For the second year, Country Universe is publishing a 40-deep list of the year’s best albums. Part One includes releases from talented newcomers, genre legends, and quite a few entries from the outskirts of country music. As usual, that’s where most of the cool stuff can be found.
Country Universe will close out our year with the conclusion of this list tomorrow. As always, share your thoughts and opinions in the comments!
#40 Ventucky Dan Grimm
Individual rankings: #12 – Jonathan
The EP format doesn’t leave much margin for error, but with a knack for unconventional imagery and a style that blends vintage SoCal rock with authentic honky-tonk, Dan Grimm ensures that every track on his freewheeling, endlessly likable Ventucky is a standout. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Skeletor,” “300 Beers”
#39 Magpie and the Dandelion The Avett Brothers
Individual rankings: #12 – Sam
Since moving up to a major label, the Avetts’ album releases have strayed further and further away from their ragged-but-right indie albums. There aren’t as many reckless moments, though “Another Is Waiting” and “Open Ended Life” come close. The trade is that their slower, introspective songs are increasingly sophisticated. “Good to You” is beautifully written, and Bob Crawford’s rare vocals are a dagger to the heart for any dads who spend too much time traveling. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Good to You”, “Another is Waiting”, “Morning Song”
#38 Love’s Truck Stop Matraca Berg
Individual rankings: #11 – Kevin
Originally released in Europe last year, Matraca Berg’s latest collection builds on the strength of 2011′s Dreaming Fields. She embodies the characters of her song so fully that she allows you to walk as easily in the shoes of a truck stop waitress as those of a grieving, abused daughter clutching flowers at her father’s graveside. Her vulnerable vocals shine best on “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”, which was sung by Patty Loveless many years ago. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Her Name is Mary”, “Fistful of Roses”, “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”
#37 Feels Like Home Sheryl Crow
Individual rankings: #11 – Leeann
It was inevitable that Sheryl Crow would eventually make a country album, since she’s dabbled in it over the years on various tribute projects and has collaborated with country stalwarts like Willie Nelson and Vince Gill, not to mention that even her pop albums have had elements of country in them. So, Feels Like Home seems appropriate for the title of her first official country record.
While certainly not a traditional country record, as I had personally hoped it would be, Crow is instead authentic to her way of doing things, while also being able to draw from the good parts of the modern sounds and styles of country music. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “We Oughta Be Drinkin’”, “Stay at Home Mother”
#36 They Called it Music The Gibson Brothers
Individual rankings: #11 – Ben
On the title track of They Called it Music, IBMA Entertainers of the Year Leigh and Eric Gibson pine for the days when music was honest, simple, and “helped the hard times heal” – when it was a medium of art and self-expression rather than a mere moneymaker. Whether lighthearted (“Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher”), melancholy (“Dying for Someone to Live For”) or introspective (“Something Coming to Me”), the entire album is a beautiful realization of that very standard. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher,” “They Called It Music,” “Something Coming to Me”
#35 Studebaker Mando Saenz
Individual rankings: Sam – #11
The third album from Texas-raised, Nashville resident Saenz is the most eclectic and best of his career. While the focus is still on his sharp songwriting skills, the mood varies from introspective to rocking to, on “Tall Grass,” downright playful. Saenz collaborated with an A-list batch of co-writers, including Kim Richey for “Break Away Speed” and Wade Bowen for “Bottle into Gold,” and the mix of songs with Saenz’s pleasant vocals and a hot band is a winning combination. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Break Away Speed”, “Bottle into Gold”, “Pocket Change”
#34 Build Me Up from Bones Sarah Jarosz
Individual rankings: #17 – Jonathan; #19 – Ben
On her third album, Build Me Up from Bones, Sarah Jarosz found her voice as both a singer and a songwriter. Her sense of phrasing draws from both her expansive knowledge of contemporary folk and her conservatory training in improvisation, and sharply observed original songs like “Gone Too Soon” and “1000 Things” more than hold their own alongside Joanna Newsom and Bob Dylan covers. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Over the Edge,” “Build Me Up from Bones,” “1000 Things”
#33 Opening Day Peter Cooper
Individual rankings: #16 – Leeann; #18 – Sam
eter Cooper’s second album was entitled after the great pedal steel guitar player, Lloyd Green. While Opening Day is not named after him, Green is still the other star player on Cooper’s third stellar solo album. Along with Green’s prominent steel and cooper’s own emotionally conversational voice, Cooper once again proves that he is as an adept songwriter as he is a journalist. Themes of living life well, baseball (Of course!), and even drone strikes. Each of these songs with its various themes are all presented with either insight or witty humor and sometimes both. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Much Better Now”, “Quiet Little War”
#32 Holly Grove The Whiskey Gentry
Individual rankings: #8 – Sam
It’s hard to say if The Whiskey Gentry will be the next big thing to come out of Georgia, but they have the talent to spare. The band mixes in bluegrass, country, a bit of Celtic and a dash of punk rock, resulting in a high-energy, hard-to-classify sound. “I Ain’t Nothing” and “Dixie” wouldn’t sound out of place in a honky tonk, while “Colly Davis” is a bluegrass-on-amphetamines winner. The title track is a four-and-a-half minute epic that was one of the most moving songs of the year. - Sam Gazdziak
#31 When We Fall Rebecca Frazier
Individual rankings: Ben – #7
Rebecca Frazier is a genuine triple threat – a great picker, a great singer, and a great songwriter. She shows that she can throw it down with the best of them on “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” as well as a trio of stellar instrumental tracks, while her delivery of ballads such as the deeply personal “Babe in Arms” resounds with humanity and vulnerability, the result being one of the year’s finest bluegrass albums. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “When We Fall,” “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” “Babe in Arms”
#30 Not Cool Tim Easton
Individual rankings: #7 – Jonathan
Even if its self-deprecating title isn’t at all accurate, singer-songwriter Tim Easton’s Not Cool proves that, despite the glut of counter-evidence 2013 presented, it’s still possible to incorporate a heavy rock influence into folk and country styles without sacrificing wit, craft, or genre know-how. Spirited, ramshackle cuts like “Lickety Split” and “Crazy Motherfucker from Shelby, OH” make the underrated Easton’s seventh outing one of the year’s most raucous and, yes, coolest albums. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Troubled Times,” “Lickety Split,” “They Will Bury You”
#29 Wheelhouse Brad Paisley
Individual rankings: Sam – #7
Did you know that Brad Paisley released one of the best albums of his career this year? The humorous songs, like “Harvey Bodine” and “Death of a Single Man,” stayed humorous after multiple listenings, and unlike most other country singers, Paisley blended in pop elements, like sampling Roger Miller in “Outstanding in Our Field,” and did it without turning them into pop or rock songs with token country elements. “Southern Comfort Zone” and “Those Crazy Christians” showed more depth than their titles would suggest. And all anyone wanted to talk about was that damn “Accidental Racist” song. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Southern Comfort Zone”, “Beat This Summer”, “Death of a Single Man”
#28 In the Throes John Moreland
Individual rankings: #6 – Jonathan
A difficult meditation on what happens when one has experienced losses of love and faith, John Moreland’s In the Throes is a testament to the redemptive power of music. He may sing, “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” on the album’s most keenly observed song, but Moreland’s spectacular songwriting is something everyone should hear. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” “Break My Heart Sweetly,” “Blues & Kudzu”
