Whether you stream tunes on Spotify or do a deep vinyl dive at your local record store (yes, they still exist), the ultimate beauty of music remains the same: discovery. Sure, we all love that Jason Isbell record or anything from perennial favorites the Avett Brothers, but there were plenty of lesser-known gems in 2013. From soul to blues to raggedy country rock, these six albums are worth carving out a little time for.
Dig, if you will, this picture: A Mississippi Delta juke joint plopped down in the middle of the Sahara. Got it? Good. Headlining is Omara “Bombino” Moctar, an electrifying guitarist from Niger who combines sounds native to his Tuareg nomadic people (monochord strings, tambourine) with straight-up greasy blues guitar punctuated by flashes of Jimi Hendrix squeals and Jimmy Page bombast. Produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Nomad is a hypnotic, head-bobbing exploration of the universality of the blues.
Song You Must Hear: The absolutely fierce “Niamey Jam.”
2. Charles Bradley
VICTIM OF LOVE
It’s easy to root for soul man Charles Bradley. He lived on the streets as a teen, nearly died of a reaction to penicillin as an adult, and toiled as a bar singer before recording his 2011 debut, No Time for Dreaming—at age sixty-two. His second effort, Victim of Love, secures Bradley in the soul music pantheon. It’s Bradley at his most vulnerable, laying down lovesick funky jams like “Love Bug Blues” and the searing leave-it-all-on-the-table “Let Love Stand a Chance.” If James Brown is the Godfather of Soul, Bradley is the sensitive uncle.
Song You Must Hear: The horn and vocal wail masterpiece “Where Do We Go from Here.”
FROM THE HILLS BELOW THE CITY
You’d be hard pressed to find a more effortless, well-crafted mix of roots and rock this year than the debut album from this Louisville quartet. Guitarist Matt Myers and keyboardist Katie Toupin trade perfect vocals as they run through blues stompers like “Hey Rose” or the hair-raising harmonies of “Penitentiary,” which would fit nicely on the Band’s classic Music from Big Pink. This isn’t earth-shattering stuff, but it sure makes for good listening.
Song You Must Hear: The shimmering epic “Long as You’re at Home.”
4. Valerie June
PUSHIN’ AGAINST A STONE
The last twelve months may go down as the Year of the Badass Female Singer/Songwriter, and Valerie June should be crowned queen of the lot. The West Tennessean deftly mixes blues, soul, folk, and traditional Appalachian sounds into smooth grooves filled with bittersweet tales of irresponsible men and the women who try (but shouldn’t) to love them. A dynamite performer, June effortlessly transitions from the slinky “Wanna Be on Your Mind” to the folksy ode to home “Tennessee Time.”
Song You Must Hear: The honking stomp of “You Can’t Be Told.”
5. Mount Moriah
If Houndmouth is as smooth as a mint julep, North Carolina’s Mount Moriah is complex red wine. Lead singer Heather McEntire spent time in a punk rock band before pairing up with ex-metalhead Jenks Miller. Traces of the dark fuzz of their past musical endeavors show up in songs like “Bright Light” and “Telling the Hour.” But much of Miracle unravels at a slow pace, allowing McEntire’s storytelling (replete with a singing voice that recalls Dolly Parton) to come to the fore.
Song You Must Hear: The gotta-get-out-of-this-town vibe of “Those Girls.”
6. Amanda Shires
DOWN FELL THE DOVES
One-half of Nashville’s newest power couple (she tied the knot with frequent collaborator Jason Isbell earlier this year), Amanda Shires proves she’s just as deserving of the spotlight on Down Fell the Doves. Her spooky violin accompanies her dark, wry lyrics beautifully, but Doves‘ singular moments come when Shires throws some curveball flourishes, like the Latin whirl of “Bulletproof.”
Song You Must Hear: The impish “A Song for Leonard Cohen.”