2014's Top Country Albums Prove the Music's Flourishing, Radio Be Damned

2014's Top Country Albums Prove the Music's Flourishing, Radio Be Damned

Here's my imitation of executives in Nashville: "Let's put the one that sounds like a Lionel Richie ballad right after the tailgating song with the AC/DC power chords." This year's country-music crop boasts some marvels, but I've never found less to like in the albums pumped out of Music Row, where sequencing three strong tracks in a row is as long-gone a tradition as Nudie suits. Even the best big-biz album on this list, Miranda Lambert's Platinum, demands editing on the consumer end: You'll like a lot, and you'll skip more than you should have to.

So, as always, this roundup of the year's best "country" albums draws from artists that maybe get classified as something else: folk? Southern rock? That dreaded term "Americana," which suggests that the music of Lucinda Williams (who isn't listed) is the equivalent of some antique mall's Route 66 tchotchkes?

There's ear-of-the-beholder trouble, here, but I've tried to be judicious: Hurray for the Riff Raff's excellent record strikes me as rootsy indie rock, and Lori McKenna's strikes me as folk, and Mary Gauthier's strikes me as a gorgeous snore. But the choices below all strike me as country, as un-fussy and plain-spoken, as interested in detail over abstraction and in how older song forms connect to our world now.

Again, I savor this irony: The Nashville records are lyrically conservative (see Lambert's "Automatic") but musically catholic. In country, the words always matter, and here's a tallboy for stars like Church and Lambert who dare to shove the Contemporary Country Song out of the bro-party ditch in which it's lately crashed. (The driver: Luke Bryan? Florida Georgia Line?) But it's the outsiders -- the actual outsiders, on the indies, not in-the-system retro-outlaws like Eric Church -- who get hung up on honoring the sonic palate of 1970-whatever. It's weird how liberals are the ones who insist country should sound the way segregationists liked it.

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Here's the list, in order. Note that any of the top five could have been the number one.

13.Dierks Bentley, Riser

Unlike lots of big-label singin' hunks, Bentley has quality control down. This batch of steady, sturdy mid-tempo product gives "product" a good name -- you might space out during a couple songs in the back half, but you probably won't skip 'em, either. Song topics are as predictable as the layered pop-grunge guitar sound, but Bentley and his writers richen the clichés they rely on: The drinking songs are about forgetting real pain, and the praying song is about agonizing over the way prayers never get a straight-up answer. Best of all is the check-out-these-girls number, which is wistful and boozy, evocative of a moment slipping past -- and, in this case, that moment is, considering how Maddie & Tae just killed songs on this topic dead. Key demerit: Bentley's voice remains undistinguished, except by that moist croak he likes to sink into, a tic that always suggests to me a kid making armpit farts.

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "I'll bump this seat right up to first class/So I can drink that cheap champagne out of a real glass/And when we land I'll call her up and tell her kiss my ass"

12. Sam Hunt, Montevallo

Pleasant as it is, this might be the most radical Nashville record of the year, no matter how many times Miranda Lambert says "shit" on hers. Here, at last, is the full integration of r&b into mainstream country, without joking condescension or even self-consciousness: The beat-and-guitar shimmer fits opener "Take Your Time" so naturally you could believe it's some gently remixed '90s Babyface track. Same goes for the record-scratching of "House Party," a cheery roof-raiser whose title gives away the game. Trace the streams of American music back to their common headwaters, and you'll see that country, soul, blues, and rock started as the same thing -- now, contains-it-all pop like Hunt's is the great ocean toward which all those streams have been flowing. Or, to put it more simply, here's an unfathomably good-looking young "country" dude singing about small-town cops and parties but whose ballads could pass for the Tony Rich Project.

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "Your daddy's gonna kill me/But if I survive tonight/I wouldn't change one thing"

11. Jon Pardi, Write You a Song

Country edges into some conservative old-school r&b and hip-hop, but it's flat-out annexed any rock that still bothers to roll. Where else but country radio will you hear a brisk, brash guitar band like Pardi's? In '78 this would have been pub-rock. In '91 it would would have been in rotation with Matthew Sweet and the Wonder Stuff on PostModern MTV. Today, it's one of many reasons so many white Americans have turned to Nashville: The rest of the culture has abandoned this kind of upbeat four-square guitar band. Highlights: The ace feel-along ballad "That Man"; the chug-along joy/misery of "Trash a Motel Room"; and the drive-along travelogue of stomping title track "Write You a Song," which honors the great country-star traditions of listing cities, of feeling lonely, of being honest about the ways men lie to women. But it's all good, and his fine scrape of a voice imbues urgency into rote lyrics.

