Jason Isbell Southeastern $10.19.
Every song Jason Isbell writes packs a punch, whether it’s raucous, meditative or heartbroken, and that’s why American Songwriter named the alt-country rising superstar’s third solo album, Southeastern, its top album of 2013. Isbell’s lyrics are beautiful enough that anyone would be lucky to record them, but his voice, tender with a slight rasp, happens to be perfect for his words. The album opens with bare and loving “Cover Me Up,” stunningly describes losing someone to cancer in “Elephant” and shows he can have some fun in “Super 8 Motel.” — Shannon Finnell
Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside Untamed Beast $11.13.
Something kicked into gear for Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside when they made their latest album, Untamed Beast. The band embraced a more rockabilly vibe than its earlier swing-influenced sound, and the result is an album with more than a little swagger. The mostly upbeat album is an unapologetically powerful picture of a woman ready to jump into life, no holds barred. It’s a perfect pick to inject energy into a boring car ride or to rock out to on a rainy evening. And when Ford slows the tempo and gets more vulnerable on “Shivers,” her pleas to a lover are a proud sort of sexuality that has no conflict with the album’s rowdier tracks. — Shannon Finnell
Neko Case The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You $10.40.
So maybe the album title is a bit questionable this time around, but never fear, Neko Case still has the superb songwriting gift and pipes of gold that have shone on all her albums. In, “Night Still Comes,” she wails, “You never held me at the right angle,” one of those lines that instantly means something to all of us, and spits, “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?” Whether gentle or aggressive, and especially when she’s tackling difficult topics, like a mother who doesn’t love her kid in “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” Case knows how to create a mood or a picture that takes her audience on trips they’ve never imagined.
— Shannon Finnell
Bombino Nomad $11.59.
Bombino’s 2013 release Nomad, produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, blends the bluesy garage rock of the Keys with the sounds of Bombino’s Tuareg people — a nomadic culture of the Saharan interior of North Africa. Bombino is a wizardly guitarist, reminiscent of traditional African artists like Ali Farka Touré, playing an ancestral style of American blues and rock. Auerbach’s production adds rock ‘n’ roll immediacy: from the electrified string-squeal of first track “Amidinine” to the epic, pounding and urgent groove of “Azamane Tiliade.” Also, like the sound of his full-time band, Auerbach allows for gritty authenticity; you can almost feel the sandstorm pelt the traditional “Ahulakamine Hulan.” — William Kennedy
KT Tunstall Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon $10.
The shock value of this album alone is worth the price of admission, to say nothing of its remarkable content. The pop-rock goddess has undergone a stunning artistic metamorphosis, and the results are compelling. Gone are the catchy hooks and sing-songy melodies of previous albums, and in their place are heavy doses of subtle folk (“How You Kill Me”), somber country (“Made of Glass”) and stoic Americana (“Carried”). “Yellow Flower” is a surprisingly exquisite piano ballad, and Tunstall brings the house down in quietly mesmerizing fashion with “Crescent Moon,” with its ambient piano and orchestral layers augmenting her muted vocals; you seriously will not believe all of this is coming from her. Sonically, Invisible is filled with multiple curve balls that will keep you guessing, and with tracks like “Invisible Empire” including lines like “I want to jump into the fire/ I’ve got to tear them down/ The pinnacles of my invisible empire,” it is hard to miss the fact that she is verbalizing the complete artistic reimagining she is undergoing on this album. Nothing can prepare you for this unexpectedly beautiful statement from Tunstall; she has never been better than she is on Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon. — Brian Palmer
Kronos Quartet with Bryce Dessner Aheym $11.19.
Bryce Dessner is one-half of the sibling songwriting duo that forms the core of popular rock band The National. The National released their own fantastic record this year: Trouble Will Find Me. Still, Bryce Dessner found time in 2013 to compose and record Aheym. The album, featuring the contemporary string ensemble Kronos Quartet, is a collection of bracing, avant-garde classical music: minimal in scope and dealing intimately with epic emotion — not unlike Dessner’s work with The National. The title track, one of only four lengthy pieces that comprise the record, swoops and swirls, grinds and squeals; stopping abruptly, a lonely cello continues until violins pick back up, the cascading conversation continuing throughout the album in melancholy and abrasive shades of blue. — William Kennedy
Eisley Currents $12.62.
Currents was one of the year’s biggest breaths of fresh air, especially for fans who were nonplussed by the indie rock darlings’ previous release — 2011’s bitter angst fest, The Valley — and wondered if the Eisley of old would ever return. Ah, but return they did after concluding that cathartic experience, and Currents is one of their best yet. The DuPree sisters — Sherri, Chauntelle and Stacy — sing in as heavenly a fashion as ever, whether individually (Sherri is absolutely chilling on “The Night Comes”) or together, as on the piano-pop finale “Shelter.” Musically, they return to their dreamy, fantastical rock ‘n’ roll roots on “Blue Fish,” and the title track reminds us that they still know how to make some of the most hypnotic, groovy and sexy rock tracks around. “Drink the Water” adds tinges of jazz to the mix, which makes for a nice surprise, and the piano-led bridge to the rock track “Save My Soul” features spine-tingling lyrics (and vocal performances from all five members of the band) about metaphorically rising from the ashes. Currents is a gorgeous experience that proves Eisley is still one of indie rock’s most charming and talented groups. — Brian Palmer
Eluvium Nightmare Ending $15.35.
