26. Keith Urban, Fuse
Keith Urban’s eighth studio album is very much in the same vein as his previous work, but contains some unusual highlights. For instance, his duet with Miranda Lambert, the rapturous, backward-looking “We Were Us” almost recaptures Golden Road era Urban. There’s the rebellious “Cop Car” romanticizes young love and a parenting tribute in “Raise ‘Em Up.” But Urban’s music often feel like a semblance of what country music should be. This doesn’t mean Fuse isn’t enjoyable, it’s just not as inventive in a genre that has spent the entire year molting.
25. Jake Bugg, Shangri La
Shangri La, Jake Bugg’s sophomore album, is a shifting collection of earworm tracks produced by Rick Rubin. Its crescendos venture on pop-punk and the slow moments lull like a creek, but his oddly slanting vocals register more as Southern than English. “There’s a Beast and We All Feed It” steps so hard on Dylan’s toes that it’s surprising Bob hasn’t voiced an “ouch” somewhere and “Kitchen Table” gets downright bluesy. “Kingpin” feels like put upon bravado even though it grooves around dangerous curves with ease. His air-tight songwriting and hefty dose of talent still beg the question: what is Jake Bugg like? In a genre that’s driven by cult of personality, Bugg comes off as a squeaky clean prodigy with no backstory. But a record packed with this much sheer American force from a 19-year-old British kid can’t go overlooked.
24. Kellie Pickler, The Woman I Am
Like Carrie Underwood before her, Kellie Pickler has made the transition from American Idol singer to actual country star. Her fourth studio album The Woman I Am finds Pickler playing a spurned fiancé on the vicious “Ring For Sale” and channels honky-tonk on the suggestive “Buzzin’.” There’s a few missteps here, “A Little Bit Gypsy” feels especially insensitive in a year that’s marred by racial appropriation and “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is a bulky ballad. Still, the spitfire personality and plucky lyrics she displays on tracks like “No Cure For Crazy” keep her afloat.
23. Sheryl Crow, Feels Like Home
Sheryl Crow went country, but then again, how far has she actually been from country all along? She already had that spectacular country duet with Kid Rock with “Picture” Let’s not forget “The First Cut is the Deepest” which is a straight up country song (imagine if there was even one lonely fiddle whining in the background). She whistles a whole section on “We Oughta Be Drinkin’,” and “Easy” sounds both exactly like a Sheryl Crow song and something that would be in heavy circulation on country radio. So yes, this year, Crow officially branded her new album Feels Like Home as country, but the genre has been at least her summer home all along.
22. Kenny Chesney, Life on a Rock
When Kenny Chesney began to hit mega-stardom, he sought out the Caribbean as a haven from the rockstar Nashville scene. As Chesney began to spend more time in the Virgin Islands, the sounds of the Caribbean began to infiltrate his music. You can hear it as early as his 2002 album No Shoes No Shirt No Problem. So, his latest record Life on a Rock seems to be a culmination of just how deeply island culture has affected this East Tennessee boy. Hearing a country singer collaborating with the Wailers feels odd at first, but given the knowledge that Chesney has been an active part of the Caribbean community for the past decade, it makes a little more sense. Plus the standout, nostalgic track “When I See This Bar” easily transcends state, region, or country.
21. Toby Keith, Drinks After Work
Toby Keith is a reactionary figure in country music and his well-documented Conservative politics can be hard to swallow. The fact still remains that Drinks After Work is mostly delightful. The title track addresses workday malaise and “Shut Up and Hold On” contains some surprisingly feminist characters. But “Show Me What You’re Working With” comes off as a crass celebration of male gaze and “Call a Marine” attempts at cheeky veteran revere, but instead gets pretty offensive. The good news in 2013’s country scene, it’s Keith who is the outlier instead of the rule and his 17th studio album shows its age.
20. Tyler Farr, Redneck Crazy
Farr’s blend of messy love-lost songs like “Redneck Crazy” tip their hat to country’s iconic past while firmly putting down roots in 2013. He’s the kind of artist that picks up where Toby Keith leaves off — like on the Colt Ford-featuring “Chicks, Trucks and Beer”—but is equally able to wring his heart out as on album closer “Living with the Blues.” Redneck Crazy fleshes out the concept of the sunburnt working-man, giving him heart and soul alongside an appetite for trouble and love.
