Check out Wondering Sound’s top 25 country albums of the year here.
The best running lyrical conceit in country music right now is the “I’m in my truck listening to [stylistically incongruous musical artists]” thing. It’s delightful. On “That’s My Kind of Night,” cornball genre titan Luke Bryan pops in a mixtape with “a little Conway, a little T-Pain“; on “No Better Than This,” affable good-old-boy Lee Brice announces, “We got some Hank on deck, Snoop Dogg pumpin’”; on “Sun Daze,” the oft-sleeveless, totally shameless chart-topping punching bags Florida Georgia Line predictably overcompensate with “a little bit of hip-hop and Haggard and Jagger” (hopefully not solo Jagger, yeesh); putative tough guy Brantley Gilbert has a song called “My Baby’s Guns N’ Roses” (which counts); and, most tellingly, on the deceptively titled “Freestyle,” rapidly aging softies Lady Antebellum coin the nifty/nightmarish portmanteau “Fleetwood Macklemore,” which does neatly sum up both their target audience and their predicament.
Everyone’s predicament, really, for bro country ain’t goin’ nowhere. To turn on the radio these days is to be inundated with quasi-lovable bedheaded doofuses who long to throw back a few cold ones while driving a cutoff-blue-jean cutie down a moonlit dirt back road to a bonfire or a “small-town throwdown” or worse. This is to the exclusion of any other viewpoint from any other type of human, most notably the cutoff-blue-jean cuties. It wears on you. The indispensable tragicomic website Farce the Music (which sells “Put the ‘Try’ Back in Country” T-shirts) has assembled a series of bingo cards to underscore the problem; the equally indispensible site Saving Country Music chose the more direct route of recently declaring Florida Georgia Line’s colossally vapid new Anything Goes “the worst album ever” and “an embarrassment to country music,” among many, many other discouraging words (“the next Nickelback“).
The backlash is so intense that in 2014 it inspired its own subgenre; two of the most talked-about country singles of the year are essentially protest songs. Young Nashville duo Maddie & Tae whapped the puppy dog right on the nose with “Girl in a Country Song” — “It’s gettin’ kinda cold in these painted-on cutoff jeans,” etc. — which is too clever by three-quarters (as though lifted directly from a rock critic’s brain), but to its infinite credit actually gets played on the radio occasionally. Whereas Canada’s Kira Isabella fired off the far graver and more pointed “Quarterback,” a seething date-rape fable that Wondering Sound’s own Charles Aaron broke down in essential detail. It’s almost too good to be true, and definitely too good to be popular.
That bro country is ubiquitous does not make it totally worthless. Its awkward mashup of frat rap, hair metal and heartland rock is not a new phenomenon by any stretch — country has been shamelessly porous and omnivorous for years, decades. And the onslaught is actually easier to take the longer it lasts; 2013 was dominated by fantastic albums by women who, Kacey Musgraves aside, the radio ignored, from Ashley Monroe to Brandy Clark to Caitlin Rose, leaving any serious listener absolutely appalled. This year, that tragedy was replaced by gentle farce: You can throw on Brantley Gilbert’s Just as I Am (which at its best constitutes Nashville’s answer to Def Leppard) or Sam Hunt‘s weirdly alluring half-spoken-word PUA manifesto Montevallo (which basically sounds like Channing Tatum sweet-talking you while CMT videos play unobtrusively in the background) or even FGL’s reviled Anything Goes itself (which despite a performance-art-level narrowness of backwards-hat vision does include the genuinely affecting “Dirt”) and be entertained, if not exactly enlightened.
(This applies to even objectively terrible records. See Chase Rice’s Ignite the Night, which, in addition to showcasing the talents of a man named “Chase Rice,” plays out like an album-length street-harassment video. “U Turn,” with the lyrics, “Damn! What’s that tattoo sneaking out of them hip-huggers?/ I bet I’d see the other half if them boys would play some Usher,” is where you conclude that the guy needs to be hosed off. Determine the size of the hose for yourself. Also: His record label is called “Dack Janiels.”)
Any country artist not actively engaging with this phenomenon has to at least react to it. Well, maybe: Does ignoring it count as a pointed sort of reaction? Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley and Jason Aldean all made just-OK 2014 records (beachy, sappy, even sappier and sleepily surly, respectively) that will satisfy their adult-leaning core constituencies and prop up another arena tour and not much else. Aldean’s is the bro-iest, though his lady is so hot they never even make it to the small-town throwdown, and instead cook up the uneasy sex jam “Burnin’ It Down” (which improves with time, I swear). Lady Antebellum’s 747 is a little bored and a little desperate, but their longtime soft-rock-vocalist nemeses Little Big Town filled the gap with the excellent Pain Killer, which runs on equal parts booze and legitimate pathos.
(Taylor Swift, meanwhile, bailed out of the genre entirely and sold a million-plus copies of 1989, her “first real, documented pop album,” which also happens to be — if you ask me, which to be fair, you didn’t — her worst album, but let’s honor her wishes and leave her out of this.)