#27 Dos Divas
Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis
Individual rankings: #13 – Kevin; #16 – Ben
A lively and entertaining collaboration between two nineties, second-generation country stars. The album features six full collaborations, along with four solo tracks from each artist. The pairings are funny and loose, recalling the best of those old-school duet albums from the sixties and seventies. But the biggest surprise is in the solo turns by Lorrie Morgan, who turns in some of her strongest moments ever put down to tape. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Last Night’s Makeup”, “Next Time it Rains”, “I Know What You Did Last Night”
#26 Good Wine and Bad Decisions
Individual rankings: #13 – Ben; #16 – Tara
Roberts’ comeback album is best approached with an aching heart and a glass of something smooth – all the better to absorb its combo of earthy blues and provoking, damn-that’s-depressing stories. But don’t mistake Good Wine and Bad Decisions for a downer; Roberts lures you into her dark places with such emotional gusto and groovy, engaging vibes that you somehow end up celebrating in misery. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Arms of Jesus,” “He Made a Woman Out of Me,” “Bones,” “Old Strings”
#25 Finally Home Blue Sky Riders
Individual rankings: #4 – Dan
With their considerable powers combined, Georgia Middleman, Gary Burr, and Kenny Loggins (Kenny Loggins!) produce the year’s most relentlessly positive LP. No time for cynics here; this is distilled country-poptimism, a set of songs that could easily soundtrack a self-help seminar (“Just Say Yes”! “How About Now”!) and like it that way, thanks. And are you gonna complain? The songs are so catchy, you will help yourself. - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Little Victories”, “Just Say Yes”, “How About Now”
#24 To All the Girls… Willie Nelson
Individual rankings: #12 – Tara; #15 – Leeann
Only Nelson could create an album akin to a mug of hot chocolate on a lazy Sunday afternoon that still feels elegant and impeccably thought-out. There’s no doubt he was tickled to record with all 18 female acts, from current stars to genre darlings to his own family, and it shows. He plays to each of her strengths with grace – stepping back in “Grandma’s Hands” to let Mavis Staples take it to church, standing quietly still in “Always On My Mind” so Carrie Underwood can inhabit the classic, waltzing right alongside Norah Jones in “Walkin.” It’s all comfort food, to be sure, but comfort food of the classiest, most tasteful order. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Far Away Places,” “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”
Built around full-bodied melodies, subtle yet evocative arrangements, and authoritative vocal performances, Thorn in My Heart is another excellent collection of mature, compelling roots country songs by one of the genre’s most underrated singer-songwriters. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Thorn in My Heart,” “London Town,” “Breakaway Speed”
#22 Massachusetts Lori McKenna
Individual rankings: #3 – Kevin
Whereas the previous, excellent Lorraine dealt heavily in the themes of loss and grief, the finest moments on McKenna’s latest collection surround matters of the heart. McKenna captures the quiet desperation just under the surface of life’s mundanity better than any writer today. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Shake”, “Salt”, “Smaller and Smaller”
#21 The Stand-In
Individual rankings: #10 – Dan; #11 – Jonathan
Liz Rose’s daughter once again proves her family can school yours all day long, with a sophomore set of songs every bit as sharp as her debut. Her soft, demure singing style belies her ability to slip powerful blows—whether aimed at others or herself—into a song. Call her Nashville’s ninja. - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: ”I Was Cruel”, “Silver Sings”, “Menagerie”
For the second year in a row, our seven writers – Kevin Coyne, Leeann Ward, Dan Milliken, Tara Seetharam, Ben Foster, Jonathan Keefe, and Sam Gazdziak – individually listed our twenty favorite albums and singles of the year. It’s a diverse crop of singles, some of which dominated country radio, while others were primarily heard in the Americana, bluegrass, and alternative country worlds. Today, we present the first half of our singles list, with the conclusion to follow tomorrow. Share your favorites in the comments!
“Someone Somewhere Tonight” Kellie Pickler
Individual rankings: #16 – Ben; #19 – Tara
A sweeping power ballad anchored by an intimate chorus and Pickler’s pleading sincerity. - Tara Seetharam
“Strong” Will Hoge
Individual rankings: #10 – Sam
Yeah, it’s the Chevy song, but whatever it takes to get Will Hoge introduced to a larger audience can’t be a bad thing. His lyrics about a true salt-of-the-earth individual ring true without ever steering into maudlin territory, and the line, “he ain’t jut tough, he’s strong,” is a great hook. It probably moved a fair number of pickup trucks, too. - Sam Gazdziak
#38 “Bourbon in Kentucky” Dierks Bentley
Individual rankings: #9 – Leeann
Although Bentley vies for radio play, “Bourbon in Kentucky” still sounds unique enough to stand out from the generic bombast of the male players on current country radio. In service to the intense angst of the song, the wailing guitars and the mix of Bentley’s and Kacey Musgraves’ emotive vocals make this single a riveting sonic and emotional experience. - Leeann Ward
#37 “You and I” Laura Bell Bundy
Individual rankings: #8 – Jonathan
Laura Bell Bundy goes more-Shania-than-Shania on a cover of Lady Gaga’s “You and I” that aches and shakes in equal measure. Bundy’s music is best when she embraces her campiest impulses, so it makes perfect sense for her to take a signature hit by the most theatrical star in pop and lasso it into the country genre. - Jonathan Keefe
#36 “You Can’t Make Old Friends” Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
Individual rankings: #7 – Kevin
After several attempts to recreate the youthful playfulness of the classic “Islands in the Stream”, Rogers and Parton embrace their age and confront their own mortality. It’s an obvious truth that no matter how great a new friend is, they can’t replace the shared memories of someone you’ve known for a long time. Even if you’ve since parted ways, you still share a part of the other’s identity. How fitting that these two old friends are ours as well, making the entire proceedings that much more poignant. - Kevin Coyne
“I’ll Be There” The SteelDrivers
Individual rankings: #7 – Leeann
It’s almost unheard of for a group to lose a lead singer as dynamic as Chris Stapleton and still be as strong as ever with a replacement. Gary Nichols, however, managed to seamlessly slip into the SteelDriver’s front spot with the newly revamped band’s first single, “I’ll Be There.” The song is deliciously haunting both in content and melody. - Leeann Ward
#34 “Want Me Too” Charlie Horsham
Individual rankings: #7 – Dan
Imagine if your favorite Keith Urban song and your favorite Diamond Rio song were to meet in the middle ‘neath that old Georgia pi-i-iiine. You might end up with something like Worsham’s second single, a lovestruck tail-wagger with Urban drive and Rio harmonies. Show me a cuter line from this year than “My heart’s skippin’ like a stone on the water!” - Dan Milliken
#33 “Red” Taylor Swift
Individual rankings: #6 – Dan
“Red” is a curious mix of brilliant similes (“Fighting with him was like trying to solve a crossword and realizing there’s no right answer”), plain ol’ descriptions posing as similes (“Touching him was like realizing all you ever wanted was right there in front of you”), and logical pretzels twisted against their will into similes (“Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you never met”—what!). But Swift’s passion and command of melody pull the disparate pieces together, resulting in one of the year’s most unique and compulsively listenable singles. - Dan Milliken
“All Over the Road” Easton Corbin
Individual rankings: #6 – Ben
A delicious slice of steel-heavy nineties-esque escapist country bliss – complete with a breezy melody and an infectious, laid-back vocal performance. More please. - Ben Foster
#31 “Beat This Summer” Brad Paisley
Individual rankings: #11 – Ben; #19 – Leeann
With a hooky sing-along melody, addictive guitar riff, and a unique genre-bending arrangement, Paisley proves that summer hits don’t have to suck. - Ben Foster
#30 “Pocket Change” Mando Seanz
Individual rankings: #5 – Sam
