[W]elp, it’s that time of the year again — time to try and stack rank the albums I’ve spent my life with over the past year. Weighing intangible against intangible and doing my best to pick which one comes out on top!
In some ways, this annual ritual makes me feel like I’m trying to pick a favorite kid. Actually, doing that might be easier. I keed, I keed. No DSS calls please.
Below are my top albums for the year and even one bonus suggestion which I was lucky enough to get a preview of during 2013, but that won’t actually be available to the masses until early next year. Here’s hoping some of these picks resonate with you, dear reader, and some lead to new discoveries that you can spend some of your next 12 months with.
Cheers to a solid 2014!
1. Willy Mason – Carry On
[W]hen Steve Earle is anxiously awaiting the next time you play a show near him or release an album, chances are you’re doing something right. Still largely under the radar here in the US of A, Martha’s Vineyard native Willy Mason is without doubt one of my favorite songwriters in the game today. This year’s release “Carry On” (which came out last year if you’re in the UK) is the third charm on belt of Mr. Mason, and it may well be the best.
I’m a believer in the fact you can tell the quality of a songwriter by seeing them in the most minimalistic manner possible: the artist, a single instrument of choice and an audience. I’ve seen Willy perform that way, and it was better than I expected. Unfortunately, what happens in instances such as those, the ones where I grow attached to a very stripped-down version of a song, is when the fully produced version comes out I recoil in horror. OK, that’s a bit dramatic, but you get the point. When I was finally able to get ahold of “Carry On”, there was no recoiling. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good bit of post-prod going on, because there certainly is. Fortunately, it seems to add to the feelings being pulled forth through the lyrics. The kind of feeling you might get if you were a skeptical dreamer rambling through the desert (or life,) periodically dabbling in substances of a questionable nature, over-analyzing everything and being totally fine with it. Hunter would approve.
I swear those last few statements will make sense after you listen to the album.
2. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
[I] admit to being a late comer to the Isbell train. I’ve never really been a huge fan, so the initial reaction to hearing about his 4th solo effort received a rousing “hunh” from my side of headphones. Well, I’m not sure I’ve ever underestimated an album as much as I did this one. It’s no secret that it’s lyrical ability that’s usually the differentiator for me, and Mr. Isbell boasts that in spades. From the album opener “Cover Me Up” on through to the closer “Relatively Easy,” Isbell spins tales with the ease and ability of an elder tribesman. Vivid pictures of love, pain, struggle and everyday life come right at you and you better be ready emotionally. Count me in.
Don’t tell my friends I’m listening to Country.
P.S. Blake Mills doesn’t always play lead for Isbell, but if he is playing, you get your ass there and thank me later.
3. Tyler Lyle – Expatriates
[Y]es — it’s an EP. Expatriates, the follow up to the stellar The Golden Age & The Silver Girl, has literally spent more time in my headphones than any other album on this list. That’s probably because of the 12-plus minute epic “Ithica”, which has (according to iTunes) been played no less than 70 times since it hit my library. Yup. That’s about 14 hours of the same song. Not to be outdone, the other tunes have probably been played the same amount of times, but their length is much more pedestrian. Don’t confuse things though, there’s nothing ordinary about the songwriting of Mr. Lyle. Each one of the tunes on this effort is a go-to for me.
4. Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone
[V]alerie June’s debut album rocketed to the front of the playlist with a quickness. It’s really no surprise when you find out all that went into it. Despite her seemingly instantaneous emergence, Ms. June’s album full of “Organic Moonshine Roots Music” is no fluke. With talents like Booker T. Jones and Dan Auerbach — whose influence is undeniable and downright fantastic — on her side, there isn’t much not to like about this album. Ranging from the spiritual-esque “Somebody to Love” to the horn-laden “Workin’ Woman Blues” to the fuzz rock “You Can’t be Told,” the songs coming out of your speakers are enough to make Quentin Tarantino wet his pants. As a matter of fact, if she doesn’t end up tracking one of his movies I’ll be floored. Spin it. You won’t regret one minute of it.
5. J Roddy Walston and The Business – Essential Tremors
[W]hen the time has come to rock, this right here is your album. A fan of sing-along piano bangers? Try “Take It As It Comes.” Need a bouncing guitar-rock screamer? Go for “Heavy Bells.” Feelin’ a bit like falsetto, ZZ-top, bar-hopping music? “Black Light” is your jam. Really miss that time when The Strokes played like The Blues Brothers? Well then your medicine is called “Tear Jerk.” Tired of this kind of approach to a review? I am too, but one more: want an entire crowd to forget where they are and become one giant singing machine that answers your call? See below.
