2013 was a great year for Americana music. From legendary performers like Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell to an ever strengthening youth movement featuring the likes of Sarah Jarosz and Joy Kills Sorrow, there was something for everyone. Narrowing the impressive list of Americana releases down to 20 was a tough task. But in the end, these albums spent more time in our rotation than any others.
You can find the first 15 albums in our Top 20 Americana Albums of 2013 here, here, and here. Today, we'll finish off the list with our choices for the 5 best Americana albums of 2013. While there was not a lot of separation between these and the 6-10 positions, these 5 albums had just a little bit extra to push them to the top.
5. Richard Thompson- Electric
When Richard Thompson was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2012 Americana Music Awards, the honor wasn't the only great thing that happened. Thompson also had a chance to chat with producer and guitar man Buddy Miller, which led to Thompson going into Miller's home studio to record "Electric." Known in recent years for his work with the acoustic guitar, Thompson and Miller crafted a strong reminder that Richard Thompson is a master of the electric guitar as well. Miller has been quoted as calling the recording session "a week long guitar lesson", which coming from a guitar god like Miller, is all the accolades this album needs.
4. Over the Rhine- Meet Me at the Edge of the World
After releasing the smoky jazz-infused "The Long Surrender" to critical acclaim in 2011, the husband and wife duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist could have been forgiven for going back to the well for more of the same. Instead, the pair discovered that Dorothy was correct in that there's no place like home. Their Nowhere Farm in Ohio is the primary inspiration for this double album and every song depicts a different aspect of their home. From the scenic beauty in "Favorite Time of Light" and "Blue Jean Sky" to finding new things to love in an old romance in songs like "Ohio" and "Earthbound Love." Over the Rhine's skill has always been turning the mundane into the extraordinary through their lyrics and those skills are exactly why this album is one of the year's best.
3. Della Mae- This World Oft Can Be
When I started putting this list together a month ago, "This World Oft Can Be" was sitting in the #9 position. In giving everything multiple listens, it slowly crept its way up and up until it landed in the #3 position, simply because I noticed when I just wanted something to listen to for fun, more often than not Della Mae was where I turned. "This World Oft Can Be" is a stellar debut from the 5 ladies, identifiably bluegrass, but with a youthful vitality sometimes missing from the genre. Della Mae has been getting some attention from major outlets like CMT Edge this year and that should continue into 2014. They have the combination of accessible songs, video ready looks, and musical virtuosity that has superstar written all over it.
2. Sarah Jarosz- Build Me Up from Bones
Three albums into her career, it's hard to believe that Sarah Jarosz is only 22 years old. The songs on "Build Me Up From Bones" have a worldliness not possessed by many her age. The one knock on Jarosz by some in the past was her reliance on co-writers and guests for many songs on "Song Up in Her Head" and "Follow Me Down." Whether a direct answer to those critics or just an artist feeling more comfortable in her own skin, Jarosz wrote and recorded the majority of "Build Me Up from Bones" with her road band of Nathaniel Smith and Alex Hargreaves. The result is her most composed and adult album, with songs that translate very well to her live show. If this is Sarah Jarosz being built up from bones, Americana fans have a lot to look forward to in this young lady's long career to come.
1. Jason Isbell- Southeastern
No surprise here. Isbell has been racking up year end awards from just about every major publication for his searing "Southeastern" and for good reason. If the album contained nothing but "Elephant", "Yvette", and "Live Oak" it would still be the year's best Americana album. Fortunately, everything else on "Southeastern" is also superb. Isbell's strength as a storyteller is in slice of life narratives that don't always finish the story. On its surface, "Elephant" is about a friend dying of cancer. But Isbell chooses to never let her die in the song, turning the focus to the relationship of a pair of alcoholics determined to wring as much life out of whatever days she has left. In "Yvette", the protagonist never pulls the trigger, making the song not a murder song or prison song but a psychological study of how someone comes to that state. Those little touches makes "Southeastern" not just the best album of 2013 but one of the best albums of the last decade.