Our Best of 2023 feature concludes with the our Album of the Year, followed by the rest of the top ten in alphabetical order.
Album of the Year
Jason Hawk Harris, Thin Places
The battle for the soul is waged in art, in that the most powerful works of art are those that challenge us to confront difficult emotions or experiences, or to question the ways we perceive the world or the people around us. Still, there are certain experiences that are so complex that even our most significant artists struggle to make sense of them.
Consider grief, in particular. An experience that finds so many of our most unpleasant emotional states intertwined in ways that amplify their primordial fight-or-flight effects. A process that revolts against linear or logical progression. A state of being that often finds us defenseless against our worst, most base impulses. Visual artists often struggle to find media or presentations that capture grief in a single piece. Musicians and poets generally make it the focus of a single song or verse, but it’s difficult to sustain for a full album or volume.
Where grief resides most often and most effectively, then, is in horror. It’s fitting that a genre– whether in literature, film, or drama– that thrives on the uncanny is the source of works that draw sustained metaphors for an experience that is so fundamentally peculiar. Shelley’s enduring Frankenstein is a work that upends the ways humans bargain against death and the costs of doing so, and 2023 offered several films– Laura Moss’ Birth/Rebirth standing as perhaps the best among many– to draw inspiration from man-made monstrosities. Grief informs the horrors of characters’ decision-making in some of Stephen King’s most powerful works, including It, Dolores Claiborne, and The Stand. Films like the uncompromising director’s cut of Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, Neil Marshall’s The Descent, and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook all develop literal and figurative bogeys from their protagonists’ attempts to process the trauma of loss.
When it comes to music, albums that accomplish something similar are truly rare. In recent years and within the broad country universe, the only album I can recall that attempts to tackle grief so head-on is Allison Moorer’s Down to Believing. And even that landmark record is derived from a specific iteration of grief, as Moorer reflected upon her responses to her son’s Autism diagnosis.
In contrast, Jason Hawk Harris’ Thin Places is an album that addresses the type of grief that follows in the wake of the death of a loved one. It’s an album of bereavement, and it’s no accident that Harris invokes the tone and imagery of horror throughout. Even the cover art sets the tone, depicting a lively afternoon at a park, where people’s limbs have been blown off and faces have been pulled back to reveal the skulls beneath. Harris knows from experience that the veil between the living and the dead is, indeed, a thin one, and there’s no veneer thinner than our own skin.
Thin Places is structured in such a way that it mirrors those characteristics of grief that are so enigmatic: Aesthetic shifts, often within the same song (such as how the lilting country-folk of “Jordan and The Nile” pivots to a gospel interpolation, which leads straight into the calypso-inflected “Bring Out the Lilies”), reflect dramatic and unpredictable shifts in mood. Recurring motifs in the production– three-note string figures, which evoke the ominous Jaws score, pop up out throughout the album– align with the ways specific stimuli can bring on a jarring, intrusive memory. Even the final track fades out with a coda that segues straight back into the intro of the first song: It’s a cycle that replays without a clear beginning or ending.
And when the songs on an album are as brilliantly crafted as those on Thin Places, they demand and reward that kind of repeated engagement. Harris reckons with the loss of multiple loved ones– “Half an orphan since she went that way / She’s up the hill beside the interstate,” is an absolutely gutting couplet about a parent’s death– by embracing the strangeness of the process and by recognizing what is unknowable.
He stares into “The Abyss” and wonders if or when he’ll get a response, and he ponders and then rages against his own mortality on the raucous “White Berets.” He indulges in vices on “Shine a Little Light,” “I’m Getting By,” and “So Damn Good” as sources of connection and distraction. He sings of visions of his deceased loved ones, of dancing skeletons, and of cremains leaving a golden wake along the edge of a river, and he wonders if the best any of us can hope for is that those we leave behind will, in the words of Warren Zevon, keep us in their hearts for a while.
As heady as Thin Places can be, Harris interjects a macabre sense of humor throughout. The natural sweetness of his tenor voice– “I’ve got a voice that can give you chills,” he sings at one key juncture, and he’s absolutely right– belies this sardonic streak. Again, that tension only deepens the album’s greater thematic heft. But it’s the gallows humor that truly makes the album. “She died on Good Friday / Just like the Lord,” is the jaw-dropping opening line of “Bring Out the Lilies,”, and it’s followed with an even better punchline: “But she didn’t rise up like a king / On this bright Easter morning.” While it’s clear that Harris is steeped in Christian iconography, the overall tone of the album is one of a smartass agnostic who is trying to make sense of a situation that never will.
