Back in 1999, I bought Brad Paisley’s Who Needs Pictures on audio cassette (remember audio cassettes?) after hearing “He Didn’t Have to Be” on the radio (remember radio?). Thankfully, the witty West Virginian’s music has aged better than the technology that introduced him to me. Here’s my ranking of Paisley’s discography to date. As always, you’re invited to reply with your own ranking (of as many albums as you have) in the comments.
1. Mud on the Tires (2003)
It’s not difficult to see why Paisley’s third album launched him to headliner status. Mud on the Tires is a dynamic, diverse collection that uses Paisley’s humor and musicianship as a glue to bind disparate strands of contemporary country, classic country, talking blues, bluegrass, western swing, and gospel. This is where Paisley settled into the song types that would come to define his career in the years ahead, from the joke song with a one-word title (here “Celebrity,” later “Alcohol,” “Ticks,” “Online,” etc.) to the sincere/treacly pop-country love ballad (here “Little Moments,” later “She’s Everything,” “It Did,” “Then,” etc.) to the surprisingly artful collaboration with an angel-voiced female singer (here “Whiskey Lullaby,” later “When I Get Where I’m Going” and “Oh Love”). The first time through, they felt fresh. Six years later, this is still the Paisley album to beat.
2. Part II (2001)
Sophomore slump be damned, Paisley’s second outing featured one of the strongest sets of material he has ever assembled. Singles such as “Two People Fell in Love,” “Wrapped Around,” “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” and “I Wish You’d Stay” showed off his crisp brand of modern neotrad to great effect, but it was the three songs he didn’t write – Darrell Scott’s gorgeous “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” the Bill Anderson co-penned “Too Country,” and the standard “The Old Rugged Cross” – that gave the album its lasting resonance.
3. American Saturday Night (2009)
Paisley’s latest is his most ambitious to date, edging into a more mature perspective even as it retains the artist’s trademark boyish charm; imagine Mark Twain penning contemporary country and you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect of Paisley at his best. The title track is the pinnacle of this balancing act, an infectious uptempo that celebrates America by pointing to the range of ideas and influences it represents rather than relying on any reductive notion of essential superiority (I’m looking at you, “It’s America”). Not everything here meets that high mark, but even the lesser material is artfully woven into the whole. Many of country radio’s favored artists have no idea how to craft a compelling album, but Brad Paisley knows exactly what he’s doing.
4. Who Needs Pictures (1999)
It sounds scrawny and perhaps even a bit quaint compared to the work Paisley has done since, but at the time this largely self-written collection clearly signaled the arrival of a major talent. A guitar-slinging, songwriting traditionalist with a keen sense of wordplay that sparkled on uptempo numbers like “Me Neither” and “It Never Woulda Worked Out Anyway” and allowed access to fresh, interesting lyrical twists on ballads like “Who Needs Pictures” and “We Danced,” Paisley debuted with a reasonably strong set of material and more personality than most of his fellow hat acts (even those many years his senior) have ever managed to show.
5. Time Well Wasted (2005)
At the time of its release, this was the first sign of turbulence in my own relationship to the music of Brad Paisley. His first release after attaining headliner status, it was clear from the get-go that something had changed: opener “The World” traded in Paisley’s usually tastefully sparse production for layers and layers of guitars, and the rest of the album followed a similarly amped-up path. If Paisley’s first three albums sounded like products of the ’90s, Time Well Wasted was his belated leap into the new millennium, with glossed-up rehashes like “Alcohol” and “She’s Everything” primed to compete with Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts for radio time. Collaborations with Dolly Parton (“When I Get Where I’m Going”) and Alan Jackson (a cover of Guy Clark’s “Out in the Parking Lot”) provided rare moments of calm in an otherwise overcooked collection.
6. 5th Gear (2007)
Feeling a bit like a collection of polished-up castoffs from previous albums, there just wasn’t enough substance to anchor this set. Paisley’s usual shtick wore thin on hits “Ticks,” “Online,” and “I’m Still a Guy,” and the rest of the album flitted forgettably past, with only “Letter to Me” making any sort of lasting impression.