Texas radio stations jumped on this single when it was released, with good reason. Saenz has been known for his quiet, introspective ballads in the past, but “Pocket Change” starts with a slow burn before exploding into a full-blown rocker. “Where’s my Studebaker, I’m nobody’s pocket change,” he snarls as he walks/runs away from a bad love. - Sam Gazdziak
#29 “Weed Instead of Roses” Ashley Monroe
Individual rankings: #16 – Tara, Jonathan; #20 – Sam
One woman’s plea to pump some action into her deflated marriage – via weed, leather and whips. It pops because it’s provocative, but it works because Monroe blends delightful charm with tongue-in-cheek boredom like the pro that she is. - Tara Seetharam
“See You Again”
Individual rankings: #1 – Kevin
“See You Again” combines three of my favorite things: death, positivity, and power vocals. The entire premise that a person can look past their grief because their faith tells them they’ll be reunited with their lost loved one is hardly new to country music, but it’s rarely presented with such confident bravado and so little melancholy. I can’t think of another singer who could pull that off as believably as Underwood, who by the end of these proceedings makes me hope that the choir of angels in heaven sound like her insanely catchy backup singers do here. - Kevin Coyne
#27 “Carry Me Back to Virginia” Old Crow Medicine Show
Individual rankings: #9 – Sam; #12 – Jonathan
For anyone who wants to discover Old Crow Medicine Show beyond “Wagon Wheel,” this song is an excellent primer. Lightning-fast fiddle and vocals from Ketch Secor with a song about the Civil War, and crack band of musicians that favor enthusiasm over the precision that is often found in bluegrass. They’ve been often imitated but never duplicated. - Sam Gazdziak
“Blowin’ Smoke” Kacey Musgraves
Individual rankings: #7 – Ben; #15 – Sam
For three glorious minutes, the voice of the working class is heard once again on country radio. Musgraves suitably renders the song with a rundown sigh of a performance, while a gritty, rumbling arrangement places the listener right in the midst of the smoky haze. - Ben Foster
On the surface, it’s obvious that this is about an entangled dysfunctional relationship, but listening deeper reveals that the relationship is with an addictive substance. Encased in a deep melancholy, the song cleverly and astutely captures the parallels with the two types of relational embattlements. The observations acknowledge that while the sources may be different, many of the general effects are the same. - Leeann Ward
A smooth yet moody cocktail of country, folk, and soul that rides its long drawl into a sweet, simple chorus. Shoulda been a hit. - Dan Milliken
“DONE.” The Band Perry
Individual rankings: #6 – Jonathan; #15 – Tara
At a time when most contemporary country acts are aspiring to sound like arena rock, metal, and post-grunge bands that were terrible in the first place, The Band Perry at least had the good taste to blatantly rip off one of the best rock singles of the last decade for their hit “DONE.” - Jonathan Keefe
#22 “I Know What You Did Last Night” Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
Individual rankings: #10 – Kevin, Ben
They may be in their fifties, but make no mistake about it: Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan can still party down when they want to. Built around good-humored conversational interplay between two old friends, “I Know What You Did Last Night” is one of the freshest, most entertaining up-tempos sent to radio this year, and a reminder that Tillis and Morgan are still two of country music’s most vibrant talents. - Ben Foster
#21 “I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing at All)” Rhonda Vincent
Individual rankings: #9 – Ben; #10 – Leeann
Rhonda Vincent is always supreme whether she’s singing traditional bluegrass or, in this case, a good ol’ country weeper. Supported with the best kind of country acoustic instrumentation, Vincent’s voice satisfyingly leans into the heartbreak and desperation of a woman who is gripping a relationship that is obviously already dead. She knows it’s over, but her heart says that it’s not over until he literally says it’s over. - Leeann Ward
The nominations for the 56th Annual Grammy Awards have been announced. Taylor Swift has the top nomination connected to country music, earning her second nomination for Album of the Year. She took home the award four years ago for Fearless.
Here are the general category nominees, along with all country and country-related categories:
Album of the Year
Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.d. city
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
Taylor Swift, Red
If Taylor Swift wins, she will be the first country-related artist in history to win the category twice with individual projects. Alison Krauss also has two victories, one for her collaboration with Robert Plant (Raising Sand, 2009), and another for her contributions to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (2002.) The award has only been won by country artists in two other years: Glen Campbell for By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1968), and the Dixie Chicks for Taking the Long Way (2007).
Record of the Year
“Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams
“Get Lucky” – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams
“Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars
“Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
“Royals” – Lorde
For the third time in the last eight years, no country or country-related records make the cut. Only four country-related winners have triumphed in this category, but three of them have been in the last few years. Olivia Newton-John won for “I Honestly Love You” in 1975, followed much later by the Dixie Chicks for “Not Ready to Make Nice” in 2006; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss for “Please Read the Letter” in 2009; and Lady Antebellum for “Need You Now” in 2011.
Song of the Year
“Just Give Me a Reason” – Jeff Bhasker, P!nk, and Nate Reuss
“Locked out of Heaven” – Phillip Lawrence, Ari Levine, and Bruno Mars
“Roar” – Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry, and Henry Walter
“Royals” – Joel Little and Lorde
“Same Love” – Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert, Ryan Lewis, and Curtis Mayfield
For the third straight year, country is shut out of the top songwriting category, a streak that began after the writers of Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” won in 2011.
Best New Artist
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Kacey Musgraves is the latest new artist to represent country music in this category, which has become a nearly annual occurrence since LeAnn Rimes was nominated and won back in 1997. Previous country winners also include Bobbie Gentry (1968), Carrie Underwood (2007) and Zac Brown Band (2010).
Best Country Album
Jason Aldean, Night Train
Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story
Taylor Swift, Red
Despite the presence of four big, established stars, only Taylor Swift has actually earned a victory in this category. She won in 2010 for Fearless. She contended again in 2012 with Speak Now, which lost to repeating victors Lady Antebellum, who won two years in a row for Need You Now (2011) and Own the Night (2012). Kacey Musgraves earns a nomination for her debut album, the first artist do so since 2005, when Gretchen Wilson contended with Here For the Party.
Best Country Solo Performance
Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
Hunter Hayes, “I Want Crazy”
Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”
Since this category combined the solo categories into one, this award has been one by Taylor Swift (“Mean”) and Carrie Underwood (“Blown Away.”) Lambert is the only previous winner in a predecessor of this category.
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
The Civil Wars, “From This Valley”
Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
Little Big Town, “Your Side of the Bed”
Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “You Can’t Make Old Friends”
There’s really only one hit here, but there are plenty of former Grammy winners scattered among this category. In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, they didn’t win a Grammy for “Islands in the Stream.”
Best Country Song
“Begin Again” – Taylor Swift
“I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
“Merry Go ‘Round” – Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne
“Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan
It’s not too common for people to receive double nominations, but here there are four songwriters competing against themselves: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves.
