Tomorrow is My Turn
Although Rhiannon Giddens has been a fixture on the Americana circuit as the frontwoman for the terrific Carolina Chocolate Drops, it’s on her solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn, that Giddens truly announces herself as an artist. On a shrewdly chosen collection of songs that draw from a diverse sample of American roots music, Giddens and producer T Bone Burnett showcase a fearless approach to genre that never once allows easy signifiers to interfere with her forceful and intuitive interpretations.
In early February, Zac Brown Band kicked off a brief cycle of Twitter Outrage when they performed a cover of Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues,” which they are rumored to have cut for their upcoming album, during a high-profile ESPN gig. Some of Isbell’s devoted fans were livid that a mainstream country performer had covered Isbell’s song, insisting that it should be Isbell with the multi-platinum stats and sold-out arena tours.
There’s something to that line of thinking, of course: Were commercial music a strict meritocracy, then Isbell would be an international superstar on the strengths of his one-of-a-kind songwriting and intuitive, soulful singing. Isbell, to his credit, responded to the uproar with a level-headed and fundamentally correct statement about how people who clamor for more substance in mainstream country shouldn’t be attacking artists who are interested in cutting songs like “Dress Blues.”
The Phosphorescent Blues
In reviewing their 2010 album, Antifogmatic, I noted that Punch Brothers were “rapidly evolving into a string-band version of Radiohead.” That assessment comes to full fruition on The Phosphorescent Blues, at once the band’s most obtuse and most accessible album.
Opening with the 10-plus minute suite of “Familiarity,” Punch Brothers have never been so forward with their hybrid of classical sophistication with prog-inspired Bluegrass, as the track ebbs and flows between “Amen!” exclamations right out of high mountain gospel and intricate vocal harmonies that would fit seamlessly on Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. The band’s technical virtuosity is on full display on the instrumental performances of wondrously complex arrangements by DeBussy and Scriabin.
World of Strangers
Few artists can make “weary” sound as engaging as Zoe Muth. Even though she rarely picks up the tempo past a casually swinging shuffle, Muth captivates with her artfully turned phrases and dry sense of humor. “Mama Needs a Margarita,” in which Muth adopts the persona of a young mother tired of being left home alone to eat “straight from the jar” alongside her infant, stands as one of 2014’s finest songs.
Little Big Town
Rather than focusing on their unrivaled vocal skill, Little Big Town and producer Jay Joyce approach Pain Killer like a game of “Chicken”: Listening to the album, it appears that no idea that occurred to the band or to Joyce during their recording sessions was deemed too outlandish or too gauche.
Bringing Back the Sunshine
He’s been coasting on his celebrity status and his brand of aw-shucks humor for years, so it’s encouraging that Blake Shelton’s Bringing Back the Sunshine seems less phoned-in than its predecessors.
American Middle Class
Presley’s upbringing in the hollows of Eastern Kentucky provides her with an endless well of believable first-person details that she uses to create the quirky, cockeyed fictions on American Middle Class. Hers are the types of stories that bait autobiographical readings— always a critical dead-end, even when Taylor Swift insists on dropping hints as to who her songs are about— but what Presley does best is create a sustained mood.
Moonshine in the Trunk
Paisley’s last four albums have established a pattern of something slightly progressive or challenging (American Saturday Night, Wheelhouse) followed by a course-correction back toward baseline (This is Country Music, Moonshine in the Trunk).
Little Big Town
Written by Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, and Liz Rose
Beyond their lush four-part harmonies and their incorporation of Fleetwood Mac’s influence into the country idiom, perhaps Little Big Town’s greatest talent is choosing singles that completely sabotage their momentum at radio. They’ve followed up a top 10 hit with another top 10 exactly twice in thirteen years, and it’s almost unfathomable that “Girl Crush,” the second single from Pain Killer, will receive a warm reception in the current radio climate.
That’s a shame, really, since it’s one of the band’s strongest efforts.
“Little Red Wagon”
Written by Audra Mae and Joe Ginsburg
The bizarre handling of the singles from Miranda Lambert’s Platinum continues unabated with the arrival of “Little Red Wagon.” After leading off with far-and-away the two worst tracks on the album—the aesthetically and politically regressive “Automatic” and the empty bombast of “Somethin’ Bad”—then tagging “Smokin’ and Drinkin’,” an understated collaboration with Little Big Town, as the set’s next single before abruptly pulling the plug without explanation, Lambert’s team have declared “Little Red Wagon” as Lambert’s official third single. It’s been a long, strange ride thus far— one that smacks of the kind of nonsense typically reserved for veteran artists signed to Curb Records or to Sara Evans, rather than to an artist who is actively being pushed as one of the format’s superstars.