Nearly 300 different albums were reviewed, most completely, a few partially. Lyrical depth rules more often than not and grabs the proverbial attention lapels. That's not to say that a good dance song and steamy groove won't entertain. It can actually augment and build around some wonderful musical poetry found elsewhere on the album. But as a close friend once told me, "country music is an entire novel written in three minutes. It’s a Broadway show in three minutes. It’s an entire lifetime in three minutes. A great country song can be a guiding post for someone’s life." Good storytelling gets bonus points. Originality gets extra credit.
That Nashville Sound is looking back on the year behind us and reminded that in the day of digital music, the amount of quality music available to the listener is near limitless. Looking back, it rivals or bests past years. Our favorite 2007 album was the Alison Krauss & Robert Plant album Raising Sand, the top spot on our 2008 list went to Lee Ann Womack’s Call Me Crazy, 2009 went to Eric Church's Carolina, 2010 was Zac Brown Band’s You Get What You Give, 2011 was Pistol Annies' Hell on Heels, 2012 was Marty Stuart's Nashville Volume 1- Tear The Woodpile Down and 2013 gave us Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories. The following is this year’s Top 35 Albums of 2014.
1. Don Williams – Reflections - It’s hard to imagine that four decades into his career, Williams can continue to produce something that is so critically powerful, yet still fit in seamlessly with what he’s created the entire time. The second album produced over the last three years after a very long layoff from recording, Reflections is the perfect combination of perspective told from someone who has lived and stories from someone who has travelled down many roads. “The Answer,” “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” and “Stronger Back” are all musical moralistic pieces of advice that need to be heeded as much as heard. Here’s hoping there’s many more releases left in him like this one.
Sturgill Simpson - Metamodern Sounds in Country Music - Much has been said about this project, the critical darling of nearly every music publication and country music blog across the country. The title is a tip of the cap to Ray Charles’ groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country Music. What makes this project so truly great in its own right is that it is just so smart. Whereas most of country radio is playing music with lyrical content that plays to the lowest common denominator, Simpson tackles philosophy and depth with such acuity that it has to be taken seriously- but all with a wit that keeps it from becoming just too dang serious. It’s a beautiful album that proves that Simpson is one of music’s brightest stars.
3. Lee Ann Womack - The Way I'm Livin' – I’ve fallen heads over heels in love with Lee Ann again- just as I have with each of her previous project- I can’t help but not include it on this list. Perhaps it just might wet your whistle of what is yet to come. With tracks like “Send It On Down” and “Sleeping With the Devil,” Womack showcases her perfect vocals with a production style that fits her to a tee. The finished product is something full of elegance dipped in classic country music themes of lost love, drinking and cheating. It’s damn near perfect in every way.
Jason Eady - Daylight and Dark - Born in the Mississippi Delta, Eady has never been able to shake that soulful sound that flows through his veins like the river so famous down there. Even a short stint in Nashville where the powers that be wanted to commercialize his sound couldn’t have an effect. Now the Texas transplant has found his natural home and this deep and dark story born out of lost love just rips your heart out in the very best of ways. The title track and “Whiskey and You” are just two of the stunners on the album where the mellow production takes backseat to a lyrical beatdown on the heart. Ironically, the duet on the album is with Courtney Patton, a fellow singer-songwriter that became his wife just months after the record’s release.
5. Radney Foster - Everything I Should Have Said - Ever since his commercial radio star finished its streak across the sky, Foster has followed his creative muse and produced records with a depth of substance that has cemented himself as one of country music’s very best songwriters. Everything I Should Have Said is just another chapter in a book that should be written about how to make a meaningful (and great) album. “Not In My House” and “California” are just two examples off of the project that take real-world challenges and strip away all of the gloss, leaving a gripping lyrical storyline that must be heard. The former of those two songs challenges the way our American community is communicating with one-another morally and genuinely- and makes a truly groundbreaking track in the process. Foster’s written another great one.
Cody Johnson - Cowboy Like Me - With George Strait retiring from the road, there’s been some discussion on who might carry the torch for that sound. Artists like Joe Nichols and Easton Corbin have moved closer to center, leaving a hole for this cowboy to step right in. This is truly a masterpiece that could be compared to some of Strait’s best. The title track, “Never Go Home Again” and “Holes” are standout tracks but there’s nary a song that isn’t perfectly represented as a fitted piece to a whole. It’s another must-have for the traditionalist.
7. Lori McKenna - Numbered Doors – This is another phenomenal and gripping collection of songs from my favorite songwriter. Each told from a nearly-always flawed narrative, they have a natural magnetism to them simply from their storytelling.
