Well, here we are, 2015 is almost upon us. The past 12 months have seen the release of some truly wonderful Country albums, making it incredibly difficult to whittle them down to just 20, but we managed it…just. Part 1 of this post featured the albums in the positions 20 – 11, now we move on to the Top 10 and the real heavyweights!
No.10 – ‘Moonshine In The Trunk’ by Brad Paisley
Brad Paisley is a huge favourite here in the UK, having built up a loyal following over the last few years. His performance at this year’s C2C Festival closed the weekend in amazing style and whetted the appetite for new music. Previous album ‘Wheelhouse’ was a critical triumph but performed far less impressively than the albums which preceded it. Paisley tinkered with the formula a little, went back to basics and delivered a record showcasing everything that is so adored about an artist who resolutely remains Country and proud of it.
Lead single ‘River Bank’ was an early indicator of the sheer unabashed fun musical moments here, featuring Paisley’s trademark humorous lyrical prowess, along with the likes of ‘Crushin It’ and ‘High Life’ (featuring some hilarious interplay with Carrie Underwood). There were some new shades to Brad’s musical pallete, the storming title track rocked a little harder than virtually anything the singer had cut previously, whilst the bluegrass-flavoured ‘Gone Green’ was a delightful throwback. Few artists can mix these light-hearted numbers with truly emotional balladry as well as Paisley and with the gorgeous ‘Perfect Storm’ & stirring ‘Shattered Glass’ he proved, yet again, to be an absolute master. (Read our full review of ‘Moonshine In The Trunk’)
Standout tracks – Shattered Glass, Perfect Storm, Gone Green
No.9 – ‘Come Closer’ by Stephanie Manns
Stephanie Manns is a a UK singer-songwriter whose ‘Come Closer’ album was released back in February and was reviewed on the predecessor to this site. To say it was well-received is a huge understatement, the album is an absolute joy. Across its’ 10 tracks Manns showcases a number of styles all rooted in Country/Folk/Americana, and all handled expertly. An incredibly appealing vocalist, with the warmest of deliveries, and a seriously talented songwriter to boot.
Title track ‘Come Closer’ is a gorgeous slow-burn ballad with big electric guitar licks, whilst the gentle and beautifully uncluttered ‘Great Love’ is the musical version of the warmest of hugs. The album also shines in its many lighter moments, the incredibly catchy toe-tapper ‘Ain’t It Funny’ and the reggae-tinged and gloriously laidback ‘Daisychains’ being two of the finest examples. Special mention for the edgier ‘The Way You Want Me To’, a personal favourite track and a marvellous centrepiece for an album well worthy of your time to seek out and listen to.
Standout tracks – Come Closer, The Way You Want Me To, Fingers & Toes
No.8 – ‘Old Boots, New Dirt’ by Jason Aldean
As mentioned in our preview of the C2C Day 2 Line-Up article, Jason Aldean is an artist who firmly divides opinion amongst Country fans. It is well known (and I have taken a fair amount of light-hearted ribbing for the fact!) that I am a big Aldean fan and any album of his is always going to find its’ place in a year-end ‘Best Of’ list, by virtue of the fact that I will have played it endlessly. This year’s release ‘Old Boots, New Dirt’ is no exception and for fans of arguably the biggest male artist in Country right now (Luke Bryan may have something to say about that) it sits perfectly in a catalogue of cracking albums.
Whilst not scaling the heights of 2010’s ‘My Kinda Party’ this current release really delivers, whether rocking out to the likes of ‘Just Gettin Started’ / ‘Gonna Know We Were Here’, or slowing things down with the fabulous ‘Tryin To Love Me’ / ‘Tonight Looks Good On You’, Aldean knows exactly what his fans are longing to hear. Lead single ‘Burnin It Down’ was a platinum-selling No.1 smash, but received endless criticism for its’ non-Country stylings. A valid argument perhaps, but it is easily the least traditional offering here, however the likes of ‘If My Truck Could Talk’ & ‘Two Night Town’ may raise an eyebrow to those who have unfairly consigned Aldean to the bro-Country scrapheap.
Standout tracks – Tryin To Love Me, Two Night Town, If My Truck Could Talk
No.7 – ‘Pain Killer’ by Little Big Town
After a long, hard journey Little Big Town really broke through into the big time with the release of their platinum-selling album ‘Tornado’. Two years on and the four-piece have followed up that superb release with an absolute gem in ‘Pain Killer’. Not content to rest on their laurels (or release a ‘Tornado 2‘) Jimi, Karen, Kimberly & Phillip cut a delightfully eclectic album which saw them experimenting with a number of sounds, all featuring their trademark harmonies. Lead single ‘Day Drinking’ with its’ summertime melody and ‘whistle-along’ theme acted as a hugely fun introduction to the album.
