Carrie Underwood Greatest Hits: Decade #1 Hits compilations have become an odd thing in the digital age, as they give both hardcore and casual fans little reason to purchase. The new tracks can be downloaded if you’re interested. The hits that you would’ve wanted, you’ve probably downloaded anyway. So kudos to Carrie Underwood for putting together a collection that’s worth purchasing in physical form, with beautiful artwork and liner notes, and for putting together a track listing that doesn’t cut corners in any way. Every single hit is included, and she’s had a ton of them so far, all consistently good and quite a few that have been great.
Jon Pardi Write You a Song A surprisingly entertaining debut effort, Jon Pardi’s relentless enthusiasm infuses even mediocre material with enough energy to make it listenable. Of course, that’s the advantage of a debut album. Even if the material isn’t fresh, the artist is. So the real promise for Pardi’s future is his ability to write and record songs that are a cut above the average radio fare of the day. He does this on the best tracks of Write You a Song, most significantly on the title track, where a traveling musician leaves behind a one night stand in every town, but basically says, “Hey! When you hear that song of mine on the radio, I wrote it about you!”
David Nail I’m a Fire If he’s a fire, it’s one that doesn’t burn nearly enough. Three albums in, Nail continues to pair great potential with middling results. Despite having better pipes than most of his contemporaries and a knack for finding some genuinely interesting material each time out, his albums as a whole never quite take off.
Zoe Muth 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 Pain Killer 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.
Garth Brooks Man Against Machine Garth’s first proper studio album in thirteen years is chock full of all of his best and worst traits, but thankfully errs more often on the side of subtlety over excess. He’s always been good at straddling the fence between heartfelt sincerity and saccharine sentimentality, and the strongest moments are the ones that explore parenthood. “Mom” is a maternal celebration that would make Boyz II Men teary-eyed, while “Send ‘Em on Down the Road” captures the terrifying truth that finishing the job of parenthood means letting go, no matter how much you want to hold on.
Angaleena Presley 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.
Trisha Yearwood PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit PrizeFighter: Hit after Hit includes the first set of new material from Trisha Yearwood in seven years. That new material, six tracks in total, is uniformly excellent and often extraordinary, adding to her already impressive legacy as the genre’s finest singer and interpreter of the last thirty years. What a pity that the rest of the collection cheapens and sullies that legacy. Let’s start with those wonderful new tracks. The lead single and title cut, “PrizeFighter”, is an inspiring, get back up when you fall power anthem, featuring supporting vocals by Kelly Clarkson. In true Trisha form, the preview track is better than just about anything else on the radio today, yet still only hints at the treasures that await on the rest of the album.