We’re shining the spotlight on the best albums to come from Nashville during the past year representing the many branches of the country tree. (And see our list of the 10 best country songs here.)
10. Sara Evans – Slow Me Down
Evans released one of the most perfect contemporary country albums of 2014, with such highlights as the pure country stylings of “Better Off,” as well as the pop sheen of “Put My Heart Down” or the polish of “Can’t Stop Loving You,” a collaboration with Isaac Slade. For the latter two not to have made more than a slight dent at radio was an absolute crime. Evans deserved much better.
9. Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class
Imagine if Loretta Lynn came to Nashville today instead of 1960, and you get the idea of what Presley is all about. She sings and writes about things that most artists would be scared of, and does it with a hillbilly swagger that has made artists such as Patty Loveless (who appears on the record) fans. If you need further proof of her talent, take one listen to the cry of “Surrender” or the simple-yet-complex lyric of “Grocery Store,” and you’ll be just as big fans as we are.
8. Marty Stuart – Saturday Night/Sunday Morning
Seeing Stuart and his band The Fabulous Superlatives at work is a reminder of how great the classic sounds of yesteryear really were. This double CD set focuses on that sound, and nobody makes retro feel any more cool than Stuart. But throw all the critical acclaim out the door and take a listen to their collaboration with Mavis Staples on “Uncloudy Day.” If you’re not moved, check your heart — because you don’t have one.
7. Eric Church – The Outsiders
Church is not always the easiest artist to get. Listen to tracks like first single “The Outsiders” and the gruff “That’s Damn Rock & Roll,” and you will have to admit that nobody else is doing it like he does. And, that’s a very good thing. Difference is to be celebrated, and Church has that market cornered.
6. Dierks Bentley – Riser
In the months leading up to this release, Bentley promised a little more introspection. That’s exactly what he delivered, releasing one of the strongest sets of his career. “Drunk On A Plane,” the runaway hit from the album, was the exception, as Bentley focused on heavier material like “Say You Do,” “Here On Earth,” and the emotionally charged “Damn These Dreams.”
5. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’
After a six-year absence, one of the most gifted female vocalists in the format returns with an album designed to showcase her timeless talent. More of an Emmylou Harris-type statement than an attempt to be current, from the opening notes of “Fly,” Womack lets it known that she is back at her game — and we are the better for it.
4. David Nail – I’m A Fire
Known for his powerful ballads, Nail worked on his uptempo side for this latest disc — and came up strong with tracks like “Whatever She’s Got” and “Kiss You Tonight,” both of which have performed well on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. But, he can still wring the emotion — as he does on his beautiful cover of “Galveston” (with Lee Ann Womack), as well as the stunning “The Secret,” which as close to Southern gothic as anything the format has seen since “Delta Dawn” or “Ode To Billie Joe.”
3. Brantley Gilbert – Just As I Am
If you take a look at Gilbert or his single choices, you might just simply label him as one of country music’s rebellious bad boys. But, that’s just one of the sides to the Georgia native. Despite the fact that Just As I Am would do well as the centerpiece for any party, the singer has much more depth than some give him credit for. “My Faith In You” and “One Hell Of An Amen” are prime examples of this. At the same time, “If You Want A Bad Boy” does possess an inordinate amount of swagger.
2. Little Big Town – Pain Killer
Since hooking up with producer Jay Joyce, the Capitol Nashville act has been rolling lucky sevens on a consistent basis. Whether it be with hook-laden performances such as “Quit Breaking Up With Me” and “Good People,” the gorgeous tones of “Girl Crush,” or the edge of “Faster Gun,” Little Big Town makes it look so easy time in and time out.
1. Miranda Lambert – Platinum
Lambert continues to be one of the most versatile performers on the market today. Whether it be odes to the past like “Automatic” or “Another Sunday In The South,” edgier performances like “Gravity’s A Bitch” or the title track, she’s on a roll. Throw in a Tom T. Hall composition (“All That’s Left”) and the (hopefully) soon-to-be hit “Priscilla,” and there is a reason for Lambert’s winning season — which is far from over.
Finally, an honorable mention: In the midst of a painful battle with pancreatic cancer, Ray Price went into the recording studio with longtime ally Fred Foster to record an album that became his swan song. But, the 87-year old legend didn’t end his career on a whimper. Instead, Beauty Is… featured performances that showcased the timeless quality of his voice to the end — especially in songs like the romantic “Beauty Lies in The Eyes of the Beholder” (featuring Vince Gill) and “No More Songs To Sing.” A fitting last musical will and testament for us all.