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Steve’s Favorite Albums of 2013

I like dad-rock, female country singers, and NPR-friendly hip-hop. Here are the 20 albums that meant the most to me this year:

(If you want to listen to a mix of one song from each of them, go here.)

Sam Phillips

20. Sam Phillips – Push Any Button

If you know me, you know Sam Phillips is one of my musical heroes. It’s been hard to be a fan for the last few years, though: for such a stylistic chameleon, she’s been in a rut since her life-changing (for me) early ’00s reinvention albums Fan Dance and A Boot and a Shoe. Push Any Button isn’t new territory, really, but it’s the first really good record she’s made since then–lean, catchy and incredibly listenable. I told my boyfriend that this album sounds like someone emerging from a long depression.  “Bathed in the light I’ve waited all my life to see,” she sings on ‘All Over Me’. It’s good to hear her having fun again.

Listen to ‘No Time Like Now‘.

Patty Griffin

19. Patty Griffin – American Kid

First, the elephant in the room: Patty Griffin’s started recycling melodies and chord patterns. Lots of great songwriters do it—she’s reached the tail end of a tried-and-true formula and soon it’ll be time for her to adapt. What makes this album still good—really good, even—is that she’s wrung every bit of juice out of that formula to tell a story about life and death and God and family. Meant as a tribute to her late father, this record is very deep, but it lives and breathes and dances too.  ‘Wild Old Dog’, particularly, gives me chills: it’s a pretty incredible commentary on postmodern belief, imagining God as a mangy old dog running in the woods beside a highway.

Watch the weird-ass music video for ‘Ohio‘.

The Revival Hour

18. The Revival Hour – Scorpio Little Devil

If DM Stith just makes a record every four years that sounds like being possessed by demons, I’ll be happy. The thing is, this “spooky queer Halloween demon album” (Stith’s words, not mine) really is an exorcism of some personal demons for Stith and his collaborator JM Lapham, two gay men who were raised in the rural south—Lapham in conservative Abilene, Stith by Charismatic fundamentalist Christians. That “Charismatic” bit is key to understanding Stith’s music, and he’s exploring that tradition as a pissed off, terrified, still sort of reverent former insider. Nobody else is making music like this.

Draggy doo-wop in hell in the music video for ‘Hold Back‘.

Lori McKenna

17. Lori McKenna – Massachussetts

I didn’t discover Massachusetts until December 30, but oh boy, this is good stuff. According to her website, Lori McKenna is a “housewife and a townie”, and for ten years she’s been quietly building a reputation as a songwriter in her home of New England—and in Nashville, where she landed songwriting credits for Faith Hill & Tim McGraw and a brief flirtation with a major label a few years ago. She seems to be focused on DIY regionalism now (and her family), so Massachusetts didn’t make much of a buzz. But in a year with many high-profile (and excellent) albums by female country songwriters, this album stands on its own. The excoriating ballads “Salt” and “Shake” are the best songs here, but the deeper cuts about home life and marriage make this an album (and a career) I’m excited to get to know better.

Salt‘ might have the best use of extended metaphor of any song in 2013.

16. Robbie Fulks  Gone Away Backward

This record is so smart I don’t know for sure how to write about it yet, but it’s great—an incredibly hip old dude discussing really interesting topics under the guise of making a very traditional country-bluegrass album. “That’s Where I’m From”, this Chicago suburbanite’s tribute to his rural Southern home, makes me cry every time.

Watch him play ‘I’ll Trade You Money for Wine‘.

Kacey Musgraves

15. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

Like Brandy Clark’s more marketable kid sister, Kacey has an incredible eye for lyrical detail and an incredible ear for hooks. This album—loosely themed around rural alienation and substance abuse—is that rare example of something very deep that’s also very easy to listen to. It absolutely deserved the two Grammys it won. Apparently Kacey’s been co-writing with Katy Perry in 2014, which makes a sort of weird sense to me.

Watch the music video for ‘Blowin’ Smoke‘.

Haim

14. Haim – Days Are Gone

I’m completely pro-HAIM. This is the kind of thing I want to be popular. All the hype is accurate–these sisters write some really good songs. But I just want to remind everyone: there are three totally WTF, terrible songs in the latter third of this album that everyone seems to ignore! Can’t we at least acknowledge that while celebrating the album’s merits?

Destroying SNL with ‘Don’t Save Me‘.

