Looking back, one wouldn't be criticized for calling 2013 Blake Shelton's year: In 12 months, the Oklahoma singer pulled a platinum-selling, chart-topping album; three chart-topping singles; a Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance (for last year's "Over"); an ACM award for Song of the Year (for last year's "Over You"); and CMA awards for Best Album and Best Male Vocalist. On television, he won his third consecutive season of The Voice, and two of his champions -- Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbery -- released strong country debuts of their own.
Back in January, however, Shelton found himself in the middle of a small controversy when 87-year-old Ray Price took to Facebook (what could be more 2013 than that) with harsh words responding to Shelton's claim that "nobody wants to listen to their grandpa's music." Blake's response -- an apology that didn't really apologize for anything -- turned out to be smart and articulate, a perfect prologue for the year of music that followed: "The truth is my statement was and STILL is about how we as the new generation of country artists have to keep re-inventing country music to keep it popular. Just EXACTLY the way Mr. Price did along his journey as a mainstream country artist. Pushing the boundaries with his records."
Okay, so what followed? Well, for one thing, 2013 was the year that hick-hop broke. Florida Georgia Line grabbed a feature from Nelly and -- due largely to a change in methodology -- set the all-time record for consecutive weeks at the top of the country singles chart; radio also heard Shelton himself speak-singing about the Dougie on his "Boys 'Round Here"; Jason Aldean sing-rapped on the remarkable Joe Diffie tribute "1994"; and Luke Bryan did the same on his posse cut with Aldean and Eric Church, "The Only Way I Know." That said, mainstream country's hip-hop assimilation was never as complete as it was on Thomas Rhett's It Goes Like This, an album that mostly forgoes rapping but incorporates stuttering drum machine beats in a way that even Ray Price might be able to appreciate. Whether this is a victory or a defeat perhaps remains to be seen.
Elsewhere, Ray Price would surely appreciate the work of Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe and The Pistol Annies, three acts who are not only mindful of country tradition but also willing to repurpose it to introduce new ideas or subjects. And while CMT's "Artists of the Year" broadcast chose to recognize only male artists -- suggesting that country music needs a re-invention that goes deeper than sonics -- let us conclude by directing your ears toward unheralded or underselling new records by (in order of appearance on our top 25) LeAnn Rimes, Brandy Clark, Danielle Bradbery, Julie Roberts, Court Yard Hounds, Cassadee Pope and Gretchen Wilson. May 2014 bring these artists the recognition they deserve.
- Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park
- Ashley Monroe - Like a Rose
- Lady Antebellum - Golden
- Jason Boland - Dark and Dirty Mile
- Pistol Annies - Annie Up
- Eric Church - Caught in the Act: Live
- The Band Perry - Pioneer
- LeAnn Rimes - Spitfire
- Justin Moore - Off the Beaten Path
- George Strait - Love is Everything
- Brandy Clark - 12 Stories
- Blake Shelton - Based on a True Story
- Randy Rogers - Fuzzy
- Darius Rucker - True Believers
- Keith Urban - Fuse
- The Mavericks - In Time
- Charlie Worsham - Rubberband
- Danielle Bradbery - Danielle Bradbery
- Julie Roberts - Good Wine and Bad Decisions
- Willie Nelson - To All the Girls...
- Court Yard Hounds - Amelita
- Cassadee Pope - Frame by Frame
- Brad Paisley - Wheel House
- Gretchen Wilson - Right on Time
- Luke Bryan - Crash My Party