Best American Roots Song
“Build Me Up From Bones” – Sarah Jarosz
“Invisible” – Steve Earle
“Keep Your Dirty Lights On” – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
“Love Has Come From You” – Edie Brickell and Steve Martin
“Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed” – Allen Touissant
This category is brand new this year, encompassing songs from all of the subcategories in the American Roots field: Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk, and regional roots music.
Best Americana Album
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You
Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Jim
Mavis Staples, One True Vine
Allen Touissant, Songbook
Collaborations dominate this category, which is populated with many previous Grammy winners. Emmylou Harris won this award twice, back when it was called Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Best Bluegrass Album
The Boxcars, It’s Just a Road
Dailey & Vincent, Brothers of the Highway
Della Mae, This World Oft Can Be
James King, Three Chords and the Truth
Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore
Del McCoury Band are the only returning victors in this category, winning back in 2006 for The Company We Keep. Perhaps because of the broad voter base, this category has been dominated by acts with explicit ties to country music, including multiple wins by Ricky Skaggs, Jim Lauderdale, and Alison Krauss & Union Station, and one-off victories by Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton. This year is the second in a row without crossover contenders; last year’s winner was the Steep Canyon Rangers for Nobody Knows You.
Best Folk Album
Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You
The Greencards, Sweetheart of the Sun
Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From Bones
The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay
Various Artists, They all Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration
A tribute to Guy Clark earned a nomination in this category last year, and now Clark himself is in contention for the prize. None of the acts in contention have won in the folk fields before.
Also of note, the Pistol Annies set Annie Up earned nominations for engineer Chuck Ainlay and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig in the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical category. It competes against Daft Punk, another album mastered by Ludwig, along with sets by Alice in Chains, Queens of the Stone Age, Andrew Duhon, and Madeline Payroux.
The festivities begin at 8 PM EST. Refresh for updates and check for winners above the fold:
Entertainer: George Strait
Male Vocalist: Blake Shelton
Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
Vocal Group: Little Big Town
Album: Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…
New Artist: Kacey Musgraves
Vocal Duo: Florida Georgia Line
Song: “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
Single: “Cruise” – Florida Georgia Line
Music Video: “Highway Don’t Care” – Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban; director: Shane Drake
Musical Event: “Highway Don’t Care” – Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban
Live Blog (EST):
7:04 First two wins go to “Highway Don’t Care” for Music Video and Vocal Event. First wavering of previously held sentiment: I totally want George Strait to win Entertainer of the Year for his farewell tour. – KJC
8:01 It’s 8:01 and Luke Bryan is wearing a glittery shirt. I’m already confused. – KJC
8:03 And the show starts with two of the most insufferable songs of the year (to me). Where’s the money shot of Zac Brown’s face? -TS
8:06 Weird how we can go from such a horrible representation of the genre to such a charming one. Carrie/Brad >>>Luke/FGL. – KJC
8:08 Brad and Carrie shining as always. This feud sketch is stellar. Thoughts on the Julianne Hough dig? – TS
8:09 It would be nice if there was someone other than Darius Rucker to hand the name to. – KJC
8:10 A bunch of rich people with insurance making health care jokes. Privilege goes down smooth with “Amarillo by Morning.” – KJC
8:10 “Cruise” is only one of the biggest crossovers of all time because they changed the chart rules. Boo. – KJC
8:12 I thought that was Blake Shelton in a costume. Turns out it’s the real Duck Dynasty guys. Wow. – KJC
8:15 SINGLE OF THE YEAR: “Cruise” – Florida Georgia Line. (That is not a typo.)
8:17 I can’t think of anything quippy, I’m so disgusted by this FGL win! – LW
8:20: CMA Awards 1992: The feud is Billy Ray Cyrus vs. Travis Tritt, and “Achy Breaky Heart” wins Single of the Year over “Maybe it Was Memphis”, “I Feel Lucky”, “Love, Me” and “Look at Us.” The more things change… – KJC
8:23 Jason Aldean singing “Night Train” is the best actual performance so far. We’re reaching a point where last year’s nadir is this year’s apex. Where’s Kacey Musgraves? – KJC
8:25 There she is. Singing a Brandy Clark co-write. Now we’re talking. -KJC
8:28 Can we take a moment to reflect on how awesome this chick’s mainstream success is? She’s looking and sounding fab here. Love this song. – TS
8:30 Always nice to hear some actual audible steel guitar on the CMAs for a change. – BF
8:34 Who else feels like a giddy 14-year-old listening to this new Lady Antebellum song? I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. – TS
8:35 Lady Antebellum with “Compass,” a song which is really growing on me. It sounds like it was made for a live setting. – BF
8:37 Song: “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
8:38 Lee Brice wins Song of the Year with “I Drive Your Truck.” I’m not complaining. - TS
8:41 I feel like “I Drive Your Truck” is a surprise win…but maybe that just shows how much I’m out of the mainstream these days. – LW
8:42 As truck songs go, it’s not a bad one. But wow, there was so much more compelling material to choose from this year. – KJC
8:44 “Sober.” YES. – BF
8:45 Every year, there’s at least one performance that makes it clear that it’s not the sound system’s fault that everyone sounds bad. This year, it’s Little Big Town. They sound fantastic. – KJC
8:46 I’ll say it again: I always love LBT live, even if I don’t love the recorded version of the same song. – LW
8:45 LBT nailing “Sober” with a sparse and spiritual performance. – TS
8:46 LBT sounding fantastic as usual. This is one of those performances that makes me glad I tuned in in spite of all the drivel. – BF
8:47 Vocal Duo: Florida Georgia Line
8:48 For one brief moment, I was clinging to a tiny shred of hope that The Civil Wars would get it. I don’t know why. – BF
8:53: Keith and Miranda with “We Were Us.” I actually think I’m liking this performance better than the studio version. It’s one of those songs that I like well enough, but would like better if it had a better production. – BF
9:00 Having Vince Gill and Alison Krauss onstage doesn’t exactly invite favorable comparison to Taylor Swift’s vocal abilities, but I am enjoying this performance. I love hearing the cheers for Vince and Alison.
9:02 Incidentally, I may be going crazy, but I actually think T-Swift is sounding quite decent tonight. – BF
9:02 The R-eh-eh-ed hook doesn’t work in this setting. – KJC
9:01 I feel like the TS collaboration with Vince and Alison could be good, but my sound must be messed up, because it’s not working for me… – LW
9:02 Even when Taylor isn’t sounding as bad as she usually does, it’s pretty daring of her to sing with two of the best voices in country music! – LW
9:04 Florida Georgia Line performing “Round Here.” – BF
9:10 Hunter Hayes and Jason Mraz with “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me.” I’m actually enjoying this so far. – BF
9:12 Hunter Hayes channeling Gary LeVox with this messy live performance. This kid has so much potential, though. – TS
9:12 New Artist: Kacey Musgraves
9:13 Woohoo! I could not be happier for Kacey. This is one that the CMA got very, very right. – BF
9:14 I liked that Hayes/Mraz performance – LW
9:14 Eric Church performing “The Outsiders.” – BF
9:16 I don’t think Eric Church’s backup singers are actually making those sounds – KCJ
9:17 I wonder what the aforementioned Tom Petty thinks of this one. Me, I kinda dig it. - TS
9:18 Does that bass breakdown in the Church song remind anyone else of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”? – LW
9:19 It would be hilarious if this segued right into the George jones tribute. – KJC
9:23 The Band Perry performing “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.” – BF
9:24 I’m half expecting Jennifer Nettles to walk out during this Sugar Land-lite tune. Really, though, that would be kind of awesome. – TS
9:28 Sheryl Crow presenting Album of the Year. – BF
9:29 Album: Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…
9:29 Blech. So much for my optimism is predicting an LBT win here.
