Country music in 2014 may have been still awash in bro-country imagery — Trucks! Cutoffs! Bacardi! — but there were still enough doses of three chords and the truth to balance out the clichés. Country radio artists like Miranda Lambert, Eric Church and Dierks Bentley released albums that were both commercially successful and creatively engaging, while indie acts Sturgill Simpson, Nikki Lane and Lori McKenna furthered the genre through bold songwriting, catching the attention of non-country fans in the process. Best of all, veterans like Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver released some of the most important music of their careers. Here are the 40 best of the year.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama-bred siblings Laura and Lydia Rogers follow their ravishingly retro debut with a second album that combines their penchant for throwback country (think way back, to Forties-era Grand Ole Opry) with contemporary flair. Put Your Needle Down spices things up for the harmony-rich duo, as they tackle more grown-up material, both lyrically and sonically. "Iuka," which they co-wrote with Dan Wilson (Dixie Chicks, Adele), is a Southern gothic murder ballad and "Rattle My Bones" is the rockabilly equivalent of Adele's "Rumor Has It." But perhaps the key track on Needle was one Bob Dylan began writing before the Rogers sisters were even born — they were given his half-completed "Dirty Lie" and finished its clever, kiss-off lyrics with a smoky jazz club-vibe. B.D.
Like Sam Hunt did with Montevallo, Jerrod Niemann pursued a more wide-reaching, crossover-ready path with his third album, High Noon. Some of it was a bust — the head-scratching hip-house boot-scooter of "Donkey," for starters — but when the album worked, it progressed country to a more natural pop destination: See the atmospheric vibe of opener "Space" and the excellent "Day Drinkin'," which addresses a now-shopworn topic from a fresh (if bleary-eyed) perspective. J.H.
Cory Branan's never had a tough time earning accolades — as soon as his 2002 debut The Hell You Say made the rounds, he was everything from heir to John Prine to a wunderkind in league with Ryan Adams. Still, being immensely skilled with a melody and turn of phrase doesn't always correlate with hit-making, so despite his consistently strong output of punk-raw country tale-telling, he's been something of a niche fave. Cosmically beautiful, then, that Branan's latest, The No-Hit Wonder, is earning some of the most fervent attention of his career (even if the title/title track are meant more to honor brothers-in-arms, less as a selfie). Its honky-tonk stompers, saloon-y piano and Petty-esque propulsion have been perking ears across genre divides, from CMT to NPR. And Branan's been busy straddling a noteworthy and musically fitting onstage split, too, jumping from punk shows with Against Me! to rootsy routes with Justin Townes Earle. N.K.
The ever-more-prolific singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams collects 20 songs on two discs to launch her own label, though she's not always traveling alone: The homiletic lyrics of "Compassion" spring from a poem of her father's (as does the album's title), she goes out on a nearly 10-minute stroll through J.J. Cale's "Magnolia" and Jakob Dylan stops by to harmonize. Whether Williams is waxing wrathful or lustful or introspective, what pulls you in are the ever-expanding nuances of a drawl that's never been more humid and sensuous, shying away from consonants like the singer owes them money. K.H.
Lady Antebellum have always owned the swollen, sentimental ballads that made them, but on their last two albums, the trio have shown that they're also not afraid to get goofy or head downtown for some un-self-conscious fun. On "Freestyle," the one with the "Fleetwood Macklemore" line, they quote McConaughey and use a Billy Joel flow to consider skinny-dipping from the perspective of the innocent fish getting their first glimpse at human genitalia. On "Sounded Good at the Time," they rewrite "Need You Now" from the perspective of someone who has happily moved on. Even "Damn You Seventeen," a weepy duet about two high school sweethearts who clearly haven't, is less about young love than young frivolity, a lament for the days when a Def Leppard cassette could just be a Def Leppard cassette. N.M.
Guy Clark once said Justin Townes Earle had thumbs like sledgehammers — and the lanky son of Steve certainly does have a way of fingerpicking that sounds like he's clinging to each string for dear life, playing as loud as his hands will let him so everyone and anyone can hear. On Single Mothers, he lets the lyrics do the pounding, firing out odes to the plight of fatherless parenthood with a subtle and near-sweet affectation, replacing those steely strums with Memphis grooves and slow shuffles. "Mama, she's gone," he sings on "Picture in a Drawer" in his heartbroken howl, calling on the woman who has always been there when a more ephemeral love has come and gone. M.M.
