In previous years the NCUK annual tradition has been that a year-end list of the Top 30 singles of the previous 12 months is compiled and posted throughout December, which we are currently in the midst of (check out Twitter or Facebook for more details). A second list is usually compiled in July, which features the Top 15 albums released in the first 6 months of each year, to spark some good-natured debate in the summer. The mid-year album countdown proved so popular this year (thank you!), that it has proved impossible not to follow this up with a full review of 2014. Given the sheer volume of wonderful releases over the past year it quickly became obvious that the Top 15 would need to be expanded to a Top 20. Even then this proved a painful process as some truly quality records were cut from the list.
Finally a list of my 20 favourite Country albums released in 2014 has been agreed and, in this first post, the CD’s in positions 20 – 11 will be revealed. Hopefully you may discover an album that passed you by in a busy 2014 along the way!
No.20 – ‘Sunshine & Whiskey’ by Frankie Ballard
After a false start with the release of his self-titled début album in 2011, Frankie Ballard switched over to Warner Bros, Records and released his break-out album ‘Sunshine & Whiskey’ in February. To date the record has given Ballard two No.1 singles with the incredibly cool title track, and his first chart-topper ‘Helluva Life’, which was also certified gold.
A singer with a hugely appealing and distinctive voice, complete with a gentle rasp to his delivery, he also recorded material which stood out from much of the standard Nashville fare. Well-written and avoiding derivative subject matter, the songs were also delivered with a healthy dose of invention and a fabulous live / loose feel which makes the album all the more enjoyable. Latest single released to radio ‘Young & Crazy’ looks set to give Ballard a hat-trick of hits, marking him out as one to keep an eye on for the future.
Standout tracks – Helluva Life, Sober Me Up, Don’t Tell Mama I Was Drinking
No.19 – ‘Brighter Skies’ by Dexeter
UK group Dexeter released their debut album ‘Brighter Skies’ earlier in the year, a period which saw them experiencing a serious upsurge in recognition following a triumphant appearance on one of the pop-up stages at the Country to Country festival. Since then the talented group have gone from strength to strength and are in the process of recording their follow-up album due in 2015.
‘Brighter Skies’ introduced UK Country fans to a collection of musicians and singers with a unique sound, expertly blending the old and new influences of the genre. Featuring accordion and upright bass in their musical canon further enhanced their trademark sound-motif. Additionally, in fabulous lead vocalist Deeanne, Dexeter have a real jewel in their crown. Kudos also to principal songwriter Gareth Thomas, who undoubtedly knows how to craft heartfelt lyrics and a beautiful melody. Those excited by ‘Slow It Down’ the cracking lead single from album number two cannot afford to miss out on ‘Brighter Skies’.
Standout tracks – Something Gold, Trouble, More Than This
No.18 – ‘Write You A Song’ by Jon Pardi
Jon Pardi released ‘Write You A Song’, his début album, way back in January. The fact that it still sounds fresh and exciting almost 12 months later is testament to its’ quality. When including this in the mid-year list of 2014 albums I remarked that I seriously thought that major Nashville labels simply did not make records like this any more. The debate rages on about what constitutes Country music in the modern era, there can be no argument that Jon Pardi is COUNTRY! Across its’ 11 tracks this album is a traditional Country delight, drowned in steel guitar, fiddle and Pardi’s rough & ready drawly vocals.
‘Up All Night’ was the second single released from the album but was the first to really gain traction and gave Pardi his first Top 10 hit, whilst clocking up over 500,000 downloads along the way. Still waiting for that huge breakthrough hit this is an artist well worthy of your support, he makes the kind of music we all want to hear and with the absolutely storming ‘Trash A Hotel Room’ recorded one of the finest tracks not to be released as a single in 2014, a must-hear!
Standout tracks – Trash A Hotel Room, Write You A Song, Love You From Here
No.17 – ‘Peace, Love and Country Music’ by Ronnie Dunn
Formerly one half of ‘super-duo’ Brooks and Dunn, Ronnie Dunn released a wonderful self-titled album back in 2011. It took over 3 years for this follow-up to appear but there was no doubt that, with ‘Peace, Love and Country Music’, Dunn had delivered an even more impressive collection. Boasting 14 eclectic tracks ranging from the redneck dance-floor groove of ‘Cowgirls, Rock & Roll’, to the big-balladry of ‘You Should See You Now’ and the glorious shuffle ‘They Still Play Country Music In Texas’, this album has it all.
