As impossible as it seems, 2011 was my fifth time through the year-end list shenanigans. Ranking albums is a ritual with which I’ve never been very comfortable. Reviews allow for questions and shades of gray, but straight numerical orderings imply a finality at odds with the way I actually experience music, i.e. by living with it and, sometimes, being made to change my mind.
Now that I have a few of these lists behind me, though, I can see their retrospective value. If I hadn’t recorded my Best Country Albums of 2008, for instance, I’d have no idea where to begin remembering how that year was any different from 2007 or 2009, much less what music I found important back then. A time capsule (which is basically what we’re talking about here) doesn’t have to be perfect in its arrangement of elements; it just has to be representative of its time. Any imperfections end up being part of its character.
Since my previous efforts are sort of scattered here and there (with 2008 and 2010 only published at the now-defunct The 9513), I figured this would be a good time to compile all my pre-2011 rankings in one place, such that my own particular biases might be more readily exposed and preserved for posterity.
(If it’s Country California’s 2011 lists you want, they’re all right here.)
Best Country Albums of 2010
10. Reckless – The SteelDrivers
Embraced by critics and fans alike on the strength of their Rounder Records debut and popular live shows, The SteelDrivers seem to delight in stretching out a bit on Reckless, dipping further into the wells of soul and blues, broadening their instrumental palette (bring on the resonator guitar!), and allowing departing frontman Chris Stapleton even more opportunities to kick his affectingly raspy low tenor up to a bluesy wail. The songwriting team of Stapleton and Mike Henderson provide another set of inspired material, highlighted by “Where Rainbows Never Die.”
9. Welder – Elizabeth Cook
One of country’s sharpest, quirkiest female voices is here and there and everywhere on this musical mish-mash of an album that would’ve ranked higher if it had lived up to its title a little better. Working for the first time with Don Was, Cook pretty much does whatever she wants and leaves the welding of all these disparate identities up to us. The results are a little uneven at times, but the best of these songs – “El Camino,” “Heroin Addict Sister,” “Mama’s Funeral” – more than take up the slack. In fact, they’re downright stunning.
8. Old Highs and New Lows – Hellbound Glory
Johnny Cash didn’t shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but this outlaw country band based in the area sounds like they might know who did. Frontman Leroy Virgil sings like he’s been chewing on gravel and writes with the wit of a haggard Roger Miller, characterizing the partners in the dysfunctional relationship of “Either Way We’re F**ked” as “mutual parasites,” bristling at being treated as “nothing but debris” on “In the Gutter Again,” and elsewhere managing what could very well be the first seamless integration of the word “sclerose” into a country song. This is brash, boozy outlaw music of uncommon intelligence.
7. Homecoming – Joe Diffie
Joe Diffie returns to his bluegrass roots to make a career record. While “Free and Easy” and nostalgic album highlight “Route 5, Box 109″ keep Diffie in a familiar pocket, pairing his usual country vocals with lovely rootsy arrangements, other tracks like “Tall Cornstalk” and Grascals collaboration “Rainin’ On Her Rubber Dolly” give him a full bluegrass workout. He rises to the challenge vocally and chooses all the right musical co-conspirators, from Aubrey Haynie and Rob Ickes to Rhonda Vincent and Bradley Walker. Good stuff.
6. Keeping Up Appearances – Amber Digby & Justin Trevino
It’s not easy to sneak a covers album into my Top 10, but Digby and Trevino managed it. Of course, you’d have to be a pretty well-versed student of country history to even recognize some of these as covers, as songs like “Wrong Company” (a minor hit for Wynn Stewart and Jan Howard in 1960) and the title track (Lynn Anderson and Jerry Lane in 1967) are of pretty obscure origin. Even on more common selections like “After the Fire Is Gone,” these two Texan traditionalists manage to breathe new life into familiar tales of marital discord. And they sound terrific together doing it.
5. Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions – Marty Stuart
A rich, carefully curated collection that radiates love and affection for real country music, from the echoes of Haggard in “Branded” and “Hard Working Man” to the recitation of “Porter Wagoner’s Grave.” Connie Smith shows up to duet with her husband on “I Run to You” and Stuart briefly cedes the floor to steel legend Ralph Mooney so he can bend and slide his way through a gorgeous “Crazy Arms” instrumental. “Hangman,” cowritten with Johnny Cash just days before he died, is indisputably the showpiece, but the rest isn’t that far behind. This is Stuart’s best since The Pilgrim, and possibly his best ever.