There's a lot going on here, and it's impossible to dislike any of it. Highlights: a cuddly Kenny Rogers duet called "You Can't Make Old Friends," bold covers of both Bob Dylan (a bluegrass-dexterous "Don't Think Twice") and Bon Jovi (a genuinely bonkers, spin-class-worthy "Lay Your Hands on Me"), an old murder ballad gussied up with heavenly a capella flourishes ("Banks of the Ohio") and a tart anti-PUA riposte called "Lover du Jour" ("That's crap," she stage-whispers to a garbage Casanova at one point). Dolly is having an absolute blast through all of it, and her good cheer is infectious. R.H.
It takes a truly able voice to drop a lead single with barely any words in the chorus, but Lera Lynn — with her dreamlike wordplay, quirky metaphors and fantastically sultry tone — can do just that. "La Di Da," she sings on the track of the same title, tapping the syllables with her tongue and layering unspoken words through pure inflection. And what a voice it is — never showboating those earthy pipes just for the sake of it, she wanders through a firm but delicate sophomore album that explores the fragile threads of love, meeting somewhere in the country plains between the Twin Peaks world of Chris Isaak and Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going." M.M.
On his first album in seven years, this Texas hell-raiser doesn't sound a day over 100. Sure he's more grizzled than ever but more vulnerable too, whether trading kids-these-days verses with Willie on "Hard to Be an Outlaw" ("who ain't wanted anymore"), shaking his head at the latest rich man's swindle, or acknowledging his limitations as a romantic partner — emotionally on "I'll Love You As Much as I Can," or physically on the title track. K.H.
If they weren't attached one of the most bankable stars in country music, songs like "Gone Green," a bluegrass ode to an Al Gore lifestyle with Emmylou Harris guest vocals, would never see the light of day in any mainstream arena. But Paisley has the sense of humor to pull it off, pairing fiddles with a story of redneck recycling, shaping Moonshine in the Trunk into something playful, touching and even a little weird. One moment, he's poking fun at bro country; the next, digging deep on ballads like "Shattered Glass"; and then ushering in power anthems with Kings of Leon-esque choir-chants on "Perfect Storm." Only Paisley could get away with something so charmingly schizophrenic, sealing the package with fiery guitar solos. M.M.
Garth Brooks changed the path of country music 25 years ago. While no one is looking to the musical juggernaut to do that now, Man Against Machine — his first studio album in 13 years — may provide some course correction that the genre sorely needs, serving up songs with both hooks and heart. Brooks' unerring ability to convincingly sell a song remains undiminished, whether on the flinty "Cold Like That," the chugging "Midnight Train" or the sentimental "Mom." M.N.
These nine songs are well-crafted signposts along the path of a hard break-up. Trouble & Love winds from the stark goodbye of "When a Woman Goes Cold," to struggles with self-esteem in "Worthy" and finally suffering though the hard reality of "How You Learn to Live Alone." When Gauthier concludes "I'm moving on/Through the pain," the weathered reserve of her voice promises no happy endings. This is a songwriter who knows her titular subjects go together like a horse and carriage, and that the trouble doesn't subside when the love dies.
Swedish duo Johanna and Klara Söderberg have always had amazing pipes, but on their third album, Stay Gold, they beam with a new sense of confidence and conviction. The duo writes with more vulnerability, too ("I don't know if I'm scared of dying but I'm scared of living too fast, too slow"); and the production by Bright Eyes' Mike Mogis (featuring a 13-piece orchestra) adds lush arrangements on several tracks without overpowering the sisters' soaring voices. A shimmering record that lives on the boundaries of country, folk, pop and indie rock. D.R.
