Yes, dear readers, the internet is awash with lists in this merry month of December, but you won’t find another that represents our corner of the country/folk and roots music universe better than our top fifty. Rather than rank and grade the albums from best to least best, we’ve ordered them alphabetically, trusting that you can make up your own minds. Some of them you’ll already know and love and some will be new to your ears and we’ve done our best to compile a taste from each. So to all of the artists who’ve put their heart and soul into these inspiring albums, we say thank you, and thanks to all of the fans that make original albums like this possible.
Written by Les Thomas, Forrister Jenot and Michael Hansen
1. Ashley Davies — Burke & Wills: The Expedition
Apart from being an incredible drummer and one of the nicest human beings on the planet, Ashley Davies is also an inspired history buff. His musical exploration of the Burke & Wills story, following up from his early Ned Kelly release, brings history to life with help from an outstanding cast including Henry Wagons and Matt Walker.
2. Bakersfield Glee Club — Bakersfield Glee Club
Comprised of members of Redfish Bluegrass, Austin Floyd, Silver City Highway & Dirty York, this self-titled release is a collection of traditional country covers of people like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock, Robbie Fulks and originals by singer Darren Maxfield. No Melbourne band pulls off the honky tonk sound with more dash and style.
3. Benny Walker — Sinners and Saints
Benny Walker’s sophomore album Sinners and Saints is an effortless blend of blues, roots and acoustic folk. Walker’s intimate, eloquent song-writing is complemented by a rich, soulful voice which speaks of the trouble, strife and wonder of everyday life. It is this voice that recently earned him the Victorian Indigenous Performing Arts Award for Best New Talent 2012, the Arts Cultural Australia Day Murray Shire Council Award and a 2011 Deadly Award nomination for Most Promising New Talent in Music.
4. Brooke Russell and the Mean Reds — Poor Virginia
Blessed with an achingly beautiful voice, Brooke Russell’s debut album is a sublime listening experience, with a exquisite backing from Grant Taylor on guitar, Tilman Robinson on horns and Ben Franz on bass.
5. Busby Marou — Farewell Fitzroy
From humble beginnings in Rockhampton this formidable country duo have taken the Oz music scene by storm. With a Q Music and APRA award under their belt it is no wonder that audiences are lapping these lads up like gravy on a biscuit. The new offering of their Farewell Fitzroy album is nothing short of super tasty ear pleasurings. Harmonically sublime from start to finish a must for your collection.
6. Cash Savage and the Last Drinks — The Hypnotiser
With the soulful and gutsy voice of Cash Savage backed by a massive ensemble producing huge gospel, country, blues and rock sounds, this is a wild and invigorating listen, like hearing a version of Elvis whose reconciled himself to his dark side.
7. Catherine Traicos — The Earth, the Sea, the Moon, the Sky
Having won last year’s Unpaved Readers Poll, the ever-prolific Catherine Traicos is back with her strongest artist statement yet, this time with more input from bandmates to create an album of excellent musicianship and songwriting.
8. Cherrywood — Book of Matches
Recorded over two days in a farmhouse in rural Victoria by Graveyard Train’s Matt Chow, this album captures Cherrywood in all of their rambling glory. With Joshua Seymour’s brilliant writing and Tim Durkin’s unrestrained singing, this album shows how to bring punk, country and folk together for maximum enjoyment.
9. Chris Russell’s Chicken Walk — Shakedown
Chris Russell’s constant and irresistible four to the floor blues guitar and howling voice get stronger and stronger with each performance. His latest sounds alive in the best way possible. Another great album, that’ll never get old.
10. Chuck’s Wagon — I Play Country
Chuck Wagon’s fifth album was recorded in Texas and delivers the sounds of unadulterated outlaw country. The lyrics ring true to an honest living, hard working songwriter in the Heartworn Highways tradition.
11. Coral Lee & the Silver Scream — Rocky Road to Io
On Rocky Road To Io, Melbourne singer, songwriter and guitarist Coral Lee Farrow and her swinging band The Silver Scream call on us to put on our dancin’ shoes and join them as they immerse themselves in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s culture of post WWII optimism, style, snappy dressing and their jived up, joyful dance music. This spectacular excursion into the jump blues meets rockabilly territory dominated by the likes of Rosie Flores and stretching back to lauded figures like Ruth Brown and Wanda Jackson builds on a strong live following with its nice mix of uniformly strong original tunes and spirited covers. Coral Lee’s saucy vocal stylings and her gritty, yet fluid electric guitar are underpinned by superbly swaying pedal steel from Ben Franz, with the whole package anchored by the righteous rhythm section of bassist Elise Winterflood and drummer Ben Hendry.
