As reflected by the title of our web site, our choices for Top 40 Albums of 2012 span the farthest reaches of the country music universe. In previous years, the Country Universe staff has counted down twenty albums and forty singles, but this year our album picks included such a wide variety that we were able to stretch our Top Albums countdown to a full forty slots. What did we miss? That’s where you, our readers, come in. Please join in the discussion, and share which albums you had in heavy rotation over the past year.
The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake
Martha Redbone Roots Project
Individual rankings: Sam – #12
The combination of a modern soul singer, an 18th-century Romantic poet and bluegrass music shouldn’t work, at least on paper. However, when there are talented people like Martha Redbone and John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band involved, the results can be fantastic. Redbone and collaborator Aaron Whitby drew from the works of William Blake and McEuen and a host of talented musicians helped recast the poems as bluegrass songs. The resulting songs sound more like Harlan County than Blake’s native London, and Redbone’s vocals are gorgeous throughout. For music lovers, discovering hidden gems like this album is the equivalent of finding a winning lottery ticket on the street. – Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day,” “The Garden of Love,” “Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright”
Cuff the Duke
Individual rankings: Sam #11
A 2011 release in Canada, this batch of jangly-rock goodness finally made it over to the U.S. this year. Cuff the Duke shares some similarities with fellow Canadian alt-country stalwarts Blue Rodeo, so it should come as no surprise that Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo produced the album. There are bits and pieces of other bands here and there – harmonies like The Jayhawks, a near-eight minute guitar-heavy epic that could have come from a Sadies album – but singer Wayne Petti and his cohorts combined all the elements into one of the band’s best albums. – Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “Count on Me,” “Time Is Right,” “Bound to Your Own Vices”
New Wild Everywhere
Great Lake Swimmers
Individual rankings: Sam – #9
Great Lake Swimmers has evolved from a largely one-man project recording albums in an abandoned grain silo to a full-fledged folk group recording in a studio. Tony Dekker’s songs have a lovely, ethereal quality to them, and they lose nothing from being backed with a full ensemble of violins, banjos, and the occasional fluegelhorn or accordion. “Easy Come Easy Go” was the band’s first charting single in its native Canada, but with songs like the sweeping title track, there should be many more to come. – Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “New Wild Everywhere,” “Think That You Might Be Wrong,” “The Knife”
That’s Just Me
Individual rankings: Ben – #8
With a rich, emotive vocal style that echoes Pam Tillis, traditionalist Teea Goans nimbly tackles a collection of killer country tunes from the past and present alike. She lovingly covers classic hits of yore such as “Misty Blue” and “Nobody Wins” alongside solid originals such as the lively “Pour a Little Love On It” and the luscious Jamie Daley duet “That’s Just Me Loving You.” Nothing over-the-top – simply a collection of quality material well-written, thoughtfully produced, and sung with flair. What more could a country music lover ask for? – Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “Pour a Little Love On It, “Misty Blue,” “That’s Just Me Loving You”
Father John Misty
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #7
Singer-songwriter Joshua Tillman’s first solo outing since leaving indie-rock outfit Fleet Foxes and his first album under the moniker of Father John Misty, Fear Fun is a throwback to the late 90s era before “alt-country” turned into Americana. To that end, the album’s title is misleading: What makes the album so refreshing is its sense of irreverence – Tillman’s refusal to take himself too seriously. – Jonathan Keefe
Top Tracks: “I’m Writing a Novel,” “Only Son of the Ladies’ Man,” “Nancy from Now On”
Voice of Ages
Individual rankings: Sam – #7
To celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary, The Chieftains team up with notables from the indie/folk/Americana sector, including the Pistol Annies, The Decemberists and The Carolina Chocolate Drops. The result is a bouncy, high-energy set that shows that Paddy Moloney and company have plenty of fuel left in the tank. – Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “Lily Love” (with The Civil Wars), “School Days Over” (with The Low Anthem), “When the Ship Comes In” (with The Decemberists)
Sweethearts of the Rodeo
Individual rankings: Leeann – #7
It’s hard to believe that it’s been sixteen years between albums for Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Their late 2012 release Restless will go largely unnoticed by commercial standards, but not because it doesn’t deserve high praise and recognition. A mix of a throwback to the country sounds of their heyday, and sounding like an extension of 1996’s Beautiful Lies, Restless manages to feel both nostalgic and refreshing, not to mention that the sister duo sounds as good as ever. – Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “You Can’t Hold Me Back,” “Restless,” “Hopeless Rose”
Individual rankings: Leeann – #11; Sam #20
