While this year’s country releases surely proved that bro-country isn’t going anywhere, Wondering Sound’s favorite albums were rife with bluegrass-tinged singer-songwriters, veteran outlaws, and women who prefer heels to boots and platinum to Solo cups. Read Rob Harvilla’s essay on the good, bad, and ugly in the year in country and find our staff’s picks for the best of the best below.
25. Rosanne Cash, The River & the Thread
On the beautiful and understated The River & the Thread, Rosanne Cash takes us on a ride through the American South. She's been along this road before, linked to it by family genealogy and musical heritage; and yet here she travels it as an outsider, seeing the landscape anew, capturing images through the refracted lens of dream and metaphor, reminiscence and fable. The River & the Thread is about returning to a place you hardly know yet have always known. — Lenny Kaye
24. Dom Flemons, Prospect Hill
Dom Flemons always was the most musicologically focused member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. On Prospect Hill, his first solo album since departing the group, he rambled through a great swath of rooted African-American music, which isn't at all the academic affair it sounds. With his spry inventiveness, wry friskiness and ragged funkiness, he cracked the historical seal on jug band, string band, fife and drum, fiddle and banjo, country blues, electric blues, pre-war jazz, and even proto-rock music. — Jewly Hight
23. Brad Paisley, Moonshine in the Trunk
Brad Paisley's 11th studio release, Moonshine in the Trunk, is virtually guaranteed to secure the singer's reign as the king of minivan country for at least another year. For the first 10 of its 15 tracks, it alternates funny songs (the best of which, "High Life," is a "Weird Al" Yankovic-worthy tale of lawsuit-happy hillbillies) with love ballads or feminist paeans ("Shattered Glass" is about the proverbial ceiling). But after "Gone Green" — a genial tale of a redneck turned environmentalist — fades, humor's set aside and earnestness takes over completely. — Phil Freeman
22. Nikki Lane, All Or Nothin’
Nikki Lane has a rebellious streak wider than a country mile, and she spends most of All Or Nothin' in boss mode, explaining how she can do whatever the hell she wants. Lane's sound is country, but flecked with a dreamy layer of '60s vibes, and that softness is a great foil for her defiance. "You Can't Talk To Me Like That" especially highlights this dichotomy, doubling as another command that's actually a vulnerability. But it's mostly Nikki's insubordination that makes this album so enjoyable — the razor-sharp misandry of "Man Up," the unapologetic swagger of "Sleep With a Stranger." The album holds true to Lane's binary title — she's either eviscerating ex-lovers or ready to commit forever, and that intensity is what makes this record so engaging. — Caitlin White
21. Alice Gerrard, Follow the Music
A folk legend who has sung with Hazel Dickens and Mike Seeger and has seen countless revivals over the decades, Alice Gerrard celebrated her 80th birthday with a lively collection of old folk tunes, backed by members of Hiss Golden Messenger and Megafaun. While the years have added new textures to her voice, she conveys a sense of rustic authority whether she's navigating the spry folk-blues number "Teardrops Falling in the Snow" or waxing melancholic on the gentle heartbreaker "Foolish Lovers Waltz." — Stephen M. Deusner
20. Billy Joe Shaver, Long in the Tooth
Of all the outlaw types who've ever spun their mercurial mythologies at the microphone, Texan Billy Joe Shaver is by far the most disarming. The lean and lusty honky-tonk set Long in the Tooth — his umpteenth album since the early '70s — found the septuagenarian songwriting cult hero standing on his leathery bravado one minute and exposing his dog-eared tenderness the next, scarred and sweet and unshakably honest about it all. — J.H.
19. Robert Ellis, The Lights From the Chemical Plant
Brill Building-style pop's enjoyed a bit of a comeback lately as a sort of indie act shorthand for songwriting sophistication. (See: the New Pornographers.) Robert Ellis had his own ideas about what could be done with such a finessed approach to songcraft. The Texas native embroidered The Lights From the Chemical Plant, his second set for New West, with the troubadour twang that'd been his trademark, jazzily burnished melodies, elastic arrangements, exacting narration and disquieted eloquence. The album's as stunning as it is studied. — J.H.
