What? You thought in a year chock full of year-end lists we wouldn't throw our hat in the ring? 2013 has been a pretty great year for music in general, and particularly for roots, bluegrass, and Americana. We've asked all of our contributors to select their top records of the year. Here's what they've been listening to over the past twelve months...
Southeastern by Jason Isbell
For me, Rebecca Frazier’s When We Fall is the best bluegrass album of 2013, even though there are some really great ones out this year (including Chris Jones and the Night Drivers’ Lonely Comes Easy, the Steep Canyon Rangers’ Tell the Ones I Love, and Donna Ulisse’s Shown’ My Roots). Frazier easily stands in the ranks of Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent, and her compelling lyrics transport us through the pain of loss, love’s disappointments, and the hope of healing.
Although there’s not a bad song on the album, the album’s title track stands out, with Frazier trading licks on her flat-top with husband John Frazier’s skittering mandolin lines, and Andy Hall’s aching dobro and Shad Cobb’s fiddle close out the song. Her clear-as-a-bell voice floats along the fluid river of her band’s never-miss-a-note, crisp, and sheer musical genius as she sings of the loss and emptiness that underlie many of the other songs on the album.
Frazier’s an exceptional and inventive guitarist (she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Flatpicking Guitar magazine), and she showcases her lightning fast fretwork on the album’s two instrumentals, “Virginia Coastline” and the Celtic-inflected “Clifftop.” On the first several bars of “Clifftop,” which would have been at home on an Old and in the Way or a David Grisman Quintet album, she demonstrates why she is simply one of the best flattop guitar pickers working today. Every song on this beautiful album reveals a facet of Rebecca Frazier’s musical brilliance, and not one song on the album disappoints.
This Side of Jordan by Mandolin Orange
If I could recommend only one album from 2013 to anybody, it would be This Side of Jordan. It's the most honest, genuine music I've heard all year, brimming with raw emotion and masterfully crafted instrumentation. Andrew and Emily are also two incredibly nice people from North Carolina, which makes me love the record even more. Not to mention, hearing "Waltz About Whiskey" live almost made me cry. So there's that. Five gold stars, two thumbs up, this album is Reese's Puffs and Cocoa Puffs in the same bowl.
True by Avicii
True isn't the Americana album any of us knew we needed until it dropped. In fact, it's not an Americana album at all. I was only peripherally aware of Avicii, mostly because all the parties I went to in college had some version of "Levels" playing, my favorite being "Levels in Reverse," which is exactly what it sounds like. But here we are in 2013 and "Hey Brother" and "Wake Me Up" are dominating the mainstream charts. For some strange reason, a Swedish DJ is shaking up the EDM scene with a lot of help from the Americana world. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but neither did Doctor Who in the 1960s, and look how that turned out.
Cluck Ol' Hen by Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby
While I love traditional first generation bluegrass, I have never been a purist because innovation is what brought to life bluegrass to begin with. That's why I love this mash up of traditional bluegrass and Hornsby’s deft piano playing. It's a follow up to the self-titled studio album that Skaggs and Hornsby made a few years ago. Skaggs, of course, has always lauded the traditional bluegrass greats over the years and he befriended and played with legends such as Bill Monroe, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs and many more. Yet, he has always kept an open mind about the music. Hornsby, like Skaggs, is also a Grammy Award winner. His first piano playing foray into bluegrass and roots music came on the Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume 2 album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt band when he brought to life a wonderful version of “The Valley Road.”
On Cluck ‘Ol Hen, Hornsby’s piano solos have the bluegrass stank on them -- he has obviously schooled himself in the genre which enables him to collaborate in vibrant fashion with Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder. There are many bluegrass classics recreated here including “Toy Heart,” “How Mountain Girls Can Love, “ “Bluegrass Breakdown” and “Little Maggie.” But, the highlight of the album for me is the ten-minute version of Hornsby’s “That’s The Way It Is.” The song itself is poignant and beautiful, but this crew of musicians take it to a new level. And, in the middle of it, Skaggs and Hornsby pair off in a piano-mandolin duet that is sublime.
The year marked publication of Murphy Hicks Henry’s important and comprehensive history of women in bluegrass, Pretty Good For A Girl. The arched-eyebrow title speaks to the boys’ club that defined the music for decades. So I suppose it’s a sign of progress that nobody makes much fuss about Della Mae’s lady lineup. They’re just a great band. But there is something about that that infuses their music with a special richness and a perfumed grace. Rounder Records recognized the Boston-bred band’s talents and helped them retreat to John Carter Cash’s cabin studio north of Nashville with Bryan Sutton producing to make this label debut. It feels like the kind of Rounder classic that hooked me on bluegrass in the 90s. Celia Woodsmith’s lead vocal is tinged with Irish barroom soul, and she’s far from the only stellar voice amid lush arrangements. “Turtle Dove,” “Empire” and “Pine Tree” are highlights, while the title track is a clawhammer ripple with a gorgeous melody that feels like a balmy afternoon at Merlefest. Seeing the lasses win the 2013 IBMA Emerging Artist trophy and play the main stage at Wide Open Bluegrass sealed their status as my bluegrass breakout of the year.
Somewhere Between by Molly Martin
This was an under-the-radar, Kickstarter-funded release but a very special one out of musically fertile East Nashville. Martin’s succulent and honest voice seizes your attention, helped by inspired engineering. She has a storyteller’s tone, and the songs are full of shapes, themes and phrases that are both familiar and surprising. Gentle country rock sound settings, especially delicately placed pedal steel, make a remarkably complete musical statement. It’s such a comfortable listen that I may have had this on more than any other recording this year. And I found out on my anniversary that it’s a great make-out album to boot. That’ll certainly help seal a record’s place in your heart.
