Friday, January 3, 2014


Jason Isbell's Southeastern reigns over the favorite
26.2 records of 2013 for 765 At 33 RPM.
"Bro Country" topped country charts and ruled radio playlists in 2013, but gals such as Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe and Lydia Loveless wore the shiniest creative crowns.

The Dixie Chicks finally flew again as a touring band, mostly in Canada, and in the studio. But, this time it's with Natalie Maines making a Mother of solo effort and the Court Yard Hounds (sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire) continuing to fly in Sheryl Crow's air space. Since turnabout is fair play, Crow reinvented herself with a country album.

Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tom Jones, Neil Young and The Drive-By Truckers produced the year's best revisits, reinventions and tributes to their golden catalogs.

Miranda Lambert earned extra shooting stars for her gun slinging with the Pistol Annies, a smash solo tour and two of the top collaborations on the Fogerty and Willie records.

Snoop Dogg became Snoop Lion and released a record the entire family can listen to. Meanwhile, Elvis Costello joined forces with The Roots to give jazz funk a try.

And, well-ridden war horses such as Steve Earle, Black Sabbath, Joan Jett, David Bowie, Motorhead and Iggy Pop showed they still have plenty of miles left to ride with new releases of their own.

As much as I loved all of the aforementioned records, none even came close to moving me the way Jason Isbell did with Southeastern.

Always a fan of his Drive-By Truckers efforts but not as instantly enamored with the one solo effort I had before this summer - the self-titled debut with the 400 Unit - Southeastern became a staple of my stereo, iPod and car CD player. When it wasn't Southeastern, it was often one of the remaining solo and 400 Unit records that I ultimately purchased to have them all or one from his shelf of the DBT library.

To seal it, Isbell and the 400 Unit made them all roar to life at a Columbus tour stop in ways that even the record of the year can't do on its own.

1. Jason Isbell


Jason Isbell is sober. He's in love and Southeastern is the musical compass of his life's redirection.

It reads reflection, rehabilitation, redemption and the exhilarating fear that comes from reinvention.

At least part of the prize is his marriage to knockout fiddle magician Amanda Shires who sings and plays on the collection.

Southeastern's songs tell of love that's white-hot enough to make the boys jealous of his fortune and the girls swoon for his sense of romance.

Musically, Southeastern stays mostly in the ballad to mid-tempo range with Flying Over Water and Super 8 the two exceptions. The later is a hilarious update to Lynyrd Skynyrd's Gimme Three Steps tale that gets funnier with each verse and this ending moral to the story: "If I ever get back to Bristol,/I'm better off sleeping in the county jail/I don't wanna die in a Super 8 motel."

While there's not a speck of cereal in Southeastern, the two most haunting moments come from Songs That She Sang In The Shower and Elephant. The first brings home the loneliness of being left for too many self-inflicted wounds and haunted by the favorite numbers of a now long gone lover.

Elephant anguishes through the agony of a friend's eventual loss to cancer in a way that leaves a lump in the throat even after knowing the punch line.

At Isbell's June show in Columbus at Skully's Music-Diner, he and The 400 Unit melded the material from Southeastern perfectly with a set that included most of the tracks from 2012's Live From Alabama.

That live album, along with Drive-By Truckers' The Dirty South (the second of his three DBT records) are perfect primers for new fans discovering Isbell alone from the compass pointing to Southeastern.

2. Brandy Clark

12 Stories

Brandy Clark has grown into Nashville songwriting royalty with her hits for the likes of Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker.

On her first solo outing Clark hits a home run of her own with 12 Stories of country music for adults. She sings with the sweetest twang about folks in real trouble and those on the verge of falling into it.

Her 12 Stories tells of faithless disenchantment and unfaithful marriages balanced by teetering faith in the Lord, the lottery and rolling a fat one.

Sometimes her punch line is wickedly funny; sometimes it's just wicked.

3. Kacey Musgraves

Same Trailer Different Park

Clark's writing partner Kacey Musgraves raises a few shots of her own with marijuana references and the advice of "kiss lots of girls if that's what you're into" on Same Trailer Different Park, while bridging the gap between Taylor SwiftJewel and Sheryl Crow.

The 25-year-old Texan previously self-released three albums and appeared on Season Five of Nashville Star in 2007, placing seventh.

