With so much music released every year, we can't blame anyone for missing some real gems — albums that, for whatever reason, didn't make their way into country music fans' hard drives, CD players or onto their turntables. Some slipped into the marketplace without a major-label marketing push, while others were big-budget releases that, despite a promotional blitz, have so far flown under the radar. The one factor they all have in common? They deserve to be discovered anew. Here are the 26 albums from 2014 that you probably haven't, but really should listen to in their entirety. — By Stephen L. Betts, Adam Gold, Joseph Hudak, Andrew Leahey, Marissa R. Moss and Sarah Rodman
Sure, Niemann may have notched a Number One hit with first single "Drink to That All Night," but High Noon hasn't followed that same trajectory. Mostly thanks to follow-up single "Donkey," which stalled in its stall and gave the impression that High Noon was a novelty. Far from it. On songs like "Day Drinkin'" — which could have been a hit had it been released as a single before Little Big Town's similarly titled song was shipped to radio — Niemann makes a case for distinguishing himself from the bro pack. Yes, it's a song about tipping them back in the daylight hours, but like the enveloping "Space" and new single "Buzz Back Girl," "Day Drinkin'" is delivered with Niemann's hard-won experience as a songwriter, singer and tirelessly touring live performer. Bonus: The atmospheric production on High Noon makes it a damn fine headphones album.
At 68 years old, Dolly Parton is still gettin' it done. Just ask the more than 100,000 fans who witnessed her impressive performance at England's Glastonbury Music Festival earlier this summer. Better yet, check out the extraordinary Blue Smoke, wherein she beautifully covers both Bon Jovi ("Lay Your Hands on Me") and Bob Dylan ("Don't Think Twice"). Parton's own songs also continue to sparkle with homespun wit and wisdom, from the bluegrass-fed title track to the poignant "Miss You, Miss Me." Heck, even the Southern-fried French of the goofy "Lover du Jour" is, like Parton herself, tout simplement irrésistible.
The guitar hero scored his first Number One with the musical mantra "Helluva Life," an appreciation of being above ground. But while the song is certainly commendable, it's only a part of what makes his second album required listening. Ballard eschews country clichés and overly slick production for an album that feels like him — no small feat in today's prefabricated market. Songs like the bluesy plea "Sober Me Up" and the in-your-face "Young & Crazy" illustrate his diversity. They also help show off the Bob Seger acolyte's guitar playing, which, like Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, elevates him above his peers.
A lifelong disciple of Merle Haggard's common-man poetry, Bogguss even titled her 1989 major-label debut Somewhere Between and covered that '67 Hag classic on it. Here she applies her jazz, swing, folk and traditional country influences to a dozen Merle tunes, delivering them with spare, yet playful, instrumentation. With a voice as soothing as summer rain, it's no surprise Bogguss can beautifully interpret tender ballads such as "Sing Me Back Home" and "Today I Started Loving You Again." But her soulful take on "I Think I'll Stay Here and Drink" is one of Lucky's most expressive charms.
Remember those awkward holiday meals at Granddad's house, where the old man — having grown far past the point of empathy or tact — would sit back in his chair and lace into each family member with blunt (but true) comments about their silly haircuts? At 81 years old, Willie Nelson has gained that sort of authority. He's the wizened, wobbly-voiced patriarch of country music, with enough years of hard-living under his belt to tell the rest of us what we've been doing wrong. Rather than point a finger, though, Nelson recasts himself as one of us, turning Band of Brothers into a relatable album about the roller-coaster ride of everyday life, heartache, and in the title track, brotherhood.
On her second covers album, McBride strays from the timeless country songbook to explore classic soul songs. Only a brave soul would attempt putting a personal stamp on tunes like Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me" or Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You too Long," but McBride's impressive pipes are up to the challenge. And with producer Don Was suffusing the project with warmth, McBride ably locates her inner R&B chanteuse. Like the cherry on top of a soul sundae, the equally fearless and gifted Kelly Clarkson helps sass up Etta James' "In the Basement."
