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When we look back on The Year In Music, 2013, there’s a good chance we’ll most remember that girl who kept trying to shove her tongue down our throats. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll recall the women who put that slippery organ to better use, making records as accomplished as Kacey Musgraves’ or Janelle Monae’s. And with any luck we’ll think of “Blurred Lines” less than the sharp lyrical lines of Jason Isbell or Elvis Costello, even if we wouldn’t mind borrowing Robin Thicke’s striped suit.
My picks for the 10 best albums of the year:
1-4. (tie) Brandy Clark, 12 Stories
Ashley Monroe, Like a Rose
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer, Different Park
LeAnn Rimes, Spitfire
It has already been duly noted in some quarters that 2013 was the year of country women … everywhere but the charts, which remained full of manly songs employing the ever-popular “hey, girl” booty call-out refrain and virtually no girl singers allowed to actually answer back. But in a better, bro-busting alternate reality, there was a country chart dominated by the likes of these four honey-voiced heroines.
Hey, boy: Was there a better relationship song in 2013 than Clark’s “Hold My Hand,” which heartbreakingly captured that awkward moment when someone’s old and new loves meet up and everything seems to hang in the reactive balance? Or than Musgraves’ “It Is What It Is,” which wryly encapsulated the casual desperation of dialing up an ex because no one better has come along? There wasn’t a funnier one than Monroe’s “Weed Instead of Roses,” an advocacy song for herbs as marital spice.
Although all three of those young women have worked with Miranda Lambert as writers (Musgraves, Clark) or even bandmates (Monroe), they’re a little bit more about the emotional ambiguity and vulnerability, and none is quite the blatant spitfire Lambert is. For that in 2013, you had to look to LeAnn — a veritable elder stateswoman now, at 31! — whose career-best album got a bit overlooked amid the newcomers. The revitalized Rimes sounded half-penitent, half out for blood, and wholly human in a way you could’ve never guessed from her child stardom or tabloid infamy.
5. Elvis Costello & the Roots, Wise Up Ghost
The musical peanut-butter cup of the year. With the Roots’ ?uestlove supplying some basic funk beats on a beautifully old-school drum kit, and the occasional interpolation of a Specials-like horn section, Costello cut up the words of more than a dozen of his older songs, making them less melodic and more conversational but always stopping short of anything so obvious as a “rock/hip-hop” hybrid. If anything, it felt almost like a very wordy bebop record, with Costello brilliantly riffing through his catalog of social commentary and riffing on these themes as if he were applying the rules (or flexibilities) of jazz to his own lyrics.
6. Dawes, Stories Don’t End
Los Angeles’ 21st century hometown heroes really came into their own with a third album that threw off the acoustic shackles of “the Laurel Canyon sound” for something bigger and brighter but no less reflective. If there were still such a thing as an old-fashioned AOR rock format, these guys would be huge. But maybe what was once mainstream is the new indie. If Taylor Goldsmith is a better singer/songwriter than the 2010s deserve, let’s take advantage of him while we’ve got him.
7. Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady
There haven’t been nearly enough R&B stars with the sensibilities of ‘70s prog-rockers. But with this sophomore release, Monae made it clear she wasn’t just fooling around when she made her first ridiculously ambitious concept album. As Philip K. Dick would no doubt ask, if he were around today: Do ArchAndroids dream of electric ladies? If you can’t follow her sci-fi storylines, no worries: Most of the individual tracks skew toward the rock-infused soul basics. You’d imagine Prince might be green with envy if his Purple Majesty hadn’t actually shown up as a guest.
8. Jason Isbell, Southeastern
If they don’t make ‘em like Townes Van Zandt anymore, Isbell ought to be close enough for anyone’s current satisfaction. It’s the little details that count, whether he’s questioning the timing of sex with someone who’s dying of cancer or wondering whether that bar fistfight was worth losing a lover over. It seemed sad, at the time, when Isbell left the Drive-By Truckers, but his freedom to make a record this astonishing and (mostly) quiet while the Truckers continue to loudly rage across America has nicely resulted in two national treasures where once there stood one.
9. Arcade Fire, Reflektor
Win Butler didn’t exactly say “F— art, let’s dance” — not with a double album that has Black Orpheus and Kierkegaard among the cited influences. But this will be remembered as Arcade Fire’s equivalent of Remain in Light, i.e., the one where they got funky. (Or maybe the self-conscious embrace of something fairly akin to disco makes it their version of U2’s Pop, albeit a better-greeted one.) James Murphy’s presence as a co-producer raised some apt LCD Soundsystem comparisons, too, although, inevitably, Butler’s take on dance music is less arch and a bit more into the mystic.
10. David Bowie, The Next Day
Bowie launched a surprise attack with his first album in a decade, but didn’t exactly smooth the way to a comeback with the most easily digestible record of his career. That’s all right: The Next Day slowly revealed its dark charms, splitting the sonic difference between his Ziggy Stardust and Eno eras, while offering bizarre character sketches that didn’t tell us much about Bowie’s own reclusive life but did at least let us know that, creatively, he’s still on fire.
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