Here’s my list:
- Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
- Alan Jackson, Angels and Alcohol
- Kip Moore, Wild Ones
- Iris DeMent, The Trackless Woods
- Maddie & Tae, Start Here
Written by Westin Davis, Kip Moore, and Justin Weaver
When Kip Moore puts on the outlaw boots, they actually fit just right. He’s not posing. He’s not playing a character. He’s singing his truth, and he can get done singing that truth in two minutes and seventeen seconds.
“Mean to Me”
Written by Scooter Carusoe and Brett Eldredge
Winning a major award seems as good a time as any to pay closer attention to an artist. Brett Eldredge collected his New Artist award at last week’s CMA Awards while his current hit, “Mean to Me”, was already ascending the charts.
Let’s get real here. We know going in that nothing can happen in 3 minutes and 50 seconds to make us say, “Hey, he totally deserved to win over Brandy Clark.” But “Mean to Me” does indicate that he’s a lot closer to Dierks Bentley or Kip Moore than he is to any of the interchangeable C-list acts that are singing about drinking and girls with their bare feet on the dashboard.
Despite the Grammys and even the ACM’s demonstrating more consistent taste over the past few years, the CMA’s remain the most significant industry awards that honor country music. This year’s slate of nominees gives the organization an opportunity to build on the credibility of last year’s George Strait victory. His win for Entertainer saved a dismal show in its closing minutes.
Here’s our take on this year’s contenders:
Kevin: I’d settle for a Miranda Lambert victory, as she had an amazing year. But my first choice is George Strait, who deserves a fourth trophy for that record-breaking final concert. The rest of these nominees have either won before or still seem to have their best days ahead of them. There will never be another George Strait again.
Jonathan: The appalling sense of entitlement Jason Aldean has shown in his seemingly endless campaign of adult temper-tantrums disguised as interviews since these nominees were announced makes it all the more satisfying that the voters didn’t exclusively consider commercial and touring stats when voting for this award. I think that will likely continue with the final ballots, giving Strait the win here as a final send-off– a win that, as Kevin said, Strait’s last concert fully justifies based on even Aldean’s logic.
Tara: I have a feeling I’ll be pulling for Lambert next year, but 20 months after seeing it, I’m still high on Strait’s phenomenal farewell show. He deserves this.
Ben: Why not? Miranda will have plenty more shots at it, but this could be our last chance to see George Strait accept a CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy. Let the cowboy ride away in style.
“Leave the Night On”
Written by Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne
I feel like I’ve heard this song so many times before that the artist has to work extra hard just to even keep my attention.
Sam Hunt works pretty hard to do that. Not as a vocalist, mind you. But as a songwriter, which is what’s put him on the map in the first place.
And they’re back: The 2014 ACM Awards air live on Sunday at 7 p.m. CST, hosted by Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan. They’re sure to be enraging or amusing, depending on your bro-country meter. In the meantime, we’ve picked and predicted the awards below – chime in with your thoughts!
Entertainer of the Year
Ben: No, Strait didn’t have the biggest year, but he’s still the only nominee whom I can truly endorse as the face of country music in 2014. At this point the Carrie Underwood snubs have ceased to surprise me.
Jonathan: If his fans’ votes were enough to give him the surprise win last year, there’s no reason to think Bryan won’t repeat, given that his profile only seems to have grown throughout 2013. All five of the nominees are equally sort-of deserving of a win based on relative metrics of commercial stats and quality of their output, while the most obvious, most deserving winner of this award was yet again left off the ballot.
Tara: Strait’s putting on a heck of a farewell tour, and I appreciate the CMA voters for recognizing that last year. I’m doubtful he’ll have that effect on the ACM voter demographic, though; this one’s Bryan’s to lose … but really, truly, belongs to Underwood.
Kevin: Strait’s victory at last year’s CMA Awards was the highlight of the night. But I agree with the consensus. Fan votes have this thing locked up for Bryan.
Ben: Bryan seems to have had the biggest year, but I’m not personally invested in any of these choices.
Jonathan: I’d be more excited about seeing new blood in this line-up if I were in any way impressed with Brice. Just looking at mainstream stars who had hits during the eligibility period, a superior slate of nominees could be culled from Gary Allan, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Easton Corbin, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, and Chris Young.
Tara: I’ll be damned if Aldean hasn’t grown on me over the past few years. His material is still too uneven for me to get behind, but I’ve come to begrudgingly respect his appeal. My guess is his crown will go to Bryan, though.
Kevin: I like the fact that after the endless streak from Paisley, we’ve gotten different winners in the past two years. The only two who haven’t won yet are Brice and Bryan. The latter is the only one at the level to warrant a win at this time.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Ben: Lambert’s status as one of this year’s leading nominees indicates that voters still have the hots for her. Her reign will end eventually, but I won’t bet on it happening this time around.
Brandy Clark LeAnn Rimes Ashley Monroe Kellie Pickler Julie Roberts Holly Williams No? On the brightside, Crow managed to snag the fifth slot instead of either of Blake Shelton’s overpraised “The Voice” winners, but that’s really where the good news ends. It seems premature for Musgraves to win this award, and I’m honestly still not all that enamored of her beyond “Follow Your Arrow.” I’ve been pulling for Underwood of late, but both she and Swift ended this eligibility period with two of their worst singles, so I’d have reservations about seeing either of them win. Lambert seems poised to repeat based on her haul of nominations; as fun as “Mama’s Broken Heart” is, I’d feel better about this streak of hers had it spanned her far superior Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Revolution eras.
Tara: I’m sticking with Underwood for one more cycle, mostly because Musgraves’ charming “Follow Your Arrow” didn’t really make its (relatively small) impact until after the eligibility period. It’s hard to swallow how many of these awards Lambert is racking up between the ACM’s and the CMA’s, but I suspect the trend will continue.
Kevin: Go big or go home. Musgraves is the ACM’s opportunity to definitively position itself as the more substantive country awards show, a status they’ve been flirting with as the CMA’s have moved in the opposite direction. I think she’ll pull it off, and I’ll be happy to see her do it.
Ben: This category remains lame and pointless as ever, but at least I can give credit for the fact that they finally stopped shoehorning in Sugarland.
Jonathan: Thompson Square is the only one of these five acts who released a single that I didn’t absolutely hate during the past year. While that’s an accomplishment of sorts, it’s hardly one that should keep this category from being combined with the Vocal Group race.
Tara: I don’t mind Thompson Square. That’s the best thing I can say about this line-up.
Kevin: I’m not really a fan of any of these acts, so again, I’ll root for variety. Thompson Square has two wins already. Florida Georgia Line had a great year. Give them their due, and then perhaps we can forget they ever happened.
Jonathan: I couldn’t vote against Little Big Town during a year when they released “Sober,” but Zac Brown Band continues to release solid material and remains overdue for recognition. The Band Perry have a run of huge hit singles– the first two of which were as clever and progressive as anything country radio has touched in a minute– to their credit during the eligibility period. Momentum seems to be on their side at the moment, and I think they’ll score the night’s only real upset.
Tara: The Band Perry are walking a skillful line between commercial and creative, and I think they’ll be rewarded. As for me, I’m clinging to Little Big Town at least until the exquisite “Sober” becomes old news.
Kevin: I think that The Band Perry is best positioned to win, but Zac Brown Band is the most overdue.
Ben: I’m torn between picking The Band Perry for having had such a strong year, and picking Little Big Town for releasing one of my favorite singles of 2013. But despite Little Big Town’s recent hot streak, I expect The Band Perry’s commercial stats will net them their first win in this category.
Jonathan: Of these three, Justin Moore has been building his fanbase for the longest period of time, so it seems logical that he’ll win based on the fan vote.
Tara: I’ve been in Kip Moore’s corner for a few years now, but doubt he’ll take this. True story: Sometimes I think Justin Moore and Brice are the same person.
