The Oscars have a Best Picture, but the Grammys have an Album of the Year. It makes sense — you may only see a film once, but you live with an album for a year or longer, long enough that it becomes a collection of memories that sound clear as any note.
But on Sunday night, the Recording Academy will honor a collection of albums that, for the most part, are no more than national fads — albums that are acquaintances to many and friends to few.
And it won't honor a record that's been acknowledged by Rolling Stone, NPR, American Songwriter, Paste and countless fans as one of the best records — if not the best — of the year. It won't honor Jason Isbell's Southeastern.
Southeastern marks the fourth solo album for Isbell, who is most widely known for his involvement in road-warrior southern rock band the Drive-By Truckers. It's also his best record yet.
Isbell joined the Drive-By Truckers the same way he left: drunk. He met the aging band when they played a house party at the then 22-year-old's house in Green Hill, Alabama. When the group's guitarist didn't show, Isbell boldly sat in. The next day, he was a member of the band. Over the next five years, he wrote the group's most popular songs, was married to the bassist, divorced the bassist and stayed so drunk that he barely remembers any of it. He quit in 2007.
Daft Punk, Bareilles and Macklemore have made good records this year — ones that sound like the best of what was popular in 2013. But Southeastern cuts deeper than any of those records ever could.
Five years later, Isbell was still drunk, at a creative low and in a Twitter feud. He blasted pop country legend, Dierks Bentley, for stealing his song "In a Razor Town" for Bentley's megahit "Home." Bentley has 1.12 million Twitter followers and a profile that links to dierks.com. Isbell has 47,900 followers and a profile that reads "Troubadork." The next year, "Home" was nominated for Best Country Solo Performance at the Grammys. Dierks toured the country belting, "Brave, gotta call it brave" for thousands who thought him very brave indeed, while on "In a Razor Town" Isbell sang, "In a razor town / The only thing that matters tends to bring you down."
A month later, Isbell's then-girlfriend (now his wife), Amanda Shires, checked him into rehab. He got clean, and a few months later he started writing songs again. Those are the songs on Southeastern.
They are unflinching. Unadorned and darkly hopeful, each is a portrait of Isbell's despair, Shires' unconditional love and his own faith in rehabilitation, however unsteady. To listen to the record back-to-back with the one he released three years before at the height of his alcoholism is to hear a soul revived. Between the throaty roar of the acoustics on "Cover Me Up" and the full-bodied band on "Flying Over Water," Isbell lives in the sounds of the South that raised him. Throughout, he peppers lines worthy of any classic songwriter — lines like "There's a man who walks beside me / He is who I used to be / And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him for me." It is a triumph of songcraft, but more than anything it's a record with a clear and open heart.
Jason Isbell beat his own odds and made a record that deserves recognition. Daft Punk, Bareilles, and Macklemore have made good records this year — ones that sound like the best of what was popular in 2013. But Southeastern cuts deeper than any of those records ever could. It's a reminder of what music can and should do — remind us of the timeless best in each of us, even when we're at our daily worst. Southeastern sounds, more than anything, honest.
For better or for worse, that's because Isbell has lived these songs. Maybe that's why Southeastern never could win the Grammy. It isn't the album of the year; it's an album of many.