19. Jake Owen, Days of Gold
Jake Owen goes down easy. Doesn’t the phrase Days of Gold itself just roll of the tongue? Channeling a Dierks Bentley-ish quick-hitter country lick on title track “Days of Gold” Owen’s inventiveness is both deep and wide. He turns beach living into an easy verb that almost puts Kenny Chesney to shame on “Beachin’” and heartbreak looms in the deftly titled “Life of the Party” where debauchery hides grief. Of course, getting drunk is fodder for dance floor funky grooves on “Tipsy,” but “Tall Glass of Something” isn’t necessarily just about beverages. Days of Gold has a Midas touch, taking the standard country fare and spinning straw into gold.
18. Alan Jackson, The Bluegrass Album
It’s been said before that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but Alan Jackson, one of the oldest dogs in country pulled out all the stops with two brand new two niche releases this year alone (see also his second gospel album Precious Memories Vol II). Bluegrass and gospel have been quiet backbones in Jackson’s work over the past two decades, but this is his first ever full bluegrass album and original compositions like “Blue Ridge Mountain Song” on and “Blue Side of Heaven” prove Jackson’s songwriting chops transcend musical style.
17. Steve Grand Becomes the First Openly Gay Male Country Star
There’s been gay male country stars before, but none have used their sexuality as the topic of their first single in the same way that Steve Grand did. When the video for “All American Boy” hit the internet, it almost immediately went viral and led to a media storm of attention for Grand. The song details the struggle of a gay man who is attracted to someone that may not feel the same—it’s the essence of almost every great country song but told from a perspective that has consistently been marginalized. Although there’s no word yet on whether Grand has signed to a label, he released the follow up track “Stay” which is available for download on his bandcamp.
16. Luke Bryan, Crash My Party
Luke Bryan’s fourth album Crash My Party holds the torch for party-boy-beer-drinking but doesn’t leave out the power ballads. Where others skimp on treacly imagery like twisted beach roller coasters or phrases like “Dirt Road Diary,” Bryan splurges. But listen to buddy-ditching songs like “Crash My Party” for the real secret to his success: he caters to the ladies, and in country, this is a sentiment that increasingly resonates with both sexes. Honorable mention goes to the “That’s My Kind of Night” lyric “Put in my country ride hip-hop mixtape / A little Conway (Twitty) a little T-Pain / Might just make it rain.” Real men ride to autotune and ditch shotgunning beers when their lady needs them.
15. Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story…
Blake Shelton built his reputation on unshakeable country anthems that embrace the moment and sketch unforgettable characters. Based on a True Story… continues that practice. Aside from essentially sharing an album title with a record released by fellow southerner 2 Chainz, Shelton continues the trend of country music embracing hip-hop in his video for one of the album’s singles “Boys ‘Round Here.” We hear his wife Miranda Lambert’s influence on the wife-worshiping “Doin’ What She Likes” and the urge to stay home on “Lay Low.” Shelton strikes the balance between fun-loving and eye-rolling night out songs and devoted heart-wringing ballads, and that’s what’s given him eight successful albums in 12 years.
14. Patty Griffin, American Kid
Patty Griffin’s newly claimed prolific output is an oddity. Sure, she’s got Robert Plant by her side, and the two enjoy a domestic bliss that spills into their music. But at 49 it feels like Griffin is just now coming into her own as her last album, the gospel affair Downtown Church won a Grammy in 2011. American Kid, though, is a tinny, tempestuous carnival that glances at the coffin with an eyebrow raised (“Don’t Let Me Die in Florida”) and rides out a bluegrass kick threatening the bitter end with its own venom. Considering the ex-Led Zeppelin frontman and a late blooming gospel singer made one of the best Americana albums of the year, 2013 is pretty weird.
13. Mount Moriah, Miracle Temple
There’s a hefty serving of Dolly’s warble in Heather McEntire’s voice, but given her post-punk affiliations and the psychedelic project of Mount Moriah’s guitarist Jenks Miller (Horseback), it’s no surprise that their linear songs lean into indie rock sounds. “Connecticut to Carolina” demands for a heart’s freedom with gentle fierceness and “Bright Light” sweeps cheery heartland rock into a dark room. This album will never reveal its face, even upon repeated listens. There’s no stability in Miracle Temple, only the shifting sands of a volatile, lackadaisical swamp.
