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Great American Country’s Top 10 Albums of 2013

While several conversations this year focused on the struggle that women artists face on the country music charts, female artists delivered some of the best albums of 2013. From Kacey Musgraves to Ashley Monroe and Brandy Clark, it’s been a banner year for female country singers. Gritty realism and emotional honesty marked many of the year’s best albums  – be they from women or men – in what has been a tremendous year for the genre. And as the year comes to a close, we offer our look at the Best Country Albums of 2013 in no particular order. As is the case with all Top 10 lists, some very worthy projects can’t be included. So if your favorite album of the year isn’t on here, let us know what you’ve been listening to all year long by leaving a comment!

GAC Album Review: Brandy Clark's 12 Stories

Brandy Clark’s 2013 album, 12 Stories. Photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media.

Brandy Clark 12 Stories

Nashville singer/songwriter Brandy Clark’s debut album is so honest that some listeners might be left speechless. Using mostly traditional arrangements that recall greats from Waylon Jennings to Roseanne Cash, Brandy spins one moral dilemma after another on 12 Stories with a razor sharp eye for character development. Read our original review here >> From cheatin’ songs like “What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven” and “Illegitimate Children” to tales of revenge (“Crazy Women”) and addiction (“Take A Little Pill”), Brandy’s ever-so-smart wordplay and talent for rich storytelling are captivating. Country fans might be unknowingly familiar with her songwriting (Brandy co-wrote Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” in addition to The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” and Reba McEntire’s “The Day She Got Divorced”), and that same wry humor is on display here. In the old school Western “Stripes,” mortal revenge will not be carried out because those prison jumpsuits are just too unflattering. No crime of passion’s worth a crime of fashion, Brandy sings with a sardonic twist as she delivers one of country music’s best debuts in recent memory. Key Tracks – “Stripes,” “Hungover,” “Pray To Jesus,” “Crazy Women”

Kacey Musgraves

Kacey Musgraves’ 2013 album, Same Trailer Different Park. Photo courtesy of Universal Music Group Nashville.

Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer, Different Park

The reigning CMA New Artist of the Year set critics and fans ablaze when she released her major label debut single, “Merry Go Round,” in 2012. When the full-length Same Trailer, Different Park followed in March 2013, Kacey backed up the buzz with an album willing to risk being complicated in pursuit of artistic honesty. Read our original review here>> Her current single, “Follow Your Arrow,” might have been censored during the CMA Awards telecast last month, but the message of being 100% true to one’s self resonates here and throughout the album. The forlorn “Back On The Map” begs to reclaim the hope found in love while “Keep It To Yourself” just wants to move on. And all the while, conflicting emotions remain delicately balanced. Kacey wrote or co-wrote every song on the record and the 25-year old east Texas native digs deep to expose raw feelings. This set is so intimate that Kacey oftentimes gives the impression that she’s not even aware others might be listening. However, we are, and intently. Key Tracks – “Merry Go Round,” “Back On The Map,” “Blowin’ Smoke,” “Follow Your Arrow”

Kenny Chesney's 2013 album, Life on A Rock

Kenny Chesney’s 2013 album, Life on A Rock. Photo courtesy of Sony Music Nashville.

Kenny Chesney Life On A Rock

One of Kenny Chesney’s most personal albums to date, Life On A Rock strips away the distortion and arena-ready hooks for an introspective and mostly acoustic look at life. Read our original review here>> Slowing it down to examine the details, Kenny treats listeners to 10 songs ranging from descriptive sketches like “Lindy” (where he pays tribute to a homeless man many might overlook) and “When I See This Bar” on through to the setting sun, ‘adios’ tune, “It’s That Time Of The Day.” Kenny channels his inner-reggae star on “Spread The Love” (featuring The Wailers and their singer Elan) and honors Bob Marley on the softly-picked tune bearing the legend’s name. Windswept lead single “Pirate Flag” might celebrate heading anywhere the wind blows, but this collection’s true compass points to Kenny’s expert ability to capture life’s little moments – both simple and profound. Key Tracks – “It’s That Time Of Day,” “Happy On The Hey Now (A Song For Kristi),” “When I See This Bar,” “Coconut Tree (feat. Willie Nelson)”

GAC Album Review: Alan Jackson's The Bluegrass Album.

