Monday, June 30, 2014

That Nashville Sound’s Top Albums of the First Half of 2014

For those that follow this site on a semi-regular basis, you recognize that we cast a very wide net with our definition of country music. The genres of traditional classic, bluegrass, Americana, pop-country and even a little Delta blues make it across these pages. Hell, we even give some print to the bro-country movement sweeping the FM dial. But for the most part, it isn’t that proverbial radio dial that is producing what That Nashville Sound considers to be the finest music released thus far this year.

Before I get commentary about how we consciously exclude any modern trends or mainstream artists, let it be known that they represent on the list as well. But clearly the finest music being released thus far is far from the party-first summer dirt road anthems that are claiming to be more country than you. No, these artists are releasing deep lyric-first songs with drama. They make you feel. Pleasure. Pain. Happy. Sad. They tell stories that, like a great movie, run the gamut of emotions and make you stop and take notice. And there have been some fantastic releases so far.
Rather than count them down numerically (which we’ll do plenty of at the end of this year), we’ve broken down our favorites into two different categories: Best of the Best and Best of the Rest.  There will certainly be some names on here that you don’t immediately recognize. I encourage you to track them down and sample some of their music. I promise you will not be disappointed in the least. Without further ado…

The Best of the Best:
Jason Eady- Daylight & 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.

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.

Kix Brooks (& Friends)- 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.

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.

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.

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 can hardly believed- 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.

Lee Ann Womack- The Way I’m Livin’
I’m cheating a bit including this beautiful project on the list as it hasn’t officially been released yet. But seeing as I have been gifted an early listening opportunity and 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.

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.

The Best of the Rest:
Ray  Benson- A Little Piece
Matt Andersen- Weightless
Dierks Bentley- Riser
Reagan Boggs- Quicksand
David Nail- I’m a Fire
The Dirty Guv’nahs- Hearts on Fire
Johnny Cash- Out Among the Stars
Multiple Artists- Working Man’s Poet- A Tribute to Merle Haggard
Nickel Creek- A Dotted Line
Nicki Lane- All or Nothin’
Miranda Lambert- Platinum
James House- Broken Glass Twisted Steel

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