But, if Musgraves and Same Trailer Different Park were presented as the major label debut of a new coffee house queen of the college radio circuit, it would be completely believable.

Her songs are equal parts sunny, cynical and hopeful. They're sometimes weary with a smile and almost always looking up.

Merry Go Round spins one of the most clever takes on Merry/Marry/Mary and the unbroken hometown twirl ever done.

"Mama's hooked on Mary Kay/Brother's hooked on Mary Jane/And Daddy's hooked on Mary two doors down/Mary Mary quite contrary/We get bored so we get married."

Based on this collection, Musgraves soon will be able to stay in whichever trailers and parks where ever and whenever she wants.

4. John Fogerty

Wrote A Song For Everyone

When judged by the joy with which others sing his songs, John Fogerty is a king of rock 'n' roll.

No amount of brother and band bad blood nor royalties rumbles can steal the zeal his Creedence Clearwater Revival and solo work continue to provide decades after their initial releases.

Wrote A Song For Everyone spins new life into some of his most memorable CCR moments, as well as debuts two new tunes - Mystic Highway and Train Of Fools.

The irresistible appeal of the CCR greatest hits included (Fortunate Son, Have You Ever Seen The Rain, Almost Saturday Night, Lodi, Bad Moon Rising, Proud Mary) make this collection the rare all-star outing to actually exceed expectations. It's not that any of these versions are better than the originals, but nearly all add to the songs' legacies in their own way.

5. Bob Dylan

Another Self Portrait (1969-71)

The Bootleg Series Vol. 10

If Bob Dylan had released the 2013 version of Self Portrait in 1970, it would have been hailed as a classic by an artist paying tribute to others, their work and influence on him.

Disc I alone would have done that trick.

Where the original comes off as a collection of odds and sods marred by shoddy production on the live cuts, this incarnation is a reminder of just how smoothly powerful Dylan's voice was during the Nashville Skyline/New Morning era of 1969-71.

The demos sound finished. The alternates add to the originals and the live songs feel like they should be included instead of just acting as filler.

As with nearly all of The Bootleg Series releases, the pertinent question now is: "What's Dylan going to unearth next?"

6. Ashley Monroe

Like A Rose

Ashley Monroe is 100 percent Tennessee twang honey from Knoxville, Tennessee, who also stars in the sultry country trio - the Pistol Annies - with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presely.

Listening to her new solo record, Like A Rose, it's easy to hear where the giggles and tears are started on the Annies' efforts.

Monroe has been playing guitar and singing since age 13, also the year her father died of pancreatic cancer. The experience forced her to grow up quickly and music served as an outlet for the issues swirling around her.

Now 27, Monroe co-writes all of the songs on Like a Rose, which is co-produced by Vince GillHer voice breathes life into comparisons with country's classic past and her songwriting does the same.

Few 2013 songs rolled more waves in the country music ocean than Weed Instead Of Roses, a sexy, smoky romp that stands as the year's funniest shot of marital counseling, especially from a country singer.

"Give me weed instead of roses/Bring me whiskey 'stead of wine/Every puff, every shot you're looking better all the time/I don't need a card from Hallmark, box of candy Heaven knows."

7. Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses)

The Low Highway

This isn't the first time Steve Earle has guided a tour of The Low Highway, just the latest in his nearly four-decade career.

"My hitchhiking days are long behind me now," he explains in the liner notes, before later adding. "I've been on every interstate highway in the lower forty-eight states by now and I never get tired of the view."

Seen through Earle's egalitarian eye, it's a bumpy road for many of his songs' characters, but not for listeners who reap the rewards of The Dukes (& Duchesses) coming along for the ride.

They provide the growling guitars, gale-force fiddle storms and accordion accents that bring the lows and highs of Earle's latest to life with musical twists that acoustic guitars alone don't allow.

8. Black Sabbath


Black Sabbath 13 breathes a beastly fire into heavy metal's most anticipated family reunion.

Rock's sweatiest hobgoblin Ozzy Osbourne reassumes his role as ringleader, while bassist Geezer Butler and guitarist Tony Iommi create the musical thunderstorms with drummer Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave) who mans the seat of the only original member not returning for 13Bill Ward.

