It’s that time again, y’all, time to break out the best of the year lists. This year we have a Baker’s dozen (13) choices for our favorite albums from the year. We will also be spotlighting some other albums in the coming days that tackle some subtopics within Country music. But we’ll start with our grandaddy of ‘em all, The list of 2013’s Best Country music albums. You’ll find a list of albums that runs the gamut from Traditional to contemporary to everything in between. There’s a healthy mix of male and female artists as well. Our sub-lists will begin early next week and run through the end of the year. We'll also be publishing a Top 20 Singles of 2013 list too.
13: Tim McGraw - Two Lanes Of Freedom (McGraw/Big Machine Records)
After the protracted mess that is/was the Curb Records divorce, One might’ve thought Tim McGraw would rest on his laurels and deliver a record that was hit or miss yet once again the superstar showcases why he possesses one of Country Music’s best sets of ears. The title track is well-written and performed while hooky songs like “Southern Girl” and “One Of Those Nights” (both #1 hits) showcase he’s still got the goods for Radio but it is songs like “Book of John,” “Annie I Owe You A Dance” and “Nashville Without You” which showcase an artists who looks for great songs and not just songs that will ‘fit’ with Radio. That being said, mega hit “Highway Don’t Care” is easily the best song on this record both from a vocal and lyrical stand point.
12: Brett Eldredge - Bring You Back (Atlantic Nashville)
One of the best vocalists in any genre, Brett Eldredge finally broke through with the lead single from this album, “Don’t Ya.” Writing from experience on most of these songs, Eldredge re-worked a previously un-released album into this one, his debut. Three songs from that previous album ended up on this record with debut single “Raymond” and home town story song “Signs” among ‘em. The anchor of that album remains as well as “One Mississippi” is without a shadow of doubt one of 2013’s best vocal performances and it’ll be a shame if the powerful ballad isn’t a radio single before this album’s cycle ends in 2014/2015. Other standouts on the album are “Tell Me Where To Park,” “Bring You Back” “Beat Of The Music” and “Mean To Me.”
11: Will Hoge - Never Give In (Cumberland Records)
Rather than try and fight his influences anymore, Will Hoge has instead married the country music from his hometown with the heartland rock and soul music he’s been performing since appearing nearly 15 years ago on the indie music scene. “A Differerent Man” is pure classic Country/Rock while “This Time Around” is about as soulful as a Country song can get while the natural twang of Will’s raspy voice comes out on “Goodbye Ain’t Alway Gone” and “This Time Around.” “Daddy Was A Gambling Man” is another standout but it’s the closing “Strong” which has really brought Will Hoge, the artist to the forefront. And while it has been used for Chevrolet’s Silverado Trucks 2014 campaigns (commercials), it also is a damn good song and well worth hitting the Top 40 and beyond.
10: Charlie Worsham - Rubberband (Warner Bros.)
One of 2013’s best new artists, Charlie Worsham delivers a sonic tour-de-force on Rubberband. This is an album which blends the traditions of Country’s past with the contemporary sounds and productions. Charlie’s vocals will recall the smooth tenor of Vince Gill (who guests with Marty Start on the fantastic “Tools of the Trade”) and Charlie and friend/co-produer Ryan Tyndell crafted a collection of cool guitar-driven songs that mix in the high-lonesome harmony vocal style of bluegrass with percussive elements of progressive rock. It’s an interesting collection with “Want Me Too,” “Young To See” and “Someone Like Me” among the highlights but it’s rocker “Rubberband” and beautiful ballads “How I Learned To Pray” and “Mississippi In July” which really make this a record that New Country fans, hipsters and traditionalists all can like.
9: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell - Old Yellow Moon (Nonesuch)
There’s nothing like two old friends working together and that’s exactly what happens with Old Yellow Moon, the collection that Rodney and Emmylou always hoped to make. The songs chosen here are truly for duet purposes or to just have some of the best songs you will possibly hear on a record including Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful,” Allen Reynolds’ “Dreaming My Dreams,” Crowell’s “Open Season On My Heart,” and Kristofferson’s “Chase The Feeling.” These songs all tie together beautifully and make for such an entertaining and well-developed album that it’s sad to think that such kinds of albums rarely hit the top of the charts these days.
8: Cassadee Pope - Frame By Frame (Republic/Republic Nashville)
It’s easy to write-off this as a product of a reality show contract but as Tate Stevens here one minute-gone the next album (and deal) proved, winning a show like this doesn’t guarantee stardom. Instead Cassadee Pope rode her considerable good will in winning the Fall 2012 Edition of The Voice (Season 3) and delivered one of the year’s best country/pop records. songs like “Good Times,” “Wasting All These Tears” are strong hits but it is songs like “11” that showcase the true depth of Cassadee Pope as an artist and this album especially. She’s emotive and that goes a long way as well (listen to “Easier To Lie” for an example).