What Harris demonstrates is that grief is far messier and more convoluted than clear phases like anger, denial, or bargaining. There are moments when all you can do is laugh at the absurdity and brutality. There are moments of self-destruction. There are moments of wanting to throttle someone who, however sincerely, says it’s all part of God’s plan. The truth that Harris finds on Thin Places is that there’s no truth to be found. And, when it comes to being human, there’s no revelation more horrific or more beautiful.
Ten Best Albums of the Year
These nine albums join Jason Hawk Harris’ Thin Places as our top ten albums of the year.
Valley of Heart’s Delight
Rare for an album in this exact vein not to have that slathered-in-Vaseline-by-Dave-Cobb sound, and the ramshackle production suits Cilker’s singing and narrative voices just fine. Masterful economy of language, and unafraid of humor: The way Cilker navigates the shifts in tone on the run from “Keep it on a Burner,” “I Remember Carolina,” and “Beggar for Your Love” is just flat-out brilliant.
A latecomer for the year’s finest album, Cutler had the audacity to say, “Inspired by the work of Flannery O’Conner,” and the talent to back up that statement in both form and content. Cutler demonstrates a grasp that’s both intuitive and scholarly when it comes to the knottiness in O’Connor’s vision of the South in all of its complexity. That he does so without sacrificing tunefulness in his songs makes Tarwater a marvel.
Not since my first listen to Jason Isbell’s Southeastern have I had to pull over my car because a lyric caught me so off-guard, but Jessye DeSilva did just that on “Sundays,” the centerpiece of their uncompromising Renovations. When they sing, “I never felt more all alone / Sitting timid as a mouse / A guest in God almighty’s house,” it distills a lifetime of alienation and questioning into a single vivid memory. It’s a feat DeSilva pulls off at least one on every song here, making Renovations a work that proves over and over how queer politics fit perfectly into the country music idiom.
You’re the One
Her scholarship and her technical prowess are both so formidable that Rhiannon Giddens finally recorded an album that, instead, foregrounds the fact that she is also one of the genre’s all-time great vocalists. You’re the One showcases her extraordinary instrument on a set of songs that push Giddens’ voice to the fringes of her classical training while covering an ever broader emotional range. The album stands as a masterclass in genre know-how and true interpretive singing from an artist who can deliver the goods with authority.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
As someone who’s always gone to bat for his pre-Southeastern work, what’s perhaps most refreshing about Weathervanes is that it boasts Isbell’s rangiest production since the self-titled album that formally introduced The 400 Unit. The result is that Isbell sounds like he fully entrusts his ace backing band to play to the strengths of each individual song here, and they more than rise to the occasion.
Too Much of a Woman
A debut album of clear-eyed vision that leans hard, both lyrically and aesthetically, into the idea that an individual can contain multitudes and still know exactly who they are. Lea refuses to be defined by arbitrary conventions when it comes to gender politics or genre norms. She’s her own woman and her own artist, and she is truly a force to be reckoned with. It’s worth noting that there’s real subversive power in the way Lea plays up her drawl, too.
Drink the River
The rootsy approach Lee takes on Drink the River is something of an aesthetic pivot, but it’s one he’s able to execute with sure footing. While this is an album steeped in self-doubt and questioning, it also represents a sea change in Lee’s confidence as a singer and songwriter in full command of his immense gifts. Expect the title track to become a modern standard in the vein of Childers’ “Jersey Giant” or Isbell’s “Cover Me Up.”
Nothing’s Gonna Stand In My Way Again
Her best, and she’s always been fantastic. Bonus points, too, that the title doesn’t reference what would’ve been an ill-fitting Wilco cover. Her self-assessments transcend the mere vulnerable and are, instead, savage and withering, and she’s grown into the raw power in her voice. As someone who grew up as an angsty 90s teenager, that this album sounds like the peak of the “alt-country” form is some of the highest praise I can bestow.
Crank It, We’re Doomed
Some of these killer tracks were repurposed over the years, but they work as well or better in context of this unreleased 2007 album. What would’ve been timely 16 years ago is no less of a precision-crafted, tightly-wound Doomsday Clock today. Snider is always best when his outsider and outlaw characters reflect the hypocrisies of the culture at large, and this set boasts the cast with the most sordid lives he’s ever chronicled.
Best of 2023
The Thirty Best Albums of 2023:
The Sixty Best Singles of 2023: