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40 Best Country Albums of 2014

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

40 Country Albums

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.

Eli Young Band 10,000 Towns
22

Eli Young Band, ‘10,000 Towns’

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.

Doug Paisley Strong Feelings
21

Doug Paisley, ‘Strong Feelings’

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.

Various Artists, Country Funk II 1967-1974
20

Various Artists, ‘Country Funk Volume II: 1967-1974’

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.

Robert Ellis, The Light from the Chemical Plant
19

Robert Ellis, ‘The Lights From the Chemical Plant’

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.

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.

Angaleena Presley American Middle Class
17

Angaleena Presley, ‘American Middle Class’

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.

Lori McKenna Numbered Doors
16

Lori McKenna, ‘Numbered Doors’

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.

Sam Hunt Montevallo
15

Sam Hunt, ‘Montevallo’

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.

John Fullbright Songs
14

John Fullbright, ‘Songs’

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.

Kenny Chesney
13

Kenny Chesney, ‘The Big Revival’

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.

Various Artists Native North America
12

Various Artists, ‘Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985’

This massive, ambitious 3-LP set is the first step in correcting the fact that there's been little exposure for folk and country from the folks who actually started the country. Culled from small-press LPs released from the 1960s to the 1980s and richly illuminated with photos and lengthy essays, this cratedigger collection documents a shamefully lost chapter of American musical history. A mix of soulful folkie testifying, native-language incantations, cross-cultural fusions, garage band honky-tonk, political testifying and life-on-the-reservation storytelling, it's stunning Americana from the original Americans. W.H.

Nikki Lane All or Nothin
11

Nikki Lane, ‘All or Nothin”

It's one thing to take inspiration from Loretta Lynn — it's another to shoot her "Pill" with a swig of whiskey straight from the bottle and turn a one night stand into country's naughtiest song of the year. "Sleep with a Stranger," like the rest of Nikki Lane's Dan Auerbach-produced LP All or Nothin', establishes not only a singular tone with her twangy rasp and guitar strings sticky from both resin and Seventies groove, but a singular point of view at a time when Music Row's women are often relegated to riding shotgun in short-shorts on the back of their boyfriend's Harley. Lane's the one driving, but she'll still take those teeny cutoffs, thank you very much. M.M.

Willie Nelson Band of Brothers
10

Willie Nelson, ‘Band of Brothers’

A set of largely self-penned songs by an icon who remains, at core, a songwriter. "The Wall" is a small masterpiece of metaphoric concision about self-destruction; "Wives and Girlfriends" is a knowing old dog's confessional. "We write bridges, we cross 'em and burn 'em," he croaks venerably on "The Songwriters," the record's set piece; "teach lessons but don't bother to learn 'em." It's a winning lyrical conceit — though in truth, Nelson's probably learned more than we'll ever know. W.H.

Sunny Sweeney Provoked
9

Sunny Sweeney, ‘Provoked’

Sunny Sweeney is a spry, pugnacious, but nonetheless well-named Texas firestarter whose cheerfully roadhouse-incinerating third album starts with "You Don't Know Your Husband" (like she does) and ends with "Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass" (which includes you). In between, she dabbles in delicate yet forceful pathos of both the boudoir and global variety; "Used Cars" and "Second Guessing" are lovely odes to vastly superior second marriages, "Bad Girl Phase" is a raucous bachelorette-party anthem par excellence, and the loping "Backhanded Compliment" is just uproarious, with our heroine suffering small-talk indignities from "I hope I look like you when I'm your age" to "It's too bad that you have not had more success." That'll teach you to call her underrated. R.H.

Roseanne Cash
8

Rosanne Cash, ‘The River & the Thread’

A visit to her father's boyhood home in Arkansas stirred up visions and memories of the South in this two-decade Manhattan resident. The songs that resulted range widely through that region, alluding to Emmett Till's murder, eulogizing the wife of her pa's bassist, recreating Civil War love letters and basking in the wattage of storied Memphis AM station WDIA. The arrangements are precise but never fussy, the lyrics capture the plainspoken resonance of traditional folk and the voice belongs to a modern woman sorting through her past. K.H.

Dierks Bentley
7

Dierks Bentley, ‘Riser’

Dierks Bentley's seventh album is a mish-mash of emo-twang heartbreak — pondering if all the "Bourbon in Kentucky" could make him forget you, getting "Drunk on a Plane" on his way to a solo honeymoon, wanting her to "Say You Do" even if she's lying. However, you never totally know from the album's beaming-yet-melancholy melodies which play like a country twist on vintage U2 (or maybe a Hüsker Dü record played at half-speed). There's also back-porch parties and "good ol' boys pickin' six strings" and "pretty girls drinkin' tall boys," but his bittersweet tunes and relaxed affect will chase any Rice-style alpha male aftertaste. C.W.

Lee Ann Womack
6

Lee Ann Womack, ‘The Way I’m Livin”

A psychiatrist could have a field day with Lee Ann Womack's captivating, Grammy-nominated The Way I'm Livin', essentially a 13-track character study of lost souls. With her seventh studio release — which came after a brutally long, seven-year break — the singing spitfire returned with lyrical storylines of reckless rebels and lonely singletons, reclaiming her throne as the queen of authentic country heartache songs. The LP's lean, organic musical arrangements — all crafted by producer/husband Frank Liddell and the studio musicians after hearing Womack sing each song acoustic — complement, but never overwhelm, her gifted voice. B.D.

