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This list of the year’s best country albums is assembled with two important premises in mind: First: If the people who record and listen to these records consider them country, than they’re damn well country. Purists who argue that country should still sound like ’68, ’76, ’84 or whenever are in the interesting position of being more conservative than Nashville radio.
I have nothing against the opinion that Hank Williams—or whatever other well-marketed figure of authenticity you prefer— would love to see Rascal Flatts knocked on their J.C. Penney-endorsing asses. But I also accept that that opinion matters much less than those of the few million people who still actually buy CDs.
Second, Taylor Swift is now beyond country the way that Kanye is beyond hip hop or J.R. is beyond Dallas. She simply is. Red would rank highly here if I were to waste a slot on it, but TS belongs on more broadly focused lists, like maybe “Best Things in General in Recent Years.”
This list has fewer men than women, mostly because Nashville’s suits allow the he-hunks a more meager emotional range than the spitfires. The fellas are forever singing about some upcoming beer-in-a-cooler party (Wade Bowen’s “Saturday Night,” Lee Brice’s “Parking Lot Party,” Chris Cagle’s “Wal-Mart Parking Lot”) or all the little details that make being in love worth it (Easton Corbin’s “Lovin’ You Is Fun”; Jason Aldean’s “When She Says Baby”). Maybe once per album they’re permitted to feel something more complex. Of course, if male country stars sang about their real lives, every song would be called things like “Two Hours at the Gym and a Protein Shake.”
10. Little Big Town Tornado A his-and-hers vocal group rather than the Zynga game the name suggests, Little Big Town exemplifies modern Nashville’s expanding sonic purview, which now includes all music that white Americans have ever enjoyed with the exception of post-Nirvana alt-rock. Like Eric Church, they’ve updated the Waylon Jennings one-two stomp for the age of the breakbeat, and from track to track the four singers daydream that they’re the Oak Ridge Boys (“Front Porch Thing”), Fleetwood Mac (“Leavin’ In Your Eyes”), and — seriously, on the hilarious “On Fire Tonight” — the Jackson Five. The big beat is killer, but the twining harmony songs are just incidentally pretty.
Number of Songs I Can’t Stand: 3
Lyric That Proves It’s Actually Country: “When I die/ I don’t wanna go sober.”
Highlights: They way they coo “motorboatin'” with something of the know-it’s-dirty-archness that John Anderson drawled “swingin’.”
9. Edens Edge Edens Edge The rare chart-contending country band that actually sounds something like a band, this comely trio (this time a hers-n-his) has managed to craft an appealingly down-home debut full-length despite the involvement of producer Dann Huff, the man personally responsible for the fact that so much Nashville product sounds like uptight Whitesnake. Singer Hannah Blaylock’s power and unapologetic twang mark her as a potential long-haul performer; the two guitar/dobro/mandolin players guarantee your grandpap might recognize this as having something to do with the common idea of country. Too bad the songwriting’s not especially distinctive, save a couple ringers like “Amen.”
Number of Songs I Can’t Stand: 2
Lyric That Proves It’s Actually Country: “I heard from a friend of a friend of a friend that/ You finally got rid of that girlfriend”
Highlights: In a year when sexually active single women were shamed again and again in media and politics, Blaylock belting “Skinny Dippin'” is a welcome, horny corrective.
8. Kip Moore Up All Night This here’s the most promising of the neo-Springsteens, that tribe of car and romance-loving rockers whose songs all barrel across suburban-to-rural everytowns like the Boss’s might if he had no interest in politics or hard truths. Moore’s music is mostly straight-ahead heartland rock, with narrative and some stars-and-moon poetry, all from the perspective of a politely redblooded gent who raises exactly as much hell as is socially acceptable. But his crunching chord/gentle-twang pairing diminishes neither rock nor country, and the fussily punctuated “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck” is for the ages. If you wonder why neo-Springsteenism is country these days, ask yourself: “Is there anyplace else on the radio that plays new rock for people who don’t fancy that they’re the alternative to the mainstream?”
Number of Songs I Can’t Stand: 1
Lyric That Proves It’s Actually Country: “We’ll chase the moon/ ride the stars/ find the muscle in this car.”