9:31 This is pretty much the worst slate of winners I can remember. – KJC
9:31 Tim McGraw performing “Southern Girl.” – BF
9:32 I’ve decided the CMA voters are just trolling now. – KJC
9:33 This song gets on my nerves so bad. I can’t believe the songwriters have the bad taste to rhyme “girl” with “rock my world.” – BF
9:35 And there’s glitter on Tim’s hat. – KJC
9:35 Nashville fans, do you get a 90s Rayna James vibe from this song? Have I lost my mind? – TS
9:35 What is with all the glitter? – KJC
9:40 Nice to hear some acknowledgement for Cowboy Jack Clement and Bobby Bare.
9:40 Blake Shelton performing “Mine Would Be You.” – BF
9:44 Not one part of me can get behind a Blake Shelton AOTY win, but this is a decent song and performance. – TS
9:47 Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Keith Urban, George Strait, and Rascal Flatts presenting Taylor Swift with the CMA Pinnacle Award.
9:48 Leeann: I would like to hear George Strait do a Swift song. – LW
9:49 LOL to Keith Urban describing Taylor Swift’s contribution to country music while “22″ plays in the background. – TS
9:50 LOL at Ellen’s “Pineapple Award” quip! – BF
9:51 ”The Pinnacle Award?” Okay ,they’re just making things up now. No time for the Hall of Fame inductees, but time for this. And stop acting so shocked. They announced this beforehand. – KJC
9:54 This is like the first husband who knows his wife is leaving and tries to keep her by giving a really shiny piece of jewelry. – KJC
9:56 But it’s not on her. It’s on them. We got a stupid award made up in 2005 for Garth Brooks, with Mick Jagger and Julia Roberts shout-outs, and nothing but a three-second wave for Bobby Bare. Too much. – KJC
10:01 Carrie Underwood highlight reel from the past year leading up to her Entertainer of the Year award… Oh, wait – KJC
10:05 So Tim McGraw got a standing O but Carrie polite applause? Huh. – KJC
10:05 Disappointed in her team for taking the lazy route with this medley, but nonetheless proud of Carrie for, ahem, following her own arrow during this Blown Away era. My EOTY. – TS
10:05 So weird that Carrie’s doing a medley. It’s usually what people do when they’re not big anymore… – LW
10:05 I really enjoy Carrie’s voice these days. – LW
10:07 Vocal Group: Little Big Town
10:07 Can’t complain about LBT. Though they still look like ABBA to me. – KJC
10:08 Beautiful shout-out to Nancy Jones. – KJC
10:09 Loving the George Jones tribute with George Strait and Alan Jackson. I cannot think of two guys better qualified for this job. – BF
10:11 First time tonight I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Just lovely. – TS
10:12 So much history. So much love. – KJC
10:14 Kinda weird how the Opry can be just like a digital backdrop, given how many years the show was aired from the actual Opry. It feels sometimes like the arena has swallowed the CMA show like arena rock has swallowed country music. - KJC
10:14 The Jones tribute was wonderful. I felt a bit emotional during. I’m such a wimp. – LW
10:17 Zac Brown Band with Dave Grohl of The Foo Fighters debuting a new song, “Day of the Dead.” – BF
10:21 Between this and Eric Church’s “The Outsiders,” I’m all kinds of confused and happy. – TS
10:22 Brad Paisley performing “The Mona Lisa.” – BF
10:31 The Kenny Rogers tribute begins with Jennifer Nettles. – BF
10:32 Jennifer Nettles is certainly doing her best Dolly Parton impression. – KJC
10:32 Rascal Flatts singing “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” – BF
10:33 Darius Rucker singing “The Gambler.” This I can take, but if given a choice, I would just as soon hear Kenny Rogers sing it himself. – BF
10:35 Kenny Rogers singing “Islands In the Stream.” I love this song. Unashamedly. – BF
10:35 The audience sing-along to these Kenny Rogers tunes is my favorite part of the night so far. – TS
10:35 I’m enjoying hearing Jennifer Nettles sing this, but I can only imagine the warm fuzzies I would be getting if Dolly were onstage singing it. – BF
10:36 Wow. Darius did a rough job on “The Gambler.” Nettles and Rogers doing “Islands in the Stream” works for me! - LW
10:39 Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
10:40 Eh. Not my choice this year, but she’s being classy as ever in her acceptance speech. – BF
10:42 Very sweet of Miranda to recognize the other females in the category. Don’t agree with it, but there are worse things than her fourth FVOTY trophy (see: basically every other award given out today). – TS
10:44 Miranda is always classy when she accepts these awards. – LW
10:44 Given how the night’s gone so far, can we just call Male and Entertainer for Blake now? – KJC
10:46 Luke Bryan performing “Drink a Beer” (“a very personal and meaningful song dedicated to the memory of his brother and sister”). – BF
10:49 Leeann: I’ll admit that as much as I hate Luke’s music these days, I soften when I think of how he lost two siblings within a short span. I’m just a sap that way, I guess. – LW
10:49 It’s so easy to forget what a good vocalist Luke Bryan is these days. Wish that weren’t the case. His voice deserves better material. – TS
10:50 It’s nice to hear Luke Bryan singing in a quieter setting. – BF
10:50 This is a great song that is being sung well…on the set of Once Upon a Time. ABC sure is good with the corporate synergy. – KJC
10:50 Seriously? He even turns a song about his deceased siblings into a beer-drinking song? That takes…something. – LW
10:50 Male Vocalist: Blake Shelton
10:51 Can we just get over Blake Shelton already? – BF
10:51 Blake Shelton, however, is not in the same league as the other two men who won four of these at the time that they won. – KJC
10:53 Other two: Vince Gill and George Strait. – KJC
10:53 I can’t even. – TS
10:56 Blake Shelton, Vince Gill and George Strait: One of these things is not like the other. – TS
10:57 I’ve learned to accept that ABC is going to use the CMA Awards to shamelessly plug their programming. I just wish that they’d leave the Entertainer of the Year award out of it. – BF
10:57 Entertainer: George Strait
10:58 That just saved the whole night. – KJC
10:59 I share Kevin’s remorse for not picking George Strait for Entertainer. Was he on the top of his game this year? No. But he’s still the only nominee whom I can be genuinely happy for their winning. – BF
11:00 Keith Urban’s arms in the air is the best reaction to George Strait’s EOTY win. I had the privilege of seeing and reviewing his farewell concert earlier this year, and he is an entertainer indeed. – TS
11:01 Go King Gentleman George Strait!! I’m so, so happy for George Strait right now! Strait is so classy. – LW
10:03 Thanks so much for hanging with us, y’all. Not a bad show, in all honesty. All props to Ben for keeping this post alive in the midst of technical difficulties! – TS
10:03 That was almost worth the three hours. Almost! – KJC
10:04 I’m relieved that that didn’t wind up another Blake Shelton victory. – BF
10:04 Thanks, all! This was a blast. Rough show as usual, but we had a few great moments. – BF
They’re as hope-dangling and ridiculous as they’ve ever been, those Country Music Association voters, and the CU staff has picked and predicted their 2013 awards below. Let us know what you think, and check back for our live blog on Wednesday at 7 p.m. CST!