Album of the Year
Ben: Musgraves is the only one deserving of a nomination, let alone a win.
Jonathan: 2013 was an extraordinary year for country music, and that is in no way reflected in this appalling slate of nominees. Musgraves’ album is the only one that belongs in any conversation about the best of contemporary country. But there seems to be some growing consensus that Shelton is owed something more than his own celebrity status, so he’s the most likely winner.
Tara: A part of me thinks the voters will ride the 2013 Musgraves fan train and use this as an opportunity to show some relevance. But that’s a gamble of a guess, considering the atrocious other nominees.
Kevin: They’ve been more supportive of good art in this category than the CMA’s lately, so I’m thinking Musgraves has this wrapped up, and the ACM will be the tiebreaker between the Grammys and the CMA’s.
Jonathan: A case could be made for any of these five singles actually winning, but I’ll let my pessimism about the overall nominations carry the most weight here and say that “Cruise” will win. “Mama’s Broken Heart” is only Lambert’s fifth-or-sixth-best single, but it’s easily the class of this field.
Tara: “Cruise” is too big for the voters to ignore, and that’s both depressing and funny. I wouldn’t be disappointed if the Rucker or Brice singles won, but Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” is clearly a cut above the rest with its sharp songwriting and spitting, bullet of a performance.
Kevin: Love the Lambert track, but the star power of McGraw/Swift/Urban seems hard to deny.
Song of the Year
Jonathan: “Wagon Wheel” has become as close to a standard as any song in recent memory, and that generally doesn’t happen just by accident. This is one of the few times when Brandy Clark would be my second choice for a winner. The success of “I Drive Your Truck” propelled Brice to a surprising haul of nominations this year, though, and it’s clear that the song has resonated with a sizable bloc of voters.
Tara: This isn’t an awful line-up. I personally get the most kicks out of “Mama’s Broken Heart,” but I could make a case for all five songs, even the somewhat underrated “Mine Would Be You.” I have a gut feeling “I Drive Your Truck” will win on emotional heft, though.
Kevin: Perhaps it’s overly wishful thinking, but with “Merry Go Round” not in the running, voters have a clear path to rewarding both Musgraves and Clark, along with sending some more hardware Lambert’s way.
Jonathan: The video for “Blowin’ Smoke” looks like a reel of B-roll footage from Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, which was an interesting aesthetic choice but was still nowhere near as fun as the Christine homage in “Two Black Cadillacs.”
Tara: I dig the tongue-in-cheek realism of Musgraves’ video and the whimsy of Lambert’s, but Underwood makes the most unexpected, imaginative choice.
Kevin: They’ve got to give Underwood something, right? I’m not a huge fan of the video, really. The song is awfully suggestive, but doesn’t come right out and say that the two ladies killed the guy. So the video takes that opening and decides, “The car did it!” But at least it’s a video. The others are just YouTube fodder.
Jonathan: Hillary Scott’s shrill attempts at singing harmony are the worst part of Rucker’s cover of “Wagon Wheel,” and hopefully the two hip-hop-circa-2003-inspired singles will split votes. “We Were Us” is the worst sounding track of the five– which is really saying something about how we’ve forever lost the Loudness War– but it seems like Lambert is going to have a big night.
Tara: I’ll go with “Wagon Wheel” by default, though its collaboration does it absolutely no favors, as Jonathan said. Even still, it’s far above these other middling to obnoxious (so loud!) singles.
Kevin: Fair warning. If Florida Georgia Line/Nelly win, I’m out. Done. No live blog for me after that!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…)
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…
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.
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.
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.
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?
Tara: Tornadoes scares the crap out of me.
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.
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.
Rascal Flatts, “Changed”
Like “I Won’t Let Go” a few years back, “Changed” is built on a sweeping sentiment, rousing melody and very little else. That’s not an inherently bad thing; despite an ounce of detail about the confessor, “Changed” feels like a confession –it pleads and swells and submits. Add in an earnest and relatively restrained performance, and the song has legs.