Follow-up single ‘Girl Crush’ seems to be generating even more buzz and is an astoundingly good track, a slow-burn ballad featuring a completely hypnotic guitar-riff and beautiful vocals. It looks set to give Little Big Town one of the biggest songs of their career to date, and deservedly so. Another gorgeous track is the closer ‘Silver and Gold’, one of the more stripped down offerings and one which truly allows the group to wrap you up in their harmonies. At the other end of the spectrum (and of the album), opening track ‘Quit Breaking Up With Me’ is a modern honky-tonk delight, a scorching track bursting with energy. The group also tip their hat to reggae with the brilliant slinky title track, with its ear-worm of a chorus. Slightly overlooked on its release in October this is an album that deserves its place in any music lover’s collection.
Standout tracks – Girl Crush, Quit Breaking Up With Me, Pain Killer
No.6 – ‘The Outsiders’ by Eric Church’
Almost three years passed before Eric Church released a follow-up to his phenomenally successful ‘Chief’ album, which featured one of the finest songs in years in ‘Springsteen’. Church was determined not to be rushed into recording material simply to capitalise on his upsurge in popularity and the time taken to craft ‘The Outsiders’ shines through whilst listening. The title track was the lead single and was unlike anything else on Country radio, spoken verses and explosive rocking choruses featuring Church’s angry vocals. The singer was ruffling Nashville’s feathers again but backing it up with undeniably strong material.
For any Country music fans dissuaded from buying this album by the all-out rock of that track, trust me there is so much more to enjoy here. Church shows his light-hearted side with hugely fun mid-tempo chuggers ‘Cold One’ & ‘Broke Record’; whilst the poignant duo of ‘Roller Coaster Ride’ & ‘Talladega’ paint delightfully vivid pictures with their descriptive lyrics and nostalgic melodies. For an artist with a rebel-rousing reputation some of Church’s most rewarding tracks are his most stripped down and raw, this album features two amazingly emotional examples with the sublime ‘A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young’ & ‘Give Me Back My Hometown’. Eric Church continues to be one of the most exciting artists on a major Nashville label and this album is essential.
Standout tracks – Give Me Back My Hometown, A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young, Talladega
No.5 – ‘The Way I’m Livin’ by Lee Ann Womack
The fact that Lee Ann Womack is one of the main acts set to appear at the C2C Festival next year is a reason for all UK Country fans to rejoice. This lady, who released her début album back in 1997, remains one of the very finest female voices in the genre. Six years on from the release of her previous album, ‘The Way I’m Livin’ made its’ bow in September and proved to be a stunning return from Lee Ann. Released on predominantly Americana/bluegrass label Sugar Hill records, both styles of music feature heavily on an album that sounds like it was recorded decades ago, whilst being infused with a thoroughly modern energy.
The title track acted as lead single and despite a slow-build proves to be an absolutely scorching track, with a powerhouse vocal from Womack and incredible picking. ‘Tomorrow Night In Baltimore’, although sounding more mainstream, shares a similar electric feel and excitement. Unsurprisingly, with a voice as breathtakingly gorgeous as Womack’s, perhaps the ballads are even stronger. Incredibly difficult to choose favourites from those on offer here but notable nods to the steel-guitar soaked ‘Send It On Down’, or stone-cold Country of ‘Chances Are’. If you are beginning to worry that they simply do not make real, classic Country albums any more, they do and ‘The Way I’m Livin’ is one of the very best to come along in many a year.
Standout tracks – The Way I’m Livin’. Chances Are, Send It On Down
No.4 – ‘I’m A Fire’ by David Nail
Prior to this album’s release the lead single ‘Whatever She’s Got’ was giving David Nail his second No.1 hit and went on to be certified platinum. Despite this, I cannot help but feel that Nail remains one of the most underrated artists in mainstream Country music. His career is steadily building and his previous album ‘The Sound Of A Million Dreams’ was a thing of beauty, all that record lacked was a variation in both pace and tone. Thankfully ‘I’m A Fire’ remedies that and makes it easily Nail’s most accomplished release to date.
‘Whatever She’s Got’ was an uptempo feel-good summer hit, this is joined by the driving ‘Kiss You Tonight’ & ‘Countin’ Cars’ as Nail continues to stretch his musical wings. The joyous ‘When They’re Gone’ featuring Little Big Town also gives the listener a chance to really hear the singer enjoying himself. The intensity of his earlier albums is still on display and the sultry ‘Burnin Bed’ really sets the pulse racing, whilst the emotional storytelling in ‘The Secret’ is gripping. Pick of the tracks for me is ‘Brand New Day’, most probably because it resonates with me personally and the 2014 that I have had, but also because it is a divine song. Across the entire album Nail proves that he is a unique voice, one that richly deserves to be heard on a wider platform.
Standout tracks – Brand New Day, The Secret, Whatever She’s Got
No. 3 – ‘Platinum’ by Miranda Lambert
Miranda Lambert picked up her 5th consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year trophy at this year’s CMA Awards, at the same ceremony Lambert also walked away with Single of the Year for ‘Automatic’, as well as Album of the Year for this very record. Those successes as well as the fact this album debuted at No.1 selling over 180,000 copies in its first week is proof that this is an artist at the very top of her game. Lead single ‘Automatic’ was a nostalgic treat, whilst follow-up single ‘Somethin’ Bad’ may have been a little messy melodically, but in pairing Lambert with Carrie Underwood proved to be a huge hit. It seems that Lambert’s record label are struggling slightly to choose which tracks they actually want to release as singles, which is curious given the sheer number of quality tracks to cherry-pick.
