Saving Country Music’s 45 Essential Albums for 2013

Here they are folks, the 45 albums Saving Country Music deems essential for listening in 2013. I dramatically increased the amount of albums in this list from previous years in the spirit of trying to get more music out to more people. Similarly, I reviewed many more albums in 2013 than ever before. Please feel free to share your essential albums below in the comments section.

Also Possessed by Paul James’ There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely has been excluded from this list and all of SCM’s year end lists and any other opinion-based coverage because I had a hand in the making of it. But I still encourage you to check it out and consider it one of the year’s best. Also EP’s and short-run albums like Lydia Loveless’s Boy Crazy and the Waylon Jennings / Old 97’s split are also excluded. But you’re encouraged to check out those projects as well.

PLEASE NOTE: This list only includes albums that have been reviewed so far. There are a more good and important albums in 2013 that have yet to be reviewed, and that will hopefully be reviewed shortly.

PLEASE NOTE: None of the Album of the Year Nominees are included on this list, so look over there before complaining about omissions. After the first 7 albums, they are listed in the order the albums were reviewed, not in order based on recommendation/quality/etc.


The White Buffalo – Shadows, Greys, & Evil Ways

the-white-buffalo-shadows-greys-evil-waysShadows, Greys, and Evil Ways is a concept album, and this is a fact Jake Smith is happy to share with his audience, along with a more in-depth explanation of the narrative, instead of letting you stumble into that truth like some artists find sport in doing. It follows the characters Jolene and Joe, their falling in love, the struggles of life that separate them in both body and spirit, and the sinister things this separation and life does to a man who struggles between sin and redemption. (read full review)

JB Beverley – Stripped to the Root

“I was going through some really tumultuous personal stuff. My long-term girlfriend of several years and I had split up, a couple of my friends had passed away, my dad had taken ill, and I left Virginia and moved to North Carolina. But through all of this, what became Stripped to the Root basically was a collection of songs both that I had written, or either heroes or friends in some capacity had written that were helping me get through that time.” (read full interview)

Billie Joe & Norah Jones – Foreverly

Foreverly is not a tribute album in the traditional sense, it is a reboot of a specific album, a reinterpretation of the 1958 Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, song by song, line by line, with virtually the same track list, ratcheting up the strange factor yet another notch. What this results in of all things is a stripped-down, old-time, primitive country record, referring back to the Ralph Peer era in country music; very rootsy, with murder ballads and Gothic American textures, and traditional, folksy themes and compositions. (read full review)

Cody Canada – Some Old, Some New, Maybe A Cover Or Two

cody-canada-some-old-new-some-new-maybe-a-cover-or-twoAcoustic and live albums naturally get relegated in an artists’ discography, fair or not, because it takes less effort to create them. But almost with that sense, Canada puts every effort into making each take on this album something special. At the same time, the ease and comfort level of this record is magnanimous and magnetic, like you’re sharing in the music with Canada instead of listening to a star on a stage. (read full review)

Kellie Pickler – The Woman I Am

Though The Woman I Am sort of dashes any hopes for Kellie Pickler as an artist that could crash the Music Row party from the inside out and foster a new spring of substance and roots in mainstream country music, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some good songs, and good music here. “Kellie Country” is still much better than mainstream country, and though it may be a stretch to label her an Outlaw, she is certainly a rebel, and continues to be a refreshing choice. (read full review)

Copper & Coal – Copper & Coal

copper-and-coalSome musical performers entertain, while others stun. With instincts for blending harmony normally only reserved for siblings, the stunning female vocal duo of Copper & Coal from Portland, Oregon breathe new life into an old-style of honky tonk music with their sultry original compositions of lost and found love, and wild adventures of the heart. Their name derived from the raven and red hair that crown these nearly six-foot beauties and the eternal rural themes of culling the earth of its resources that have lend so many stories and so much inspiration to the country music canon over the years, Copper & Coal’s Leslie Beia and Carra Stasney are something to behold, commanding attention with their Siren-like countenance, crafty lyrics, and seamless delivery. (review – album stream)

