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The 26 Albums of 2014 You Probably Didn’t But Really Should Hear

From Dolly Parton’s ‘Blue Smoke’ to Frankie Ballard’s ‘Sunshine & Whiskey,’ the stellar albums you may have missed in 2014

26 Albums You Need to Hear

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

Rosanne Cash, "The River & the Thread"

Courtesy Blue Note

Rosanne Cash, ‘The River & The Thread’

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.  

Nickel Creek, "A Dotted Line"

Courtesy Nonesuch Records

Nickel Creek, ‘A Dotted Line’

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."

John Oates, "Good Road to Follow"

Courtesy Atlantic

John Oates, ‘Good Road to Follow’

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.

Dale Watson, "The Truckin' Sessions Trilogy"

Courtesy of Red River

Dale Watson, ‘The Truckin’ Sessions Trilogy’

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.

Robert Ellis, "The Lights From the Chemical Plant"

Courtesy of New West Records

Robert Ellis, ‘The Lights From the Chemical Plant’

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, "Salvation Town"

Courtesy of Isotone Records

Jonny Two Bags, ‘Salvation Town’

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.

Willie Watson, "Folk Singer Vol. 1"

Courtesy of Acony Records

Willie Watson, ‘Folk Singer Vol. 1’

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.

Joseph LeMay, "Seventeen Acres"

Courtesy of Joseph LeMay

Joseph LeMay, ‘Seventeen Acres’

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.

Rodney Crowell, "Tarpaper Sky"

Courtesy of New West Records

Rodney Crowell, ‘Tarpaper Sky’

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."

Whiskey Myers, "Early Morning Shakes"

Courtesy of Wiggy Thump Records

Whiskey Myers, ‘Early Morning Shakes’

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.

Mary Gauthier, "Trouble and Love"

Courtesy of In The Black Records

Mary Gauthier, ‘Trouble and Love’

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.

Don Williams, "Reflections"

Courtesy of Sugar Hill (Universal)

Don Williams, ‘Reflections’

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.

Carlene Carter, "Carter Girl"

Courtesy of Rounder

Carlene Carter, ‘Carter Girl’

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.

Hurray for the Riff Raff, "Small Town Heroes"

Courtesy of ATO Records

Hurray for the Riff Raff, ‘Small Town Heroes’

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.

The Howlin' Brothers, "Trouble"

Courtesy of Readymade Records

The Howlin’ Brothers, ‘Trouble’

Produced by Raconteurs co-leader and power-pop songster Brendan Benson, Nashville three-piece mountain string band the Howlin' Brothers' second full-length Trouble is a rip-roarin', hootenanny on wax that puts a rocked-out spin on old-timey bluegrass. Complete with kitchen-sink percussion, front-porch pickin' and hollerin' three-part harmonies, the album careens through cuts like the fast-shufflin' "Pack Up Joe" and the rockabilly two-step "Pour It Down" with a loose production that puts spirited performances over slick sonics. Instead of smoothing out the sharp edges, Benson captures a playful, in-the-moment musical conversation that keeps the trio's traditionalist leanings from sounding like calculated throwback pastiche.

The Secret Sisters, "Put Your Needle Down"

Photo courtesy of Universal Republic

The Secret Sisters, ‘Put Your Needle Down’

Laura and Lydia Rogers' haunting harmonies combine with the spooky nuances of T Bone Burnett's country baroque production for an album fit for a horror film. But that shouldn't scare you away. Rather, touches like the pained violin strains on the Southern gothic second track, "Iuka," are magnetic. As are fleshed-out covers of the P.J. Harvey marriage kiss-off "The Pocket Knife" and the half-baked Bob Dylan sketch "Dirty Lie." The record — the Muscle Shoals sister act's follow-up to their self-titled 2010 debut — actually takes its titular line from that Harvey song and a page from the Old Crow Medicine playbook for "Dirty Lie." But it's when the Rogers sisters infuse Burnett's swampy atmospherics with their ethereal vocals and cherubic charm that the duo asserts a singular identity for their Americana peers to reckon with. Listen to "Rattle My Bones."

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