From Dr. John's Locked Down to Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence, Dan Auerbach has built up an impressively varied discography since establishing himself as a Nashville producer. But it's on Nashville-by-way-of-South-Carolina chanteuse Nikki Lane's sinister second effort All or Nothin' that the Black Keys guitarist really shows how he can help craft a killer set of songs in a stellar-sounding record. Lane sings of long nights raising hell on the attitude-rife, cinematic opener "Right Time," pines over bad men with cheating hearts on the bittersweet "Good Man," declares nihilistic love for one such man on the driving, honk-tonk-ready romp "I Don't Care" and adds gravitas to frowned-upon choices on the Stones-y swagger-dripping "Sleep With a Stranger." Auerbach's punch-drunk conflation of classic country-rock sounds and Sixties pop production adds both an Instagram filter and more than a tinge of modernity. But with her seductive, devil-may-care drawl, Lane is the real scene-stealer here.
We've talked up this two-dude duo from Kentucky before, naming them one of our 10 New Artists You Need to Know earlier this summer. And for good reason: their LP Bring Up the Sun. An instantly timeless album with a genuine sense of heart — there's no quickly dated computer beats or country boy posturing here — Sun radiates with sincerity. Whether singer-guitarist Nick Jamerson is brushing aside the unconscionable idea of regret in the introspective "Smoking Gun" or percussionist Kris Bentley is banging away a bar-band rhythm in the love-struck "Until I Met You," the record's 15 tracks serve as an example of what today's country music can be, if artists would just let their guard down.
Like most bands who've stuck around long enough to celebrate their 20th anniversary, the Old 97's raise a glass to moderation and maturity with Most Messed Up, their swaggering, self-deprecating debut for ATO Records. Charismatic leader Rhett Miller, who realizes there's no use hiding his age, sings about growing older in an industry filled with young'uns who may not know the difference between Uncle Tupelo and Uncle Kracker. Most Messed Up also celebrates the pastimes that never die, though— including drinking, rocking and screwing — making one's 40s seem like a pretty alright place to be. Check out "Longer Than You've Been Alive."
"Tell me, what's so bad about happy?" sings Okemah, Oklahoma's mysterious John Fullbright on his second album, Songs, posing a question that has plagued every songwriter from neophytes to seasoned pros: Must we all wallow in misery to tap into our most productive artistic life? But Fulbright doesn't need it so black-and-white for his breed of folk storytelling. He can whip an emotional tale from the thinnest fibers of experience, held together by a balance of uncommon earnestness and vulnerability that never feels cloying. Take the piano ballad "She Knows," which conjures a classic melody and insightful lyrics capturing love externally — mature and fragile, all at once.
In this remarkable album's opening track, "A Feather's Not a Bird," Rosanne Cash details a road trip that takes her through her Memphis birthplace to Arkansas, the state that gave birth to her father, Johnny. Influenced as she was by her dad's spectacular career and even more titanic personality, Cash grew up mainly in California and currently makes her home in New York City. Still, there's no mistaking the imprint of her southern roots, even if her economical lyrics share more in common with, say, Eudora Welty than they do the Man in Black.
Following a seven year hiatus, the virtuosic California trio explodes back to life with a reunion album that evokes its best work while expanding its ongoing musical conversation. The group continues to cut across neighboring county lines from bluegrass runs to folk introspection to blues and gospel-flavored tunes. Each singing-songwriting member — master mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Sean Watkins and his fiddling younger sister Sara — contributes individually and collectively to songs bursting with exuberant instrumental interplay and hair-raising harmonies. Driving originals like "Destination" are bolstered by quirky covers, including a dizzying dash through Mother Mother's "Hayloft."
A recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee with his longtime soul brother Daryl Hall, Oates has always set aside time for solo projects. His latest, Good Road to Follow, was recorded primarily in Nashville and features some of the Pennsylvania native's best bits of songwriting. While certainly not a tried-and-true country album (whatever that may be these days), the record features some of Music City's best players, including Dobro master Jerry Douglas and the inimitable Vince Gill, who provides guitar and sings on "Don't Cross Me Wrong." The way Oates incorporates his special guests' talents, from Gill's harmonies to Hot Chelle Rae's pop spunk, into his own soul-blues-country compositions makes his Good Road one worth getting lost on.
The third installment of hardcore troubadour Watson's truck-driving albums — think 18 wheels, not tailgates — is so full of romanticized life-is-a-highway anthems that, by record's end, you'll want to dial the number for your local big-rig school. Packaged together with 1998 and '99's Volumes 1 and 2, Disc 3 of the Trilogy, released just last month, eats up asphalt with songs titled "Suicide Sam," "We're Trucking Along" and the devilish "It's Been a Long Truckin' Day." Watson isn't just playing a part: With his baritone voice, shock of silver hair and a flair for denim, he's as real a road warrior as Red Sovine and Dave Dudley before him. And his throwback tunes have enough gas in the tank to make even the titular homebound boy in Sovine's "Teddy Bear" get up and dance.
It says a lot about Robert Ellis that the only traditionally-country song on The Lights From the Chemical Plant is the bluegrass quick-picker "Sing Along" about the crushing veil of religion that exists in Texan hometowns like his. Equally able to sling honky-tonk as bossa nova, Ellis is the kind of artist that exists outside of neat categorization — and this LP is enough to make Pandora algorithms start cursing and kicking the (fire) wall. Where do you place someone who shreds through a Paul Simon cover with both delicate inflection and prog-rock guitar lines one moment, spins clever narrative with jazzy chord voicings the next and dances to Jai Paul or George Jones in his free time? It's not easy, but that's the thrill of Chemical Plant.
Jonny "Two Bags" Wickersham, the guitarist for California punk icons Social Distortion, followed the lead of his Social D boss Mike Ness and put out a country-tinged album that is as much Bakersfield twang as SoCal 'tude. Over 10 tracks, it evokes dusty roadhouses, grimy alleys and the melting pot of L.A.'s barrio. Standout track "Avenues" even adds some Tex-Mex flavor. At times, the album has all the foreboding of a drug deal about to go bad. But ultimately, Salvation Town makes good on its title, offering redemption through songs like "One Foot in the Gutter" and the amazing "Clay Wheels" — the latter sounding like a lost composition between Gram Parsons and Keith Richards.
It's no surprise, pragmatically speaking, that Old Crow Medicine Show alum Willie Watson isn't selling scores of his debut solo LP. It's an album of traditional American folk songs, after all; some well-known (like his take on "Midnight Special" that's sung with both youthful cadence and a weathered high-mountain warble) and some dug from deep in the bottom soil. In other words, not exactly ringtone material. The charm of the record though is how, despite old-time melodies and dug-out coalminer blues, there's no mock-vintage production to get the point across — it's clean and void of unnecessary crackles that could make it an audio incarnation of a hipster tintype. No need, anyway: Watson's voice carries the weight of generations past, but on Folk Singer, it's still appropriate for the one we live in, right now.
The title track is the true story of how LeMay and his wife relocated to an abandoned trailer on her family's inherited farm in Dyersburg, Tennessee, and throughout its 11 songs, Seventeen Acres explores the complexities of love; from days and nights of wild abandon to paralyzing moments of fear and dread. The best example of the former is the electrified "Molly My Girl," while things don't get much more dreadful (yes, that's a compliment) than "Call It Quits." A doublewide talent living the singlewide life, LeMay has crafted one of the best Americana albums of the year.