Written by Gary LeVox, Wendell Mobley & Neil Thrasher
Toby Keith, “Hope on the Rocks”
There’s something slightly jarring about the patrons’ terribly depressing hardships when the only payoff in the song is alcohol-infused hope. Maybe that’s the point, or maybe the bartender’s storyline is just a pinch undercooked. Regardless, it’s hard to knock the lovely, retro-Keith vocals and arrangement.
Written by Toby Keith
Tim McGraw ft. Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
In theory, this is a cool track: Swift’s removed, floating performance makes sense in a song about loneliness, and Urban’s vigorous guitar work could mirror the discord in any relationship. But the melody just isn’t as driving as the three artists think it is, and the pairing of McGraw and Swift doesn’t have much grit, sonically or romantically. There’s little to grab onto past the second or third listen.
Written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear, & Brad and Brett Warren
Kip Moore, “Hey Pretty Girl”
No, love isn’t always as simple as the six-step journey that’s traced here, but the bittersweet melody and Moore’s naturally urgent delivery give the
story subtle dimension. Best of all is the jolt that comes from one ever-relevant line in the chorus, smartly directed at the listener: “Happiness don’t drag its feet” is as sage a piece of advice as any given by our favorite ’90s storytellers.
Written by Dan Couch & Kip Moore
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.
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”
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”
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”
That’s Just Me
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”
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”
Voice of Ages
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)
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”
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”
John Kraus and the Goers
Individual rankings: Sam – #5
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”
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”
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”
Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
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”
Original Soundtrack: The Hunger Games – Songs from District 12 and Beyond
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”
Hello Cruel World
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”
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”
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”
And So It Goes
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”
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”
Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
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”
I Like to Keep Myself In Pain
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”
AM Country Heaven
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”
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”
Sun Midnight Sun
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”
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”
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)
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”
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”
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”
High, Wide & Handsome
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”
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”
Up All Night
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”
Long Ride Home
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)”
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”
KIN: Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
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)
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”
Thirty Miles West
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”
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”
Calling Me Home
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”
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”
Living for a Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran
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”
Something you probably already know about us here at Country Universe: We love country music. A lot. While truly great country music has become scarce on country radio, we are fortunate to live in an age in which modern technology has made great music more accessible than ever, regardless of whether Top 40 radio dares touch it.
At the close of each year we separate the grain from the chaff, and share the music we discovered over the past year that made us glad that we stuck with our genre of choice. We at Country Universe have put our heads together to create the following lists of favorite singles and albums of 2012.
Seven writers – Kevin Coyne, Leeann Ward, Dan Milliken, Tara Seetharam, Jonathan Keefe, Sam Gazdziak, and myself – individually listed our twenty favorite albums and singles of 2012, and used a points system to combine our individual lists into collective lists. Our Best of 2012 feature will include countdowns of forty albums and forty singles. Today we reveal our Top 40 Singles, with our Top 40 Albums countdown to follow shortly thereafter. Enjoy, and please be sure to share your own favorites in the comments section. Thank you to all for being a part of the Country Universe family in 2012. We look forward to sharing more great music in 2013.