In terms of Establishment Guys, though, this year’s biggest leap was taken by one Dierks Bentley, a raspy charmer whose Riser had two killer singles in the stirring “I Hold On” and the silly “Drunk on a Plane.” His silliness was especially useful given the off year for Paisley: Moonshine in the Trunk has a couple good puns (“four-wheel park”) and a few good cheesy love songs (the mildly subversive, accidental-sexist-bashing “Shattered Glass”) but not much life otherwise. Bentley has deftly cornered the “aging, wistful bro” market: He sings about “pretty girls drinkin’ tallboys” with the gravity and pathos of Don Henley. Contrast that with the double-barrel-chested (and -voiced) Lee Brice, who neatly triangulates Hank Jr. and Meat Loaf, probably soundtracked 2 million weddings this year with the title track to his I Don’t Dance, and likens the sight of “girls in bikinis” to “watching a Slinky walk down the stairs,” which is winsome, if anatomically unlikely.
If you’re looking for alternatives or outlaws or just outliers, you had many fine options, of course, from Angaleena Presley‘s smart, slightly too subdued American Middle Class to Sunny Sweeney’s cheerfully subversive Provoked (especially the hilarious “Backhanded Compliment”). Married duo Shovels & Rope get more menacing to splendid effect on Swimmin’ Time; Rosanne Cash stays on the right side of the classic/archaic divide with The River & the Thread. Nikki Lane‘s tough-talking, Dan Auerbach-produced All or Nothin’ peaks with “Sleep With a Stranger,” if that tells you anything; she’s following the trail blazed by Ohio’s still-astounding Lydia Loveless, who tried to live up to her burgeoning “cowpunk princess” image on the first draft of Somewhere Else, but scrapped it entirely and powered out 10 blazing variations on Fleetwood Mac‘s “Dreams” instead.
But outlaw-wise, nobody this year touched Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson, whose Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is your only choice if you love country music but can’t stand listening to country radio for even 10 seconds. Bathed in reverb, Old Nashville reverence, and hard psychedelics, it’s a lush and lovely mind-bender even wilier than it initially appears. Try to frame Simpson as a Country Music Savior and he descends into gleeful psychobabble; it’s certainly notable that the record peaks with an achingly sincere cover of When in Rome’s ’80s synth-pop monolith “The Promise.” (Yes, the song at the end of Napoleon Dynamite.) He’s far too forward-thinking to be a mere throwback; he’s no genre’s savior, but he might just be yours.
All the same, the best two country albums of 2014, in this writer’s opinion, both came from huge superstars whose approach to the genre is even more fluid and polyglot than the bros’. Fellow putative tough guy Eric Church‘s The Outsiders, about which I have already written at great length, is a riot of arty, fearless, sumptuously produced ambition; the pun-happy “Cold One” is the best bro anthem of the year, “Talladega” the best misty-eyed nostalgia trip, “The Outsiders” the best thrash-metal jam, “That’s Damn Rock ‘n’ Roll” the best “Gimme Shelter” ripoff, “Give Me Back My Hometown” the best Coldplay festival anthem, etc. etc. etc. It’s unbelievable, up to and including the utterly ridiculous Nashville-as-the-devil hard-rock trilogy that Church faithfully recreates in full on his current (yes!) arena tour, going so far as to employ a two-story-tall spinning blowup devil that blocks the view of hundreds of fans for a full 10 minutes. Love that guy.
But we must end with Miranda Lambert‘s Platinum, heavily decorated at this year’s CMA Awards even as it rewires Nashville’s current conventions at every turn. It starts out with “Girls,” which is even more pointed in its Revenge of the Blue-Jeaned Cutie ardor than “Girl in a Country Song”: As the chorus sharply notes, “If you think you’re the only one she’ll want in this world/ Then you don’t know nothin’ about girls.” From there, the record divides neatly into new shit (bowing to aforementioned trends, “Little Red Wagon” gamely channels DLR-era Van Halen, while “Somethin’ Bad” recruits Carrie Underwood to help remake “99 Problems”) and old shit (including Western swing kiss-off “All That’s Left,” the sun-kissed Eagles love letter “Holding on to You,” the cabaret goof “Gravity’s a Bitch,” and the song actually just called “Old Shit”). Deep thought: “It’s amazing/ The amount of rejection/ I see in my reflection.” Ultimate thesis: “What doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder.”
What ties all this together is Lambert’s voice, sassy and sensitive, vulnerable but lethal. She’s not so much subverting her own genre on Platinum as perfecting and then transcending it. (Note: She’s married to rapidly aging bro totem Blake Shelton, whose far less impactful 2014 album Bringing Back the Sunshine describes a variety of alcoholic beverages being consumed directly off a woman’s lips.) In another scattered, somewhat troubling, undoubtedly dude-centric year, she is barreling down a dirt road in her souped-up pickup listening only to…herself. That’s as stylistically incongruous, and as good, as it gets.