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "Don't forget your flip-flops/We can stop by the Quick Stop"

10. Carlene Carter, Carter Girl

The Opry meets the Starbucks on this Don Was-produced room-warmer, a lilting look back whose craggy Grammy-bait guest stars (Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson) and air of fussed-over prestige somehow never snuffs Carter's fire. Time has burnished her voice so that it resembles her mother's, which helps these long-gone mountain songs connect to today. Savor her take on mama June's brooding murder drama "Tall Lover Man," and the cake-thick accompaniment of guitars, organ, and the exuberant clatter of Jim Keltner's drumming. What's surprising is that the Carter Family oldies -- all freshened up by airy arrangements and not-quite-too-tasteful playing -- sound just as unfixed in time as Carter's own great "Me and the Wildwood Rose," a standout original of her own from 1990. Singing, playing, sequencing: Everything here is top of the line, but it's hard not to wish for another batch of new Carter songs -- it's been since 2008.

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "That fair-haired girl with those blue, blue eyes is not your wife"

 

9. Sunny Sweeney, Provoked

Tough, funny Sweeney's tenuous success confirms Nashville has a dude-bro problem: Four years after hitting the top 10 with the oh-damn-he-still-loves-his-wife jewel "From a Table Away," her follow-up, Provoked, is a Kickstartered indie affair, even though it's a straight-ahead rock-and-banjo pleasure stacked with hooks and smarts and lyrics as funny/tough as she is. Sweeney's a grown-up, singing grown-up songs that sting with well-observed truths: "My Bed," a boozy duet with Will Hoge, is a his-and-hers autopsy of a marriage, and "Used Cars" works a notion about fix-him-up dating into the kind of sweet and witty minor classic that used to be Brad Paisley's specialty. The pushy bad-girl numbers rage winningly but feel a couple years behind the radio curve, but that's radio's fault, not Sweeney's. By the time she and her crack rock-and-fiddle band get to "Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass," you'll understand why she's got beef.

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "Signs here and there tell me when and where I can smoke my damn cigarettes"

8. The Secret Sisters, Put Your Needle Down

Their real secret is the savvy shotgunning of neglected decades and sounds -- and that their borrowings cohere in a fresh and thrilling whole. Here's a singing-family act that dresses like '40s starlets, pens Buddy Holly melodies and candy-noir dirges about needle drugs, and has gathered clout enough to land producer T Bone Burnett, a half-finished Dylan original, and an endorsement deal with Cracker Barrel. Best of all, in a pop era that favors virtuoso belting over sing-along simplicity, the Sisters twine their voices around each other like the Everlys used to, all ease and bliss -- I bet you can't tell Laura's from Lydia's. That unfussy quality applies to Burnett's production; he only sparingly drenches the sisters in that opium-den fog he so often favors. Mostly, he's got championship session players trying playing like they're Lubbock teens in '58: raw, loose, direct, living only for the songs, which are worth living for.

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "My daddy finally knocked a little sense right into me/So I asked around until I found the Justice of the Peace"

7. Eric Church, The Outsiders

Church has dedicated himself to expanding Nashville's sound: metal, rudimentary loops, four-square raplike whiteboy chants, a raw-throated backup singer echoing "Gimme Shelter" rather than "I Saw the Light." (Unlike on his breakthrough hit, "Smoke a Little Smoke," the power chords here don't sound like Roxette.) Too bad his pity-the-Silent Majority lyrical routine is as limiting as his music is expansive: He fantasizes about shooting a "thug"; he pretends that he (and presumably his audience) have "backs against the wall" in some new America overrun by -- well, he's not dumb enough to say who, exactly. His other subjects are nostalgia, which he's great on, and his own badass rebellious streak, which he spends more time drawling about than actually embodying. Still, his Outsiders sounds great, and it stands as evidence that country stars can use the songs between the singles to express something urgent and fully of themselves.