Entertainer of the Year
Blake Shelton – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Dan: Sadly, it’s become hard to care about the night’s biggest prize. Swift and Strait are the two I can stomach right now, and neither of them actually had much to do with the country scene this past year—the former because she was flexing her pop muscles, the latter because he’s winding down.
Ben: I want to care, but I really don’t. There’s only one artist whom I could have supported unequivocally, and she didn’t get a nomination.
Jonathan: The CMAs have a tendency to lag a few years behind peak commercial trends, so I think Bryan will have to wait another year or two before he takes this award. While Bryan, Aldean, and Shelton could split votes among the bro contingent (presumably, to the benefit of Strait), I think Shelton’s visibility will be enough to earn him another win here.
Tara: This was Carrie Underwood’s year. I’m angry, unsurprised and completely apathetic about the rest of these contenders.
Kevin: Shelton won last year and if anything, his star has only shone brighter this year. That being said, if I was a CMA voter, I’d leave this category blank. Carrie Underwood was this year’s Entertainer of the Year.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Luke Bryan – Kevin
Eric Church – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Dan
Luke Bryan - Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Blake Shelton – Kevin
Dan: Again, pretty indifferent here.
Ben: Church was between albums this year, but he’s the one whom I feel has represented country music the best. With Urban being past his commercial peak, I’m going to give the edge to Luke Bryan for his current red-hot momentum, but I honestly couldn’t care less which of the three dudebros gets it.
Jonathan: I’d replace four-fifths of this lineup with Gary Allan, Dierks Bentley, Darius Rucker, and Chris Young. If Bryan won’t win Entertainer of the Year, this will be his consolation prize.
Tara: I feel a little guilty rewarding Church’s residual awesomeness from Chief over Aldean’s admittedly solid year, but I’m still one redeeming single away from getting over “She’s Country.” Like Jonathan said, though, I think this is where the voters will reward Bryan.
Kevin: I’d give it to Bryan simply because he’s had a good year and has a good voice. Another Shelton win seems inevitable to me.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Carrie Underwood – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
Kacey Musgraves – Tara
Dan: Who knows? Voters could give Lambert a record-tying (with Reba McEntire) four-peat, or maybe give Underwood her fourth trophy instead, or maybe give Swift a second one just to be zany, or dismiss the stats entirely and make a surprise investment in Musgraves. I can imagine any of those scenarios playing out.
Ben: I’ll probably be 100% Team Kacey at next year’s ACMs, but right now I want to see Underwood recognized for her incredible Blown Away era. As Dan noted above, this category is difficult to predict this year. I’m going to play it safe and bet on Lambert, but Kelly Clarkson is the only one without a shot.
Jonathan: Since there are far stronger albums than Blown Away in contention for Album of the Year, this is where I’d prefer to see Underwood recognized for the artistic gains she’s made during her current era. Lambert basically told voters to do just that during her acceptance speech for Female Vocalist of the Year during the ACMs a few months back, but it seems doubtful that they will. She seems poised to repeat, even though she’s coming off the most poorly received and lowest selling run of her career. Based on the quality of what was released during the eligibility period, I would have preferred to see Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Kellie Pickler, and LeAnn Rimes squaring off against Underwood.
Tara: Just going out on a limb here with Musgraves; it feels like this category is due for a change. Or maybe that change will be a throwback to Underwood? One can hope.
Kevin: I think Lambert will win out of force of habit, with bonus votes for having the good taste to cover Musgraves and Clark before they both became breakout artists this year. Underwood made the best music and, as always, sang it better than the rest.
Vocal Group of the Year
The Band Perry
Eli Young Band
Little Big Town – Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Zac Brown Band – Dan, Kevin
The Band Perry – Kevin
Eli Young Band
Little Big Town – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Zac Brown Band
Dan: I suppose that Little Big Town will repeat—but with “Your Side of the Bed” having doused their white-hot momentum, it’s hard to say for sure. Perhaps voters will finally throw Zac Brown Band the bone, if Brown’s Luke Bryan comments didn’t ruffle too many feathers. [Update: And ditto what Kevin says below.]
Ben: Little Big Town may have lost some steam with “Your Side of the Bed,” but they’re still going into the ring with a platinum album and two big hit singles, and they’re one of the only groups with multiple nominations this year. The trophy is theirs to lose.
Jonathan: Had The Band Perry scored more across-the-board support, I’d say they might have been able to pull off the upset here, but this remains Little Big Town’s to lose. Hopefully, a repeat victory will lend “Sober,” one of the year’s finest singles and arguably a new career-best for LBT, greater momentum at radio.
Tara: Cheers to that, Jonathan. Agreed.
Kevin: The Band Perry had a new album this year that was well-received. My personal pick is Zac Brown Band, only because I want last year’s Little Big Town win to start a new era in this category of acknowledging the overdue. Having the Dixie Chicks rack up four wins in five years is one thing. Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum dominating in the same way robbed the award of its luster. Last year, it got a little back. Let’s keep it going.
Vocal Duo of the Year
Big & Rich
The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Florida Georgia Line
Love and Theft
Big & Rich
The Civil Wars
Florida Georgia Line – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Love and Theft
Dan: After years of sluggish Sugarland and shruggish Thompson Square, at least this year’s winning duo will have clear commercial heft behind them. Too bad I’m talking about Florida Georgia Line and not the also-quite-successful Civil Wars.
Jonathan: Same as it ever was: This category is years overdue to merge with Vocal Group. And the nomination for Sugarland is absurd.
Tara: I can’t decide what’s more amusing: Sugarland’s nomination or Florida Georgia Line’s inevitable win. (Although it does kind of feel like Sugarland is still haunting country radio with that new Band Perry single, no?)
Kevin: The Civil Wars. I swear they’re only nominating them so we can feel extra bad when they lose to Florida Georgia Line. (See: Rascal Flatts over Alison Krauss & Union Station, Martina McBride over Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless…)
New Artist of the Year
Florida Georgia Line
Kacey Musgraves – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Florida Georgia Line – Dan, Ben
Kacey Musgraves – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Dan: Musgraves is class valedictorian, and Moore’s a solid B+ student, but expect the boys of Florida Georgia Line to cruise in on baseball scholarship and come out on top.
Ben: Musgraves has a chance, but I don’t know if her critical clout will be enough to compete with the “Cruise” phenomenon.
Jonathan: That Musgraves is the night’s leading nominee gives me hope that she can overcome Florida Georgia Line’s commercial heft. That she had the balls to push “Follow Your Arrow” as a proper single puts me firmly in her corner.
Tara: Moore is my personal favorite here, but Musgraves outclasses them all. I’ll throw my optimism in with Jonathan and Kevin.
Kevin: This is a defining moment for the CMA’s. Musgraves will help restore their credibility. Florida Georgia Line will destroy what’s left of it. FWIW, Ricky Skaggs beat Lee Greenwood and Mark Chesnutt beat John Michael Montgomery. Then again, Rascal Flatts beat Nickel Creek and Terri Gibbs beat Rosanne Cash…
Album of the Year
Little Big Town, Tornado – Jonathan
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – Dan, Ben
Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…
Taylor Swift, Red
Carrie Underwood, Blown Away – Tara, Kevin
Little Big Town, Tornado – Ben, Tara
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – Jonathan
Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story… – Dan
Taylor Swift, Red
Carrie Underwood, Blown Away – Kevin
Dan: Tough call. In recent years, the CMA has coalesced around the album with the most “story” value, whether that story was total domination (Fearless, My Kinda Party) or a respected artist finally hitting pay dirt (Revolution, Chief). Tornado seems like a fit for that second grouping, except that Little Big Town’s pay dirt was already last year. So the field seems open.
