Exclaim!'s Best of 2014: Top 10 Country, Folk & Blues Albums

6. Robert Ellis
The Lights From the Chemical Plant
(New West)

As far as country musicians go, Robert Ellis is just a little too strange for Nashville and a little too Southern for everywhere else. That's okay, because on The Lights From the Chemical Plant, the former long-haired hippie hits a sweet spot right in between, delivering 11 tracks of evocative, roots-based tales about the fleeting nature of small-town life and love ("Chemical Plant"), drug addiction (the roughshod ragtime of "Bottle Of Wine"), the guilt and glory of God (blistering bluegrass ballbuster "Sing Along") and parting ways with your hometown ("Houston").

Although rooted in the traditional troubadour sounds of classic country, Ellis — as a storyteller and performer — seems equally informed by Hank Williams' staples as he is Jeff Tweedy and company's production techniques, employing double-tracked and dissonant vocals takes, stir-crazy guitar solos ("Still Crazy After All These Years") and plaintive, powerful epics ("Tour Song") to create a well-rounded and multi-faceted collection of modern classics. Nowhere is this more evident than on album-opener "TV Song" — a jaunty, flange-heavy love letter to the escapist powers of the boob tube; much like the state-of-mind of the song's protagonist, Ellis is a shape shifter, adopting styles and subtle nuances as if they were his own, and making one of the year's best in the process. (Matthew Ritchie)