2013 was a great year for American Roots music and putting together a list of the Top 100 was a long and arduous task. We went around and around about who should be on it and then around again when putting them in the order you see them now. The Top 10, truthfully, could go any way you want it but we had to pick an order...and a number one and we couldn't get past that incredible Band of Heathens record. Then there was the Wood Brothers. Equally incredible. And Over The Rhine and well so on and so forth. When you finish one of these lists and you think you're done...the ones you forgot start popping up. "Holy shit, we forgot Barrence Whitfield!" So it starts again. Where to put the one's we forgot and who gets bumped. We've undoubtedly missed some that you think should be here and you're probably right, but this isn't science it's only our list of the Top 100 Albums of 2013 and here it is.
1. The Band of Heathens - Sunday Morning Record - The Band of Heathens head back to a time when the depth of a Sunday morning was taken apart your favorite song. Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist were keeping a path forward amid personal and career hurdles. They found that space in their songwriting. The tracks are more personal; though quieter, there is sharp clarity to the album. There is no doubt, that this is music from The Band of Heathens brand. Heart and mind are both represented and appealed to in their songs, and Sunday Morning Record continues to deliver smart stories of real lives, with all the bumps, bruises, and smiles left in.
2. The Wood Brothers - The Muse - Wood Brother Oliver has name recognition on a number of non-in-house albums, helming the production of projects such as Shemekia Copeland and co-writing the recent Tedeschi-Trucks Band album title track. For their recent release, The Muse, The Wood Brothers went outside of blood relations and chose a producer that uses all of his senses to capture the intricate diversity of the band. Buddy Miller turned the knobs behind the board for The Muse, and added baritone guitar work to the production. Buddy does a fine job in transferring the music to song in a way that nods to influence without needing to stamp the tracks with a particular sound style.
3. Over the Rhine - Meet Me At The Edge of the World - Meet Me at the Edge of the World uses the rural Ohio farmhouse of the husband and wife team of Over The Rhine, dubbed Nowhere Farm, as a backdrop for the stories and the music. The band’s previous works have showcased their art, and their ability to craft music that is full and vibrant. Over The Rhine, with producer Joe Henry, dedicate themselves to making sure that every note and nuance surfaces in the songs for Meet Me at the Edge of the World. The album is the most song friendly effort from Over the Rhine and, luckily, it is a double disc.
4. Jason Isbell – Southeastern - The songs of Jason Isbell on Southeastern are handled with care, and the album announces Jason’s move to top tier songwriter and performer. His heart still beats Roots; he is after all, a son of Muscle Shoals. Jason Isbell comfortably wears the skin of an American songwriting force with Southeastern. He has equal command of his words and the ability to deliver them with all of their emotion intact. He turns heartbreak into the saving face of salvation in the story line of “Traveling Alone” and steers through a decade of memory glimpsed through the light of “Different Days”.
5. Patty Griffin - American Kid – Patty Griffin has stated that much of her new release, American Kid, was written to honor her father. Musically. Patty uses her past recorded output as influence in creating something familiar emotionally that dwells in a musical future sound. “That Kind of Lonely” lanquishes in a lush sound collage that gathers strings and hard edge acoustic chords, using Patty’s voice as a beacon to lead the song across stark soundscapes. Patty Griffin has a voice that can whisper or soar with an equal presence. There is a subtle power in each note, a secret knowledge in every vocal tease.
6. The Greencards - Sweetheart of the Sun - The Greencards have broken musical ground and established themselves as major players in the world of Roots music since they came into being in 2003 and on Sweetheart of the Sun, their musicality spreads out over the water-themed release. Their collective talents are not hidden nor kept to the background and kudos go to The Greencards for making Sweetheart of the Sun feel like one thought rather than individual tracks.
7. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell - Old Yellow Moon – Harmony between old friends is what drives Old Yellow Moon. Emmylou Harris had Rodney Crowell at her side for her own early solo work on seminal album such as Luxury Liner and Elite Hotel. The pair join their voices again with Old Yellow Moon.
8. Trampled Under Foot – Badlands - Trampled Under Foot boast not one but two Soul force singers with sister/brother Danielle (bass) and Nick (guitar) Schnebelen. Their parents, Bob and Lisa, were fixtures on the Kansas City Blues scene. Nick describes what the father gave his children, “Our dad was in bar bands but he was also recognized as a great blues guitar player. He’d take us to blues jams where we’d meet some real old school artists and hear a cross section of roots music.” Early training shows through on Badlands. Danielle’s siren voice is a beacon light and a lamp in the window. Danielle fully inhabits her cover of James Brown’s “It's a Man's Man's Man's World” with a testifying claim on the crown that will make anyone within ear range a true believer. Badlands is smoldering Soul and Blues.
9. Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark – Blind, Crippled and Crazy - Delbert McClinton and longtime friend Glen Clark made their last album together in 1973. Forty years on, and the guys decided it was enough fun to do it all over again. The time that has passed has not dulled their roots, and it has given them plenty of fodder for stories, though most of the tales are aimed right back at the two guys behind the microphones. Glen Clark says of the project that they are “a couple of guys who started playing together in ragtag bands around Fort Worth in the '60s, so we like to poke some fun at ourselves for being older now."
10. Steve Earle & The Dukes (and Duchesses) - The Low Highway - The Low Highway is the fifteenth Steve Earle studio album. The album style samples from a wide sound backing courtesy of The Dukes and Duchesses. The album showcases the songwriting abilities of Mr. Earle in a manner that cannot be heard in his more genre-specific albums. There is breathing room on The Low Highway, and Steve takes full advantage to stretch. “Pocket Full of Rain” dips its sound into Indie Rock; “21st Century Blues” wonders where all the promises went over a full forward rock rhythm; “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” catches a Cajun fiddle wind that rides into “After Mardi Gras”, where it dips into a more swamp edge. “Calico County” cuts a path with guitars that leave marks like a chem trail across the album and “That All You Got” marries Blues riffs with Zydeco rhythms.
11. Edie Brickell and Steve Martin - Love Has Come for You – The Steve and Edie (for our times) have created beautiful moments of song on Love Has Come for You. Given history and talents, the album’s quality is not a shock. What is surprising is how well the pair get the banjo and voice to interact. The title track mixes banjos notes and chords to give fullness as Edie spins a mountain tale that builds up instrumentally to bloom like spring flowers within the song. The story follows love through a life showing the strength of the emotion and finding joy even when it reaches the end of its time on earth.
12. Valerie June - Pushin' Against a Stone – Valerie June refers to her music as Organic Moonshine. She is a major star across that big piece of water east of the US coast; her UK ‘overnight success’ arriving right around the same time as her album debut, Pushin’ Against A Stone. Vocally, Valerie June can simultaneously give impressions of hurt while assuring that you can climb over anything in your path. Pushin’ Against A Stone crosses sonic borders and comfortably wears folk blues, jazz, rock and soul in its songs without ever having to swear fidelity to any one sound style.
13. North Mississippi All-Stars - World Boogie is Coming - Pedigree opened doors but once inside, North Mississippi All Stars needed to rely solely on their music. Luther and Cody Dickinson grew up in North Mississippi alongside bluesmen like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and the ghost of Mississippi Fred McDowell. The Dickinson Brothers got some advice from their buddy Seasick Steve, who told them they were the link to North Mississippi Blues for the next generation. Steve’s advice was to keep it primitive. The North Mississippi All Stars wanted to make a cultural statement, and to honor Seasick Steve’s request, and that is exactly what they have down with World Boogie Is Coming. Doing the right thing and giving it a beat.
14. Guy Clark - My Favorite Picture of You - Guy Clark holds a photo up to the camera on the cover of My Favorite Picture of You. The image is Susanna Clark, who passed away in June 2012. Guy vivdly remembers the moment, "Me and Townes are in that house, just drunk on our asses, jerks. And she'd had enough, she walked out that front door. I think it was John Lomax who snapped that picture. I had it pinned on my wall, and Gordon [Sampson] came over. We were writing and he had a list of lines and titles and all that shit that most people carry around. I was going through it and I hit on this line that said, 'My favorite picture of you.' I turned in my chair and it was right there in front of me. The lyrics just poured out because all it boiled down to was describing the picture. We might written it in one day."
15. Slaid Cleaves - Still Fighting The War - Slaid Cleaves is our inner voice and the guide that points us towards the light. His stories use the lives of others to help us make the way over the hurdles in day-to-day existence, and support decisions with the lives of those around us. Slaid starts off Still Fighting the War with its title track. The song follows memories back to Fallujah and addresses the central character in the tale with the observation that “you been home for a couple of years now, buddy, but you’re still fighting the war”. The song zeroes in on the obvious and makes sure that the truth is present as it sings….”men go off to war for a hundred reasons but they all come home with the same demons”.
16. Anders Osborne – Peace - Anders Osborne is on a Peace mission. Given the subject matter, it might seem that the title is what the man is championing….that is not the case. Anders relates the various stages, transitions, awakenings and pitfalls he has experienced in achieving his own personal Peace. Anders Osborne’s observations are street smart and do not pull punches. To support the realness of his words, Anders fills songs with determined rhythms marinated in the musical stew pot of his New Orleans home.
17. Mavis Staples - One True Vine - Mavis Staples, and producer Jeff Tweedy, have created the gospel according to Americana with One True Vine. The pair received a Grammy nod and win with their first collaboration, and Ms. Staples wanted to create One True Vine in the same joyous spirit though with an evolution in the music. The album completely embodies dark and light, both in words and music.
18. The Milk Carton Kids – The Ash and The Clay - The Ash and Clay lets the guitars have their say, with tones that complement the purity of The Milk Carton Kids vocals. Kenneth Passengale plays a 1954 Martin and Joey Ryan uses a 1951 Gibson, making the guitar sounds sparkle with age in the echo of a thousand notes. The Milk Carton Kids tend to deliver their songs with a quiet power. There is softness to the tunes gathered but they have a bite that safely keeps them out of reach from an easy listening status.
19. Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line – Carnival - The stories on Carnival have their backdrop go from antebellum south to an old man walking a mountain trail in the present day. Nora Jane Struthers is comfortable in the literary side of her tales. Prior to undertaking a full time career in music, she was an English teacher. Nora Jane Struthers and The Party Line take you on a ride in Carnival that captures a lot in the space of fourteen songs and creating an album that will take them from the sideshow to the big tent.
20. James Hunter Six – Minute By Minute - The James Hunter Six play hard though the rhythms of the band do not pound as much as penetrate. Double duty is a default for James Hunter in his songs. His voice guides and keeps the music on track with the happiness the narrator finds in getting it right shining through James’ vocals. James Hunter follows the path of great Soul singers like Al Green, Solomon Burke, and Otis Redding by selling the songs with an honest emotion that allows his vocal chameleon to inhabit his characters.
21. Yarn – Shine It On – Contrary to Yarn yarns, the stories on Shine the Light On see the band traveling towards the warm glow found in the promise of the album title as they voice humble request in an attempt to strive for, and appreciate, a better life. The words of Blake Christiana and the emotional telling of his vocal delivery have found themselves a good home in the music making of Yarn.
22. The Defibulators – Debt’ll Get ‘Em - Debt’ll Get ‘Em hits the ground over the speed limit with album opener “Holy Roller”, a tongue-in-cheek gut-kick to organized religion. The Defibulators raise a toast to blue-collar brothers and sisters with “Working Class” a soon-to-be jukebox favorite from the coal mines to the farm fields, stopping at every watering hole from the east to west with truck parking.
23. Steep Canyon Rangers – Tell the Ones I Love - The Rangers never toss a riff over for someone to catch; each note volley included in their songs are hand carried from one member to another on Tell the Ones I Love. The mandolin, fiddle, guitar and banjo leads move between instruments with no bumps though there are some serious jumps in the way the band delivers, and we can hear, bluegrass. Steep Canyon Rangers honor traditions but do not view the sounds that have come before as a sentence but musical arrows that point towards a sonic changes for string bands.
24. Jonny Fritz - Dad Country – Jonny Fritz went back to his origins, dropping Jonny Corndawg and reclaiming his real name for his ATO Records debut, Dad Country. Jonny paints himself as the outsider in his songs and backs the Southern literary story lines with classic country playing. He understands that his problems lie with the company he keeps (“Wrong Crowd”, “Social Climbers”), last night’s party (“Goodbye Summer”) and the welcome he gets after driving all night to help blow out the candles (“Ain’t It Your Birthday”).
25. I See Hawks in L.A. – Mystery Drug – The gentlemen curators of California Country, I See Hawks in L.A. once again confine literary prose into the borders of a three minute song with Mystery Drug. They are a giving group and help the songs stick with remember-me hooks in the chorus to take home with you. The Hawks turn the pages of real life in the tales and stitch the songs with Paul Laques psychedelic roots riffs.
MUSIC FROM ALBUM 1 THROUGH 25
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