Amidst the bravado party anthems and the tongue-in-cheek, Dierks Bentley continues to display his penchant for performing heartfelt love songs and thoughtful reflections. His signature ragged voice comfortably wraps around songs like the reflective “Home” and sensitive “Thinking of You” with ease and sensitivity. Likewise, he sounds just as comfortable letting loose on frivolities such as “Diamonds Make Babies” and “Gonna Die Young.” – Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “Home,” “When You Gonna Come Around,” “Thinking of You”
John Kraus and the Goers
Individual rankings: Sam – #5
not playing guitar and banjo for the excellent Los Angeles-based bluegrass/Celtic/rock band Rose’s Pawn Shop, Capt. John Kraus sails tall ships. When he’s not doing that, he’s combining his passions by recording an album of sea shanties. Half the songs are traditional sailing songs, and half are new, though it’s hard to tell them apart without looking through the liner notes. The old songs have been given fresh, contemporary arrangements, and the new songs are so spot-on that it’s easy to picture sailers from the 1700s or 1800s singing them. – Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “Cold in the Ocean,” “Bonny Ship the Diamond,” “Siren”
The Avett Brothers
Individual rankings: Sam – #4
The Carpenter is about as close as you can get to mixing the major-label polish found on the Avetts’s 2009 release I and Love and You, and the reckless abandon found on their independent releases. The Carpenter is again produced by Rick Rubin, but Scott Avett’s banjo returns to prominence, and there is another addition to the “Pretty Girl from…” series (Michigan, in this case). Catchy, sweet songs like “Live and Die” should give the Avetts the same kind of mainstream crossover success like rootsy brethren The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons have enjoyed. – Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “The Once and Future Carpenter,” “Live and Die,” “A Father’s First Spring”
Individual rankings: Ben – #10; Jonathan – #15
On 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over, Wanda Jackson too often found herself overshadowed by producer Jack White’s impressive, if show-offy, blend of rockabilly and modern blues. Justin Townes Earle, in producing Unfinished Business, wisely keeps the focus on Jackson, whose feistiness and inimitable presence on record are undiminished by her 60-plus years as a recording artist. – Jonathan Keefe
Top Tracks: “Tore Down,” “Am I Even a Memory,” “California Stars”
Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
Individual rankings: Sam – #6; Ben – #19
Featuring a raucous roadhouse jam one moment (“Tear the Woodpile Down,” “Truck Driver’s Blue”), and a straight-up steel weeper the next (“A Matter of Time,” “The Lonely Kind”), Nashville, Volume 1 offers an entertaining fusion of country music past and present from one the genre’s most staunch advocates of tradition. A solid set of songs along with some unexpected collaboration (Hank Williams III, Buck Trent, Lorrie Carter Bennett) ensure that there is never a dull moment. – Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “A Matter of Time,” “Truck Driver’s Blues,” “Picture from Life’s Other Side”
Original Soundtrack: The Hunger Games – Songs from District 12 and Beyond
Individual rankings: Dan – #8; Jonathan – #11
A truly weird effort: bleak, rootsy…and tied to a blockbuster movie based on a Young Adult novel. How do you wind up with that combo? Well, get T-Bone Burnett on the job. In truth, Burnett’s vision captures the tone of Suzanne Collins’s tense, disturbing death-match better than the serviceable film does, with songs that explore the heroine’s psyche in complement to the way Collins’s first-person narrative did. – Dan Milliken
Top Tracks: “Abraham’s Daughter,” “Nothing to Remember,” “Just a Game”
Hello Cruel World
Ben – #5; Jonathan – #16
Dense, poetic, and uninhibited, modern songwriting legend Gretchen Peters turns her inner emotions outward on this deeply absorbing set, ripe with clever yet accessible metaphors (“St. Francis,” “Paradise Found,” “Natural Disaster”) and intriguing character sketches (“Camille,” “Five Minutes”). Her songwriting chops are formidable enough, but she also brings the goods as a singer with lived-in performances that are layered, expressive, and authoritative. – Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “Hello Cruel World,” “St. Francis,” “Five Minutes”
Leeann – #6; Dan – #10
Five albums into her career, Mindy Smith revisits the organic feel of her first album, which, thankfully, mostly abandons the pop trappings of her previous project. This isn’t to say that she has lost any sense of creativity. In fact, the album hosts a diverse mix of straight-up country, alt-country, gentle jazz, and soft acoustic songs. As a result, her stellar self-titled album proves quite worthy of her immense talent. Three songs are specifically recommended here, but the album as a whole is worth recommendation. – Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “Take Me Back,” “Everything Here Will Be Fine,” “Cure for Love”
The Time Jumpers
The Time Jumpers
Individual rankings: Ben – #2; Leeann – #17
From the warm familiar tenor of Vince Gill to the whine of veteran Paul Franklin’s steel guitar to the Connie Smith-esque vocals of Dawn Sears, it’s a wonder this eleven-piece traditional country outfit even manages to fit so much talent into one room. On the band’s first proper studio effort, twangy toe-tappers like “On the Outskirts of Town” and “Texas On a Saturday Night” will make you want to get up and dance, but ballads such as the sorrowful “So Far Apart” and the introspective “Three Sides to Every Story” demonstrate that there’s plenty of substance to go along with all the fun. Simply delightful. – Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “Texas On a Saturday Night,” “On the Outskirts of Town,” “Three Sides to Every Story”
