40 Best Country Albums of 2014 - Rolling Stone
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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.

Little Big Town Pain Killer

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

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

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

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

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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