The title track is a sassy delight, with the killer line ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder‘, whilst the wry look at modern day fame ‘Priscilla’ is a quality rocker. ‘Hard Staying Sober’ is one of the most traditional sounding tracks and features one of Lambert’s strongest vocal performances, ‘Sunday In The South’ immediately transports you to a summer weekend in Texas with its laidback charm. As with previous album ‘Four The Record’, Lambert shows that she is adept at varying styles and welcoming The Time Jumpers to join in on the Western-swing of ‘All That’s Left’ offers further proof, as does the jazzy-feeling balladry of ‘Holding On To You’. Lambert remains impossible to pigeon-hole within Country music and that is probably one of the key reasons for her huge success, as is the fact that she possesses a powerfully distinctive Country voice, which shines throughout ‘Platinum’.
Standout tracks – Automatic, Platinum, Sunday In The South
No.2 – ‘Sundown Heaven Town’ by Tim McGraw
Finally releasing new music on a new label, Tim McGraw delivered quite possibly the best album of 2013 with the fabulous ‘Two Lanes Of Freedom’. This year McGraw continued the re-invigoration of a career of remarkable longevity with the release of ‘Sundown Heaven Town’, which is very nearly a match for its predecessor. Lead single ‘Lookin’ For That Girl’ set alarms bells ringing with unnerving drum loops and auto-tuning, which were a complete 180-degree shift from the likes of ‘Nashville Without You’. By the time that the next single ‘Meanwhile Back At Mama’s’ (featuring Faith Hill) hit the airwaves McGraw fans began to feel far more confident. This was a gentle homespun tale, bereft of modern stylings instead featuring two lovely vocal performances and lashings of steel guitar & dobro, simply wonderful.
For fans of that track (and how could you not be?), songs such as ‘Diamond Rings and Old Barstools’ & ‘Portland, Maine’ provide more traditional Country balladry of the highest quality. The steel guitar & fiddle-filled tracks continue with the cracking midtempo cuts ‘City Lights’ & ‘Overrated’. For those looking for a little more modern Country-rock with their McGraw look no further than the superb driving cut ‘Dust’, or the impossible to resist charm of ‘Keep On Truckin’. For those who purchased the deluxe version of this album it does lose its way ever so slightly towards the end, but having also enjoyed the likes of ‘Sick Of Me’ and the inspirational ‘Words Are Medicine’ by that time you can more than forgive McGraw. This is the Country superstar’s 13th studio album, arriving 21 years or so since his debut, to still be recording absolutely compelling Country music at this stage of his career is no mean feat and one for which Tim McGraw deserves huge credit.
Standout tracks – Meanwhile Back At Mama’s, Dust, Portland,Maine
No.1 – ‘Riser’ by Dierks Bentley
Dierks Bentley made choosing my favourite album of 2014 one of the easiest decisions I have ever had to make. Since it’s release in February (just prior to his festival-stealing performance at C2C) ‘Riser’ has stood head and shoulders above any album released this year, and quite possibly in the ten years or so before. Recorded over a prolonged period which saw Bentley experience both the sadness of his father passing away and the joy of the birth of his son Knox, those emotions have bled their way into a deeply personal and remarkably raw sounding album. The first single ‘Bourbon In Kentucky’ (featuring Kacey Musgraves) fared poorly at Country radio but is nonetheless a thrilling track, a no-holds barred account of a heartbroken man. The follow-up release ‘I Hold On’ was even stronger, a gold-certified No.1 smash, and a testament to how grounded the singer remains despite years of success. The song also mentions the passing of his father, making it mean so much more to Bentley.
Whilst recording the album Bentley’s producer Ross Copperman mentioned to the singer that they had cut a lot of dark material and it may be ideal to lighten the mood somewhat. Although it deals with a jilted bridegroom ‘Drunk On A Plane’ came out of this decision and has given Bentley one of the biggest hits of his career, another No.1 and a platinum seller too. Other lighter moments come in the shape of the atmospheric ‘Sounds Of Summer’ and the good-time ‘Pretty Girls’. But it is in those deeper, far more introspective moments that ‘Riser’ really shines, latest single ‘Say You Do’ is a gorgeous ballad featuring lyrics painting a picture of real heartbreak and desperation that most songs shy away from.
‘Here On Earth’ rivals ‘I Hold On’ for stirring those goosebumps, an astonishingly frank reflection on mortality and the effects on those left behind when a loved one passes away, searching for reason. The completely stripped down ‘Damn These Dreams’, mainly focussing on the sacrifices made by an aspiring (& later on a successful) Country singer, is another track that you can feel resonates with Bentley, a doting husband and father. Those who have seen the documentary film showing the footage in & out of the studio whilst the singer was recording the album will know what an absolute labour of love making ‘Riser’ was for an artist who takes his craft incredibly seriously. All those hours of hard work paid off, Dierks Bentley has made a staggeringly strong Country album, one that will endure for years to come and is undoubtedly one of the best I have ever heard.
Standout tracks – every one of them.