Country music in 2014 may have been still awash in bro-country imagery — Trucks! Cutoffs! Bacardi! — but there were still enough doses of three chords and the truth to balance out the clichés. Country radio artists like Miranda Lambert, Eric Church and Dierks Bentley released albums that were both commercially successful and creatively engaging, while indie acts Sturgill Simpson, Nikki Lane and Lori McKenna furthered the genre through bold songwriting, catching the attention of non-country fans in the process. Best of all, veterans like Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver released some of the most important music of their careers. Here are the 40 best of the year.
11 | Nikki Lane, 'All or Nothin''
It's one thing to take inspiration from Loretta Lynn — it's another to shoot her "Pill" with a swig of whiskey straight from the bottle and turn a one night stand into country's naughtiest song of the year. "Sleep with a Stranger," like the rest of Nikki Lane's Dan Auerbach-produced LP All or Nothin', establishes not only a singular tone with her twangy rasp and guitar strings sticky from both resin and Seventies groove, but a singular point of view at a time when Music Row's women are often relegated to riding shotgun in short-shorts on the back of their boyfriend's Harley. Lane's the one driving, but she'll still take those teeny cutoffs, thank you very much. M.M.
19 | Robert Ellis, 'The Lights From the Chemical Plant'
Ellis is a Nashville songwriter with a poet's heart who doesn't sweat mainstream conventions, and his third LP is a fully realized masterpiece. See "A Bottle of Wine," which sets a scene with the title beverage and "a bag of cocaine" before spiraling into a black hole of damaged love over solo piano and sax. If you're wondering if it's even "country music," per se, look towards its soulful twang and fearless storytelling. And who'd have guessed Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" would sound so good with pedal steel? W.H.