The Best Country Music of 2014

Take more than a quick glance at country music in 2014 and you'll see a varied landscape -- in terms of gender, age, experience and song content.

The songs on the Billboard country charts that stayed at #1 the longest this year were by Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, and Luke Bryan. That fits the impression one might get from spending much time listening to country radio this year — that the dominant storyline of country music continues to be the “bro-country” one, that the genre is populated with macho men and their cars and trucks, which their women often like to dance in the headlights of, preferably near a riverbank or a dirt road. Take more than a quick glance at the genre, though, and you’ll see the country music landscape as more varied than that — in terms of gender, age, experience and song content. Its rich history is alive and well, and still being tweaked and refined.

Last year threatened to be considered a “year of the woman” by the press — a gimmick that nonetheless meant deserved attention to songwriters and performers like Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, and Ashley Monroe. That attention shouldn’t be confined to one year, and these artists shouldn’t be categorized as merely “critics’ darlings”. In 2014, Miranda Lambert was a presence on the sales and radio charts with her sixth album, her Pistol Annies cohort Angaleena Presley released her outstanding debut, and Lee Ann Womack released what might be the best album of her career.

Meanwhile, new artists continue to twist and turn the sounds and styles of the country tradition, while living legends solidify and refine the same in interesting ways. If you just scan the horizon of country music and don’t invest yourself in the songs and albums, you perhaps can be forgiven for thinking country as a genre is moribund. Especially if that’s the conclusion you’re expecting to draw. Spend real time with the genre, though, and if you’re looking for reasons to be excited by country music in the year 2014, you will find them. rating_circle_full-3Dave Heaton


Artist: The Secret Sisters

Album: Put Your Needle Down

Label: Universal/Republic

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The Secret Sisters
Put Your Needle Down

This is your grandparents’ country music. The production by T Bone Burnett locates the sonic sweet spot for the sisters, traveling through the homey sounds of the late 1950s, including rockabilly, girl-pop, the Nashville sound, and swamp-rock. At points, however, one has the sense that the production palette might be no more than the icing on the cake. These sisters might tackle these songs a cappella and sound just as compelling. Offering a throughline from the high lonesome sibling harmonies of the Louvins and the Everlys, one would be hard-pressed to find harmonies more natural than those conjured here by Laura and Lydia Rogers. Moments like the bridge of “Black and Blue” and the sweet, low singing at the start of “Luka” quaver with bone-tingling accuracy. And while the sisters wrote or co-wrote the bulk of the songs, the co-writing credits should not be overlooked, which include ace contributions from Brandi Carlile and Dan Wilson. rating_circle_full-3Taylor Coe


Artist: Chuck Mead

Album: Free State Serenade

Label: Plowboy

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Chuck Mead
Free State Serenade

Since honky-tonk throwbacks BR549 went on hiatus, true-blue country troubadour Chuck Mead has released three sharp solo records that have continued to reinforce his credentials as one of our most authentic hillbilly torchbearers and country connoisseurs. On his third album, this year’s Free State Serenade, Mead again boogies like it’s 1966, but unlike his 2012 all-covers set, Chuck returns with a fresh batch of first-rate originals. Mead is still an ace roots-music mimic — Bakersfield honkytonk here, Western swing there, now some banjo frailin’, now some Hank-style heartbreak—but with this record’s neurotransmitter-tickling melodies and clever wordplay, it’s the most fun you’ve had with Chuck Mead since those beer-spillin’ ’49er shows back in the day. rating_circle_full-3Steve Leftridge


Artist: Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives

Album: Saturday Night/Sunday Morning

Label: Superlatone

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Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
Saturday Night/Sunday Morning

Saturday night is a raucous party at the local honkytonk, Sunday morning is church. That’s the conceit behind the double-disc Saturday Night/Sunday Morning. Yet Saturday night’s country songs, as barn-burning wild as they get, are also expressions of absolute heartbreak and devastation. And Sunday morning’s gospel songs are rollicking blues and soul numbers (starting with a version of “Uncloudy Day” featuring Mavis Staples, with Stuart playing Pops Staples’ guitar). Both discs are impeccable forays into these styles and songs, as befitting a musical historian/legend like Stuart, and his crackerjack band. The Sunday Morning half exemplifies and furthers country’s long association and intermingling with gospel. The Saturday Night half harkens back to early rock’n’roll’s relationship to country, and to train songs, down-and-out songs, and good old fashioned divorce songs. rating_circle_full-3Dave Heaton


Artist: Little Big Town

Album: Pain Killer

Label: Capitol Nashville

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Little Big Town
Pain Killer

All those Fleetwood Mac comparisons come into full bloom on this album. Little Big Town has always had the awesome harmonies and catchy tunes, but this time out those skills are married with a willingness to experiment with different musical ideas. This is country-pop at its best, bent on giving us a slice from every pie, jumping from drinking anthem (“Day Drinking”) to troubled love ballad (“Tumble and Fall”) to reggae-inflected pop song (“Pain Killer”) from one track to the next. The women, in particular, shine on this album: Karen Fairchild gives a master-class in pop performance on “Girl Crush” and Kimberly Schlapman lets loose with the fiery “Save Your Sin.” Holding this seeming potpourri together is the striking production from Jay Joyce, who inserts detail like the churning ’70s-rock guitars of “Faster Gun” and the marching band drums of “Day Drinking”. With Joyce in the driver’s seat, Little Big Town is a force in country to be reckoned with. rating_circle_full-3Taylor Coe