Laura Veirs

13. Laura Veirs – Warp and Weft

I’ve learned that there will pretty much always be a Tucker Martine-produced album on each of my year-end lists. Veirs and Martine (who happen to be married) crafted this album to be a patchwork quilt, documenting Veirs’ creative, emotional and political interests in the year or so after her first child was born. Environmentalism, gun politics, Hiroshima, post-partum depression and Alice Coltrane all stitch together to make a weirdly cohesive, really beautiful snapshot of an artist’s internal life.

The music video for ‘America‘ is pretty fucking preachy, but it’s a good song.

Kiran Leonard

12. Kiran Leonard – Bowler Hat Soup

Teenage wunderkinds make me nervous, and Kiran is the worst of them, at least on paper–his two closest analogues on Bowler Hat Soup are Sgt. Pepper and Neutral Milk Hotel, and he writes suite-length songs and is credited as playing 20 instruments in this album’s liner notes, including a stapler. But this kid knows his way around a song! I imagine this guy just bumming around Manchester, going to high school and having the best record collection ever and writing these beautiful songs. I hope he keeps writing, and I hope he doesn’t get famous until six or seven years down the road, once he’s got a good head on his shoulders.

Watch the music video for ‘Dear Lincoln‘.

Ashley Monroe

11. Ashley Monroe – Like a Rose

The most honky-tonk of 2013’s country standouts, Ashley Monroe’s very young, very old-school, and very, very talented. Like an early Kris Kristofferson LP, this record cuts the chaff and gets straight to the point. Sensitive, funny, badass.

Watch the music video for ‘Like a Rose‘.

Alela Diane

10. Alela Diane – About Farewell

My second-favorite breakup album of the year! About Farewell is much more relatable / human / present than Laura Marling’s album (see below), not to mention being absolutely wrenching. It’s a bit of a featherweight compared to some of the other albums on this list, with only a couple songs that make you stop everything and listen, but that’s part of what makes me cherish it so much. This album has a story to tell and a lot to give. Most of Alela’s best songs are on her first two (also great) albums, but this is the one I’ll love forever as a whole.

Watch the video for ‘About Farewell‘.

Kanye West

09. Kanye West – Yeezus

Man, this record frustrated the hell out of me. I’m somehow squarely within both the pro- and anti-Yeezus camps. Compositionally it’s amazing and vital and terrifying and years ahead of its time (are we allowed to say that yet?); lyrically, it’s—what? A shitty first draft? Pure evil? Or as one friend put it, morally and socially stunted, like Mozart in Amadeus? There are a lot of brilliant lyrics, and a lot of throwaway lyrics, and the throwaway ones outweigh the brilliant ones, and they’re infuriatingly intertwined within virtually every song. While the critical corpus has clearly chosen to take a leap of faith and call Yeezus a masterpiece, ignoring or rationalizing its obvious flaws (the explanations for “Blood on the Leaves” are especially hilarious), I respectfully refuse the ticket, help thou my unbelief, etc.

That said, I still listened to (and like) this album a whole lot. It sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard, and it made me think a lot about race and sex and myself and human depravity, and I talked about it more than probably any other album this year.

It’s pretty much impossible to decide whether ‘Bound 2‘ on Fallon or ‘Black Skinhead on SNL was the best TV performance this year.

Vampire Weekend

08. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

I can always tell I’ll be returning to an album a lot when the best songs are crammed into the second half. The singles got the most attention (and they are great), but the run from “Finger Back” to “Ya Hey” is an incredible seventh-inning stretch of catchy-as-hell songwriting and deep spiritual searching. I have to admit, I’ve never quite felt the spark when it comes to Vampire Weekend, but it’s hard to deny this album was fearfully and wonderfully made. (If you haven’t, spend a night listening to it and reading its lyrics and annotations on Rap Genius.)

Diane Young, I guess.

Laura Marling

07. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

With the exception of her transcendent single ‘Sophia‘, I’ve been a proud hater of Laura Marling since 2008. I can’t quite say that this album won me over on her as an artist, but it has won me over on itself. Seven or eight times this year I turned out all the lights and pulled the covers over my head and listened to it in its entirety, letting this very cold shower of a record wash over me. We’ve worked out a truce, me and Laura: I’ll suspend judgment on her as a songwriter, and in exchange she’s given me one of the weirdest, darkest breakup albums I’ve ever heard.

