for many years i was always doing my 'top album of the year', 'best country (or even hip hop) albums of 1988', etc: for the rs critics' polls; or i remember i did it every year for awhile for some military magazine, or in the balt city paper or the nypress. anyway, maybe i can't stop thinking this way, and actually i have tried to get caught back up with commercial country this year pretty systematically. so maybe i'll give you a top five or something.
but at the moment i'm thinking that the best country album of 2013 was brandy clark's 12 stories. clark - born in 1977 and from morton, washington - is a songwriter above all, and i would endorse kacey musgrave's follow your arrow, by clark, musgraves, and shane mcanally as the song of the year. brandy had a hit this year, among others, with 'better dig two' by band perry, also one of my favorite acts in current country.
clark is also a very fine country singer; someone like cassadee pope or ashton shepherd or carrie underwood should listen carefully to her dynamics, her emotional sincerity, her lightness of touch that makes the intensity more intense, her way of shaping a whole story. there are some truly great country songs on this album, squarely within or ingeniously re-interpreting traditional country themes. obviously, these would include d-i-v-o-r-c-e. below, please find a really brilliant reconstrual. why is it brilliant? because it's fucking true.
and here's a completely trad cheating song. i figure jeannie kendall might be out there somewhere looking for material. clark's publishing company should pay her to record this. but on the other hand clark's own rendition is pretty definitive.
[ladies and gentlemen, jeannie and royce. the kendalls!]
below is the single. see this is kind of a test for the country music industry. can you recognize a great singer/writer who is not also very young and extremely modely?
yipes she is good. plus that dude on guitar and harmony is kicking my ass. [there is one clunker on 12 stories: 'illegitimate children' doesn't scan.]
anyway i guess here's my top five; very female for me this year. i'm trying to think what else has to be on here...
brandy clark, '12 stories'
brad paisley, 'wheelhouse': well, i have some reservations. but there's no denying paisley's excellence as a musician. and he's much more interesting than average. i say 'accidental racist' is a good start. we have got to stop being so uptight about saying stuff. there are a bunch of pretty good songs on this. plus i needed a guy. this one isn't from that album:
one thing to take away from all these live vids and thousands of others: these people can really sing. these people can really play. before you dismiss country music as bullshit, ask yourself this: can the artists in your chosen genre sit alone or with an accompanist in a small room and blow you the fuck away? got a bunch of guitarists who are better than brad? this is where the actual musicians are, son.
in bluegrass right now i'm listening all the time to junior sisk, who has a lot of material out there under various group names etc (blueridge, rambler's choice). the recent record with joe mullins is wonderful, and i'll take the story of the day i died as the best bluegrass album of the last five years. (that's unfair to audie blaylock and redline, whose cryin' heart blues and eponymous album i feel almost as strongly about.) sisk is really an amazingly tuneful singer, beautifully poised between the trad and the contemporary.
i was a bit obsesed with the television series nashville this year. oh, the 13-year-sober deacon falling off as the queen of country music crushes his heart once more; gunnar losing his felon brother in a hale of gunfire: really, they need to pay me royalties. guess what, they actually use nashville witers, and just speculating now, maybe not always the voices of the actors, but good voices.
that one ran through my head for months, and it is my sacred vow, my current marriage.
other developments worth watching in 2014: country is now the home of blues-based hard rock. eric church's 'outsiders' is only one expression, and it'll be interesting to watch the album drop. taylor swift is certainly becoming a genre, and i expect to hear more and more echoes of her themes and melodic habits in the next few years. overall, i approve of this development, and everyone should be clear that she is a transcendent talent who has revitalized country music and pushed it forward.