December can be a dead zone for country music, making it a fine time to actually listen to the stuff. And therein lies the sneaky genius of Cam dropping one of the year’s strongest country albums this past Friday. The California singer, born Camaron Ochs, has arrived with a bundle of sweet-sharp songs titled “Untamed” — and with Nashville’s hype masters having hushed up for the holidays, the 31-year-old’s exceptionally bright voice seems all the brighter.
Country is a storyteller’s genre, and it’s easier to hear the stories being sung when they aren’t competing with the media-stoked stories around the singer.
This year, much of our listening felt compromised by tangential narratives: tail-eating blabber about what constitutes “real” country music, empty-calorie gossip about artists’ interior lives, and roiling debates over gender inequity in the marketplace and on the radio. Some of these conversations were meaningful. All of them were distracting.
The finest music to get muddled in the shuffle came from Ashley Monroe, a tremendous singer responsible for the year’s best country album, “The Blade.” It landed in late July, just four days after Monroe’s close pals and frequent collaborators, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton, publicly announced their divorce. Instead of asking Monroe about her new masterpiece, everyone wanted to ask what she thought about Nashville’s “it” couple calling it quits.
She had her work cut out for her, regardless. Everything on the “The Blade” feels deeply understated — the production, the arrangements and especially Monroe’s singing, which becomes impossibly delicate when her lyrics turn more desperate. Toward the end of the album, she sings as if she has finally run out of options: “If the devil don’t want me, where the hell do I go?”
A little more than three months later, Eric Church released the year’s second-best country album, “Mr. Misunderstood” — but its greatness was partially overlooked because of some ballyhoo of Church’s own creation.
Physical copies of “Mr. Misunderstood” started landing in mailboxes belonging to members of Church’s fan club in early November, without any warning. It was one of those out-of-nowhere stunt releases: a splashy rollout tactic common to the U2s and Beyoncés of the world but a rarity for American country stars.
The album’s more-significant surprise, though, was Church’s slow, steady, magnificent transition from blowhard to balladeer. His stage show is still filled with all kinds of questionable chest-puffing, but in the studio, he’s simmering down and getting inside of his songs.
His best new ballads lob simple solutions at impossible problems. “Round Here Buzz” is about soaking the small-town blues in alcohol. “Record Year” is about numbing a bad heartbreak with a good record collection. “Three Year Old” is about translating the instinctive wisdom of kids into practical parental wisdom. And “Kill A Word” is an anti-bullying anthem that, somehow, isn’t preachy or cloying. In each, Church uses the curves in his voice to make the hokey stuff feel hefty.
Although Church surely hoped that news of his surprise album would dominate the chatter at November’s Country Music Association Awards, the spotlight was hijacked by Chris Stapleton, a hirsute Kentucky native who did a duet with Justin Timberlake and took home all three of the big prizes he was nominated for that night.
It sent Stapleton’s album, “Traveller,” to the top of the charts, which sent many country fans into a confused ecstasy. Stapleton looked like an roughed-up alternative to Nashville’s party boys, when in fact, he made his name on Music Row writing songs for those very party boys — Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan among them. So was this a new thing, or just the same old thing presented as something new? (December is an opportunity to reassess overrated and underrated recordings alike.)
Either way, Stapleton’s sweep didn’t leave much room for Sam Hunt to shine on CMA night, and that’s a shame. He’s far and away country’s most forward-thinking stylist, and he deserves to be recognized as such. His debut album, “Montevallo,” arrived late last year and spent this year floating four singles up the charts — songs that fused traditional country and contemporary hip-hop in thoughtful, breathtaking, against-the-odds ways.
In October, Hunt re-released “Between the Pines,” a “mixtape” of demos he was circulating free online in 2013. The track list isn’t much different than what’s on “Montevallo,” but these less-produced versions allow the narrative details on Hunt’s lyric sheet to jump out of the mix.
Listen to “Raised on It,” a feel-great song about party preparation in a small town, and you’ll hear a singer who understands the power of specifics. Hunt’s list of errands includes a run for “cheap gas and Reddy Ice,” gathering up some “PBR and burnt CDs,” and getting his hair cut tight beneath his barber’s “three guard.” If the big picture is made out of little things, Hunt’s pictures come in higher definition than anyone else’s.
Cam knows how to paint some pictures, too. Her breakaway single, “Burning House,” is the most evocative song on country radio right now — a drumless ballad about a five-alarm anxiety nightmare that’s climbed up the charts higher than anyone could have expected.
But there’s more levity than panic to be heard on “Untamed.” One of album’s standouts is “Half Broke Heart,” an achy-breaky ditty with an internal logic that shatters then sparkles. Two of the song’s punchiest lines include “a half-cold beer ain’t cold” and “a half-broke heart’s still broke.”
So which is it? We could certainly use some guidance, especially considering that only six of the 11 songs on “Untamed” qualify as truly terrific. Then again, even if Cam’s glass is half-empty, perhaps her good timing makes it appear half-full.
Encountering this album in December allows us to give its half-magnificence our full attention.