And So It Goes
Individual rankings: Kevin – #10; Ben – #11; Dan – #16
Seemingly the very personification of country sincerity, Hall of Fame member Don Williams ably sells material that might scan as maudlin if delivered by a vocalist lacking his restraint and age-earned wisdom. Williams delivers songs of love and heartache with a recurring theme of optimism on his first studio outing since 2004, with songs like “Better Than Today,” “She’s With Me,” and “Imagine That” seeming like could’ve-been classic hits had they been released a few decades earlier. A pairing with the exquisite vocals of Alison Krauss on “I Just Come Here for the Music” supplies what is arguably the album’s finest moment. – Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “She’s With Me,” “I Just Come Here for the Music,” “Imagine That”
Carry Me Back
Old Crow Medicine Show
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #6; Dan – #11; Leeann – #20
A significant rebound from the dreary Tennessee Pusher, Carry Me Back finds Old Crow Medicine Show delving further into their old-timey stringband persona while still retaining a contemporary, relevant point-of-view. Taking a light-handed but still perceptive approach to matters of war and economic hardship but also cutting loose for a bit of pure escapism every now and then, OCMS prove that they’re not just a band who thought they’d dress like bootleggers and pick up a banjo to mask the fact that they don’t have anything more substantive to say. – Jonathan Keefe
Top Tracks: “Carry Me Back to Virginia,” “Levi”
Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #3; Dan – #9
It’s his most quintessentially Todd Snider-ish album title yet, and in some ways, it does feel like his signature piece: loopy-sharp commentary on religion and socioeconomic issues, down-on-their-luck protagonists with hearts of gold or darkness or both. It’s impossible to always agree with Snider the man or even Snider the fable-teller, probably; he puts it all out there so brazenly, with such bold detail, that some of it is bound to repel. But as country-folk troubadours go, there’s hardly a finer craftsman. – Dan Milliken
Top Tracks: “New York Banker,” “In Between Jobs,” “Brenda”
I Like to Keep Myself In Pain
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #2; Dan – #6
Armed with a voice of extraordinary power and versatility and, perhaps more importantly, with a better ear for quality material than just about anyone recording in any genre, Kelly Hogan is simply one of the finest interpretive singers in contemporary music. On I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, she tackles heady, complicated songs that hinge on deep emotional conflicts and surprising narrative turns, and she wraps those songs into a take on country music that’s both quirky and genuinely progressive. – Jonathan Keefe
Top Tracks: “Plant White Roses,” “Haunted,” “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain”
AM Country Heaven
Individual rankings: Leeann – #5; Dan – #12; Ben – #12
Good, pure country music is not dead! The solid proof is in AM Country Heaven. With fiddle, steel guitar, bass and honky tonk piano aplenty, this album is unadulterated country music that maintains the perfect balance of classic and freshness. Just like any good country album, the songs and melodies are memorable without being covered with a sickening shine, but rather, allowing each song and vocal to stand on its own with the support of tasteful instrumentation that works together to enrich the listening experience. – Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “Tomorrow Morning,” “Man on a Mountain” (with Patty Loveless), “Lying to Myself”
Individual rankings: Tara – #6; Kevin – #9; Dan – #14
Edens Edge teased us with “Amen” in 2011, an adorably written gem with the kind of spirit that’s been missing from country radio since the 90s. The trio’s debut album is equally charming, built on strong storylines and engaging performances. Perhaps most impressively, they understand the power of a full-bodied melody, skillfully using its dips, crescendos, and color to convey a range of emotions. – Tara Seetharam
Top Tracks: “Amen,” “Feels So Real,” “Swingin’ Door”
Sun Midnight Sun
Individual rankings: Dan – #2; Jonathan – #17; Leeann – #18
It’s fitting that the cover features Watkins posed like some kind of dark angel, or maybe an ancient Egyptian goddess, big yellow star-glow encircling her head. After a promising debut, Sun Midnight Sun is her moment of almighty ascension as a solo artist, a helping of fiddly folk-pop that is accessible but smart, cute but cutting, steady but adventurous. She duets with Fiona Apple on “You’re the One I Love”; she covers Willie Nelson on “I’m a Memory”; and on the timeless “Take Up Your Spade,” she suggests she might be able to hang with either as a songwriter. – Dan Milliken
Top Tracks: “When It Pleases You,” “I’m a Memory,” “Take Up Your Spade”
Individual rankings: Leeann – #2; Dan – #3
While Brandi Carlile may not particularly consider herself a country artist, it’s obvious that she can aptly play the part when she has a mind to. Not only did she write “Same Old You,” one of the best and most country songs on Miranda Lambert’s latest album, but Carlile turns in a sturdy album with strong country elements in the heart of its songs. From the first addictive riff of “Hard Way Home” to the straight-up twang of “Keep Your Heart Young” to the final notes of the ethereal “Just Kids” and all points in between, Bear Creek is a powerfully sensational experience. – Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”
