2014 so far has been an interesting year for album releases for sure. Some names we were hoping big things from like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Eady delivered in big ways. Other dark horse names we’d never heard of like Karen Jonas came out of the woodwork to stun. Some names like Don Williams and Charlie Parr put out surprising albums that have to be considered high water marks of their career. And once again the women have put on a strong showing.
PLEASE NOTE: This list only includes albums that have already been reviewed by Saving Country Music. There are many other excellent albums sitting in the review que. No order to the list below was intended or should be implied, aside from the first ten highlighted albums below should all be considered strong candidates for Saving Country Music’s “Album of the Year” consideration in six months, though any of the albums listed come highly recommended, and could rise through time to become a contender. Time, as always, is the greatest judge of music. And please feel free to leave your opinions and suggestions about what the best albums of 2013 so far are down below.
First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
Destined to be unfortunately overlooked by country fans because of its folky exterior, Stay Gold is nonetheless a powerhouse performance that only gets better with more spins, and should be considered a serious candidate for Album of the Year in 2014.
“‘Stay Gold’ captures First Aid Kit fearlessly unburdening their fears, confiding in the listener very personal matters of self-doubt and worry that are exacerbated by a world of constant change, endless travel, and the inherent travails of navigating life as a young woman amongst prying eyes and directionless paths. The honesty in the songwriting, and the sentiment that bleeds over demarcation lines of gender or situation to find sympathetic ears with most who have the patience and disposition to listen make Stay Gold a songwriting feat before any discussion is broached about the music itself.
“And when talking about the music, Johanna and Klara Söderberg put on a melody-crafting clinic, endowing ‘Stay Gold’ with one rich, fulfilling composition after another full of soaring, frothy vocal exhibitions that run circles around the modern age’s garden variety mainstream singers. One of the reasons First Aid Kit can concoct such astounding melodies and match them so well with story is because their range and adeptness allows them a vocal pasture much wider that most have access to.” (read full review)
Karen Jonas – Oklahoma Lottery
“Karen Jonas, whether she knew it or not, heeded the advice of the great Ray Wylie Hubbard to all songwriters: don’t just listen to ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’, read ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. How do we know this? It’s not just from the wisdom interwoven in the lyrics, it’s from the amount of pain Ms. Jonas is able to capture in her performance. This isn’t just an inflected interpretation, but the very evocation through herself of the troubled ghosts of the story not just wrapping herself in their clothes, but walking a mile in their shoes, and then conveying the pain she knows they felt from the aching of her own blisters.
Similar to how the settlers of Oklahoma toiled at the yoke without a thought of rest, Karen Jonas, after putting her pair of young children to bed every night, tip toes to the other side of the house, takes the guitar in hand, and digs, hoping to unearth the riches of song. And lucky for her and the rest of us, the ground that she tilled ended up to be quite fertile, and the result a verdant display of artistic release.
If music was a lottery, then Karen Jonas hit big. But this is no fortune to be chocked up to sheer luck. The toil, the heart that Karen Jonas put into this music and this record is eminently palpable. And it is not just the result of talent, but talent honed and refined through cutting self-criticism, study, discipline, and work.” (read full review)
Don Williams – Reflections
Folks, don’t fool yourself into thinking this is here from sympathy or from some other gaming of the system. Don Williams has put out a towering album with a great feeling and a thematic vision, and deserves the highest of praise.
“‘Reflections’ is much more than just the easy listening country it may appear to be on the surface. It’s an album with a message, and leads by example. Instead of whining about the state of country music, it does something about it.
The laid back, gentle-of-mind ease drips from this album like the sweetness of sun-drenched dew. Sometimes it’s simply implied, and other times it’s directly spoken, like in the appreciative and well-written ‘Working Man’s Son’ or the song that ties the entire theme of ‘Reflections’ together, ‘Back To The Simple Things’. Enough can’t be said either about the Townes cover ‘I’ll Be Here In The Morning’. Like when Willie and Merle took ‘Pancho & Lefty’ to another level, Don Williams’ touch on this song immortalized it, and in a different time it would have been a super hit.
