Dierks BentleyRiser/Capitol Nashville

Contemporary country singer Dierks Bentley has changed producers for "Riser," his seventh album, and the results play up a long-held U2 influence. The chiming guitars and slow-boiling melodies add a simmering passion to Bentley's distinctive vocal and writing style, while the lyrics and subtle instrumental touches tie it to country music.

Working with producer Ross Copperman, Bentley's ambitious reach comes charging back in such new gems as the spiritual "Here On Earth" and the personal statements of "I Hold On" and "Damn These Dreams."

The album's arrangements, a refinement of a sound Bentley has drawn on since his 2003 debut, mix atmospheric touches with steady rhythms that percolate and at times explode into fist-pumping anthems. The sound accentuates the strengths of Bentley's voice, which nicely articulates narrative story songs like "Bourbon In Kentucky" (with harmony vocals by Kacey Musgraves) and the tangled emotions of "Say You Do."

Bentley's often shown a sly sense of humor, and it surfaces on the entertaining "Drunk on a Plane," which manages to turn a poignant portrait of heartbreak into a party song.

"Riser" might not lift Bentley to the top-tier rank of label mates Luke Bryan and Eric Church, but the singer-songwriter continues to bring a much-needed creative heft to country music.

By Michael McCall, Associated Press

Eli Young Band10,000 Towns/Republic

The Eli Young Band continues to provide a smart, relevant antidote to all the male country acts focusing on cliches about the attractions of backwoods America. On "10,000 Towns," the four-piece band from Denton, Texas, shines by focusing on insightful songs about how young men and women relate with each other.

The album's first hit, "Drunk Last Night," continues the band's string of potent songs that don't rely on the usual Nashville formulas. While most other country bands celebrate drinking and partying in superficial ways, singer Mike Eli instead elucidates, with restrained drama, how a night of over-indulgence can lead to actions that might be regrettable the following day.

Similarly, the band's new hit, "Dust," depicts the complex emotions involved even when driving away from a relationship that's taken a bad turn.

Not everything on "10,000 Towns" hits such high notes. A few clunkers, including "Just Add Moonlight" and the title cut, rely on standard country tropes. But those potholes only briefly slow down an otherwise solid effort by the band, which includes guitarist James Young, bassist Jon Jones and drummer Chris Thompson.

Overall, though, the Eli Young Band's second major-label album, and fifth overall, gives plenty of reasons for cities across America to embrace them with open arms.

By Michael McCall, Associated Press

Robert EllisThe Lights From the Chemical Plant/New West

Had things been different, Robert Ellis might be leading country music's long-predicted return to its roots. Alas, Ellis finds that role unappealing and has mostly turned his back on his classic country sound with a new album of singer-songwriter-influenced material, "The Lights From the Chemical Plant."

This album leans more on the influences of storytellers Paul Simon and Randy Newman than the Texas troubadours who have shown through on his last two albums. This allows Ellis to show off his profound songwriting skills in a different, no less appealing way. He's whimsical on "TV Song," poignant on "Chemical Plant," nails the melancholy barroom piano ballad "Bottle of Wine" and unfurls the racing sails on "Only Lies."

He even throws in a well-wrought cover of Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" for good measure.

All great moments, but the best come when Ellis leans back to his own roots. When the 25-year-old opens his mouth, we still hear the twang of southeastern Texas. And when he arranged his songs with veteran producer Jacquire King, he usually pushed Will Van Horn's pedal often towering steel guitar to the front of the mix.

He addresses this directly on the album's most moving track, "Houston," a song written as he packed his things for Nashville, Tenn., during a recent move. "Oh, Houston, this is not goodbye/you will be living inside my heart ..." He finishes that song with a towering guitar solo, then shows you what he can really do on six string with the album's best cut, the honky-tonk hell-and-brimstone burner "Sing Along."

In the end, Ellis offers a little bit of something for everyone - not a claim many can make.

Chris Talbott, Associated Press

Jerrod NiemannHigh Noon/Arista Nashville

Jerrod Niemann's one-of-a-kind recordings have been as adventurous as any male country singer to score a hit in the last five years. But country music doesn't always embrace experimentation.

So the Kansas native has enjoyed a few hits but has struggled with consistency on the radio charts.

"High Noon," Niemann's third album with Arista, is his attempt to reign in his wilder ideas without completely ditching his daring nature.

His current hit, "Drink To That All Night," overflows with unusual musical flourishes, bringing life to Niemann's mix of rap-influenced verses and a thumping, sing-along chorus.

Even the seemingly conventional "Come On, Come On" features sly embellishments, while Niemann nails the feel-good spirit of the lyrics, making it the album's standout cut.

However, some songs go too far in dulling Niemann's edges. Nearly every male Nashville singer has a song boasting that country boys can get loud and rough, and Niemann's "We Know How To Rock" doesn't add anything new or clever. The lackluster "She's Fine" wastes a chance to create something special with country rapper Colt Ford.

But when Niemann ends the wacky "Donkey" by mocking the animal's signature bray, it's clear he's still full of unexpected turns. Let's hope he keeps the weirdness intact while trying to strike gold.

By Michael McCall, Associated Press

Don WilliamsReflections/Sugar Hill

Don Williams is on a roll, once again. After talk of retirement - he even embarked on a farewell tour in 2006 - the Country Music Hall of Fame member suddenly is busy again, releasing his second album in the last two years with "Reflections."

If anything, the new collection is an even better reminder of Williams' special gifts than 2012's comeback album, "And So It Goes."

Sounding as lively and engaging as the laid-back 74-year-old is likely to get, Williams picks out an outstanding collection of songs, including those by his old favorite Townes Van Zandt ("I'll Be Here In The Morning"), Guy Clark ("Talk Is Cheap," co-written with Chris Stapleton and Morgane Hayes), Merle Haggard (the classic "Sing Me Back Home") and Jesse Winchester ("If I Were Free").

"Reflections" was co-produced with a deft touch by Williams' longtime studio partner Garth Fundis. He captures the veteran singer's rich voice - sounding as smooth and subtly emotional as ever - and backs him with the tasteful, restrained contributions of a stellar studio band.

As often has been the case, Williams displays a great ability to string together songs that make a statement about living a simple, humble life tied to family, love and the land. "Reflections" is a perfect title from a man who continues to represent the timeless strengths of good country music.

By Michael McCall, Associated Press