10. Angaleena Presley, “All I Ever Wanted”
Its title a subtly defiant statement of intent, American Middle Class is the last solo debut of a Pistol Annie and the most fraught. Narrative is what attracts Presley: life lived by people who shop at grocery stores and develop pill addictions. “All I Ever Wanted” goes down the easiest, so plainspoken it gives the impression she’s making the song up second by second, riding an acoustic end-groove as expansive as her appetites. But it’s really hard to believe that she’s got “evil ways” to temper: “Never hurt anybody / Never wore a wedding band / Might’ve stole a kiss but I never told a lie / And all I ever wanted was a real good time.” A.S.
9. Eric Paslay, “Friday Night”
The origin is as simple as his grin: “Dang, how cool would it be to be someone’s Friday night — on Monday morning?” Paslay wondered aloud. And with that, he constructed the most exuberant power-pop chords of 2014 that aren’t on the New Pornographers record. D.W.
8. Kacey Musgraves, “Love Is a Liar”
Kacey Musgraves’ widely-acclaimed Same Trailer Different Park was as clever and humanistic as country albums get, but some of us thought it could use more juice in the band department, with only the raucous “Stupid” and the lascivious “Blowin’ Smoke” truly harnessing her energy. The stomping, Best of Me soundtrack-only “Love Is a Liar” changes that right quick, with no loss of wit: “Candy-coated promises they always try to sell ya / There’s a whole lotta story that the books never tell ya.” Over the bouncing, increasingly agitated beat, she swings a chorus in different syntactical directions just like — this is funny — Nick Lowe’s “All Men Are Liars,” maybe to exemplify all the ways she’s “screwed from Tuesday.” That one of said liars grabbed that “Men” title first should only help ensure more furious barnburners her next time out. D.W.
7. Florida Georgia Line, “Dirt”
These dirtbags love dirt — thanks, Captain Obvious. What we didn’t expect is that a duo whose pushy hooks have all the subtlety of Wrestlemania could pen an ode to terra firma so imagistic, so touching, that you start to wonder about their stance on Earth Day. Each setpiece (“Elm shade, red roads, clay you grew up on” into “plowed-up ground that your dad damned his luck on”) marks a tricker rhyme that enjambs into another, piling up but never turning to mud. And the dirtbag melody is beautiful. So enough with the “new Nickelback” garbage. D.W.
6. Old 97’s, “Longer than You’ve Been Alive”
The greatest country-rock band in the universe spend six minutes looking back on a career with “20 good years of about 25,” with show reviews (“Most of our shows were a triumph of rock / Although some nights I might have been checking the clock”), some James Murphy-level postmodern wisdom slathered in Texas BBQ sauce (“Love is a marathon / Sometimes you puke”), risers that shouldn’t be climbed, dressing rooms that look as good as they smell, and even a glimpse into the difficulty of dating a lead singer (“Some narcissism / Some O.C.D.”). Rhett Miller even stops to wonder briefly if he’s said too much: “I’m not crazy about songs that get self-referential / Most of this stuff should be kept confidential.” He especially wants to underline that rock’n’roll’s been very, very good to him. But his band’s been even better to us. Here’s to 20 more. D.W.
5. Lee Ann Womack, “The Way I’m Livin'”
The uncannily Dolly-voiced singer who made most of her mint on pop gems like “I’ll Think of a Reason Later” and “I Hope You Dance” returned to her roots on the gospel-tinged The Way I’m Livin’, her first album in seven years and the best of her career. Its bluesy title track finds Womack consumed with lying and cheating, warning, “If I ever get to heaven, it’s a doggone shame,” in what’s basically a four minute-long Sorry/Not Sorry to the good guy upstairs. You could tell her to not be so hard on herself but don’t get too close, lest her head start spinning on some Exorcist shit. D.W.
4. Eric Church, “Give Me Back My Hometown”
Imagine a sequel to 2011’s “Homeboy” — a thought-through piece of reactionary score-settling, of losing influence on friends loved, of shit changing too fast. In “Give Me Back My Hometown,” Church again plays the crank made surly by change, haunted by a lost love, or maybe just loss in general. When rage exhausts him, he settles for one of those massed wordless choruses, ooh-oohing over the question of what the hell happened to being able to eat at Pizza Hut. “If you couldn’t stand livin’ here, why you’d take it?” he asks his departed, probably wondering about his own reasons as well. But Church and co-writer Luke Laird are masters at the kind of melodies that sweeten vowel-snapping snarls. It’s like a cry from dudes in eastern Kentucky, southern Indiana, and other rural areas where globalization means citizens gotta accept Wal-Mart but no clue about training them for the new order. Son, take a good look around. A.S.
3. Maddie and Tae, “Girl in a Country Song”
Imagine if the “Control” remix was the first Kendrick song ever, and you have an idea of how Maddie and Tae’s debut single took a Joan of Arc approach to the country charts, excoriating Florida Georgia Line, Luke Brya,n and even Miranda Lambert’s husband, Blake Shelton, among half a dozen others, for their collective failure to — pass the Bechdel test? — nah, just treat women (and let them dress) like people. “How in the world did it go so wrong?” is a question your average feminist-studies professor can tackle for two 19-year-olds who aren’t applying for college just yet. But “no country music was harmed in the making of this song”? That’s the problem — the outnumbering bro army remains unshaken despite this takedown going number-one country. But first blood has been drawn. D.W.
2. Miranda Lambert, “Platinum”
Evolution — necessary in public-school science classes, suspect in art. On the title track of Miranda Lambert’s best album, the guitars don’t channel the rage of 2007’s “Guilty in Here” or even 2010’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” but refine and distill. Once she claimed her hell-on-heels status was as immutable a fact as a four-way stop, now she has to explain things, slow-like, because no man apparently got it the first time. “My disposition permeates / The room when I walk in the place / I’m sorry,” she spits in the opening lines, the stress falling on the last line — sarcasm not contrition. Two years since becoming a cottage industry and nurturing young talent from Ashley Monroe to Kacey Musgraves, Lambert gives no hint of becoming a parody of herself; she’s become as sly about public image as Madonna before Justin and Timbaland. And Dolly herself wishes she came up with “What doesn’t kill you / Only makes you blonder.” A.S.
1. Kira Isabella, “Quarterback”
As we go to press, Bill Cosby has not responded to new allegations of rape. Rivers Rutherford, Bobby Hamrick, and Marti Dodson predicted the fallout: “Monday morning and everyone had picked a side.” Headlines brought these songwriters attention — “Quarterback,” however, resists sociological case study. Country celebrates received ideas about romantic progression or dissolution; at their best, they remind listeners that the singer’s predicament is her or her own. It helps Isabella’s performance that she isn’t the most commanding presence: She sings like the “no-name girl from the freshman class” whose life is destroyed.
Thanks to verse-to-verse perspective shifts, the horror depicted in this Canadian performer’s breakthrough implicates not just the high-school footballer who rapes her after a smile and a drink, but also the spectators, and the audience for probably having once been spectators themselves out for a laugh. This is country music: The more familiar the stories, the worse they sound. A.S.