12. Corrina Steel — Borrowed Tunes
Borrowed Tunes is the fourth solo album from Sydney artist Corrina Steel, released on her independent label Snakedrive Records. The result is a collection of 13 songs including Kris Kristofferson, Tammy Wynette, Linda Ronstadt, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson and Peter Allen. And of course, a couple of Steel’s favourite trad country gospel tunes thrown in for good measure. It’s a stripped back, seductive, intimate, at times rock-edged, as well as country so classic, it sounds like a jukebox in the corner of a Memphis diner in 1950.
13. Cyndi Boste — Nowadays
A veteran of the Melbourne scene with four previous albums and numerous songwriting credits already under her belt, Cyndi Boste emerges from an extended absence with Nowadays, an album bursting with refreshed energy, her songwriting chops better than ever. Co-produced by Jeremy Edwards and recorded with his ‘Dust Radio Band’ this collection places a long neglected artist back in the forefront of contemporary country soul music. Look no further than the core songs Happy Day, On My Mind and Deep Down Below for shining examples of the kind of honest to goodness, guitar laden authenticity we so often see and hear from luminaries like Lucinda Williams. Read the full review.
14. Dan Parsons — Dan Parsons
It seems that drummers make great Singer/Songwriters and Parsons is no exception. This album, the long awaited debut according to the Melbourne live music scene savants, reminds me of pulling out one of the classics like Rodriguez from my vinyl collection. His raw lyrical ability about life and the journey it throws at you along with near to freakish music prowess whether it be on guitar, drums or pedal steel is nothing short of stella. You can see where artists like Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons and even Gillan Welch have influenced his sound through songs like ‘Close Your Eyes, Let It End’ and ‘Lay It All Down’ which are stand outs.
15. Danny Walsh Banned — Rolling On
If you like country and rock’n’roll that revels in letting its freak flag fly, look no further Danny Walsh Banned’s Rolling On album.
16. David Hosking — All That Beauty
This collection of beautifully intense and atmospherically haunting melodies, superb musicianship, mainly courtesy of Irish backing (it was recorded in a converted cow shed outside Belfast) with the exception of none other than Leonard Cohen’s backup vocalist Charlie Webb. Complete with David’s assured songwriting and masterly guitar embellishments it is a delight to listen to.
17. Don Walker — Hully Gully
If there’s a songwriter’s songwriter in Australia, it has to be Don Walker, the lyrical master behind Cold Chisel’s best songs. Hully Gully offers up stories from the real under belly of Australia with all of the necessary intrigue, detail and dry wit. Easily one of the best Australian albums of the year.
18. Donna Dean — Tyre Tracks and Broken Hearts
Donna Dean, originally from New Zealand, grew up singing Roy Rogers songs with her guitar playing mother and has spent her adult life playing on stages from Austin to Berlin to Melbourne and back again. With a gift for songs both sweet and devastating, Tyre Tracks and Broken Roads is a must hear album.
19. Gleny Rae Virus And Her Playboys — Whojigadandy
With a non-specific title that rhymes with handy, the wonderful Gleny Rae and Her Playboys deliver and album that swings as it entertains. Epic stories of diamonds lost in plane crashes, musings and rollicking tunes are all part of the fun of Whojigadandy.
20. Grizzly Jim Lawrie — Paying My Debts From The Grave
As an accomplished muso and drummer for Eagle And The Worm Jim Lawrie set about on a new musical journey as grizzly Jim Lawriethis young Melbourne artist caught my attention with his first 3 track EP with the single ‘What De We Do?’ From there began a mancrush of sorts, where I found myself seeking out his gigs right across town, never being completely satisfied – always wanting more! Lawrie locked himself away in the studios to record his debut LP ‘Paying My Debts From The Grave’ – one of this year’s finest. With a flare for melancholic songwriting which has been garnished with some very sweet piano, brass and stringed arrangements, Lawrie has left his signature style on the musical landscape with tracks like ‘Wish I Was There’ and ‘Over The River’ this album is a keeper.
