The answer is simple: Because we can.
Among our lot are a former rock critic, a former musician and a couple of hardcore music fans. We are, for better or worse, those annoying music geeks who live for lists.
Back in the day, when it came to such lists, magazines ruled the universe. Your opinion about music didn’t matter unless the exalted Robert Christgau issued you an invitation to vote in The Village Voice’s annual “Pazz & Jop" critics’ poll. In other words, if you weren’t hooked up with an organization that could afford ink by the barrel, your voice wasn’t likely to be heard.
But today, who needs ink? Anybody can buy bytes by the barrel. So we’re doing our own list.
And besides, near as we can tell, no other publication attempts to rank the best Southern albums of the year. So here, ladies and gentlemen, is the One True Ranking of the 13 Best Southern Albums of the Year Because We Couldn’t Settle on 10, put together especially for you by The Bitter Southerner, whether you wanted us to or not.
(Vigorous or even rancorous debate is welcome on our Facebook page. After all, that’s what these lists are for.)
Down Fell the Doves
Lightning Rod Records / Aug. 6, 2013
It would be entirely too easy to dismiss Amanda Shires’ album as something that got attention only because of her February marriage to Jason Isbell. That would be a mistake. Shires, who grew up in North Texas, has a weird streak that serves her music beautifully. She’s sort of a pixie-ish, fiddle-playing Tom Waits. “Tiger Bill gave me a tiger’s claw, from a real Siberian tiger’s paw/He said, ‘This’ll make you bulletproof.’” Shires is our kind of weird, and she has the added bonus of fiddle bona fides that cannot be challenged: At age 15, she began playing in a latter-day version of the Texas Playboys.
You Belong Here
Bufalotone Records / Jan. 29, 2013
There is a musical scene emerging in Nashville that has nothing to do with the country music machine that feeds America’s Top 40 airwaves. One of the bands leading that scene is the rock trio Leagues. The songs on their debut “You Belong Here” are finely tuned gems that are stuck in your head before you’ve even finished listening.
I Hate Music
Merge Records / Aug. 19, 2013
When it comes to defining the sounds that came out of college radio stations in the ’90’s, few bands could top the ’Chunk from Chapel Hill. Their 10th album, “I Hate Music,” embodies all that is and was great about that era in the South. In a year that had many ’90’s icons releasing some pretty solid albums (such as Britain’s My Bloody Valentine’s “MBV”), we were really glad to have another release from the Chapel Hill crew — particularly when it was named after the Replacements’ immortal 1981 punk manifesto, which declared, “I hate music/It’s got too many notes.” Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan, now 46, translates the original sentiment into more mature terms: “I hate music/What is it worth?/It can’t bring anyone back to this earth.”
Keeping a Record of It
Dust-to-Digital / Sept. 3, 2013
The Alabama folk artist may now call Atlanta home, but “Keeping a Record of It” quickly makes clear that Lonnie Holley exists in more dimensions than you and I. While not exactly a casual listen, “Keeping a Record of It” is more of an exploratory journey through time and space — touching on matters of the rural South, religion and nature — all with Lonnie at the helm of his self-designed spaceship. Atlanta rock royalty Bradford Cox (Deerhunter, Atlas Sound) and Cole Alexander (Black Lips) lend their atmospheric talents to several of the tracks, including the final title track.
Taylor Gang Records, Kemosabe Records, Columbia Records / Aug. 27, 2013
The tradition of (strip)club music runs deep in the veins of Southern hip-hop. There are few groups who more successfully took that pure sound and raw energy to the mainstream than Memphis’ Three 6 Mafia. (Remember "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp"?) Founding member Juicy J has again defined the sound that has the South’s clubs bumpin’ with his latest solo release, “Stay Trippy.” One could certainly take issue with much of the subject matter on “Stay Trippy,” but the fact is that the sizzurpy syncopations of tracks like “Bounce It” and “The Woods” (which features Juicy’s fellow Memphis boy Justin Timberlake) keep our heads nodding and our shoulders bouncin’.
Same Trailer Different Park
Mercury / March 19, 2013
You could argue that this record, released to great fanfare by the major label Mercury, is just another overly commercial Nashvegas product. It did, after all, make it to No. 1 on the U.S. country charts. But this one must have scared the hell out of the Nashville record-biz suits. Musgraves, a 25-year-old from East Texas, made an album that tells the life stories of Regular Jane Southern girls with nothing held back. Her music embodies how the South is changing, even in the places most resistant to change. Consider “Follow Your Arrow,” which Musgraves begins by explaining one of the South’s ridiculous dualities: “If you save yourself for marriage, you’re a bore/If you don’t save yourself for marriage, you’re a horrible person.” Then the chorus comes: “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t, so you might as well do just whatever you want, so make lots of noise, kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.” We’ve always loved “Stand by Your Man,” but it’s pretty clear that Kacey Musgraves is a better role model for Southern girls than Tammy Wynette, God rest her soul.