“Southern Comfort Zone”
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #13; Leeann – #20
Brad Paisley has never been one for subtlety, and “Southern Comfort Zone,” with its tacky gospel-choir-singing-“Dixie” coda and Kings of Leon arena-rock chorus, is perhaps his most graceless and didactic effort. But sometimes it takes the subtlety and precision of a sledgehammer to get one’s point across, especially when your point is a thoughtful and sincere charge to consider how unfamiliar experiences can both reinforce and challenge your core beliefs (a point Paisley makes, it’s worth mentioning, while straying significantly from his trademark aesthetic), and when that point has to be made while trying to shout over a bunch of Ed Hardy-dressed hacks whose entire “artistry” hinges on perpetuating ugly rural-versus-urban class conflicts over music that sounds like a Metallica cover band. No, it isn’t a single I particularly like listening to, but it’s one I fundamentally respect for challenging what became country’s status quo in 2012. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual rankings: Sam – #8
The title is a little trite and sounds like something that Dr. Phil might say, but Allan’s vocal performance and a moody arrangement make this song a winner. – Sam Gazdziak
“Goodbye In Her Eyes”
Zac Brown Band
Individual rankings: Sam – #14; Leeann – #18
“Goodbye in Her Eyes” is, hands down, the coolest-sounding sad song on the radio in 2012. – Leeann Ward
“In Between Jobs”
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #6
An update of “Working Man’s Blues” for the modern economic crisis, Todd Snider’s “In Between Jobs” glides along the sleaziest of blues riffs and slowly reveals his frustrated, unemployed narrator’s intentions. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t plan on staging a “We Are the 99%” protest outside the home of the wealthy man he’s addressing. – Jonathan Keefe
“You Go Your Way”
Individual rankings: Kevin – #13; Sam – #18
“You go your way, and I’ll go crazy,” Jackson sings. It’s too bad that Jackson has fallen out of radio’s good graces, because this beautiful heartbreaker deserved to be another of his #1 singles. – Sam Gazdziak
“Born to Be Blue”
Individual rankings: Ben – #17; Dan – #18; Tara – #20
A slice of throwback 50’s pop that reminds us how blissfully therapeutic it feels to pair heartache with a sweet, simple melody. – Tara Seetharam
Individual rankings: Leeann – #12; Dan – #14
Much like Alison Krauss, to whom Mindy Smith is often compared, you’ll rarely hear Smith’s pretty voice singing upbeat, frivolous songs. Instead, she tends toward the introspective and even melancholy. The Swampy “Closer” showcases both tones, but it’s blended with some hopeful optimism as well. – Leeann Ward
“Drunk On You”
Individual rankings: Dan – #12; Kevin – #14
In reality, I don’t think any woman could take a guy seriously if he told her that “you make my speakers go boom-boom.” Funny how the best country music is far more forgiving than reality. – Kevin John Coyne
Florida Georgia Line
Individual rankings: Dan – #3
Sorry, people with taste; there’s (I mean – there’z) a reason this abomination is riding high. It’s the catchiest country sing-along since “Wagon Wheel.” – Dan Milliken
“When I’m Gone”
Joey + Rory
Individual rankings: Kevin – #12; Ben – #12
A pensive meditation on the process of grief, delivered through one of Joey Martin Feek’s most deeply moving performances on record. While it obviously had no chance at country radio, “When I’m Gone” is nonetheless a standout career achievement for this exceptionally talented husband-and-wife duo. – Ben Foster
“Postcard from Paris”
The Band Perry
Individual rankings: Ben – #11; Sam – #13
In spite of their occasional misfires, “Postcard from Paris” is a moment in which the Perry siblings are able to effectively marry their lovably quirky nature to a lyrical concept that actually works – and works beautifully, with a titular analogy that’s both clever and effective, and a refrain that bites subtly but sharply (“The meanest thing you ever did is come around…and now I’m ruined”). Finish it off with an arrangement that sounds like something off of the Dixie Chicks’ Fly, and everybody wins. – Ben Foster
“When It Pleases You”
Individual rankings: Dan – #10; Leeann – #17
With slow, seething ire, Watkins faces the truth that she’s giving her whole heart to a relationship and getting jack back. “I call you when I want to hear –,” she sighs, “– my voice whisper…in your voicemail’s ear.” – Dan Milliken
“Live and Die”
The Avett Brothers
Individual rankings: Sam – #2
The lead single from The Avetts Brothers’ new album was the perfect middle ground between their charmingly rough-around-the-edges independent albums and their more polished I and Love and You release from 2010. There is something about the Avetts singing sentimental, romantic lyrics over the strumming of a banjo that’s just so right. – Sam Gazdziak
“Is It Already Time?”
