Country music absolutely thrived this year, and that doesn't include what the mainstream regurgitated out to the masses. No, there will be no Bro-Country records in this "Best Of" piece. In fact, what many of this list's artists are doing is what the mainstream should be doing. When it comes to remarkable storytellers and vocalists, you have to look a lot further than corporate-held radio to get a firm grip on compelling stories of love, loss, heartache and even happiness.
While I enjoy plenty of what the mainstream has to offer, I find myself peering deeper within the genre's roots to fulfill my musical appetite. You probably won't recognize most of the names on this list, but I assure you, this collection has truly moved me (sometimes, to tears) over the past 12 months. I strongly urge you to take a listen, if you haven't already.
25. The Statesboro Revue, 'Ramble On Privilege Creek'
Melody-driven Americana at its finest. Syrupy-sweet swirls of beats wrapped around finely tuned vocals. Best tracks: "Cold November," "Half Mile to Lincoln" and "Lil' Mary's Last Stand."
24. Della Mae, 'This World Oft Can Be'
Perfectly crafted bluegrass that folds neatly into modern culture. Best tracks: "Letter From Down The Road / And Other Things," "Ain't No Ash Will Burn" and "Like Bones."
23. The Black Lillies, 'Runaway Freeway Blues'
A mixture of plucky melodies and quirky vocals makes this release one of the most interesting from a group this year. Best tracks: "Gold and Roses," "Catherine" and "All This Living."
22. Eric Strickland & The B Sides, 'I'm Bad For You'
Channeling Merle Haggard and Randy Travis, Eric combines traditional and rock sensibilities into a wholly viable record. Best tracks: "The Whiskey Always Seems To Change My Mind," "Heartache Hall of Shame" and "Unwanted."
21. Jason Boland & The Stragglers, 'Dark & Dirty Mile'
Less is sometimes more, as demonstrated by Jason's simple delivery. The emotion is there, and he lets the lyrics speak for themselves. Best tracks: "Dark and Dirty Mile," "Lucky I Guess" and "Nine Times Out of Ten."
20. Carolina Still, 'Color of Rust'
A stomping good time is an apt description. From the onset, the album charges forward as fast as Charlie Daniels' fiddel playing. Even when the tempo lets up, the themes and stories do not. Best tracks: "Color of Rust," "Black Lung, Wv" and "Murder in the Pines."
19. Nellie Wilson, 'Not This Time'
Her voice is simply piercing. Add in some Carter Family-style musicianship (and a few bone-chilling stories), and you have a recipe for great music. Best tracks: "The Town Fool," "The Broke Ass Blues" and "A Noose and a Note."
18. Daryl Wayne Dasher, 'Great Big Sky'
Honest introspection and memorable lyrics culminate in this truly country western album. He invokes passion and grit and easily navigates around insightful stories. Best tracks: "Again," "Soldier" and "Sun."
17. Alan Jackson, 'The Bluegrass Album'
Now, this is how a mainstream country record should be made. Sure, bluegrass is in the title, but when I think of real country music, this is the first to come to my mind. Best tracks: "Long Hard Road," "Tie Me Down" and "Blacktop."
16. Ashton Shepherd, 'This Is America'
One of the most traditional releases this year. Her gorgeous alto pours around the lyrics with charming sincerity. Why this girl isn't a global sensation is beyond my comprehension. I get serious Loretta Lynn vibes from her. Best tracks: "Andy," "Drinkin' Cap" and "Seventeen Again."
15. Lori McKenna, 'Massachusetts'
Another bubbling-under female who could very well see a breakout song next year. This is simply more evidence that females are capable of much more than their male counterparts. Best tracks: "Salt," "Susanna," "Better with Time" and "Love Can Put It Back Together."
14. The Avett Brothers, 'Magpie and the Dandelion'
This timely harmonica- and banjo-laced release (and their ironic "Another is Waiting") comes at a time when everyone is questioning the direction of country music. They might be onto something. Best tracks: "Another is Waiting," "Skin and Bones" and "Vanity."
