Joe Nichols, "Crickets" (Red Bow)
After 11 years as one of the most effective traditional country singers of his generation, Joe Nichols crosses over to rocking contemporary songs, most of them about seducing young women and sentimentalizing the rural lifestyle.
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Nichols' beefy baritone gives more muscle to these up-tempo celebrations than most of the younger male artists currently topping the charts. Nichols has always been good at injecting personality into novelty songs, and he elevates even the corniest of these formulaic tunes ("Yeah," "Hee Haw") by giving them a swagger equal to that of Tim McGraw and Trace Adkins. Give him a memorable song like "Gotta Love It" -- reminiscent of Nichols' 2010 top hit "Gimmie That Girl" -- and he stands above most of the new country stars to rise in his wake.
Nichols frontloads "Crickets" with his aggressive attempt to fit into modern country conventions. But he reminds everyone of what an outstanding, old-fashioned country singer he can be when he uses the tail end of the 16-song collection to present the philosophical "Old School Country Song," about how chat rooms and cellphones don't soften the pain of heartbreak, and a fine cover of Merle Haggard's classic "Footlights."
Here's hoping Nichols' contemporary move helps keep this traditionalist relevant and on the charts.