The most frequent complaint non-country listeners make about today’s Nashville is that the music doesn’t sound like it used to. That’s true. But it’s not that the hitmakers have abandoned their base — it’s that they’ve annexed the audiences abandoned by rock when rock went crabby after Nirvana.
The sonic palate of today’s country is any music that its (mostly white) audience has ever liked, which means Blake Shelton raps, a little, and The Band Perry rocks Queen chord changes. If “November Rain” came out today it would be the CMA’s song of the year — although some label suit would probably insist on adding a rudimentary hip hop beat.
The records that turn up on lists like this tend to cut against the grain. Most of my choices ape older country sounds and favor a self-conscious austerity over the parking-lot party-pop that often storms the charts. That’s a preference rather than a swipe at the Lee Brices of the world — music like his does what good pop always has: It brightens the corners of its listeners’ lives.
Three observations before we get to the honorees. First, female country stars continue to sing about richer feelings than the men, who tend to have three lyrical modes: happy in love; unhappy in love; and just plain happy to be American men. By contrast, the four singers topping this list stare squarely at life’s dissatisfactions, sometimes daring to suggest that work/church/home might not fulfill a good person’s every longing.
Second, something unthinkable has happened. Brad Paisley, Nashville’s most reliable entertainer, dropped a record in 2013, but he’s not on this list. “Accidental Racist” wasn’t the problem, although that duet is symptomatic of it: Paisley’s Wheelhouse had too much concept, too little inspired songcraft. The Cool J imbroglio was unfortunate but revealing. For years Paisley has adroitly mixed the combustible elements of country stardom and gently progressive politics; when those incompatibles finally blew up in his face, Nashville had his back — and progressives deemed him a stars-and-bars loving galoot. No wonder he went on to make fun of Obamacare on that awards show.
Third: Recent records by Blake Shelton, Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark, Darius Rucker, Eric Church, Lee Brice, Kacey Musgraves and more all directly or sneakily endorse marijuana. How is Nashville more open-minded than Obama’s DOJ?
Anyway, here are twelve records, all worth your ear time.
12. Randy Travis, Influence Vol. 1: The Man I Am
In 2013 Randy T. made like Merle H., triumphing over health scares and radio’s lack of interest in old-timers. Here, he croons old favorites from his forebears (Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, a big ol’ bucket of Hag), plumbing a rich lower register that will be news to folks who know him only for “Forever and Ever Amen” — or as that Tea Partier performing in Michelle Bachman’s tent at the Iowa caucuses. Even better: The weatherbeaten falsetto he vaults into on the swing numbers. If you don’t have a Travis hits collection, start with that, but this easygoing set offers more pleasures than all the other looking-back covers sessions I’ve heard the last couple years — this one doesn’t have the Wynton Marsalis problem, meaning it doesn’t just make you want to go out and hear the originals.
Lyric That Proves It’s Still Country: “Oh, gee, wouldn’t it be wonderful to open up the doors of the past/ And live again as yesterday?”
Highlight: The cool Western breeze of Travis’ touring band cutting loose on “Big Butter and Egg Man.”
11. Pistol Annies, Annie Up
Now a group and no longer a gimmick, the Annies settle down a touch on their second long-player — the hell-raisin’ (“Hush Hush”) feels a bit forced, the cornpone stuff (“Damn Thing”) too cute, and the overprocessed three-part harmonies (many of the choruses) too Chipmunk-y. But the ballads dig deeper (“Dear Sobriety,” “Girls Like Us”), and that freewheeling, this-world-is-ours spirit still thrills, especially when the lyrics turn to the kind of Nashville truthtelling these ladies pioneered — and that distinguishes many of the records higher on this list.
Lyric That Proves It’s Still Country: “My hands are shaking/ But I can still pour the mistake that I’m making”
Highlight: “Being Pretty,” a gorgeous weeper about the grind of buying/applying/removing makeup, smuggled a Jezebel-style thinkpiece into every Wal-Mart.
10. Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story…
Like the best of Eric Church, Shelton’s “The Boys ‘Round Here” shotgun-marries simple hip-hop loops to the dusty thump of “Waymore’s Blues,” and — some rote lyrics notwithstanding — there’s nothing in it that wouldn’t do ol’ Waylon proud. Sheltons workin’ man rockers kick, too, but his wheelhouse is the bedroom — or, in a pinch, a Chevy benchseat. This beefy come-on artist is the finest country horndog of his generation, his sweet talk steamy and his intentions probably not as pure as he’s claiming.
Lyric That Proves It’s Still Country: “My eyes are the only thing I don’t wanna take off of you.”