18. Amy LaVere, Runaway’s Diary
A Michigander by birth but a southerner by disposition, Amy LaVere is Memphis's best-kept secret: a steely singer, a bass player who grooves naturally, and on Runaway's Diary a storyteller with a keen eye for voice and character. Exaggerating her own short stint as a teen runaway, these songs — her own compositions holding their against covers of John Lennon and Townes Van Zandt — ponder what she might have become had she not gone home, sung with an alarming tenderness for all those she might have met along the way. — S.D.
17. Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
Lucinda Williams has spent more than three decades recounting her own wars, first on a couple of acoustic blues records and then on a string of country albums that remain unrivaled for their depth of insight and purity of voice. She remains a formidable chronicler of heartache and loss, though the song "Compassion," adapted from a poem written by her father, doesn't sound like she's asking her listeners to empathize with her. It's just the opposite: Dark and quiet, the song sounds like an internal monologue, a reminder to herself not to judge others too quickly or too harshly. Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone explores that idea across a collection that ranges from skewed folk, conventional blues rock and some of the best country tunes Williams has written in more than a decade. — S.D.
16. Doug Paisley, Strong Feelings
On Strong Feelings, Doug Paisley reaches back to a vague era of the past, with a dulcet twang to his country-tinged ruminations that evokes the likes of Kris Kristofferson. There's exploratory classic rock a la Derek and the Dominoes on "Where the Light Takes You," and a smattering of jazz saxophone and piano. But while Paisley introduces new wrinkles, he's still at his best distilling rock, country and folk on clear and unfussy numbers like "Our Love" and "Old Times." — Andy Beta
15. Old Crow Medicine Show, Remedy
Old Crow Medicine Show's ninth album Remedy is one of the band's cleverest, catchiest collections to date (and the first in seven years to feature founding member Critter Fuqua). Unlike other string bands, these transplanted Tennesseans aren't terribly concerned with down-home platitudes. Instead, they're Appalachian wiseacres — wiser and wilier than their peers, and they have the temerity to be irreverent toward folk traditions: "Doc's Day" sounds like a doting paean to folksy nostalgia until they fess up to playing stringed instruments to get chicks. — S.D.
14. Caroline Rose, I Will Not Be Afraid
Caroline Rose was still pretty new to the whole artist gig when she recorded I Will Not Be Afraid, which turned out to be a great thing; no one or nothing had had the chance to sand down her edges. The album catches her in righteous, unruly folk-punk mode, equally headstrong and self-conscious as she delivers poetically prickly social commentary with the tumbling, vinegary talking-blues syncopation, alertness and wit of a young songwriter who's come out on the other side of Dylan devotion. — J.H.
13. Sunny Sweeney, Provoked
From the gut-punching harmonies on opening track "You Don't Know Your Husband" to the quirky redemption of "Used Cars," Sunny Sweeney's Provoked is one of the year's most diverse and thoughtful albums. "Second Guessing" gives wrong decisions a quiet dignity, and "Sunday Dress" adds a human element to the pressures of toxic religious communities. Sans major-label support, Sweeney has the freedom to write the kinds of songs that comment on major cultural issues, like "Front Row Seats," instead of only party anthems. Reminiscent of the themes addressed by Brandy Clark or Kacey Musgraves, Sweeney is the unsung country heroine of 2014. — C.W.
12. Sam Hunt, Montevallo
On his debut album Montevallo, Sam Hunt wears his heart on his too-tight muscle tee. His deft songwriting veers through breakups, small towns, house parties and sex in the back of a pickup truck — America's finest coming-of-age topics. Though traditionalist watchdogs quibble at his wide-open sound, it's the intimate details on Montevallo that position it squarely in country territory. There are just as many drum machines and R&B hooks as guitar riffs, but that conglomeration is why the record is so fantastic. Give "Raised On It" even a cursory listen — this is the country experience of right now, and Hunt is about to be a monster star. — C.W.
