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Dolly Parton’s 41st studio album, Better Day set out to liven up contemporary country music by taking things back to her gospel roots, while shying away from the doomsday predictions we’ve all heard so much about. “People’ve been talking about the end of times ever since the world began,” she says on “In the Meantime,” which serves as a perfect call to arms: if the world’s going to end eventually—whether it’s in a day, a week, or a million years—why don’t we enjoy life while we’ve got it? Dolly’s certainly taking her own advice, as Better Day is her most lively, entertaining work in the last decade, at the very least. Packed full of gems, the album is one you can play from start to finish and continue to find hidden reasons to love it long after the first play. “Together You & I” showcases Dolly’s amazing voice, deserving to be a hit single even if she’ll never get the radio distribution working on her own terms. But it’s “I Just Might” which stands mountains above the rest, a stunning ballad which, when the dust settles, may go down among this legend’s best work. Better Day isn’t a comeback, because Dolly Parton’s never gone anywhere and she’s not apologizing for that. Rather, this is a statement that she’s heading into her sixth decade as a recording artist while showing no signs of falling off artistically. That’s more than enough reason to stand up and cheer. Jonathan Sanders
Like other great musicians breaking into Nashville, Randy Montana’s debut album got delayed and released quietly, digital only. That wrangling doesn’t show in the songs, but it fits them—his people are always running to escape bad situations. Montana has an eye for images that capture the feelings in his songs precisely, and an unassuming way of keeping the music in sync with that mood. Details haunt us like they haunt the song’s characters: roses that disappear into thin air; a matchbook with a would-be mistress’ phone number and name scrawled on it (he thinks it says Kate); rain hitting a window, sounding like it’s trying to speak. Each stands in for complex stories, emotions, and ideas. The album is filled with all three, centered especially on the decisions we make and second-guess. Why do we keep losing, why do we keep running, what should we have done? The people in these songs ask those, but are moving too often to stop and ponder for long. Dave Heaton
On Chief, Eric Church plays the cad, honing his voice into pure aggressive TWANG. He’ll pick a fight with your boyfriend and then graciously let you buy him a drink. After you dump his sorry liver, he’ll drown his sorrows in breakup songs that sting like prime Taylor Swift. It figures that this album’s most perfect line, “Here’s to all us haters of old lovers’ new last names”, is a toast. But rather than weepy honky-tonkers, Church and producer Jay Joyce have made wall-to-wall classic rock tunes, including a Springsteen ode that sounds more like John Waite. And the singles are phenomenal. In 2011, no song embodied America’s racial and class tensions like “Homeboy”; few songs chronicled our subsequent need to medicate those tensions like “Drink in My Hand”. Josh Langhoff
You’re forgiven if you’re imagining a full-out six-string assault from this album. Sure, there are some tasty licks, laudable leads, and plenty of hot playing, but the focus, as you probably truly expect, is on top-notch songwriting, which Gill delivers front to back, starting with the opening title track. Along the way we’re treated to soulful turns such as “When the Lady Sings the Blues” and “Threaten Me with Heaven”. Songwriting doesn’t get much better than what Gill gets up to with “When Lonely Comes Around”, “Bread and Water” and “The Old Lucky Diamond Motel”. Gill’s wife, Amy Grant, has a few co-writes here, including “True Love”, which the couple performs as a duet. The Oklahoma native’s foray into more traditional country (with a little bit of gospel thrown in) on the closing “Buttermilk John” is as fine as anything he’s done and reminds us that there’s not much he can’t do. Gill remains a rare and fascinating talent and still one to watch. Jedd Beaudoin
Hell on Heels
Pistol Annies’ Hell on Heels opens with a hinting tease that Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley made a deal with the devil to make them just pretty and smart enough to break a million hearts. Regardless of whether they’ll make it that far, this auspicious debut for the country supergroup proves wholeheartedly that this trio, and in particular Lambert, have the talent, drive, and darkness-tinged wit to completely own the country scene in 2011 and beyond. This is country music like nothing else recorded this year, filled with honest examples of real people in real situations. “Housewife’s Prayer” is perhaps the strongest example of their point of view: “I’ve been thinking about setting my house on fire,” Lambert sings. “I can’t see a way out of the mess I’m in and the bills keep getting higher…God I’m getting tired.” It’s like nothing you’ll hear from anyone else, and in a year where country hitmakers were surprisingly underwhelming with their releases, Hell on Heels is refreshing proof that there’s still music out there worth cheering about. Jonathan Sanders
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