This Englishman’s top five country music albums of 2014
I know that my taste in country music’s mainstream. Mainstream enough that some country aficionados might criticise my ‘this Englishman’s’ lists for not straying far enough from the top of the country charts. The truth is, I like catchy country pop, and while next year I will try harder to discover music that’s further from the stereotypical southern dirt road, this year I’m happy to listen to songs about beer, cut-off jeans and cowboy boots, fishing in lakes and trucks and tractors.
Even staying mainstream, choosing albums to make my list been tough this year. Not because I’ve been spoiled for choice. Quite the opposite, as it’s been a year without too many stand-out country albums 1.
So let’s get to it. Here are ‘this Englishman’s’ top five country albums of 2014.
5: Blake Shelton’s ‘Bringing Back The Sunshine’
Blake Shelton was one of the first modern male country singers I listened to. I heard his debut single ‘Austin,’ on country music radio, long after its debut and around the time that his fifth album ‘Startin’ Fires’ (iTunes link) was released. ‘Startin’ Fires’ is still one of my favourite sing-along-in-the-car albums and is the one that I’ve measured all of Blake’s later albums up to.
I confess I’ve been slightly disappointed with almost everything that Blake’s released since ‘Startin’ Fires.’ Yes, there’ve been some good songs; ‘Honey Bee’ and ‘Red River Blue’ from the ‘Red River Blue’ album and ‘Mine Would Be You’ from ‘Based On A True Story,’ spring to mind, but too often I felt that Blake was falling back on a formula, becoming almost a parody of himself.
‘Bringing Back The Sunshine’ is the first of Blake’s recent albums to make it my top five. It starts strongly with the title track, keeps up the pace with ‘Neon Light’ before the stand-out track of album, ‘Lonely Tonight,’ a ballad duet with last year’s number two, Ashley Monroe. ‘Lonely Tonight,’ is so good that I wondered if the album had peaked too early, especially as the next track ‘Gonna’ is one the stereotypical good time party anthems that have typified Blake’s recent albums. Much of the rest of the album is predictable but ‘I Need My Girl’ proves that with the right song, Blake can still deliver like he did on ‘Startin’ Fires.’ The album finishes as it starts, with the pacey feel-good ‘Just Gettin’ Started.’ ‘Bringing Back The Sunshine’ is Blake Shelton’s best album since ‘Startin’ Fires’ but it frustrates me that it’s not nearly as good as I wish he would do. That’s why ‘Bringing Back The Sunshine’ makes my list at number five.
4: Frank Foster’s ‘Rhythm and Whiskey’
I’ve read people complain that too much modern country songs are about girls and trucks, driving down dirt roads and fishing in the lake and Frank Foster’s ‘Rhythm and Whiskey’ opens with a song about just that, ‘Flyin’ Down the Highway,’ a southern country rock powerhouse that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
The mood doesn’t slip through ‘Southern Man’ and ‘Cut Of Jeans,’ exactly the type of tracks to enjoy when you’re flying down that highway. And that’s when ‘Rhythm and Whiskey’ works best, when you need music to entertain you, to keep your spirits up, and it does that very, very well indeed.
3: Lady Antebellum’s ‘747’
Lady Antebellum’s ‘Golden’ album made number five in ‘this Englishman’s’ list in 2013 and this year they’ve done better with a better album, ‘747.’ As with plenty of current country, ‘747’ is a mixture of country, pop and soft, southern rock but takes Lady Antebellum further away from their country roots.
‘747’ leads with ‘Long Stretch of Love’ a confident rocker with the Lady Antebellum sound. ‘Bartender’ is about fun, ‘Down South’ is about the harmonies that Lady Antebellum do so well. The rest of ‘747’ is about exploring how to take the Lady Antebellum sound that has worked so well in new directions without losing what made it special, perfectly encapsulated in the final track ‘Falling For You.’ ‘747’ is a better album than last year’s ‘Golden’ and is a great place to start if you’re new to Lady Antebellum.
2: Miranda Lambert’s ‘Platinum’
As with Blake Shelton, I’ve been disappointed with every one of Miranda Lambert’s albums since 2009’s outstanding ‘Revolution,’ outside of the albums she made with the Pistol Annies. Her ‘Four the Record’ made number five in my list in 2011, but even then I said it was “a mixed bag of deep disappointment and stand-out brilliance.” ‘Platinum’ is a far better offering than ‘Four the Record.’
