As much as it belongs to Frank Ocean and Jack White, 2012 is the year of Lionel Richie. From the trendiest kids walking the R&B/indie rock tightrope to the mainstream stars who slap dance beats and hip-hop breaks onto soul and country No. 1s, the goal for so many these days is to wiggle out of pigeonholes and grab the widest listener base possible, and Richie has always exemplified the art of the crossover.
From his hits with the Commodores to his remarkable solo career, he's incorporated elements of semi-classical, Latin disco, L.A. studio rock, and of course, country music. So it's no surprise that Richie's late-career triumph has him traveling to Nashvillle, today's most hopping lab for pop crossover experiments. 21st century country music flourishes by making connections to everything from alternative rock to reggae to hip hop, building on a past that's less about staying down home than taking a trip (the fine new compilation Country Funk unearths some gems from an earlier experimental era.) The fearlessly adaptable Richie is like a patron saint in this world, and his time there has paid off: Tuskegee, his album of duets with country's biggest names, is the best-selling 2012 release of the year so far.
Most reviews of Tuskegee dwell on Richie's Alabama roots and his 1980 collaboration with Kenny Rogers on "Lady," which fully merged country balladry with adult-contemporary yacht rock. But there's no need for Richie to prove his Nashville bona fides — in fact it's Nashville that's flaunting Lionel-inspired cred. It's evident all over the country Top 20. Here's a little playlist that illustrates how the Spirit of Lionel infuses so much of Nashville's current sound.