1. Brandy Clark
“12 Stories” Sometimes it feels like your favorite records are speaking to you. It’s an even richer experience when it feels like they’re speaking for you. In a bountiful year for female country singer-songwriters, Clark was at the head of the class, mining deep veins and yielding lyrical insights from the smallest moments in life that bind us together.
2. Lori McKenna
“Massachusetts” Everything I just said about Brandy Clark: ditto. The pride of Stoughton, with the voice of flint and the keenest eye for detail, continues to cover herself in songwriting glory as she sends a complicated, beautiful, heartbreaker of a mash note to her home state, flying the flag for the lives of everyday people.
3. Nine Inch Nails
“Hesitation Marks” The sound of every nerve ending in a body coming to musical life, with a great beat that you can dance to, chilling whispers, and a cathartic howl. Trent Reznor roared back into action in top form with the emphasis on roar.
4. Kacey Musgraves
“Same Trailer Different Park” Like her sisters in song Clark and McKenna, young country singer-songwriter Musgraves is a storyteller in love with words and the way that clever and incisive turns of phrase can cut right to the heart of matters of the heart.
5. Booker T
“Sound the Alarm” Summer rang and the legendary Stax organist answered the call with one of 2013’s most buoyant and celebratory releases, brimming with good cheer, crackling grooves, and sweet soul music, helping the block party linger all year long.
6. The National
“Trouble Will Find Me” A seductive haze hangs over this set of shape-shifting tracks that range from dark to darker as the Brooklyn, N.Y.-by-way-of-Ohio rockers search for a sense of relief that always seems just out of reach.
7. Harry Connick Jr.
“Every Man Should Know” The gifted piano man and crooner offered up his most personal album to date, hopscotching from playful to rueful, on a set of substantive songs that showcased not only his elegant technical abilities but the heart that beats beneath.
8. Dave Hause
“Devour” On his second solo set, the Philadelphia singer-songwriter continues to wrestle with what it means to grow up and how informed by the past that challenge can be. Urgent yet considered, rocking but ruminative, Hause ably followed up 2011’s masterful “Resolutions.”
9. Kim Richey
“Thorn in My Heart” With an unerring ability to tap into the deepest part of heartache and the voice of an angel who’s seen her share, Richey pierces with this collection that finds her returning to her country roots but not abandoning her gifts for pop, folk, and gospel sounds.
10. The Mavericks
“In Time” Reunion records are rarely this dynamic and joyous. No mere cash grab, the quartet founded in Miami came back all in, offering up their still-beguiling mix of country and pop with Latin flourishes and topped by the magnificent vocal gifts of frontman Raul Malo.
“The Next Day” The surprise announcement of the mere existence of the rock legend’s first album in nearly a decade was surpassed by how great it was, as it skipped from kinetic, squalling jams to artsy ennui in weird and wonderful, thoroughly Bowie-esque fashion.