This year in music was all about playing favorites.
Oh, occasionally a few artists who were a delightful pleasure to hear for the first time managed to move in among the familiar faces. But, for the most part, this top 13 of '13 list includes players I either reviewed and/or interviewed during the past year for The Huffington Post and No Depression.
So, in the case of full disclosure, there's a built-in bias already for many of the musicians who appear here. Along with that, though, comes a firm belief in their ability to deliver. The records this Dream 13 created simply produced the most spine-tingling moments through repeated plays by a seasoned listener leading up to the holiday season.
Having said that, here's one extremely personalized presentation of the best 13 of '13, in descending order:
13. Holly Williams, The Highway: Unlike Hank Williams, her legendary grandfather who died 28 years before she was born, the open road is not lost on this Nashville singer-songwriter who keeps getting better with age. The record produced by Charlie Peacock (Civil Wars, The Lone Bellow) is the first on Holly's own label (Georgiana Records) and includes guest appearances by Jakob Dylan, Dierks Bentley, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jackson Browne. But it was the last-minute addition of the spirited title track in her own rapturous voice that proved to be its driving force. "Hey, get me out there on the highway," indeed.
12. The Head and the Heart, Let's Be Still: Wowed by this Seattle-based six-piece outfit's live performance two years ago at the Gothic Theatre in Denver, I wondered if the group fronted by Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell could beat the sophomore jinx with this follow-up to their self-titled debut. Mission accomplished. Making this set of 13 songs took them from Seattle to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where they mixed the album. But it comes together as perfectly natural as the opening notes from the piano and violin that kick off "Homecoming Heroes," the lovely first track.
11. Whitehorse, The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss: In a way, this was the year of the couple, too, at least on the interview front. The New Year began with the first of several chats involving duos, including the gifted husband-and-wife team of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, former solo acts whose splendid album came out in their Canadian homeland a few months earlier. Their daring blend of outlaw country and beautifully blended vocals lets the Bonnie and Clyde of Canadiana roots music cover some dangerous ground, and they skillfully take aim on cuts like "Devil's Got a Gun" and "Peterbilt Coalmine."
10. Carrie Rodriguez, Give Me All You Got: One of my favorite fiddlers from the time she embarked on a solo career, the Austin, Texas native sounded happy to be back home for the holidays a year ago before beginning a very busy 2013 touring behind this joyous album. Comfortably teaming again with manager and producer Lee Townsend, Rodriguez seemed at ease in her personal and professional relationship with guitarist Luke Jacobs (they're set to release a live album) and her reconnection with Chip Taylor. Rodriguez got her first big break from this former mentor, who collaborated on several songs here. Most notable are the passionate "I Cry for Love" and two versions of "Devil in Mind," where Rodriguez fiddles with a fun-loving fervor.
9. The Lone Bellow, self-titled: This Brooklyn-based trio released their debut album (also Peacock-produced) in January, but was on my back burner until November, just ahead of their December 1 appearance at the Bluebird Theater in Denver. Bringing along a heavy supply of alt-rock/country ammunition, Zach Williams, Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin aren't likely to remain anybody's secret weapon any longer. Anthemic kick-starters such as "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold" and "Bleeding Out" should take them to Lady Antebellum heights, if they're setting their sights on that type of a target audience.
8. Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World: I've followed Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist since the days of illegal Napster and Limewire, but their music was so stirring that it didn't take long to purchase most of their vast collection, including the epic double album, Ohio. So getting to hear over the phone a strong and engaging couple, married for 17 years, discuss the making of another exceptional work was double the pleasure, double the fun. Their September 3 release contains 19 songs, many inspired by the "little farm" in Southern Ohio they bought eight years ago. From the title cut opener to the Side 2 finale, "Favorite Time of Light," this hourlong aural journey is as peacefully satisfying as their tranquil existence must be.
7. Ruth Moody, These Wilder Things: Another Canadian songbird whose beautiful voice ranks at the top with longtime personal favorite Sarah McLachlan, the soothing soprano of the incomparable three-part harmonizing Wailin' Jennys sounds as lovely as ever on her second solo record. Her debut, The Garden, topped my 2010 list, so it's difficult to defend a decision to drop this May 7 release a few notches. Though she admitted the album as a whole offers darker themes, it still doesn't get much better than the gorgeousness of "Pockets," Moody's moving exploration of dashed dreams that's marked by the instantly identifiable sound of Mark Knopfler's voice and guitar. Yet there's nothing like everlasting first love, and Moody's solo arrival was the most pleasant of surprises, so it's easy to embrace any music she and her Jenny-mates are willing to make together or apart.
