The ten best country albums of 2012


4. Carrie Underwood
Blown Away
Okay, purists. If the fact that Carrie Underwood came up on American Idol still bugs you, or if you're chafed that Blown Away doesn't really feature an acoustic guitar until track five, please remember three things: 1. Dolly went disco. 2. America no longer has the local TV and radio stations where tomorrow's Lorettas can pitch themselves and get discovered all purely like. 3. "Two Cadillacs" is the best cheatin' song of the last few years, as well as the best murder ballad, and the rare contemporary hit so swollen up with love, death, and ham that you can totally imagine Elvis doing it. The rest of Blown Away likewise stands tall: monolithic production, musical-theater emotionalizing, classic country themes. Too bad about the inevitable ballad that could have been on the Top Gun soundtrack.

Number of Songs I Can't Stand: 3
Lyric That Proves It's Actually Country: "Cupid's got a shotgun, aiming at my heart."
Highlights:The whistling kickoff of the island-life fantasy "One Way Ticket" sounds like a MarioKart menu screen, and the don't-you-know-you're-beautiful? shuffle "Nobody Ever Told You" is further evidence that today's pop country isn't just about entertaining. Instead, like pharmaceuticals, it's engineered to help users through their days -- in this case brilliantly. The irony that this inspirational product must be sold by someone as beautiful as Carrie Underwood (or, years back, Kellie Pickler) should be some grad student's thesis project.


3. Dwight Yoakam
3 Pears
Here there's Motown bass lines, licks as crisp as apple bites, production courtesy of Beck, a great Rolling Stones-style ballad, and better Bakersfield-meets-the-Beatles honky tonk numbers than when the Beatles actually covered Bakersfield's own Buck Owens. What separates a master like the too-long-gone Dwight Yoakam from the try-anything up-and-comers like Sugarland or Little Big Town is that Yoakam's wide ranging influences are fully integrated into the singular perspective of an artist. In other words, it all comes out sounding like Dwight Yoakam -- at his best. Sharp, conceptual, and full of adult longing, this leap forward still honors the ol' "Guitars and Cadillacs."

Number of Songs I Can't Stand: 0
Lyric That Proves It's Actually Country: "Each day may get brighter/ but it's never alright."
Highlights: Tracks one through 12.


2. Kellie Pickler
100 Proof
Nashville's game has long been to see how much pop it could cram into music it still branded as tradition-minded. Now another American Idol alum has dared to bleed all of that pop out -- and by doing so crafted the stripped-down, hard-twanging, urgently personal record that everyone always says they wish country stars could make. Because the world is a shittier place than country lyrics today usually admit, Pickler's singles "Tough" and "100 Proof" missed the country single charts by a mile -- and got her dropped from her label Sony. (She's signed to indie Black River Entertainment, now.)

100 Proof opens with a gorgeous barroom lament that asks "Where's Tammy Wynette when you need her?" That's not an unfamiliar sentiment for a star like Pickler; Nashville albums often include songs complaining of the music's lack of a connection to its storied past. For once, though, such complaining is followed up by song after song that actually do something about it, in this case 10 in the classic mold that still burn with enough of today that they never sound like an exercise in nostalgia This isn't a tribute to great, heartfelt, traditional country. It's a continuation.


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