12. The Band Perry, Pioneer
Born into the rural roots of Mobile, Alabama, siblings Kimberly Perry, Reid Perry and Neil Perry had been writing and performing for years before they hit the big time. This experience shines in their sophomore album Pioneer, and though it does little to forge new paths, it treads old ones with unconscious gracefulness. Despite the polished feel of life or death in “Better Dig Two” and the big pop aura of “DONE.”, there’s still a sense of authenticity in this family band. Come for the vengeful radio hits and stay for the dramatic self-affirming spirituality of “I Saw a Light” and “I’m a Keeper.”
Loretta Lynn is one of the first women to write from a feminist point of view in country music and this year, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for “giving voice to a generation.” Aside from the ever-obvious “The Pill,” there’s countless others, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and “I Wanna Be Free” among them. Lynn paved the way for practically any woman that’s performing country music today, especially the more outspoken, innovative ones that top this list.
10. Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
Along with switching labels—Two Lanes of Freedom is his first for Big Machine—Tim McGraw has had to adjust to a genre that is mutating before his eyes. This used to be Tim’s game and now it’s Taylor’s, the biggest single on this record is their collaboration on “Highway Don’t Care.” But McGraw has embraced this and his transition to Big Machine yielded gems like the Taylor feature. All in all, Two Lanes of Freedom is standard McGraw fare, “Southern Girl” celebrates Dixie’s daughters, “Nashville Without You” is a lyrical jigsaw puzzle of country greats and “Truck Yeah” favors four wheels over four letters for exclamatory language. But it’s a “Truck Yeah” lyric that best reveals his evolution: “I got Lil Wayne pumpin on my iPod / Thumpin’ on the subs in the back of my crew cab / Redneck rockin’ like a rockstar.” Tim listening to Wayne? Shut it all down if 2014 doesn’t bring us a song with them together, after all, Tim was one of the first to crossover when he featured on a Nelly song back in 2004.
9. Caitlin Rose, The Stand-In
Caitlin Rose was raised in the country music industry and like many of the members of country’s burgeoning second guard, Caitlin slides into the role of songwriter effortlessly. Her mother Liz Rose is a frequent Taylor Swift collaborator, but The Stand-In is a far cry from Swift’s slick geometric compositions. Instead, it strays into hazy and sinuous melody lines that neither fully outline the problem nor come to any real conclusion. Rose’s strength lies in her ability to conceptualize the conflict—hasty Vegas vows on “Pink Champagne” or her own callousness on “I Was Cruel.” Like reality, resolution isn’t guaranteed and answers often don’t appear in the final stanza, or at all.
8. Pistol Annies, Annie Up
Please, don’t begin your review of a Pistol Annies album by comparing this all-female powerhouse trio to another male trio. There’s not even a breath that’s derivative on Annie Up, the aggressively feminine, man-eating second album from Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. Annie Up is riddled with surprisingly honest moments, like the commentary on beauty culture in “Pretty Ain’t Pretty” (was Beyonce listening to country??). It’s a three dimensional, brassy portrait of womanhood that demands respect. Do not talk down to these women. They’re already above you.
7. Brad Paisley, Wheelhouse
Even non-country music fans had Brad Paisley’s name on their lips this year when he released the LL Cool J collaboration “Accidental Racist” that despite its best intentions was considered to be a flop. However, like its name suggests, the rest of Wheelhouse fits firmly into the style that Paisley has developed: emotional songs that read like diary entries about love, homages to the South and a pointed revelry in wordplay. Wheelhouse wanders and wheedles in nearly cosmic scope, capturing Paisley’s unique position shackled to his Southern past while he chomps at the bit for the freedom to explore the future.
