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.
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.
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.
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.
(Note: Only songs released in August 2014 are eligible to make the list)
August was the month of the ladies! Seven of the top ten spots are occupied by female artists, with those three artists being Sunny Sweeney, Lucette and Lee Ann Womack. I said plenty about Sweeney’s great new album, which you can find by clicking here. But I haven’t said anything about Lucette’s music nor Womack’s new single. You’ll be hearing my thoughts on Lucette’s new album later this week and trust me you don’t want to miss that review. Womack’s single, along with the rest of her album will be given a proper review later this month when her album is released. As for the rest of the list, Micky and The Motorcars come in at #3 and #6 with “From Where The Sun Now Stand” and “Destined to Fall” respectively. They quietly released another great album at the beginning of the month. New alt country band The Buffalo Ruckus made a solid debut with their new self-titled album, having their song “Don’t Save Me” make the top ten at #7.
As always there are some songs that just didn’t make the list, whether I felt they weren’t strong enough to be put ahead of songs I have on the list above or I simply wasn’t able to listen to that artist’s music yet. I listen to as much music as possible and sometimes it can be overwhelming to keep up. One album I wasn’t able to listen to yet that I plan on listening to is Shovels and Rope’s new album Swimmin’ Time. If there are any great songs that you feel I left out on my list and want to share, be sure to voice your opinion in the comments section below. And be respectful of course.
When it comes to finding a new country artist in the sea of thousands, I like to call them diamonds in the rough. But that’s not the case with The Buffalo Ruckus. They’re more like the rough among the diamonds. In a world where mainstream country music is so polished and clean, you then have a group like The Buffalo Ruckus who are the exact opposite. They’re music is rooted in country, yet have so many different other influences mixed in that results in music that even I had trouble coming up with words for at times while listening to their debut album. Luckily, they have a pretty good description of their music on their site. This is their description: “A compendium of Roots, Americana, Southern Soul, Psychedelic Postmodern avant-garde Experimental Country Fried Rock.” You might feel confused by this description, but it’s right on the money. The Buffalo Ruckus truly have a one of a kind sound on their self-titled debut album.
The Best Songs on the Album
Two things I want to point out right up front about this group that they do right on this album: 1) Their instrumentation is fantastic. Brad Haefner, Michael Burgess and Christian Dorn are amazing at their roles. 2) Jason Lovell can flat-out sing anything he wants. You figure this out right from the start with “If It’s For Love,” a song about falling in and out of love. This song showcases the southern rock side of the band with the great guitar licks and strong harmonica play. Lovell shows grit and character with his voice. “Son Of a Rebel’s Son” is a southern pride anthem that showcases the southern rock side of the band too. Their psychedelic side leaks through on the album’s final track, “Black Hearted Woman.” It’s a song about being in love with a cruel woman. Think of it as a darker and more country version of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.”
But if there’s one song where their talents come together and produce absolute magic it’s on “Don’t Save Me.” It’s about a man living a life of addictions and debauchery, but pleading to never stop him from living this way. The song gets louder and more aggressive as the song progresses. Lovell’s voice is dynamic and showcases great range, getting louder and softer in just the right spots. While Lovell and the band are loud and bombastic in “Don’t Save Me,” they show their softer and more country side in “Far to Fall.” It’s an Appalachian country tune about being down and fighting to get back up. The theme is going to mean something different to each person who listens to it. The country side is shown again in “Angilee,” where they’re joined by the Grammy nominated Americana artist Shannon McNally. I thought the Ruckus and McNally sounded good together on this love ballad. Both show great passion and exasperation in their voices toward the end of the song.
The Worst Songs on the Album
There were two songs that stood out to me that needed a little more to be good songs. “South Georgia Angel” felt a little bland lyric-wise. It’s an above average song that didn’t really do anything for me. “No Good, So Good” is one of the most country songs on the album that features fantastic instrumentation and Lovell has great vocals as usual. But I felt again the lyrics weren’t that impressive. I just thought song could use a little more meat to it in this department.
The Rest of the Album
“High Again” and “Even On the Darker Days” both deal with being positive in the darker days of heartbreak, addictions and other problems in life. Lovell’s voice showcases a great range in both of these songs, reaching his higher register many times. “What’s a Boy to Do” is the folksy/roots side of the band being showcased front and center. I thought the acoustic instrument play was really great in this song and made me want to hear more folk sounding songs from the band in the future. “Moonlight Rebels” is an Americana tune that shows the band can harmonize well together. The lyrics are a little too simple, but you can overlook it because the song is a fun listen. I found myself tapping my foot to this from the very listen to it.
I think this is a great debut for The Buffalo Ruckus. With it being their debut, it’s obviously not going to be perfect. What they do right on this album, they do pretty damn good. They have a dynamic singer in Lovell and the wide range of instrumentation featured in the album was nearly flawless on every song. The only department I felt this album lacked in some of the songs was the songwriting. It’s not bad songwriting, but it isn’t great songwriting either. It’s just solid, when I feel like this band is capable of being great. On their second album I want to hear more dynamic and complex lyrics that challenge the listener’s ears. If they can do this, the sky is the limit for The Buffalo Ruckus because they already have a unique sound that allows them to standout from other alternative country bands in Texas. Nevertheless this is a pretty good debut from The Ruckus and they’re a band I recommend keeping an eye on. If you enjoy bands like Micky and The Motorcars or Blackberry Smoke, I think you’ll enjoy The Buffalo Ruckus.