The 12 Best Country Albums of 2013
The most frequent complaint non-country listeners make about today's Nashville is that the music doesn't sound like it used to. That's true. But it's not that the hitmakers have abandoned their base -- it's that they've annexed the audiences abandoned by rock when rock went crabby after Nirvana.
Brandy Clark wrote or co-wrote the best songs on three of this year's best albums, including her own
The sonic palate of today's country is any music that its (mostly white) audience has ever liked, which means Blake Shelton raps, a little, and The Band Perry rocks Queen chord changes. If "November Rain" came out today it would be the CMA's song of the year -- although some label suit would probably insist on adding a rudimentary hip hop beat.
The records that turn up on lists like this tend to cut against the grain. Most of my choices ape older country sounds and favor a self-conscious austerity over the parking-lot party-pop that often storms the charts. That's a preference rather than a swipe at the Lee Brices of the world -- music like his does what good pop always has: It brightens the corners of its listeners' lives.
Three observations before we get to the honorees. First, female country stars continue to sing about richer feelings than the men, who tend to have three lyrical modes: happy in love; unhappy in love; and just plain happy to be American men. By contrast, the four singers topping this list stare squarely at life's dissatisfactions, sometimes daring to suggest that work/church/home might not fulfill a good person's every longing.
Second, something unthinkable has happened. Brad Paisley, Nashville's most reliable entertainer, dropped a record in 2013, but he's not on this list. "Accidental Racist" wasn't the problem, although that duet is symptomatic of it: Paisley's Wheelhouse had too much concept, too little inspired songcraft. The Cool J imbroglio was unfortunate but revealing. For years Paisley has adroitly mixed the combustible elements of country stardom and gently progressive politics; when those incompatibles finally blew up in his face, Nashville had his back -- and progressives deemed him a stars-and-bars loving galoot. No wonder he went on to make fun of Obamacare on that awards show.
Third: Recent records by Blake Shelton, Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark, Darius Rucker, Eric Church, Lee Brice, Kacey Musgraves and more all directly or sneakily endorse marijuana. How is Nashville more open-minded than Obama's DOJ?
Anyway, here are twelve records, all worth your ear time.
12. Randy Travis, Influence Vol. 1: The Man I Am
In 2013 Randy T. made like Merle H., triumphing over health scares and radio's lack of interest in old-timers. Here, he croons old favorites from his forebears (Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, a big ol' bucket of Hag), plumbing a rich lower register that will be news to folks who know him only for "Forever and Ever Amen" -- or as that Tea Partier performing in Michelle Bachman's tent at the Iowa caucuses. Even better: The weatherbeaten falsetto he vaults into on the swing numbers. If you don't have a Travis hits collection, start with that, but this easygoing set offers more pleasures than all the other looking-back covers sessions I've heard the last couple years -- this one doesn't have the Wynton Marsalis problem, meaning it doesn't just make you want to go out and hear the originals.
Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "Oh, gee, wouldn't it be wonderful to open up the doors of the past/ And live again as yesterday?"
Highlight: The cool Western breeze of Travis' touring band cutting loose on "Big Butter and Egg Man."
11. Pistol Annies, Annie Up
Now a group and no longer a gimmick, the Annies settle down a touch on their second long-player -- the hell-raisin' ("Hush Hush") feels a bit forced, the cornpone stuff ("Damn Thing") too cute, and the overprocessed three-part harmonies (many of the choruses) too Chipmunk-y. But the ballads dig deeper ("Dear Sobriety," "Girls Like Us"), and that freewheeling, this-world-is-ours spirit still thrills, especially when the lyrics turn to the kind of Nashville truthtelling these ladies pioneered -- and that distinguishes many of the records higher on this list.
Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "My hands are shaking/ But I can still pour the mistake that I'm making"
Highlight: "Being Pretty," a gorgeous weeper about the grind of buying/applying/removing makeup, smuggled a Jezebel-style thinkpiece into every Wal-Mart.
10. Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story...
Like the best of Eric Church, Shelton's "The Boys 'Round Here" shotgun-marries simple hip-hop loops to the dusty thump of "Waymore's Blues," and -- some rote lyrics notwithstanding -- there's nothing in it that wouldn't do ol' Waylon proud. Sheltons workin' man rockers kick, too, but his wheelhouse is the bedroom -- or, in a pinch, a Chevy benchseat. This beefy come-on artist is the finest country horndog of his generation, his sweet talk steamy and his intentions probably not as pure as he's claiming.
Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "My eyes are the only thing I don't wanna take off of you."
Highlight: The single where he makes it clear he's man enough not to pressure a woman into sleeping with him -- but then adds "It'd sure be cool if you did."