4. Up On the Ridge – Dierks Bentley
After years of successively less interesting albums, Dierks Bentley tapped back into the bluegrass tones that made his major label debut such a revelation at the time of its release. Originally conceived as a straight bluegrass album, Up on the Ridge became something markedly funkier with the liberating influence of producer Jon Randall Stewart. And so we get, for example, Bentley joined by both the progressive Punch Brothers and elder statesman Del McCoury on a cover of, of all things, U2′s “Pride (In the Name of Love).” Bentley and Stewart have created a weird, highly listenable world that’s home to a lot of stuff that could only happen there.
3. American VI: Ain’t No Grave – Johnny Cash
It seems like there’s a new ‘last’ Johnny Cash record coming out every other month, but this sixth (and, I believe, final) installment in Rick Rubin’s American Recordings series is the definitive capstone. Where the late Cash recordings leading up to it were shot through with darkness and decay, Ain’t No Grave finds the legend finally, mercifully moving beyond. Gone are what Chris Willman termed the “folk-alt-rock karaoke selections of previous American discs.” Far from a bunch of leftovers, this might be the most carefully-assembled collection of them all. Everything here points to transcendence, culminating in “Aloha Oe,” where Cash drifts off into the great beyond with reassuring, magisterial lightness. Aloha, Mr. Cash… and thank you.
2. The Box – Brennen Leigh
She’s not even out of her 20s yet, but Brennen Leigh has so thoroughly immersed herself in the worlds of Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Melba Montgomery, and the Louvin Brothers that she seems naturally disposed to write songs that sound like they predate her own birth by at least a good twenty or thirty years. The Box is filled to the brim with new songs that sound like old friends, all presented in a lovely, understated acoustic style at the intersection of traditional country and folk. Leigh has set a pretty high bar for herself with this one.
1. The Guitar Song – Jamey Johnson
Johnson makes following That Lonesome Song seem deceptively easy, neatly sidestepping the problem of ‘matching’ his previous work by giving us something different enough that it defies one-to-one comparison. Where That Lonesome Song was a lean, concise wonder modeled after Waylon’s Dreaming My Dreams, The Guitar Song is a sprawling epic that finds Johnson exploring a wider range of sounds and emotions over two ‘Black’ and ‘White’ themed discs. The extended length left some critics wishing Johnson had pared it down a bit, but it’s testament to the quality of these compositions that there’s little agreement on which tracks should have been axed. Even if we could all agree on three to cut, there’d still be 22 deserving of this top spot.
Best Country Albums of 2009
20. Twang – George Strait
Not the best Strait album (not even the best recent Strait album), but a special one in his catalog for the twists introduced – he does some writing, sings in Spanish, and sings an old “El Paso” style story song written by his son – and the new life they bring to what is by now a very old and familiar formula.
19. Same Old Place – Newfound Road
He may be fronting a crack bluegrass band, but baritone Tim Shelton can very obviously wrap his pipes around any sort of material you throw at him. His accomplished performances here – which sometimes suggest Monroe and Haggard in equal measure – are a pleasure to behold, elevating an otherwise solid contemporary bluegrass outing into the company of the very best 2009 had to offer.
18. Here With Me – Holly Williams
Sometimes AC, sometimes country, always smart and believable. It’s like a character study of a tough-minded woman navigating complications of love and legacy. Songs like “Mama” and “Three Days in Bed” rank among the best of 2009 in any genre, and make up for occasional weak spots elsewhere.
17. Carolina – Eric Church
If you can get past Church’s tough guy shtick, you’ll discover some real talent. As much as I like pointing out the irony of poseur Church questioning other people’s cred on “Lotta Boot Left to Fill,” there’s little question that the guy can write and deliver a fine country song when he gets out of his own way. This is one of the records I’ve come back to the most over the course of the year.
16. When the Money’s All Gone – Jason Eady
The last discovery to make it into my Top 20, it leapfrogged some of the more established competition with an addictive, tuneful country-gospel-blues fusion and Eady’s hypnotic manner of storytelling. This one’s still growing on me, so I suspect it might have ranked even higher if I had picked up on it earlier.
15. Watch America Roll By – J.B. Beverley & the Wayward Drifters
Songs about getting the blues from no-good women, hitting the road (or hopping a freight), and successfully outrunning everything but your own damn pride have seldom sounded as good – or as alive – as they do in the capable hands of Virginia-based honky tonk outfit J.B. Beverley and the Wayward Drifters. Who says you can’t have new fun with old subject matter?
14. Sara Watkins – Sara Watkins
Like her earlier work with Nickel Creek, Sara Watkins’ solo debut is a smartly hybrid affair, only with more classic country influence and less experimental noodling than you might expect. The musicianship is great and the songs cover an intriguing range, from Tom Waits’ “Pony” to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time,” but the real star is that voice, tough and soft and gritty and ethereal in all the right ways.
