Country music has been in a bad place the last few years. Somebody decided it would be a good idea to ruin country radio by doing a few things, including:
- Turning country radio into a pretty bad hip-hop scene
- Pushing all songs even vaguely about hooking up with a girl in a truck all the way to the top of the now-meaningless charts
- Playing actually good songs so little that it’s useless to turn on the radio
- Choosing tracks — mostly of the Luke Bryan variety — that actually make me get out of the shower because I can’t stand the radio being on any longer
Anyhow, I don’t listen to the radio very much anymore. But I do still seek out excellent albums from some of my favorite artists. Luckily, 2014 has been a good year for good albums. Here are a few of my favorites (in no particular order … yet).
Man Against Machine, Garth Brooks: The best-selling artist in country music history released his first studio album of original music since 2001, and it did not disappoint. There isn’t a single song that rings even close to being bro-country and it’s delightful. Still, it’s a fairly eclectic collection with some pretty hard rock (“Man Against Machine”), bluesy country (“Tacoma”), stuff that’ll make your parents cry (“Mom” and “Send ‘Em On Down The Road”) and even some toe-tapping western swing (“Rodeo and Juliet”). I’ve heard some morons who don’t like this album — I’m convinced it’s because there are no girls in cutoff jeans — and those are the people who enable today’s country music to be pretty bad. Anyway, if you haven’t gotten this yet I’d advise you to do it if you think you have an above-average taste in country music. You can’t get it on iTunes, though. Get the physical CD or go to Garth’s own digital website at www.GhostTunes.com. (Top three tracks: “Mom,” “Send ‘Em On Down The Road,” “Tacoma.”)
Moonshine In The Trunk, Brad Paisley: Maybe I was in the minority, but I really enjoyed what Paisley tried to do with Wheelhouse. He went out on some limbs both musically and thematically. Some of them snapped among his casual fan base. I am not a casual fan. I’ve got every song Paisley’s ever recorded, and this album goes back to the type of sound he had on 5th Gear. His guitar work has never been finer (the riffs in “Moonshine In The Trunk” get me jacked up every time) and some of the lyrics are almost too clever (see “Cover Girl,” “River Bank” and “Crushin’ It”). There’s no doubt that “Crushin’ It,” which leads off the album, is a veiled response to the critics who derided his previous album. “High Life” is hilarious, “American Flag On The Moon” is beautiful and “4WP” is a semi-shot at all the truck-loving songs currently riding the charts. One of the things I’ve always liked most about Paisley is that the albums are almost solely by him, and he wrote or co-wrote 13 of the 15 on this set. Brad hasn’t lost a step, even if his numbers suggest that he has. (Top three tracks: “American Flag On The Moon,” “Moonshine In The Trunk,” “High Life.”)
Riser, Dierks Bentley: Here’s another guy who’s been around for more than a decade and unfortunately started to lose the radio’s love. So what did he do? Respond with what’s probably the best album of his career. When he released “Bourbon In Kentucky” as the first single well ahead of the album, it was pretty clear that things were going to be good (any time you get Kacey Musgraves to rearrange her schedule to sing a duet, you’ve probably got a great song). It got better from there. “Drunk On A Plane” is right up there with “What Was I Thinkin'” in terms of Bentley’s most fun songs. Top to bottom, this album brings the fun (“Back Porch”) and the sentimentality (“Here On Earth”). Bonus points to Bentley for co-writing about half of the songs, including his personal “I Hold On.” What a winner. (Top three tracks: “I Hold On,” “Drunk On A Plane,” “Say You Do.”)
The Big Revival, Kenny Chesney: I guess the theme of my favorites this year is the big guys coming back with killer albums after radio stopped liking them. This is Chesney’s best effort in probably a decade. He went off on his Caribbean binge for a while — it was OK, but not great — and struggled for a bit to figure out where he wanted to go (Welcome To The Fishbowl is the biggest example). He’s come back to what made him so successful in the early 2000s, and he’s actually begun writing more of the songs he records (four of 11 on this one). “American Kids” has a really unique sound and the lyrics definitely fit. “Drink It Up” is a rocker but sends the old you-only-have-so-much-time message in a fun way. And he made a great decision to team back up with Grace Potter (of “You And Tequila” fame), coming out with “Wild Child” in the same vein as their first hit. “‘Til It’s Gone” and “Beer Can Chicken” are also fun winners in the style that made Chesney one of the biggest names in the genre. The name of this album totally fits the quality of what he produced. (Top three tracks: “American Kids,” “Drink It Up,” “Wild Child.”)
The Outsiders, Eric Church: I’ll come right out with it and say that I liked Chief more because I didn’t think it had any weak spots at all. I don’t think The Outsiders is quite as complete as Church’s previous effort, but that’s not at all to say that this isn’t one of the year’s best albums. He’s still forging ahead in the rock style with a tinge of rebellion and brashness, and it shows in some of the album’s best songs, including the title track and “Give Me Back My Hometown.” (The latter of which has no shortage of meanings.) Look no further than “Cold One” if you’re looking for the Paisley-like cleverly fun song of the bunch. I got lost a little bit toward the back end (from “That’s Damn Rock And Roll” to “Devil, Devil”) but the closing brought it home with a bang. I’m also partial to “Talladega,” which may be the best story song on the collection. Of course, Church writes or co-writes everything he records, so you know this is real. (Top three tracks: “Give Me Back My Hometown,” “Cold One,” “Talladega.”)
If I have to give the above albums a 1-5 ranking, here goes:
2) Man Against Machine
3) Moonshine In The Trunk
4) The Big Revival
5) The Outsiders
I’m pretty tired of the country awards shows — the endless number of actual awards have devolved into popularity contests, and aside from when Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood host the CMAs, the entertainment has pretty much lost me — but the Grammys will always mean something. Riser and The Outsiders are two of the five nominees for Best Country Album, and I’m happy for those guys. (The other nominees are Platinum by Miranda Lambert, 12 Stories by Brandy Clark and The Way I’m Livin’ by Lee Ann Womack, but I usually have a hard time getting into a lot of female country music for whatever reason.)
By counts of all reviews that I trust, Platinum belongs near the top of any best-of-2014 lists out there. I gave it a quick listen when it came out but didn’t really come back to it after “Somethin’ Bad” sort of turned me off. Lee Brice’s I Don’t Dance likely belongs in the area, too, but I haven’t really gotten around to giving that its due time.
You’ll surely notice none of the bro-country poison albums on this list. I listened to exactly 62 seconds of Jason Aldean’s first single from Old Boots, New Dirt (that horrifying “Burnin’ It Down”) and vowed to not listen to another second of that surely garbage collection. (He pulled off Spotify, which I respect, but his music over the last five years has been embarrassing.) Luke Bryan’s Crash My Party isn’t here because I’m tired of his shenanigans (and that unforgivable “That’s My Kind Of Night”). Blake Shelton (his new album is Bringing Back The Sunshine) is so overrated that he’s been added to the turn-off-the-radio-quickly list. And you’ve got Florida Georgia Line’s Anything Goes, which has the OK song “Dirt” on it but based on the duo’s track record cannot be anything but disgraceful hick-hop.
Anyway, let’s count down the days until Zac Brown Band and Darius Rucker release their new studio sets in 2015.