The Best Country Music of 2012

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

 

Artist: Zac Brown Band

Album: Uncaged

Label: Atlantic

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List Number: 10

Zac Brown Band
Atlantic

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

 

Artist: Jamey Johnson

Album: Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran

Label: Mercury Nashville

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List Number: 9

Jamey Johnson
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

 

Artist: Carrie Underwood

Album: Blown Away

Label: Arista Nashville

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List Number: 8

Carrie Underwood
Blown Away

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

 

Artist: Jerrod Niemann

Album: Free the Music

Label: Sea Gayle/Arista Nashville

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List Number: 7

Jerrod Niemann
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

 

Artist: Kellie Pickler

Album: 100 Proof

Label: Sony Nashville

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List Number: 6

Kellie Pickler
100 Proof

“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

5 – 1

Artist: Don Williams

Album: And So It Goes

Label: Sugar Hill

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List Number: 5

Don Williams
And So It Goes

How refreshing for a 73-year-old country singer, who began his solo career over 40 years ago, to release a new LP that doesn’t try too hard to reach a younger audience or revitalize his sound. Instead, Don Williams is doing what he’s always done, carrying on his stature as the Gentle Giant of Country Music, with humble, relatively hopeful songs about love and mortality. The album’s soft spirit and strolling style reinforce his focus on eternal things — time, memories, the universe, heartbreak, and the feelings that live in our “heart of hearts”. He still sounds at awe with the world; “Imagine That”, he exclaims. That puts him at odds with the cynicism and stepping-in-line that seems to dominate the genre today. He’s walking in a line, but it feels like his own. Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Taylor Swift

Album: Red

Label: Big Machine

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List Number: 4

Taylor Swift
Red

Yes yes, Swift filled this album with a “dubstep” song, a U2-style stadium thing, teen-pop for 22-year-olds, and lots of modern rock. But she also wrote ace story songs about troublesome men, grace, partying, home, and fame’s perils — and they’re the same songs. The skills that brought her country fans she applies to new styles with a master’s ease. Her fanbase still loves her, and why not? She sets the intense break-up ache “All Too Well” beside the euphoric “22”, packs an entire world into each, and instantly beats whole genres at their own games. Her singing has never sounded better or more powerful. Her mopey British duet partners don’t take up too much space, and great songs quickly come along to wash them away. Whether Swift’s nü-countrypolitan remains her m.o., or whether Red ends up a Milsap-gone-disco blip, few musicians are packing this much color, craft, and sheer pleasure into their music. Josh Langhoff

 

Artist: Iris DeMent

Album: Sing the Delta

Label: Flariella

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List Number: 3

Iris DeMent
Sing the Delta

After an eight-year absence from recorded music and a 16-year one from albums of original music, there’s something soul-stirring about hearing Iris DeMent singing songs so redolent of Southern music traditions and her own family traditions. The songs are populated by homes — of this world and the next — and people who feel like the time has come to turn in their directions. There’s memory and history in both the stories she tells and the songforms she chooses — the old-time gospel music that has informed both her work and the entirety of country music. Her voice still has the ability to stand us still, while she sings of landscapes and experiences in a way that lays them out for us like still-lifes. It all ends with a spellbinding time/spirit-transforming finale that slowly evaporates and rises up before our ears. Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Justin Townes Earle

Album: Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now

Label: Bloodshot

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Justin Townes Earle
Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now

Without a duff record in his still-growing oeuvre, Justin Townes Earle hit hard with an album with early country and soul inflections running throughout. The ghosts that have rambled around on earlier albums remain– — the father he just can’t seem to get along with, the saintly mother, the idea of a perfect love in an imperfect world. These archetypes serve him well throughout and, despite their familiarity, they remain new in his capable hands. “Am I That Lonely That Tonight”, “Memphis in the Rain”, and the title track are great places to start, but “Maria” and “Unfortunately Ana” are just as good. But it’s “Movin’ On” that shows not only the full depth of his songwriting, but that Earle also wields a wicked sense of humor. Jedd Beaudoin

 

Artist: Dwight Yoakam

Album: 3 Pears

Label: Warner Bros.

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Dwight Yoakam
3 Pears

The fact that Dwight Yoakam came roaring back in peak form on his first album of originals since 2005 is enough to make 3 Pears one of the year’s most exciting country albums. But Yoakam gets the top spot this year because, quite simply, he turned in one of the most compositionally satisfying and sonically fresh country records of the year and his best album in two decades. Yoakam accomplishes this feat by nailing a range of his favorite musical obsessions — British Invasion, honky tonk, Motown, garage pop, Beck. There isn’t a dog in the bunch, but highlights include the Jungle Room groove of “Take Hold of My Hand”, the delightful giraffe-fetish quirk of “Waterfall”, and the gorgeous ballad “It’s Never Alright”. Moreover, 3 Pears finds Dwight delivering some of his best-ever vocal performances; that famous hiccup is still here, but sometime during his exile, he discovered additional power and range in his voice to enhance 3 Pears‘ pile of first-rate melodies. Once upon a time, Dwight saved country radio with a shot in the arm of Bakersfield twang and hillbilly music. A thousand miles from nowhere, Dwight is back, still refusing to compromise, finding new ways to authenticate his craft, and recommitting to the country scene just when we need him most. Steve Leftridge

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