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.
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”
The countdown concludes with our top twenty singles of 2014. Check out the first twenty entries here, and look for our countdown of the year’s twenty best albums tomorrow.
“The Devil is All Around”
Shovels & Rope
LW #5 | JK #13
The soulful husband-wife duo that comprises Shovels and Rope delivers a no holes barred analysis of trials and temptations, which boils down to the idea that the devil is all around, which means that one must do what he can to push against such a devastating force. – Leeann Ward
Does failure to reach a consensus indicate a year that lacked quality, or a year that had enough interesting singles that subjective taste is enough to prevent a consensus?
This was the dilemma faced by the Country Universe staff as we compiled our Best Singles of 2014 feature. We followed our usual routine. Each writer submitted their list of the twenty best singles of the year, and our numbers guru Jonathan Keefe used his time-test algorithm to produce a collective ranking.
But this year, there was only one single that appeared on four out of five lists. The rest: three or less. Rather than shorten the list to showcase only those songs chosen by multiple writers, we decided to stick to the usual forty slots, and let quite a few songs embraced only by one writer to have their place in the sun.
The result is probably the most diverse singles list we’ve ever published, and provides a great counterpoint to our upcoming albums list, which showed far more consensus than any previous albums list has.
Today, we start with the lower half of our top forty singles. Look for the upper half tomorrow, and our albums list on Wednesday.
“Truck Stop Gospel”
Raspy-voiced newcomer Parker Millsap takes it to church on one of the year’s best-drawn character sketches, adopting the persona of a truck driver whose cab doubles as his pulpit. – Jonathan Keefe
Country Universe has finalized its year-end lists for 2014, and we’re getting ready to roll it out to our readers. This year, we considered 125 albums and 342 singles for our annual list, narrowing our favorites down to just twenty albums and forty singles.
As 2014 comes to a close, the Country Universe staff has been collectively impressed by the number of quality albums that were released this year. How many of those albums, however, will we still be listening to in twenty years?
We have that benefit of hindsight for the year 1994, and we’ve compiled our twenty favorite studio sets from that year. At their time of release, some of our favorites were comeback albums from veteran artists, some were from current artists reaching new artistic and commercial peaks, and some were debut sets from artists that went on to become mainstays on country radio or in the Americana music scene that was just coming together twenty years ago.
What they all have in common is that each and every one of them still sounds great today, and they collectively show the wide breadth that the country music landscape was transforming into as the genre reached wider levels of popularity than it had ever seen before.
This is Me
BF #11 | KJC #15 | LW #19
Travis’ legendary status was practically secure by 1994, but This is Me shows an artist neither resting on his laurels nor struggling to keep up with the young new talent of the era. The album serves up one solid song after another, with its best tracks delivering clever new takes on signature country themes, thus further advancing an already respectable legacy. – Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Before You Kill Us All”, “This is Me”, “The Box”
The countdown concludes with a wide range of classics, including breakthrough hits, signature songs, and exciting later career gems from long-established icons of the genre.
“(Who Says) You Can’t Have it All”
Written by Alan Jackson and Jim McBride
LW #10 | BF #5 | JK #38
What makes a better country song than a stark naked light bulb, one lonely pillow on a double bed, a mournful fiddle and steel guitar? Jackson’s “(Who Says) You Can’t Have It All” is one of the finest exhibits to present as the answer to that question. – Leeann Ward
Our Best of 1994 Singles List continues with Part Three, which includes the ten songs that just missed the top ten! This section includes several #1 singles and signature hits, but kicks off with one of those should’ve been hits by a should’ve been star.
Joy Lynn White
Written by Dennis Linde
JK #9 | SG #18 | KJC #39
A brash, fiery vocalist with an instantly recognizable timbre and sense of phrasing, White revels in the forthright sexuality of “Wild Love” and has the pipes to match the track’s blistering arrangement. White may never have cracked the top 40 at radio, but the influence of her vocal style is all over Natalie Maines’ singing, and “Wild Love” foretold the hard rock turn the genre would take a decade or so later. – Jonathan Keefe
The list continues with big hits from Clay Walker, Neal McCoy, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, along with should’ve been hits from Carlene Carter and Merle Haggard.
“Daddy Never was the Cadillac Kind”
Written by Dave Gibson and Bernie Nelson
KJC #10 | JK #22 | SG #39
Confederate Railroad made it big by balancing party anthems with thoughtful songs about growing up in the south. This was their best “growing up” song, a thoughtful tribute from a son to his late father. As tends to happen, the lessons taught to us in our youth aren’t fully appreciated or understood until it’s too late to truly say “thank you.” – Kevin John Coyne
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
- The Band Perry, “Gentle on My Mind”
- Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, “Somethin’ Bad”
- Little Big Town, “Day Drinking”
- Tim McGraw featuring Faith Hill, “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s”
- Keith Urban featuring Eric Church, “Raise ‘Em Up”
Best American Roots Performance
- Greg Allman & Taj Mahal, “Statesboro Blues”
- Rosanne Cash, “A Feather’s not a Bird”
- Billy Childs featuring Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas, “And When I Die”
- Keb’ Mo’ featuring the California Feet Warmers, “The Old Me Better”
- Nickel Creek, “Destination”
Best Country Solo Performance
- Eric Church, “Give Me Back My Hometown”
- Hunter Hayes, “Invisible”
- Miranda Lambert, “Automatic”
- Carrie Underwood, “Something in the Water”
- Keith Urban, “Cop Car”
Best New Artist includes last year’s actual best new artist!
- Iggy Azalea
- Brandy Clark (!!!!)
- Sam Smith
Best Americana Album
- Rosanne Cash, The River & The Thread
- John Haitt, Terms of My Surrender
- Keb’ Mo’, Bluesamericana
- Nickel Creek, A Dotted Line
- Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Best Country Song
- “American Kids” – Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally
- “Automatic” – Nicolle Galyon, Natalie Hemby, and Miranda Lambert
- “Give Me Back My Hometown” – Eric Church and Luke Laird
- “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” -Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond
- “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” – Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnston, and Jeffrey Steele
The best lineup for Best Country Album that we can remember:
- Dierks Bentley, Riser
- Eric Church, The Outsiders
- Brandy Clark, 12 Stories
- Miranda Lambert, Platinum
- Lee Ann Womack, The Way I’m Livin’
Record of the Year includes a former country artist and a CMA Awards duet partner:
Our Best of 1994 Singles List kicks off today with the bottom quarter of our top forty. The list was compiled by weighing each individual writer’s choices, with preference given to songs that appeared on multiple lists. Each writer’s individual ranking is listed under the songwriter credits.
Bonus retro fun: Check out those cassette singles covers!
“Livin’ on Love”
Written by Alan Jackson
SG #14 | JK #23 | BF #37
Country music has, historically, given voice to those disenfranchised by poverty, validating and finding the value in the struggles of economic hardship. What elevates the appropriately bare-bones narrative of “Livin’ on Love” is the warmth and real sense of empathy in Jackson’s performance. – Jonathan Keefe