Redemptive songs from the South, a British folk vet making electric noise in Nashville and the chilled spiritual bliss of a longstanding gospel troupe — and sounds that stretch from Louisville to Mali — make up the best new recordings to surface in 2013.
As has been the case in past years, this critic's pick list of the Top 10 contemporary music albums of the year is presented without rankings. Although there were enough also-rans to fill another list (with Elvis Costello and The Roots, Mike Keneally, Linda Thompson, Bill Frisell, Nick Lowe and Randall Bramblett leading the charge), these 10 picks come as equals. Each is as rewarding and recommended as the other.
Here, then, is the best of what 2013 gave us.
WALTER TUNIS' TOP 10
Jason Isbell, Southeastern: Former Drive-By Trucker Isbell, one of today's finest new-generation Southern songwriters, offers an album of personal redemption. Largely acoustic, it celebrates his new marriage and sobriety. But the confessional fare is given greater weight when contrasted next to nasty electric recollections like Super 8 that tell us just how out of control his demons became.
Richard Thompson, Electric: British folk-rock songwriter and guitarist Thompson teams with his Americana equal, Buddy Miller, to create possibly the most ruggedly English-sounding album ever to emerge out of Nashville. While the title speaks to Thompson's incendiary guitar work, the record's final songs, The Snow Goose and Saving the Good Stuff for You, are acoustic reminders of his outstanding compositional prowess.
Aoife O'Donovan, Fossils: Given her work over the years with the bluegrass unit Crooked Still and recent collaborations with The Goat Rodeo Sessions, Noam Pikelny and even Garrison Keillor, O'Donovan is no rookie. But Fossils is her splendid solo debut, a record that allows the whispery mystery of her singing to address songs of wistful folk authority and Band-like jubilation.
Blind Boys of Alabama, I'll Find A Way: More than a decade has passed since the Blind Boys became a Grammy-winning, genre-busting voice of gospel music. After recent efforts that flirted with country and New Orleans R&B, the Blind Boys decelerated with the help of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon for a record of wintry cool. Still, when the group kicks into Jubilee with Patty Griffin, it sounds as soulfully rambunctious as ever.
David Bowie, The Next Day: Just when we thought he had vanished, Bowie surfaces with a record that bridges the lyrical chill of such late '70s classics as Heroes and the rockfish accessibility of comparatively recent triumphs like Heathens. Mostly, though, The Next Day represents the elder Bowie without the props. It relies instead on rock-solid tunes that make this pop icon sound consistently vital.
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight; The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You: Everything you've loved before about Case is still here — the clear but otherworldly vocal wail, the Americana Twilight Zone production touches and the world-class support from longtime pals Kelly Hogan and Jon Rauhouse. But the songs — all tales of solace, confidence and candor — steal this exquisite show.
Vieux Farka Touré, Mon Pays: Instead of a postcard from home, Malian guitarist Touré fashions Mon Pays (My Country) as a letter of remembrance to his war-torn West African homeland. Nothing here is sung in English. But the sentiments within this decidedly nonprotest album play out in balletlike runs of guitar and, on two sublime duets, kora, that bloom into songs of contemplative splendor.
Henry Fool, Men Singing: Despite the title offered by the Henry Fool collective of keyboardist Stephen Bennett and guitarist Tim Bowness, Men Singing is a refreshing instrumental affair that runs from the bright ethnic fusion of mid-'70s Weather Report to more proggish guitar designs created by guest guitarist Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music. The resulting music is as exquisitely listenable as it is beautifully unfashionable.
Steven Wilson, The Raven That Refused to Sing: Maybe he has grown tired of his proggish metal turns as frontman for Porcupine Tree. Or it could be his immersion in vintage prog by remastering classic albums in recent years by King Crimson and Jethro Tull. Either way, Wilson has designed a prog adventure of rich, organic beauty that sounds fanciful and refreshingly human.
Jim James, Regions of Light and Sound of God: For his solo album debut, Louisvillian James, leader of My Morning Jacket, gets spiritual. At times, this pop-soul clearinghouse of a record sounds like an ambient version of Van Morrison. In other instances, it blends The Beach Boys and Radiohead. And then there are the tunes in which James' wispy falsetto approximates Marvin Gaye. The result is a sound retro and futuristic.