The Best of 2013, So Far
With just three months 0f 2013 in the history books, it’s shaping up to be a quality year for Americana records. Here are my picks for the Top 10 Records of the Year (So Far).
10. Bobby Bare – Darker Than Light
Bare’s first album in seven years is a collection of 16 songs drawn from a list he’s kept for the better part of his 50 year career. There are murder ballads, songs of the sea, interpretations of rare classics and readings from the rock and roll songbook. The cuts from the latter category — like “House of the Rising Sun” — tend to fall flat but, otherwise, the tender heart beneath Bare’s gruff voice shines like a diamond.
9. The California Honeydrops – Like You Mean It
Born on an Oakland rapid transit platform and educated in the foundations of American rock and roll, the Honeydrops meld New Orleans jazz with Memphis soul to rousing effect. In concert, they cover Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk” and dance with the audience during a “Second Line” medley. All that energy translates here.
8. Various Artists – The Music Is You – A Tribute To John Denver
Non-believers can’t imagine why anyone would pay tribute to John Denver. The rest of us appreciate these takes on his songs, ranging from hits to obscurities. Train’s “Sunshine On My Shoulder” is surprisingly good (gratefully, they left out the ukulele) but the cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by Emmylou and Brandi leaves a lot to be desired. In between, Josh Ritter, Lucinda Williams and Mary Chapin- Carpenter all contribute admirably. Allen Stone’s version of “Rocky Mountain High” is stunning.
7. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game
The husband and wife duo’s cover of Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” is worth the price of admission itself as is their take of Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio.” The rest of the set is nearly as solid with Robison’s “Leavin'” and “Ordinary Fool” leading the way. Not a bad version of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” either.
6. Milk Carton Kids – The Ash & Clay
These brilliant young singers channel the spirit of Simon and Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers with guitar chops that are just short of amazing (played on vintage acoustics from the 50’s and 60’s). A remarkable record.
5. Chicago Farmer – Backenforth, IL
It took just a few months for Cody Diekhoff to rustle up 11K through Kickstarter to make this album. We are the beneficiaries Midwest country spirit with a wry worldly sense of humor (hence the name: Chicago Farmer).
4. Susan James – Driving Toward The Sun
Supported by musicians who’ve played Lone Justice and The Replacements, James’ newest album is an elegant folk record with a Southern California sheen. Her strength as a songwriter benefits from Ryan Ulyate’s thoughtful production.
3. Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
The light touch of early Lisa Loeb meets the grit of the Old 97’s on this record from the young musical prodigy from Dallas via Nashville. There’s plenty of twang here, too, for lovers of steel guitars.
2. The SteelDrivers – Hammer Down
Considering these guys (and one girl) are Nashville vets, you’d think their music might be a little jaded. But, it’s as exciting and as ambitious as what you’d hear from five young cats trying to make their way. “When I’m Gone” is one of the best bluegrass songs of the year.
1. The Steel Wheels – No More Rain
“Truth: Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine could all learn something from these cats.” That’s what I said last year when I pegged “Rain In The Valley” as the second best song of the year. Nothing has changed except that they keep getting better. “I Will” is gorgeous in its simplicity.