Double albums are notoriously hard to get right, so when you’re making one that is almost entirely instrumental, the task becomes even more difficult. Eluvium — aka Matthew Cooper — however, has done just that and in the process made arguably the finest album of 2013. Whether it’s the gradual, melodic, sweeping strains of “Don’t Get Any Closer,” waves of sound from “Warm” rolling over you like a blanket or piano interludes like “Caroling,” this album is intricately and intentionally performed. “Unknown Variation” is one of several tracks that add ominous levels of distortion to the mix, not unlike composer BT’s Nuovo Morceau Subrosa, and the haunting piano keys and otherworldly orchestration on “Covered in Writing” will give you chills. And by the time Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan makes a surprise vocal appearance in the album’s closing track “Happiness,” his thoughts on the subject combine with the accompanying and preceding musical cacophony to absolutely crush you. Nightmare Ending plays like an epic film score that plunges past your ears and deep into the depths of your soul, and if you are looking for a truly transportive listening experience, then this album is for you. — Brian Palmer
Beach Fossils Clash the Truth $11.03.
Clash the Truth is euphoric guitar-pop from Brooklyn’s Beach Fossils. Jam-packed with understated, intricately arranged and ridiculously melodic guitar work, the record is fuzzed out and blissful while remaining frenetic and cohesive; the rare second record that’s as good as a band’s debut outing. Clash the Truth updates ’80s post-punk and the psychedelic sounds of Paisley Underground bands like Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade, while at the same time remaining thoroughly modern. Uptempo and driving album track “Careless” bristles with energy, crowned by a four-note guitar melody that reminds when it comes to guitar solos, less is often more. — William Kennedy
The Joy Formidable Wolf’s Law $11.99.
When it comes to albums that flat-out rock in 2013, Welsh trio The Joy Formidable’s sophomore release, Wolf’s Law, has them beat by a mile. The album’s gigantic sound and its aspirations to Muse-like stadium tours are obvious, but sometimes you’ve got to go big or go home and do it with plenty of verve, and these guys have that down pat. “This Ladder Is Ours” is one of the most explosive rock singles of the year, while the unstoppable frenetic strength and pacing of “Little Blimp” is the stuff of live concert dreams. Singer Ritzy Bryan’s lush vocals range from skyscraping (“Cholla”) to quiet and reserved as occasion calls (“The Silent Treatment”), and are filled with all the allure of a slightly raspy siren throughout. Tracks like “The Turnaround” (as well as the intro to “This Ladder Is Ours”) successfully weave grandiose orchestral sections into the mix, making the overall experience feel bigger and weightier than your average rock record. Loaded with the gritty, fuzzy alternative sensibilities that characterized their electric debut, The Big Roar, Wolf’s Law is every bit as dynamic as its predecessor and is a must-have for alternative rock fans. — Brian Palmer
Marnie Stern The Chronicles of Marnia $10.21.
Marnie Stern’s 2013 release Chronicles of Marnia kicks off with blunderbuss riffs; the singer/guitarist’s pixie/fairy voice floating over “Year of the Glad” while deft and virtuosic guitar work builds and sustains throughout the album; her battle cry is shades of Bob Mould’s electrified incarnations. Elsewhere, “Noonan” is a relatively straight-ahead rock song, recalling the golden age of female-powered indie music from the ’80s and ’90s — think Kim Deal of The Pixies, Throwing Muses, Bikini Kill, and the list goes on. Stern flat-out rocks, and while her idiosyncrasies might turn off some listeners — the squeal of her signature fret-tapping guitar style is matched only by her strangely girlish, high-pitched voice — she’s a unique and fresh new artist on the indie scene. Marnie Stern: for any fan of arty, inventive and melodic guitar rock. — William Kennedy
San Fermin San Fermin $9.79.
San Fermin’s self-titled debut is as precocious as a recent Yale Music School graduate, and that’s precisely what Ellis Ludwig-Leon, the group’s primary songwriter, is. A loose concept album, the record is richly orchestrated, intelligent and literate. Ludwig-Leon’s music would be overly precious if it wasn’t so moving. The lush female sopranos of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig mix particularly well on the chirping, soulful and infectious single “Sonsick” — like a brainy Beyoncé ballad meeting a more accessible Dirty Projectors. Album tracks “Renaissance” and “Methuselah” are expertly arranged, high points of emotional chamber pop, and the moody and melancholy baritone of singer Allen Tate recalling Matt Berninger of The National’s three-note range? S-A-D. — William Kennedy