Individual rankings: Kevin – #10; Dan – #15
A to-the-point account of getting a diagnosis out of nowhere and suddenly having to stare down one’s own mortality. – Dan Milliken
“Safe & Sound”
Taylor Swift featuring The Civil Wars
Individual rankings: Leeann – #10; Jonathan – #14
The soft production and gentle melody of “Safe & Sound” compliment Taylor Swift’s wispy voice rather than competing against it, as is prone to happen in many of Swift’s recordings. The addition of The Civil Wars’ sublime vocal support greatly elevates a recording that would have been pretty good without them, but turns out to be even better with them. – Leeann Ward
“I Like Girls That Drink Beer”
Individual rankings: Kevin – #9; Leeann – #16
Keith revisits the classic uptown girl/downtown boy pairing that’s resulted in so many great country records in years gone by. – Kevin John Coyne
“Plant White Roses”
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #1
Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields is one of pop music’s most sardonic, morose songwriters, prone to declarations like, “Plant white roses, and plan to cry/If I can’t spend my life with you, I want to die.” But Kelly
Hogan, best known for her work singing back-up with Neko Case, is a such a gifted interpretive singer that she’s able to find the humanity in Merritt’s sad-sack narrators, and it’s her multifaceted, nuanced reading of “Plant White Roses” that ropes the song into the country genre. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual rankings: Kevin – #6; Dan – #16
A rockin’ little record that exudes Underwood’s growing confidence as a singer and a songwriter. A much-needed shot of adrenaline into the arm of country radio. – Kevin John Coyne
“Hello Cruel World”
Individual rankings: Ben – #8; Sam – #12
An insightful, slyly self-deprecating take on middle age and mortality, with the narrator musing “I’m not dead, but I’m damaged goods, and it’s getting late.” A clever pun of a title hook reflects the narrator’s resolve to make peace with the past, and to keep moving forward. – Ben Foster
“Dig Gravedigger Dig”
Individual rankings: Sam – #4; Jonathan – #18
Lund gives a little love to the gravedigging profession with this bluesy stomper. It’s perhaps a little twisted, but more country songs could stand to reference rigor mortis these days. – Sam Gazdziak
“I’m a Mess”
Individual rankings: Leeann – #4; Kevin – #16
From his collaborative project with Mary Karr that includes many esteemed guest artists, this Rodney Crowell-performed cut emerges as one of the strongest. With a production that would neatly fit on one of his albums of the 2000’s, the lyric suits the chaos that its title suggests. – Leeann Ward
“Fly Over States”
Individual rankings: Tara – #7; Dan – #9
Aldean relaxes his badass-hicktown-pride muscles for a moment and reveals the beating heart beneath. It’s like a heartland-rock “Colors of the Wind” – and what could be more badass than that? – Dan Milliken
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart”
Eli Young Band
Individual rankings: Sam – #5; Tara – #16; Jonathan – #16; Dan – #20
The song was written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay, but the Eli Young Band made this tale about preservation and hope their own. Given the ups and downs and should’ve-been-hits that the Texas group has seen in its career, they’ve lived this song. – Sam Gazdziak
“Two Black Cadillacs”
Individual rankings: Kevin – #4; Tara – #4; Ben – #18
A haunting Southern Gothic tale of revenge, heavy on the catharsis and light on the narrative. Underwood fills in the gaps with a spot-on performance – imbuing it with chilling fury, sinister joy, and just enough poise to suggest she knows tantalizingly more than we do. – Tara Seetharam
Individual rankings: Dan – #8; Tara – #9; Kevin – #11 Ben – #19
The year’s finest blue-collar drinkin’ song, crackling with desperation and sexual friction. – Dan Milliken
“Better Dig Two”
The Band Perry
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #7; Leeann – #9; Dan – #11; Tara – #19