Artist: Don Williams

Album: Reflections

Label: Sugar Hill

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Don Williams

Set the patience and steadiness of Don Williams’ singing against most contemporary music, country or not, and take a breath. Reflections finds the gentle giant of country music in acontemplative mode, but even when the songs are not, his voice reflects a life of earned wisdom and experience. There’s a no-nonsense quality to it that is eternally country, and a placidity that echoes back images of C&W landscapes — mountains, rivers, prairies. Reflections is not a standout Williams album necessarily, but a rock-solid one. He sings of getting back to the simple things in life, of praying for strength, and of the way calloused, weathered hands can also be healing hands of love. He capably covers Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” and Merle Haggard’s jailhouse anthem “Sing Me Back Home”, and opens the album with a version of Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” that is devastating in its stability. rating_circle_full-3Dave Heaton

5 – 1

Artist: Sturgill Simpson

Album: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

Label: High Top Mountain

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Sturgill Simpson
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

Put this album on as background music and you’ll miss the point entirely. Listened to casually, Simpson’s album sounds like no more than a powerful evocation of ’70s outlaw country, starring Sturgill as Waylon reincarnated. And, sure, Simpson has turned heads with his rich country baritone and honky-tonk style, but it’s his worldview that elevates what might come across as simple barroom ditties into philosophical rumination on human life. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the lyric sheet and you’ll see that the “metamodern” tag in the title turns out to be a whole lot more than a tongue-in-cheek Ray Charles reference. Simpson is actually guiding the listener through a series of aural musings, touching on everything from hallucinogens to Buddhism to depression. Extraordinary for its open-mindedness and its laid-back sense of ambition, this album points a new direction for Sturgill Simpson — and maybe country music as well. rating_circle_full-4 Taylor Coe


Artist: Miranda Lambert

Album: Platinum

Label: RCA

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Miranda Lambert

With 2012’s Four the Record, Miranda Lambert amassed another pile of hit singles, favorable reviews, media attention alongside famous hubby Blake Shelton, and an armful of award-show trophies. So with nowhere to go but down, did Miranda take her foot off the gas? Please. For 2014, country’s baddest babe lost 30 pounds, released a sprawling double album, and gave it the ain’t-braggin’-if-it’s-true title Platinum. Across 16 whiz-bang songs, Lambert tries to scratch every itch in the country universe: crazy-summer nostalgia (“Smokin’ and Drinkin'”), danger-girl duets (“Somethin’ Bad” with Carrie Underwood), olde-tyme knee-slappers (“Old Shit”), throwback Western swing (Tom T. Hall’s “All That’s Left”), drankin’ songs (“Hard Staying Sober”), and sass-queen gloss-country pop (“Platinum”). Some argued that Platinum could’ve used a trim, but Miranda is just using her illusion. She’s staked her claim on headfirst ambition, spirit, authenticity, and wildcat vocals, and she has too many songs to sing and too many risks to take to bother with playing it safe. rating_circle_full-4 Steve Leftridge


Artist: Willie Nelson

Album: Band of Brothers

Label: Legacy

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Willie Nelson
Band of Brothers

With time and attrition taking a toll on Willie’s band — we lost longtime members Bee Spears in 2011 and Jody Payne last year — America’s most beloved country icon remains stalwartly on the bus, in great voice and creative energy. And after a decade of genre exercises, cover albums, and all-star affairs, Willie came up with a terrific idea for 2014: sit down with his guitar and write a bunch of Willie Nelson songs. No strings, no guests, no umpteenth remake of an old Willie classic. Comprised primarily of Willie’s trademark guitar stabs and snarling solos countered by Mickey Raphael’s harmonica cries, Willie on one hand sings about reaching limits (“The Wall”) and not fitting in on country radio (“Hard to Be an Outlaw”), but “The Songwriters”, “Bring It On”, and the title track are resolute and sweet-sounding manifestos of the Way of Willie. By returning to his own songwriting voice, Willie turns Band of Brothers into his most satisfying platter in ages. rating_circle_full-4 Steve Leftridge


Artist: Angaleena Presley

Album: American Middle Class

Label: Slate Creek

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Angaleena Presley
American Middle Class

If the idea of smart country music that probes into class inequities, gender roles, American history and sociology turns you off, then still listen to the debut album from Angaleena Presley of Pistol Annies. You might not even realize you’re being asked to think critically about the world, you’ll be so taken in by her knack for storytelling, for warm country stylings, and the overall picture painted. It’s of depressed mining towns, of gossip, religiosity, men trying to figure out women, families trying to stay afloat, and so on. Pain and worry and hypocrisy thrive in these stories and scenarios, yet Presley approaches her subjects in an observant, deceptively amiable way that’s both a cover for and an embrace of the complicated ideas and tough truths she’s expressing. rating_circle_full-4 Dave Heaton


Artist: Lee Ann Womack

Album: The Way I’m Livin’

Label: Sugar Hill

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Lee Ann Womack
The Way I’m Livin’

After a lengthy hiatus, Lee Ann Womack signed with the Sugar Hill label and resurfaced in 2014 with The Way I’m Livin’. From the opening tranquility of the Dollyesque “Prelude: Fly”, it’s clear that Womack, who ruled the country charts a decade ago, is making no attempt to strut between Carrie and Miranda on the country-pop scene. Nor is the record a deliberate throwback to Barbara Mandrell-style ’70s country albums. Instead, Womack crafted the best album of her career by keeping it simple and playing to a variety of strengths: the cool, relaxed production of Frank Liddell (Womack’s husband), a stellar collection of songs from top-notch writers (Neil Young, Bruce Robison, Julie Miller, Hayes Carll), and Lee Ann’s pure, skillful, hard-hurtin’ country vocals. As bro-country overload wore out its welcome this year, Womack offered a smarter, more genuine, and more graceful alternative, resulting in this awesome comeback classic. rating_circle_full-4 Steve Leftridge

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