11 Modern-Era Country Albums Everyone Should Hear

  

Repurposed from the author’s contributions to The 9513′s Albums of the Decade countdown, which ran in December 2009 and is still quite recommended in its original, extended form.

For a full accounting of the similarities and differences between The 9513 list and another that ran concurrently at Country Universe, see “Albums of the Decade: Running the Numbers.” Lots of good music to be discovered (and rediscovered) between both of those lists.

Here are some of my favorites.


Too Far Gone – Catherine Britt (2006)
Recorded in Nashville with a cast of notable musicians including the late Don Helms on steel; co-produced by Keith Stegall; featuring songs by Ashley Monroe, Guy Clark, Paul Overstreet, Bruce Robison, and Dean Dillon; with Kenny Chesney on background vocals. Most remarkable of all is Britt herself, an Australian wunderkind with a voice twice her age and a better handle on country traditions than most of her Nashville counterparts. It should have been the smash of 2006, but it wasn’t even released in the States.

See If I Care – Gary Allan (2003)
Although not as important or as successful as some of his other works, even a mid-level Allan album like See If I Care is a good deal better than most of the competition. More than sixteen years into his career, he remains one of the most under-appreciated artists on country radio. Need proof? Hear the way he matches Willie Nelson lick for lick on the closing number, a fine cover of Jesse Winchester’s “A Showman’s Life.”

Amigo – David Ball (2001)
“Riding With Private Malone” was the hit, but the rest of the album was the revelation: the staid traditionalism of Ball’s earlier albums had scarcely hinted at the distinctive Southwestern flair he brought to this party. He croons, swings, waltzes, polkas, and yodels his way through this largely self-written set, as light on his toes as a tumbleweed across a West Texas plain.

East Nashville Skyline – Todd Snider (2004)
Snider’s swan song for the Oh Boy label was the one where everything finally came together, with Snider writing and singing in a voice more incisive and acerbic than ever and the production no longer straining to gloss up his ragged charm. Edging toward his 40s, Snider reined in the sometimes scattered creative impulses of his youth and delivered this focused tour de force, an album mixing hard-luck tales of aging and addiction with sharp-tongued social commentary, always with a glimmer of hope and a good-natured wink.

Satisfied – Ashley Monroe (2006)
The lone digital-only release on our list belongs to young Ashley Monroe, who earns comparison to Dolly and Tammy with the lilting quality of her voice and the way it seems to issue from her so naturally, without a hint of strain or pretense. Released digitally in 2006 and again (by popular demand) in 2009, hers was undoubtedly one of the most arresting debuts of its time, as that inimitable tear in her voice gave her largely self-penned ballads (plus a few rockers, including a duet with Dwight Yoakam) such heartbreaking force.

Rhinestoned – Pam Tillis (2007)
For her first outing on her own indie label (the adorably named Stellar Cat Records), Pam Tillis knew exactly what to do: gather a bunch of songs from ‘can’t miss’ writers like Leslie Satcher, Jon Randall, Gary Nicholson, Walt Wilkins, Matraca Berg, Verlon Thompson and Bruce Robison, and caress them with a voice that has only grown more sultry and sweet through years of use. That’s just what she did, making her first album of new material in six years a career highlight and clear indication that the best was (and is) still yet to come, major label be damned.

Precious Memories – Alan Jackson (2006)
The standard-bearer for down-home traditionalism proved himself a surprisingly agile artist in the 2000s, throwing fans a few musical curveballs even as he settled comfortably into middle age. This charming, stately collection of traditional gospel numbers was recorded as a private gift for his mother and subsequently made available to fans. Even without any singles released, it went soaring toward platinum status. Long known for his ability to imbue even average material with uncommon sincerity, Jackson seems right at home with these simple songs of devotion–songs which so richly deserve his talent.

You Don’t Know Me: The Songs Of Cindy Walker – Willie Nelson (2006)
Nelson’s gorgeous tribute to the pen behind several American standards and countless Bob Wills classics may have gained poignancy when Walker passed away just days after its release, but it didn’t require that odd twist of fate to distinguish itself in Nelson’s crowded catalog. After all these years, it’s as easy to take Nelson’s weathered voice and idiosyncratic phrasing for granted as it is to forget that Walker’s songs, timeless as they may seem, were creations of a living, breathing person rather than in-built features of the musical landscape. This tribute showcases both to great effect, with Nelson’s craggy voice bringing new life to Walker’s strikingly economical compositions, and vice versa. Neither had sounded this good in years.

Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs Of The Louvin Brothers – Various Artists (2003)
You don’t hear much good country harmony these days. Back in 2003, producer Carl Jackson’s loving tribute to the Louvin Brothers found an abundance of it in a series of right-on vocal combinations, including Joe Nichols and Rhonda Vincent, Alison Krauss and James Taylor, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, and Ronnie Dunn and Rebecca Lynn Howard. In hooking its all-star cast up with some of the best songs they had recorded in years, the album–the winner of the GRAMMY for Best Country Album in 2003–also contributed to a renewed interest in the music of the Louvin Brothers, paving the way for the career resurgence enjoyed by Charlie in the years leading up to his 2011 death.

Heaven, Heartache And The Power Of Love – Trisha Yearwood (2007)
So-called ‘traditional’ country music has not been the only casualty of country radio’s shrinking playlists and attempts to court an ever-younger demographic; a great deal of smart, soulful pop-country has been similarly cast aside. Least deserving of that fate was Yearwood’s first post-MCA album, which failed to drum up much interest despite the Big Machine-ry working behind it. A standout effort in a catalog already overstuffed with excellence, HHatPoL is the gold standard by which future pop-country albums (Yearwood’s own included) should be judged. If they’re not aspiring to the strength and elegance of “This Is Me You’re Talking To” and “The Dreaming Fields,” they’re selling themselves and the format short. This whole album is a breathtaking example of what’s possible when a great voice finds all the right songs.

That Lonesome Song – Jamey Johnson (2008)
The hype surrounding Johnson’s sophomore effort–and the skepticism with which that level of acclaim naturally meets–could kill a lesser album. But once all the superlatives have been slung and the dust has settled on the critical sock-hop, this spiritual successor to Waylon’s Dreaming My Dreams is still more than capable of standing on its own merits. In country music, absolution often comes in a bottle, a Bible, or the love of a good woman. Here, it comes in the slow Alabama drawl of a man with nothing left to lose–out of a record deal, out of a house, out of a wife, he wrote and sang his way back into the game. That’s the story that lives and breathes in every syllable of That Lonesome Song. Track for weary track, this remains among the very best the 2000s have had to offer.

Comments

    • says

      I don’t think this is meant to be comprehensive Jason.

      Otherwise, there’s more than one record missing. Tough All Over, Drive, Midnight and Lonesome, American IV: The Man Comes Around, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and a bunch of others spring unbidden to mind.

  1. says

    Wild stab in the dark: Jason came from Saving Country Music.

    No, this isn’t meant to be comprehensive. There are at least one or two other albums worth hearing produced in the last decade. Just some favorites.

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