Devil Makes Three – I’m A Stranger Here

The Devil Makes Three can’t be denied, and after a few listens, you’re wearing out your repeat button. What The Devil Makes Three does so well is the same thing Pokey LaFarge does: they pick up on all the subtleties and nuances of vintage string music, not just the big, obvious flavors and modes. What then separates The Devil Makes Three from Pokey is that they pay that appreciation forward with a punk attitude. This one may take a few initial spins, but you very well may find your next favorite record. (read full review)

Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay – Before The World Was Made

brennen-leigh-noel-mckay-before-the-world-was-madeGone are the days of the legendary duet pairings in country music like George and Tammy, Loretta and Conway, right? Well they may not boast beehive doos or lamb chops, or grace the stage of the CMA Awards or come beaming into your home or buggy via the miracle of Clear Channel radio, but the Austin country scene’s power couple of Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay have revitalized the country duet concept album in a smart, brilliant, hilarious, and sweet offering. (read full review)

The Defibulators – Debt’ll Get ‘Em

There’s no doubt that in 20 years or so, roots revival bands in their vests and suspenders will be the laughing stock of popular culture just like hair metal bands are today, but the Defibulators ask why wait 20 years when you can make fun of them right now, and in some ways make fun of yourself by proxy? Being a country band from New York City is somewhat campy itself, so why not embrace your fate, own it, revel in it, and most importantly, not let it get in the way of making great music, or the music you want. (read full review)

Charlie Robison – High Life

High Life is sitting back nice and easy on a bench at Gruene Hall, with the warm Texas air tickling the senses, and a sense that all is right in the world. This album does an amazing job setting the mood of a time and place that you want to be in. For my money, the two can’t miss songs of High Life are “Out Of These Blues” and “Monte Carlo,” both written by sister Robyn Ludwick. (read full review)

Lindi Ortega – Tin Star

lindi-ortega-tin-starLindi Ortega is a creature of the darkness. She highlights the beauty in the world not by shining a light on it, but painting the rest black until the beauty is all that is left. She cherishes life by celebrating death. She makes you feel joy by bringing you to tears. She is the antithesis to an obvious, transparent world, all freshly fallen snow and onyx biting, contrasting, revitalizing the attention to life and its many dark beauties simply by her presence. (read full review)

Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

There’s so much else Alan Jackson could have done with his next release, and he chose to do this. And what has been the result so far? With the Alan Jackson name behind it, we’ve seen a 100% traditional bluegrass album chart at #3 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, and come in at #11 on the all-genre Billboard 200. So much for the idea that traditional country is no longer commercially viable. (read full review)

Hank3 – Brothers of the 4X4

Whether it is because the expectations are lowered, because the album is more country than his last, or because Hank3 has found a way to re-ignite his creative spark, Brothers of the 4×4 symbolizes a retrenching of Hank3 as a creative force in country, capable of generating inspiring moments in music. It’s just a shame you have to dig somewhat to find them. (read full review)

Sarah Jarosz – Build Me Up From Bones

sarah-jarosz-build-me-up-from-bonesBuild Me Up From Bones is a bold work of progressive bluegrass that showcases young Jarosz’s developed songwriting and adeptness at composition, while not sacrificing the whimsy and fun an album from a 22-year-old must have to be genuine. Jarosz isn’t playing over her head or having to make up for anything. She’s deep in the pocket of her own original musical expression, built upon the roots of the bluegrass discipline, and inspired by its lore. (read full review)

Austin Lucas – Stay Reckless

“I wrote the song “Stay Reckless” about my brother. He has a saying, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” I just re-entered the world of being single, and I was partying a lot. And it just really spoke to me, those two words put together. And the overarching theme of the record is really that. It is coming to terms with getting a divorce and being single again, and figuring out my limits.” (read full interview)

Davy Jay Sparrow – All Nite Long

No ladies and gentlemen, Western Swing is not dead; not when Davy Jay Sparrow is on the job, doing his level best to keep the distinguished country music sub-genre fresh and fun by forging ahead with his fast-paced and frolicking take on one of country music’s original modes. All Nite Long includes 11 all new original songs, and two delicious traditionals. Put it all together and you have one of the most entertaining albums released so far in 2013. (read full review)

