Round 2 – FIGHT!
World: meet Underwood. She’s fiercely compassionate and endearingly idealistic (the riveting “Change”). She holds her beliefs with a firm but quiet conviction (“Temporary Home”). She’s as comfortable and convincing at tearing down a wrong-doer (the Dixie Chicks-esque “Songs Like This”) as she is nursing an irreparable heartache, whether it’s in the form of a haunting country standard (“Someday When I Stop Loving You”) or a rich pop ballad (“What Can I Say?”). And she’s one of the most gifted vocalists of this generation, possessing an instrument that, when colored and layered with emotion as she’s aptly learned to do on Play On, can have bone-chilling effects.
Like it or leave it, Play On is the most authentic encapsulation of Underwood’s artistry and persona to date, and serves as an exciting glimpse at how far a little growth can carry her. The best is yet to come, but in the meantime, the “good” is pretty damn good. – Tara Seetharam
As most people know by now, Sara Watkins is the female member of the now-disbanded (hopefully temporarily) New Grass trio, Nickel Creek. While Nickel Creek was difficult to classify in a certain genre (not bluegrass, not country), they were embraced by bluegrass and country music fans alike. Each member of the popular trio has released intriguing projects outside of Nickel Creek, but Watkins’ album has assumed the most decidedly country direction of them all. As a result, we are treated to a sublime album thanks to Watkins’ sweet voice and a set of impressively solid songs. – Leeann Ward
When Alabama singer/songwriter John Paul White and eleven-time Dove Award nominee Joy Williams formed the Civil Wars, their first release Live at Eddie’s Attic (available for free download) appeared to be purely publicity, not something one expects to be spectacular. Yet, Live at Eddie’s Attic is exactly that, excelling in the emerging acoustic movement that floats along the outskirts of country much like the most pop-oriented country radio fare, albeit in its own direction. – William Ward
I’ve never heard a live album that has so made me long to see an act in concert. Sure, the live versions of the hits are solid, especially the marriage of “Joey” with Nightswimming,” But it’s the broad selection of interesting covers that make this essential listening. Where else can you hear Pearl Jam and Kings of Leon songs alongside songs by The B-52’s and Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians? – Okay, fine. Satellite radio. But you won’t hear Nettle’s irreplaceable drawl wrapped around them anywhere else. – Kevin Coyne
If Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was the album that commanded us to sit up and take notice of Lambert, Revolution is the album that lures us in, one intriguing, introspective song at a time. By shedding the authentic but limiting aggression-heavy skin of her previous album, Lambert is free to explore the complex of emotions behind her fierce persona, in songs that range from poking tongue-in-cheek fun (“Only Prettier”) to honestly and accessibly conveying love (“Love Song”). And it should be noted that, while Lambert has honed her songwriting skills to a tee on Revolution, her largely underrated vocal skills are perhaps equally superb on this album; this is no more apparent than on the touching, beautifully restrained “The House that Built Me.” – TS
A textbook Americana album – textbook in the sense that it truly does blend a wide range of roots sounds, and in the sense that it’s really freaking good. What you get here is part warm country (“Ellis County”), part dirty rock ‘n’ roll (“Gasoline and Matches”), part quiet folk (“Chalk”), and even part slow-burning jazz (“Long Time”). The common thread is immaculately crafted melodies and productions which nail the essence of each song’s emotional point.
– Dan Milliken
Three decades in the making, Willie & The Wheel came to us in a swingin’ flurry at the beginning of 2009, setting the bar so high for future albums that very few were able to outshine it. It’s one of those rare albums that sounds inspired from start to finish, as though not one single note of the wildly energetic, masterfully performed disc was taken for granted by its creators. Given the current musical landscape, Willie & The Wheel may feel like a tribute to Western Swing, but make no mistake: distinct and compelling, this is an album that embodies and, in many ways, enhances Western Swing – a classic on its own merits. – TS
The Excitement Plan is more acoustic than some of Snider’s previous work (thanks to producer Don Was), but the clever turn of ideas and his trademark relaxed delivery is ever-present. As always, Snider gently pokes a stick at the world, along with himself, as he views life’s situations through his typically goofy, but insightful, lens. Album highlights include the retro-sounding “Don’t Tempt Me” (with Loretta Lynn), the self-aware/self-deprecating “Money, Compliments, Publicity (Song Number Ten)” and the simple “Corpus Christi Bay.” With a string of quality and engaging albums under his belt, it’s heartening that The Excitement Plan manages to be one of Snider’s most solid projects so far. – LW
Justin Townes Earle’s largest claim to fame is still a matter of his family tree, despite musical differences that, in many ways, make comparisons with his acclaimed singer/songwriter father quite challenging. Midnight at the Movies continues Justin’s argument for fame under his own merits, highlighting his less political and more personal writing with a warm voice much less worn than his father’s. It also provides one of the strongest songs of the decade, “Mama’s Eyes,” an epic wrapped up in a package so tiny it leaves you wondering how it was done. – WW
Satisfied was supposed to be released in 2006, but since the album did not produce any top 20 singles, Columbia Nashville held the album instead of officially releasing it. It did momentarily find its way onto digital retail outlets for a month, just long enough to gain hype by ardent supporters who recognized that Satisfied was a real gem that deserved to be officially released to the public. Fortunately, the powers that be at Columbia (though Monroe and the record label had long since parted ways) finally decided to re-release the digital version of the album in May 2009, this time for good.
While Monroe was merely nineteen years old when she recorded this album, she neither caters to the teen crowd nor overreaches to prove her maturity. Instead, her warm, clear crackling voice simply sings of what she knows. From her playful duet with Dwight Yoakam (“That’s Why We Call Each Other Baby”) to introspective compositions such as “Hank’s Cadillac” and the album’s title track, Satisfied is smart without being pretentious, contemporary without being bubblegum and traditional without being stale. – LW