Best Albums of 2013: Mark Kemp, Senior Editor

Posted by Mark Segal Kemp

Valerie June
Pushin’ Against a Stone
This Memphis singer’s mesmerizing twang and casual delivery recall both Elizabeth Cotten and the Carter Sisters, but on Pushin’ Against a Stone, June pushes outward from the folk and African-American string band music of her early YouTube videos to bring in shades of West African melody, gospel, soul, and indie rock. She uses an arsenal of instruments on her debut album, from ringing acoustic guitars to ukulele, horns and electronics;  somehow, it all comes together seamlessly, making Valerie June one of the most original new voices in contemporary folk music. (June Tunes)

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba
Jama Ko
It may not be acoustic music proper, but the sounds Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate gets out of his ngoni—a West African instrument in the lute family—should warm the hearts of any lover of acoustic-electric guitar. Kouyate’s band Ngoni Ba is a veritable ngoni army—it includes the seven-stringed version of the instrument he invented for electric soloing and wah-wah effects, as well as a bass ngoni, and four additional sizes for different sounds and shadings. What it all adds up to is a constantly morphing wall of hypnotic picking, strumming and not just a little shredding. (OutHere)

Laura Marling
Once I Was an Eagle
For her fourth and best album, this remarkable (and remarkably young, at just 23) British singer/songwriter has composed songs in three different guitar tunings to mirror the range of emotions a young person might experience in her transition from naïve to knowing and then back again. Inspired by the early confessional songs of Joni Mitchell and the vocal grain of British folk gals such as Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson, Marling sings over fluttery, Nick Drake-like strumming and song arrangements that blend folk, blues and Middle Eastern sensibilities in a way not unlike Led Zeppelin’s acoustic-heavy third album. (Ribbon Music)

Kacey Musgraves
Same Trailer, Different Park
It’s not as though country-pop singer/songwriter and critical darling Kacey Musgraves reinvented the wheel on Same Trailer, Different Park, but like the spinners on those tricked-out Chevys, she’s added a little sparkly to a time-tested formula.  Bright acoustic finger-picking rings alongside moaning pedal steel and occasional banjo on songs that are often as funny as they are devastating. But the charmingly clever lyrics on songs like “My House”—Who needs a house upon a hill / When you can have one on four wheels?—belie the brutal darkness at the edge of this trailer park. (Mercury)

Bill Callahan
Dream River
This is not technically acoustic-guitar music, but I’m willing to bet singer/songwriter Bill Callahan has inspired more indie kids to pick up acoustic guitars over the past two decades than most actual acoustic-guitar musicians. Callahan has recorded oodles of experimental rock and folk albums under both his real name and his pseudonym (Smog) for the tiny Drag City label, but what makes Dream River special is that he seems to have absolutely mastered the genre that he—and perhaps Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner—invented. It may not be an acoustic-guitar album, but it’s easily one of the best folk albums of 2013. (Drag City)

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