Highlights: On “Fly Again,” the next-to-last track, he finally expresses something impolite, in this case a heartache bad enough that he gets high on the roof of his car and fires a gun at the moon. Also, somehow, “Everything But You” manages to steal the “Sweet Jane” riff and the verse melody of James McMurtry’s “Rachel’s Song” and still work as a new tune.
7. Hank Williams, Jr. Old School, New Rules That angry Muppet monster Bocephus got all pissed off about Obama, and then about Fox News, too, and then he puked all his talk-radio craziness into his best, toughest, funniest set in over 20 years, one that out-honks, -tonks, and -stomps anything beloved by the alt-country rockers who think the family greatness skipped over Junior’s generation. Politics aside, “I’m Gonna Get Drunk And Play Hank Williams” is every bit as good as its title, and “Old School” boasts a tune that measures up to the past Hank worries we’re losing. And all the let’s-throw-Obama-out lyrics now sound like an affecting bit of history, the bewildered protest of millions who feel something’s slipped away from them, even if they can’t quite say what it is. Hank here puts into song what millions were feeling, which isn’t ridiculous of him at all — it’s his job. Plus, it beats the hell out of listening to Limbaugh.
Number of Tracks I Can’t Stand: 2
Lyric That Proves It’s Still Country (and that Hank’s No Prognosticator): “They made a huge miscalculation/ about the mood of this nation.”
Highlights: Samples of the voice of Hank Sr. and the acknowledgement that “Move it on Over” and “Mind Your Own Business” are the same damn song; a heartsick cover of “You Win Again”; the chorus “Never kick a cow turd on a hot day”; the fiddler and steel players actually get to cut loose; Brad Paisley and Merle Haggard are duet partners who actually improve their songs; that Williams pretends Bing is a vital part of the internet just so he can use it in a rhyme; the fact that this ol’ coot is so hilariously wrong about everything except record making.
6. Marty Stuart Nashville Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down Guess what? Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives have released yet another ace set of ace songs that they sing and play the shit out of. Only thing that could improve it: if all this virtuosity were applied toward some idea more vital than “We’re awesome at old-time music!”
Number of Tracks I Can’t Stand: 0
Lyric That Proves it’s Still Country: “We’re holding on/ with nothing left/ to hold on to.”
Highlight: If you play this for folks unfamiliar with Stuart, you could credibly claim it was recorded in any of the last four decades.
5. Jamey Johnson Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran Beard-wreathed scowler Jamey Johnson’s last album, the double-disc The Guitar Song, could have been the best two CDs in most other artist’s only-the-best career-survey box set. So, it’s understandable that he’s coasting, a bit, offering up a Starbucks-ready, holiday-buying-season duet record of great Hank Conchran songs. Still, it’s the best written record of the year, possibly the best played in the fiddles and pedal-steel department, and — on Johnson’s verses — the best sung, manly man’s division. If your bottom line is that country should be slow, trad waltzes, this is your record of the year. Bonus points: Ray Price, Merle Haggard, George Strait, and Bobby Bare all turn up! So do Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello, who are to classy-seeming tribute records what Dr. Joyce Brothers used to be to talk shows.
Number of Songs I Can’t Stand: 0
Lyric That Proves It’s Actually Country and Also Explains the Record’s Appeal: “Looking past isn’t best/ but for me it’s a way to survive.”
Highlights: Johnson’s deep ol’ voicebox; Ray Price’s lonesome croon; the way you can sink into the many sad songs like ice melting into whiskey. Also, “The Eagle,” the toughest track, is marvelous.
4. Carrie Underwood Blown Away Okay, purists. If the fact that Carrie Underwood came up on American Idol still bugs you, or if you’re chafed that Blown Away doesn’t really feature an acoustic guitar until track five, please remember three things: 1. Dolly went disco. 2. America no longer has the local TV and radio stations where tomorrow’s Lorettas can pitch themselves and get discovered all purely like. 3. “Two Cadillacs” is the best cheatin’ song of the last few years, as well as the best murder ballad, and the rare contemporary hit so swollen up with love, death, and ham that you can totally imagine Elvis doing it. The rest of Blown Away likewise stands tall: monolithic production, musical-theater emotionalizing, classic country themes. Too bad about the inevitable ballad that could have been on the Top Gun soundtrack.