The second most surprising moment in country music in 2012 was that The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” finds producer Dann Huff, known for his heavy hand at the mixing board and his affinity for maudlin arrangements, doing an on-point impression of Rick Rubin. But the most surprising moment in country music in 2012 has to be the casual reference to crystal meth in the single’s second verse. Artists like Drive-By Truckers and Hank III have addressed rural America’s drug of choice for years now, but who would’ve ever expected that the exceedingly polite, ridiculously coiffed Perry siblings – and not, say, Eric Church in full “outlaw” drag – would’ve been the ones to bring a parallel between one of the nastiest, most damaging of vices and the addictive powers of love to country radio? Or that they’d pull off such a thing with the kind of authority and conviction that make “Better Dig Two” so searing? This isn’t a wistful fantasy about what happens if the narrator dies young; it’s an open threat of how things very likely will end. – Jonathan Keefe
“I Just Come Here for the Music”
Don Williams featuring Alison Krauss
Individual rankings: Ben – #6; Sam – #7; Dan – #17; Kevin – #20
Don Williams’ return from retirement was a nice surprise in and of itself. And So It Goes found Williams still at the top of his game, and this duet with Krauss is one of the many highlights. His deep baritone and her angelic harmonies blend beautifully. – Sam Gazdziak
“The Dreaming Fields”
Individual rankings: Ben – #2; Leeann – #6; Jonathan – #10
In one of the finest songs by one of country music’s finest songwriters, Matraca Berg lays bare her feelings of wistfulness over the loss of a family farm embodying scores of memories. “The Dreaming Fields” boasts a deeply compelling melody, a chillingly effective arrangement, and a gut-wrenching vocal performance. I may not know the first thing about farming, but one thing I do understand is the meaning of a memory. This song rips my heart out. – Ben Foster
Individual rankings: Dan – #6; Tara – #6; Leeann – #15; Jonathan – #17; Ben – #20
The song was a pretty piece of nostalgia to begin with. But Jay Joyce’s hypnotic groove lifts the record to a higher ground, giving it the same sort of spiritual beauty often attributed to its namesake’s best work. – Dan Milliken
Individual rankings: Kevin – #2; Dan – #7; Tara – #14; Ben – #15
An epic single with both a theme and a production big enough to contain the overwhelming vocal powerhouse that is Carrie Underwood. Give her points for being courageous enough to tackle this topic on record, but get down on your knees and offer praise and gratitude for being talented enough to pull it off. – Kevin John Coyne
Zac Brown Band
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #2; Tara – #11; Leeann – #13; Ben – #14; Sam – #19
With an impressive string of Top 2 hits and a couple of platinum-plus albums to their credit, Zac Brown Band had earned the opportunity to take a risk leading up to the release of their third studio album. While Uncaged had no shortage of obvious radio hits, the band, who have always been more of a “Southern” band than a proper “country” outfit, chose to prove their genre bona fides by releasing “The Wind.” A fast-picking, freewheeling romp, “The Wind” sets the ideal stage for a “hoedown” vs. “hootenanny” debate. The song’s breakneck speed and clever turns-of-phrase may have proved too much for radio, where it became the band’s first single to miss the Top 10, but it’s a single that highlighted the real breadth of Zac Brown Band’s range. – Jonathan Keefe
“The Sound of a Million Dreams”
Individual rankings: Tara – #1; Kevin – #8; Ben – #9; Dan – #19
With an arrangement as rich as its sentiment, “The Sound of a Million Dreams” is an elegant tribute to songs, punctuated by a searing second verse. Billy Joel could have mastered this piano ballad, but he wouldn’t have delivered it with such painfully earnest hope. And in an era where too many artists have the audacity to present us with career-low music, Nail’s unapologetic faith in the power of his craft is deeply, depressingly refreshing. – Tara Seetharam
Individual rankings: Sam – #1; Dan – #2; Leeann – #8; Tara – #15
With an ominous vibe and distorted vocals, Church manages to come up with a unique song in an increasingly cookie-cutter genre. From the opening “bom bom bom bah-dom” to its searing guitar solos, “Creepin’” is one of the year’s most distinctive singles in any genre. When all to many “country-rock” songs are really just rock songs about country things, “Creepin’” really does manage to blend the two elements into something new and exciting. – Sam Gazdziak
Individual rankings: Tara – #3; Dan – #5; Leeann – #7; Jonathan – #8; Ben – #13
