Jason Isbell is a living legend in the world of mature country (i.e., Americana). And deservedly so. Few people create a single album that reaches greatness. Even fewer create 2. And Isbell has at least three on his own, and also made some unforgettable songs with the Drive-By Truckers.
He just got tapped to be in Martin Scorsese’s next movie. Will this put music in his rear view? He’s already had roles on Squidbillies and Deadwood: The Movie, and it didn’t stop him, so there’s hope.
Today, a ranking of all of his solo album—to let you know where to start off in your collection, if you’re just getting to know Isbell.
JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT (2008)
The Heartbreakers were to Tom Petty what the 400 Unit are to Jason Isbell: A band of equals who bring out the best in their leader. On his first album with them, though, Isbell seemed to be still finding his feet. He’d already released a very, very strong debut solo album (Sirens in the Ditch) that proved he could stand alone without the Drive-By Truckers, so expectations were high for his sophomore release post-DBT. The album has some unforgettable songs on it, like The Last Song I Will Write. It also treads on ground Isbell will walk throughout his career, like the tragic song about veterans (Soldiers Get Strange) and the sad song about substances (Cigarettes and Wine). But Isbell will write masterpieces about these themes later on his career. This album is kind of forgettable.
I’m sad to say that Isbell’s most recent original album is one of his weakest. I’m going to say it’s because of COVID, but it may be because the content is moving away from the familiar and becoming overtly political and, at times, sentimental. There are some great songs here—notably Dreamsicle and It Gets Easier, but overall this is not great Isbell. It is definitely great compared to most other albums that came out in 2021—because he is a master at his craft—but for him, this is a lesser work.
GEORGIA BLUE (2021)
On November 5, 2020, Jason tweeted that if Georgia voted for Joe Biden, he’d produce a charity covers album by Georgia songwriters. This is it.
It’s a solid-but-uneven collection with Jason taking a back seat to other vocalists on several tracks. The best cuts include Nightswimming (one of two R.E.M. covers) with Bela Fleck, It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World with vocals by the great Brittney Spencer, and, my personal favorite, Adia Victoria’s powerful take on the lesser-known Precious Bryant song, The Truth. That song alone is worth the price of this record. Other artists who appeared include Julien Baker, Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, and John Paul White.
SIRENS OF THE DITCH (2007)
First of all: Brilliant song title. Sirens of the Ditch was the first album Isbell made on his own, after being kicked out of the Drive-By Truckers for drinking too much. Yes, he drank and did too much coke for Patterson Hood (who helped produce the album for Isbell so clearly no hard feelings there).
I wonder what his former bandmembers thought when they heard the power on this record. Dress Blues is a heartbreaking biography of a KIA U.S. Marine. In a Razor Town tells the kind of small-town, hard-life stories that the Truckers themselves specialize in. A solid record.
HERE WE REST (2011)
And from here on out, the albums listed change. Whereas the ones below Here We Rest had some good songs on them, it’s here that we start getting great albums. Entire albums. Here We Rest has some of the finest writing of Isbell’s career (so far). The album’s veteran song is Tour of Duty, and it’s phenomenal. Heart on a String is vintage Motown soul. Codeine is a crowd-pleaser sing-along that I’ve never heard him play live (and I’m pretty pissed at him for that!). Alabama Pines is genius. And the songs between the ones mentioned are all meat, no filler. The record has style changes we haven’t heard before and moves deliberately from quiet nostalgia, through the hard knocks of life (broken hearts, sexual molestation, drug addiction), and ends with the grief of death. Jason Isbell’s first truly great-and-timeless album.
SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE (2015)
Jason Isbell deservedly won two Grammy Awards for this one: Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song (the incredible 24 Frames). The Life You Chose is one of those songs I think about all the time, applying it to my own life (“Are you living the life you chose/Are you living the life that chose you?”). Lots of great songs here, with my personal favorites ncluding If It Takes a Lifetime, How to Forget, Speed Trap Town…The closer is the first time Isbell sang about his days with the Drive-By Truckers: To a Band that I Loved.
THE NASHVILLE SOUND (2016)
With this record, the country music community finally recognized Jason Isbell, nominating him for the 2017 Album of the year. It was a great year for country, with Isbell up against Miranda Lambert’s amazing album The Weight of These Wings—both of them lost to Chris Stapleton’s From a Room Volume 1. No shame in that, but come on. Stapleton’s album was very good but nothing on his album (or Lambert’s) can compare to If We Were Vampires (which won a Grammy for Best American Roots Song). Nashville Sound also gave Isbell his second Best Americana Album Grammy and debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200. So…Very successful album.
Other can’t miss cuts include The Last of My Kind, Cumberland Gap, Molotov, and Hope the Right Road. Oh, and Something to Love—a lovely closer to an intensely emotional record.
This is the second album of Isbell’s that I’d say is one of the best records of all time. The first is…
Yes. After making his best album so far (Here We Rest), Jason Isbell took two years to record one of the greatest albums of all time. This is the one that has Elephant. If you hear that song for the first time and don’t at least choke up, you just don’t have a heart for music. Isbell has never shied away from hard topics, but Elephant is probably the best song about the anticipation of death since Warren Zevon’s Keep Me In Your Heart. The album opens with Cover Me Up, Isbell’s most famous song and one of the sweetest love songs of all time. Then there’s Traveling Alone, Live Oak, Flying Over Water, Songs That She Sang in the Shower, Different Days…And the kick-ass barnstormer Super 8. This album, end-to-end, will make you feel sad and grateful, like crying and dancing, and often all at the same time.