Rick Rubin, perhaps the most prolific and certainly most diversified producer of his generation, leads the studio charge into the spookiest swamps of Sabbath's early efforts and adds an updated metal muscularity.

All the expected lyrical images real and metaphorical are on 13 - good, evil, God, Satan, death, destruction, thunder, graveyards. And no matter how funny the phrasing, Ozzy always sounds sincere in his delivery.

But, at its core, 13 is a showcase of Iommi's metal mastery.

The accomplishment of Iommi's guitar play is made even more impressive by the fact that the making of 13 along with the tour that followed happened while fighting a real demon - the blood cancer lymphoma.

If 13 is Sabbath's last original stand, it's more than worthy of a mention on their hall of fame headstone.

9. Lydia Loveless

Boy Crazy

Lydia Loveless is the 20-something cowpunk princess from Coschocton, Ohio, who could become queen with her toxic tales of liquid and personal debauchery.

The critical legend that launched with her 2011 debut on Bloodshot Records - Indestructible Machine - grows with the five-song EP, Boy Crazy. Both were preceded by 2010's The Only Man.

Comparisons to the Furnace Room Lullaby twang of Neko Case are fair, but she never went Lydia-level wild.

Boy Crazy is five songs of bad love, longing, heartbreak and one psycho Lover's Spat.

It all adds up to an irresistible tease before a planned full-length release entitled Somewhere Else in February 2014.

If this EP is any indication of what's coming, it'll be another reason to go Lydia Loveless crazy.

10. Natalie Maines


The Gods blessed Natalie Maines with her vocal chords of gold. (Being the daughter of master musician Lloyd Maines probably doesn't hurt either.)

In her solo debut Mother, she attacks her craft in a completely new direction with the soaring vocal style that played a key role in making the Dixie Chicks so successful, artistically and commercially. 

Maines will be forever linked with the Chicks and the crazy controversy over her "ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas" remark.

For all that the incident took away, it also freed Maines and the band to move into whatever musical veins it wants and, now, allow its lead singer to explore the rock 'n' roll roads without ever looking back at the country.

Most of the songs are covers from artists as diverse as Pearl Jam (Without You), Pink Floyd (Mother), Patty Griffin (Silver Bell), Jeff Buckley (Lover You Should've Come Over) and The Jayhawks (I'd Run Away). Because most of these selections are outside of the mainstream, they play like new songs for many.

Ben Harper is Maines' chief co-conspirator on the project. He writes, plays, co-produces with Maines and brings his band along for the gig.

Maines sing/talks the ultra-paranoid (bombs, guns, government) Mother with her crystal clear enunciation for an even starker version than Pink Floyd's original from The Wall, all irony surely intended given her 2003 "W." experience.

She brings the yearning on Lover You Should've Come Over, Vein In Vain and the closer Take It On Faith. Then, she duels with the guitars on Silver Bell and Come Cryin' To Me, and shows off her range on Free Life and I'd Run Away; both rate as perfect pairings with Maines' voice.

Mother proves there's plenty of wide open spaces for Maines as she moves forward with and without the Dixie Chicks.

11. Elvis Costello & The Roots

Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs

Elvis proves again why he is king with this foray into funk with The Roots.

More jazz funk than P-Funk, it's a crazy collaboration on paper that lays down real rhythm on the record.

12. Various Artists

Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn

Like John Fogerty, The Band and Levon Helm hold a special place in their musical peers' hearts.

This two-disc benefit concert brings together an all-star army of talent that shows the love on each and every song.

13. Pistol Annies

Annie Up

The Pistol Annies pack a smoking combination of sex appeal, country charm and down home humor.

Born out of a songwriting partnership between Miranda Lambert ("Lone Star Annie") and Ashley Monroe ("Hippie Annie"), the trio also features Angaleena Presley ("Holler Annie") to create a vocal posse that is pure gold artistically and commercially.

Don't let the outfits fool you, these gals can shoot to stun, wound or kill.

14. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts


The leather has turned blood red and the lyrical tone tuned decidedly more serious, but the growl and the guitars remain pure Blackheart on Joan Jett's Unvarnished.

It shows a more personal side of the 55-year-old trailblazing survivor of nearly four decades in the rock 'n' roll circus that began with her stint in The Runaways.

