American Songwriter’s Top 50 Albums Of 2013

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

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10. Sarah Jarosz: Build Me Up From Bones

Build Me Up From Bones supposedly is not the musical document Sarah Jarosz’s label had hoped she might create, but when they heard these 11 tracks, they were thrilled anyway. Though Jarosz, 22, may be young in years, she’s always been self-assured musically, and on this album, co-produced with longtime collaborator Gary Paczosa, her unerring instincts and grown-up confidence lift her work to a new level. Jarosz’s New England Conservatory of Music studies and experiences with multiple top talents have resulted in even more complex arrangements, lyrical depth and vocal nuance than she exhibited on 2011’s excellent Follow Me Down. “Over the Edge” and “Mile on the Moon,” both co-written with Nashville go-to guy Jedd Hughes, are among the standouts, along with her near-torch treatment of Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” and playful arrangement of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right-On.” Though she hasn’t forsaken her bluegrass foundation, Jarosz is evolving rapidly; where she might go next is anyone’s guess. With her talents, the prospects are exciting to consider.

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9. Elvis Costello and The Roots: Wise Up Ghost

Elvis Costello has taken detours through R&B and soul in the past — he paid tribute to Stax on 1980’s Get Happy!!, released a collaborative album with Allen Toussaint, and even wrote a song for Solomon Burke. But he’s never done so with a band as incredible as Philadelphia hip-hop powerhouse The Roots. Their tenure as house band for late-night host Jimmy Fallon has proven just how vast their range is, and on Wise Up Ghost, the two legendary artists come together on a set that’s not just funky, not just fun, but ultimately a showcase for just how many jams these veteran artists can kick out in 56 minutes. After starting off with the deep grooves of “Walk Us UPTOWN,” a gorgeous string intro segues into the atmospheric funk of “SUGAR Won’t Work,” and the sinister wah-wah and fuzz of “REFUSE to Be Saved.” The all-caps title gimmick might seem unnecessary on first glance, but after one spin of this jaw-dropping, heavy-hitting set, the only reasonable reaction is to ask why they left out the exclamation points.

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8. Paul McCartney: New

At an age when most rockers are mewling out somber ruminations on the sorry state of the world and their receding past, Paul McCartney seems like he wants to compete with the pop stars at their own game. Titling it New is Macca’s cheeky way of letting us know that this album is no mere regurgitation of past glories. McCartney shuffles between four producers, mostly keeping the pedal down and daring everyone to keep up. While you can spot career benchmarks at times, like the Wingsy stomp of “Save Us” or “Everybody Out There,” the mid-60’s melodic lushness of the title track or “On My Way To Work”, or the Revolver-era psychedelic flourishes on “Appreciate” or “Hosanna,” the album still sounds as modern as the output of a scrappy indie band. When Paul does take a look back on the touching ballad “Early Days,” he does so with love for those who shared those days with him and defiance at anyone who thinks they know the story despite not being there in the first place. McCartney certainly has his story straight on New, setting an imposing standard that both his contemporaries and the youngsters will be hard-pressed to match.
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7. Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer, Different Park

For an album whose title is a riff on the phrase “same shit, different day”—the ultimate expression of indifference when you’re stuck in a rut—Same Trailer, Different Park completely avoids the defensive, down-home partying posture and manufactured nostalgia of so much contemporary country music. In 2013, the genre was home to no other singer as casually, fetchingly frank and no other songwriter as resistant to cliché as Kacey Musgraves. At any given moment, you could find two or three country hunks singing about the unchaperoned, beer-fueled, footloose-and-fancy-free feeling that tends to elude anyone over the age of 18, and sounding rather strained doing it. Meanwhile, this Texas native, who only turned 25 this summer, applied tuneful finesse and timely narrative detail to fleshing out what it’s like to live with a hemmed-in state-of-mind versus a liberated one, and made an army of smart, young listeners feel like she was speaking their language in the process.

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6. The National: Trouble Will Find Me 

The National isn’t a band known for artistic reinvention. Since the release of its self-titled debut, the New York City via Cincinnati band has refined and purified its singular, slow-burning sound to become a thing of sleek, graceful beauty. And on Trouble Will Find Me, it sounds as pristine and powerful as ever. Save for the fiery “Sea of Love,” it’s an album mostly free of loud rock songs, the band more focused than ever on maintaining a dark, melancholy, whiskey-drunk after-hours mood. It’s both hopelessly romantic and romantically hopeless — and occasionally a bit silly. Yes, Matt Berninger actually sings “I was in guns and noses.” Of course, he can get away with it when the songs are this magnificently written.

