If you’re an old man, shouting at the clouds about how modern music isn’t the same as it was in your heyday, you would probably enjoy the recent output of Jason Isbell. Isbell’s an Americana artist, whose sincere albums are timeless and elegant, and could have been made any time in the last fifty years. Hailing from Alabama, the soul sound of Muscle Shoals is in his musical DNA, as is the work of respected songwriters like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.
Isbell first came to prominence as a member of the Drive-By Truckers, serving as lead guitarist and third songwriter beside Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. He attracted attention with songs like ‘Outfit’, written based on his father’s advice upon joining the band, and ‘Decoration Day’.
Isbell left the Drive-By Truckers in 2007, embarking on a solo career. But his early albums weren’t convincing, and he didn’t come into his own as a solo artist until a 2012 stint in rehab and his marriage to fellow songwriter Amanda Shires. Here are Isbell’s seven studio solo albums to date, ranked from worst to best.
#7 Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit
Isbell’s second solo album is his first with backing band, The 400 Unit. It’s also his least enjoyable record, a talented songwriter phoning it in. Even the best songs, like the punchy ‘How Long’, would merely serve as minor highlights on his stronger records.
#6 Here We Rest
Isbell’s still inconsistent on 2011’s Here We Rest, but there’s some better material here, particularly the graceful and nostalgic ‘Alabama Pines’ and the solo acoustic ‘Daisy Mae’. I also enjoy the Southern soul of ‘Heart on a String’.
#5 Sirens of the Ditch
Isbell’s solo debut features several of his former band-mates from Drive-By Truckers, and it’s the most agreeably raw sounding of his solo releases. Highlights include the rocker ‘Brand New Kind of Actress’, recounting the Phil Spector murder trial, the piano-driven ‘Chicago Promenade’ and the blue-eyed soul of ‘Hurricanes and Hand Grenades’.
Isbell is settled into a comfortable groove on his seventh studio album. Like his previous record, he’s back with the 400 Unit, delivering both contemplative acoustic songs and roaring rockers. ‘Overseas’ is a great rocker, but the acoustic songs are the highlights – his relationship with his daughter on ‘Letting You Go’ and the pretty ‘River’.
#3 The Nashville Sound
After two mostly acoustic albums, Isbell reunited with The 400 Unit for The Nashville Sound. I prefer Isbell in singer-songwriter mode, but there are some fine tracks here, as the outspoken Southern Democrat expresses his political views on ‘White Man’s World’ and ‘Hope The High Road’.
#2 Something More Than Free
Isbell’s previous album, Southeastern, was full of extremely personal songs. On Something More Than Free, Isbell writes like Springsteen, documenting the lives of underdog, blue-collar folks. While it’s a singer-songwriter album at heart, with portraits like the title track, there’s propulsion behind ’24 Frames’ and ‘The Life You Chose’.
Isbell became sober in 2012 and the results were immediate – a stronger, more focused, and more personal batch of songs. Southeastern was originally intended to be an entirely solo album, with just Isbell’s voice and guitar, but some tracks feature fuller arrangements. My favourites include rocker ‘Flying Over Water’ and the contemplative ‘Relatively Easy’, but the most acclaimed track is the chronicle of a cancer battle on ‘Elephant’.
Are you an Isbell fan? Do you have a favourite album?
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I’ve never heard of him but he sounds really good….good writer.
Yeah, he’s definitely building a career the old-fashioned way. He’s getting decent chart placings and biggish tours now.
I always thought slow is the way to go. You get loyal fans who stick with you.
Excellent. I would have ranked them the same way!
Good breakdown of his solo career! Now I know where to start as I’ve only listened to a small amount of his music. My favorite song by Jason Isbell is “Anxiety” (from 2017) which I feel has the potential to become a modern classic.
Southeastern is an exceptional album and I wouldn’t disagree with it taking top spot, as it’s my favourite. Here We Rest is my second favourite, but I just like the vibe on there and, despite it being a bit inconsistent, it was the first of his albums I really fell for. After that, everything is pretty much in the same place for me.
I am that old man ! I only really know southeastern so looking forward to checking out some of these
Cool! I definitely think the post-sobriety ones are stronger.
I’m afraid I can relate to that old man!
So this might be just what I need to stay semi-current with music
I don’t know if he’s current – he’s the kind of artist who’d appeal to people who gave up on new music 20 years ago (not an insult, he’s just very much from the traditional songwriting school).
Have you seen/heard Jason and Amanda cover ‘Mutineer’ by Warren Zevon? There is a clip from David Letterman. Phenomenal!
I have actually – I was browsing Isbell videos and checked in out since I already loved the Zevon song.
Warren is one of my favourites.
I’m working my way through his stuff –
the 1976 and 1978 records are both very good.
I absolutely love Isbell and I fully agree with your ranking. Southeastern is amazing. Cover Me Up is my hands down favourite, but the whole thing is pretty much perfect.
Yup, it’s the clear best for me. He apparently has a new one coming this year – I assume it’s with The 400 Unit.
Jason Isbell is a great singer, songwriter and guitarist. I just bought Southeastern following the recommendation of this site and I am looking forward to hearing it. I have the Reunions album and that is great. Drive By Truckers were a good band when Isbell was part of it. Keep up the good work.
Great – I hope you enjoy!