13. Do Wrong Right – Devil Makes Three
This old-time acoustic party band is unstoppable when the tempo is up, still pretty darn good when the tempo is down. After a couple studio efforts that lacked the spark of their live shows, this feels like their breakthrough album. It didn’t get the attention it deserved, but I’m still listening.
12. Mountain Soul II – Patty Loveless
A delightful album that never quite manages to overcome its ‘sequel stank’ and come into its own as a crowning moment in Loveless’ storied catalog. A completely worthwhile but ultimately non-essential continuation of her groundbreaking 2001 album, I wanted to rate it higher but couldn’t justify the move. Sorry, Patty.
11. Closer to the Bone – Kris Kristofferson
Like Cash before him, Kristofferson is the voice of age and wisdom, working on his own late career resurgence with a worthy successor to 2006′s This Old Road. He may not sing pretty, but he sings true, imbuing these songs with every ounce of his humanity. If you want to know what beats in the heart of Kristofferson, this is it. He’s writing and singing so intimately as to obliterate the barrier between man and music – closer to the bone, indeed.
10. Brothers from Different Mothers – Dailey & Vincent
There’s harmony and then there’s harmony. As the title of their sophomore set suggests, Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent have voices seemingly made to fit together, and the arrival of another great album so soon after their 2008 debut suggests that they’ve only just begun to reveal the full extent of their gifts to us.
9. Revolution – Miranda Lambert
There’s something about Miranda. It was evident on her debut album, and has only become more so with each succeeding release: She’s an artist. Not just a singer, not just a songwriter, certainly not just a star. An artist, hearkening back to the days when that implied a self-driven, self-aware pursuit of artistry, not just an album for sale on iTunes. What’s exciting isn’t that she’s getting better, which she is: it’s that she seems to be getting better for herself, and inviting us along for the ride almost as an afterthought. Revolution is her best set so far, held back only by an overbearing production style that dulls rather than sharpens Lambert’s edge.
8. Somedays the Song Writes You – Guy Clark
To be frank, a Clark album featuring “Hemingway’s Whiskey,” “The Guitar,” “Maybe I Can Paint Over That,” and “Somedays the Song Writes You” would probably end up in my Top 10 even if the rest of the tracks were dramatic readings of Jimmy Wayne lyrics. That’s how much I like those four songs. Thankfully, the rest of the album is pretty sturdy too, even as a number of subdued songs cause it to sag a bit through the middle.
7. The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again – John Fogerty
Don’t call it crossover. John Fogerty has a better intuitive grasp of country music than most of its stars, and his performances of classics like “Fallin’ Fallin’ Fallin’” and “I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me)” radiate love and appreciation for country music that was hinted at (and sometimes made quite explicit) in his impressive body of work with Credence. Unlike his first Blue Ridge Rangers album from 1973, on which he played and sang every part, this one benefits from the live energy provided by a crack backing band.
6. A Taste of the Truth – Gene Watson
Nobody sings a hurting song better than Gene Watson, and Watson hasn’t found a set of hurting songs this good for quite some time. The cover image finds him apparently miscast as Underwear Boy in Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” video, but the songs are the antithesis of Swift’s rosy portrayal, with Watson positively miserable throughout. It’s for the best, as marital discord, self-deception, and heartbreak have seldom sounded this sweet.
5. Hillbilly Goddess – Alecia Nugent
Where bluegrass and acoustic country meet, there’s a good chance you’ll find a little slice of heaven. There’s also a good chance you’ll find Carl Jackson – the producer behind The Life of a Song (Joey + Rory), Highway of Dreams (Bradley Walker), the Louvin Brothers tribute album, and all three of Nugent’s albums to date, including this one. Three albums in, Jackson and Nugent have worked out all the kinks: she’s singing better than ever, the songs are of consistently high quality, the production frames everything perfectly. At its best – a stunning cover of the Buddy and Julie Miller gem “Don’t Tell Me” – it’s darn near unbeatable.
4. Midnight at the Movies – Justin Townes Earle
Such is Justin Townes Earle’s gift that it seems like these songs have been stuck in my head for much longer than a year – in fact, it seems like they’ve been there all along. This guy is scary good, leaving me practically inarticulate in his wake. For the second year in a row. (The Good Life came in 5th in last year’s ranking, and I couldn’t do a very good job of explaining why back then, either.)
3. Willie and the Wheel – Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel
Somewhere along the way, popular music became less, well, musical – less like good bands, more like creative keystrokes. This western swing album from Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel is as long overdue as it is simply, joyously musical. No record released this year better encapsulates sheer musical celebration.