11. Shovels & Rope, Swimmin’ Time
On their second effort Swimmin' Time, the Americana duo Shovels & Rope, aka married couple Cary-Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, balance tales of guilt-ridden ne'er-do-wells with jaunty vocals and gallows humor. "I'll try not to be the monster of the millennium," they sing in "Coping Mechanism." "I'm going to lose my arm/ before I pull out the rabbit," they joke in "Ohio." The latter may be a murder ballad, but it's delivered with a Tom-Waits-like wink. — Jim Farber
10. Dierks Bentley, Riser
Uneasy lies the bro who won't wear the hat. But that's the appeal of Dierks Bentley — nearing 40, his shaggy-lug good-timeyness sounds earned rather than crass and usually rendered with a gentle, wounded hand. Inspired by his father's death, Riser is a personable slow burn, from the writerly heartache of "Bourbon in Kentucky" (featuring Kacey Musgraves) and "Say You Do" to the more playful cliché tweaks of "Drunk on a Plane" or "Sounds of Summer." And with "Here on Earth," when the former No. 1 hitmaker reflects vulnerably on his dad and testifies to the arena's back row that his faith is fragile, he reaches a sublime career peak. — Charles Aaron
9. Lydia Loveless, Somewhere Else
As singer-guitarist Lydia Loveless's music has become more refined and confidently entwined with the rumbling flex of her road band, there's been an interesting side effect — she's become, at least on record, more of a follow-your-lust, heart-splattered mess of recklessness and regret. Doing lines, kissing exes, delivering blowjob orders, identifying with Verlaine offing Rimbaud, being inspired by hatefuck royalty Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor — it's all here. But Loveless's songwriting has a wry sophistication and her voice has developed a wondrous, ornery sweep that's starting to rival Neko Case. When she tries to end on a lighter, romantic note with a cover of "They Don't Know" (written by Kirsty MacColl and recorded by Tracey Ullman), it sounds like her fists are balled up tight. — C.A.
8. Christopher Denny, If the Roses Don’t Kill Us
If the Roses Don't Kill Us is, almost inevitably, a roots-rock recovery album — one of several to plumb that territory in recent years. But Christopher Denny's songs are less about the past and more about the future, as he rights himself and imagines the happy moments that await him. Rarely does a recovery album sound so hopeful or quite so celebratory. It's a tone that suits his unique voice, a barrelhouse falsetto that combines the dignity of Roy Orbison with the high-flying range of Slim Whitman. Despite the years of abuse and wear, it still sounds robust and expressive, especially on the tall tale "God's Height" and the aggressively hopeful "Watch Me Shine." — S.D.
7. Hurray for the Riff Raff, Small Town Heroes
On Small Town Heroes, Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Lee Segarra makes the machinations of heartbreak sound easy, or at least beautiful, her soft, doleful voice never rising to a wail. "All these people, and all these things/ Now what's the point in a wedding ring?" she sings on the title track. Only it's clear Segarra knows exactly what the point of it is, and she feels its absence every single day. "I don't want no one else but you," she admits in "No One Else," over a bass line cribbed from "Stand By Me" and a big, barrelhouse piano riff. "I think it's time you come on back home." — Amanda Petrusich
6. Eric Church, The Outsiders
On The Outsiders, Eric Church's fourth album, you'll hear all sorts of noises you don't expect from a mainstream country album: marching-band trombones, down-home funk, a campy goth recitation on "Devil, Devil (Prelude: Prince of Darkness)" that ranks with Vincent Price's "Thriller" coda. But it's the guitars you'll remember — monstrously distorted, fantastically disproportionate to their surroundings, pounding like riotous inmates against the constraints the songwriting imposes. Heavy as it is, the arena crunch of title track can't satisfy those guitars, which dig their heels in for a "Blam-blam-blam shreeee!" breakdown before reeling off into a full-on prog-rock fantasia. — Keith Harris
5. Hiss Golden Messenger, Lateness of Dancers
Is there anyone writing as poignantly or as probingly about faith and family as M.C. Taylor? The Hiss Golden Messenger frontman has posed some dark questions on previous albums, but what distinguishes Lateness of Dancers is the disconnect between the heavy subject matter and the breezy mix of southern soul and urbane country. "Mahogany Dread" and the amiably funky "Southern Grammar" actually celebrate life's overwhelming uncertainties rather than lament them, which makes closer "Drum" ("take the good news, spirit it away") sound like a sigh of relief. — S.D.
