The Best Albums of 2014

2014 was a banner year for country music albums.   In addition to the predictably solid entries from the Americana, folk, and bluegrass scenes, some excellent albums also surfaced from the unlikeliest of sources: mainstream, radio-friendly contemporary country artists!

Here are our twenty favorite albums from 2014.   Fingers crossed that 2015 is as good or better than this year has been.

Jennifer Nettles That Girl

#20
Jennifer Nettles
That Girl

KJC #8 | LW #16

A confident, intelligent solo project that washes away all of the bitter taste left by Sugarland’s preceding studio album, The Incredible Machine.  Nettles manages to remind us what was so appealing about the trio-turned-duo in the first place, while also staking out her own musical territory that has room for independence anthems alongside wry, humorous commentary on society and, of course, palpably vulnerable heartbreak numbers.  – Kevin John Coyne

Recommended Tracks: “Me Without You”, “Know You Wanna Know”, “Jealousy”

Rosie's Pawn Shop Gravity Well

#19
Rosie’s Pawn Shop
Gravity Well

SG #1

With some excellent musicianship, well-written songs and some distinctive group vocals, Rose’s Pawn Shop made its case to get some wide-spread attention in the Americana world. Their blend of bluegrass and folk, mixed in with a dose of punk rock recklessness, makes for an enjoyable listening, and singer/songwriter Paul Givant has a knack for writing some catchy songs that beg repeat listens. – Sam Gazdziak

Recommended Tracks: “What Were You Waiting For”, “Town Crier”, “Staring at the Door”

Radney Foster Everything I Should Have Said

#18
Radney Foster
Everything I Should Have Said

LW #5 | KJC #17

Not only is Everything I Should Have Said one of the best albums of the year with some great guest vocals by Kacey Musgraves and Patty Griffin, it may very well hold the most important song of the year within its 12 tracks. The album has moments of introspection, love and even harsh reality, but the song that packs the most poignant punch is the anthemic “Not in My House”, which categorically and unapologetically decries hate speech and bigotry. – Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks: “California”, “Not in My House”, “The Man You Want”

Dolly Parton Blue Smoke

#17
Dolly Parton
Blue Smoke

KJC #9 | TS #10

Parton’s earnest conviction is ever-enjoyable on her 42nd album, a collection of imaginative and comforting stories. Indeed, you can’t make old friends, and when Parton sings of life’s truths – from mortality to being the lover of the day– you can’t help but believe your trusted, celebrated pal. – Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks: “You Can’t Make Old Friends” (with Kenny Rogers), “Blue Smoke”, “Don’t Think Twice”

Rosanne Cash the River & the Thread

#16
Rosanne Cash
The River & the Thread

JK #5 | LW #13

Rosanne Cash continues her extraordinary late-career run with The River & the Thread, an album that nods to some of the more obtuse art-pop influences that colored her 90s output but that doesn’t forsake the accessibility of her songs. As with both of its immediate predecessors— 2006’s Black Cadillac and 2009’s The List — the album is elevated by the endlessly fascinating and unprecedented ways that Cash engages with her legacy and the lines between a private life and an artistic persona. – Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks: “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” “Modern Blue,” “When the Master Calls the Roll”

Tim mcgraw sundown heaven town

#15
Tim McGraw
Sundown Heaven Town

KJC #6 | TS #8

And so, years after we wrote him off as a former trendsetter who now chases them, Tim McGraw returns with an album that reminds us of why he was once such a powerful artistic force in mainstream country music.  Simply put, he’s rediscovered his talent for picking great songs that push are just different enough to stand out, while keeping the delivery simple enough that loud production and showboat vocals don’t get in the way.  Welcome back, buddy. – KJC

Recommended Tracks: “Still on the Line”, “Overrated”, “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” (with Faith Hill)

Lucinda Williams Down where the Spirit Meets the Bone

#14
Lucinda Williams
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

KJC #3 | JK #13

Despite increasingly weathered vocals that make her sound more like Wendy O. Williams with each album, Lucinda’s songwriting is more vibrant than ever. Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is a tough title for an album to live up to, and she pulls it off.   The entire album is foreshadowed by opening track “Compassion”, an appeal to forgive and to understand the most difficult people to forgive and to understand.  The remaining tracks challenge the listener to heed that call, soliciting empathy for the downtrodden, the forgotten, and the just plain old heartbroken.  – KJC