Individual rankings: Sam – #1; Jonathan – #4
Songs about gravediggers, cowboys, killers, cows and goth chicks? Must be a Corb Lund album. Lund has never been a predictable songwriter, and the songs on his latest album are no exception. “Pour ’em Kinda Strong” and “Dig Gravedigger Dig” are more outlaw than any wannabe with a ballcap and a wallet chain can hope to sing. “September” and “One Left in the Chamber” display Lund’s chops as a serious songwriter. And for those who favor the bizarre, there’s “The Gothest Girl I Can” and “Cows Around.” They’re all good, and Lund is one of the few who can combine them all into one cohesive, excellent album. – Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: Dig Gravedigger Dig,” “One Left in the Chamber,” “Bible on the Dash” (with Hayes Carll)
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Individual rankings: Sam – #2; Leeann – #10; Dan – #15
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are so steeped in tradition that it’s hard to fathom how they can sound so classic and modern all at once. Listening to them, it’s easy to think that it’s all effortless, but the fact is that they’ve trained extensively and know just what they’re doing as a result. Leaving Eden is an extension of Genuine Negro Jig inasmuch as it ingeniously incorporates commonly utilized instruments with the not-so-common. In addition to traditional fiddle, cello, and banjo, you can also hear bones, jugs and quills, along with impressive beat-boxing. Above the impressive, warm and crisp instruments, however, are the wildly soulful vocals of Rhiannon Giddens, particularly on the a cappella “Pretty Bird” and the slow-burning title track. Moreover, the Chocolate Drops’ energy and passion for what they’re doing is what we are ultimately hearing in this generous offering of energetic and thoughtful string-band music. – Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “West End Blues,” “Leaving Eden,” “Pretty Bird”
For the Good Times
The Little Willies
Individual rankings: Kevin – #4; Jonathan – #12; Leeann – #13; Ben – #20
By recasting classic country songs into a jazz house style, the Little Willies prove a powerful truth that genre aficionados have known all along. The songwriters showcased on For the Good Times – Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Lefty Frizzell, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Ralph Stanley, Scotty Wiseman – are craftsmen and craftswomen that rival and often topple the legendary writers of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building. – Kevin John Coyne
Top Tracks: “Remember Me,” “Permanently Lonely,” “Jolene”
Little Big Town
Individual rankings: Tara – #2; Jonathan – #5; Ben – #17
On its fifth album, Little Big Town isn’t interested in making a foot-stamping creative statement. Instead, the group dives into a diverse but thoughtful stylistic grab bag, from the backwoods swamp of “Front Porch Thing” to the shameless accessibility of “On Fire Tonight” to the celestial lullaby of “Night Owl.” With its shifting spotlight, Tornado reminds us that all four vocalists are skilled in their own right, but never strays too far from the quartet’s defining harmonies, underscored by the album’s a cappella pockets. While “Pontoon” may be the album’s claim to fame, its signature is “Sober,” an exquisite, arms-raised surrender that pierces like no other song in Little Big Town’s catalogue. – Tara Seetharam
Top Tracks: “Sober,” “Front Porch Thing,” “Leavin’ In Your Eyes”
High, Wide & Handsome
Individual rankings: Dan – #4; Kevin – #6; Sam – #7
Miss the Dixie Chicks and getting antsy waiting for the next Pistol Annies installment? Wish either of those groups would do some good, old-fashioned heartbreak and settle down with all that pill-takin’ and Lubbock-hatin’? Say howdy to The Trishas. This fresh-faced quartet fills their first LP with tasty neo-trad of all different flavors, from the hooky shuffles of “Mother of Invention” and “Strangers” to the lounge-in-Texas aesthetic of “Cold Blooded Love” and “Rainin’ Inside.” But the common theme is love gone bad, and they do it oh so good. It helps that they’ve got Natalie Hemby, Jason Eady and Turnpike Troubadour Evan Felker writing with them. But the knockout punch is their harmonies, which call to mind what a “Cool Younger Daughters of the Pioneers” group might have sounded like. – Dan Milliken
Top Tracks: “Mother of Invention,” “Little Sweet Cigars,” “Liars & Fools”
Individual rankings: Kevin – #1; Tara – #5; Ben – #16
The hardest-working woman in country music. She could’ve coasted on the material of others, but she’s put the work in to develop into a great songwriter in her own right, with a distinctive point of view that is becoming just as essential to her artistry as those powerful pipes that made her a star in the first place. She’s said that “Blown Away,” one of the few songs she didn’t write, set the tone for the album. What a blessed discovery that song was then, as it challenged Underwood to be bolder than she ever dared before. She consistently sings about and writes about strong women who refuse to be defined by their relationships with men and who ultimately triumph over the ones who compromise their physical or emotional well-being. “Good Girl” might be the most obvious cautionary tale to the young girls that make up a good chunk of her audience, but here’s hoping they also hear her calls to reject the media’s narrow definitions of beauty (“Nobody Ever Told You”) and the judgment-free reminiscence of first-time love on “Do You Think About Me.” Leave it to Carrie Underwood to kill off two men and still preserve her distinctive position as country music’s best role model. – Kevin John Coyne