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5. John Murry: The Graceless Age

“You say this ain’t what I am/This is what I do,” someone tells John Murry in his epic ballad “Little Colored Balloons” in an attempt to separate the core of who he is from his ill-advised behavior. Whether or not Murry believes that separation exists is what creates the conflict in these bruising first-person accounts of self-destruction. The Graceless Age, first released in 2012 in England to great acclaim before its U.S. debut this year, is folk-rock with a primal edge, all buzzing guitars and dejected melodies that open up into sweeping choruses. Murry is not the kind of guy who’s going to pretty things up for his listeners; when he sings about a drug overdose or a broken relationship, he does it with you-are-there verisimilitude that doesn’t flinch. Though they scream and curse their way through these scenarios, the wounded hearts of Murry’s protagonists always keep you rooting for them. We should also be rooting for Murry to reach a wider audience, because the evidence here proves he is a forceful songwriter and fascinating performer.

My Favorite Picture Of You
4. Guy Clark: My Favorite Picture of You

Guy Clark spins life’s ephemera into indelible, minutely detailed images with such amazing economy, it’s no wonder other songwriters revere him. On My Favorite Picture of You, he manages to thread multiple decades through the eye of a needle and etch endless vistas onto the head of a pin. It’s magic. In the opener, “Cornmeal Waltz,” just one verse evokes generations of dancehall culture: “Beat-up ol’ Stetsons and beehive hair/belt buckles bumpin’ in time/there’s a little girl dancin’ on her daddy’s toes/spinnin’ around on a dime.” Even when he addresses the currently popular subject of postwar PTSD (“Heroes”), Clark’s lyrics don’t sound clichéd. (Bryn Davies’ aching cello certainly helps us feel that soldier’s existential pain.) “Rain in Durango,” like “Heroes,” a co-write with Shawn Camp and Ray Stephenson, uses a pretty melody to veil subtly jabbing humor behind the sadness of a groupie girl’s story (bluegrass version: she fell for a banjo picker in Telluride). The mockery turns inward on “I’ll Show Me,” which carries co-writer Rodney Crowell’s penchant for self-deprecating sarcasm — and a jazz-blues vibe that seems to strip years from the gentle old man who delivers Lyle Lovett’s “Waltzin’ Fool.” Then there’s the title song, about Clark’s late wife. It’s destined to remain as timeless as the talent of its creator.

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3. Phosphorescent: Muchacho 

Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck has tried his hand at a wide array of styles and sounds over his decade-long career, from atmospheric folk on 2007’s Pride to brassy countrypolitan on 2010’s Here’s To Taking It Easy, with a Willie Nelson covers album sandwiched in between those two highlights. Yet after a long break spent in Mexico, Houck re-emerged in 2013 with his most definitive statement to date. Comprising a mixture of gritty alt-country, dreamy indie pop, rustic folk and a touch of R&B, Muchacho is Phosphorescent’s best album. It’s rich in the reflective pathos that has characterized Houck’s best material to date, hitting a poignant peak in single “Song For Zula.” But the vessels through which Houck delivers such emotional statements have never sounded so stunning.

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2. Patty Griffin: American Kid

After six years had passed since her last album of original material, the sublime Patty Griffin provided us with an embarrassment of riches in 2013. This fall saw the release of Silver Bell, a “lost” album shelved by record-company ineptitude for a decade. Earlier in the year, Griffin came firing back with American Kid, a brand new album of original songs. Listening to the two albums back to back proves that her cutting songwriting hasn’t mellowed a bit with the passage of time. American Kid gives Griffin a chance to collaborate again with Robert Plant, their two unique voices haunting three tracks together. Although the music hews to Americana-tinged mid-tempo tracks created with the help of Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All Stars, there are a few fun stylistic detours, like the drinking-song ribaldry of “Get Ready Marie” or the rocking abandon of “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida.” The high point is the ballad “That Kind Of Lonely,” one of the most powerful songs you’ll hear this year or any other. Is it too much to ask Griffin to give us two albums every year?

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1. Jason Isbell: Southeastern

Jason Isbell logged a lot of mileage as one of a holy trinity of rowdy, affecting songwriters in acclaimed Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers, but his solo catalog has so far yielded material that’s equally powerful, if a bit more subtle. Southeastern, his third, is a breathtaking document of lyrical honesty and achingly gorgeous melodies. From the haunting and soulful opener “Cover Me Up,” Isbell draws the listener into an intimate space, where no topic is off limits (most notably alcoholism and its consequences). But even at his softest and most confessional, Isbell is warm and inviting, his voice more like that of an old friend than an over-sharing stranger. That being said, he still knows how to get riled-up and rowdy, as he does on “Stockholm” and “Super 8.” As warm and gentle as Southeastern’s best songs are, there’s comfort in knowing that Isbell isn’t above getting a little raw and dirty when the occasion calls for it. Top to bottom, it’s the best album of 2013.

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Reviewers: Jewly Hight, Jeffrey Terich, Lynne Margolis, Jim Beviglia, Jon Bernstein, Sean Maloney, Eric Magnuson and Hal Horowitz.

NEXT: THE TOP 50 SONGS OF 2013

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