For Jett's first studio release since 2006's Sinner, she writes or co-writes nine of the 10 songs. Nearly all of the cuts are filled with messages and questions about mortality, loyalty, lost love and the future price of past indiscretions.

15. Tom Jones

Spirit In The Room

Tom Jones puts his own spin on the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin American Recordings path with Ethan Johns playing the role of Rubin, as well as guitar and other instruments on each of album's 13 songs.

For Spirit In The Room, Jones and Johns also pull from the Tom Waits/Marc Ribot playbook to create an album full of moody, spooky arrangements and purposely scratchy backgrounds that would sound at home on the latest Waits releases.

Though Jones' fame comes as much for his abilities as an entertainer as a singer, he's not kidding when he croons on Leonard Cohen's Tower Of Song, "I was born like this/I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice."

He spends the rest of Spirit In The Room showing it off.

16. Willie Nelson

To All The Girls ...

For his second release of 2013, all the honeys make Willie Nelson and Trigger sound that much sweeter on To All The Girls ... a collection of country, crooners and gospel with a nod to his 1984 hit with Julio Iglesias.

Like his earlier effort this year, Let's Face The Music And Dance, the now 80-year-old Willie stays mostly mellow on this 18-song set of variety show duets that occasionally edges towards over-orchestrated.

The brightest highlights come from Miranda Lambert on She Was No Good For Me, Wynonna Judd on Bloody Mary MorningLoretta Lynn on Somewhere Between, Mavis Staples on Grandma's Hands, and Shelby Lynne on Till The End Of The World.

17. Snoop Lion


It's not a huge leap to imagine Snoop jumping into the Jamaican jam, but Reincarnated is as surprising for what's not on it as what is.

No "Parental Advisory" label. No N-words. No F-bombs. No bitches. No gangstas. No pimps. No ho's. No body parts bravado.

It's too electronic to be Bob Marley & The Wailers, but this is Snoop Lion reggae fun for the whole family from coast to coast.

18. Motorhead


Even at 68, Lemmy fuels fiery locomotive breath into the rock 'n' roll freight train that is Motorhead.

Nearly 40 years into their run, Aftershock follows a familiar and frenetic formula. As with the Ramones and AC/DC, the Motorhead engine roars at an established pace.

There's plenty of Armageddon, Motorhead mayhem and wild women throughout Aftershock. Most importantly, Phil Campbell burns through scorching guitar solo after scorching guitar solo.

Lemmy may be the head, but, Campbell is the motor.

19. Iggy And The Stooges

Ready To Die

Iggy is an attitude.

It's physically aggressive, unflinchingly noisy and almost always shirtless.

Like Lemmy, Iggy reigns in the exclusive rock 'n' roll hierarchy where only one name is needed. The cartoon anarchy of The Stooges is his Motor City madhouse of a masterpiece.

Ready To Die possess all the qualities expected of an Iggy-fronted effort - a distrustful cynicism for authority, an unending appetite for sex, and grinding guitar riffs throughout.

This is no statement for the ages, but this is after all the band whose greatest hit is I Wanna Be Your Dog.

The lust for life still burns. The raw power still flows. And, make no mistake, the world will always be more fun with Iggy And The Stooges in it.

20. Neil Young

Live At The Cellar Door

Just as Bob Dylan continues to raid his vaults for the ongoing Bootleg Series, so does Neil Young with his new records of old performances.

The latest, Live At The Cellar Door, goes back to Washington, D.C., to feature Young alone on guitar and piano for 13 songs culled from late 1970.

As with all of these releases so far, it's infinitely fascinating to see how Young stalwarts such as After The Gold Rush, Old Man, Cinnamon Girl and I Am A Child grow from concert colts into the live thoroughbreds they later become.

One of the highlight moments of Live At The Cellar Door is the acoustic Down By The River. It's even more eerie without the electric guitars.

21. Johnny Cash

LIFE Unheard

There may not be another artist whose songs and performances have been more packaged and repackaged than Johnny Cash.

But, when it's a collection like LIFE UNHEARD, that's not a bad thing.