“‘Reflections is the album we needed right here, right now. Not just from the perspective of saving country music, but the perspective of saving ourselves from the overwhelming onslaught of ensnaring technologies that rob the preciousness from life.” (read full review)
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Make no assumptions that this is the runaway Album of the Year. We still have six months to got, it faces strong competition, and Saving Country Music founds a few warts with this album. Still without question, Metamodern Sounds is a clear frontrunner.
“With ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’, Sturgill Simpson doesn’t just capture our ears, he captures our imaginations. However misguided the notion is, most every disenfranchised country music fan harbors the idea that at some point some true country artist is going to come along that is so good, it is going to tip the scales back in the right direction. What ‘Metamodern Sounds’ does is it gives the true country music listener hope beyond the happiness the music conveys. It resolves that ever-present conflict between sticking to the traditional sound, but progressing forward.
It’s not time yet to be making comparisons to ‘Red Headed Stranger’, or even to ‘Phases & Stages’. But Sturgill Simpson, and Sturgill Simpson alone, defines the pinnacle, and what is relevant in the here and now of independent country music. And he’s done it from the sheer strength of this album.” (read full review)
Charlie Parr – Hollandale
“‘Hollandale’ is like nothing you’ve heard, from Charlie Parr or anyone else, at least not like anything you’ve heard for a very, very long time, and with this amount of body and clarity behind the recording itself. Whatever you were expecting from this album, you are probably wrong, and in its stead you get an in-depth exploration into what it means to be alive, to be human, to feel pain and to yearn and reflect, without a single word being spoken on the entire work.
“‘Hollandale’ is a victorious moment for Charlie Parr, and shouldn’t just make it into your home’s music collection, but is one of those works you could hear being secured in the Smithsonian’s archives of important American instrumental music works. Charlie Parr has set the bar of creativity and originality that all folk, blues, and country musicians will be measured against throughout 2014 and beyond, and did what every musician would love to do 12 releases into their musical journey: make an impact larger than themselves.” (read full review)
Matt Woods- With Love From Brushy Mountain
“‘Brushy Mountain’ is as complete of a country album as you will find, with excellent songwriting throughout, a great sound that is country at heart, but with sprouts of rock & roll that endow the project with spice and originality, and there’s something for every mood here. In other words, it lived up to the expectations of ‘Deadman’s Blues’, and even adds a few more exceptional song offerings that downright rival that song’s indelible impact.
“Matt Woods is no fluke, no one trick pony. Not even close. He’s a force of songwriting nature who can match his stories with inspired performances.” (read full review)
John Fullbright – Songs
“If you see someone roll up in a rig with Oklahoma license plates claiming to be a songwriter, you’d be smart to pay a little bit closer attention these days. whatever the chemistry is, Oklahoma is hatching one landmark songwriter after another. And not one songwriter in Oklahoma or anywhere else may loom as large at the moment as the fresh-faced farm boy originally from Bearden, Oklahoma named John Fullbright.
“For a 26-year-old who must feel the pressure of fulfilling the expectations his first album set, Fullbright is positively fearless in “Songs”. This is a songwriter’s album, and songwriters and people who study the craft and have patient, attentive ears will be singing the praises of this album for the rest of the year and beyond.” (read full review)
Zoe Muth – World of Strangers
“Take a Pacific Northwest songwriting gem and refine her with the finest of care by some of Austin, TX’s best master craftsmen, and the result is the 3rd and defining studio album from Seattle-based songbird Zoe Muth called ‘World of Strangers’. They call Zoe Muth the “Emmylou Harris of Seattle”. Then maybe Emmylou Harris is the Zoe Muth of the rest of the world. Either way, Emmylou is fair company for comparison to Muth as a way to express the measures of country, folk, and Americana Muth purposes for her music, and for the positive, and sometimes haunting way the music resonates with an audience. Ranging from downright alcohol-soaked honky-tonk to spatial spiderwebs of subtly and string sections, Zoe Muth and World of Strangers dazzle with range and adeptness at capturing the mood present at the genesis of a song.