Danny Kay & The Nightlifers – Crazy Lonesome Blue

Crazy Lonesome Blue comes at you with no frills, offering up a bevy of original songs, a few covers and traditionals, and an all-star cast comprising the Nightlifer’s lineup. It’d take a DNA test to convince me that Danny Kay isn’t a cousin of Lucky Tubb in the way his lonesome drawl with a rounded cadence really pulls the emotion out of the words to a song while pulling the listener’s ear right in. After laying down the foundation and setting the story of the song, Danny’s gets out of the way and lets the hillbilly maestros in the Nighlifers do their handiwork. (read full review)

Larry & His Flask – By The Lamplight

larry-and-his=flask-by-the-lamplightFor the people that like to complain about the sameness of Mumford & Sons’ music, if you wanted to experience a mirror opposite of that, but a band in a similar stylistic direction, Larry & His Flask might be your best option. Just ask The Grateful Dead how tough it is as a notorious live band to translate that magic into the studio, but with Larry & His Flask’s latest album By The Lamplight, they accomplished this feat yet again. (read full review)

Valerie June – Pushin’ Against A Stone

What we get is a record that is easier defined by geography than genre. Pushin’ Against A Stone is the sound of Memphis if it could ever be defined by one album. It is the sound of the city expressed through this native Memphis girl in the form of sweaty horns and soul, mournful, bellowing lyrics, and a spirit of defiance. It is like the streets rising up in a blue collar orchestra, expressing pain and struggle, and a yearning for redemption and victory. (read full review)

Guy Clark – My Favorite Picture of You

guy-clark-my-favorite-picture-of-youLike a great sage that only speaks his wisdom once every few years, when Guy Clark releases an album, you stop down, and you listen. A Guy Clark album, and a Guy Clark song doesn’t need much. Once he’s written the words down and sketched the shape with an acoustic guitar (that Guy Clark the luthier likely built himself), his job is pretty much done. This lends to his compositions doing what they do best: going out into the world, influencing other songs and songwriters, melding to the personal narratives of his listeners, and being graced with enough ambiguity where other performers can take Guy’s spark of inspiration and make the songs their own. (read full review)

The Tillers – Hand on the Plow

Leave behind the world of nagging priority that is screaming at your for attention through various flashing doo dads streaming threads of bad news and worse entertainment choices, and go back to a time when people played songs on their back porches from the simple love of the music, and the only way to evoke entertainment was to breed fellowship with friends and family and sing and play along. (album stream-review)

Leo Rondeau – Take It And Break It

Take It And Break It affords nine new original tracks from Rondeau, and is produced by R.S. Field who has previously worked with folks like Billy Joe Shaver and Hayes Carll, and produced Justin Townes Earle’s first two LP’s. This album has a great spirit and is a worthy receptacle for these original songs that now get to go out into the world and find inviting hearts. (read full review)

Jackson Taylor – Crazy Again

jackson-taylor-sinners-crazy-againCan I just go ahead and declare that Jackson Taylor & The Sinners are officially the funnest band in country music right now? Do I have the unilateral authority to do that? Can we somehow get that certified through oath and affirmation? Because hot damn, if their latest album Crazy Again doesn’t leave you in a good mood, then you’re one hell of a red ass. Where in the country music world does Jackson Taylor & The Sinners belong? If Crazy Again is any indication, they don’t need to belong anywhere specifically, they deserve to belong everywhere. (read full review)

Patty Griffin – American Kid

American Kid is a worthy specimen if someone asked you produce an album that exemplifies Americana’s influence and artistry. From the ultra-traditional “Mom & Dad’s Waltz” by Lefty Frizzell, to the progressive and airy “Highway Song” co-penned by Robert Plant, American Kid presents itself like a tree hanging heavy with fruit, with all but the two aforementioned songs written by Griffin solely. Though in no way a full-on collaboration with Patty and Plant, his presence here and there gives American Kid an additional layer of compelling character. (read full review)

The Carper Family – Old Fashioned Gal

With aptitude, The Carper Family girls can shift from Western Swing, old-school country, folk, covers and originals, embellishing it all with tasteful instrumentation and exquisite three-part harmony. Each player brings a unique skill set that blends so well with their counterparts. Melissa Carper’s voice has the auspicious, wise, vintage tone of a natural born storyteller, while Jenn Miori’s is the classic sweet and supple sound of the simple country life. Beth Chrisman can blend tone with anything, while providing the solo parts for the music on the fiddle. (read full review)