6. The Henry Girls, December Moon: Speaking of the Jennys and pleasant surprises, these three McLaughlin sisters (Karen, Lorna, and Joleen) from County Donegal, Ireland, are capably carrying those breathtaking harmonies as symbolic torches across the pond. Their fourth album over a 10-year career was released in the United Kingdom in 2011 (with No. 5 coming in January), but was a first for me while traveling under the sonar since its November appearance in the U.S. As I recently discovered through Hearth Music, it isn't too late to appreciate this terrific threesome named after their grandfather that extends beyond the immediate family. Trading off a number of instruments (harp, banjo, fiddle, bodhran, etc.) on this album, the Henry Girls write most of their charming material and sing like angels. And their cover of Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives" is just so damn cute.
4. (tie) Jason Isbell, Southeastern, and Amanda Shires, Down Fell the Doves: OK, creating this deadlock admittedly is a ploy that's impossible to resist. The former Drive-By Trucker and the fiddling phenom he married in February simply belong together. Making albums that served as perfect bookends for a swinging summer that kicked off with their blissfully bright performance within steps of each other at the Hangout Fest, the recent newlyweds are this year's All-Americana couple. The fact that they both recently dealt with career-threatening obstacles and, in separate interviews, were openly willing to discuss those problems with an eloquent depth that's similarly found in their lyrics, makes these albums more intriguing with each listen. May they remain "Bulletproof" and never again get stuck "Traveling Alone."
3. Heather Maloney, self-titled: This New Jersey native now based in Northampton, Massachusetts, self-released two previous albums that basically went unnoticed, but this outstanding Signature Sounds debut essentially established her roots integrity. I wasn't aware of Maloney before receiving this CD out of the blue early last year, an unexpected treat that rivaled getting the Vespers' The Fourth Wall (my No. 1 of 2012) a year earlier. Maloney's vocal versatility on songs such as the Joni Mitchell-like "Flutter" and the jazzy "Fire for You" are indicative of her talent. She further demonstrated her expansive range on stage for a Boulder benefit in September, holding her own among a wide range of artists that included comedian actor Cheech Marin, who auctioned off a couple of personally rolled joints for a good cause. Heading into 2014 as comparisons to Mitchell continue to smolder (check out the "Woodstock" video with Darlingside), expect Maloney's slow-burning career to light up.
2. Low, The Invisible Way: It took awhile to get the Low-down on this under-the-radar band, who were brought to my attention in 2011. First came two exceptional songs from 2005's The Great Destroyer that Band of Joy recorded and covered live ("Monkey" and "Silver Rider" were played nearly back-to-back at the Fillmore in Denver, where Robert Plant gave a shout-out to to this "organism from Duluth"), then during an interview with their friend and fellow Minnesotan Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles. I couldn't believe what I'd been missing from a trio that's made 10 studio albums over a 20-year career, but was thrilled to be knocked out by this stunning collection of 11 songs produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. Alan Sparhawk (guitars), Mimi Parker (drums) and Steve Garrington (bass, keyboards) make beautiful music they describe as "slow, quiet, sometimes melancholy." It's also innovative, expressive and lovely, especially Parker's chill-inducing vocals on "So Blue," "Holy Ghost" and "Just Make It Stop."
1. Vienna Teng, Aims: After two previous articles covering a total of nearly 3,300 words and an engrossing interview with this insightful graduate school graduate, what's left to say about the Californian-born singer-songwriter whose music has grabbed me since making an initial connection during MySpace's infancy? My top selection was revealed last week during a review of this classically trained pianist's December 11 show at the Soiled Dove Underground in Denver. Teng seems to appreciate the media attention Aims has received, though earning critical mass appeal doesn't seem to be her primary goal.
Her Kickstarter campaign proved to be the best vote of confidence from fans that an artist can have, with extended goals allowing the child of Chinese parents a chance for the first time to tour China, the Philippines and Australia in 2014.
"I think the generosity and the magnitude of that is still sinking into me," Teng said in September. "The idea that there's a community of people out there who just like what I do and want me to keep doing it, whatever that is."
Those words almost match the inspiration that took Aims to the top in 2013.
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