worries not about hooks or verse-chorus structure and he pulls lyrics out of the air as if he were improvising. His music often gets labelled as lo-fi, but the instrumental backing on this album is decidedly impactful, even when the flutes and congas make Callahan sound like the world’s most unfazed beatnik. Much like the approaching hurricane in “Summer Painter,” these songs sneak up on you, as Callahan continually renders the smallest moments downright momentous.

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