This Side of Jordan by Mandolin Orange
While some bands are one-trick ponies who only write about the joys and sorrows of love, Mandolin Orange manages to incorporate all of this and more — even ponies. The duo’s songwriting inspirations are all over the board on This Side of Jordan, from North Carolina’s 2012 ban on gay marriage to Lord of the Rings. But when you listen to “Hey Adam” or “Cavalry,” there’s no disparity in craftsmanship. That is to say, whatever Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz have written, it’s easy to hear that they’ve put their whole selves into it.
Throughout the record, Mandolin Orange stays rooted into one general sound but consistently branches off ever so slightly to keep you hooked. Album opener “House of Stone” is quiet and pensive, “Turtle Dove & The Crow” is about as close to a dancey song as the group has ever gotten, and “Morphine Girl” sounds warm and woozy — like you might expect to feel after getting a nice dose of painkillers.
And again, Mandolin Orange has proven that its harmonies are one of their greatest strengths: they particularly soar and shine on “Waltz About Whiskey. The line about love was a ring that won’t end still invokes a heartfelt, heavy sigh on even the happiest days. Similarly, “The Doorman” and “Black Widow” have their own quiet moments that take your breath away.
Southeastern by Jason Isbell
Inside Llewyn Davis: Original Soundtrack Recording by Various Artists
Nomad by Bombino
Dream River by Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan's Dream River was designed to bring your day to a peaceful end -- like a novella read cover-to-cover, the last page flipped over just as your eyes let in the sleep. It's terse, yet luscious -- full of konga and slow percussion, coupled with Callahan's unbelievable baritone and easy-strummed telecaster. On display are some of the singer's greatest lyrics, east of Smog. Opener "The Sing" is full of frank humor reminiscent of Charles Portis, while the album as a whole could soundtrack Denis Johnson's next frontier journey. But at its heart, Callahan waxes on love and the mundane -- processing beauty from the darkest (and brightest) corners of our collective ordinary. "I like it when I take the controls from you," he sings on 'Small Plane,' "And when you take the controls from me." He's learned to let life give and take, all while salvaging a meditative control. A control only achievable when your hair is grey. -- Cameron Matthews
Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1 by Chris Thile
Aside from both having unique (and often mispronounced?) first names, they represent two of the most haunting voices in music today, and both are qualified songwriters in their own right. Additionally, both women released vastly underrated records in 2013.
Child Ballads -- Mitchell's laborious collaborative project with guitar virtuoso Jefferson Hamer -- is the perfect example of melding past and present. Drawing from the 19th century studies of folklorist and Harvard professor Francis James Child, the lyrics are those of ancient Scotch and British folk songs, but the accompanying music and arrangements are as deft and fresh as ever.
O'Donovan's Fossils demonstrates her growth and distance from her days in Crooked Still -- indeed, her side projects since the band went on hiatus have ranged from the epic Goat Rodeo Sessions to a slot on our own Sitch stage at Bonnaroo -- but no single song effected and stuck with me this year as much as "Red and White and Blue and Gold." I've pretty much had it on repeat since the first day I heard it.
If there's justice in the world, these two artists will get their due in time. And one day we'll look back and realize what a remarkable musical year 2013 really was.
The Streets of Baltimore by The Del McCoury Band.
Classic, yet fresh. Always inventive, but pleasing to Del’s loyal audience. An album of covers and new songs as varied as Ray Stevens’ “Misty” to Bobby Bare’s title cut, it’s Verlon Thompson’s “I Need More Time” that positively rivets me every single time I hear it, and I’ve probably heard it nearly a hundred times by now. Haunting, pensive singing and lyrics, with evocative picking. Mmmm, good. Another favorite cut is “Big Blue Raindrops,” which features some brilliantly creative mandolin from Ronnie McCoury.
The Streets of Baltimore was recently nominated for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album -- will it win the band its second trophy (following their win for the 2005 release, The Company We Keep)? Stay tuned; it’s definitely a worthy contender!
Hands down, for me 2013 was all about Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers.
The sexiness of 70s-era Linda Ronstadt, the sass of Rose-era Bette Midler and the charm of Loretta Lynn, the record is full of great story songs with clever lyrics performed by word-class players.
I loved this album for so many reasons. The first, undeniably, is June’s voice - it’s so incredibly unique (not to mention unexpected when you look at her). I'm fascinated by the way her songs blend southern folk tradition, hymns, and blues -- her writing feels more like story telling that song writing. Having Dan Auerbach produce your first record helps too.
My favorite track, (as if I can pick just one), is Working Woman Blues. It’s the first track on the album, and it really showcases everything that’s great about June -- crazy cool vocals, a killerguitar riff, and some horns to give it a modern and soulful twist.
AND LET'S NOT FORGET...
-Build Me Up From Bones by Sarah Jarosz
-Love Has Come For You by Steve Martin & Edie Brickell
-Three Chords and the Truth by James King
-Long Gone Out West Blues by Pharis and Jason Romero
-The Ash and The Clay by The Milk Carton Kids
What were your favorite records of 2013? Any albums or artists we blatantly overlooked? In any case, it's been a remarkable year for music. 2014 has a lot to live up to... can't wait to see where it takes us.