What this release also has, quite possibly its key strength, is one of the finest Country vocalists to have recorded in the genre in the last thirty years or so. A true and worthy successor to Jones, Twitty or Whitley. Released on his own Little Will-E Records, this gem of an album did not receive the attention it so richly deserved. Having recently signed to newly formed Nash Icon label (part of the Big Machine group) Dunn looks set to right this situation. Released as a single, the nostalgic ‘I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes’ is the finest track on offer here and a stone-cold Country classic.
Standout tracks – I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes, Cadillac Bound, Peace,Love & Country Music
No.16 – ‘American Revival’ by Kenny Chesney
Prior to the release of ‘American Revival’ Kenny Chesney had released 14 studio albums since his first ‘In My Wildest Dreams’ in 1994. Consistently remaining at the peak of your powers throughout that period is perhaps asking too much of an artist and I could not help but feel that the last couple of albums were a little lacklustre. Whether Chesney himself agreed we cannot be sure, but having taken a year off of the road, the singer spent an extended period of time recording his latest release…and it shows. His finest and most exciting collection of tracks in some years.
The signs were good with the psychedelic-Country of lead single ‘American Kids’, with Chesney sounding positively refreshed the track was a platinum-selling No.1 smash. Big party anthems ‘Drink It Up’ and ‘Flora-Bama’ proved the lead single was no fluke, whilst the more heavyweight slower cuts such as ‘Wild Child’ and ‘If This Bus Could Talk’ added some real heart. The most consistent and well-rounded album from one of Country’s genuine superstars in quite some time, and one of the best of 2014.
Standout tracks – Til It’s Gone, American Kids, Don’t It
No.15 – ‘The Healing’ by Joshua Scott Jones
Joshua Scott Jones was one half of duo Steel Magnolia who released a criminally neglected début album in 2010, following the split of the act in 2013, the singer began work on his solo album ‘The Healing’. Having described making the record as ‘opening up an old wound’ it is clear from listening to its’ 11 tracks that this is a deeply personal album, making it all the more compelling. Having had well-publicised drink & drug addiction problems, emotionally-charged songs such as ‘City Of Angels’, ‘Just How A Heart Breaks’ and the title track are fascinating insights into a troubled mind, whilst also being gorgeous songs.
Now sober and in a far better place, there are some wonderful lighter moments from Joshua such as the rip-roaring ‘Honk (If You’re Tonky)’ and ‘Whiskey Anthem’, both of which are joyous treats. ‘The Healing’ is one of the most original sounding Country albums of 2014 and one that I purchased completely unprepared for what I was set to hear. Joshua Scott Jones may have failed to register big sales or notable airplay with ‘The Healing’ but instead he crafted an album of real meaning and one that will endure for years to come.
Standout tracks – City Of Angels, You & I, Honk (If You’re Tonky)
No.14 – ‘10,000 Towns’ by Eli Young Band
If previous release ‘Life At Best’ was Eli Young Band’s breakthrough album (producing two platinum smashes ‘Crazy Girl’ & ‘Even If It Breaks Your Heart’), then ‘10,000 Town’ was an invaluable consolidation of their increased profile and reputation. The album was their first to hit No.1 on the Billboard Country charts, thanks in part to the incredible ear-worm of a lead single that was ‘Drunk Last Night’. A huge No.1 hit and a track that was played over & over & over by your truly!
Follow-up single ‘Dust’ proved that EYB had plenty of fire in their collective belly with it’s rock-Country stylings, whilst the title track is a gentle small-town anthem that most Country acts would kill to be able to record. The album also includes some truly beautiful ballads, most notably ‘Angel Like You’ and ‘What Does’, which allow lead singer Mike Eli to shine, supported throughout by really strong harmony work from the rest of the group. The band have remarked that they are all now husbands and fathers, which clearly has influenced their most mature sounding album to date.