Recommended Tracks: “Compassion”, “When I Look at the World”, “Protection”

The Secret Sisters Put Your Needle Down

#13
The Secret Sisters
Put Your Needle Down

SG #3 | JK #20 | LW #20

The Secret Sisters’ first album was pleasant enough, but its over-reliance on classic country covers only hinted at what they could do in a contemporary setting. Put Your Needle Down, does just that, with original songs and contributions from skilled writers like Brandi Carlile and Gordie Sampson. Laura and Lydia Rogers have classic country harmony vocals, but this is a thoroughly modern album that ranks them among the top young Americana acts. – SG

Recommended Tracks: “Rattle My Bones”, “The Pocket Knife”, “Luka”

Tami Neilson Dynamite!

#12
Tami Neilson
Dynamite!

JK #3 | TS #7

Dynamite! frequently makes good on the promise of its title, thanks in no small part to Tami Neilson’s powerhouse voice, perhaps the most distinctive instrument to come down the pike since Neko Case debuted. But Neilson impresses for far more than just her vocal prowess: She draws from a wide range of traditional and alt-leaning country styles, bringing contemporary recording techniques and, more importantly, a thoroughly modern point-of-view to her throwback sound. She’s bringing to country music what acts like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones & The DAP-Kings have brought to R&B. – JK

Recommended Tracks: “Walk (Back to Your Arms),” “Cry Over You,” “Texas.”

Carlene Carter Carter Girl

#11
Carlene Carter
Carter Girl

KJC #5 | LW #8 | SG #16

With vibrant productions and lively vocals, Carlene Carter both pays tribute to and revives the songs of her Carter Family heritage. Assisted by the great producer Don Was and brilliant guests Elizabeth Cook, Vince Gill, Joe Breen, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and the Posthumous Carter Family, Carter delivers one of the best and most heart filled albums of her career. – LW

Recommended Tracks: “Me and the Wildwood Rose”, “Blackie’s Gunman”, “Lonesome Valley 2003”

Jason Eady Daylight & Dark

#10
Jason Eady
Daylight & Dark

SG #5 | JK #7 | LW #14

A bit of a concept album, Daylight & Dark divides its material into “Causes” and “Consequences,” with one “Recovery” track closing out the album. Eady can sing about the high life as well as he can about low lifes, even if the truth is unflinching at times. – SG

Recommended Tracks: “OK Whiskey”, “Lonesome Down and Out”, “We Might Just Miss Each Other” (with Courtney Patton)

Nickel Creek A Dotted Line

#9
Nickel Creek
A Dotted Line

LW #2 | KJC #16 | JK #17 | SG #17

Nickel Creek relieved us of their indefinite hiatus by releasing their strongest and most diverse album to date. A Dotted Line is not only everything that we hoped and anticipated their comeback album to be, but it also showcases each member’s tremendous growth as individuals (Sara Watkins in particular!) and as a trio. Tangible confidence, enhanced musical prowess and even natural camaraderie is undeniably evident on this album. – LW

Recommended Tracks: “Destination”, “Hayloft”, “Where Is Love Now”

11183_JKT

#8
Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
Our Year

TS #6 | LW #9 | JK #10 | KJC #10

The magic in Our Year lies somewhere in its introspective songwriting, in the intimacy of Willis and Robison’s performances, and in their chemistry, as sweet and vibrant as ever. But you can’t describe this Texas pair in decorative words; their charm is simple, and that’s a lovely thing. – TS

Recommended Tracks: “Carousel,” “Lonely For You,” “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You”

Old Crow Medicine Show Remedy

#7
Old Crow Medicine Show
Remedy

KJC #4 | JK #6 | SG #6 | LW #19

There are plenty of songs here that feature OCMS at their rowdiest, whether it’s about traveling with “8 Dogs 8 Banjos” or exploring the uses of a prison conjugal trailer. As fun as those are, the band can also stun listeners with quiet, well-crafted dramatic songs as well. “Dearly Departed Friend” tackles some difficult issues with restraint and respect, and “Sweet Amarillo” once again pairs OCMS with bits of a Bob Dylan lyric to great effect. – SG

Recommended Tracks: “Dearly Departed Friend”, “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer”, “Sweet Amarillo”

