Country Perspective’s Best Country Albums of 2014

We have reached the end of 2014 and over the course of the year we’ve reviewed a lot of great country music. So in case you just found the site or don’t remember all of the great country albums we’ve reviewed, you’re in luck. Here are the links to every album we rated an 8/10 or higher over the course of the year. These are the albums we give a solid recommendation or more for you to listen to. Keep in mind this site started in May, so we won’t have every single great album. For example we never got around to reviewing Dierks Bentley’s album or Don Williams’ album, two albums that would have definitely made this list. So if there are albums missing that you love, they were most likely not reviewed. Others of course may have not been rated high enough to make it. I’m also including our album of the year candidates in case you missed those too. One more thing: only albums are included, no EPs. So without further ado here are Country Perspective’s most recommended albums of 2014.

10/10 (Album of the Year Candidates)

Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music 

Shovels & Rope – Swimmin’ Time 

Karen Jonas – Oklahoma Lottery 

Lucette – Black Is The Color 

Tami Neilson – Dynamite! 

Sunny Sweeney – Provoked 

First Aid Kit – Stay Gold 

Old Crow Medicine Show – Remedy 

The Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down 

9.5/10

Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class 

Micky & The Motorcars – Hearts From Above 

Stoney LaRue – Aviator 

9/10

Wade Bowen – Wade Bowen 

Matt Woods – With Love From Brushy Mountain 

Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’ 

BlackHawk – Brothers of the Southland 

The Roys – The View 

Jason Eady – Daylight & Dark 

Mack McKenzie – One Last, One More 

Bonnie Montgomery – Bonnie Montgomery 

8.5/10

Jon Pardi – Write You A Song 

Ray Scott – Ray Scott 

Mary Sarah – Bridges 

The Buffalo Ruckus – The Buffalo Ruckus 

Rich O’Toole – Jaded 

Corb Lund – Counterfeit Blues 

8/10

Eric Paslay – Eric Paslay 

Phillip Fox Band – Heartland 

Terri Clark – Some Songs 

EP Review – Ted Z and The Wranglers’ Like A King

Image Source: tedzandthewranglers.com

Every week I get several requests for reviews and other features for the site. Some stuff is acceptable, while others I have to turn down because the music simply isn’t country music (sometimes it isn’t even remotely close). But every once in a while I’ll get a request to review that I’m surprised I hadn’t come across sooner. Something that fits perfectly for Country Perspective. Ted Z and the Wranglers’ EP released back in June titled Like A King is something that fits perfectly for this site. Now I know what you’re thinking when you see their name. How could a band with this kind of name be country? Well I assure you they are part country. They’re also part southern rock and folk. Here’s how the group describes themselves on their site:

Ted Z and the Wranglers, of Southern California, deliver heartfelt ballads and gritty grassroots rock ‘n’ roll with a cowboy kick. Their folky story-telling songs convey themes of love, politics, environmentalism, childhood imagination, and the rawness of humanity.

After listening to their music, it’s a pretty apt description. The band is made up of Ted Zakka (lead singer and guitarist), Mike Layton (lead guitarist and harmonica), Professor Dan Mages (bass), Mike Meyers (drums and harmony vocals) and Jackson Leverone (shares lead guitar duties with Layton). Like A King is the third EP they’ve put out. Now when it comes to EPs I’m picky about which ones to review because it’s really hard to grasp the concepts of them. They’re so short and usually an album is not too far behind. But after listening to Ted Z and the Wranglers I had to share my thoughts on their new EP. Since it’s an EP I like to break it down by song:

“Like A King” – It’s about a woman loving a man despite all of his troubles and problems. This song has a folksy Americana sound to it and this is really the dominant sound of the EP. The instrumentation is solid throughout this song and you’ll find out it’s this way through the entire album too. The song is simple yet gets the message across well.

“Heaven’s Rent” – A song about a man finding God in his back yard and letting him crash at his place. I’m not sure if this song is supposed to be serious or not? I’m going to guess no because “God” in this song is riding around on a Harley and has a drinking problem. But it features great electric guitar play and it’s well-written. Interpret this song however you want to.

“Virginia” – This is a bluesy, southern rock-country song about a man having “the love-sick blues” for a woman named Virginia. He’s pleading for her to come back to him. A man named Hank is also mentioned to love Virginia in the song and I’m not quite sure if it’s referencing the Hank Williams or just some guy named Hank. Another simple heartbreak song that gets the theme across well. The instrumentation is quite good.

“Ball and Chain” – I love the grit and rawness of the vocals in this song. I get a ZZ Top/Stevie Ray Vaughn feel from it. This song is definitely leaning towards the classic rock sound and gets away from the folk sound that’s permeated the album. It’s really easy to get into this song and makes you want to tap your feet. This is another song where it’s really up to the listener to determine what it’s about. Perhaps the lyrics could have been better, but it’s still a fun song.