21. Heath Cullen — The Still & The Steep
It’s somewhat unfortunate that the recording of this album in Los Angeles and New York and securing the services of US session luminaries like guitarist Marc Ribot, drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Larry Taylor has tended to be the major talking point about this outstanding album. While their contributions speak for themselves, this is unquestionably Cullen’s project showcasing his sparse, often melancholy songs, his compelling vocals and most significantly his brilliant guitar work. ‘Paper Boy’ encapsulates all these qualities in 5 and a bit minutes of inspired majesty.
22. Jen Cloher — In Blood Memory
Another of the musical highlights of 2013, Jen Cloher’s In Blood Memory takes several steps away from the alt country sounds of Hidden Hands and takes up a broader pallet of rock’n’roll and plaintive soundscapes with a very complete band feel. ‘Hold My Hand’ is one of the most stunningly evocative songs and film clips of the year, hands down.
23. Katie Brianna — Dark Side Of The Morning
Not new to the music business, but fresh on the scene is Sydney’s Americana Alt/Country songstress Katie Brianna with her LP ‘Dark Side Of The Morning’ one that she says herself, deliberated over. One has to ask oneself the question that without songwriters having what seems like lives filled with torment, broken relationships and sorrow – where would we find all this fabulous music to listen to? From songs like ‘Drink’ with the harmonic sweetness of Kevin Bennett to ‘Oh Night’ and it’s haunting melody and slick guitar riff which is a favourite amongst her UK fans, you will have trouble keeping this one off high rotation.
24. Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes — Black Coffee
Whether we are suitably wired with potent black coffee or not, Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes’ tour bus takes us through a landscape of seedy motels, two lane blacktops, roadside diners, dive bars, the desolation of the desert and even a Mexican restaurant breakfast stop. This is the heartland of “alt-country and the album delivers the goods emphatically, so much so that it has snagged Bryan a Tamworth Golder Guitar nomination. Deathwish Country, the lovely Change In The Wind and Forty Days And Nights are highlights on a uniformly outstanding collection. Look out for a national tour in January. Read the full review.
25. Les Thomas — Survivor’s Tale
Les Thomas’s debut album is an outstanding collection of songs, both politically charged and emotionally compelling. The lead single ‘Song for Selva’ is believed to have resulted in the release from detention of an asylum seeker detained for 37 months. With strong songwriting and incredible playing and production from Jeff Lang, Ashley Davies, Ben Franz, Mandy Connell, Justin Bernasconi, Alison Ferrier, Ruth Lindsey and Cat Canteri the songs on this album are sure to grow.
26. Liam Gerner — Land of No Roads
Having spent years touring around the US playing guitar for Ryan Bingham, Liam Gerner arrived in Melbourne early this year and immediate set about blowing people away with outstanding live sets as a soloist and band leader of The Alan Ladds. His Land of No Roads album has just been released and, as expected, it contains an astonishing collection of songs deserving of a wide audience, not least Hank and Tammy, which tells the story of an elderly couple who become drug mules to secure their retirement plans.
27. Livingstone Daisies — Don’t Know What Happiness Is
I’m not sure if having two of Melbourne’s best songwriters in the same band is cheating, but frankly Van Walker and Liz Stringer can do whatever the hell they like, because the results are going to be magnificent. The Livingstone Daisies sees them getting their Tom Petty, Teenage Fan Club guitar pop sounds on. They’re currently running a Pozible campaign to support the release to their follow up, which we strongly recommend you get behind.
28. Love Over Gold — Fall to Rise
Otherwise known as Pieta Brown and Lucie Thorn, Love Over Gold is a gentle and beautiful album showing off the many talents and the sincere connection between two amazing musicians and songwriters.
29. Marcel Borrack & Sarah Carroll — Soft Gold
Another super-fine duo to arrive in 2013, are none other than Marcel Borrack and Sarah Carroll. This stripped back acoustic album was recorded with help from The Yearlings in their home studio near Adelaide. With close harmonies, delicate instrumentation and an ever-present sense of humour, this is another great local release to savour
30. Marlon Williams — Live at La Niche
Marlon Williams arrived in Melbourne this year from his native New Zealand with a NZ Best Country Album for his collaboration with countryman Delaney Davidson (Sad But True Vol 1) in his pocket and a guitar case in his hand. Little did we know that he also brought a gorgeous, classically trained voice, a fully formed traditional country music sensibility, formidable guitar playing and “old soul” songwriting chops. All of this at the improbably young age of 22. Look no further than State Hospital for proof positive. No more needs to be said about this live album other than get your hands on a copy, get on out to a gig and hang out for his debut full length album due in 2014. Williams also has an admirable collection of hats.
