Country Weekly’s Top 10 Albums of 2013

Who made the cut?

1. Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves

In a country music world of oversingers, Kacey Musgraves is a breath of fresh air. Pure and natural, at times ethereal, Kacey has opted to not compete with power singers like Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride and just let her honest, effortless vocals shine. And while the intention is likely to let the focus fall on the song instead of the singer, what actually happens is that Kacey becomes one of the most distinctive vocalists on country radio today.

And much like her voice, this 12-song collection is distinctive in both its arrangements and lyrics. Musically, the songs range from the jangly Americana groove of the opening track, “Silver Linings,” to the acrid, thumping “Stupid.”

Whether it’s the heartbreaking hit single “Merry Go ’Round,” the inspiring “Follow Your Arrow” or the toe-tapping “My House,” each track evokes an emotion, a giggle, a tear or a memory, but always a hunger for what’s next.

2. 12 Stories by Brandy Clark

There may be too few women on country radio right now, but it sure isn’t due to a shortage of talent. Case in point: Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories, a staggeringly great collection of original tunes that paint vivid, honest portraits of real life, from a uniquely feminine perspective.

Album opener “Pray to Jesus” is like a companion to Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ’Round”—a delicate reflection on the droves of unhappily married women hoping for change from above, or at least the lotto.

And perhaps the finest of all is “Take a Little Pill,” a mournful, wearily resigned examination of the way we overmedicate to ease emotional pain, penned with clear vision and laser precision.

While the men are stuck in the backwoods, Brandy is busy digging through the human condition.

3. Set You Free by Gary Allan

The title perfectly sums up the album’s ambitions as Gary freely roams a stylistic gamut, from blues (“It Ain’t the Whiskey”) to jazz (“Drop”) and even a little reggae (“No Worries”). But it never comes off as some self-indulgent exercise or vanity piece. Gary’s powerful and expressive vocals lend a certain honesty to the proceedings and Gary seems right at home with whatever style he happens to tackle.

Gary collaborates with some of Music Row’s top composers, and for the first time includes a cadre of female co-writers—Hillary Lindsey, Sarah Buxton and Rachel Proctor—giving the project a softer touch without losing his trademark grit.

Set You Free doesn’t sound like every other album coming out of the Nashville factory these days—and that’s definitely a good thing.

4. Wheelhouse by Brad Paisley

With clever splices of sonic experimentation and songs that run from fanciful to downright serious, Wheelhouse seems to stand as Brad’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not that it’s quite that monumental, to be clear. But it is a declarative statement that Brad is branching out on a more divergent path than ever before.

That said, the musicianship on Wheelhouse is incredible and Brad just keeps on getting more flavorful as a guitarist. Serious music buffs are going to love Wheelhouse, while cursory fans may be left scratching their heads. But that’s what happens when you refuse to play it safe.

5. Like a Rose by Ashley Monroe

Ashley Monroe is among a new crop of country artists who are passing on glossy production in favor of earthier arrangements. The difference is that the Pistol Annies member has raised that bar with her new solo effort, Like a Rose.

The album combines Ashley’s almost ethereal voice with a healthy dose of sawing fiddle, pedal steel and doghouse bass to give the entire project an über-traditional country slant. In fact, her duet with Blake Shelton, “You Ain’t Dolly (You Ain’t Porter),” is such a fun throwback to traditional country, you can almost picture hay bales and wagon wheels in the recording studio.

If you’ve ever bemoaned the absence of traditional country sounds in an era of pop, rock and even hip-hop production, be still—Ashley Monroe is throwing you a country music lifeline. Whether country radio will embrace it is anybody’s guess. But if they don’t, shame on them.

6. Fuse by Keith Urban

It’s neck and neck between guitar wizards Keith and Brad Paisley for the artist with the year’s most adventurous album.

Like Brad’s Wheelhouse, Fuse travels in exciting sonic territory, meshing Keith’s usual blend of pop and country with some R&B vocal touches and even some New Age-y sounds. Though it doesn’t tackle socially conscious issues as Brad’s does, Keith’s is every bit as groundbreaking.

Keith promised that Fuse would change things up, and he delivered.

7. It Goes Like This by Thomas Rhett

Exciting newcomer Thomas Rhett’s debut album, It Goes Like This, provides a little bit of something for everyone, and we mean everyone. From the poignant, thoughtful “Beer With Jesus” to the hip-hop-infused “Front Porch Junkies,” and of course the chart-topping title track, It Goes Like This showcases multiple sides of the exciting young star.

Thomas Rhett worked with four different producers on the project in order to tap into all of those sides, which are given justice. This solid debut not only makes an impressive mark, but also should secure T.R. a spot in country for future albums.

8. We Are Tonight by Billy Currington

Billy Currington might be one of Nashville’s most criminally underrated stars, quietly notching hits like “People Are Crazy” and “Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer” while headliner status stays just out of reach. But as he demonstrates on his latest album, We Are Tonight, Billy is a skilled interpreter of songs with a knack for finding the soul in every selection.

Women are a big part of that approach, naturally. In crunchy lead single “Hey Girl,” Billy plays the guy who gets tongue-tied around a lovely lady. Right after that is “Wingman,” a humorous throwback jam about a dude whose buddy steals the woman Billy’s been eyeing.

But it’s the stuff like “Another Day Without You,” which pairs a loose groove in the vein of the Commodores’ “Easy” to lines about being hopelessly smitten with someone, where Billy truly excels.

9. How Country Feels by Randy Houser

Nashville’s country music insiders have known for some time that Randy Houser is one of the finest male vocalists the community has ever welcomed. The authenticity in his voice reveals itself in that he sings with the same growl and drawl with which he speaks. While radio and media have tried to label the Mississippi boy as a swampy country-rocker or an emotive singer/songwriter, the simple fact that neither can agree with the other is validation of his impressive versatility. And that notion is reinforced on his latest album, How Country Feels, his first for Stoney Creek.

Randy introduced fans to the new project with the infectious title track, which he has professed to record because of its fun let your hair down, hair down lyric. But the entire project is overflowing with hooky, singalong tracks.

10. (Tie) High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama and Alabama & Friends

High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama  by Various Artists

This collection leans much more toward the Americana and bluegrass worlds and includes the talents of Memphis rockers Lucero (“The Closer You Get”), beloved string band Old Crow Medicine Show (“Dixieland Delight”), Texas favorite Wade Bowen with songwriter Brandy Clark (“Love in the First Degree”) and many others.

Alabama & Friends by Various Artists

Alabama & Friends features the group’s Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook collaborating with some of country’s hottest stars on new versions of Alabama’s hits. Included are Jason Aldean (“Tennessee River”), Kenny Chesney (“Lady Down on Love”), Florida Georgia Line (“I’m in a Hurry and Don’t Know Why)”) and more. Additionally, fans get two brand-new tracks by Alabama, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American.”

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