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Arts and Music

Top 10 2013 Albums

Before we get into it, I want to point out that this is a Kanye-free zone. How the incessant bloviating clatter that makes up Yeezus has caused critics to fall all over themselves to declare it the best musical release of 2013 makes it clear that my fellow scribes once again tend to show off their sheeple-like tendencies. I’m no better for giving this egomaniacal blowhard more coverage just by virtue of my disdain for what he represents in his continuous lowering of the bar of what’s considered creative talent.

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) — The Low Highway (New West) — For this most recent outing, not only does Steve Earle serve up a dozen solid songs, but shows stylistic versatility in the process. Aided by wife Allison Moorer, Earle continues to be one of music’s more talented yet underappreciated artists as he continues to make the kind of country music that Nashville seems unwilling or unable to handle.

John Fogerty — Wrote A Song For Everyone (Vanguard) — Normally the idea of pairing a musical elder statesman with an array of younger bucks reeks of pure marketing minus the thought of whether it’ll actually sound like some numbers cruncher was the impetus behind it (I’m looking at you, Carlos Santana). But in this case, John Fogerty, whose creative integrity is as solid as the avalanche of work he’s created with Creedence Clearwater Revival and as a solo artist, released this project on his 68th birthday that is the perfect pairing of artists with the right songs. With it is the idea that it’s okay to go a little deeper into the CCR catalog while showing there’s still plenty of creative kick left in this musical mule.

Otis Taylor — My World Is Gone (Telarc) — With a cover shot that could have come from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s seminal 1970 book of Native American history, Otis Taylor’s 13th studio album, not surprisingly, embraces some of the same topics. Aided and inspired by friend and Indigenous frontman Mato Nanji, Taylor applies his unorthodox style of trance blues to helping the genre evolve beyond hidebound approaches that threaten to make it stagnant.

Neko Case — The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight. The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti-) —

Forget the very Fiona Apple-ish album title and instead embrace this mix of vulnerability and brio that the native Canadian proudly wears. With powerful vocals that fall somewhere between Patsy Cline’s twang and Chrissie Hynde’s sass, Case is equally parts convincing and beguiling whether she’s snarling “I’m a man/That’s what you raised me to be” on “Man,” grappling with the passing of loved ones or declaring her self-worth and never giving an inch to the doubters in her life.

The James Hunter Six — Minute By Minute (Fantasy) — Returning from a five-year hiatus that saw the 2011 death of his wife Jacqueline from cancer, Hunter has somehow rebounded to arguably make the best album of his nearly three-decade career. In teaming up with Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth, the former Van Morrison sideman has found a producer/engineer who complements an overall sound that that encompasses the relaxed suaveness of Sam Cooke and excited yelp of James Brown.

Tedeschi Trucks Band — Made Up Mind (Sony Masterworks) — Eleven members strong, the united bands of Susan Tedeschi and hubby Derek Trucks are reminiscent of traveling caravans of yore like Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen. With its second studio outing in three years, TTB has nailed down a vintage rhythm and blues sound, (heavy on the blues), that still manages to sound contemporary. All the more impressive is that it’s done with nary a cover song to speak of. Made Up Mind winds up being the exception to the rule of less being more.

Billy Joe + Norah — Foreverly (Reprise) — Put this one in the same strange bedfellows category occupied by Robert Plant and Allison Kraus a few years ago. Inspired by the 1958 Everly Brothers outing Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, Foreverly was the result of Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong and jazzmopolitan chanteuse Norah Jones meeting in the studio for a pair of recording sessions. The results are a charmingly simplistic rendering of country-folk gems where both artists strike a perfect balance of harmony and musicality that wonderfully honors the legacy of Don and the recently-deceased Phil Everly.

Mavis Staples — One True Vine (Anti-) — The legendary gospel vocalist returns to the well once more with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy producing and comes away with 10 more songs of rich soul. Between Staples’ rich phrasing and Tweedy’s analog touch, One True Vine manages to produce quite the joyful noise whether it’s uplifting originals or unlikely covers of indie rockers Low, Funkadelic or Nick Lowe.

Jason Isbell — Southeastern (Southeastern Records) — Originally slated to be produced by Ryan Adams, Isbell’s fourth studio album is his first post-rehab project. Turns out Adams wasn’t needed as the detail with which the ex-Drive By Trucker creates these songs about touchy topics like cancer and sexual abuse gibe well with quasi-acoustic arrangements that make this Isbell’s best solo outing to date.

Elton John — The Diving Board (Capitol) — A stylistic return home, Reg Dwight’s 2013 offering reunites him with T-Bone Burnett, who produced the 2010 Elton John/Leon Russell project Union and longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin. The sparse arrangements and Taupin’s American-inspired lyrics put John on a musical time machine that takes all of us back to the time of Tumbleweed Connection thanks to the flashes of honky-tonk piano and the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s singing sounding reinvigorated and reinspired. It’s a most welcome return.