Rosanne Cash sang of the South, Robert Plant roared anew and Kentucky's own Sturgill Simpson redefined country music. Again.
Those were just a few of the virtues pertaining to the 10 recordings selected here as the best of 2014. The list also boasts new names, a few familiar pals and lots of fresh sounds you might think you've heard before but probably haven't.
As in recent years, the albums are not ranked in any order. All are presented here as equals, from the tip of the Thread to the baddest of the Bone.
Rosanne Cash: The River & The Thread: Inspired by a view of the South both personal and illusionary, Cash offers what amounts to a blues-country séance. Along with husband/producer/guitarist John Leventhal, the singer fashions a wonderfully confessional and contemplative recording that explores a vision of the South she seems so purposefully removed from yet remains forever tied to.
Robert Plant and the Sensational Shape Shifters: lullaby and ... The Ceaseless Roar: Audiences can scream for a Led Zeppelin tour all they want, but vocalist Plant clearly has no time for nostalgia, at least not the towering kind that a Zep reunion would trigger. On this brave new world party of a record, American bluegrass, Gambian griot music, rampant psychedelia and more fuel Plant's best album in 20 years.
Coralee and the Townies: Criminal Pride: It's easy to view Coralee and the Townies' debut album with hometown pride. But the recording goes plenty deep, with songs drenched in serious country soul, singing that revels in rootsy splendor and a band of Lexington pros that regally dress every note. Call me jingoistic, but Criminal Pride has the goods on almost any Americana album of 2014.
The Nels Cline Singers: Macroscope: Guitarist Cline and his instrumental "singers" keep you guessing on Macroscope. They are as melodically persuasive as a young Pat Metheny one moment and as rhythmically corroded as Marc Ribot the next. But Cline channels and processes everything here, from vintage fusion to a touch of Celtic mischief, for a brave and engaging sound all his own.
Lake Street Dive: Bad Self Portraits: All hail the mighty pop song. On Bad Self Portraits, New England-based Lake Street Dive ignites songs that echo the past (especially vintage girl-group soul) but connect readily with the here and now through a learned mix of desperation and joy. Of course, having a gale-force singer like Rachael Price and songs full of sharp melodic hooks doesn't hurt.
Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music: More than any country artist since fellow Kentuckian Dwight Yoakam, onetime Lexingtonian Simpson bends and recasts rural country traditions into music that is wholly original. On his eagerly anticipated sophomore album, such tradition is laced with looped guitar melodies, coal-dusted ballads, serene psychedelia and a touch of country voodoo.
Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin: Common Ground: The Alvins are products of a Southern California generation where post punk rebellion T-boned into a roots rock revival. On their first studio album together in three decades, the brothers trace their musical histories back further to a prime inspiration, blues/soul stylist Big Bill Broonzy, and create one of 2014's most infectious roots-music celebrations.
John Hiatt: Terms of My Surrender: Hoosier-born Hiatt has been a masterful songsmith since the '70s, even though he wasn't widely celebrated until 1986 with his career-redefining album Bring the Family. Terms of My Surrender shows how brilliantly brittle, bluesy and human his songs remain. It is a hearty string of recordings that stretches back more than 25 years.
Nikki Lane: All or Nothin': All or Nothin' became one of the year's most hyped neo-country records upon its release last spring by embracing the kinds of fast-living tales that modern Nashville female stars love to claim as second nature. But Lane made good on its promise with a fistful of honest, brutish songs produced by an unlikely Nash-vegan — Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.
Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone: This two-disc, 20-song, 1¾-hour opus explores in gloriously unrelenting detail the narrow bonds between love and loss and then colors them with loose, jangly Americana jams by the likes of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz. Topping it all is Williams herself and that worn, morning-after voice that sounds alternately battered, hopeful and defiant.