The Best Country Music of 2012

Dave Heaton, Jedd Beaudoin, Josh Langhoff, Steve Leftridge

In 2012, you could be forgiven for being dismissive of the country music genre entirely -- to a point. For as long as country exists as a genre, there will be songwriters who are devoted to embodying their own vision of what “country” means, which sometimes means pushing the genre around.

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


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List Number: 10

Zac 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


Artist: Jamey Johnson

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

Label: Mercury Nashville


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

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


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

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


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

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


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

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

Next Page




The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.


Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.


Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.


Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.


Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.


The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.


Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.


The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.