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "Here's to turning up, slowing down, and cars that go real fast"

 

6. Miranda Lambert, Platinum

Like Eric Church, Miranda Lambert has more daring ideas of what country can/should sound like than any of the hairshirted folk-Americana songwriter-circle traditionalists. Step to the backyard swagger of "Little Red Wagon," which sounds like the work of a Counter-Earth Dolly Parton who grew up on "Hot for Teacher." The clattering junkyard-band production of the album's middle dulls the sharpness of several songs, but almost nobody else has songs that are sharper, so there's still much to enjoy, here. More problematic: The EZ-listening ballads seem to come from another planet, especially the one with Little Big Town, where whatever software Lambert's voice gets filtered through must have been set to "Full Chipmunk."

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "I love my apron -- but I ain't your mama!"

5. Michaela Anne, Ease My Mind

Nashville country idealizes a false American past in its lyrics. Alt-country idealizes a false Nashville past in its sound. But besides that emphasis on fiddles and pedal steel, the most pressing difference between a stellar singer/songwriter/balladeer like Brooklyn-based Michaela Anne and the stars of Music Row lies in what we expect the performer's perspective to be: The stars sing what they hope might stir us, while the Michaela Annes -- we presume -- sing what's stirring in them. That means that when a line of hers strikes you, when a melody lifts you, when her voice stops you in your tracks, you feel she's igniting feeling in you that's been burning in her. Every song on Anne's debut is strong, and several are stunners, which I mean literally: Listening to "The Haunting" while doing dishes, I had to stop and sit down and play the song again. She sings softly, with a gingery twang, and her band specializes in melancholic momentum. Even at her saddest, they ramble with ragged power.

Here's that stunner, plus an interview and then another memorable original:

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "The darkest nights in Kentucky/Feel like a grave they're digging just for me"

4. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

Sure, Simpson is heavily indebted to '70s Waylon: the timbre, the one-two thump, the good sense to know that the bass player matters, the way he sounds like he's drawling, moaning, and spitting all at the same time. But his real muse seems to be that talking coyote Johnny Cash voiced that time Homer Simpson tripped on Guatemalan insanity peppers. Here, on the year's best country/rock fusion, the sound is a crisp up-to-date of Waymore's Blues, with added head-shop swirls.

But the lyrics -- "reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain" -- swirl, too, a spiral of hallucinatory mysticism too personal to cross over. You know those dudes who dismiss all contemporary country out-of-hand, just because they hold to some last-century marketing department's idea of what makes pop music "authentic"? This would be their album of the decade if Simpson would only go the Eric Church route and make his art all about just how rebellious his art is. Instead, it's his strangeness and humility that make Sturgill singular -- and his songwriting and band-leading that make him great.

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "Memories like coal dust stain the window of my eyes"

3. Angaleena Presley, American Middle Class

Unlike Space-Coyote Simpson, songwriter Presley is out to rouse some rabble -- she's part of that tradition of country singers compelled to seize the culture by its scruff and remind it what really matters. On the title track/keynote speech, she lays out, over snarls of barbed-wire guitar, the exact complaints I hear at holiday gatherings back in my native Midwest: You know who does all the work in America, but gets screwed the most? (The answer they're looking for is not migrant laborers.) That's a Haggard move, of course, which means it does what country's always done, from "Workin' Man Blues" to Toby Keith's boot-in-the-ass "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue": made hard times feel better by daring to face them dead-on -- and with a killer chorus.

That crowd-pleaser is matched by "Ain't No Man," a classic bit of bad-girl dada ("She's sad as the smile on a birthday clown/Busy as the saddle in a one-horse town") set over rusty-nail bayou-funk, and the jubilant banjo-comedy of "Knocked Up," a pickin' party where the band's as good as the words, and the words are unbeatable: "Hand-me-down crib in a pickup truck/That's what you get when you get knocked up."

But for all that, Presley's at her most confident and affecting when she steps back to observe character. The slow one where she wonders about the lives of the people buying groceries late on a freezing weeknight punches harder than any of the fast ones. So does the ballad where this wised-up coastal transplant wonders if she might be happier having just stayed in that hometown whose secrets she spins into art. If I'm emphasizing her lyrics, that's because her vocals do the same: She gets the songs over, and that's enough.