31. Melody Pool — The Hurting Scene
One of the rising stars on the Oz Folk/Country circuit who’s career has soared since first appearing at Tamworth back in 2009. With two EP’s under her belt, Melody packed up and headed off to Nashville to record her debut album in late 2012. The Hurting Scene was released this year with soulfully written tracks like Henry and more upbeat numbers as is with the title track The Hurting Scene. The album has seen industry folk stand up and take notice along with a European support with The Milk Carton Kids and a showcase slot at the Americana Music Festival in Nashville in Sept along many fine new Australian acts. This is one star that’s fire will burn bright in 2014.
33. Mick Thomas presents — The Vandemonian Lags
Vandemonian Lags brings together an enormously talented cast including Tim Rogers, Laura Jean, Jeff Lang, Darren Hanlon, The Bushwhackers, Liz Stringer, Van Walker, Mich Thomas himself and a host of others to musically interet Tasmania’s convict history, with each of them doing so in inspired and surprising ways. Laura Jean and Darren Hanlon’s ‘The Book Thief’ is one highlight among many, that shows how a simple melody can energize a story from our colonial past. With talk of encore performances of the stage show which earned rave reviews at its Dark Mofo Festival premiere in Hobart, don’t miss the chance to catch it on the mainland some time in 2014.
34. Mustered Courage — Powerlines
No Australian bluegrass band has covered more miles, both logistically and artistically, in 2013 than Mustered Courage, and Powerline marks a huge leap forward from their debut album as they become more accomplished and comfortable in the bluegrass style. With Nick Keeling’s powerful voice, Julian Abraham’s blistering guitar work and Paddy Montgomery’s genius on the mandolin, there’s so much to be grateful and enjoy about this band. All of the killer live shows, festivals and tours have earned Mustered Courage a US tour manager with big things afoot in the new year.
35. Nick Batterham — Closing Time At Yah Yahs
A breathy, sparse and at time majestic collection of songs, with an unusual amount of improvisation and looping. Nick Batterham likes to adopt a second person accusatory tone, whispering lines about love, uncertainty and late night hangouts on Smith Street.
36. Kill Devil Hills — Past and Future Ghosts
You’ve gotta love a great live album, especially one from one of Australia’s finest country rocking bands playing their best loved songs over several albums.
37. Raised By Eagles — Raised By Eagles
This is emphatically a candidate for album of the year. Failing that, it secures singer/songwriter Luke Sinclair a spot in the ranks of our very best writer/performers, standing comfortably in the company of local luminaries like Matt Walker, Suzannah Espie, Van Walker and Liz Stringer. Raised By Eagles have built a reputation for tight, highly skilled live performances around town and the album brings us all that and more. Heartfelt, literate lyrics float over gorgeous melodies that are underpinned by telling yet always tasteful instrumentation, particularly from guitarist Nick O’Mara. Watching You Fall is an instant classic, so much so that it has spawned the waving of white handkerchiefs by devoted fans at RBE gigs in response to the “you ain’t waving no white flag” lyric. Read the full review.
38. Roger Knox — Stranger in My Land
The King of Koori Country, Roger Knox’s latest album celebrates the classics of Aboriginal country music, showing how the mournful sounds of Western music connect with first people and created a way of telling stories like The Streets of Tamworth, Stranger in My Land. With production from Jon Langford and guests including Bonnie Prince Billy and Charlie Louvin, it’s great to see this Bloodshot Records release showing off this rich musical heritage to the world and helping to carry it forward.
39. Roller One — Beautiful Fountain
Beautiful Fountain is an album that ever so slowly burns its way into you; before long you’re hooked and wanting to relive that initial rush of warmth through your veins. Roller One beckon the listener into the deep and shifting time of each song, leaving behind the world as it is known. Read the full review.