Individual rankings: Jonathan – #3; Leeann – #5; Sam – #9; Tara – #10; Ben – #10
Miranda Lambert’s critical clout took a considerable hit in 2012 as a result of back-to-back career-worst singles, but the second proper single from the Pistol Annies was plenty strong enough to keep Lambert associated with some of the smartest, most self-aware songwriting in modern country. “Takin’ Pills” finds the Annies having an absolute ball in playing dress-up, and the song is all the better because they give their audience credit for knowing exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. During a year when so many acts were preoccupied with misguided notions of authenticity, to hear the Annies flaunt their artifice so brazenly made for a welcome change of pace. It’s a shame — albeit an unsurprising one — that country radio still won’t give them the time of day. – Jonathan Keefe
“Like a Rose”
Individual rankings: Leeann – #1; Ben – #5; Jonathan – #9; Sam – #10; Tara – #13
Hearing a new country song from Ashley Monroe, as a solo artist, has been a long time coming. While the wait has been tough, the payoff has certainly been worth it. “Like A Rose”, the first song that the public has been able to hear from her upcoming 2013 album, is a crisply produced, sharply written and exquisitely sung gem. High praise for a song that may unfortunately ultimately slip under the radar, but such praise is easily warranted here. – Leeann Ward
Individual rankings: Kevin – #3; Ben – #3; Tara – #5; Jonathan – #5; Leeann – #11
There are few bright spots that come with the knowledge that Strait is in the twilight of his career, with retirement seeming more likely with each passing year. One particularly shiny one is that Strait’s become something of a vanguard in these final years. “Drinkin’ Man” is challenging, compelling, and subtly powerful, not adjectives typically associated with his remarkable thirty years of hits. He’s always been good, but he’s rarely been this interesting. – Kevin John Coyne
“What Have I Done”
Individual rankings: Tara – #2; Leeann – #3; Dan – #4; Ben – #4; Kevin – #5
Music’s finest quality is its ability to express the intangible – the smallest trace of thought, the slightest nuance of emotion. “What Have I Done” is a striking example of this, a quiet shuffle of pain, regret and reflection that, if only for a few minutes, elevates a well-known story to a three-dimensional reality. The lyrics are sharp and unadorned, but the song’s soul is Rimes’ layered performance, easily the most compelling of the year. – Tara Seetharam
“So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore”
Individual rankings: Kevin – #1; Ben – #1; Jonathan – #4; Tara – #8; Sam – #11
Had it been released fifteen or twenty years ago, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” would stand a much greater chance at being remembered as the classic it is. Shameful #25 chart peak aside, this is an achingly beautiful, finely detailed story of a man who is willing to let his reputation fall into ruins for the sake of allowing his former lover to move on without him, resigning himself to a despondent, heartbroken existence in which nothing matters to him at all except the happiness of the one he loves. A steel guitar, a nakedly sincere vocal, and the dark, bitter, aching truth – It’s everything a great country record should be. A timeless career highlight from a true country music legend. – Ben Foster
“Merry Go ‘Round”
Individual rankings: Dan – #1; Leeann – #2; Sam – #3; Kevin – #7; Ben – #7; Tara – #12
In a single masterful stroke, Musgraves cuts to the fearful, defeated heart of countless small-towners – countless any-towners, really. The nursery-rhyme chorus is country poetry of the highest order, illustrating in a few simple lines how we compromise ourselves rather than face the unknown, turning to one distraction or another until we almost don’t notice the years rolling by, our dreams collecting dust.
It would have been a standout single in most any era of country music. That it’s managed to go Top 20 in this era – in which the mainstream anxiously evades things that are smart, challenging, new, and female – feels like a small miracle, and speaks to the timeless power of great music to transcend meaningless boundaries. It’s the most impressive debut country single in recent memory, and an enticing challenge to an ever-reductive Music Row: Truth and creativity can still win out in 2012. – Dan Milliken