There is little doubt that J Roddy + The Business are one of the best live rock acts out there right now. Go see them. Prep for the sing-a-longs by picking up the album.
6. Big Harp – Chain Letters
[I]f I were to have a husband-and-wife band, I’d be hard pressed to choose between Shovels & Rope and Big Harp. And if I could have anything I wanted, that group would be part of both.
For every ounce of “we can make the best of this” that Shovels & Rope pours out, Big Harp raises their eyebrows, downs a shot of whiskey, spins around on their bar stool and murmurs “fuck that shit” as they stroll out into the street.
If you’re the kind of person who likes their cynicism with a pinch of wry, this is the band for you. Songs with titles like “You Can’t Save ‘Em All,” “Some People Are Born Strange,” “Waiting For Some Drunk,” “Bar All The Doors,” and “It’s Easy To Be Stange” await anyone willing to acknowledge the darker side of life’s adventures.
7. The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow
[A]bout a year ago next month, out of what most would truly call nowhere (others call it Brooklyn,) the world was introduced to The Lone Bellow through the heart-wrenching acoustic video below. Since that time, they’ve seen a meteoric rise to the front of request lists across the country. The album itself took a while for me to get used to. At first I felt like the production got in the way more than it helped. But over time, I’ve come to enjoy what I would call the “throwback” sound that accompanies these well-written songs of love and life. Accompanied by a live show that gets every single person, regardless of age, clapping and singing along there’s no doubt that this album belongs on the tops list. If you aren’t familiar with it already, I’m sure it won’t be long until you are.
8. Christopher Paul Stelling – False Cities
[I]n all honesty, this should have been my “Bonus Round” for last year’s list. I’ve had this album for a while and it’s become such a part of my life, I find it hard to believe I first heard it over a year ago. Stelling, well known for his proficiency with the guitar and dynamic performances, takes his art to the next level on “False Cities.” This one will have you stomping your foot in joy, raising a fist in protest and putting an arm around a friend all within a 42 minute span. Be emotionally prepared for this one folks…
While you’re on riding the wave of emotion, Songs Of Praise & Scorn should be on your to-do list.
9. Typhoon – White Lighter
[T]yphoon certainly altered my view of them with this release. For years, I really liked the family-style band approach, but Typhoon was one band that never really did it for me. These days, I’ve mostly fallen off gigantic band wagon, but the 11-member Oregon-based band got my attention and kept it with this year’s release of White Lighter. With undeniable hooks, just the right mix of mega-choruses and identifiable themes (at least if you’re a 30-something year old father of two,) this is definitely an album that you can listen to repeatedly and hear something different each time.
10. Jonny Fritz – Dad Country
[W]hat can be said about Jonny Fritz? What can’t be said about Jonny Fritz? A modern day David Allen Coe is certainly something that’s been mentioned on more than one occassion. What’s probably indisputable is the fact that he’s one of the most entertaining products to come out of the Americana/Folk/Country scene in ages. While mainly sticking to what made him a hit with fans across the nation as Jonny Corndawg (see: “Suck In Your Gut” / “Trash Day” / “Shut Up” / “Ain’t It Your Birthday” / “Goodbye Summer,”) Fritz also gets to a bit more of a serious side with “Have You Ever Wanted To Die.” A song that leaves you waiting for a punchline that never comes. One of the trappings of having an unfailing sense of humor about life, I suppose.
Whatever name he chooses, as long as this fella is making tunes, I’ll be listening to them.
11. Goodnight, Texas – A Long Life of Living
[O]k, so this album came out in the later stages of 2012. I already threw an EP into this list, so really it’s obvious I could care less about the details of a best of the year list. If you haven’t heard this album, it’s new to you! The band, whose name comes from the geographic mid-point between the founding members locations at the time of meeting, claims to draw inspiration from 19th century middle America. A time when the world was a simpler place, full of grit and wonder. You can certainly hear those themes echo through the album, but the way in which the songs are played makes them timeless in their appeal. Head on out to the porch with your beverage of choice, sit in your favorite rocker, put on this album and watch the sun go down. Or at least pretend all that is happening. You won’t regret it.
The Curtis Mayflower – Everything Beautiful is Under Attack
[E]ach year, I’m lucky enough to hear a handful of albums before they actually get released to the public. This album was one of those for me in 2013. And it’s worked its way into my daily routine. Anytime you end up singing a song the minute you get out of bed you know there’s something to it. I’ll let the video below and a few other reviews do most of the talking for me, but the use of the descriptive term “blues-rock voltron” is about as dead on as you can get. If you pine for a time when your rock and roll came with sides of soul, blues and even jazz, then you’ll want to grab this gem from the Worcester-based The Curtis Mayflower as soon as it’s available.