Ben: Of the four albums that have any real business being nominated for country awards, I consider the Musgraves set to be the strongest, but my gut says that it’s going to come down to either Shelton or Little Big Town. I’m going to be optimistic and predict an LBT victory.
Jonathan: I’m not nearly as bullish on Musgraves’ album as many others are, but it seems like this is safest place for voters to recognize her distinctive, critically acclaimed work. Tornado is my pick for the most consistently excellent set of this line-up; Red hits some glorious highs, but it’s also wildly uneven and has little business being recognized as a country album.
Tara:Tornado has some really fantastic production, and Blown Away is a stand-out showcase of Underwood’s interpretive abilities. Personal investment puts me in Underwood’s camp, but based on momentum and the fact that Musgraves is new, I think Little Big Town will take this.
Kevin: Musgraves has the most critical support, but Underwood made a much better album, in my opinion. I’m going out on a limb here and saying Underwood will win. My logic is that she had an incredible year and this is the best category to acknowledge that in. Also, a debut album has never won this award. There’s always a first time, but Musgraves has a lot of history up against her here.
Single of the Year
Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”
Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round” – Dan, Ben
Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise” – Dan, Jonathan, Ben
Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round”
Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel” – Tara, Kevin
Dan: “Cruise” is the behemoth here, and behemoths tend to win Single.
Ben: Dan said it.
Jonathan: I’d like to think that a record-setting run atop Billboard’s ridiculous mongrel chart would be its own reward, but it probably won’t be.
Kevin: There have been some goofy winners in the past. “Elvira.” “Achy Breaky Heart.” “Bop.” But there aren’t any in the recent past. I think that “Wagon Wheel” allows the CMA to pick a big mainstream hit that has a bit of alt-country cred, should they decide against a Musgraves sweep.
Tara: I agree with Kevin that “Wagon Wheel” seems like a nice compromise for the voters. I’d be cool with any of the latter three winning, but to me, “Mama’s Broken Heart” has the most momentum from start to finish.
Song of the Year
“I Drive Your Truck” (Lee Brice) - Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary
“Mama’s Broken Heart” (Miranda Lambert) – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves – Kevin
“Merry Go ‘Round” (Kacey Musgraves) – Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne – Dan, Ben, Tara
“Pontoon” (Little Big Town) - Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird
“Wagon Wheel” (Darius Rucker) - Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor – Dan, Jonathan
“I Drive Your Truck” (Lee Brice) - Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary - Dan, Jonathan
“Merry Go ‘Round” (Kacey Musgraves) – Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne – Ben, Tara, Kevin
“Pontoon” (Little Big Town) - Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird
“Wagon Wheel” (Darius Rucker) - Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor
Dan: “Wagon Wheel” is a proven standard, but voters will probably want to go with something newer, and I guess I do, too. There’s a decent chance that Musgraves will get acknowledged here with “Merry Go ‘Round,” but with two co-writes in the pool, her danger is vote-splitting—and if that does happen, I defer to Jonathan’s logic below. Plus, frankly, CMA voters love songs about deceased loved ones.
Ben: It’s definitely possible that vote-splitting may be turn out to be Musgraves’ undoing in this category, but my guess is that “Merry Go ‘Round” will ultimately overshadow “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and that this will be where she gets her trip to the podium.
Jonathan: I’m all-in for the idea of recognizing brilliant songs that should have been hits a decade ago. Next year, can we get Drive-By Truckers’ “Outfit” or Neko Case’s “Deep Red Bells,” please? This year, I just can’t see the CMA giving an award to Bob Dylan, and, as much as I’d love to see Brandy Clark win, I think the Musgraves co-writes will split votes. Which leaves a frivolous holdover from last year to face off against the only “truck” song in years that’s worth even half a damn. I think the latter pulls off the night’s only real upset.
Tara: Lots of solid choices here; even “Pontoon” has a melody worth respecting. “Merry Go ‘Round” just edges out “Mama’s Broken Heart” for me, but I think the voters will be more pointed with their choice and reward Musgraves for her breakout song.
Kevin: “Merry Go ‘Round” fits in well with previous female writer wins. Distinct point of view, attention to details, and some quiet feminist commentary. My pick is “Mama’s Broken Heart”, which I think is just brilliant. “Line your lips and keep them closed.” Wow.
Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
Little Big Town, “Tornado”
Dan: The Underwood clip was made to win this award, but I find it silly. Why does she have lie around all sexily on that bed in the tornado shelter?
Ben: Little Big Town’s “Tornado” is also a worthy contender, but Underwood’s “Blown Away” video is an absolute tour de force.
Jonathan: The idea that this could be how the Pistol Annies win a CMA award just makes my teeth hurt. As big a fan of hers as I may be, Miranda’s mugging in the video for “Mama’s Broken Heart” makes her laughable acting gig on Law & Order: Perverts Unit seem measured and subtle by comparison.
Kevin: Because why shouldn’t there be two winners in this category that give homage to Oz?
Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – Jonathan, Ben, Dan, Kevin, Tara
Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know”
Ben: Clarkson and Gill made the best record of the lot, but it doesn’t have the commercial muscle to pull off a victory, so I’m giving the edge to McGraw and Company.
Jonathan: Cosigning Ben’s comment, word for word.
Dan: “Highway Don’t Care” is kinda weird and meh, but it’s not “Boys ‘Round Here” and “The Only Way I Know”. For this, I am grateful.
Tara: I swear I’m not throwing this to Clarkson and Gill just because they’re Clarkson and Gill – I can stomach not one of these other songs. Part of me thinks Aldean and co. might take this, but McGraw and co. seems more likely.
Kevin: “Highway Don’t Care” made me enjoy both McGraw and Swift as singers, not just song pickers/songwriters. For that alone, the win.
Musician of the Year
Sam Bush (Mandolin) – Jonathan, Ben
Paul Franklin (Steel Guitar) – Kevin
Dann Huff (Guitar)
Brent Mason (Guitar)
Mac McAnally (Guitar)
Sam Bush (Mandolin)
Paul Franklin (Steel Guitar) – Jonathan, Ben, Kevin
Dann Huff (Guitar)
Brent Mason (Guitar)
Mac McAnally (Guitar)
Ben: I’ll be all for Paul Franklin next year thanks to Bakersfield, but this year I would like to see Sam Bush get his due.
Jonathan: Bush may not have a MacArthur fellowship like Chris Thile, but his progressive mandolin work is certainly overdue for recognition. Hard to begrudge Franklin, though, as Bakersfield is one of the year’s best albums.
Kevin: Until he wins. I will pick him until he wins.
You’d be forgiven if Carrie Underwood’s current hit left you a little underwhelmed. After the one-two murderoo of “Blown Away” and “Two Black Cadillacs,” the releases that announced Underwood’s ascension from superstar singer to potentially cool artist, the Narnia-inspired ”See You Again” may feel like a retreat back to simpler days. Actually, with its mechanical piano, bloated chorus production, and vague celestial imagery, it almost sounds like a descendant of “Inside Your Heaven,” Underwood’s sappy American Idol single. Uh oh!