4. Lee Ann Womack, The Way I’m Livin’
Since it's been two years since Lee Ann Womack left longtime label MCA and six years since her last release, Call Me Crazy, one might assume that she's been through some shit — romantic, psychic, etc. Or maybe she just wanted to exercise her freedom as a secure veteran now-indie artist (working with producer/husband Frank Liddell) to record material that plunged her blithely fierce voice into life's most wrenching dilemmas. "I know where my soul's been," she confesses on the title track as strings swoop woozily, then muses, "Are there any answers up in the hereafter?" amid the narrative ache of Chris Knight's "Send It on Down." She gives Hayes Carll's "Chances Are" a mesmerizing spin: Tear. Beer. Scars. And on Buddy Miller's "Don't Listen to the Wind," she wails her romantic ambivalence like a real-life tortured grown-up. You know an album ain't futzing around when the Neil Young cover feels lightweight. — C.A.
3. Angaleena Presley, American Middle Class
When Angaleena Presley sings about her hometown of Beauty, Kentucky, on American Middle Class, she's part devoted daughter, part anthropologist. Presley, known to many as "Holler Annie," one-third of the terrific, platinum-selling country trio the Pistol Annies (her costars are Miranda "Lonestar Annie" Lambert and Ashley "Hippie Annie" Monroe), here steps out on her own as a chronicler of blue-collar life. Full of lived-in stories of working as a checkout clerk, navigating unplanned pregnancy and struggling with prescription pill addiction, American Middle Class is a tumultuous love letter to her ravaged community — one that contains no small amount of heartache. — Carena Liptak
2. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Like Merle Haggard flashing a cosmic poet's flair but no hippie-ish cop-out, this Kentucky bluegrass dude stares down the bleakness with a stolid honky-tonk swing and compressed fire. Metamodern's 10 taut songs range strikingly from shimmery hillbilly heartbreak to lithe gospel rockabilly to snarled backmasked blues to a Buddhist declaration squirming in a Nashville spotlight. Writing the record after bottoming out amid substance abuse, Sturgill Simpson is a fascinating, worldly host — observing, musing, firing off terse aphorisms, and seeking redemption wherever he can find it. And on a stunning cover of '80s synth-pop hit "The Promise," he cracks open his voice and digs into his heart. Whew. — C.A.
1. Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Platinum moves Miranda Lambert out of the house that built her into her own Oklahoma digs and the country-star constellation beyond. One of the album's livelier hair-tossers, "Priscilla" (its opening acoustic riff recalls George Michael's "Faith"), sympathetically nods to Elvis's youngest bride, as Lambert playfully sneers, "Married to a man who's married to attention." She experienced the tabloid gauntlet for the first time since her marriage to country titan Blake Shelton, and wonders aloud how she can be "the first to make it last."
Lambert's got an undeniable swagger on Platinum, but it's shot through with a wide range of emotions. She eases into the album slyly with "Girls," a swooning, heart-shot rocker that sketches out a series of complex gal-country archetypes: "Imagine a fighter with a centerfold face/ Come from a long line of blue collars and lace" or "Imagine a winner holding pink champagne/ Still loves her daddy but changes her name." If you've ever seen Lambert live, you can imagine her relishing these lines, and then looking around proudly at her road-hog band, leading them with an enthusiasm that's both sprightly up-and-comer and old-hand pro. Again, she drops a divine-hammer of a line: "If you think you're the only one that she'll want in this world/ Then you don't know nothing about girls." Another candidate for live-show rallying cry of the year: "What doesn't kill you makes you blonder" (from the title track).
This is a powerful, necessary album, and Lambert — a fighter with a centerfold face — is a performer hot on a mission. — C.A.