40 Best Country Albums of 2014

The greatest statements from the year's outsiders, small town heroes and American middle class

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Shovels & Rope, 'Swimmin' Time'

18. Shovels & Rope, 'Swimmin' Time'

Individually, Cary Ann Hearst's powerful growl and Michael Trent's cleaner, clearer call are easy to like. Together, the Shovels & Rope spouses' vocals blend a little like Emmylou and Gram's did: a graceful braiding that diminishes the personality of neither but still forms something totally new, totally mesmerizing. On second LP Swimmin' Time, they use that blend to explore nearly every Americana corner, from the honky-tonk stomp of "Pinned" to the folky "Save the World," from the New Orleans vibe-y "Ohio" and the dark and gospel-tinged title track. And these recorded captures are thrillingly beautiful, simple and human. However it might be on stage that Shovels & Rope's total draw really came alive in 2014, the duo serving these dark tales and downtrodden vignettes with an unfettered, celebratory energy that's more than earned them their growing rep as sneak-attack standouts on the festival circuit. N.K.

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