2013 has been self-proclaimed by Saving Country Music as the “Year of the Songwriter,” and this list of candidates for SCM’s Album of the Year reflect that dynamic of an elevated bar of songwriting excellence that these 8 artists have set. There is no arbitrary number of slots for candidates for this award. Nominees are chosen only if they have a legitimate chance of winning, whether that number is 2 or 12, and as we start the process of deciding who will win, the field is wide open.
One album you will not see on this list, but one that is at the very top of my personal list is Possessed by Paul James‘s There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely. But since I had a small hand in the making of that album, I have recused it from consideration here, and from all of the end-of-year accolades. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered in yours.
Lindi Ortega‘s Tin Star, and Austin Lucas‘s Stay Reckless are both valiant efforts that very easily could have made this list of candidates if it was stretched out a little farther, but something tells me you might see these names on the Best Songs list coming up shortly. Jayke Orvis‘s Bless This Mess, Valerie June‘s Pushin Against A Stone, and Eric Strickland‘s I’m Bad For You were also right on the bubble, and so was The White Buffalo‘s Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways, and you will see these albums and many more on the much more expansive “Essential Albums” list that is coming up shortly. So if you don’t see an album you love, don’t freak out, it still may be up for an end-of-year distinction yet.
Audience participation is strongly encouraged, and will influence the outcome. Leave your opinions, write-in candidates, or other observations or opinions below in the comments section. This is not simply an up and down vote though. I make the final decision, so it is your job to convince me why the album you feel deserves to win is the right pick.
Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
2013 is the Year of the Woman, and the Year of the Songwriter in country music, and this puts one Caitlin Rose right in the sweet spot of the relevancy arch. What elevates The Stand-In to “Album of the Year” status is that her songwriting deftly avoids all the well-worn grooves and modes that many songwriters tend to lean on when looking for ideas and inspiration. Also, whether The Stand-In wins or not, this is the most well-produced album of 2013. The production squeezes every bit of potential out of every song just as classic albums like The Beatles Rubber Soul and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors do.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Caitlin Rose has arrived. It may take some time for the rest of the world to wake up to this realization. But they will. The strength of ‘The Stand-In’ assures it. The Stand-In is frighteningly good. It’s an enterprise in the evocation of rich human emotions, interwoven with delicious hooks and intelligent riffs, stirring vocal performances delivering meaningful, elevated lyricism, and a towering production performance that may go down in the history books. Just simply”¦ Wow.” (read full review)
Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
As far as a Country album with a capital ‘C’, Sturgill Simpson takes the crown hands down with High Top Mountain. No frills, no gimmicks, just straight down the middle honest to goodness country music. High Top Mountain is fair to consider a front runner, but the field is heavy this year on the fringes of the country genre, and Sturgill will have to fend off stiff competition if he is to win. And despite how great High Top Mountain is, the case can be made that Simpson still has some upside potential.
“Real country fans are just going to have to get comfortable with the new reality that their favorite music is on a surprising uptick. No more mopey faces, no more plotting midnight graffiti runs to Music Row as retribution for keeping your favorite artists down. Regardless of what kind of filth is still transpiring on country radio, a new spring of vibrant, independent country music is blooming and finding surprising support, and there may not be a better example of this new season than Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson and his breakout album ‘High Top Mountain.'” (read full review)
The Mavericks – In Time
When talking about sheer enjoyment one can get from an album, The Mavericks and In Time take the cake in 2013. I mean this album has you dancing around your living room or doing the Latin shake while you’re behind the wheel like nothing else. Is it a country album? That’s up for debate, but The Mavericks and Raul Malo are certainly more country than what you hear on country radio these days, and deserve to be considered as strong contenders here. Every day you do not have this album in your life is a day you’re missing out on that much more enjoyment. This is the Album of the Year if you throw out considerations of genre.
“Take the West Coast country coolness of Dwight Yoakam, the haunting tremolo of Roy Orbison, the sweaty rhythms of Los Lobos, and what you get is Miami’s indescribable and enigmatic throwback old-school all-things-to-all-people house band for America known as The Mavericks. They’re like some strange Central American fruit you purchase in South Texas that once you cut open the rind a bounty of greatness starts gushing out. Its taste is both exotic and warmly familiar, and its supple membranes are revitalizing to both the body and spirit.” (read full review)
Brent Amaker & The Rodeo – Year of the Dragon
Who and the who, and the year of what? That’s right, this dark horse nominee from the Pacific Northwest rides smack dab into the middle of this distinguished company from the sheer creative brilliance and sonic innovation Year of the Dragon displays. Every year there is an album that pushes boundaries and sets a precedent for the progression of the genre in a manner that still respects its roots, and this bold project with a futuristic scope and vibe leads the pack in 2013. Brent Amaker & The Rodeo are no anomaly. They could win this thing.
