Tag Archives: Carolina Chocolate Drops

CU's Top Albums of 2012

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.

 

#40
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”

#39
Morning Comes
 
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”

#38
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”

#37
That’s Just Me
Teea Goans

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”

#36
Fear Fun
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”

#35
Voice of Ages

The Chieftains

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)

#34
Restless
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”

#33
Home
Dierks Bentley

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”

#32
Derelict
John Kraus and the Goers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #5

When he’s

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”

avett brothers carpenter

#31
The Carpenter

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”

#30
Unfinished Business
Wanda Jackson

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”

#29
Nashville, Volume 1:  Tear the Woodpile Down
Marty Stuart

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”

#28
Original Soundtrack:  The Hunger Games –  Songs from District 12 and Beyond
Various Artists

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”

#27
Hello Cruel World
Gretchen Peters

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”

#26
Mindy Smith
Mindy Smith

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”

#25
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”

#24
And So It Goes
Don Williams

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”

#23
Carry Me Back
Old Crow Medicine Show

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #6;  Dan – #11;  Leeann – #20

A significant rebound from the dreary Tennessee PusherCarry 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”

#22
Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Todd Snider

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”

#21
I Like to Keep Myself In Pain
Kelly Hogan

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”

#20
AM Country Heaven
Jason Eady

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”

#19
Edens Edge
Edens Edge

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”

#18
Sun Midnight Sun
Sara Watkins

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”

#17
Bear Creek
Brandi Carlile

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”

#16
Cabin Fever
Corb Lund

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)

#15
Leaving Eden

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”

#14
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”

#13
Tornado
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”

#12
High, Wide & Handsome
The Trishas

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”

#11
Blown Away

Carrie Underwood 

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”

#10
Up All Night
Kip Moore

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”

 

#9
Long Ride Home
Darrell Scott

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)”

#8
Uncaged
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”

#7
KIN:  Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
Various Artists

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)

#6
100 Proof
Kellie Pickler

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”

#5
Thirty Miles West
Alan Jackson

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”

#4
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”

#3
Calling Me Home
Kathy Mattea

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”


#2
Sing the Delta
Iris DeMent

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”

#1
Living for a Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran
Jamey Johnson

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”

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