40. Ruth Lindsey — White Horse Black
There is definite dreamlike quality to Ruth Lindsey’s debut (recorded by Sean McMahon and co-produced by Alison Ferrier) full of spacious arrangements that never interfere with the main instrument: her voice. The formidable musical team includes Jason Bunn on viola, Ed Fairlie on trumpet and a Jeff Lang lending lead guitar on ‘Painted Ponies’ with each proving a light touch is the right touch.
41. Saint Jude — 2
Probably one of the easiest bands to love we know of, Saint Jude’s second album, was well worth the wait with Brooke Penrose’s heart-on-his-sleeve vocals and a band that cook in the best possible way. With reverent nods to Levon Helm and Dr John, appreciation of all that is great about that generation of artists is on display as well as sincere, self-questioning lyrics to rouse the soul. Absolutely beautiful.
42. Slim Dime And The Prairie Kings — Hillbilly Salad
Jen Land aka Slim Dime alongside Chris Taylor and Reuben Dwyer, serves up a wild, rollicking bunch of classic honky tonk covers by way of Brunswick and Fitzroy with some originals thrown in for good measure.
43. Sweet Jean — Dear Departure
Sime Nugent and Alice Keath bring an “old weird America” sensibility to this impeccable set of tunes steeped in the traditions of the Carter Family transported into a contemporary setting. In a year rich in new Australian releases Dear Departure is right up there demanding a place among the very best of the very best. ‘Maureen’, driven by old timey banjo captures the essence of the Sweet Jean sound and vividly demonstrates the musical empathy between the two players that permeates the album. ‘Annabelle’ is a masterwork, adding layers of lovely instrumentation over Keath’s haunting vocal, ‘Parachutes’ is an intoxicatingly beautiful duet and ‘Shiver And Shake’ is a captivating frontrunner for song of the year. This is awe inspiring stuff.
44. The Darling Downs — In The Days When the World Was Wide
When Ron S. Peno and Kim Salmon get together to explore their inner hill billy, the result is The Darling Downs. Their second album, with its name borrowed from a line in a Henry Lawson poem, sounds more at peace with the high and lonesome Appalachian sound, which is only right given how much these two artists have contributed to Australian music so far.
45. The Grapes — Western Sun
It would have been impossible to go wrong with the pairing of Sherry Rich’s and Ashley Naylor’s guitar playing. Western Sun is a wonderfully catchy album with a sound that’s as big as the sky itself. This is guaranteed to be stuck in the CD player all summer long, if not all year.
46. The Idle Hoes — Tomorrow Morning
Built around the longstanding musical partnership of Shaun Feeley and Luke Sinclair, this album shows off their contrasting but complementary singing and writing styles with a stack of wonderfully memorable songs.
47. The Lost Ragas — Phantom Ride
Already listed as an ABC Radio National Album of the Week, Phantom Ride sees Matt Walker and his touring band merge into a solid playing and writing unit in the wake of their In Echoes of Dawn release of 2012. There’s a unique and inspired style of country and blues orientated guitar playing here, between players who are perfectly attuned to one another.
48. The Stillsons — Never Go Your Way
Speaking of perfectly attuned players, The Stillsons’ third album sees them moving into more ever more assured musical territory. While Cat Canteri and Justin Bernasconi share writing duties, Cat’s voice is more foregrounded this time with increasingly personal and candid lyrics. As always, Bernasconi’s acoustic and electric guitar chops shine through alongside Ben Franz’s brilliant work on pedal steel.
49. Tim Guy — Dusty Dreaming of a Night Mango
Signed to Bic Runga’s label on the strength of a demo, Tim Guy needs very little to carry his songs as ‘Many People I Know’ demonstrates. This is a refreshingly minimalist album that deserves to be heard.
50. Waywardbreed — Gathering for the Feast
To finish our list, Gathering for the Feast by Waywardbreed aka Justin Avery is testament to the level of dedicated songwriting happening in Melbourne as well as the closeness and collaborative nature of the music community. After spending three years touring Europe, Justin returned to Melbourne assembled a team around him, including Katie Scott (Howl at the Moon), Elizabeth Barker (Gypsy Curse) and violinist Andrew Watson and recruited Simon Grounds (Laura Jean, Kes and Architecture in Helsinki) to mix and master. This is folk music custom made to reach the heart.