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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

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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