I made a list of the best stuff I read, heard and saw in 2013 — it’s down at the bottom of this post — but in the end I kept wanting to write about one thing, and one idea. Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern” cut deep to my soul — I wrote about it once, then rewrote that a little bit. It’s the finest piece of art I experienced all year. But I think it’s more than that. It’s a Perfect Album. And there aren’t many of those.
I’m not saying “Southeastern” is one of the greatest records of all time. That requires some distance. The greatest records are more about the height of the peaks, and how they land in the culture. A Perfect Album is a little different. To me, a Perfect Album has three requirements:
1) I love every song on it.
2) At one point or another, just about every song has been my favorite song on the record.
3) It never gets old.
A lot of fantastic records — some of my absolute favorites — aren’t quite Perfect Albums. “Abbey Road” is amazing, but “Octupus’s Garden” loses me every time. I really wanted to put Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Second Helping” on here, but I just don’t love “Swamp Music” enough. I have deep feelings for Zero 7’s “Simple Things,” but it starts to fade near the end. R&B from the ’70s is my favorite music, but even Stevie Wonder in his “Talking Book”/”Innervisions”/”Fulfillingness’ First Finale” prime didn’t bat 1.000. (Greatest-hits records don’t count, in the same way you don’t pick a ballplayer’s best season by looking at the highlight reel.)
I spent a lot of time — probably too much time — going through my collection and thinking about this. My hardest cut was the first Boston album; my 14-year-old self argued for it long and hard, but I just don’t love it like I used to. Although I turn up the radio every time the deep-cuts station plays “Something About You.”
In the end, I come up with exactly 10 Perfect Albums. I can’t even begin to put one of these over another, so they’re in alphabetical order.
1) “Ben Folds Five” (debut album, 1995)
2) Isbell, “Southeastern” (2013)
3) Los Lobos, “How Will the Wolf Survive?” (1984)
4) “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band” (1989)
5) Prince, “Purple Rain” (1984)
6) R.E.M., “Reckoning” (1984)
7) Kim Richey, “Bitter Sweet” (1997)
8) Tom Waits, “Closing Time” (1973)
9) “Who’s Next” (1971)
10) Lucinda Williams, “Essence” (2001)
The Kim Richey record is the one you probably don’t know. She might make more of a living as a songwriter — “Every River Runs Dry” was a hit for Brooks & Dunn, and they used “Why Can’t I Say Goodnight” on the TV show “Nashville.” But her versions are better. Every time I play this record once, I want to play it twice.
But that’s how I feel about all of these. And that’s why “Southeastern” hit me so hard this year. At first “Cover Me Up” was my favorite song, and then for a couple months it was “Live Oak,” and then it was “Songs That She Sang in the Shower.” Lately “Elephant” has been working on me. The narrator drinks and smokes with his good friend, and thinks about screwing her, too … but she’s got cancer, and the only thing they can do is joke about it:
We drink these drinks and laugh out loud
Bitch about the weekend crowd
And try to ignore the elephant somehow
It hurts my heart to hear it. But I always want to hear it again.
The whole point of a list like this is the debate, so of course I want you to shred my choices and nominate yours. I reserve the right to change my mind multiple times about this.
In the meantime, check out the rest of the best of 2013:
Read Michael Kruse on the Bounty, and David Shoemaker on pro wrestling, and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain, and Wright Thompson on Dan Gable. (I could have picked half a dozen other Wright stories — the fly-rod couple or Johnny Football or Bushwacker the bull or Michael Jordan. Wright’s 2013 was an all-timer.)
Stream the last half-season of “Breaking Bad” (especially “Ozymandias“) and season 4 of “Justified” (especially “Decoy“). I can’t recommend “Justified” enough. The new season starts Jan. 7. Good bandwagon seats available.