Exclaim!'s Best of 2013: Top 10 Country, Folk & Blues Albums

3. Neko Case
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

Of course Neko Case is awesome. Of course she runs with impeccable company. Of course she's evolved from the alt-country pigeonhole she started in. And of course she can sing her ass off. We've known all that for the better part of 15 years now.

What's changed is her evolution as a writer: both lyrically and musically, and in ways that it's impossible to separate the two. As a poet, she's all show and no tell; you're welcome to read whatever you want into these songs based on her interviews, but they are wide templates rich with metaphor and imagery. Likewise, her approach to instrumentation, arrangement, production and songcraft — and it's Case, grossly underrated as a producer, who is calling all those shots — creates vivid worlds within each song, be it the rousing brass in "Ragtime," the a cappella tone poem of "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu," the New Pornographic romp of "Man," the sparse, empathetic reading of Nico's "Alone," or the aching melancholy, love and regret that drive "Calling Cards" and "City Swans."

As she enters her 40s, Case refuses to coast, instead pushing and challenging herself to greater heights. She's a fighter and a lover, and she's on your side. (Michael Barclay)