Photo courtesy of Schmidt Relations.

Alan Jackson The Bluegrass Album

It’s time the question was asked; what can’t this guy do? Alan Jackson’s third full-length studio album in 18 months finds the 55-year old Georgia native diving head first into the sounds of Appalachia. Alan’s superb, and excellently titled, The Bluegrass Album, displays a fine touch for mountain music as themes like love and loss are explored amidst fine arrangements full of banjo, fiddle, dobro and acoustic guitars. Read our original review here>> It’s Alan’s first project in the genre, and the fact that he wrote eight of the album’s 14 songs only adds to the accomplishment. With a group of A-list Nashville pickers to back him up, Alan delivers songs like “Long Hard Road” with elastic melodies, sterling harmonies and high country inflections. Love songs like “Let’s Get Back To Me and You” and the helpless “Tie Me Down” offer different perspectives while the blue collar tune “Blacktop” turns nostalgia on its head. This ain’t no song about the good old days, he sings. Yet, it’s hard not to reminisce about the days gone by when the songs are this good. Key Tracks – “Long Hard Road,” “Blacktop,” “Ain’t Got No Trouble Now,” “Mary”

LeAnn Rimes

LeAnn Rimes’ 2013 album, Spitfire.

LeAnn Rimes Spitfire

LeAnn Rimes opens up in staggeringly honest fashion on her first album of new material since the singer/songwriter’s affair made national headlines in 2009. Moving away from the pop-influenced sounds that made her a household name, LeAnn worked with producer Darrell Brown (Radney Foster, Neil Young) to craft a gritty, Americana-based project that openly discusses her affair and subsequent divorce. Read our original review here>> No doubt a polarizing artist in recent years, LeAnn’s evocative and impassioned deliveries shape stories of pain, regret and love into one deeply compelling listen. Perhaps it’s the public’s knowledge of her affair that adds gravity to each song through real context, but few albums carry the emotional punch of Spitfire. Key Tracks – “What Have I Done,” “Just A Girl Like You,” “Where I Stood,” “Gasoline and Matches”

GAC Album Review: Charlie Worsham's Rubberband

Charlie Worsham’s 2013 album, Rubberband. Photo courtesy of charlieworsham.com.

Charlie Worsham Rubberband

Few blend contemporary country with bluegrass and folk rock better than newcomer Charlie Worsham. Previously a member of Nashville-based band KingBilly and studio/touring musician for the likes of Eric Church and Taylor Swift, the Mississippi native captures the imagination with a swirling collection of love, heartache and intrigue on his debut solo album. Read our original review here>> Atmospheric grooves like those on the title track are countered by quiet, introspective moments found in pieces like “How I Learned To Pray” and “You Can’t Break What’s Broken.” However, it’s Charlie’s enchanting melodies and arrangements that make this one special. “Tools Of The Trade,” which features Vince Gill and Marty Stuart, relishes in high/low harmonies and a charging beat while “Someone Like Me,” featuring singer Madi Diaz, rises and falls with elastic electricity. Key Tracks – “Tools Of The Trade,” “Young To See,” “Mississippi In July,” “Rubberband”

GAC Album Review: Keith Urban's Fuse

Keith Urban’s 2013 album, Fuse. Photo courtesy of Capitol Nashville.