Eric Strickland – I’m Bad For You 

eric-strickland-im-bad-for-youEric Strickland is Country with a capital ‘C’ and couldn’t make a bad album if he tried. He may be more locally-oriented than the other big names in honky tonk music, but gives up nothing to his more well-known comrades when it comes to cutting songs and records. At the heart of Strickland’s appeal is his ability to take what on the surface may seem like tired, clichè country themes, and give them a fresh, new feel. (read full review)

Carolina Still – The Color of Rust

If you gave me only one word to describe this album, it would be “Yes!” The Color of Rust will downright wear your country ass out. Carolina Still are not necessarily superpickers, and if they were, it might take away from the spirit of their music. Instead they rely on good ears to craft catchy elements to reel you in. (read full review)

The Dinosaur Truckers – The Dinosaur Truckers

Can four dudes from Germany make American roots music and still be authentic? Do they have the ear, the personal history, the DNA, the dirt under their fingernails to do what American-based string bands do, or will they be forever relegated to being once removed from the American musical experience? If The Dinosaur Truckers and their new self-titled LP are any indication, the answer would be “Ja! Natürlich!” (read full review)

Jason Boland & The Stragglers – Dark & Dirty Mile

jason-boland-dark-dirty-mileJason Boland & The Stragglers have benefited over the years from their consistency. You know what you’re going to get from a Jason Boland show and a Jason Boland song. Dark & Dirty Mile continues on with that consistency and strength, and assures that as Red Dirt grows and ages, Jason Boland & The Stragglers will still be one of the movement’s premier acts, and one preserving the country roots in the Red Dirt legacy. (read full review)

Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – Bless This Mess

Whether its blazing instrumentals like “Murder of Crows,” or more singer/songwriter-style material like “West Wind,” and what may be the album’s legacy track “Crooked Smile,” Jayke Orvis shows himself as one of the premier purveyors of Gothic-infused American string music worth a wide ear and critical acclaim. Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band is a name that deserves to be ready on the tongue whenever folks query for names of top flight string bands to check out. (read full review)

Ten Foot Polecats – Undertow

The Ten Foot Polecats out of Boston bring the serious, full-tilt North Mississippi deep blues mojo on their new chest-pounding, groove-infested long player rightly entitled Undertow. As the name implies, this bad boy sucks you down and doesn’t quit tugging you asunder until you wholly submit to the deep muddy abyss of booty-shaking rhythms. (read full review)

Deadstring Brothers – Cannery Row

If you’re looking for superpickers to get your spine tingling or superlative poetic exorbitance, you’re sorely missing the point of the Deadstring’s Cannery Row. This album is an evocation of warm memory, burrowing deep into your brain matter to reprise moments that meant something in your life and allowing you to relive them. It tugs at your heart strings, but not in the traditional way. It does it from the inside outwith a familiarity of feeling that is customized to your personal ear and experience. (read full review)

Son Volt – Honky Tonk

son-volt-honky-tonkAs one of the original members of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar is one of the forebearers of the alt-country sound that now has morphed into the all-encompassing Americana behemoth that here in 2013 is enjoying a meteoric rise in influence. But instead of trying to figure out how to ride that popularity wave, Farrar and Son Volt release an album that is so doggone country, you could almost call it conceptualized. (read full review)

Lonesome Wyatt – Ghost Ballads

Where Lonesome’s Those Poor Bastards material usually carries more anger, and angular, abrupt themes, Ghost Ballads is like a lost collection of Edgar Allan Poe poems written as if they were for children, but that were truly meant for adults. Then he sets it all to music. Lonesome Wyatt is a timeless artist, and I’m sure Ghost Ballads along with his entire discography will be haunting Gothic fans long after he’s in the grave.(read full review)

Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer, Different Park

When you boil it all down, this is a quintessential Americana album, not a country one, with intelligent songs and sparse arrangements. There’s more drums in 30 seconds of any given Rush song than on this entire album. There’s really no solo parts, and the one’s there are stick very close to the melody. It’s not the best mainstream album to come out in years, but its probably the best album that will actually be represented on mainstream radio and awards shows. And with its authentic, inspiring, and intelligent content, this can only be a good thing. (read full review)