“Tomorrow” – It’s a love song where a woman tells her man that they could wait until tomorrow to fall in love, but the man says you should live like there’s just today. The message is you should never wait until tomorrow for something and should seize the moment here and now. The song is well-written and is probably the best at telling a story on the entire EP. I think it would’ve been even better though if a woman sang the female parts of the song. Nevertheless the instrumentation is pretty good again and really reminds me of the music from decades ago that would play on the radio back when there weren’t any stations dedicated to certain genres and you could listen to rock and country on the same channel.

While I enjoyed listening to this EP, I would’ve liked it more if there some more songs and it was an album. After three EP releases I would like to see Ted Z and the Wranglers release an album.  They’ve clearly found their sound with the folksy, southern rock, country sound they have going and the instrumentation is great. For future songs I would like to see some songwriting that would better tell a story or theme in their music. I think this band is capable of taking on complex songs with nuances to them. Really this is the one element I think that’s holding them back from being a complete group because other than this they’re the whole package. Their style and sound is unique and the band sounds like they have great chemistry. I look forward to hearing future material because I can definitely sense high potential in this group. If you enjoy bands like Micky & The Motorcars, Phillip Fox Band and The Buffalo Ruckus, I think this is a group you would like too.

Grade: 8/10

 

Derek’s Top Ten Country Songs – September 2014

 

There were quite a bit of music releases this month, so for me to narrow this down to ten wasn’t as easy as I thought.  In my opinion, the best song released this month was Keeley Valentino’s “Burned.” I said quite a bit about the song in my review of her EP, here’s a snippet: Perhaps the most impressive part of the whole song is the fact that Keeley hits such a high note in the choruses. Her high-notes combined with the echoing instrumentation create a sort of haunting emptiness that captures the emotions of the song’s characters.” Without a doubt that was the song that stood out to me the most this month. Number two is Lee Ann Womack’s “Same Kind of Different” which was easily her best song on The Way I’m Livin’. I’m not surprised that women hit the top two marks on my top ten. Female country singers have been releasing a number of quality albums over the past few years, and I hope to see that trend continue. The Phillip Fox Band gets a spot at number three with the impressive Country Fried Rock N’ Roll western tune “Nothin’ Worse Than Weak.” Number four is The Roy’s heartbreaking, yet well-written Alzheimer’s song called “Sometimes.” Rounding out the top five, I have my favorite song from Tim McGraw’s Sundown Heaven Townhis duet with Catherine Dunn called “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools.”

The Phillip Fox Band appears again at number six with “Ava Lee”, the upbeat love song about a couple living life in the fast lane, and the man debates if he should settle down and have a future with her. Josh Turner’s new single, “Lay Low” comes in at number seven. Lee Ann Womack shows up again at number eight with “Prelude: Fly.” I was captivated by this track during my first listen and it features some great vocal work from Womack. Keeley Valentino makes another appearance on the list with “Love Will Come Around Again” at number nine. It’s a great song about getting over a break up and preparing yourself for when the next person comes to capture your heart. Finally, concluding the top ten is Wade Bowen with “When I Woke Up Today.”  This fun song is about finding joy in life and remaining positive while the trials of a life on the road take form. It’s a great lead off single for his new self-titled album due out late next month.

Honorable Mentions:

  • “Your Daddy’s Boots” by Dustin Lynch – I really wanted this song in my top ten. It’s easily the best song on Where It’s At and possibly Lynch’s best of his young career.
  • “Sick of Me” by Tim McGraw – Another standout track from Sundown Heaven Town. Great song writing and a good, mid-tempo traditional/modern blend of country music.
  • “Writin’ a New Damn Book” by Phillip Fox Band. A great up-beat southern rock song about marking your own path through life.
  • “Heaven Needed Her More” by The Roys. A beautiful song about getting over a death of a loved one and remaining positive through the heartbreak.

October has a ton of albums due out.  Next month’s top ten list might be even harder!

Album Review – Phillip Fox Band’s Heartland

About a year and a half ago the Phillip Fox Band began what would be a long production process to mix together the band’s full-length debut album, Heartland. Funded through Kickstarter, this project was intended to capture the feel and energy from their live shows. Well, for a band who describes their sound as “Country-Fried Rock N’ Roll”, it’s safe to assume that those shows would be full of high-energy, upbeat, almost head-banging rock music. But don’t let that fool you; there are definite country sounds and influences in nearly every track here. Country-fried rock, southern rock, rock-inspired-country, however you want to call it; these guys have captured the sound of a healthy blend of rock’s hard edge and country’s hardworking honesty.

