Rodney Crowell, 'Tarpaper Sky'
Fresh from his Grammy-winning collaboration with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell keeps things light and lovely on Tarpaper Sky. Although once a trendsetter in country music, he's happy to cast his lot with the old guys these days, leaving bro country and hick-hop to the newbies who rely on Music Row for their material. There's no outsourcing here. Instead, Crowell writes all 11 of the album's relaxed, rootsy songs, proof that in a genre split between diamonds and dirt, Crowell — who tackles everything from Cajun rhythms to country shuffles — still shines with the best of 'em. Give a listen to "Fever on the Bayou."
Robert Ellis, 'The Lights From The Chemical Plant'
It says a lot about Robert Ellis that the only traditionally-country song on The Lights From the Chemical Plant is the bluegrass quick-picker "Sing Along" about the crushing veil of religion that exists in Texan hometowns like his. Equally able to sling honky-tonk as bossa nova, Ellis is the kind of artist that exists outside of neat categorization — and this LP is enough to make Pandora algorithms start cursing and kicking the (fire) wall. Where do you place someone who shreds through a Paul Simon cover with both delicate inflection and prog-rock guitar lines one moment, spins clever narrative with jazzy chord voicings the next and dances to Jai Paul or George Jones in his free time? It's not easy, but that's the thrill of Chemical Plant.
Nikki Lane, 'All Or Nothin"
From Dr. John's Locked Down to Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence, Dan Auerbach has built up an impressively varied discography since establishing himself as a Nashville producer. But it's on Nashville-by-way-of-South-Carolina chanteuse Nikki Lane's sinister second effort All or Nothin' that the Black Keys guitarist really shows how he can help craft a killer set of songs in a stellar-sounding record. Lane sings of long nights raising hell on the attitude-rife, cinematic opener "Right Time," pines over bad men with cheating hearts on the bittersweet "Good Man," declares nihilistic love for one such man on the driving, honk-tonk-ready romp "I Don't Care" and adds gravitas to frowned-upon choices on the Stones-y swagger-dripping "Sleep With a Stranger." Auerbach's punch-drunk conflation of classic country-rock sounds and Sixties pop production adds both an Instagram filter and more than a tinge of modernity. But with her seductive, devil-may-care drawl, Lane is the real scene-stealer here.