Little Big Town Pain Killer
5

Little Big Town, ‘Pain Killer’

This sassy, thoroughly soused vocal quartet (the hit, complete with whistling and drum corps snares, is called "Day Drinking") outgrows its humble Fleetwood Mac Lite origins on album six, a brash, goofy, visceral, quietly arty affair. (Wily Eric Church cohort Jay Joyce has become their priceless in-house producer, too.) The fizzy title track is the ultra-rare country-reggae crossover that doesn't suck; "Girl Crush" is a slow, exquisitely excruciating lover's lament with a Phil Spectorian sense of emotional grandeur. The collective blood-alcohol level hovers somewhere between "jovial" and "fatal"; the back half is full of close-harmony theatrics alternately somber ("Live Forever") and seething ("Things You Don't Think About"). The 2014 tier-jumping country crew you'd most like to have a beer (or five) with. R.H.

Hurray For The Riff Raff
4

Hurray for the Riff Raff, ‘Small Town Heroes’

Growing up in the Bronx, Hurray for the Riff Raff founder Alynda Lee Segarra used to ride the subway train for hours to see live punk shows in Manhattan, so perhaps it's not surprising that, at 17, she hopped the rails and ended up in New Orleans — where she soaked up all the dirty jazz, blues and zydeco the region had to offer. Elements of those musical touchstones can be heard on Small Town Heroes, from the traditional, old-timey ring of "Blue Ridge Mountain"; to the jazzy "No One Else"; to the stark, bluesy gem "St. Roch Blues." Whereas contemporary country music can lean on dance music sparkles and hip-hop drum loops for diversity of sound, Hurray for the Riff Raff got there the long way via a traditional, less-is-more approach. Fiddle, washboard and banjo are the backbone of a sound that's as rootsy as it unconventional. L.R.

Eric Church, The Outsiders
3

Eric Church, ‘The Outsiders’

Outsiders to whom? Church's previous LP won Album of the Year at both the CMAs and ACMs, and his previous summer was spent cracking cold ones on Kenny Chesney's No Shoes Nation stadium tour. But like the so-called Outlaws before him, this sensitive bruiser knows the power of a good origin story, and here he spins himself into a junkyard dog who turns up the volume and gets in touch with his heavy metal side. Like the Outlaws, he also knows how to write a great song, and this album is full of future classics: On "Talladega," a group of high school buds drive cross-country to watch a group of professionals drive in circles, and "Give Me Back My Hometown" manages to fill even a Pizza Hut visit with pathos. N.M.

Sturgill Simpson
2

Sturgill Simpson, ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’

Cool don't advertise, and neither do outlaws, but a wry, wide-brimmed halo of unassuming contentment doesn't make Kentucky native and earthy space cadet Sturgill Simpson's second outstanding record in two years any less revolutionary. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music aims to cut off any reductive retro/genre-savior talk from the goofy/deep-thinking title on down, but damned if you don't get thrilling jolts of Waylon's virile power, Willie's melancholy cheer, Kris' drugstore poetry, and Johnny's thundering sentimentality. (Even the opening drug song, "Turtles All the Way Down," bows to the power of love.) Simpson is at his laconically drawling leisure here, but he can wail when he has to, whether the climactic moment is "She was the first girl ever broke my heart" or "I don't have to do a goddamn thing but sit around and wait to die" or the whole pulverizing last verse of his show-stopping cover of When in Rome's Eighties synth-pop classic "The Promise," which alone proves that he's following no script but his own (and Napoleon Dynamite's). R.H.

Miranda Lambert
1

Miranda Lambert, ‘Platinum’

First thing's first, Miranda's the realest. She calls it "backyard swagger" — though that's probably longhand for "country swag" — and you can't step to it. Her fifth record is where the Pistol Annie turns into Machine Gun Miranda, with fearless attitude and effortless bawse-ness that's basically battle rap with a twang: "My disposition permeates the room when I walk in the place" is just the Southern-fried version on "Now the party didn't start 'til I walked in." She brags about Tony Lomas, Marilyn curves and driving automatic transmission. She says she likes "Old Sh!t" so instead of jacking for beats and T-Pain guest spots, she remains partial to Nineties-style quiet-verse-loud-chorus electric guitars and samples liberally like an Eighties DJ. It all results in turning Platinum into a post-modern stew: the Jane's Addiction ya-da-da-da-das of "Little Red Wagon," the Paul Simon riffs of "Priscilla," the borrowed Sly Stone title of "Babies Makin' Babies," the churn of "Something Bad" that recreates Jay Z's "99 Problems" but then adds organs, and vocal harmonies and harmonica that sounds like the Chemical Brothers. She's as good with a joke as Brad Paisley ("Gravity Is a Bitch"), as deep a storyteller as Brandy Clark ("Bathroom Sink"), and can navigate a Tom Waits-ian clown car of honks and bangs and backmasking ("Two Rings Shy," cowritten by Clark) with confidence. C.W.

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