Standout tracks – Drunk Last Night, 10.000 Towns, What Does
No.13 – ‘From Where We Stand’ by Ward Thomas
Sisters Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas have had a remarkable 2014, the highlight of which being the release of one of the finest UK Country albums in many a year with ‘From Where We Stand’. A staggeringly impressive début from such young singer-songwriters, showing maturity well beyond their years. What seems to have made this album so popular is the remarkable way in which Ward Thomas have managed to preserve traditional Country sounds to their music whilst making it sound relevant both to 2014 and to a UK audience. The decision to resist mimicking well-worn US themes of tailgates and dirt roads, which we are used to hearing about but do not fully resonate with us was brave and has been rewarded.
A firm favourite on the BBC Radio 2 playlist ‘Push For The Stride’ is one of the absolute joys of this album, a real shot of energy into the UK Country scene. The funky ‘Way Back When’ and hugely fun ‘A Town Called Ugley’ provide further upbeat highlights. In its slower moments the album also blossoms, the deeply moving piano-led ballads ‘From Where I Stand’ and ‘Try’ are sumptuous. Whether singing together or separately both Catherine and Lizzy are strong vocalists, bringing their own compositions to life perfectly.
Standout tracks – Push For The Stride, Way Back When, From Where I Stand
No.12 – ‘747’ by Lady Antebellum
Lady Antebellum’s ‘Golden’ album saw them suffer an uncharacteristic stumble both critically and commercially, so the pressure was most definitely on the next album. Thankfully ‘747’ saw an undeniable return to top form and saw the trio stretching their musical wings and taking countless exciting risks. Lead single ‘Bartender’ hinted at a more upbeat, edgier flavour to the new material. This proved to be a genuine indication, ‘Long Stretch Of Love’ and ‘Freestyle’ both saw Charles, Dave & Hillary showcasing an appealing new sense of attitude.
For fans of the group’s hit ballads of the past few years there were also similar gems here, the laid-back beauty of ‘She Is’ and the heartbreaking desperation of ‘Lie With Me’ are as good as Lady Antebellum have been at their very best. Mix in the southern-gospel flavour of the atmospheric ‘Down South’ and the thrilling Country-pop of title track ‘747’ and devotees of the Country to Country 2015 headliners are left to enjoy one of the strongest releases of their glittering career. (Read our full review of ‘747’)
Standout tracks – Lie With Me, Down South, 747
No.11 – ‘Man Against Machine’ by Garth Brooks
A thirteen year gap between studio album releases was always going to heap unfair pressure on a new Garth Brooks album, only intensified by the fact that he is the biggest selling solo artist in US music history. Lead single ‘People Loving People’ sent alarm bells ringing for me, a hugely disappointing track, was Garth’s legacy set to be tainted? It was a huge relief to listen to ‘Man Against Machine’ and discover that, a couple of mis-steps aside, it is a cracking album. Country music has moved on since Brooks released ‘Scarecrow’ back in 2001, but he remains true to the ‘Garth sound’ and delivers more of what we were used to hearing from the Oklahoman.
Cuts such as ‘She’s Tired Of Boys’, ‘Cold Like That’ or ‘Cowboys Forever’ would feel right at home on any of his back-catalogue, yet in 2014 they sound fantastic and showcase that eclectic feel that Brooks always infused in to his albums. There are new tricks shown by this ‘old dog’, ‘Fish’ is unlike anything he has cut before and is an absolute joy, featuring one of his most relaxed vocals to date. Whilst the all-out power-Gospel flavour of ‘Tacoma’ is a sensational end to the album. A special mention for ‘Midnight Train’, an absolute powerhouse of a track. Deceptively restrained in its verses, this tale of a desperate man running from his own loneliness is one of the very best songs Garth Brooks has recorded in a newly-restarted career spanning over 25 years, stunning. (Read our full review of ‘Man Against Machine’)
Standout tracks – Midnight Train, Cold Like That, Fish
Look out for the NCUK Top 20 Albums of 2014 – Part 2 coming soon….