Top Tracks: “Blown Away,” “Do You Think About Me,” “See You Again”
Up All Night
Individual rankings: Kevin – #3; Dan – #5; Tara – #7
Kip Moore is blatantly derivative, über-conventional, and possibly the best thing to happen to FM country in 2012. (Well, aside from that other K.M. sitting atop our singles list.) How’s that work, now? He makes the old feel new again. The magic is two-pronged: first, an excellent tune-sense that fortifies even staid phrases and ideas with infectious melodic power; and second, a sandy-sweet rasp, effortlessly sexy and tender and…well, those are pretty much his two modes so far. But he makes ’em work like few singers can, resulting in a set of songs that often sound the same, but all in a rather likable way. More risks in songwriting and production could take him to the next level, but even now, he’s the Springsteen tribute we never knew we wanted. – Dan Milliken
Top Tracks: “Beer Money,” “Where You Are Tonight,” “Hey Pretty Girl”
Long Ride Home
Individual rankings: Kevin – #2; Leeann – #7; Dan – #7
It’s naïve to suggest that there are many quick fixes to the mind-boggling banality of contemporary country music. But pitching the Darrell Scott songbook around town is one of them. A great songwriter can elevate an entire genre when given the chance, like Kris Kristofferson did in the late sixties and early seventies, and Matraca Berg did in the mid-nineties. Scott’s latest set is as strong a collection of songs as I’ve heard in the past few years. His delivery is rough but authentic. We write so often about the great singers we wish could just record better material. Imagine Blake Shelton singing, “When first I took the ring off, I was surprised to see another ring just underneath, as white as snow can be.” Or perhaps Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles singing, “I am grounded, oh but I have wings to fly. I don’t use them, I just look up in the sky.” Or perhaps some unknown, third-string act just waiting for their chance to prove themselves, walking into a studio armed with a set of songs stronger than anything being pushed by the Music Row publishing houses or our generally overrated “singer-songwriters” on the radio. Fingers crossed. – Kevin John Coyne
Top Tracks: “Someday,” “Too Close to Comfort,” “No Love In Arkansas (The Ring)”
Zac Brown Band
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #8; Tara – #9; Leeann – #12; Ben – #15; Sam – #19
Having secured their spot on the genre’s A-list, Zac Brown Band used their third studio album, Uncaged, as an opportunity to see what they could really get away with. Even beyond its just spectacular cover art, Uncaged finds the band tackling styles from contemporary bluegrass to Jimmy Buffett-inspired isle rock to campy Quiet Storm soul balladry, all without losing their distinct identity or straying too far from their genuinely good-natured aesthetic. In the process, they prove that it’s possible to sound authentically “Southern” (if not always “country”) without ever relying on the cheapest, emptiest of signifiers. – Jonathan Keefe
Top Tracks: “Goodbye in Her Eyes,” “Sweet Annie,” “The Wind”
KIN: Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
Individual rankings: Leeann – #1; Ben – #4; Kevin – #7
As the story goes, Rodney Crowell mentioned poet Mary Karr in his song “Earthbound” on the album Fate’s Right Hand. After reading her book The Liars’ Club, he had an inkling that Karr might possess the heart of a songwriter – and it turns out that his premonition was right on. Due to their similar backgrounds, which consisted of hard-scrabble living, they were able to relate in a way that pushed them to create one of the most intriguing albums of the year. While Karr isn’t a singer, Crowell certainly is. However, with the exception of four excellent songs on which Crowell sings, they opted to enlist a brilliant cast of known artists to play the roles found within their songs. Not only do these guest artists play the parts perfectly; in some cases, they even turn in performances that are among their best recordings. – Leeann Ward
Top Tracks: “Momma’s on a Roll” (Lee Ann Womack), “My Father’s Advice” (Rodney Crowell/Kris Kristofferson), “Just Pleasing You” (Vince Gill)
Individual rankings: Tara – #4; Ben – #7; Leeann – #15; Jonathan – #18
Gone is the glitzy, polished pop-country princess from the American Idol stage. In her place is a poised, sincere interpretive vocalist with a palpable love for traditional country music, as well as a gifted songwriter with a willingness to get personal. With “Where’s Tammy Wynette” and “Stop Cheatin’ On Me,” Pickler nods to the classic country passed on to her by her grandparents, while addressing her troubled past with “Mother’s Day” and “The Letter (To Daddy),” and channeling her present-day marital contentment with the title track and the broadly charming “Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song).” With the artistic leaps evident on this project, Kellie Pickler finally comes into her own as an artistic force, while hinting that the best is yet to come. – Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” “Long As I Never See You Again,” “Mother’s Day”
Thirty Miles West
Individual rankings: Tara – #4; Kevin – #5; Ben – #14; Leeann – #19; Jonathan – #19
Thirty Miles West is just another solid Alan Jackson album – and there’s nothing wrong with that. At 54 years old, Jackson is still the most effortless every-man in country music, able to tap into the foundation of human emotion with breezy precision. From his astute perspective in “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” to his delightful open-mindedness in “Her Life’s a Song,” Jackson makes honest, relatable storytelling look easy. Amidst the shuffle of mainstream country artists struggling to do the same, Jackson, thankfully, remains the trusted friend we can turn to when we need to be understood. – Tara Seetharam