Eric Church the Outsiders

#6
Eric Church
The Outsiders

KJC #2 | TS #5 | LW #12 | SG #13

A relentless showcase of unbridled creativity, The Outsiders marks the first time that Church truly sounds like an outlaw.   Learning all the right lessons from rock & roll, he’s put out an album that constantly surprises, zigging when you expect it to zag.  At times the instrumentation sounds like bluegrass improvisation with electric instruments and a punk sensibility.   – KJC

Recommended Tracks:  “Dark Side”, “A Man Who was Gonna Die Young”, “The Outsiders”, “Devil, Devil”

Rodney Crowell Tarpaper Sky

#5
Rodney Crowell
Tarpaper Sky

SG #2 | LW #3 | JK #9 | KJC #12

After a few solo albums that were fairly quiet and introspective, Crowell sounds re-energized on Tarpaper Sky. “Frankie Please” is as high-powered as anything he’s done since the Diamonds & Dirt era, for instance. Crowell is in rarefied air as a songwriter (see the lovely tributes to his grandfather, Guy Clark and John Denver, for instance), but this album is a highlight of an already storied recording career. – SG

Recommended Tracks: “Oh What a Beautiful World” (for John Denver), “The Long Journey Home” (for Ben), “God I’m Missing You”

Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

#4
Sturgill Simpson
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

JK #2 | TS #2 | SG #4 | KJC #18

Sturgill Simpson’s debut, High Top Mountain, suggested that the Kentucky native could have carved out a respectable career from appealing to genre purists: however current his perspective may have been, there was no getting around how much he sounded like a Waylon Jennings acolyte.

But Simpson set out to prove his range on his sophomore outing, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. His sound remains grounded in the 70s Outlaw tradition, but Simpson’s songwriting is far more adventurous this time around, from the cockeyed gospel of “A Little Light” to the deliberately weird “Turtles (All the Way Down)” and hazily philosophical “It Ain’t All Flowers.”

For all of the bro-country apologists’ talk about how country music needs to evolve, it’s Simpson, an artist who is capable of pushing boundaries because he’s acutely aware of where those boundaries actually were in the first place, who is truly moving the genre forward. – JK

Recommended Tracks: “Life of Sin,” “The Promise,” “A Little Light,” “It Ain’t All Flowers”

Lee ann Womack the Way I'm Livin

#3
Lee Ann Womack
The Way I’m Livin’

TS #3 | LW #4 | JK #8 | SG #14 | KJC #19

Few commercial country artists were better suited for a transition into the Americana scene than Lee Ann Womack, and her first indie effort for Sugar Hill does not disappoint.   Previous Womack sets had included stripped down performances, even if only as a hidden bonus track.

Taking that approach on an entire record showcases her natural vocal abilities more than ever before, and she wisely weds a singular theme to this singular sound.  An exploration of sin and redemption, The Way I’m Livin’ is all about having Sunday morning thoughts on wild Saturday nights, talking to God the night before because she’ll still be sleeping off those Saturday nights on Sunday mornings. – KJC

Recommended Tracks:  “Prelude: Fly”, “Tomorrow Night in Baltimore”, “Don’t Listen to the Wind”, “The Way I’m Livin'”

Dierks Bentley Riser

#2
Dierks Bentley
Riser

JK #4 | TS #4 | LW #6 | KJC #7 | SG #7

The bulk of Dierks Bentley’s Riser was informed by the birth of his son and the death of his father, and those transformative personal experiences are reflected in the album’s pensive, heady tone. Even the moments of levity— “Drunk on a Plane,” “Pretty Girls,” “Sounds of Summer,” and “Back Porch”— are tempered by Bentley’s more mature perspective or by undercurrents of loss or regret.

Bentley has always projected a good deal more depth and intellect than many of his contemporaries, and Riser is the wittiest and wisest album of his career. Sadly, that may explain why such a solid album, despite a couple of chart-topping singles, still hasn’t elevated him from the genre’s B-list, even when his A-game is just about as good as contemporary country gets. – JK

Recommended Tracks: “I Hold On,” “Bourbon in Kentucky,” “Say You Do,” “Five”

Miranda Lambert Platinum

#1
Miranda Lambert
Platinum

JK #1 | KJC #1 | LW #1 | TS #1 | SG #11

It’s interesting to note that not only did Platinum draw an impressively heavy consensus, almost unanimous, vote from the Country Universe staff, it is also the most commercially successful of our Number One albums in at least the last seven years. Platinum, however, does not sound as if it’s a cookie cutter commercial album, which is remarkable for, arguably, one of the most currently successful mainstream artists.