13. Charlie Worsham, 'Rubberband'
The mainstream has never been so appealing. Amidst all the bro-country, this newcomer dares to laugh in the face of the norm by attempting to usher in stylistic change. He even enlists the talent of Vince Gill and Marty Stuart. Aces. Best tracks: "Tools of the Trade," "How I Learned To Pray" and "Mississippi in July."
12. Leann Rimes, 'Spitfire'
Despite her personal life overshadowing her talent, Leann steps back into everyone's minds with this sensational record by directly addressing what everyone is talking about. Her creative juices are surging with this tradtionally-infused, boisteroius set. Best tracks: "What Have I Done," "Gasoline and Matches," "Borrowed" and "A Waste Is a Terrible Thing To Mind."
11. Brandy Clark, '12 Stories'
She is simply One To Watch in 2014. She might be standing in Kacey Musgraves' shadow at the moment, but this album proves Brandy has her own completely unique sound and message. Best tracks: "Pray To Jesus," "Stripes," "Illegitimate Children" and "The Day She Got Divorced."
10. Caitlin Rose, 'The Stand-In'
A roudy, soulful collection of songs that is as equally eclectic as it is groundbreaking. Best Tracks: "I Was Cruel," "Waitin" and "Pink Champagne."
9. Ashley Monroe, 'Like a Rose'
One of the finest, most underrated vocalists out there. A traditional set whose only crime is being too short — even Blake Shelton's appearance is enjoyable. Best tracks: "Like a Rose," "The Morning After" and "She's Driving Me Out Of Your Mind."
8. The Civil Wars (self-titled)
They are the silver lining to an otherwise dark-clouded landscape. They have even managed to out-do themselves compared to their debut release. Best tracks: "Dust To Dust," "Devil's Backbone" and "Eavesdrop."
7. The Lone Bellow (self-titled)
This Brooklyn-born trio is one of the most surprising releases this year. Best tracks: "Two Sides Of Lonely," "Fire Red Horse" and "Bleeding Out."
6. Sturgill Simpson, 'High Top Mountain'
Another stellar offering from a man who could transform the industry. His album channels many of the greats, such as the late George Jones and Johnny Cash. Best tracks: "Railroad of Sin," "The Storm" and "Poor Rambler."
5. Kacey Musgraves, 'Same Trailer Different Park'
She is the saving grace of the mainstream. Her lyrics are sharp and truly about real life. Best tracks: "Silver Lining," "Follow Your Arrow" and "Keep It To Yourself."
4. The Devil Makes Three, 'I'm A Stranger Here'
Traditional-leaning groovy (and sometimes rather dark) jams that blend remarkable musicianship with catchy hooks. Best tracks: "Stranger," "Worse or Better" and "Spinning Like A Top."
3. Holly Williams, 'The Highway'
Raw, organic, daring — what country music is all about. Best tracks: "The Highway," "Drinkin'" and "Railroads."
2. Jason Isbell, 'Southeastern'
You will not find a better male vocalist and storyteller than this guy. Best tracks: "Elephant," "Stockholm" and "Cover Me Up."
1. Lindi Ortega, 'Tin Star'
Depressingly haunting and beautiful. Her voice cries and breaks with the emotional stories she creates. If I had it my way, she would be a superstar. This could be the record of the decade. Best tracks: "Tin Star," "Lived and Died Alone" and "This is Not Surreal."
Brad Paisly, 'Wheelhouse' (One of the few A-listers who isn't afraid of taking risks and expanding their creativity)
Court Yard Hounds, 'Amelita' (The Dixie Chicks subtracts Natalie Maines and adds flavorful tradition)
Valerie June, 'Pushin' Against A Stone' (Soulful country-folk)
Pistol Annies, 'Annie Up' (See, traditional can be modern and cool)
Agree with my list? What are your Top 25 releases of the year? Let me know on Twitter. Of course, feel free to email me to keep the conversation going.
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