Little Big Town professed a provocative crush. Trisha Yearwood came out of retirement swinging. Kenny Chesney made us all feel 16 again. And Nikki Lane made good of being bad. Our picks for the top country radio releases of 2014 include the predictable love lost, love found and love-to-drink story lines, but it also dives into delectable, largely uncharted country territory.
Like all the women in this year’s bonanza of bro-country tunes, the female in Paisley's song never comes close to getting a real name — she's simply "that girl" — but that's where any similarity ends. The chivalrous singer has knitted a sweater's worth of songs like this: ones where his love, respect and admiration percolate through every line. "Perfect Storm" joins previous Paisley hits like "Then" and "She's Everything" in his canon of romantic odes to a three-dimensional woman who is everything he could ever want and more.
On their first major single, these brothers from Maryland prove that sitting on the dock of the bay is just as country as any pastime in Tennessee — they just favor a little Old Bay over sweet tea. Though its title might indicate a Jimmy Buffett-esque ode to tipsy tropical getaways, one listen proves that this song is anything but: It's an ode to a place where truck beds filled with water replace infinity pools, and rum's served out of plastic cups with no decorative umbrellas in sight. Set to a swampy washboard beat, it's not bemoaning the lack of glamour in a down-home existence — it's about finding the joy in the small things. "Paradise is hiding right here," sings TJ Osborne as his brother John fires bluesy licks, and, with a melody like that, it's easy to believe they really mean it.
Although it's been more than a decade since she last reached the Top 10, anyone who had counted Yearwood out never bargained for the one-two punch of this inspirational performance with Kelly Clarkson. Evoking personal memories of Yearwood's own mother, who succumbed to cancer in 2011, and serving as a theme for anyone facing adversity, "PrizeFighter," penned by Jessi Alexander, Sarah Buxton and Ross Copperman, offers Yearwood yet another chance to remind fans that she remains one of the most soulful belters in country music.
Owen had been gushing about this bare-bones ballad written by addiction survivor Travis Meadows since before he ever cut it. Its pull-no-punches message appealed to the Florida native, who was worried about being pigeonholed as the carefree "Beachin'" guy, thanks to a string of summery hits. Owen all but smashed that fear with "What We Ain't Got," a song as deep as "Barefoot Blue Jean Night" was frothy. In the process, he took a giant leap in establishing himself as a vocalist too, opting to record the song with only a piano supporting him. Most surprising? Radio is actually playing it.
The bonafide country-soul moment of the year came from none other than Muscle Shoals legend Candi Staton, who, at 74, has hardly lost a step from her days as an unheralded Seventies soul icon. This lead cut from her latest record, Life Happens, features fitting guest vocals from fellow Alabama disciples John Paul White (of the now-defunct Civil Wars) and Jason Isbell, who help give the song cross-generational appeal. It's a much-needed reminder that the woman who once turned Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" into an R&B hit can split the difference between country, blues and soul like no one else.
A longtime favorite in her live shows, Musgraves finally released this hilarious send-up to act as something of a bridge between her universally acclaimed debut album and its yet-to-be-released follow-up. Awash in pure country steel guitar and witty double-entendré ("I ain't gonna ask who's been mowing your grass, so you ain't gotta ask who mows mine"), the tune flips a middle finger at nosy (trailer) parkers, but it's Musgraves' own gift for peeking through the mini-blinds at small-town America and turning her observations into pure country gold – and platinum – that make her our favorite nosy neighbor.
Paslay first got his foot in the country music door with uptempo earworms like "Friday Night" and the chart-topper he penned for Jake Owen, "Barefoot Blue Jean Night." But it's on heartfelt ballads like his current single, "She Don't Love You," that the long tall Texan goes to the greatest heights as both a singer and songwriter. Penned with Jennifer Wayne, the new tune bursts the bubble of "just another guy" who's in the arms of a girl only because of her insecurities. Reaching almost Vince Gill-level high notes, Paslay waxes poetic on the cycle of failed relationships with contagious emotion.
Despite a fathoms-deep singing voice and wicked songwriting wit, Scott doesn't often get the credit he deserves. But somebody should at least buy the country traditionalist a cold one or two for penning the boozing song of the year. With so many drinking tunes on the market, it's hard to stand apart from the six-pack, but Scott turns in a clever ode to suds that is far from your regular domestic light draught. "Drinkin' Beer" is premium lager, with a hook as inebriating as the titular subject matter.