Instead, Miranda Lambert has been able to create an album that manages to embrace a diverse mix of sounds, including pop/rock, pop country, western swing, pure country, Rhythm & Blues, and even some sounds that are difficult to define.

Within these generous 16 tracks, Lambert seamlessly goes from contentment to unsettled, vulnerable to swagger, reflective to impulsive, progressive to nostalgic and so many points around and in between. As a result, in addition to Lambert’s nuanced vocals that add various shades and textures to her performances, the content of the album is just as diverse and intriguing as its sounds.

As has been discussed ad nauseam lately, Lambert is one of the criminally few women who is allowed to compete in the mainstream. Platinum proves that she is not taking her unique position for granted, but rather, using it to embrace sonic and thematic diversity while championing an array of talented songwriting and musical heroes and friends. Furthermore, Platinum is finally an album that is worthy of the hype and praise that Lambert has been receiving. – LW

Recommended Tracks: “Platinum”, “Little Red Wagon”, “All That’s Left” (with the Time Jumpers), “Bathroom Sink”

10 Comments

  1. I own two of these albums (Eric Church and Miranda Lambert) and they were good albums. I keep hearing good things about Bentley but unfortunately I’ve never really been a fan of his. I did however like Drunk on a Plane so maybe this is an album I pick up.

  2. Can’t say I agree with the #1 pick. Don’t get me wrong, I liked ‘Platinum’, but it would probably be 7th on my list, and I personally find it to be a tad overrated, but that’s just me. 100% disagree on “Little Red Wagon” as a recommended track.

    My pick? Dierks’ ‘Riser’ by a mile. Glad to see “Five” get some love from Jonathan. My next three would be Eric Church, Sturgill Simpson and Brantley Gilbert, with Tim McGraw rounding out the top 5 (my top 3 tracks would be the same 3 Kevin put.)

    My surprise album of the year was The Swon Brothers’ debut. That was an excellent album, and a pleasant surprise. Eric Paslay’s debut was also much better than I anticipated.

  3. This is a very judiciously selected list. I am happy to see Dierks at #2. He is legit. Miranda is something of a mixed bag, but this is her best album so far. Rodney Crowell, Lee Ann Womack, and Sturgill Simpson are obvious choices, and rightly so. Eric Church is the most difficult to judge, and this is precisely what he intends. I have nothing against his love for rock, but I am not sure it is as “creative” and “innovative” as people are saying. Sometimes it works; often it does not. But when it works, it is great. “Talladega” is the best single on radio in his career.

  4. I have listened to quite a few of these albums and can safely say that all of them disappointed me to varying degrees. Still need to give Foster, McGraw, and Nettles a real chance, but as hard as I’ve tried nothing I’ve heard has really resonated with me.

  5. Happy to see Jennifer Nettles on this list. I would just turn the list upside down putting her in the #1 slot. I agree that “That Girl” “washes away all of the bitter taste left by Sugarland’s preceding studio album, The Incredible Machine.” I bought that awful album and then gave it away.

  6. I just don’t understand the hype for “Platinum”. Sure it’s a decent album and probably the best one that actually had significant sales numbers, but number one?

    As for “The Outsiders”, it’s the one album Church has released where I struggled to find more than just a couple songs I liked at all.

  7. Though I really enjoyed Platinum, I think it was much weaker than her previous albums. Sure its fun and its country enough. The whole album is excellent but the songs one by one is well…not no.1 worthy. Smokin and drinkin, Automatic, hard staying sober, all that’s left are decent songs but compare to her previous hit singles such as Over you, mama’s broken heart, all kinds of kinds, and the house that built me… Well…. I think its weak.
    Still its a good album I would put it in my top10.

    Also I would include John Fullbright

    Other than that awesome list♥

  8. I thought when, I first heard it, that The River & the Thread would be the year’s best album. I still think that it is. The Hag tribute Working Man’s Poet would be my #2.

  9. I agree Platinum is the best. Its the one I played the most. But a lot of people Ive seen on the blogs didnt seem to go crazy over it. Sturgill would be a close second. I really want to like Lee Ann Womack’s but so far have not wanted to play it much. I do like it much better than her last one.

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