At 47, McGraw is embracing his elder statesman status with no desire to pretend otherwise. He can still, no doubt, kick a young buck's ass (see "Keep on Truckin'"), but on Sundown Heaven Town he often displays a sense of contentment that eluded him on past efforts. He wants his loved ones by his side ("Overrated," "Shotgun Rider") and he sometimes yearns for an earlier era ("Meanwhile Back At Mama's"). At a time when so many artists are chasing hits, McGraw stands out for an effortless ease that never seems lazy or repetitive. Even if the mercilessly Auto-Tuned "Looking For That Girl" doesn't stick its landing, the song shows that McGraw, 13 studio albums in, has lost none of his desire to grow as an artist — he's usually just doing it more gracefully than the rest of us. M.N.
The smooth vocalist — who, along with Randy Houser, ranks as one of country's most underappreciated singers — returned to Number One with I'm a Fire's debut single "Whatever She's Got." A fine enough song, despite its umpteenth use of country's blue-jeans allusion, the single was eclipsed by the rest of the album's more insightful fare, especially the haunting ballad "The Secret" and the Little Big Town collab "When They're Gone (Lyle County)." And points to Nail for paying homage to his hero, Glen Campbell, on a righteous cover of the Rhinestone Cowboy's "Galveston," with another top crooner, Lee Ann Womack. J.H.
Jennifer Nettles flexes her independent songwriting muscles without abandoning Sugarland fans in her first solo album released during the Grammy-winning duo's indefinite hiatus. The vocal powerhouse teamed with an eclectic mix of co-writers (including Butch Walker, Richard Marx and Sara Bareilles) for all but one of That Girl's tracks — a soaring cover of Bob Seger's "Like a Rock." With veteran boundary-pusher Rick Rubin producing, the album takes its share of risks; "Moneyball" dabbles in a little reggae, "Jealousy" dives into pop and R&B territory, and congas highlight the clever title track. But it's on hypnotizing ballads like "Falling" and "Me Without You" that the resplendent singer shows the most depth, capturing listeners in a well of emotion. B.D.
Though its sweetly sentimental title track (a wedding gift to his bride) is the song being recognized in awards show circles, this is the album that will prevent Lee Brice from being pigeonholed as a balladeer. For his third studio release, the South Carolina native dabbles in rock anthems, R&B grooves, country soul, blues and, for the first time, producing. From his seat behind the board, Brice takes sonic leaps that range from looped vocals on the playful "Girls in Bikinis" to a live recording of the nostalgic "Panama City," with all musicians gathered around a piano. At the mic, his malleable voice soars; and to balance the ballad storyline spectrum, he beautifies a booty call with the slow number "Somebody's Been Drinking." B.D.
These boys from Kentucky were busy in 2014, releasing two full-length albums nine months apart. March's Bring Up the Sun nodded to Petty with the jangling "Until I Met You" and showcased the bare-bones sound of Nick Jamerson's acoustic and Kris Bentley's cajón drum. December's follow-up, Salvation City, was a more adventurous project, adding electric guitar, strings and their stab at a radio hit in "Do You Wanna Go." But both LPs, written entirely by Jamerson-Bentley, proved you don't need a major label behind you — or a room full of Nashville songwriters — to make an impression. J.H.
With the loose, barroom rumble of the Red Dirt Texas tradition and a knack for catchy pop polish, Eli Young Band's fifth LP boasts reliable country-rock anthems and smart acoustic strummers. "Hallelujah and amen for the lies I caught you in," they sing on "Revelation," propping a middle finger on the neck of their guitars — if the lyrics aren’t punishing enough, the dirty beat sure is. Paired with moments like the near-Semisonic-esque "Let's Do Something Tonight," 10,000 Towns showed how an earnest twang is possible without always resorting to balladry and slow-burners. M.M.
Gently heartbroken Canadian heartbreaker Doug Paisley (no relation to the guy who just put out Moonshine in the Trunk) is less a one-man band than a one-man The Band. His expertly subdued third album (wherein the "feelings" part quietly overpowers the "strong" part) is a soothing broth of delicate folk, empathetic country and erudite indie-rock, a welcome hammock siesta in the backyard of the Big Pink of our minds. Garth Hudson devotees will have the most fun here, between the empathetic organ noodling and the occasional simmering sax solo. Bummer thesis: "Holding out for something from the past/Future's burning brightly, but it won't last." Maybe not, but this makes for a great last waltz in the meantime. R.H.