Top Tracks: “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” “Her Life’s a Song,” “You Go Your Way”
Wreck & Ruin
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson
Individual rankings: Sam – #3; Leeann – #9; Ben – #9; Tara – #10; Jonathan – #10
Singers/songwriters/spouses Chambers and Nicholson set a pretty high standard for duet albums with 2008’s Rattlin’ Bones, but Wreck & Ruin more than lives up to its predecessor. Backed by fiddles and banjos galore, their voices blend beautifully, from the whimsical “Flat Nail Joe” to the tender “The Quiet Life.” Too many “event duets” (Jason/Kelly, Brad/Carrie) turn into a vocal competition, as the two singers try their best to outshout each other. Wreck & Ruin is a much more low-key affair, but it demonstrates the subtle beauty of a man and woman singing together. – Sam Gazdziak
Top Tracks: “Adam and Eve,” “The Quiet Life,” “Familiar Strangers”
Calling Me Home
Individual rankings: Ben – #1; Leeann – #4; Kevin – #8; Tara – #8; Jonathan – #13
Kathy Mattea may be the one standing behind the microphone, but she allows her home state of West Virginia to be the star of this stellar roots project. Through deeply heartfelt vocal renderings backed by gorgeous Appalachian instrumentation, Mattea allows us to feel the heartbreak of the bereaved household in “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” as well as the frustration of a rural dweller watching his land overrun by “Black Waters,” even causing us to empathize with entities as simple as a wood thrush and a maple tree. By turning to her own roots for inspiration, Kathy Mattea creates a career-best album that absolutely soars from beginning to end. – Ben Foster
Top Tracks: “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “The Maple’s Lament,” “Black Waters,” “Now Is the Cool of the Day”
Individual rankings: Dan – #1; Jonathan – #1; Leeann – #3; Ben – #6
She sings of the vital importance of “telling [her] truth” on a heartfelt tribute to her mother that’s tucked away near the end of Sing the Delta, and Iris DeMent spends the duration of her extraordinary fifth album doing precisely that. She structures her songs like traditional Southern gospel hymns, but DeMent isn’t one to adhere blindly to conventions, as she weaves intimate autobiographical details into songs of profound personal and spiritual questioning and insight. Sing the Delta captures, in DeMent’s wondrously plain-spoken way, how faith and love, whatever their forms, are the most rewarding of struggles. It’s the gospel according to Iris, and it should be shouted from the rooftops. – Jonathan Keefe
Top Tracks: “Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth,” “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” “Out of the Fire”
Living for a Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran
Individual rankings: Tara – #1; Ben – #3; Leeann – #8; Jonathan – #9; Sam – #10
Since he quietly rose to fame in 2008 with “In Color,” Jamey Johnson has played the part of our dependable, unbending 21st-century outlaw – sometimes to a fault. His brand has often felt airtight, his expressiveness always one step behind his authenticity. Living for a Song, then, does something momentous: It deconstructs Johnson’s persona and paints him in a sweeter, more accessible light.
Maybe it’s the late Hank Cochran’s exceptional touch: graceful, disarming and frank all at once. Maybe it’s the pairing of Johnson with a stellar cross-generational cast of characters, who deliver the 16 songs with zest and reverence. Or maybe it’s simply Johnson’s surprising versatility, drawn from his genuine, careful appreciation of his former mentor.
Does it matter? The sum of these parts isn’t just an album that pumps depth into one of our generation’s definitive artists, or that pays tribute to one of our finest composers. Living for a Song did what we sorely needed something to do in 2012: It took us back to the basics of country music – simple, straightforward and, at its best, achingly vulnerable. – Tara Seetharam
Top Tracks: “Make the World Go Away,” “This Ain’t My First Rodeo,” “She’ll Be Back”
Quite a diverse list, containing most of the albums I expected to see and a fair number of surprises. Good work, gang!
I personally think that Jana Kramer did a relatively excellent job on her debut album, that would be the one album I would’ve added to the list. I think she did job finding a middle ground between a Shania Twain-esque upbeat personality and Lee Ann Womack style heartbreak tracks
This list suckz!
Where is the Miranda Lambert album?!
I know it wasn’t this year but it’s so so good it should be on this list! In fact, it should be in all 40 spots!
Were you guyz drunk when you wrote this?!
Chill out Markus Miranda’s album was on last years list.
Markus is just heading off the Miranda faniacs at the pass. Next up, you need to do one complaining that the Carrie Underwood album didn’t take up the first 10 spots.
Carrie is so much better than that immature pop star Taylor Swift.
CU is totally against Carrie because she didn’t even make the top 10.
Don’t be haters.
jason aldean night train; rascalflatts changed;kenny chesney welcome to the fishbowl.craig morgan, this ole boy
Interesting list, although a lot of it looks more like Americana or roots-rock than actual country music. I own 19 of the panel’s top 40, which is more than I would have expected.
