Mathematically, it’s impossible for one person to listen to every single album released during the calendar year. There’s just not enough time, unless you’re willing to play 10 or 20 all at once. And not sleep.
The CMT Edge team is always willing to chug coffee and stay up all hours of the night, but we don’t seem to have enough speakers to go around. Even so, we still manage to hear most of the albums that fall into the broad category of Americana. Some of those albums demand and reward repeated listens.
Here are 10 of our favorites from 2013.
Sam Baker, Say Grace
In a voice that sounds like a stretch of sun-scorched Texas terrain — that is to say, coarse and unruly, possibly overgrown with cedar brush, yet all the more beautiful for its roughness — Baker instills his third album with gravity and levity, never shying away from a hard truth or a good joke. Often, he shows, they’re the very same thing. Whether they’re about dead migrant workers, lonely divorcees or schoolteachers with well-thumbed copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, his life-sized songs sound like they could be set next door to you. Bonus points for writing a song called “Isn’t Love Great” that isn’t ironic. — Stephen M. Deusner
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Nobody writes a song like Neko Case. On her sixth solo album, she digs even deeper into a lyrical approach that entertains some odd imagery, constructs even odder metaphors and unearths emotions so acute and personal, we don’t quite have a name for them yet. Case strikes an unusual balance between generously confessional and closely guarded, constantly measuring out how much of herself to give her audience. — Deusner
Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You
Like the Polaroid photo that inspired the title track, Clark’s album captures a moment in time. But rather than portraying a grieving songwriter lost in a fog, My Favorite Picture of You gives an unnerving clarity to characters that tend to fall short. “Hellbent on a Heartache” describes a guy who just never learns, while the fellow in “Good Advice” prefers to avoid other people’s words of wisdom altogether. The Grammy nod for best folk album is richly deserved. — Craig Shelburne
Jonny Fritz, Dad Country
Fritz’s third album Dad Country is a creative high-water mark for the oddball artist, featuring solid country instrumentation and genuinely unique song styling. Co-produced by Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith, standouts included the freewheeling “Ain’t It Your Birthday” and an agonizing lament about forgetting to do the one thing you were supposed to do, “Trash Day.” By dropping his “Jonny Corndawg” moniker, Fritz shows he’s ready to take the next step in his career and wants to be taken seriously. — Chris Parton
Houndmouth, From the Hills Below the City
This one became my surprise favorite album of 2013. Groove-heavy roots rock sourced from Southern Indiana, there’s something sexy and slinky about the adolescent wanderlust in songs like “On the Road” and “Casino (Bad Things).” Electrifying two-part harmonies up front aren’t hurting as Matt Meyers proves an effortless lead guitarist and mischievous frontman, while keyboardist Katie Toupin provides an engaging feminine counterpoint. — Parton
Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone
The very existence of a banjo-plucking, Tennessee-born, African-American singer-songwriter with an ample crown of dreadlocks may have a certain novelty appeal. But Valerie June’s Pushin’ Against a Stone is anything but a superficial work of schtick. It’s a wise and canny work of artistic expression. With tartness, twang and testifying authority, she gives voice to the labors and desires of a truly modern woman while replaiting demarcated threads of Southern roots music — black blues, white hillbilly, varied gospel traditions, upwardly mobile R&B-pop — with historical awareness and an idiosyncratic sense of ownership. — Jewly Hight
Pokey LaFarge, Pokey LaFarge
Don’t let the somber face on the album cover fool you. LaFarge is having a whole lot of fun on his self-titled project. Particularly inspired by American music from three or four generations ago, there’s a loose, unfiltered feel to these recordings that you don’t often hear in modern music. As a writer, his talent is keeping songs simple enough so you’ll be singing the chorus the second time you hear it — and probably every time after that. — Shelburne
Josh Ritter, A Beast in Its Tracks
Ritter’s latest immediately stopped me cold upon first listen. The peerless songwriter’s newest collection is equally fierce and fiery, earthy and ethereal, winning and wounded. No emotion remains untapped. Ritter’s perfectly circular journey from divorce through recovery remains my favorite record this year. Absolutely stunning. — Brian T. Atkinson
The Whiskey Gentry, Holly Grove
The Whiskey Gentry grabbed my ear this year by taking the alternative country-rocking road less traveled. Unlike the lion’s share of their peers, the Atlanta-based septet neither leaned on the ubiquitous stomp-strum-and-shout folk-rock template nor fell into reviving baggy ‘70s roots-rock. Holly Grove captures a band with a feel for out-and-out honky-tonk and hippiefied bluegrass lineage (they cover both New Grass Revival and New Riders of the Purple Sage), to which they apply a full-tilt, pop-punk attack. What further sets them apart is lead singer Lauren Staley’s luminous timbre and the left turns in their storytelling. — Hight
Brian Wright, Rattle Their Chains
The Texas native’s new collection rocks (“Over Yet Blues”) and rolls (“We Don’t Live There”) with boundless energy. Peak moments offer deep-browed folk with razor-sharp narrative storytelling (“Red Rooster Social Club,” “Love My Little Baby”). Start with “Rosalee.” Few songs shoot more directly at the heart. Wright effortlessly pierces his target. — Atkinson