The second single from Shelton's chart-topping Bringing Back the Sunshine serves as a plaintive call and response between two ex-lovers who aren't good for each other anymore, but aren't yet ready to move on. The power ballad's sweet vulnerability — and the fact that there is no happy ending, just a temporary break from the loneliness — sets it apart from typical booty-call songs. No one, not even Shelton or Monroe, believes it when they sing that it's for "one more, one last time."
No one made acting naughty sound more enticing this year than the tough-talking Lane did on this barroom stomper. As ominous pedal steel sends out a stern warning and heavy rock fuzz underscores the dangers of mischief — like, say, stealing cars or letting your beer goggles lead you to the wrong partner — Lane throws caution to the wind, instead heeding the hedonistic call of the tune's happy handclaps and mesmerizing melody. She beckons in her husky croon, "Any day or night time, it's always the right time, it's always the right time, to do the wrong thing," and it's impossible to resist getting up to something bad.
In a market saturated with either break-up tunes or love songs, this pining ballad takes a different approach: total denial. Though he's married, Bentley plays the role of a man desperate for another night with the woman who left him — even if it takes a hefty dose of whiskey to get her guard down. "If you need a little buzz to get you there," he sings to a slow strum and a melody that reflects both sadness and little glimmers of faux hope, "then, baby, I'm buying." "Say You Do" not only shows how comfortable Bentley is on those introspective numbers but also how adept he is at classic country storytelling, inhabiting a world outside of his own for the sake of the song.
Leave it to one of country music's most extraordinary expressionists to turn a dance with the devil into nearly four minutes of heavenly bliss. The title track from Womack's first album in six long years doesn't really explore any new territory for her, but it doesn't have to. Coming face to face with her demons, the narrator knows change is a hard-won battle so she resigns to the fact that her wicked ways are probably going to be hanging around a good (or bad?) long time. A six-year wait behind us, let's hope Womack and the devil are ready to go another few rounds (on record at least) sooner rather than later.
"Wait…you can sing?" That's a question Sugarland guitarist Kristian Bush heard a lot in 2014, as he released his first solo single, which finds him center stage for the first time since the group's inception more than a decade ago. The surprise is a pleasant one, as the Tennessee native's vocals on "Trailer Hitch" are an engaging mix of rock-influenced grit and country soul. But what really stands out in Bush's solo introduction is his affable personality, which is reflected in the happy-go-lucky lyrics. Co-written with his brother Brandon Bush (of Train) and Tim Owens, the song celebrates the joys of giving, which far outweigh the jollies of material possessions. The hook: "You can't take it with you when you go," he sings. "Never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch."
No one extolls the virtues of mischief quite like the lovably sassy Sweeney. Her twangy, unapologetic "Bad Girl Phase" sets the agenda for an ethics-free night of smoking, drinking and two-timing. The devil whispering in her ear is, especially in country music, more often perched atop broader shoulders, but this song's lyrics never venture into feminist territory. They don't have to, because even though it's about a wanton woman, guys can certainly relate. "I'm just doing in the light what you want to do in the dark," Sweeney sings, trading her moral compass for a daring direction.
Not since Brooks & Dunn has an artist sounded so authentic singing about the cowboy way. Houser saddles up for this epic ballad, which juxtaposes the lonely gunslinger's life with that of the hard-touring musician. It's hardly a new analogy, but Houser's lyrics (co-written with Brice Long) are revelatory in their directness. And the under-recognized vocalist sings the shit out of it. It all adds up for a single as grand as Monument Valley, a song that helps a currently future-obsessed genre rediscover its Wild West past — and makes us curious to see what Houser has planned next.
It's one thing to write a song with something to say (in this case, skewering the trend of bro-country) — it's another to craft one so infinitely catchy that even those aforementioned bros can't help but sing along. Poking fun at some of the genre's biggest names is a pretty brazen way to enter onto the scene, sure, but the teenage duo of Maddie Marlow and Tae Dye don't seem too concerned (and neither does country radio, which they currently reign over). Instead, they laced together a perfect retort to those who like their ladies wielding bikinis, not guitars — and they do it with the energy of a classic barnburner, a dose of down-home twang and the fiery, fearless angst of youthful pop. "We ain't a cliché," they sing, hopefully on the road to being just as prevalent as the stereotypes they battle.
Urban’s bittersweet story of reliving carnal pleasures with a lost love certainly has its charms: an insanely catchy melody, sexy lyrics that combine sorrow and passion, trademark blazing guitar solos, a plaintive vocal delivery and, did we mention, a banjo? But what propels this song into overdrive is the fact that although the lyrics scream "slow ballad," Urban, who co-wrote the song with J.T. Harding, turns it into a uptempo, turbocharged tale of regret. And let's be real: This chart topper is helped mightily by a video so hot that it steams up your computer screen.
Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff wrote one of the year's most condemning political statement with "The Body Electric," a stark polemic that provides a much-needed feminist perspective on country music's age-old penchant for the murder ballad. "Tell me what's a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that's just dying slow," she sings, sick to death of hearing songs about women being assaulted and killed in song, all in the name of folk tradition. "It's become about the culture of violence we live in, that accepts the deaths of people of color, queer people and women as commonplace," Segarra says of the song's evolving message. "We are not disposable — we are living our lives as targets, and we are tired of that."
If it's possible to establish oneself as the Jackson Pollock of country music with just one album, Hunt has done it with his debut LP, the hip-hop, pop, R&B, soul, funk, rock and yes, a little bit country-infused, Montevallo. Its first single, the insanely catchy "Leave the Night On" colors so far outside genre lines that it has many scratching their heads over why they're hearing it on country radio and not pop. Still, it has even the crabbiest of country critics refraining from turning the dial. The track captures from its first guitar riff, setting a carefree love story to what's arguably the most unique, experimental musical arrangement of country radio's year.
It's one thing to get Bob Dylan's seal of approval — it's another to actually have the folk legend dial you up, hand over a song fragment and say, "Go to town, boys." Those may not be his words verbatim, but it sums up what happened on "Sweet Amarillo," which was built around a leftover bit from Dylan's 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid sessions and continued the trend of Dylan letting Old Crow finish what he'd started long ago (case in point: "Wagon Wheel," which has become a near-traditional). "Sweet Amarillo" is crafted to be the same kind of collective chant-along, anchored by Ketch Secor's lyrical fiddle and illustrative metaphors, topped with a subtle wink to these unconventional co-writes as he sings, "I was blinded by glory with a half-written story." Those half-written stories sure do sound glorious, though, when OCMS is done with them.
The centerpiece of Eric Church's acclaimed album The Outsiders is a stadium-ready sing-along written with as much poetic nostalgia as his breakthrough hit, "Springsteen." Penned with Luke Laird, "Give Me Back My Hometown" is a small-town American anthem for the age of endless suburbs, chain stores and strip malls couched in the standard country narrative in which everything in the narrator's town reminds him of a long-lost ex. The key moment? When Church slips in the oddly poignant detail that the local Pizza Hut was his go-to high school date spot: "All the colors of my youth, the red, the green, the hope, the truth," he sings in his most truly Springsteen moment to date, and also his most moving.
Psychedelic country is nothing new, but the proudly illicit consumption in the lead track to Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music surely helped attract some early buzz to the album widely heralded as one of the best of 2014. "Turtles All the Way Down" is many things. Part twisted travelogue ("Met the devil in Seattle and spent nine months inside the lion's den"), part half-baked philosophy seminar ("Our souls must roam to and through that myth we call space and time"), "Turtles" serves as Simpson's grand mission statement for the rich storytelling and sentimentality that define this promising new artist.
For their second single off Pain Killer, Little Big Town introduced one of the boldest songs not only of their career, but of recent country music memory. In a haunting exploration of jealousy, the song's narrator refrains from resenting the woman who has stolen her man, instead developing a burning "girl crush" on her. "I want to taste her lips/'cause they taste like you," Karen Fairchild sings in a minimalist, soulful arrangement that finds the group doubling down on its signature four-part harmonies. They're some of the more shocking — and refreshing — Music Row lyrics in years.
Lambert, who just cracked 30 last year, seems a little young to be hopping on the nostalgia train, but she shows you don't have to be in your golden years to yearn for a time when things were just a little less fast-paced. On this wistful track from Platinum, she deftly ties in missing Polaroid pictures and handwritten notes with a seemingly bygone attitude of civility that included waiting your turn and working for your success. If she weren't a millennial herself, the song could sound fusty, but Lambert's youth keeps it from turning into a "get off my lawn" rant.
Few artists have dipped into the well of nostalgia with more success than Chesney. But what made this kicky, catchy tune remarkable is the way it allowed him to ruminate on the old days and yet produce what may be his freshest, most contemporary-sounding single ever — without pandering to current trends. Written by the Midas touch trio of Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, and alluding to Chesney favorites like John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, the hook-laden ditty boasts one of the country star's most nimble vocals to date and reassures that whatever we lived through back in the day may have left us "a little messed up, but we're all all right."