‘Girls’ is everything you’d expect from a Miranda Lambert song, wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘Revolution’ and gets ‘Platinum’ album to a good start. The title track ‘Platinum’ is full of Miranda Lambert swagger and twang and includes the lyric, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder.” Brilliant. ‘Little Red Wagon’ romps along and then her duet with Little Big Town, slows things back down. Country album duets can be a mixed bag, but ‘Smoking’ and Drinkin’’ mixes Little Big Town’s soft harmonies with Miranda’s harder Texas twang well. The older-fashioned country sound of ‘Oh Shit’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a Pistol Annies’ album, but ‘All That’s Left’ (featuring the Time Jumpers) would feel right at home on a Willie Nelson album. ‘Gravity Is a B**ch’ continues the mid-album’s old-time feel until the stomping country rock anthem ‘Somethin’ Bad,’ a duet with Carrie Underwood.
‘Platinum’ finishes strongly. Steel guitars and close harmonies make ‘Hard Staying Sober’ is a good penultimate track and finally ‘Another Sunday in the South’ proves that Miranda Lambert can still sing songs as strong as she did on ‘Revolution.’ ‘Platinum’ isn’t a great Miranda Lambert album, but it is the best since ‘Revolution’ and is deserving of a place on this Englishman’s list.
1: Jennifer Nettles’ ‘That Girl’
I’ve loved Jennifer Nettles’ voice since I first discovered Sugarland 2. This year she struck out on her own and ‘That Girl’ is her first post-Sugarland solo album. What a debut. ‘That Girl’ stands head and shoulders above every other album on my list this year.
Jennifer’s powerful voice can be an acquired taste, but on this album she really shows off both its depth and her range. As well as showcasing her voice, ‘That Girl’ demonstrates Jennifer’s songwriting abilities and she either wrote or co-wrote every track on the album (with the exception of Bob Seger’s ‘Like a Rock’ that appears on some versions of the album.)
The opening track, a strong ballad, ‘Falling,’ perfectly sets the tone for the rest of ‘That Girl.’ It starts softly then builds to perfectly demonstrate Jennifer’s vocal prowess. But it’s not only Jennifer’s voice that’s powerful on this album, the lyrics are powerful too. ‘Me Without You’ is moving:
You left the cage door open,
and your pretty bird just flew.
And I never knew that I could fly so high,
or the sky could be this blue.
I can’t believe it’s real,
so this is how it feels,
me, without you.
While ‘His Hands,’ a song about domestic violence, is heartbreaking:
Told me things would be different leaving church that Sunday, but the only change coming was the quarters in the ashtray.
Yeah I should have known better when the last three times he swore that he would never lay another finger on me but the truth's on my face.
One of the reasons that I love country music is that it tells stories and ‘That Girl’ is full of them. From the title track’s story of a woman not wanting to come between another woman and her man, to be that girl, to love stories in love songs written by Jennifer in ten writing collaborations that all demonstrate her vocal versatility.
There’s not a weak song anywhere on this album and I never seem to tire of listening to any of them. ‘That Girl’ isn’t only a tremendous debut album, it’s a tremendous album full-stop. It’s this Englishman’s top country music album of 2014.
So there you have it, this Englishman’s top five country music albums of 2014. If you’re into Spotify, I’ve made a playlist that contains all the albums on this list. I hope y’all like ’em and y’all have a blessed day today and a very happy Christmas.
- Last year I topped off my country album round-up with Kacey Musgraves’s ‘Same Trailer, Different Park’ and truth be told, I still prefer it to almost every album on my list this year, the exception being ‘That Girl.’ We saw Kacey play live again at the Manchester Ritz this year and despite the fact she had very little new material, her shows get better and better. If you get a chance to watch her CMT Crossover with Katy Perry, I think that you’ll enjoy that too.
- Jennifer may have moved on from Sugarland, but she leaves behind a catalogue that contains some of my overall favourite modern country songs. If you haven’t listened to Sugarland, you’ve missed out. Start with their ‘Enjoy the ride’ album from 2006. ‘Stay’ and ‘Want To’ are stand-out tracks and showcase Jennifer’s incredible voice perfectly. When that’s not enough, listen to ‘Love On The Inside’ from 2008. ‘Already Gone’ contains one of my favourite lyrics, “Life is a runaway train you can’t wait to jump on” and the lyrics to ‘Steve Earle’ are also hilarious.