2013 has been a very diverse year for country music.
This year saw major new releases from some of the biggest names in country music, but it was far from old hat. Big-name acts like Keith Urban, Brad Paisley and Luke Bryan released new albums that put the focus squarely on moving forward, employing new production elements for a fresh new approach.
Newcomer Kacey Musgraves was the talk of Nashville in 2013 with her major label debut album, which bowed at the top of the charts the week it was released. She was part of a vanguard of strong female artists who helped set the musical bar higher this year than in recent memory, dominating the country scene artistically, if not commercially.
Our list of the best albums of 2013 takes in mainstream country releases, as well as some less commercial works.
Joe Nichols bounced back from a dry spell, both commercially and creatively, with his eighth studio album, 'Crickets.' Released via a new deal with Red Bow Records, the album seemed to re-invigorate Nichols. The first single, 'Sunny and 75,' drew the biggest response he's seen from country radio in years, while critics hailed the new project as a return to form for the 'Brokenheartsville' singer.
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
'Old Yellow Moon'
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell delivered on their longstanding promise to record an entire album of duets together with 'Old Yellow Moon.' The project consisted primarily of new duet recordings of previously recorded material, written both by Crowell, and other writers including Kris Kristofferson. One of the most acclaimed albums of the year, 'Old Yellow Moon' took home Album of the Year honors at the Americana Music Honors and Awards.
'Feels Like Home'
Sheryl Crow became the latest pop-rock artist to cross over into country with her debut country album, 'Feels Like Home.' But unlike her contemporaries who have attempted the feat, Crow sounds at home in the genre. Writing with some of Nashville's top writers helped her turn out songs like 'Waterproof Mascara' and 'Callin' Me When I'm Lonely,' while she invited guests like Vince Gill, Ashley Monroe and Zac Brown to help her out on certain tracks. The result was an album that was well-received by fans and critics alike.
'You Can't Make Old Friends'
Kenny Rogers had an enormous year in 2013. In addition to being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and receving a lifetime achievement award at the CMAs, he scored the 22nd Top 10 country album of his career with 'You Can't Make Old Friends.' The project reunited him with Dolly Parton for the title track, which was also the first single. Drawing from a pool of some of the best songwriters in the world, Rogers put together a diverse album that critics hailed as one of the better efforts of his entire long and stellar career.
Patty Griffin fans waited a long time for 'Silver Bell.' Originally recorded 13 years ago and intended as the follow-up to 'Flaming Red,' the album did not emerge at the time, and finally saw commercial release in 2013. Fans and critics thought it was worth the wait; along with Griffin's original versions of ‘Top of the World’ and ‘Truth #2,’ which the Dixie Chicks included on their 2002 album 'Home,' the other tracks on the album were perfectly-drawn songs in the inimitable Patty Griffin style.
'Like a Rose'
Ashley Monroe released one of the most classic country albums of 2013 with 'Like a Rose.' The Vince Gill-produced project featured the Pistol Anniesmember in straight, traditional arrangements of her original songs, which touched on a variety of daring topics like a modern-day Loretta Lynn. Standout tracks include 'Two Weeks Late,' 'You Got Me' and what is one of the most interesting single choices in recent country memory, 'Weed Instead of Roses.' Monroe's deceptively simple, down-home approach resulted in one of the best-reviewed albums of the year.
Brad Paisley threw one of the surprising curve balls of the year with 'Wheelhouse.' Taking the production reigns himself, the singer-songwriter and guitarist offered up an album that drew heavily from his clever, humorous approach to past albums, but also offered fans new challenges, especially lyrically. His collaboration with LL Cool J, 'Accidental Racist,' stirred up quite a bit of controversy and dialogue, while other tracks like 'Those Crazy Christians' also offered up a dose of observation along with Paisley's trademark humor. 'Wheelhouse' became Paisley's seventh No. 1 album.
'Crash My Party'
Luke Bryan completed the climb to superstar status with the release of 'Crash My Party.' The singer's fourth studio album opened at No. 1 across all genres, and was quickly certified Platinum on the strength of its title song and advance single. Another No. 1 hit followed with the pop-inflected 'That's My Kind of Night,' while the album's third single, 'Drink a Beer,' may very well be an early contender for Song of the Year in 2014. 'Crash My Party' brings together Bryan's party anthems and more serious fare in one seamless whole.
'Same Trailer Different Park'
After years of kicking around the music scene independently, Kacey Musgraves rocketed to overnight stardom with the release of her major label debut. The album opened at No. 1 in the country charts on the strength of its advance single, 'Merry Go 'Round,' while the follow-up, 'Blowin' Smoke,' served up anther slice of Musgraves' small-town cynicism and observational wit. One of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year, the record's third single, 'Follow Your Arrow,' is one of the most daringly refreshing songs to challenge country radio in the past decade, if not ever.
Keith Urban took a bold new step forward with the release of his eighth studio album. The appropriately-titled 'Fuse' brought together a wide range of his influences in a new sonic palette. Working with multiple producers on different tracks, Urban created a masterpiece of modern country that somehow feels at home in the genre, even while it showcases his many strengths in other areas. The album, which features duets with Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, reached No. 1 on the country charts, and opened a new chapter on Urban's already flourishing career.