Holly Williams – The Highway

holly-williams-the-highwayProduced by Holly and Charlie Peacock, and written mostly by Williams herself, The Highway puts Holly Williams smack dab in the middle of this revolutionary crop of young women that threatens to completely shake up the country music world and mindset. Holly Williams now has a career-caliber album that exemplifies the leadership and creativity coming from country’s young women. (read full review)

Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Like A Rose is a short and sweet, classic country album that encapsulates Ashley Monroe’s skills as a formidable traditional country songwriter with a sweet voice embellished with sincere pain. All the songs on Like A Rose were written by Monroe,but they all include collaborators as well, most notably Vince Gill who is also the executive producer of the album. Ashley Monroe is at the very top of that crop of beautiful, bold, and talented women. (read full review)

Nellie Wilson – Not This Time

Where Nellie rises and really makes Not This Time a remarkable work is in her vocal performances and writing. Knowing the Nellie Wilson story, and listening to this album, you can tell that Nellie fought for this music and really pushed herself to put all of her resolve in making an album that was a true refection of her talent, her instincts, and her abilities. (read full review)

Wayne Hancock – Ride

wayne-hancock-rideA new Wayne Hancock album is like a gift from the country music gods; the same gods that bestowed upon him the capacity to be the closest living thing you can find to Hank Williams today (according to Hank Williams III among others), yet still be a wholly unique artist who finds himself in the very exclusive ranks of true music originatorsthose rare musical souls who’ve germinated their own genres and genealogy trees full of new artists inspired by their work. (read full review)

Amber Digby – The World You’re Living In

It takes a certain amount of courage to make an album like The World You’re Living Inso unapologetically steeped in the traditions of country music, specifically many of the traditions that set Texas country apart from other classic sounds originating further east or west. Making an album that is so blind to trends or trade industry desires, without a care if 98.1 will show courtesy to it in their rotation is a sign of character from Amber. (read full review)

Olds Sleeper – Before & After The Here And Now

You tend to get so immersed in the artistry of Olds Sleeper’s music, it’s sometimes easy to overlook what a good musician he is. His guitar work and composition match the wit of the words in “Unpack Your Heart,” and the playful instrumental “Primitive” is another one of Before And After‘s preeminent tracks. (read full review)

Dale Watson – El Rancho Azul

dale-watson-el-rancho-azulYou know what you’re going to get with a Dale Watson albumgood old-fashioned honest-to-goodness honky tonk country music. Bred for dancing, El Rancho Azul is taken straight out of the honky tonks Dale Watson plays 8 nights a week while home in Austin. Drinking and heartache are the prevailing themes, and maybe not just because this is a country album, but because Dale just recently went through a breakup and a divorce himself. (read full review)

Jimbo Mathus – White Buffalo

With White Buffalo, Jimbo Mathus captures more sweat in the recording than anything this side of Sticky Fingers.White Buffalo is a journey through the South. And no, not in Jason Aldean’s king cab with air conditioning and buckets seats, but in an old beater with panty hose and coat hangers procured for spare parts. With song titles like “Hatchie Bottom” and “Fake Hex,” you know you’re in for an interesting trip, and you’re glad to have a local as your guide. (read full review)

Daniel Romano – Come Cry With Me

Daniel Romano is not a neo-traditionalist in the traditional sense. He’s not trying to regale the modern ear with a new take on the classic country sound. Instead Daniel Romano is like the method actor of classic country, carving his niche by offering a strict interpretation of classic country’s modes with striking accuracy. It’s not a retro sound, it is a strict, methodical re-enactment. Everything fits the periodthe words, the instrumentation, the song structure. (read full review)

Ray Lawrence Jr. – More Raw Stuff

Like Chris Knight, Ray Lawrence Jr. is a simple man who has this sensational talent to be able to put defining moments of the human experience to words and music in a way that rekindles the feelings of those moments. Ray’s simplicity becomes his strength by imbibing his music with a blue collar, colloquial grace. Since Ray’s wisdom isn’t defined by a Master’s degree or a master vocabulary, it manifests itself in a cunning wit that takes themes and language culled from real life experiences, and weaves them into high art through honesty and authenticity of expression. (read full review)