In 2012, you could be forgiven for being dismissive of the country music genre entirely—to a point. The output of the Nashville industry as a whole was even more cookie-cutter than usual, and there was no real insurgency to speak of from the outside, at least not one doing anything brand-new. It was a somewhat grey landscape overall, which tells us not that there’s nothing going on in the USA that’s worth singing about, but that country-music all too often exists as its own universe, one more interested in recycling stock images (another song about a drinking cold beer with a girl in a truck by the creek?) and peddling simple messages of love, faith, and identity.
Of course, to be bleak about the big picture is unfair to all of the spectacular small pieces of the puzzle—some of them not small at all, actually, but mega-selling superstars working against the lines around genre. Others are the faces of traditionalist country music past and their offspring, along with younger artists having fun recalling and tweaking the established forms. For as long as country exists as a genre, as a set of tropes and a force of nature—and it’s hard to imagine it ever going away—there will be songwriters and performers who are devoted to embodying their own vision of what “country” means, which sometimes means pushing the genre around or even using it as just another piece of the larger fabric of American music that they’re interested in. Dave Heaton
10Zac Brown Band
Yeah, well, you could just as easily make the case that Zac Brown and band make pop music more than country, but one thing remains true: whatever you call Brown’s music, it’s nearly impossible not to like tunes such as “Jump Right In” (replete with island rhythms), “Island Song” (more of the same), “Goodbye in Her Eyes” (a little closer to traditional country), or “Overnight” (with a guest spot from Trombone Shorty). Brown’s reputation as country music’s most affable artist remains intact here—and for good reason: Uncaged is filled with all the stuff that makes life worth living, chief among them love, love, and laughter. Jedd Beaudoin
Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran
Hank Cochran wrote songs so good you could hardly believe that they hadn’t always existed—you know virtually every line the first time you hear one of his compositions and yet it stills feel like a revelation after the first hundred listens. Jamey Johnson’s versions of Cochran classics such as “The Eagle” (recorded here with George Strait), “A-11” (with Ronnie Dunn), and “This Ain’t My First Rodeo” (with Lee Ann Womack) are all dealt with capably, but he makes deeper classics such as “I Fall to Pieces” (with Merle Haggard), “Make the World Go Away” (with Alison Krauss), and “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me” (with Willie Nelson) so deeply his own that you almost can’t believe he didn’t write them. Johnson is a true giant of country music and his ability to stand next to the greats that join him here is full testament to that—and so is his deep and obvious reverence for the material he’s selected for his latest classic. Jedd Beaudoin
At first Blown Away seems built entirely from hard Apollonian lines: threatening storm fronts, two black Cadillacs, Cupid’s shotgun, the county borders that trap you inside and welcome you home, and the spare piano line running through “Who Are You”, Mutt Lange’s excellent closing power ballad. Underwood’s characters find their lives shaped by the weather, fate, and passions beyond their control. But the more you listen, the more her Olympian voice intertwines with these forces. She wills weather into existence and Brad Paisley onto her record. The storm that frames “Do You Think About Me” becomes her partner in nostalgia. And when she gently sings, “She remembers the change in her body,” she imbues female fertility with all the power of myth, not unlike the Virgin Mary story or the first Species movie. Underwood’s unnamed everywomen threaten to overwhelm mean old Apollo with feminine agency. Also, this is a really solid pop country album. Josh Langhoff
Free the Music
Keeping Nashville horn players employed since 2010, this goofball proudly endorses the man in the moon and insists that he is a man, not a fraction. (Maybe that’ll end the rumors.) Niemann’s post-Big & Rich country mixes metaphors and styles with abandon, its exquisitely chiseled production sweeping you from song to song. Free the Music veers from Beck to honky-tonk weeper, the ominous “Get On Up” to the lite tropical “I’ll Have to Kill the Pain”. It all seems like breezy showboating until “Only God Could Love You More”, a massive ballad that’ll awaken your inner 14-year-old to the knowledge that love is awesome. God, too; though he’s less prominent in Niemann’s cosmology than alcohol or Jessie James, who has the courtesy to rhyme with “Guessing Games”, the title of a dark new wave strutter. “Do you know what is completely obnoxious?,” asks Niemann of his mystery woman. Sometimes the answer is Jerrod Niemann, but he’s always real nice about it. Josh Langhoff
“Where is Tammy Wynette when you need her?,” asks Kellie Pickler on the lead track to 100 Proof. By asking that question, she is, of course, helping to answer it by way of ripping into these 11 songs with the kind of barn dance combustion and Dolly dreaminess that puts Pickler in the company of any number of honky-tonk angels. Kellie convincingly plays the tough country party chick mandatory on today’s country radio on thumpers like “Unlock That Honky Tonk”, but it’s on classic-sounding, steel-laced weepers like “Stop Cheatin’ on Me” where Pickler works wonders and proves that she’s one of the best belters in the game. 100 Proof is most refreshing when she gets pre-Reba, but even on more contemporary balladry like “Long as I Never See You Again”, Kellie proves that not only can she sing circles around many of her peers, she has a serious knack for choosing terrific material, and the songs on 100 Proof are uniformly sturdy. Overall, Kellie surprised many this year by reaching back gracefully to classic forms and thereby taking a major artistic step forward. Steve Leftridge
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