Terry Allen, Bottom of the World You can yack on all day about Kevin Fowler, Josh Abbott or some other artless, vacant, party-popular, Texas good-ole-boy bands, but the old salts know that Terry Allen's music is that real Texas deal. On his first new material in 14 years, Allen touches all the bases with wit, depth, verve, and insight. Allen's songs quietly punch like a heavyweight. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
The Bottle Rockets, The Bottle Rockets/The Brooklyn Side A band from the outskirts of St. Louis, the Bottle Rockets were peripherally connected to Uncle Tupelo and almost as influential. Finally freed from label limbo by Bloodshot's lawyers this year, these two albums from the early '90s are about as good as alt-country ever got -- even though it's just an acutely rural brand of rock and roll. Here passions run hot as small-town economies grow cold (or are swallowed by suburbia), and the Bottle Rockets capture it all in pointillistic detail.
Both albums also feature some of the greatest songs ever written about motor vehicles ("Wave That Flag," "$1,000 Car," "Gas Girl," "Indianapolis") that are really about so much more. Thank God the Bottle Rockets are still with us, and their message then rings just as true today: kerosene works, why not gasoline? CHRIS GRAY
Grant Hart, The Argument It's unfortunate that over the years Bob Mould's erstwhile songwriting partner Grant Hart has not received quite the acclaim he deserves for how much he contributed to their band Husker Du. Nevertheless, Hart has continued to record and create veritable masterpieces since Husker's end, and released another little-heard one this year.
His epic retelling of Paradise Lost, The Argument contains all the familiar set-pieces and tropes of Hart's songwriting, but that's what makes it so enjoyably familiar. Even when he branches out on the record, it's unmistakably Hart. While The Argument can be trying at times as it works its way through Milton's story, Hart manages to produce hit after hit on a record that will please both casual indie-rock enthusiasts and Husker Du diehards alike.COREY DEITERMAN
Jason Isbell, Southeastern Probably the most hailed album in the roots scene this year, Southeastern finds the ex-Drive-By Trucker sobered up with a pen that's sharper than it's ever been. There isn't a weak moment on the album, among highlights like the rocker "Super 8 Motel" ("I don't wanna die in a Super 8 motel") to the stunning "Flying Over Water," one of the most lethal knife-in-the-heart lyrics anywhere in 2013. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Unvarnished Joan Jett is 55 and can still kick your ass. On her first album since 2006's Sinner, the erstwhile Runaway scratches that seven-year itch by surveying her life in leather. Getting old sucks, she admits on "Hard to Grow Up," but Jett has been refining her cocky and frank brand of glam so long its chugging power chords are stitched into her DNA. And whether she's railing against "TMI" or celeb culture on "Reality Mentality," Jett's seen-it-all tone never loses its sympathy for the underdog ("Different") or its weakness for badass rock and roll. CHRIS GRAY
Le Castle Vania, Prophication Although it's only four tracks long, each track on Prophication will find a home on your Halloween playlists next year. The title track is a nice bit of atmosphere that is more horror TV show intro that dance floor destroyer. "Disintegration" features some lovely, haunting vocals before the noise comes in, and "Incarnation" deserves its shot as the chase music in a horror movie.
The star track, though, is "Raise the Dead," featuring Cory Brandan of Norma Jean. Meeting right in the middle of electro-house and metalcore, the track takes the best of both styles and results in one of the biggest "I can't wait to sing this out loud" hooks of the year. I wouldn't mind a whole album of tracks in the same style to be honest. CORY GARCIA
List continues on the next page.
Linus Pauling Quartet, Assault on the Vault of the Ancient Bonglords All year, I was kicking myself for not digging into this. For God's sake, it's a 3-disc anthology of the local stoner savants' last two decades, and it comes with a titular tabletop "Demons and Druids" RPG module and a 20-sided die. It's basically the most Linus Pauling Quartet thing ever conceived.
I saw the highly amusing music video for the game's theme song months ago on Vimeo, resolved to get my hands on the album as soon as possible, and then never did. In a year bursting with nearly limitless access to good music, it slipped past me, I guess. I'm still totally planning to pick it up, along with their newish EP, Find What You Love and Let it Kill You. But it kills me thinking about how insanely leveled-up my D&D character should've already been by now. NATHAN SMITH
Nosaj Thing, Home Nosaj Thing has produced tracks for Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, but don't go thinking Home is a beat tape. This is reflection music. This is grab a bottle of wine and a paintbrush music. This is drive-in-the-sleet music.
From the bell-synths that punctuate "Home" to the last stuttery drum noises of "Light 3," Home is a solid collection of chill tracks that veer from relaxing to menacing, but never dull. Throw on "Snap", let the groove grab you, and enjoy the journey, no matter where Nosaj takes you. CORY GARCIA
Shinyribs, Gulf Coast Museum The sophomore release from Kevin Russell's ensemble frolics and rollicks across what seems like an entirely new musical landscape. Russell's muse touches everything from ragtime to gospel to jazz and lays a feel-good patina over all of it.
Standouts include "Sweeter Than the Scars" ("Sometimes it takes a suture to make a feelin' last"); "Song of Lime Juice and Despair," which sounds like the soundtrack to a Bonnie and Clyde movie; and the sweetest love song ever, "Somebody Else," as in "I wish you'd told somebody else that you were in love with them." WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
J. Roddy Walston & the Business, Essential Tremors Allow me to go on record as saying I enjoyed Kings of Leon's much-maligned Mechanical Bull misstep, but Essential Tremors blows that out of the water. A garage-rocker to the marrow, Baltimore's Walston tosses in Dylan, Zeppelin, the Beatles, T. Rex, Cobain and a few others in a big ol' blender, then leaves the lid off and lets the results splatter all over the room. Hopefully the source of "giving 'em the business" puns for years to come, Essential Tremors is a blast. CHRIS GRAY
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!