Ah, what a year in music it’s been! Here at EW, we’ve been in retrospective overdrive, looking back at the best and worst albums, singles, lyrics, and soundtracks that 2012 had to offer.

But since I’m already primed to hop onto a plane and head home down South for the holidays, I thought it might be fun to take let my music tastes do the same and take a deep-dive into the country music world. Here’s my take on the year that was — country music style:

BEST: Little Big Town The hard-working quartet has always had the respect of Nashville for their on-point harmonies and sumptuous live performances, so it was nice to see them find true mainstream success in 2012. “Pontoon” was a fresh, tongue-in-cheek summer smash that motorboated all the way to No. 1.

BEST: Eric Church With a sand-papery voice, a trademark baseball cap (which have now officially replaced cowboy hats), a drink in his hand, and some genuinely great melodies, Eric Church joined country’s A-list this year. “Springsteen” was a wide-open crossover hit that gave his confidently country disc Chief the mainstream appeal it deserved. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Chief won the CMA Award for Album of the Year, either.

WORST: New Billboard chart rules Billboard was absolutely correct to tweak its formula about what constitutes a hit. In the year 2012, it makes sense to count streaming and digital sales (as opposed to just radio airplay). Still, the tweak that the industry magazine implemented had a very strange (and many would say misleading) effect on the country chart.

Most notably, Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which had formerly peaked at No. 13, suddenly shot into first place on the Hot Country Songs chart and stayed there for a record-breaking nine weeks, despite the fact that the song was largely ignored by country radio. You see, the new formula takes into account radio airplay across all formats, not just country. I fear that the change will lead labels to pursue a pop-country sound, while artists that exist only within the core country genre will get even less attention.

BEST: “Cruise” It had a hook that couldn’t be denied, and Florida Georgia Line’s bold debut was the only song able to unseat Taylor Swift from the top of the modified country chart all year. “Cruise” was the exact sort of song that its own lyrics described. It made you want to roll your windows down, crank up the radio, and hang out in the summer sun all day long.

BEST: Kip Moore Yep, I’m still banging this drum. Newcomer Kip Moore’s album Up All Night is stuffed full of Springsteen-esque arena anthems and warm, kick-back country jams, but he was inexplicably shut out of awards conversations. (Seriously, no Best New Artist nomination, CMAs?) I’ll admit, I wrote him off at first, thinking his chart-topping single “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck” was a hokey one-off, but the guy can perform, and his album is charming. He totally won me over.

WORST: Where are the ladies? The complaint isn’t anything new, but country’s problem with women didn’t get much better in 2012. Heck, the story made the cover of Country Weekly. Radio was still dominated by men, and, with the notable exception of Jana Kramer, the women that did get airplay were the same old standards (Miranda, Carrie, and, to a lesser extent, Taylor). The fact that Kelly Clarkson, before she’d ever put out an official country single, got nominated for Best Female Artist at the CMA Awards is indicative of the lack of popular female talent out there in the marketplace.

BEST: Kellie Pickler One of those underrated women is Kellie Pickler, whose wonderfully rootsy record 100 Proof was a sad victim of behind-the-scenes record label disputes. The American Idol alum moved past her ditzy persona and delivered a collection of down-home, heart-on-her-sleeve tracks that, in a fairer world, might have found an audience. Still, that’s not to say Pickler was totally out the public eye this year. She made headlines after showing solidarity for her cancer-sticken friend and shaving her head.

BEST: Kacey Musgraves “Merry Go Round” has quickly caught Nashville’s attention, and for good reason. Grim and nostalgic all at once, the despairing small-town lament is cleverly written and expertly delivered. Newcomer Kacey Musgraves, who toured with lady Antebellum this year, is an intriguing addition to Music City. Her song “Undermine” was a memorable entry on ABC’s Nashville, and if that’s a sign of things to come on her full-length album (due in 2013), then we couldn’t be more excited.

BEST: Kelly Clarkson going full-tilt country Like I said, we’re happy to have her. (What genre wouldn’t be?) Sure, her Vince Gill-collab “Don’t Rush” is a tad bit snoozy, but it’s also a smooth, bluesy delight.