Highlight: The single where he makes it clear he’s man enough not to pressure a woman into sleeping with him — but then adds “It’d sure be cool if you did.” 9. Nora Jane Struthers, Carnival
Bluegrass is country penned up in rigid, virtuosic formalism, and folk is often country with a bachelor’s and a thesis statement. Struthers’ latest draws on both those traditions, and her sprightly vignettes have the whiff of advanced degrees about them, even the one about life down in the holler. But the tasteful aesthetics don’t make this a coffee-shop bore: Her easy, urgent alto is like one of those mellow craft brews you only realize is extraordinary three or four sips in, and the songs hustle past, each puckish and memorable — the instrumentation may pre-date electricity, but the hooks are competitive with any in the great pop now. And the banjo/fiddle flurries are to die for. Rather than speed-run solos or polite fills, her band, The Party Line, actually goes for personal expression, adding something to Struthers’ storytelling rather than just painting over their allotted measures.
Lyric That Proves It’s Still Country “He walks these fields with a pistol and a blade”
Highlight: Toward the end of “Mountain Child,” this born storyteller has enough with lyrics and hollers glorious “whoa-ooo-ooo-oooh”s.
8. Kellie Pickler, The Woman I Am
She’s got five-alarm pipes, delicious phrasing, and a no-shit-taking punkish streak, which in Nashville means she dares to cut records your grandpa might recognize as sounding like country music — even as she asserts an independence that same grandpa might find unladylike. This isn’t a revelation on par with last year’s old-school throwdown 100 Proof, although it’s nice to hear her engaging with the sounds of today rather than fleeing them. But the highs this time are isolated: I count four great songs, four agreeable ones, and a clutch of off-the-rack power ballads and kick-drum sludge rockers that suggest she really misses radio-play. Can we lose the retrograde gal-goes-crazy-in-the-trailer-park numbers?
Highlight: The tender, bustling “Selma Drye,” co-written by Pickler, toasts the singer’s great grandmother as one of the sources of her own tough-minded independence.
Lyric That Proves It’s Still Country: “He’s got a monthly payment, and I got a ring to sell.”
7. Slaid Cleaves, Still Fighting the War
Such an easy, pleasurable listen that it’s easy at first to miss the high seriousness of the songwriting, Slaid Cleaves’ latest (and best) opens with a suite of songs about Americans not quite making it but never knuckling under. Factories get shuttered — Cleaves actually bothers to explain the economics — but hope never does. On the heartening “Whim of Iron,” a woman of big ideas saves an abandoned house of worship just before its demolition. (She turns it into a community theater.) Meanwhile, two movie extras find they’re happy just being the stars in each others’ lives. If I’m dwelling on the lyrics, that’s because Cleaves’ singing and the lilting string-band accompaniment, while sturdy, are first and foremost serving the words — except the two times Cleaves yodels, and the sound leaps from easy pleasures to the rhapsodic.
Highlight: Rhyming “Texas” with “Lexus,” “solar-plexus,” and “text us.”
Lyric That proves It’s Still Country: “No one remembers your name just for workin’ hard.”
The Ten Best Country Albums of 2012
6. Terry Allen, Bottom of the World
“Do they dream of hell in heaven?” Allen sing-speaks on one of these spare existential curios, the first songs from this dead-serious yet totally squirrely singer/songwriter/visual artist in 14 years. That question is in earnest. So is “Does God spend time with his angels?” and “Do they wish now they’d been much more sinful, and repented just a minute before they die?” Allen ponders this over spooky, stretched-out pedal steel and fiddle chords that suggest thatf country music itself is dissolving all around him. There’s no percussion on Bottom of the World, just his drily drawled poems scored to marches and waltzes that echo plodding horses and lonesome campfire singalongs. As always, Allen’s music seems both an earnest corrective to Nashville’s bombast and some sort of literary prank. Despite its sparseness, the record is sumptuous and meditative and deeply rewarding — but just an appetizer for his mad masterpiece, 1979’s Lubbock on Everything.
Lyric That Proves It’s Still Country: “Some S.O.B. shot my dog/ I found her under a tree.”
Highlight: Too many to choose from. Let’s go with the way he says “Arizonya so it rhymes with California
5. The Band Perry, Pioneer
In which the achingly earnest alt-rock folkies of “If I Die Young” show what they learned in pyrotechnics school. Glittered-up and aggressive, kicking like Rockettes on fire, Pioneer‘s power-pop standouts (“Night Gone Wasted,” “Forever Mine Nevermind,” “Chainsaw,” “Done.”) have more to do with Cheap Trick than they do with Hee Haw. That doesn’t detract from their magnificence — when’s that last time you heard power-chording rock n’ roll un-cool enough to want you to like it? The folks songs aren’t bad, either, and Kimberly Perry’s voice — swooping, exuberant, touchingly frayed on the shouts and beguilingly coquettish when she talk-sings– is one of the most powerful and idiosyncratic in all pop. All at once, it suggests honky tonk, hair rock, a young Michael Jackson, and the southern end of a northbound dragster.
Lyric That Proves It’s Still Country: “We wrote forever with a pocket knife/ But forever’s goin’ down tonight.”
Highlight: With its sinister banjos and great slabs of rock guitar, “Better Dig Two” renders irrelevant that novelty band that does bluegrass AC/DC covers.