“If someone asked me to pony up an example of how in 30 years from now when we all have jet packs and flying cars, how country music could still respect and represent its roots, but still offer a relevant sound, I would hand them over a copy of ‘Year of the Dragon.’ It strikes that always-elusive balance between substance and wide-ranging appeal. Though the appeal will be hidden from some for the aforementioned reasons (monotone lyrics and similar rhythms between songs), once you delve beneath the surface, this album offers succulent melodies and catchy moments that make it downright addicting beyond the intellectual appeal of the artistry and lyricism.” (read full review)
John Moreland – In The Throes
I’ll be honest with you, this is the one candidate that I am not 100% on. Though John Moreland’s songwriting effort here is world class and easily competes with any other album listed here, to be an SCM Album of the Year winner, you must bring a complete package, and the production and recording effort with this album leaves room for improvement. It is one thing if you’re going for the lo-fi vibe, but John Moreland’s songs are too good to bring anything less than a superlative effort to recording them for release out into the big scary world. At the same time, out of respect for Moreland’s world-class songwriting, and so many people who put this album on the top of their 2013 lists, it’s being included it here, and who says I can’t be convinced that despite whatever warts, it still deserves to win from the caliber of Moreland’s songwriting performance.
“If John Moreland was a boxer, he’d be a bruiser, a punnisher. No fancy footwork, no bobbing and weaving here. Every single line John Moreland throws out is like a lyrical haymaker meant to score an empathic knockout punch right between the eyes. Even the most emotionally-fraught songwriters tend to give you a short breath somewhere from the morose moments, but not Moreland. He is relentless in how he unburdens his soul without any worry of exposing his vulnerabilities, or how the emotional fortitude of the listener will handle such despondency delivered with such honesty.” (read full review)
Jason Isbell – Southeastern
To become a Saving Country Music Album of the Year, you effort must be at a career-caliber level, and that’s what we get from Jason Isbell and Southeastern. This is the album, and 2013 is the year that Isbell emerged to have an impact well beyond the in-the-know crowd of Americana to become a voice of leadership in re-instilling substance and tireless attention to the craft of songwriting into the wider music world. Jason Isbell has arrived, and revealed himself as one of our generation’s legacy songwriters and performers.
“On ‘Southeastern’ Isbell goes right for the gut with an elegiac knife, thrusting and stabbing in a morose and unrelenting ritual of emotional evocation. Southeastern is downright suffocating in spots in its weight. It is bold, and merciless in how in preys on the faint-of heart, and can make a faint-of-heart out of even the most devout Stoics. Completely unfair Isbell, completely unfair. And selfish too. You should have saved some of these songs for others.” (read full review)
Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward
In a nominee field with a few dark horses, Robbie Fulks’ Gone Away Backward might be the album worth characterizing as the most criminally-underrated record in all of 2013. Because of the humble, non-commercial nature of this guy, he will never get the recognition his legacy of wisdom through songwriting should afford him. A true treasure of our time, this traditional country record with an epic songwriting effort is a must-have.
“With a gift for poetry like Townes Van Zandt, and a penchant for the whimsical, progressive approach to bluegrass akin to John Hartford, Robbie Fulks releases a stunningly entertaining, brilliantly-balanced, deep, yet instantly-engaging comeback album called Gone Away Backward through longtime associates Bloodshot Records. Steeped in the roots of bluegrass and old time, this sparse, acoustic-only album offers a traditional sound that is brought up to modern-day relevancy by the staggeringly-cunning use of wit in Robbie’s verses. This is one of those albums you can cull a litany of quotes from, while not giving anything away sonically. Buoyed by one amazing line after another, songs like “I’ll Trade You Money For Wine” and “Where I Fell” speak right to the heart of folks who take their music like medication.” (read full review)
Brandy Clark – 12 Stories
In a year of inspiring success stories, Brandy Clark’s might be the biggest. A pure songwriter who strikes the perfect balance between appeal and substance, Brandy Clark’s breakout album 12 Stories tells the tale of how in 2013, women and songwriters are leading the charge to save country music.
“The hidden dystopia seething under the smile of sweet suburban life, and the general dysfunction plaguing any and all affairs of the heart is the broken-minded madness that Brandy taps into with this album, following fed up and frustrated fraus who are willing to medicate themselves and match the misdeeds of their men sin for glorious sin. Frail, turbulent, vengeful, but still somehow empowered and held together by the strength and perseverance of womanhood, the heroins of Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories are as inspiring as they are shameful, and tragic as they are real.” (read full review)