Country Greats

Drinks After Work

Toby Keith

Don't Ya

Brett Eldredge

Like A Rose

Ashley Monroe

Easy

Sheryl Crow

Someday We'll Look Back

Randy Travis

A Heart Like Mine

Dwight Yoakam

That's Why I Pray

Big & Rich

Never Give In

Will Hoge

Drinks After Work 6 Pack

Toby Keith

Wheelhouse

Brad Paisley

Blown Away

Carrie Underwood
Prior to the release of her fourth album, Blown Away, in the spring of 2012, Carrie Underwood claimed that she was getting back to having "real things to write about and real things to sing about" -- a sentiment that's all well and good but has precisely nothing to do with the brassy blowout of the finished product. Dispensing with any pretense that Underwood remains a down-home country girl -- the kind who takes carnival rides and sticks a daisy in her hair -- Blown Away is an unabashed glossy pop album, positioning Carrie as the heir to Shania Twain and Faith Hill's country diva act, pushing the comparisons so far that she looks like a runway refugee on the album cover and she concludes the hourlong marathon with a song written by Twain's former husband, Mutt Lange. Naturally, this showstopping act suits a former "American Idol" winner but, better still, this exercise in turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia is executed with skill and savvy, offering the kind of larger-than-life power ballads and cheerful, clomping arena country that have fallen out of favor in the early days of the 2010s. Not that Underwood and team -- led by producer Mark Bright and also featuring songwriters Ashley Gorley, Chris DeStefano, Josh Kear, Hillary Lindsey, and Ryan Tedder -- are ignorant of the country and pop trends of 2012. They find room for light, sunny pop ("Do You Think About Me," "Nobody Ever Told You"), a bit of Caribbean breeze on "One Way Ticket," and a stomping chant-along hook on "Leave Love Alone," and they splice Miranda Lambert and Gretchen Wilson together on the ludicrously fun "Cupid's Got a Shotgun," which is enough to make Blown Away not seem like a throwback even if its heart belongs to the days of diamond-certified albums. Sure, that diva worship makes it seem ever so slightly old-fashioned, yet this is Carrie's wheelhouse -- she's meant to sing these oversized ballads and hooks, she's meant to look as unattainable as she does on the cover. She's meant to be be a superstar and she's never seemed as comfortable with her calling as she does on Blown Away.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Days of Gold

Jake Owen

Like A Rose

Ashley Monroe
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

Bring You Back

Brett Eldredge

3 Pears

Dwight Yoakam
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

Hillbilly Jedi

Big & Rich
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

Feels Like Home

Sheryl Crow

Standoff

Casey Donahew Band

Never Give In

Will Hoge

You Can't Make Old Friends

Kenny Rogers

Influence Vol. 1: The Man I Am

Randy Travis

Before the Sun Comes Up

John David Kent

Dirt Road Driveway

Granger Smith

Jana Kramer

Jana Kramer
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

A.M.

Chris Young

Dark & Dirty Mile

Jason Boland & The Stragglers

Never Regret

Craig Campbell
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

Chris Janson EP

Chris Janson

Get Some EP

Blackjack Billy

Redneck Crazy

Tyler Farr

High Life

Charlie Robison

Small Town Family Dream

Josh Abbott Band

Rubberband

Charlie Worsham

Gwen Sebastian

Gwen Sebastian