Keith Urban Fuse

Sixteen years after releasing his first album for Capitol Records Nashville, Keith Urban delivers his most progressive. Fuse is an endlessly creative undertaking where ingredients constantly transform at nearly every moment. Read our original review here>> Building many of the album’s songs from a traditional foundation of banjo and dobro, Keith unleashes new sounds that range from dance-pop (“Somewhere In My Car”) to something most accurately described as swampy, roadhouse techno (“Good Thing”). Pushing all the boundaries, Keith’s guitar work takes off in exciting and unexpected new directions as the album hits like an electric jolt. Big hooks and contemporary country lyrics remain Keith’s calling card while guests like Eric Church and Miranda Lambert offer dynamic new angles. Keith says he set out to make a different-sounding record, and he did on a project that’s one of his best. Key Tracks – “Good Thing,” “Raise ‘Em Up,” “Cop Car,” “Love’s Poster Child”

Ashley Monroe's 2012 CD, Like A Rose

Ashley Monroe’s 2012 CD, Like A Rose.

Ashley Monroe Like A Rose

One-third of the critically acclaimed Pistol Annies, East Tennessee native Ashley Monroe goes solo this time around on her debut LP, Like A Rose. With Vince Gill in the producer’s chair, Ashley conjures up the spirit of greats like Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn with a vintage sound willing to break modern traditions. Read our original review here>> Swirling pedal steel and rattling Telecaster set the scene while Ashley’s time capsule Honky Tonk delivers powerful truths. The sobering “Used” and obsessed “You Got Me” wrap tight around complex emotions while the dangerously seductive “Weed Instead Of Roses” doubles down on its title. Ashley wrote or co-wrote every one of the album’s nine songs, and key writing collaborations with the likes of Guy Clark (“Like A Rose”) and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild (“You Got Me”) only further establish her sterling credentials. With performances that consistently cut to the soul, Ashley proves herself as one of country music’s finest new talents. Key Tracks – “Like A Rose,” “Two Weeks Late,” “You Got Me,” “Used”

Guy Clark new album review

Guy Clark My Favorite Picture Of You

Storytelling doesn’t get much better than on songsmith Guy Clark’s latest project. Read our original review here>> Taking time to examine the details others might overlook, the 72-year-old Texan delivers stunning portrayals of a life lived hard. Tumbleweed acoustics, sad waltzes and reflective lyrics provide the canvas for characters and stories that reveal there’s oftentimes a lot more going on behind the lens. In “Heroes,” an Iraq vet who’s seen as invincible returns home in need of a support system of his own. And on “El Coyote,” immigrants are left for dead by their smuggler. It’s a complicated world and Guy’s rugged poetry brings tough subjects to life with a master’s touch. However, as heard in loving songs like the title track (a tribute to Guy’s late wife Susanna), optimism and hope can sometimes serve as the silver lining to conflict. Key Tracks -  “Hell Bent On A Heartache,” “My Favorite Picture Of You,” “Death of Sis Draper,” “I’ll Show Me”

The SteelDrivers

The SteelDrivers’ 2013 album, Hammer Down. Photo courtesy of The Press Network.

The SteelDrivers Hammer Down

Their first album to feature new singer Gary Nichols, The SteelDrivers inject a strong dose of Muscle Shoals soul into their brand of bluegrass on Hammer Down. “I’ll Be There” and “Cry No Mississippi” (both co-written by Gary and John Paul White of The Civil Wars) reach strikingly evocative new vocal heights while their traditional bluegrass arrangements lead to haunting depths. It’s a mix that stands out for its originality as well as its poignant beauty. Read our original review here>> Murder ballads (“Shallow Grave”) and cheatin’ songs (“When You Don’t Come Home”) come quick as heartache and revenge get contemplated most. And on “Wearin’ A Hole,” hardcore Honky Tonk is played as strong as straight whiskey. I’m only here for my own good/to drown me a heartache and polish the wood, Gary sings. Well, if that’s the case, somebody buy these guys another round. “Shallow Grave,” “I’ll Be There,” “Burnin’ The Woodshed Down,” “Lonesome Goodbye”

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