The second installment in a series we can only hope is just getting started. Boasting some bigger names than its 2012 predecessor, curator Zach Cowie once again showcases country musicians who could get on the one without losing their down-home swagger. There's familiar tunes drastically reworked (Billy Swan decelerates "Don't Be Cruel" into a smoldering slow jam), bona fide oddities worth preserving (yes, that's Bobby Darin getting hassled by drug cops while trying to play harmonica on "Me and Mr. Hohner") and major country stars from Dolly Parton to Willie Nelson to Kenny Rogers appearing at their most gritty and gutbucket. K.H.
Ellis is a Nashville songwriter with a poet's heart who doesn't sweat mainstream conventions, and his third LP is a fully realized masterpiece. See "A Bottle of Wine," which sets a scene with the title beverage and "a bag of cocaine" before spiraling into a black hole of damaged love over solo piano and sax. If you're wondering if it's even "country music," per se, look towards its soulful twang and fearless storytelling. And who'd have guessed Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" would sound so good with pedal steel? W.H.
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.
The debut LP by the Pistol Annies' wild card shows that supergroup has no weak links. Shaped by lean production flecked with country-soul and string-band touches, Presley's songs are steeped in memoir and paint scenes that ring with truth: there's supermarket-checkout-line philosophizing, a student bartending her way through college, an unplanned pregnancy, a drunk-ass husband and a trailer-court drug dealer keeping "pillbillies" high in a dry town. Presley is a no-bullshit coal-miner's daughter, probably enough to make Kentucky homegirl Loretta Lynn proud. W.H.
Master-craft songwriting without the radio-bait production that defines (and defaces) so much Nashville product — just some acoustic guitars, a pair of tartly harmonizing voices, and a lot of heartbreaking stories. McKenna has penned hits for Hunter Hayes ("I Want Crazy"), Little Big Town ("Your Side of The Bed"), Faith Hill ("Stealing Kisses") and other major acts. But here, with partner Mark Erelli, she's made her best LP simply by conjuring a perfect set at the Bluebird Café. Big box acts may turn some of these songs into plump publishing checks for McKenna, yet it's hard to imagine any of them sounding better than they do here. W.H.
Argue all you want about where Sam Hunt falls into the musical landscape, about how those little breakbeats sound way more Usher than George Jones, how his near-rap sing-talk happens more often than any Southern inflection. But to do so would probably miss the point (and joy) of these songs that show just where country can go when it's inspired by R&B and hip-hop, instead of simply borrowing its stars and signifiers. Sure, it's easy to pepper your hits with a Nelly refrain and hope everyone fist-pumps along, but it's a lot more challenging to make a record that sets a narrative songwriting style to a club-ready beat. Hunt could be the rare male artist to earn rotation both on country radio and DJ booths — particularly with tracks like "Ex to See" which somehow pairs banjo plucks with a percussive breakdown that might leave Imagine Dragons drooling. M.M.
The subtle tunesmith from Bearden, Oklahoma crafted the most meta moment of the year. "Pen a line about a line within a line," sings John Fullbright on Songs, analyzing the plight of the writer with the delicate touch of a subtle love song. But continue through, and you'll see the true romantic affair develop with crisp, untrendy melodies, construction that echoes his vocals like a cave and zero attempts to invite any unwanted prefixes to the sound ("baroque-folk" this ain't). Fullbright's not trying to be cool — his lanky piano riffs are anything but. In the process, he creates a sound that's at once heartbreaking and painfully self-aware, as his voice floats from a rough ache to sweet vibrato, every note a story, every story a song. M.M.
After last year's totally disastrous, oddly ambitious Life on a Rock, a genre-crossing collection of aimlessly adrift country and reggae, Kenny Chesney washed ashore with his best album in years. Here, the 46-year-old superstar returns to the heartland, road-tripping with friends, falling for hippies, grilling chicken and tailgating outside the biggest football game of the year. On the record's title track, he even finds inspiration in a snake-handling Pentecostal church, grabbing a copperhead as symbol of vitality, urgency and rebirth. N.M.