Country music is in the midst of an intriguing season right now — it seems like it’s mostly outgrown its bikini-stalking, beer-chugging, bro-bonding phase, and now the genre’s trying to branch out big time, exploring dance beats like it hasn’t since the early ‘80s post-disco era. It’s resulted in some interesting collaborations: Pitbull and Nile Rodgers with Keith Urban, Elle King and Trombone Shorty with Dierks Bentley, Demi Lovato with Brad Paisley and, of course, Gwen Stefani with Blake Shelton.
At the other end of the spectrum, Americana music is now so fully entrenched that Billboard gave it its own album chart (or, at least added the Americana designation to what used to be the Folk chart). However you slice it, some really great albums have come out so far this year. Here are 12 that demand your attention.
1. Maren Morris, Hero: On her wonderfully forward-looking debut, this youthful Texas live wire incorporates hip-hop vocal cadences and sassily chopped R&B inflections so naturally you barely realize she’s doing it, except maybe when she amusingly imagines “Me and Diddy droppin’ diamonds like Marilyn” in “Rich,” or when she casually lets slip her favorite swear word in at least four different songs. In the first single, “My Church,” she sings gospel praises of country radio and if the equally catchy and confident “‘80s Mercedes” and “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” follow suit, this set will have legs.
2. Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town: Where her 2013 debut felt a bit too much like a bare-bones demo, the follow up by Nashville’s smartest and most successful openly lesbian songwriter finally bolsters her blue-collar character sketches with the production they deserve. Bartenders, hairdressers, single-mom waitresses waiting for the child support, pregnant teens, ex-homecoming queens turning 28 and feeling stuck, girls-not-next-door refusing to be the Virgin Mary or Marcia Brady: They all come to dignified life, and the last has post-disco synth-rock groove that propels her forward.
3. Shooter Jennings, Countach (for Giorgio): In country’s current electro-beat sweepstakes, nobody has gone farther or done it weirder than Waylon’s outlaw son with this tribute to, of all people, Euro disco deity Giorgio Moroder. Robot vocoders crash into Southern boogie and rockabilly riffs, even in tunes originally sung by Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, the latter now co-starring Marilyn Manson. The only real precedent for this project, ever, would be Neil Young’s eternally strange and underrated 1982 Trans.
4. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter: Channeling The Band and the sound of Sun Studios she recorded these songs in, Price is a tough woman from northwest Illinois who sings about her hard-knock life over plenty of honky-tonk Hammond organ: From her dad losing the farm and taking a prison job to her years as a struggling, often broke and once-jailed traveling busker who record companies rejected as she rebuffed unwanted advances from some slimy industry insiders.
5. Frankie Ballard, El Rio: The Bob Seger-ish bent of this Michigan-born country hitmaker’s third album puts to rest any doubt that country is where old-time heartland rock ’n’ roll now thrives — and not just because he covers “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.” “L.A. Woman,” despite its Doors-y title, is more an update of Seger’s “Hollywood Nights,” and Ballard’s prone to fat, wobbling Midwestern backbeats and catchy songs about fast cars. Or maybe just think of a less cartoonish Kid Rock in country mode, if Kid could actually sing.
6. Jennifer Nettles, Playing With Fire: On leave from Sugarland, Nettles stands up for tired but sexy wives in “Drunk In Heels” (co-written with Brandy Clark); takes a Paris vacation with a French stranger via Holly Williams’s “Three Days In Bed”; winks at Def Leppard and Warrant’s old cherry pies in “Sugar”; gets her disco on in “Chaser” (another Clark-co-write), and winds things up with a bilingual Jennifer Lopez duet where both Jennifers admonish, “instead of building walls let’s tear them to the ground.”
7. Brothers Osborne, Pawn Shop: These Maryland siblings make a shoestring budget sound like the good life, enjoy sundry inebriants and exploratory guitar solos (the one climaxing “Stay A Little Longer” is all-time), and have a loose sense of humor that sometimes recalls the crazed, early days of Big & Rich.
8. Charles Kelley, The Driver: The Lady Antebellum man’s first solo album revolves around a Tom Petty cover with Stevie Nicks, a scrumptiously ‘70s-style yacht-rock shuffler called “Lonely Girl,” a Jackson Browne-reminiscent Dierks Bentley/Eric Paslay collaboration about the guy who drives the tour bus, and the finale “Leaving Nashville,” the most depressive song about working in Music City you’ll hear all year.
9. Darrell Scott, Couchville Sessions: This time out, the frequently country-covered Indiana singer/songwriter covers Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, James Taylor and Peter Rowan. Highlights are opener “Down to the River,” about eluding cops and jailers who have crummy musical taste, and the hilarious “Morning Man,” about an intern-chasing drivetime DJ on W.I.M.P. radio.
10. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth: Turning Nirvana’s gloomy “In Bloom” into world-weary country-soul and decorating his seafaring stories with semi-symphonic strings, Stax/Volt horns and trippy sound effects, Simpson’s as artsy as Americana comes. But his boots still get muddy tromping through the swamp.
11. Little Big Town, Wanderlust: If Little Big Town are country’s 21st century answer to Fleetwood Mac, this must be their Tusk, only way shorter, with eight songs produced by Pharrell Williams in 25 minutes. The group claim the stopgap EP is not a country record at all, and they have a point: Between ska beats, gospel-spiritual call-and-response, house music piano, acapella island exotica, vocals cut with dubstep breaks, they’re all over the place. In the end though, the group’s trademark four-part harmonies still mark their territory.
12. Hank Williams Jr., It’s About Time: Helped out by disciples like Eric Church, Brantley Gilbert and Brad Paisley and seemingly re-invigorated by recent power-country and maybe even hip-hop (he name drops Nicki Minaj), Bocephus mostly puts his presciently populist politics aside and locates the hard Southern rock in Neil Young, Mel Tillis, gospel-blues preacher Rev. Charlie Jackson, and his own born-to-boogie self.