7: Blake Shelton - Based On a True Story... (Warner Bros.)
What can we say about this. There are people who disagree with us, no doubt, but they’re not listening to the same record we’re listening to, we think. This record runs from romantic (“Mine Would Be You,” “My Eyes,” “Doin’ What She Likes”) to self-referential humor (the mega-hit “Boys ‘Round Here”) to heartbreak “Do You Remmber” to plain-ole Blake Shelton humor (“I Still Got A Finger” and “Small Town Big Time”). There’s really no ‘filler’ on this of the moment, mainstream Country record. Perhaps that’s why it’s taking home trade association awards too. Those awards aside, this is an album worthy of our attention.
6: Sturgill Simpson - High Top Mountain (Thirty Tigers/High Top Mountain Records)
Singing in the same honky tonk style that made Waylon Jennings the king of the Outlaws, Sturgill Simpson’s High Top Mountain is a retro-cool collection of modern Honky Tonk music. “Life Ain’t Fair And The World Is Mean” is a perfect opener to such a record. He knows this kind of music isn’t long for modern Country radio airplay but that doesn’t mean he’s not gonna give things the good ole college try. High Top Mountain may not get certified Platinum or release big hits but it is a complete album from beginning to end. Standouts include “Railroad Of Sin,” “You Can Have The Clown,” “Sitting Here Without You” and “Some Days,” the latter of which could likely get some airplay in some radio markets.
5: Ashley Monroe - Like A Rose (Warner Bros.)
Ashley Monroe finally got to release an album on schedule (without delays) and what a magnificent album Like A Rose is. Produced by Vince Gill, Like A Rose is a traditionalist delight from “Like A Rose” to the closing “You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter)” duet with Blake Shelton. Other standouts include the singles “You Got Me,” “Weed Instead Of Roses” and the title track. Ashley’s a vocalist who could probably do ‘contemporary’ hits rather easily (“Used” is pretty close) but she’s best when using her Dolly-like voice like she does on Like A Rose.
4: Maggie Rose - Cut To Impress (RPM Entertainment/Sony)
It’s one of the shortest full-length albums released in 2013 but make no mistake. Maggie Rose delivered a modern country gem. Working with Blake Chancey and James Stroud, Maggie’s collection of 10 songs showcases one of Country music’s best vocalists to emerge and rather than be a collection of Carrie Underwood or or Miranda Lambert carbon copies, Maggie takes on some great tracks from Candy Cameron, Lisa Carver and other not-so-well-known or often use writers. But still, these writers deliver some of the best, smartly written mainstream songs of the year like “Mostly Bad,” “Better,” “Looking Back Now” the hit “I Ain’t Your Mama” and “Hollywood.” It’s spirited, playful and just damn good.
3: Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park (Mercury Nashville)
There’s just something about this album that really spoke to us in 2013. Perhaps it was the lyrics, lyrics which made you sit and think. Lyrics that were witty and smart. Perhaps it was the melodies. Interesting melodies that managed to be both traditional and modern at the same time. Or maybe it was both. Yeah. It was both. Standouts include "Silver Lining," "Follow Your Arrow," "Back On The Map" and "My House."
2: Keith Urban - Fuse (Hit Red/Capitol)
Keith Urban took a big risk with Fuse. Instead of working to make another complete album of songs like his past hits, Keith Urban decided to work with producers and songwriters who inspired him and it works better than perhaps anyone could’ve imagined it would. There are blends of influences and songwriting styles here but there’s rarely a case where Fuse doesn’t work. There’s a familiarity to some of the melodies and it’s mostly mid-tempo but working with these various producers made for a fantasti album, including standouts like “Love’s Poster Child,” “Cop Car,” “We Were Us,” “Raise ‘Em Up” and “She’s My Eleven.”
1: Brandy Clark - 12 Stories (Slate Creek Records)
One of the most buzz worthy songwriters in all of Country music these days (She co-wrote “Better Dig Two,” “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Follow Your Arrow” among others), Brandy Clark is an interesting study in how major labels don’t always know how to market a project. 12 Stories was made over 2 years before it was released and it took the small indie label Slate Creek Records to help bring it to the forefront. The project features 12 amazingly diverse stories about all sorts of women. It’s the kind of record that deserves to be heard and while there may never be radio hits on here from Clark herself, there’s no doubt in our minds that more than a couple of these songs will be covered by top stars (some already were in “Crazy Women” and “The Day She Got Divorced”). Standouts: “Hold My Hand,” “Stripes,” “Pray To Jesus,” and “Take A Little Pill.”
Next week, we'll share Top 5 lists of subsets of country music including "Albums that show the most growth," "top independent releases," "top comebacks," "Most surprising albums," etc. We'll also be linking to those lists as well.