I would have included the new albums by Gene Watson and WIllie Nelson to the list and the soundtrack to NASHVILLE
I enjoy the shit out of you, Markus Meyer.
Why thank you White Cleats.
Actually, Country Universe has always been very good to Carrie Underwood..
hahaha..I love how you play that insane fan Markus.
Great list. But there is one song you listed as one of the best on the album, that I can’t get into at all. “Beer Money”. Also, sorry, but I still love the sound of pure tones in a voice, and his scratchy voice sometimes leaves me cold.
…since this list strays quite a bit off mainstream country, there’s some catching up to do for me with some of the artists making the grade. even in the age and time of the internet, hidden mountainous spots like switzerland are still a corner or two away from most things country off mainstream.
i’d have added tim culpeppers “pourin’ whiskey on pain” album, which is full of that great 90’s “traditonal country” flavour. a most pleasant listening experience of the “too country” kind. nice to see that the beautiful effort of the enormously talented “trishas” is finding the same kind of love with you than with me. aj’s album is a real gem of understated mastercraft – simple beauty. kelly pickler’s decision was right: true style still beats fluff and bling-bling by a country mile. 100% shockproof country that album is – love it.
Interesting that Taylor Swift’s “Red” did not make it to the final top 40. Did any of the CU writers include this album to their top 40? Thanks.
No, none of us did (though our individual lists were actually twenty spaces, not forty). I think Red a decent pop album albeit an uneven one, but it didn’t impact me enough to make my list. And I must admit that at this point I don’t even think of Taylor Swift as country anymore, and I don’t really feel like that album has anything to do with country music, “Begin Again” notwithstanding.
I’ll admit that I was very curious to see whether or not any of the other writers ended up voting for Red as everyone turned in their ballots. I really didn’t have any expectations that people either would or wouldn’t include it, but it did seem conspicuous in its absence among the 55 albums that did receive votes. I do think it will still have a decent showing on the Nashville Scene country music critics poll, given the voter demographics there.
Like Ben, I think of it as a pop album that’s bloated and wildly uneven. But, if whittled down to a 7-song EP of its best and most thematically coherent cuts, I probably would’ve considered that one of the year’s best overall releases, though I still wouldn’t have included it on a ballot of the year’s best country music.
Just to clarify, I was just pretending when I posted those insane fan comments. I don’t actually think that.
Anyways, my top 10:
10. Lee Brice- Hard 2 Love
09. Love And Theft- Love And Theft
08. Carrie Underwood- Blown Away
07. Edens Edge- Edens Edge
06. Jason Aldean- Night Train
05. Gloriana- A Thousand Miles Left Behind
04. Easton Corbin- All Over The Road
03. Bucky Covington- Good Guys
02. Zac Brown Band- Uncaged
01. Dean Brody- Dirt
Good reading. I will check out a couple of the albums that slipped by me. Here’s my top ten of the year in comparison and a few notes about Country Universe’s top albums.
1. Little Victories – Chris Knight (I can’t believe this album didn’t make CU’s top 40!)
2. AM Country Heaven – Jason Eady
3. Goodbye Normal Street – Turnpike Troubadours
4. KIN: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
5. Nashville, Vol.1 – Tear The Woodpile Down – Marty Stuart
6. Cigarettes & Truckstops – Lindi Ortega
7. Goin’ Down Rockin’ – Waylon Jennings
8. Tomorrowland – Ryan Bingham
9. Heros – Willie Nelson
10. Stars and Satellites – Trampled By Turtles
#1 – I’m a HUGE Jamey Johnson fan. I’m counting down the days till I see him in concert again in February. I’m a fan of Hank Cochran. I love every artist on this tribute album. However, this album doesn’t work for me because these songs are fundamentally not duets. I can’t get by that, so I DQ’d this album from contention.
A solo tribute album would have been great. My favorite cut on Living for a Song is Johnson’s ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way.’
#3 – Coal was one of my top albums of 2008. But, Calling Me Home didn’t have the same affect on me. Mattea’s voice and production is way too pleasant for this subject matter.
#9 – Long Ride Home Was #8 on my 2011 top albums. I must have received and advanced copy. I had to double check Amazon cause it is marked 2011 in my Itunes library.
One more comment…. #28. The only reason I saw the movie The Hunger Games was because of the soundtrack. However, I was very disappointed that none of the songs were used in the movie and I was the oldest person in the theater. For that reason I DQ’d it.
However, and excellent soundtrack that used the songs in the movie was Lawless. It ranks somewhere in my top 25. The Bootleggers White Light/ White Heat is one of my single/songs of the year.
I liked that Brandi Carlile’s album Bear Creek was included in the discussion here, because she is very much an underrated alt-folk/Americana artist, at least in the eyes of the general public. I myself have liked her stuff from the start.
Another artist I’d like to put in a good word for is Tift Merritt, whose album Traveling Alone, even though it wasn’t included in the list, was my personal favorite album of the year overall for 2012. Tift’s intelligent songwriting and a breezy voice that is right for her combination of Americana and “old school” country-rock, which I’ve loved from the start, makes her my choice for the best female singer of any genre to come along in this century.