WORST: Kelly Clarkson getting that nomination before going full-tilt country But, once again, that was pretty silly. Sure, Clarkson was featured on Jason Aldean’s “Don’t You Wanna Stay” in late 2010, and her pop single “Mr. Know It All” got remixed for country radio (which basically just meant that fiddles and mandolins were added in after the fact), but she was not a country artist (yet).

BEST: CMAs Still the most credible, well-produced awards show of all the country editions. Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley keep getting funnier (and saucier) each year, and except for a weird sound issue this time around, the show was a pleasure to watch. (Read my full Best/Worst CMA recap here)

WORST: ACAs For the third year in a row, Fox’s fledgling awards show was a tiresome hour of unfunny gags and unprestigious fan-voted trophies.

BEST: Lady Antebellum’s personal lives The lady of the group, Hillary Scott, got hitched in January and recently announced that she was expecting her first child. Meanwhile, Dave Heywood got married to his longtime girlfriend in April. Charles Kelley didn’t get married or have a baby, but hey, he’s been married since 2009, so he’s doing just fine.

WORST: Country Christmas album covers Blake Shelton, Lady Antebellum, and Scotty McCreery all released Gold-certified Christmas albums this year, so more power to them. But seriously, what was up with their janky Photoshop covers?!

BEST: “Better Dig Two” Kimberly Perry takes romance all the way to Crazytown on The Band Perry’s sly comeback single, which has us thrilled to see what the band has up their sleeves for 2013. (But dudes in the band… haircuts! Please!)

TOSS-UP: The Rock-ification/Americana-ization/Pop-ification of country There’s no denying that today’s country music sounds quite different than it did 10 years ago — it’s constantly evolving, and that’s fine — but the changes seemed especially evident this year. In the absence of rock radio, electric guitars took over country thanks to artists like Brantley Gilbert and Jason Aldean. At the same time, Taylor Swift and Jake Owen brought pop into the usually twangy fold. And while both those things were happening, folk-rock acts like The Lumineers started carving out a niche on country stations, too. Currently, the genre is trying to make all kinds of different audeinces happy, and while that makes it more interesting to my ear, it’s bound to anger some fans as well.

BEST: CMT Crossroads I’ll admit: I’d forgotten that CMT was still producing these concert specials, which mesh together two acts (one veteran and one younger) and have them perform each other’s greatest hits, but I rediscovered it this year. The stories and sounds that come out of each episode are amusing, and, quite often, moving. Though we got great episodes like Carrie Underwood and Steven Tyler, or Emmylou Harris and Mumford & Sons, the year’s MVP was The Avett Brothers and Randy Travis. Do yourself a favor and give it a watch.

BEST: Jason Aldean’s Night Train Speaking of Aldean, the hard-rocking Georgian’s blockbuster album Night Train was his best yet. On the disc, Aldean sells mundane country life with a no-apologies swagger, and when he goes for romance, the result is surprisingly appealing. Were Blake Shelton not currently the industry favorite, Aldean may have taken home a whole lot of awards this year.

BEST: Dwight Yoakam’s 3 Pears The honky-tonk legend’s first album in seven years a was well worth the wait. Co-produced by Beck (yep!), 3 Pears alternates between rambunctious California country and mellower weepies. Yoakam experiments with instrumental flourishes (Trumpets in country? Blasphemy! Except actually not at all) and percussive jaunt, which assist his already formidable voice handily.

WORST: “Truck Yeah” We love Tim McGraw, but we’re happy he put down the Lil Wayne-bumpin’ iPod and abandoned this single.

WORST: “Corn Star” Oh gosh, Craig Morgan’s single may be even worse. Just say no to in-title puns country stars! We’re begging you.

Honorable Mentions: Josh Tuner’s “Time is Love” was an irresistible throwback to his “Would You Go With Me” days, Gloriana’s “(Kissed You) Good Night” proved to be a swoonworthy slow-burner, and Jana Kramer’s “Why Ya Wanna” provided a sweet dose of girlish energy from someone other than Ms. Swift.

2013 Prediction: Darius Rucker’s cover of “Wagon Wheel,” with Lady Antebellum on background vocals, is going to be a big ole late-night-frat-party-approved smash.

What were your favorite and least favorite things in the world of country this year?

For more of our Best & Worst picks of 2012, pick up the year-end double issue of Entertainment Weekly on newsstands now or subscribe to EW here.

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