Sub Pop / Aug. 7, 2013
We’d be completely happy to move right into the blissful daydream that is the latest release from Athens’ Washed Out. It’s a total escape. Though you’ll hear no twangy guitars or Southern drawls on “Paracosm” (or any Washed Out album, for that matter), Ernest Greene and company paint a landscape that leaves us nostalgic for the hazy sunny summer afternoons of our own Georgia childhood. This record makes you want to lie down in the grass and do absolutely nothing.
Georgiana Records / Feb. 5, 2013
To hell with Hank Jr. and Hank 3. The best songwriter in Old Hank’s bloodline is his granddaughter Holly. Every song on “The Highway” is strong, but the pièce de résistance here is an almost seven-minute epic called “Waiting on June,” written for Williams’ maternal grandparents, Warren and June White of Mer Rouge, La. The song traces their relationship from playing in the cotton fields at age 10 to … well … eternity. The first time I heard it, I started crying so hard I almost wrecked the car. I’ve listened to it dozens of times since then, and I still can’t do it with dry eyes. Rarely has a song of perfect love been written so perfectly. Hands down, song of the year — and it’s right up there with some of her granddaddy’s greatest.
Slate Creek / Oct. 22, 2013
“We pray to Jesus and we play the lotto, ’cause there ain’t but two ways we can change tomorrow.” Nineteen words. Could you write a better summation of the state of far too many rural Southerners in the 21st century in 19 words? We damn sure couldn’t. But Brandy Clark can — and on the first line of her first album. A Nashville songwriter, Clark has already written big hits for the likes of Miranda Lambert and The Band Perry, but her first solo album is an absolute jewel. And she’s leading a vanguard of female Nashville tunesmiths who write with a modern, striking honesty — particularly when it comes to how little shit they’re willing to take from doltish men. In that vein, her “Stripes” is a masterpiece. The narrator comes home to find her man in bed with “nothing on but a goofy little grin and a platinum blonde,” and then tells him: “I hate stripes, and orange ain’t my color. And if I squeeze that trigger tonight, I’ll be wearin’ one or the other. There’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion, and the only thing savin’ your life ... is that I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes.” Used to be, only Porter Wagoner could serve up the cold, hard facts of life with such panache. Well, it’s a new century, and the tables have turned. Do not mess with Brandy Clark.
Relativity Records / June 11, 2013
In the four or so years since he left Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell got sober and became a more reserved married man. “Southeastern” documents his transformation in dozens of beautiful ways. John Hiatt’s landmark “Bring the Family,” which, like Isbell, he recorded after giving up the hard stuff in his 30s, is the only worthy comparison we can think of. Hiatt sang of adapting to family life: “And your missus wears her robe slightly undone, as your daughter dumps her oatmeal on your son.” But Isbell is feistier: “Girl, leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room, till someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom.” The little girls (and the not-so-little girls) are swooning.
Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels
Fool's Gold Records / June 26, 2013
If you’re interested in what happens when you mix Brooklyn and the South, you’re gonna need to listen to “Run the Jewels” from Atlanta’s Killer Mike and Brooklyn’s El-P. In a way, this record is for hip-hop purists, because it is built around the genre’s most consistent subject matter: braggadocio. A hip-hop artist bragging is like a Nashville guy writing a song about a woman leaving him. If the average writer tries it, it’s crap. But in the deftest of hands, it can be genius. This one lands on genius throughout. As Killer Mike lays it down, “I move with the elegance of an African elephant. I presented the evidence with the elegance of the president.” Yup.
Pushin' Against A Stone
Sunday Best / May 6, 2013
Valerie June seems to have absorbed almost every strain of Southern music — hillbilly, the blues, jazz, soul, gospel, all of it. How all of these cultural lines seem to merge in her music — sometimes strangely, but always effortlessly — is a wonder. You’ve never heard another record exactly like this one, but you can find traces of every record you ever loved inside it. One minute, you feel like you’re listening to Nina Simone, the next you feel like you’re listening to Ralph Stanley. But you’re listening to a 31-year-old woman from Memphis. This is a truly remarkable debut.
Dead Oceans / March 19, 2013
Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck, an Alabama native, now calls Brooklyn home. Still, “Muchacho” is very Southern music. And Houck brings his Southern reference points into a largely electronic musical context, in a way we’ve heard no other musician achieve. Imagine this: a bed of tranquil electronic beats, 4 a.m. stuff, then in comes a tentative voice, “I say love is a burning thing, and it makes a fiery ring.” Of course, Houck copped the line from June Carter and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” now 50 years old, but he turns it inside out. Cash sang it like he was mad as hell. Houck sings it like he’s beat up and scared. Throughout “Muchacho,” Houck somehow takes the most soulful strains of electronic music and pairs them with deep-ass country references. In the first verse of “Song for Zula” alone, he quotes both Johns — Cash and Prine — indirectly but effectively and effortlessly. “Muchacho” is a warped, modern take on Southern music that will stand for years as an important record.