With each of her first three albums having been multi-platinum number one records, Carrie Underwood arrives at her fourth with nothing more to prove. So when she front-loads Blown Away with explosive rock and pop-flavored tracks ("Good Girl," "Blown Away") that are more Pat Benatar than Patsy Cline, it's an aesthetic choice, not a career move. After all, in her American Idol days, Underwood did perform Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield," in addition to Martina McBride tunes. Of course, the album has its share of earthy, mandolin-chugging songs, too, and since Underwood co-wrote most of this album it's clear the small-town Oklahoma gal hasn't abandoned her roots ("Thank God for Hometowns" drives that point home even further). By the time she launches into the country-reggae of "One Way Ticket" there's no question this album is 100% Carrie.
Jim Allen, Google Play
Ashley Monroe spent several years struggling to get heard in Nashville, establishing some behind-the-scenes bona fides by writing songs and singing backing vocals at Jack White's Third Man studios before things started to break her way in a big fashion in 2011, when she teamed with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley as the Pistol Annies. Lambert's star helped sell the trio, but Monroe was a pivotal part of their debut Hell on Heels which, in turn, led to her securing a contract with Warner Nashville, who released Like a Rose early in 2013. Produced by Vince Gill, Like a Rose expertly balances sweet, slightly sad ballads with devilishly funny, modern honky tonk, songs where Monroe asks for "Weed Instead of Roses" and trades barbs with Blake Shelton on the diss-duet "You Ain't Dolly." Here, Monroe strikes a tricky balance between satire and sincerity, never quite tipping the scales in favor of novelty, which is a testament to her savviness as a songwriter and a singer. Monroe is enamored with tradition, pushing fiddles to the foreground and sometimes succumbing to the smoky sway of a slow dance at a dancehall, but she's not a retro-singer, she's a modern girl hauling old ways into the present. This blend of contemporary attitudes and classic sounds is insinuating and addictive, particularly because at nine songs, it's too brief -- once it's through, the album practically begs you to start all over again.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
Dwight Yoakam effectively went into hibernation after the release Blame the Vain in 2005. He spent some time acting and playing shows, releasing an excellent Buck Owens tribute in 2007, but he shied away from original material for a full seven years, and when he re-emerged in 2012 with 3 Pears, it was to return to the Warner group after spending the 2000s as an independent artist. Oddly enough, 3 Pears "feels" more indie than anything he's cut in the new millennium, and not just because he's enlisted alt-rocker Beck as a producer for a pair of tracks. Yoakam, who produced the bulk of the album on his own, has decided to delve deeply into the spirit of the '60s, looking beyond Bakersfield and adding some serious swatches of pop color throughout the album. Certainly, this is steeped in the thick twang that's been at the heart of Yoakam's music since the start, but he's attempting more sounds and styles here than at anytime since 1993's This Time. This is an album where one song in no way predicts what comes next: it opens with "Take Hold of My Hand," a song propelled by a percolating bass hook reminiscent of Motown, then the album eases into the cool reflective groove of "Waterfall," a song that's a significant tonal shift from its predecessor. By the time the swinging, ringing "A Heart Like Mine," the first Beck co-production, arrives, Dwight has dabbled with sweet soul ("Trying"), laid-back into some straight-ahead rock & roll ("Nothing But Love"), and turned the honky tonk standard "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" into a cowpunk raver that kicks harder than anything he's done since Guitars, Cadillacs Etc. Etc. By the time 3 Pears draws to its conclusion with a voice-and-piano rendition of "Long Way to Go" -- performed earlier in a lighter-hearted full band version -- Yoakam has surprised by digging deeper into every one of his obsessions, creating a record that captures the careening, adventurous spirit of the '60s without ever feeling doggedly retro. It's as fresh as any music he's ever made, and one of his very best albums.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
After 2007's Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace, Big & Rich took a five-year hiatus, Big Kenny releasing one weird solo album in 2009 and John Rich working harder on his career following his own 2009 solo venture with a pair of EPs and a role on "Celebrity Apprentice". Once that petered out, it was time for the inevitable reunion, the pair returning in the fall of 2012 with Hillbilly Jedi, a record that valiantly attempts to revive their good old shtick, largely through several collaborations with Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora. The pairing of the two duos makes some sense: Big & Rich were always arena rockers at heart and Bon Jovi made his crossover into country during the new millennium. Bon Jovi and Sambora don't change much in the world of Big & Rich. Kenny and John still favor sentimental ballads and self-aggrandizing country hip-hop that's been their stock in trade since "Save a Horse," even finding space for two cameos from Cowboy Troy. If there's no longer a sense of surprise in Big & Rich's shtick, the duo has compensated with a keen sense of professionalism; they're doing their act and doing it as well as they know how to do.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
Produced by Scott Hendricks (Faith Hill, Trace Adkins), the eponymous debut from Detroit-born, actress/singer/songwriter Jana Kramer features 11 radio-ready, country-pop gems that run the gamut from cool and mischievous ("If You Wanna") to heartbroken and tender ("Good as When You're Bad"). With her model looks and visual arts pedigree, it's tempting to compare Kramer to Julianne Hough, but the One Tree Hill star's first musical offering does a nice job blending the contemporary twang of artists like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift with the tradtionalist spirit of classic country and folk crooners like Patsy Cline and James Taylor., Rovi
Georgia native Craig Campbell doesn't mess with the formula too much on his second album, Never Regret, throwing in a honky tonk Friday night drinking tune or two, a ballad or two about love and love not working out, and a double-entendre song ("Topless" -- ostensibly about driving a car with the top down), and all of it rides on his smooth-as-honey tenor baritone singing. Fans of his first album will find that this one matches up nicely., Rovi