6. Ashley Monroe, Like A Rose
Blessed with a voice that chirps and hitches with the same fever as bluegrass legend Alison Kraus, all Ashley Monroe would ever really need to do was open her mouth and let that voice fly. The fact then, that she delivers craggy and introspective feminist anthems like “Used” or tongue-in-cheek melancholy tunes like “Two Weeks Late” only heaps on the appeal. Foraying into the kinky and illegal on “Weed Instead of Roses” and trying her hand at outlaw rebellion on “Monroe Suede” further affirm her supple songwriting. It’s the title track “Like A Rose” that gives the best whiff of Monroe’s talent though, co-written with the legendary Guy Clark, it reveals her gloomy past and celebrates her current success without a trace of smarm.
5. Holly Williams, The Highway
Holly Williams is country music royalty. Hank Williams is her grandfather and Hank Jr. is her dad, that’s a pedigree that few can boast. Although she put out two records in the early 2000s, her third is self-financed and comes out on her own label Georgiana Records, named after Georgiana, Alabama where her grandfather grew up.The Highway is an album shot through with Southern rock guitar lines and big thumping drums, but lulls into finger-picking and plenty of heartache. A personal, confessional record that easily vies for best country release of the year and reveals a different side of the Williams family.
4. The Lone Bellow, The Lone Bellow
With Georgia roots and a past soaked in pain, Zach Williams wrote the songs that form The Lone Bellow to cope with his wife’s tragically paralyzing accident. After she somewhat miraculously recovered, the couple moved to Brooklyn where he took up with guitarist Brian Elmquist and mandolin player Kanene Dohehey Pipkin. The trio meld earnest vows of eternity with soaring harmony-bound choruses as on “A Tree to Grow” and then there’s the rousing, celebratory “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold.” Spanning paradise-bound pop promises, then dipping to cantankerous self-pitying bluegrass on “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To,” The Lone Bellow present a mellow mosaic of life’s marvels and mess ups.
3. Florida Georgia Line, Here’s to the Good Times
Florida Georgia Line made one of the better albums of the year, and it has traditionalists up in arms. As genre lines blur and the south struggles to put sordid separation behind it, more crossover between the region’s stalwart sounds of country and hip-hop are emerging. But no album had summed this up as fluidly as Here’s to the Good Times, a beat-heavy, twangy pop affair that makes no wrong turns. The heady infatuation of monster single “Cruise” catapulted them to Billboard success and Nelly’s remix topped charts in multiple genres. It’s the deeper cuts that reveal their peculiar and precise flair though, like the flexible metaphors in “Tip it Back” or the uplifting “Get Your Shine On.” These songs take the glint of country music’s working class motifs and magnify them with rock, hip-hop and pop into a glare that simply won’t fade. Put on “Dayum, Baby” and just relax into it, they’ll get you too.
2. Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
Kacey Musgraves is country music’s rookie of the year. Same Trailer Different Park finally did the trick for Musgraves and it’s easy to see why she had trouble breaking out in a genre that’s a holdover for Conservative and Protestant traditionalism. Musgraves is fine with blowing all kinds of smoke, same sex relationships and questioning virginity narratives—all this on a single track, the rousing “Follow Your Arrow.” But even amidst her political missives, Musgraves’ deeply personal, distinct songwriting and plush vocals are what carry this album. The effortlessness that pervades Same Trailer Different Park lies in Musgraves’ ability to turn daily life into a hook and twist hatefulness into a cheery kiss off. There’s plenty of twang and bluegrass to back her up, but there’s also a dearth of pop, rock and soft melodies that explore everything from booty calls to hypocritical haters.
1. Brandy Clark, 12 Stories
Brandy Clark’s debut album 12 Stories draws the curtain back on a woman who has already been one of Nashville’s most adept, nuanced songwriters. But when performing her own words, the openly gay Clark assumes an air of deus ex machina, a voice that represents more than a single woman. She’s responsible for a number of recent hits, but it’s on tracks like “Crazy Women” — a song that reassigns the worst behavior of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” vibes to the men who spark these flame ups — that her knife is honed to a point. The bored housewife isn’t fooling around or crying, she’s smoking weed and still saying her prayers before bed on “Get High.” Or there’s album opener “Pray to Jesus” a tear-jerker in which she bleats the plight of America’s ridiculed trailer park class, tilling their toil and hopeless lottery dreams into a thing of beauty. Clark’s a fearsome wordsmith with an acerbic wit that’s softened only by her velvet alto and 12 Stories make’s one thing clear—these 12 are just the first batch of untold epics.