Master Hunter‘ messes with Bob Dylan, and it’ll mess with you too.

Laura Marling

06. Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In

Close your eyes and point your finger at any song on this album—it’ll be great. Caitlin Rose’s honey-and-vinegar voice, her ace band, her lovingly rendered country/rock nostalgia—it’s all beautiful, and The Stand-In is pretty much perfect. I’m in awe of this album.

Watch her play ‘I Was Cruel‘.

Chance the Rapper

05. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap

I think the moment that won me over on Acid Rap came during “Cocoa Butter Kisses”, after Chance and Vic Mensa reminisce for awhile about childhood in Chicago: Saturday morning cartoons, the El, the Dougie, sneaking liquor and cigarettes, and the moment when they started smelling too much like weed to get hugs from Gramma anymore. Suddenly, Vic stops the party during the bridge, singing “I think we all addicted—really though, I think we all addicted.” But pretty soon the party starts up again.

It’s a brief and winking pause to acknowledge something scary and serious, in the midst of an otherwise groovy song. Vic nails it, a perfect example of a guest emcee who’s completely in sync with the logic of a tune, and of the whole world Chance created on Acid Rap: pissed off and scared, but totally confident and completely charming.

Watch the video for ‘Good Ass Intro‘.

Brandy Clark

04. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

I have to admit, I have a totally idealized idea of what it must be like to be in the songwriters’ circle that Brandy Clark occupies (along with Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves and others) on Nashville’s Music Row. These folks (who all seem to be friends, if my Instagram stalking can be believed) are hit-makers in one of the most limiting markets around, and they keep turning in these culturally edgy, formally excellent songs for people like Miranda Lambert and The Band Perry. I imagine them getting together to drink and write, saying to themselves, “What can we get away with this week?”

Presumably, this album contains all the songs Miranda Lambert didn’t like. Brandy Clark’s a country traditionalist and a storyteller with the perfect Randy Newman blend of cynicism and sentimentality. Each of these 12 songs is a detail-heavy character study navigating infidelity, substance abuse, misogyny and lotto cards. Time will tell if she’s The Real Deal, but gosh, this year I wanted everyone around me to know about her. If country music still matters, it’s because of people like Brandy Clark.

Marty Stuart is adorably excited about ‘Take a Little Pill‘ when Brandy Clark visits his show.

Jason Isbell

03. Jason Isbell – Southeastern

This is a major return on an incredibly long-term investment. Until now, Isbell’s best work was back between 2003 and 2006 when he was writing and playing with the Drive-By Truckers. Finally his solo career is living up to that promise: this is a song cycle about cancer, murder, addiction, identity and companionship, made by a guy who just got sober and then fell in love, and the whole thing ripped my heart in half all year long. (For what it’s worth, Southeastern made me cry almost as much as Dream River did.)

That voice! ‘Cover Me Up‘ on Austin City Limits.

Kurt Vile

02. Kurt Vile – Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze

I listened to this album probably every week this year, and it still fills me with wonder. Kurt Vile’s a compositional genius, and this was the only rock record (if you can call this a rock record) that excited me this year. Pure beauty.

Watch the video for ‘Never Run Away‘.

Bill Callahan

01. Bill Callahan – Dream River

Whenever I’m not sure which album is my favorite of the year, I usually just pick the one that made me cry the most. In some ways this album feels like it hasn’t yet revealed most of its mysteries to me. Bill Callahan’s last three albums have all been exercises in poetic minimalism – carving out profound moments of silence in a familiar American landscape. I’m not sure if  Dream River‘s the best of the three, but it made the most visceral impression on me: listening to Dream River was a sort of spiritual discipline, and thanks to it I feel more connected to my own body, to the world around me, and to the people I love. “I wonder if I’ll ever wake up / I mean, really wake up.”

Watch the video for ‘Small Plane‘.

Without any comment, here are 12 more I really liked:

Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer – Child Ballads
Andrew Cedermark – Home Life
Audrey Assad – Fortunate Fall
Cakes da Killa – Eulogy
Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea Full of Split Peas
Laura Mvula – Sing to the Moon
Over the Rhine – Meet Me At the Edge of the World
Sam Amidon – Bright Sunny South
Shonna Tucker & Eye Candy – A Tell All
Son Lux – Lanterns
Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone
Vienna Teng – Aims

And, my favorite tracks of the year can be found here.

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