The ten best country albums of 2012


7. Hank Williams, Jr.
Old School, New Rules
That angry Muppet monster Bocephus got all pissed off about Obama, and then about Fox News, too, and then he puked all his talk-radio craziness into his best, toughest, funniest set in over 20 years, one that out-honks, -tonks, and -stomps anything beloved by the alt-country rockers who think the family greatness skipped over Junior's generation. Politics aside, "I'm Gonna Get Drunk And Play Hank Williams" is every bit as good as its title, and "Old School" boasts a tune that measures up to the past Hank worries we're losing. And all the let's-throw-Obama-out lyrics now sound like an affecting bit of history, the bewildered protest of millions who feel something's slipped away from them, even if they can't quite say what it is. Hank here puts into song what millions were feeling, which isn't ridiculous of him at all -- it's his job. Plus, it beats the hell out of listening to Limbaugh.

Number of Tracks I Can't Stand: 2
Lyric That Proves It's Still Country (and that Hank's No Prognosticator): "They made a huge miscalculation/ about the mood of this nation."
Highlights: Samples of the voice of Hank Sr. and the acknowledgement that "Move it on Over" and "Mind Your Own Business" are the same damn song; a heartsick cover of "You Win Again"; the chorus "Never kick a cow turd on a hot day"; the fiddler and steel players actually get to cut loose; Brad Paisley and Merle Haggard are duet partners who actually improve their songs; that Williams pretends Bing is a vital part of the internet just so he can use it in a rhyme; the fact that this ol' coot is so hilariously wrong about everything except record making.


6 Marty Stuart
Nashville Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
Guess what? Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives have released yet another ace set of ace songs that they sing and play the shit out of. Only thing that could improve it: if all this virtuosity were applied toward some idea more vital than "We're awesome at old-time music!"

Number of Tracks I Can't Stand: 0
Lyric That Proves it's Still Country: "We're holding on/ with nothing left/ to hold on to."
Highlight: If you play this for folks unfamiliar with Stuart, you could credibly claim it was recorded in any of the last four decades.


5. Jamey Johnson
Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran
Beard-wreathed scowler Jamey Johnson's last album, the double-disc The Guitar Song, could have been the best two CDs in most other artist's only-the-best career-survey box set. So, it's understandable that he's coasting, a bit, offering up a Starbucks-ready, holiday-buying-season duet record of great Hank Conchran songs. Still, it's the best written record of the year, possibly the best played in the fiddles and pedal-steel department, and -- on Johnson's verses -- the best sung, manly man's division. If your bottom line is that country should be slow, trad waltzes, this is your record of the year. Bonus points: Ray Price, Merle Haggard, George Strait, and Bobby Bare all turn up! So do Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello, who are to classy-seeming tribute records what Dr. Joyce Brothers used to be to talk shows.

Number of Songs I Can't Stand: 0
Lyric That Proves It's Actually Country and Also Explains the Record's Appeal: "Looking past isn't best/ but for me it's a way to survive."
Highlights: Johnson's deep ol' voicebox; Ray Price's lonesome croon; the way you can sink into the many sad songs like ice melting into whiskey. Also, "The Eagle," the toughest track, is marvelous.



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