2. One to the Heart, One to the Head – Gretchen Peters & Tom Russell
Peters and Russell, two of the best country/folk singer-songwriters around, channel their energies into the related field of song-choosing, piecing together uniformly excellent songs from disparate sources so seamlessly that the resulting Southwestern theme album drops nary a hint of its scattered origins. It feels entirely whole, entirely new. As singers, the two artists play off of each other brilliantly, with Peters in particular delivering some of her most stirring vocals to date. This one didn’t attract anywhere near the critical or popular attention it deserved.
1. The Excitement Plan – Todd Snider
A controversial pick for top album of the year? Only to those who mistake Snider’s loosey-goosey style for incompetence and underestimate the difficulty of putting together an album as simultaneously snarky, profound, wry, and heartfelt as this. It’s a delicate balance that few (hero Prine among them) have truly mastered. Every time Snider puts out an album, I think he’s at the peak of his powers. Then he outdoes himself again. The Excitement Plan is one of his sharpest, most dynamic sets yet, and one I’ll be listening to for years to come.
Best Country Albums of 2008
10. 12 Ounce World – Rodney Hayden
Hayden’s voice has some of Robert Earl Keen’s twangy whine to it, but the arrangements are straight-up, sawdust-stirring honky tonk shuffles. This is country like George Strait used to make it–sometimes better.
9. Around The Bend – Randy Travis
For the health of the format, it’s best that Randy Travis show up every few years to remind everyone else of how it’s done. Here he does just that, applying his well-weathered, almost impossibly expressive baritone to the strongest set of material he has assembled in this century.
8. Call Me Crazy – Lee Ann Womack
If you want proof of Womack’s dyed-in-the-wool traditionalism, hear the way her voice drips regret and sorrow even on the honeyed pop confections here. She’s an exceptional country singer regardless of the material handed to her, but becomes damn near unbeatable when hooked up with stone-cold traditional numbers like “If These Walls Could Talk” and Jim Lauderdale’s “King of Broken Hearts.”
7. Bulletproof – Reckless Kelly
Call it country or call it rock–Bulletproof is just outstandingly smart, hooky, hard-charging music that kicks off in high gear and doesn’t let up. Braun and the boys have never sounded more confident.
6. Coal – Kathy Mattea
The real highlight of this set is the strength of the narrative presence, with Mattea providing the voice of truth and compassion that binds together these disparate tales of life in the mines.
5. The Good Life – Justin Townes Earle
Earle the Younger has a remarkable gift for crafting songs that sound like they predate him and delivering them in a simple, unaffectedly retro style that’s as believable as it is charming.
4. Sleepless Nights – Patty Loveless
It hardly seems fair that Patty Loveless should deliver another career record just seven years after 2001′s Mountain Soul, but the always-estimable singer can’t help but astound when paired with some of the finest country songs ever written. The album’s subtitle–The Traditional Country Soul of Patty Loveless–is no mere marketing catchphrase: Loveless bares it all, offering a bit of herself in every syllable.
3. Trouble In Mind – Hayes Carll
Carll’s album mines the rich interior life of the traveling troubadour and barroom loser, finding room for remarkable expressions of regret, humor, and self-understanding. Handling rollicking rockers and reflective ballads with similar proficiency and his trademark wit still very much intact, Carll is one of the finest young singer-songwriters working today.
2. The Life Of A Song – Joey + Rory
Country radio programmers could do worse than to clear a permanent spot for Joey + Rory on their playlists. On their debut disc, the duo (wife Joey Martin on lead vocals and husband Rory Lee Feek on harmony) deliver fetching renditions of solidly country songs that stir up memories of everything that used to be good–and occasionally still is–about mainstream country music.
1. Rattlin’ Bones – Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson
She has been recording for years, but Chambers was little more than a blip on my radar until this fantastically gritty acoustic set, with husband and fellow artist Nicholson, became my musical epiphany of 2008. There’s an indefinable magic in the combination of their voices.
Best Country Albums of 2007
Still a few months away from creating this blog, I didn’t bother blurbing, but had apparently already been bitten by the listing bug. Happened to come across the text file on my computer a few years later.
10. Rhinestoned – Pam Tillis
9. Peace, Love and Anarchy – Todd Snider
8. Real Things – Joe Nichols
7. Balls – Elizabeth Cook
6. The Trailer Tapes – Chris Knight
5. Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame – Sunny Sweeney
4. Last of the Breed – Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson
3. Dwight Sings Buck – Dwight Yoakam
2. From the Cradle to the Grave – Dale Watson
1. Wagonmaster – Porter Wagoner