Number of Songs I Can’t Stand: 3
Lyric That Proves It’s Actually Country: “Cupid’s got a shotgun, aiming at my heart.”
Highlights: The whistling kickoff of the island-life fantasy “One Way Ticket” sounds like a MarioKart menu screen, and the don’t-you-know-you’re-beautiful? shuffle “Nobody Ever Told You” is further evidence that today’s pop country isn’t just about entertaining. Instead, like pharmaceuticals, it’s engineered to help users through their days — in this case brilliantly. The irony that this inspirational product must be sold by someone as beautiful as Carrie Underwood (or, years back, Kellie Pickler) should be some grad student’s thesis project.
3. Dwight Yoakam 3 Pears Here there’s Motown bass lines, licks as crisp as apple bites, production courtesy of Beck, a great Rolling Stones-style ballad, and better Bakersfield-meets-the-Beatles honky tonk numbers than when the Beatles actually covered Bakersfield’s own Buck Owens. What separates a master like the too-long-gone Dwight Yoakam from the try-anything up-and-comers like Sugarland or Little Big Town is that Yoakam’s wide ranging influences are fully integrated into the singular perspective of an artist. In other words, it all comes out sounding like Dwight Yoakam — at his best. Sharp, conceptual, and full of adult longing, this leap forward still honors the ol’ “Guitars and Cadillacs.”
Number of Songs I Can’t Stand: 0
Lyric That Proves It’s Actually Country: “Each day may get brighter/ but it’s never alright.”
Highlights: Tracks one through 12.
2. Kellie Pickler 100 Proof Nashville’s game has long been to see how much pop it could cram into music it still branded as tradition-minded. Now another American Idol alum has dared to bleed all of that pop out — and by doing so crafted the stripped-down, hard-twanging, urgently personal record that everyone always says they wish country stars could make. Because the world is a shittier place than country lyrics today usually admit, Pickler’s singles “Tough” and “100 Proof” missed the country single charts by a mile — and got her dropped from her label Sony. (She’s signed to indie Black River Entertainment, now.)
100 Proof opens with a gorgeous barroom lament that asks “Where’s Tammy Wynette when you need her?” That’s not an unfamiliar sentiment for a star like Pickler; Nashville albums often include songs complaining of the music’s lack of a connection to its storied past. For once, though, such complaining is followed up by song after song that actually do something about it, in this case 10 in the classic mold that still burn with enough of today that they never sound like an exercise in nostalgia This isn’t a tribute to great, heartfelt, traditional country. It’s a continuation.
1. Iris DeMent Sing the Delta Your heart plumping up in your chest. On her first album of originals in 16 years, Iris DeMent stirs such feeling again and again, once even while singing of it happening to her. Over the snaking jangle of her own Pentecostal piano, she sings of having to pull the car over while listening to Aretha Franklin singing gospel, just the kind of thing that can happen if you attend closely to Sing the Delta, a subtle, rewarding record I am not at all hesitant to call a masterpiece. It’s the result of a lifetime of thinking, feeling, and singing, wise and gently propulsive, that piano the current that tugs us from one insight or beyond-words feeling to the next.
If Aretha’s voice is a monument, Dement’s is like some cracked but beautiful piece of pottery, something you live with and come to treasure. And her faith, unlike Aretha’s, isn’t mighty. Through these twelve remarkable songs, Dement admits she’s not sure she believes in God, recounts the tragedy that taught her not to count on prayer, and encourages us to see heaven in the here and now. This collection is itself evidence that there’s something to that.
Number of Songs I Can’t Stand: 0
Lyric That Proves It’s Actually Country: “The truth can be the difference between swimming and sinking/ I thank my mama for telling me her truth”
Highlights: The bluesy lilt is new to DeMent’s too-small catalog, as is the rich thematic consistency. Earlier, I gushed that Carrie Underwood’s “Two Cadillacs” was a song Elvis would have relished digging into; DeMent’s jubilant passing-to-the-other-side hymn “Go On Ahead and Go Home” is another, but this he couldn’t have got through without bawling.