“Like the faces of children, each song on World of Strangers has something hard not to be endeared to.” (read full review)
Jason Eady – Daylight & Dark
“If you were asked to populate a list of current country music artists that with no frills and no variations lay down country music as country music was meant to be, Jason Eady would very have to be at or near the top of your list. And if you found yourself beset on all sides by ravenous legions of flesh-eating pop country music fans whose only bane was the authentic sound of true country music being blared in their general direction, Daylight & Dark just might be your ideal go to to win your ultimate escape.
As a followup to Jason Eady’s 2012, critically-acclaimed country offering ‘AM Country Heaven’, here comes a new one that picks up right where the old one left off, unflinchingly immersed in the traditions of country music, taking aim and hitting the bulls-eye at the heart of what country music truly is.
Sure, when you get this deep into the essence of true country music, you’re going to leave some folks behind. But ‘Daylight & Dark’ isn’t for them, it’s for the folks that were left behind by what they now call country music many years ago.” (read full review)
Joseph Huber – The Hanging Road
“Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Joseph Huber started out as one of the founding members of the formidable .357 String Band from Milwaukee, WI from which three stellar albums emanated between 2006 and 2010 before foundering under the weight of its own talent and forming the basis of three very earworthy solo projects from its respective members. Huber was known for his breakneck banjo and as one of the primary songwriters for the project, but when he went the solo route, suddenly his deftness as a composer shined through with such blinding insight and poetry, he abruptly elevated himself from a superstar picker with some cool songs to something worthy of great acclaim.
“The now married Huber who also spends his time as a woodworker in Milwaukee is one of those country roots gems with potent tunes that impact the open heart with such resonance and penetration, it remains with the listener much after the music stops. ‘The Hanging Road’ is an exposition of Huber’s multi-talented musical skill set, engaging and vibrant, yet humble and rootsy as he takes his country, folk, bluegrass and blues influences into heavy account.” (read more)
More 2014 Top Albums So Far:
- Ags Connolly – How About Now (read full review)
- Willie Watson – Folk Singer Vol. 1 – Very strong album (read full review)
- John Howie Jr. – Everything Except Goodbye – EXCELLENT pure country album (read full review)
- Moot Davis – Goin’ In Hot – Another one you can’t overlook (read full review)
- Dierks Bentley – Riser – Best mainstream album so far? (read full review)
- Doug Strahan – Coal Black Dreams & Late Night Schemes – Best produced (read full review)
- Hellbound Glory – LV ep – (read interview)
- Red Eye Gravy – Dust Bowl Hangover (read full review)
- The Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down (read full review)
- The Ben Davenport Band – Slow Start (read full review)
- Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits – A great one (read full review)
- Revered Horton Heat – Rev (read full review)
- Nikki Lane – All or Nothin’ (read full review)
- Bobby Joe Owens – Liquor, Love & Laughter (read full review)
- Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread – One of the best Americana offerings (read full review)
- Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else – A lot of people love this one. (read full review)
- Jackson Taylor & The Sinners – Live At Billy Bob’s Texas (read full review)
- Bob Wayne – Back to the Camper – (read interview)
- Whiskey Myers – Early Morning Shakes – Good Southern rock (read full review)
- Johnny Cash – Out Among The Stars (read full review)
- The Urban Pioneers – Addicted to the Road – This is a fun one (read full review)
- Robert Ellis – The Lights From The Chemical Plant (read full review)
- Hank Williams – The Garden Spot Programs (read full review)
- Beck – Morning Phase (read full review)
- Scott H. Biram – Nothin’ But Blood (read full review)
- Left Lane Cruiser – Slingshot (read full review)
- Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line (read full review)
- Sundy Best – Bring Up The Sun (read full review)
- Dex Romweber Duo – Images 13 (review pending)
- Dolly Parton – Blue Smoke (review pending)
- Hurry For The Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes (review pending)