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "Everything would collapse without the hardworking, God-loving members of the American middle class"  

2. Kandia Crazy Horse, Stampede

Rather than jamming familiar sounds together, hoping they snap together into something new, Kandia Crazy Horse operates under the assumption that all those sounds are already equally hers. She's a synthesist, the opposite of whatever Big Bang first blasted American pop into all those limiting genres. Her song titles suggest her vision: "Congo Square" (on which funky drummer meets Bakersfield riffs and Rolling Thunder fiddles); "Soul Yodel" (on which "The Tennessee Waltz" and Al Green's "Simply Beautiful" dissolve together like sugar in her mouth); "Gunfight at the Golden Corral" (a crackpot two-step whose chorus is the name of Pauline Kael's most famous book); and "New Kid in Town" (which, yes, is an Eagles cover, a bit meager beside her originals).

No record I've heard this year boasts such warmth and breadth and surprise. Crazy Horse is a critic who has ranked Southern rock as among the greatest of all American art, and that sound is prevalent here, but without the reverence or overthinking you might fear from a singer/songwriter often paid to overthink this stuff. There's traces of the Band and Gram Parsons and Neil Young and whoever else all over the melted-gold beauty of "California," the album opener, but the song's too much of a grand totality to be reduced to references. Whenever I try to track what exactly the band is doing, I just get caught in its feeling: like falling asleep in a car with the sun in your hair.

The centerpiece astonishment, called "Americana" and written with Ben Peeler, opens as a duet: As she plucks her rich, tannic alto up into its honeyed highest registers, while Peeler's delicate fingerpicking seems to come from wherever the cowboy campfire meets the samba. There's a chorus with a thesis statement -- "Looking for America/Looking for you." But after that and a wistful yodel, her reverie is interrupted by the strident piano of movement gospel and the stamp of marching feet, suggesting "Rhythm Nation" and the sparest hip-hop. She sings a couple tell-off lines, her voice now lower, brooding -- "This sassy cowboy movie's over, sugar" -- before scraping back toward falsetto with a kicker steeped in c&w history: "Don't bring your guitars to town." The question isn't "What's all this mean?" The question is "What doesn't it?"

Full disclosure: Crazy Horse worked as an editor at the Village Voice a couple years before I did. I've never met her, and I only learned about the association when I started carrying on and on to all my co-workers about what a knockout this record is. Also, when I emailed her to discuss a possible interview, she mentioned that she has had some trouble convincing people that her music is country. That's outrageous. If Dierks Bentley, Sam Hunt, Jon Pardi, Eric Church, and Miranda Lambert can claim to be so, she sure as hell can, too.

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "Switchin' partners at the honky-tonk/Sho' 'nuff making me blue"

1. Lee Ann Womack, The Way I'm Livin'

Here's mastery so total you might miss it. Yes, Womack's indie debut, her first full-length since 2008, is a hard-eyed, hard-loving, hard-praying electric string-band classic, but it doesn't strain to be so. This plays like a great singer having a great session with a great batch of songs, like she could knock out one of these any year, every year. Her voice is undiminished, each note sweet and fiery enough to fill a shot glass, and the sound -- overseen by her husband and producer, Frank Liddell -- is trad but never musty, sometimes even lush with guitars and harmonies and inventive drumming.

Best of all, everything, even the former hitmaker's pipes, is working fully in the service of the year's best selection of songs, all covers, all potent. She sings Hayes Carll, Julie Miller, Bruce Robinson, and Neil Young: One heartsick narrator pines for an acquaintance at a bar; the next let the devil inside her the first time she took a drink; and the troubled soul after that beseeches Jesus directly for help or answers before she's lost forever.

But the listening isn't grim. Womack's exquisite treatment of Chris Knight and David Leone's "Send It On Down," as lonesome a song as you'll ever hear, soothes like a hot toddy on a frozen night. As pleasurable heat spreads inside you, you're reminded that somebody out there understands the worst that you've ever gone through -- and has it in herself to make everything better, three minutes at a time. She manages that track after track, all like it's no big thing at all. Am I foolish to hope this career high is actually her first steps on a great plateau?

Lyric That Proves It's Still Country: "This ain't where I'll be settling down/I wanna be gone when fall rolls around"

-- Hey, you could do worse than following @studiesincrap on the Twitter thing.


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