But if you can accept that songs of this flavor will probably always be part of the Carrie Underwood experience, you may find that she’s improved the recipe a good bit over time.
It helps that “See You Again” is a decent composition on its own merits, with a stirring – if safe – theme of reconnecting with the loved ones we’ve lost or been separated from, plus some enjoyable – if gratuitous – “woah”s and “oh”s.
But the crucial difference is in the performance. For all the hosannas Underwood’s huge voice received early on, tracks like this demonstrate how much she’s still progressing both technically and interpretively. Early cuts like “Inside Your Heaven” or “Lessons Learned” were occasionally mired by reedy tones, robotic vibrato, or impassive phrasing; you had the sense of a singer finding her way around her instrument. Not so for the muscular, dynamic presence who drives this song. She’s gradually growing into her preordained destiny as a country-pop diva, confidently weaving runs and slurs into the fabric of the melody, and creating fun, little Carrie-isms like her quirky pronunciation of “again,” her whips into head-voice whenever she hits the title phrase, or her impassioned (if unintentional) belting of her own name. (“I will carry!”)
Does that sound like teasing? It’s praise. You can fall in love with a singer’s voice, but you stay in love because of the distinct ways they use it. It’s my opinion that Carrie Underwood still needs a new producer, someone who will encourage her more ambitious instincts and stop putting so much bland noise behind her, drowning out potential nuances. But I’m finally enjoying the Carrie we have at this moment in time, too. There’s something there.
Written by Carrie Underwood, Hillary Lindsey & David Hodges
There’s such an obvious trend of genre-hopping between pop, rock, and country right now that I can totally understand the enthusiasm surrounding Kelly Clarkson dabbling with a switch to country music.
After all, if we’re going to have pop and rock stars crossing over anyway, we might as well get one of the best ones, right? She’s got a strong knowledge of and affinity for, at the very least, the past two generations of country music. Her pipes are pretty darn good, too. I prefer the purity of Carrie Underwood’s voice, but there are many who feel the first Idol is still the best.
There’s only one problem, and it’s a big one. “Tie it Up” is not a country song. Not by any stretch of the imagination, and my imagination is pretty stretched out at this point. It sounds like some Globe Sessions-era Sheryl Crow album filler, honestly. There’s some banjo, but come on. You can find that on a Kid Rock record.
I know, I know. Kid Rock had a country hit, too. It wasn’t country either. We’ve reached a point where there’s so much distance between the country music radio format and country music itself that the former has very little to do with the latter. It doesn’t even matter if the country format is the home base. Lady Antebellum is an Adult Contemporary band that happened to get its start on country radio. Jason Aldean is a southern rocker who was born thirty years too late for rock radio, so we’ll just call him country.
I have no doubt that Kelly Clarkson could do an actual country record, but this isn’t one. It’s a pretty bland song anyway, notable only for the fact that it’s her first solo single being sent primarily to country radio. It’d be pretty unremarkable if not for that fact, which is destined to be little more than a piece of trivia anyway.
So, welcome to country radio, Kelly. You’ll find it’s not that different from the Adult Top 40 stations you’re used to dominating and you won’t have to change a thing to fit in.
Written by Ashley Arrison, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne
By now, Katie Armiger’s country music career comprises six years, four studio albums, and still zero bona fide radio hits. Her label Cold River Records has nonetheless stuck with her since 2007, with her previous outing, 2010’s Confessions of a Nice Girl, producing her first chart singles in the #55 “Kiss Me Now” and the #42 “Best Song Ever.” Her new album Fall Into Me has yet to reverse her fortunes at radio – Lead single “Better In a Black Dress” topped out at #42 on Billboard Country Airplay – but it no doubt contains more than enough tasteful, likeable pop-country material to keep current fans interested.
At its best, Fall Into Me combines effective melodies with clever lyrical turns of phrase and colorful vocal readings. By such rights, “Man I Thought You Were” is arguably the album’s finest track, casting Armiger as a jilted young woman who’s had her heart broken by a man who didn’t fulfill expectations. She turns the song’s concept on its head in the second verse, musing that she wishes she could hate the woman she lost her love to, but can’t because she knows that the same outcome awaits her successor. The song’s story is enhanced by a compelling melody, and a performance that exudes vulnerability. A similar interplay of elements is heard on “Merry Go Round,” in which a frantic melody and performance pulse in a way that mirrors the tumult of the relationship chronicled by the lyric.
The album is produced by Chad Carlson, who also produced Confessions of a Nice Girl. Though the musical stylings often skew heavily toward the pop side of the country-pop spectrum, the album largely steers clear of the over-audacious pop arrangements that at times pervaded Confessions (with the noisy “So Long” being the glaring exception). The project boasts several standout instrumental hooks and clever production touches, as well as some increased stylistic variety. A brisk tempo and hand-clap section underscores the sense of urgency in album opener “He’s Gonna Change,” in which Armiger warns a woman not to hang her hopes on a man who will never grow to fully appreciate and respect her. A prominent bazouki and harmonica imbue a swampy feel to the single woman anthem “Better In a Black Dress.” Though “Merry Go Round” has the misfortune of sharing a title with one of the best songs currently on country radio, it boasts a catchy guitar hook anchoring a crisp, lightly infectious pop-country arrangement.
While Armiger has often shown herself to be a gifted vocalist worthy of rubbing shoulders with Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood on country radio, Fall Into Me finds the 21-year-old continuing to make artistic strides as a songwriter. The themes of empowerment and belief in self recur throughout the album, evident in the cautious optimism of “Okay Alone,” and in the straight-up swagger of “Better In a Black Dress.” Unfortunately, though the album serves up a generous fourteen songs, it doesn’t quite fill them out with fourteen songs’ worth of content. Armiger appears as a co-writer on every track, but some benefit might have been derived by interspersing her own cuts with some quality outside material. Though the figurative “A” side is fairly solid, the album loses steam around the tenth track, and starts serving up some filler. The rather bland love song “Baby You’re Everything” hardly warrants explanation, while the forced thematic concept of “Stealing Hearts” comes off as something like the poor woman’s “Hell On Heels.” There are also moments when she creates a solid foundation for a great song, but doesn’t quite tie it together with an effective hook. A biting line such as “Look down on me and criticize/ It’s easy to do from up on high” seems to call for a greater payoff than “I’m free, free/ Like a raging wildfire through the trees,” and a refrain of “I’ll find a way to be okay alone” doesn’t quite match the potency of Armiger’s nuanced, falsetto-enhanced delivery.
Even though Katie Armiger has three albums already behind her, one doesn’t generally become a fully realized country artist by age 21. At this point, she sounds like she’s flexing her creative muscles and having fun doing so. Fall Into Me continues to hint at Armiger’s lofty potential as a creative force – at times wanting for consistency, but not for lack of heart. Furthermore, it finds Armiger continuing to develop her own point of view as a songwriter, acting as a voice for strong, independent young women, which may very well blossom further with future releases. Without a doubt, there is much that Fall Into Me gets right, even if it does feel like a fourteen track album that should have been a ten track album.
Top Tracks: “Man I Thought You Were,” “Better In a Black Dress,” “Merry Go Round”
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”
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”
#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 CruelWorld 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
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 Pusher, Carry 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”
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”