A companion piece to the new LIFE UNSEEN: Johnny Cash - An Illustrated Biography, this 12-song CD includes two unreleased songs and six live performances among its audio booty. All of the previously available material is spread among the Legacy Recordings' Bootleg Series offerings.

As with any new compilation, it's only a duplicate if you've purchased the pieces before. Part of the overwhelming appeal of the LIFE UNHEARD collection is the history that's included.

It's The Man In Black performing at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, at a club in Vietnam in 1969, and at the White House for President Richard Nixon in 1970.

No matter how much Cash you have, you need to bank this one too.

22. David Bowie

The Next Day

David Bowie's The Next Day is an unexpected call from an eccentric old friend who you thought was gone forever except in memories.

You're happy to get it, but some of the new references ring too distant and esoteric to completely understand. Nonetheless, it's fabulous to hear to Bowie's voice again, though it remains naturally a little cold.

Always experimental, it's the first record in a decade for the 66-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.

Produced by longtime compatriot Tony Visconti, there are plenty of guitar crashes, horn splashes and musical landscapes reminiscent of Tom Waits' work with Marc Ribot. Some of the songs move into dance tempo, while others remain sparse and atmospheric.

This record doesn't completely take hold on first listen. You have to go back The Next Day and the next, as it becomes more approachable with each new session.

And, like most of his music, Bowie makes it satisfyingly worthwhile.

23. Son Volt

Honky Tonk

Of  Uncle Tupelo's estranged nephews, Jay Farrar and Son Volt remain truest to the legacy that many consider to be the birthplace of the alt-country movement.

While Jeff Tweedy and Wilco wander experimentally and sometimes aimlessly, Son Volt continues to take the traditional route with Honky Tonky.

More country than alt, there's plenty of pedal steel, fiddle, mandolin and accordion. As always, Farrar's vocals blend seamlessly, this time with lyrics more literal than usual.

"God save the queen of Charleston, West Virginia."


24. Old 97's & Waylon Jennings

Old 97's & Waylon Jennings

Any new old work from Waylon Jennings is a good thing. When it's with the Old 97's, that's even better.

The Texas rumble of the Old 97's provides a perfect backdrop for one of the original outlaws to do a song about life on the trains (Iron Road) and the killing consequences of infidelity (The Other Shoe).

"You've got your pride/And a blue steel .45/And you're waiting for the other shoe to fall."

Spurred by a chance meeting at a 1996 radio convention, the Old 97's were able to record these songs with Jennings a few weeks later in Nashville. And, finally, the rest of us get to hear the results.

This EP is worth it just for the Waylon; the four Old 97's numbers make it a must.

25. Tim Easton

Not Cool

Normally smooth and troubadour hip, Tim Easton gets rootsy, rough and rocking on Not Cool, his eighth solo release.

The Ohio expat turns the up the guitars and pulls out Iggy Pop and Elmore James references within two songs of each other.

This is what a 2013 Bob Dylan record would sound like if his vocals weren't as ragged as they've become.

Not Cool? No, really cool.

26. Sheryl Crow

Feels Like Home

Sheryl Crow has flown an arrangement away from a commercial country sound throughout the two decades since the release of her multi-platinum debut, Tuesday Night Music Club.

On Feels Like Home, Crow wings right into the country landscape as though she's sliding on a favorite pair of old boots.

Throughout her eighth studio album, Crow bursts with the same sexy sunshine that has shone so brightly during her career and turns up the twang just enough to mine country chart gold without sounding like she's playing a temporary part.

26.2. Drive-By Truckers

Alabama Ass Whuppin'

Strictly a reissue from 2000, Alabama Ass Whuppin' gets the bonus ".2" slot. There are no additional songs, only a remastering and new cover artwork.

"This was our third album and the connecting thread between our earlier work and the band that we went on to become later," Patterson Hood says on the Drive-By Truckers' web site. "Its a documentation of a period in time that I wouldn't go back to for all the money in the world, but I'm proud of the shows that we played and the songs that we wrote."

Alabama Ass Whupppin' loudly mixes raw punk energy with a Muscle Shoals upbringing and the Southern rock spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Hood and his co-founder Mike Cooley turn down the guitars only long enough to tell the hilarious tale of The Avon Lady.

Take Hood's advice from the liner notes, "Turn it up real loud and chase with bourbon."