The Best Albums of 2013 Part 1 – #10-8

It’s top ten time again. Counting down the records first, then some other bits of writing to round out the year to come.

10. Jason Isbell – Southeastern

My bible in the late 90s was No Depression magazine, whose tagline was ‘Alternative Country Music – Whatever That Is’. Well, it sounds like this album. There is something very late 90s about this album. When that music was only ever going to appeal to a few thousand people worldwide, and a lot of young men discovered the power of being simplistic.

Isbell’s been around the traps for many years now (solo, and as a Drive By Trucker), but he’s cleaned himself up, in sound and in life. There’s a purity here that has been missing in his music. This is not the music to play over a crowd of drunks. It’s direct, occasionally devastating, down-to-earth romantic and doesn’t fuck around.

Highlights abound. ‘Traveling Alone‘ is probably his most pop song, but paints a vividly evocative lyric on top. ‘Elephant‘ is rightly praised for it’s amazing subject matter. But the quieter moments and album tracks, like ‘Relatively Easy‘ and ‘Different Days‘, are showing a new maturity.

I gave up on Isbell after the album he did with the 400 Unit. I figured I left him to a life of hard drinking on the road, and he wuld continue to write about less and less. But he got off that path and now I’m back on board too.

9. Manic Street Preachers – Rewind the Film

Still angry, still vital, but something has changed in the Manic Street Preachers this year. The loud electric guitars were put away, and something more reflective was given to us. 2010’s Postcards From A Young Man, from the title down, was trying to recapture that youthful energy (and volume) of their early records. Rewind the Film sounds like men their age, still trying to find relevance and fire.

The album opens with perhaps the quietest song in their 20 year career. ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart‘ is a humble hymn, but an ode to never being happy. Is it depression – or how we’re made? And then we find ourselves in 70s Elvis period for ‘Show Me the Wonder‘, probably the most optimistic song they’ve ever written (and the first single ever not to feature an electric guitar).

The album moves into all directions from there – and some work better than others. ‘As Holy As The Soil’ is as touching a love song as they’ve ever written. However, the six-and-a-half-minute, Richard Hawley sung title track meanders and gets lost in it’s own pompousness. But there are so many pretty moments on this record. Yes, Manic Street Preachers, the pretty band.

This album is Poscards To Middle Aged Men. We’re not sure what punk bands are supposed to do, two decades in. Many don’t survive that long. Perhaps, making quietly triumphant records is the new path. It certainly works for our number 8 entry.

8. Billy Bragg – Tooth & Nail

I’m not a young man anymore, and that has been reflected in my music choices this year. How to age gracefully, and find my age. Bragg is the same. An early 80s punk rocker that is still going, how do you not turn bitter (Elvis Costello), obscure (Wreckless Eric) or dead. He’s opened his heart even further, possibly more than he has since his mid 80s, for his sweetest collection of songs.

It’s really the lyrics that hit home. Musically, he’s the same one guy with a strong accent, but he’s got a new wit about him. How’s this for an opening verse for the entire album.

I’m so tightly wound in tension
Feel just like a guitar string
Wait until revealed emotions
Touch me and you’ll hear me sing.

Bragg has been using the internet to get out his topical songs as soon as possible. Which means it has been 5 years since his last album, and the songs he had left the rebellion behind. While it doesn’t rock out or get too carried away, he is busy laying out a consistent humanity. ‘Do Unto Others‘ and ‘No One Knows Nothing Anymore‘ addresses today’s issues from the heart, not the head.

Handyman Blues is a great summary of the album. Funny, sweet and from the heart. And one of the better film clips of the year.

Parts 7-1 coming very soon.

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