The Ten Best Country Albums of 2012
This list of the year's best country albums is assembled with two important premises in mind: First: If the people who record and listen to these records consider them country, than they're damn well country. Purists who argue that country should still sound like '68, '76, '84 or whenever are in the interesting position of being more conservative than Nashville radio.
I have nothing against the opinion that Hank Williams -- or whatever other well-marketed figure of authenticity you prefer -- would love to see Rascal Flatts knocked on their J.C. Penney-endorsing asses. But I also accept that that opinion matters much less than those of the few million people who still actually buy CDs.
Second, Taylor Swift is now beyond country the way that Kanye is beyond hip hop or J.R. is beyond Dallas. She simply is. Red would rank highly here if I were to waste a slot on it, but she belongs on more broadly focused lists, like maybe "Best Things in General in Recent Years."
This list has fewer men than women, mostly because Nashville's suits allow the he-hunks a more meager emotional range than the spitfires. The fellas are forever singing about some upcoming beer-in-a-cooler party (Wade Bowen's "Saturday Night," Lee Brice's "Parking Lot Party," Chris Cagle's "Wal-Mart Parking Lot") or all the little details that make being in love worth it (Easton Corbin's "Lovin' You Is Fun"; Jason Aldean's "When She Says Baby"). Maybe once per album they're permitted to feel something more complex. Of course, if male country stars sang about their real lives, every song would be called things like "Two Hours at the Gym and a Protein Shake."
10. Little Big Town
A his-and-hers vocal group rather than the Zynga game the name suggests, Little Big Town exemplifies modern Nashville's expanding sonic purview, which now includes all music that white Americans have ever enjoyed with the exception of post-Nirvana alt-rock. Like Eric Church, they've updated the Waylon Jennings one-two stomp for the age of the breakbeat, and from track to track the four singers daydream that they're the Oak Ridge Boys ("Front Porch Thing"), Fleetwood Mac ("Leavin' In Your Eyes"), and -- seriously, on the hilarious "On Fire Tonight" -- the Jackson Five. The big beat is killer, but the twining harmony songs are just incidentally pretty.
Number of Songs I Can't Stand: 3
Lyric That Proves It's Actually Country: "When I die/ I don't wanna go sober."
Highlights: They way they coo "motorboatin'" with something of the know-it's-dirty-archness that John Anderson drawled "swingin'."
9. Edens Edge
The rare chart-contending country band that actually sounds something like a band, this comely trio (this time a hers-n-his) has managed to craft an appealingly down-home debut full-length despite the involvement of producer Dann Huff, the man personally responsible for the fact that so much Nashville product sounds like uptight Whitesnake. Singer Hannah Blaylock's power and unapologetic twang mark her as a potential long-haul performer; the two guitar/dobro/mandolin players guarantee your grandpap might recognize this as having something to do with the common idea of country. Too bad the songwriting's not especially distinctive, save a couple ringers like "Amen."
Number of Songs I Can't Stand: 2
Lyric That Proves It's Actually Country: "I heard from a friend of a friend of a friend that/ You finally got rid of that girlfriend"
Highlights: In a year when sexually active single women were shamed again and again in media and politics, Blaylock belting "Skinny Dippin'" is a welcome, horny corrective.
8. Kip Moore
Up All Night
This here's the most promising of the neo-Springsteens, that tribe of car and romance-loving rockers whose songs all barrel across suburban-to-rural everytowns like the Boss's might if he had no interest in politics or hard truths. Moore's music is mostly straight-ahead heartland rock, with narrative and some stars-and-moon poetry, all from the perspective of a politely redblooded gent who raises exactly as much hell as is socially acceptable. But his crunching chord/gentle-twang pairing diminishes neither rock nor country, and the fussily punctuated "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" is for the ages. If you wonder why neo-Springsteenism is country these days, ask yourself: "Is there anyplace else on the radio that plays new rock for people who don't fancy that they're the alternative to the mainstream?"
Number of Songs I Can't Stand: 1
Lyric That Proves It's Actually Country: "We'll chase the moon/ ride the stars/ find the muscle in this car."
Highlights: On "Fly Again," the next-to-last track, he finally expresses something impolite, in this case a heartache bad enough that he gets high on the roof of his car and fires a gun at the moon. Also, somehow, "Everything But You" manages to steal the "Sweet Jane" riff and the verse melody of James McMurtry's "Rachel's Song" and still work as a new tune.