Fresh from his Grammy-winning collaboration with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell keeps things light and lovely on Tarpaper Sky. Although once a trendsetter in country music, he's happy to cast his lot with the old guys these days, leaving bro country and hick-hop to the newbies who rely on Music Row for their material. There's no outsourcing here. Instead, Crowell writes all 11 of the album's relaxed, rootsy songs, proof that in a genre split between diamonds and dirt, Crowell — who tackles everything from Cajun rhythms to country shuffles — still shines with the best of 'em. Give a listen to "Fever on the Bayou."
From rap to EDM to straight-ahead pop, country loves flirting outside genre walls — but it's the seminal combination of twang and crunchy rock & roll guitars that hits a perfect sweet spot. It might not be as trendy as hick-hop but it's no less potent. And Whiskey Myers, a Texas-based five-piece, is a great torchbearer of this Lynyrd Skynyrd tradition on their Dave Cobb-produced LP Early Morning Shakes. It's clear here they're more focused on creating music to make Delta ghosts dance than battling to be particularly au courant. It's a perfectly fine mission, once you give a listen to tracks like "Headstone" and "Dogwood," which are propelled by a dirty shimmy that should have Ronnie Van Zant happily shaking his angel wings.
The Louisiana native outdoes even her own impressive forays into the dark on her excruciatingly exquisite seventh album. Every tune is a rough gem of melody, misery and economy, as Gauthier excavates romantic wreckage like an archaeologist telling the story of a fossilized love. "I'm just now getting' 'round to lettin' go, but you had your suitcase packed a long time ago," she sings on "Walking Each Other Home." It is one of a surfeit of couplets that put you right in the middle of the action we've all experienced but haven't been able to articulate as expertly as Gauthier.
Between Glen Campbell's struggle with Alzheimer's, George Strait's retirement and the deaths of legends like George Jones and Cowboy Jack Clement, these have been hard times for fans of country's classic troubadours. Luckily we've still got Don Williams, and Don Williams is still good. Great, in fact. "I'll be your spring when it feels like winter,” the 75-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer croons on a melancholy rendition of Britton Cameron's "I Won't Give Up on You" — the third track from Williams' 25th studio album, Reflections. A respite from the reign of bro country, this 10-song collection of country-Americana covers the likes of Townes Van Zandt's "I'll Be Here in the Morning," Guy Clark's "Talk Is Cheap" and the Merle Haggard murder ballad "Sing Me Back Home." It's a must-have for anyone who hankers to hear the Gentle Giant — one of the genre’s most subtly emotive voices — do what he does best.
Daughter of June and descent of the Carter Family, Carlene Carter has never failed to fill big shoes. Once again, on Carter Girl — the singer's first full-length since 2008 — she faces her family legacy head on, cutting a festive set of 10 Carter Family covers that's as full of life as it is reverence, along with a pair of new originals to add new chapters to the family legacy. Those two tracks alone are worth the price of admission. The first, "Me and the Wildwood Rose," an obvious nod to the Carter Family immortalized standard "Wildwood Flower," is a sweetly moving tribute to Carter's grandparents, Maybelle and Ezra, told through childhood memories. While the second, "Lonesome Valley 2003" — an adaptation of the Carters' "Lonesome Valley," co-written with former NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson — is a piano-led rumination on the year she, and the world, lost Johnny and June.
Prolific New Orleans indie folkies Hurray for the Riff Raff have, under the radar, released five full-lengths in the eight years they've been a band. Don't miss their latest, the stunning Small Town Heroes. The album boasts a dozen tracks brimming with rusty Americana imagery and modern problems that'll make you fall in love with banjoist/vocalist/bandleader Alynda Lee Segarra 12 times in a row. With a smoky, celestial set of pipes that'll cut clear through even the cheapest set of earbuds, Segarra — a Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent — proves herself a small town country girl at heart on serenades and country-blues rompers like the anti-gun, modern murder ballad "The Body Electric" and the acoustic meditation "The New SF Bay Blues." Segarra's voice fills the astral calm of "Levon's Dream" and delivers the gloom-and-doom love-as-drug-addiction analogy of the album's title track with a resolute sadness straight from the gut.