The Best Songs on the Album

In my opinion the best song on the album is “Nothin Worse Than Weak.” A song that takes the listener on a fantastic cowboy/outlaw journey: the survival of the fittest, fighting until death and facing the inevitable end like a man. Behind the lyrics lie great acoustic western-style guitar notes with a building drum beat and horns that come together during the instrumental break and rise to a dramatic showdown. One can almost fill in the blanks with their own imagery of two western outlaws having a face-to-face confrontation on that dirt road outside a western saloon. Phillip Fox shows his soft side for love a few times on Heartland, but the best two love songs come in the form of “Ava Lee” and “Don’t Forget Me.” In “Ava Lee” we’re introduced to a couple who have lived life together in the fast lane. They burned their own path through the world, but when things slow down she gets ready to say goodbye. He begins to wonder if they should stop ignoring their feelings and try to take their love to the next step. “Don’t Forget Me” shows us his vulnerable side. His woman of affection has moved away, and he will not soon forget her, wishing the same from her. He drives the point home in the bridge with “for all of time, across the great divide, though this sea may swallow me, I will wait for you.” This is a stripped down acoustic song and you can hear the pain in Phillip Fox’s voice as he sings on this track.

There were two other songs that caught my attention. “Writin a New Damn Book” is short and sweet, concluding at a quick 2 minutes 20 seconds. But the song carries a message of taking life head on and making it your own. Have a little faith and don’t simply turn a page in life but write your own damn book. “Cancer Cannot” is a song of faith and hope in the midst of cancer. Coming from a family where I’ve had two relatives fight (and thankfully survive) a battle with cancer, this song hit home to me. The lyrics perfectly capture the emotional strength and enduring hope that cancer patients and their loved ones have during those hard times, and the light acoustic instrumentation behind it help sell the inspiring message.

The Worst Songs on the Album

Most songs on this album either had great lyrics and story telling, or a great musical melody and production behind the vocals. However, songs like “Lovin’ You (Never Felt Like Work)” and “We All Lose Somethin’” don’t really offer either quality. “Lovin’ You” is very basic. He may be a hard-working blue-collar man, but the love is strong and it’s never come with challenges compared to life’s struggles. The lyrics are simple and somewhat predictable, and because it quickly follows (and is not as well written as) “You Are the Girl” (see below) the song’s story seems repetitive and not creative. “We All Lose Somethin’” isn’t much of a story. The song is a long list of how mankind, you and me, all experience loss in one-way or another: from the menial lost wallet to the tragic moments of 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, we’ve all experienced some life let down. The problem I had with the song is there’s no redemption or offer of motivation. It’s a list that tries to include everyone’s problems and emotional reactions to said problems or losses. With three distinct verses to the song, the message of the lyrics is hammered in so hard that the third verse feels like it’s beating a dead horse. Overall these two songs aren’t bad, but the other ten songs offered so much more in lyrical and/or musical composition that these two sit on a lower level in comparison.

The Rest of The Album

The Phillip Fox Band open up the album with “You Are the Girl.” An anthem dedicated to the woman you come home to after a hard day’s work. This song is about the man’s undying love to his wife and his desire to keep romance alive in spite of life’s twists and turns. “Been Workin’ Hard” is Heartland’s ode to the blue-collar workers. The song features quick drum beats and fast-picking guitar work, and even takes the time to call out the upper class 1% who hardly work. The title track is a song dedicated to a little midwestern town. What makes “Heartland” stand out from the hundreds of other small town anthems is that Phillip Fox doesn’t use a single country small town love cliché to sell this story; it’s unique and you can feel his appreciation for his roots with his delivery. “I’d Be Runnin’ Too” offers commentary about a guy and a girl who both cheated on their loved ones. The narrator of the song offers the not so helpful advice of “I’d be runnin’ too” if he’d been the one to cheat and disrespect. Finally, the album ends with “I Ain’t Angry (But I’m Feelin’ Mean).” The song isn’t that strong lyrically, but coming in at eight and a half minutes, this track is clearly dedicated to bluesy, pure hard rock instrumentation and guitar solos.  The musicianship on this track is strong and show that the Phillip Fox Band can rock as hard as a majority of their Southern Rock peers.

Overall Thoughts

Phillip Fox Band are definitely “Country-Fried Rock and Roll.” Along the lines of Blackberry Smoke and The Buffalo Ruckus, this is another great group to keep your eye on. Their instrumentation is sharp and skilled; you can certainly hear the musical cohesion these guys have crafted over the years leading up to Heartland‘s release. Phillip Fox has a unique singing voice with a rough edge and almost growl to it. At times, his voice seems to tail off a line a bit too soon, or combine words together in a few lines that take away from the lyrics. But overall Heartland is a great display of the blue-collar hard work and dedication that these men have put into building this band from the ground up.

Grade: 8/10