4. Patty Griffin, American Kid
Too much of the music sometimes called “Americana” has the fussy feel of new furniture pre-distressed so it looks antique. Not so Patty Griffin’s aching, rustic chamber songs, wherein the singer/writer’s vital, personal storytelling hits her band’s pre-electric chugging and picking like storm fronts colliding — what comes out of the two together is always surprising, like “Get Ready, Marie,” a Marlene Dietrich-meets-“Goodnight Irene” Old West cabaret doozy. The song titles alone should be enough to get you eager: “Wild Old Dog,” “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida,” and “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” a perfect example of what country music does that other genres don’t: Try to put into words and music the things you feel but may not have it in you to articulate.
Lyric That Proves It’s Still Country: “I had a good hunch/ When she kissed me a bunch/ She could do other things like a rabbit.”
Highlight: Spin the closer, “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone,” and wonder whether maybe it’s something she wrote — or if it’s some standard you should have known your whole life. 3. Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer, Different Park
Seriously, from here on you could re-order these records any way you want. Any could be the top in a lesser year, and this one shares deep DNA with the #1 below: a songwriter; a love of melancholy detail; a shuffling, understated sound; an amiable disaffection with the go-nowhere reality of small-town life; and a mission to make mainstream country music that exposes sad truths rather than encourages the usual rah-rah-America denial. This debut is winning and winsome, demonstration that all the country-woman firebrands of a half generation ago have won: Musgraves doesn’t have to play the crazy ex-girlfriend (a la Pickler and early Lambert) or bash in some sumbitch’s headlights (a la Carrie Underwood’s karaoke evergreen.). Instead, she sings quietly radical hits like “Merry Go Round,” whose overlapping rural tragedies play out with such bleak power the song could be an Altman film. Has a killer chorus, too, just like almost all of these.
Lyric That Proves It’s Still Country: “Between the lunch and dinner rush/ Kelly caught that outbound bus — for Vegas.”
Highlight: The way “horrible” starts as “whore” on this line from the pro-gay follow-your-bliss classic “Follow Your Arrow”: “If you don’t save yourself for marriage, you’re a horrible person.”
2. Ashley Monroe, Like a Rose
The most fun — and funniest — country record of the year, the solo debut from this key Pistol Annie songwriter is that rarest achievement in retro-modern recording: Most of the music here sounds like it could hail from anytime in the last 30 years, but only the comic duet at the end suggests pastiche. This is unfussy neo-trad honky tonk played with wit and imagination in service of frank, fresh songs. Like Musgraves’ and Brandy Clark’s, Monroe’s best feel like news alerts from an America that’s learned to keep its business to itself. There’s sex, drugs, and cheating, of course, sometimes celebrated and sometimes lamented with a persuasive wretchedness — “You Got Me Now” is as sad as loving-the-wrong-man songs get.
Monroe writes like a Twitter-age Dolly Parton, sings like our collective idea of what a barroom angel’s supposed to sing like, and boasts a wicked streak as wide as Interstate 75 just north of Atlanta. Just like the long-gone country greats she’s inspired by, she’s comfortable putting out a record with just nine songs on it; unlike those stars, she actually bothered to make them all keepers.
Highlight: Monroe’s understanding that many classic country songs are structured like jokes, building inevitably to a punchline — or a line that just punches, like “I’m a dollar short and two weeks late.”
Lyric That Proves It’s Still Country: “Little by little, night after night, shes driving me out of your mind.”
1. Brandy Clark, 12 Stories
The songs on country radio tend to be about their own audience — and they tend to lionize. Singer/songwriter Clark’s indelible debut is also often about people you might imagine tuning in to a format dedicated to telling its listeners that they’re great Americans. But since she’s incapable of flattery, the sharply observed fictions that make 12 Stories so powerful aren’t likely to dent the top singles chart. The classic opener, which links praying to Jesus with the mathematically dubious act of playing the Lotto, will sting like a slap to program directors accustomed to the idjit-pop uplift of Florida Georgia Line. But for anyone interested in life as it’s lived rather than life as we might wish it, 12 Stories is essential listening, a clear-eyed survey of what hard times — and hard places — do to the people stuck in them.
The themes are everything you expect in yesteryear’s country: drinking, adultery, pills, prison, D-I-V-O-R-C-E. But there’s nothing backwards-looking, here. Clark is interested in what drives people to these perennial troubles, and for all her empathy she’s not letting anybody off the hook. The production is direct and unobtrusive, neo-traditional yet fitting each song like the shell fits a mollusk; as a singer, Clark’s a first-rate writer, by which I mean her somewhat limited range does no damage to her first-rate lyrics and melodies. There’s voices and then there’s voices, you know? Here’s one worth celebrating — 12 Stories isn’t just my favorite record of 2013, it’s my favorite short story collection.
Highlight: The emotional breakthrough of “Hungover,” about all that a woman accomplished all the mornings and early afternoons her man was sleeping off the nights before.
Best Country Music Lyric of the Year: “What will keep me out of heaven/ Is gonna take me there tonight.”