I’ve said it a few times before and I’ll say it again, Brandi Carlile is my very favorite discovery of 2012!
Also…I inevitably leave something off lists such as these and this year’s big oversight was The Trishas. Theirs is one great album that I wish I had included on my list.
I must admit I fail to see why all the love for WRECK & RUIN – it’s an okay album (it would be in my top forty albums of the year, but nearwhere near the top ten).
An album I would have in my top ten is by O’Brien Party of Seven REINCARNATION: THE SONGS OF ROGER MILLER. I’m not a big bluegrass fan but this album but this was an outstanding album wherein Tim and Mollie O’Brien and their families explorer the depth and breadth of the songs of Roger Miller
THAT’S JUST ME by Teaa Goans would also grace my top ten. My #1 would be LIVING FOR A SONG by Jamey Johnson. My only complaint is that it should have been longer
I already mentioned it over on CM’s site, but I actually feel the same as Paul on Wreck & Ruin. I think Rattlin’ Bones was a true classic, but this album is just decent, with songs that still sound great but aren’t as tuneful and don’t cut as deep. So I feel like people are giving ’em a free pass based on the first album’s greatness – though in fairness, I’m probably equally guilty of judging them too hard based on it. :p
Have mixed feelings on the Turnpike Troubadours, Chris Knight, and Kathy Mattea albums, too, though Turnpike still made the lower end of my list.
…another album (not on the list, but probably should be and would be in my top ten) i enjoyed very much this year is jarrod birmingham’s “jesus and johnny cash”, which i find overall even easier on the ears than jason eady’s “am country heaven” that deservedly found quite some critical and country enthusiasts acclaim.
way back, i bought garth’s “garth brooks” debut because i thought that the album can hardly be worse than the guy on the cover looks in that stupidly big hat of his – i was dead on. with jarrod birmingham, i figured there’s limited downside to it – knowing birmingham, uk.
it clearly goes to show, with a strictly rational approach you can’t go too wrong in country universe.
I’ll say, too, that while I liked Wreck and Ruin quite a bit, it was not as good as Ratlin’ Bones, as reflected in my ranking of it. Rattlin’ Bones is still my personal favorite album of all point blank and Wreck and Ruin is just my #9 choice of 2012. As for the Mattea album, I see that a lot of people didn’t like it as much as Coal, but I think it’s almost as good.
Quote by Leeann Ward re. Brandi Carlile:
I’ve said it a few times before and I’ll say it again, Brandi Carlile is my very favorite discovery of 2012!
She’s been around a while–seven or eight years now, I believe. She doesn’t fit the Nashville model, to say the least, but musically she takes a rustic folk-based approach and occasionally goes on stage in a Cub Scout unifirm, a la Linda Ronstadt in 1977. She should be around for quite a few more years (IMHO).
YYes, I had definitely heard of her before 2012, but last year was the year that her music finally clicked with me.
Same. Always loved her voice, but never really bothered with her material until Bear Creek. Now I feel energized to go back and explore those earlier, folk-rockish albums, but she’s so natural at the country-tinged stuff that I hope she’ll keep doing some of that after this album.
I’m with Leeann on Chambers and Nicholson. I don’t put Wreck & Ruin on the same lofty plane as Rattlin’ Bones, but I think it’s a very fine album in its own right, and one that thus earned a spot on my year end list.
I see Mattea’s Calling Me Home more as a building and expanding upon Coal than simply being Coal, Part 2, and I actually like it a bit better than its predecessor. It has been a while since I last heard Coal though.
Agreeing with Leeann and Ben. Wreck & Ruin is no Rattlin’ Bones, but it hits on many of the elements (a playful sense of self-awareness in the songwriting, a purposefully chosen aesthetic that suits its material well, thematic through-lines that enhance but don’t overwhelm the project) that make an album work for me. “Sick as a Dog” is a disaster, sure, but I’m comfortable with having ranked the album at the bottom of my top 10. I don’t see it as getting a pass on name recognition: That’s really not this crew’s MO. It seems to be a similar situation as last year’s #4 album, Four the Record, another album that can stand on its own merits but just isn’t done any favors by direct comparisons its immediate predecessor(s).
Also, I hadn’t heard about Carlile’s wardrobe choices, but that’s amazing.
Commenter’s remorse – didn’t mean my half-joke theory about the reception to W&R as insultingly as it might have come out.
The comparison to Four the Record is very apt.
If you haven’t already, you should listen to “Caroline” by Brandi Carlile. It’s a pretty fun honky tonker like song. I believe I’ve read that she’s got country roots, due to her mom singing country music.
Love that this bridges the Americana world and mainstream country. Bright spots in both, but they seem to be growing into more and more divisive camps.
Sweethearts of the rodeo! Man, glad there back! and the song, you can’t hold me back!!!!
awesome!!!! Good luck gals! Now this is country where is should be!