Becky Schlegel - Opry Lullaby - This is another one that has just completely flown under the radar of the country music critics and blogosphere. Schlegel’s previous album, Dandelion, was a near-bluegrass piece of work with a little steel in which her Allison Krauss-ish vocals danced around highly personal love stories that ended well and not so well. This time, she uses her passion that she has for old-time country music and builds a concept album to honor the ones that led her down this path in the first place. “Opry Lullaby” opens the album with a tip of the cap to the radio show she grew up with and Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline get their own musical tributes as well. She changes the production this time around to better match the music acts she honors with a much more classic country feel. The result is a gift. It’s an honor bestowed to her heroes that is truly among this year’s best.
9. Kix Brooks - Ambush in Dark Canyon Soundtrack - One of the travesties so far this year is that this surprising project from the quieter half of Brooks & Dunn didn’t get the publicity and kudos it deserved. Brooks himself put together this feature film project with accompanying soundtrack and released it as an exclusive project early in 2014 through Wal-Mart. The movie was low-budget, but entertaining as westerns go. But it was the soundtrack that really made the entire project. Brooks called in friends like Randy Houser and Chris Stapleton to contribute to the project and both delivered with powerhouse vocal performances that tie superbly into the storyline of the film. The latter of those two performances will easily make it as one of TNS’s favorite songs of the year. Brooks himself sings on several of the tunes and does a more-than-admirable job bringing musical life to his film.
Drew Kennedy - Sad Songs Happily Played - The live album was recorded by accident, the magical storytelling both in song and in between songs surely is not. Kennedy has quietly developed into one of the Lone Star State’s very best songwriters (and producers) and the wit and lyrical depth that he shares with his appreciative audience makes you long to be in the room. The track “Rose of Jericho”- written with Lori McKenna- is a flat-out stunner.
11. Brothers Osborne - Brothers Osborne EP - The project is only five songs long, but this duo packs a punch in what little material was included on the EP. “Rum” was the radio staple that made its dent on the charts, but it was the tracks “Stay a Little Longer” and “Arms on Fire” that showcased their terrific songwriting skills and distinctive vocals. The production itself makes it distinctive as well. All in all, the EP is a great teaser of what we hope is more in 2015.
Garth Brooks - Man Against Machine – Much has been made of Brooks’ return to original studio recordings and perhaps even more to his return to his stadium tour across the U.S. And this project, his first since his return, is not without a couple of warts. It does, however, have several stand-out tracks including “Tacoma,” “Mom,” “All-American Kid,” and “Send Em’ On Down the Road.” All those mentioned tracks still sound and feel like Garth songs without sounding dated. And give Brooks credit for finding tracks that are age and life-appropriate and for not stooping to cliché-ridden stuff that seems to be filing the airwaves.
13. Ray Scott - Ray Scott - Scott’s deep voice got its big break with the Siruis/XM The Highway hit “Those Jeans” last year and follows that up with a great intriguing collection of songs that are alternating witty and moving. His talky-style of singing is an easy listen and always is delivering personality galore.
John Mellencamp - Plain Spoken - On this, his 22nd studio album (!), Mellencamp looks back and within, providing a collection of songs that are both introspective and reflective of the travels and relationships that have gotten him to where he is today.
15. Marty Stuart - Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – This is a disc of rowdy honkytonk tunes, both originals and covers, and matched up with a disc of unvarnish country gospel including traditional spirituals and original tunes. The album includes a guest spot from Mavis Staples, who's heard singing on "Uncloudy Day" as Stuart plays a Fender Telecaster once played by her late dad, Staple Singers patriarch Pop Staples.
16. Hal Ketchum - I'm a Troubadour
17. Joel Crouse - Even the River Runs
18. Dierks Bentley - Riser
19. Sunny Sweeney - Provoked
20. Little Big Town - Pain Killer
21. Wade Bowen - Wade Bowen
22. Johnny Cash - Out Among the Stars
23. Various Artists - Working Man's Poet - A Tribute to Merle Haggard
24. James House - Broken Glass Twisted Steel
25. Angaleena Presley - American Middle Class
26. Blake Shelton - Bringing Back the Sunshine
27. David Nail - I'm a Fire
28. Ray Benson - A Little Place
29. The Dirty Guv'nahs- Hearts on Fire
30. Nickel Creek - A Dotted Line
31. Reagan Boggs - Quicksand
32. Nicki Lane - All or Nothin'
33. Miranda Lambert- Platinum
34. Matt Andersen- Weightless
35. Brad Paisley - Moonshine in the Trunk