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Rank a Discography: Brad Paisley

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.

In Summary (for Visual Learners)

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  1. Depressingly, with the exception of Fifth Gear (which is my least favourite), I’ve liked each successive release from Brad a little less than the one before:

    1. Who Needs Pictures – he came across as a fresh new voice with an unusual combination of the sensitive and the comic. It’s got a couple of my favourite Paisley songs, He Didn’t have To Be and Cloud Of Dust, and my favourite of his ‘funny’ material in It Never Would Have Worked Out Anyway.
    2. Part II – a very good solid record; I just feel the best moments on Who Needs Pictures were better than the best moments on this one.
    3. Mud On The Tires – this is still an A- grade album for me overall, but his work was starting to become more hit-and-miss for me. Whiskey Lullaby is wonderful, and Celebrity is very pointed and far better than any of his later attempts in the same vein. But for the first time there were also song that bored me as well.
    4. Time Well Wasted – When I Get Where I’m Going is the only really outstanding track. B+.
    5. American Saturday Night – I seem to be the only person who wasn’t over impressed with Brad’s latest. It was OK, but nothing really stands out to me. B.
    6. Fifth Gear – largely boring.

  2. I completely agree with your bottom three. The top three are tricky for me, because each comes with a catch. Part II has the most consistent set of material, but there are no career moments; American Saturday Night has the most well-developed personality, but there are a few disposable tracks that really weigh it down in the second half; Mud On The Tires is the most well-rounded set, but again, there’s some noticeable filler. So I guess I would call Part II his best technical album, but I think Brad Paisley is an artist who begs to have his albums cherry-picked anyway.

  3. I see that our rankings are quite different here:

    Time Well Wasted (I liked the more muscular sound. My favorites were the title track, When I Get Where I’m Going (though I’ve been oversaturated with it by this point), Easy Money and three of the Target bonus tracks, “Yes You Will”, “College” (with Pat Green) and “the Toilet Song.”

    Mud on the Tires and American Saturday Night are probably tied.

    Part II is better than Who Needs Pictures, but I didn’t get into either album until I took to Brad with the Mud on the Tires album (I don’t like “Mud on the Tires” though). I still get really bored by I’m Gonna Miss Her.

    5th Gear is exactly how you describe it.

    So, if I had to strictly rank I’d say:

    Time Well Wasted
    American Saturday Night
    Mud on the Tires
    Part II
    Who Needs Pictures
    5th Gear

  4. Mud on the Tires
    American Saturday Night
    Part II
    Time Well Wasted
    Who Needs Pictures
    5th Gear

  5. I agree with your ranking completely, Mr Wilcox, and your assessment of BP’s artistic evolution. But where is Play?

  6. I’m having a hard time picking my #1. But I’m gonna have to disagree with y’all and put American Saturday Night or 5th Gear in the top spot. Am I the only one who likes 5th Gear?! :) The rest of the order would be:

    Mud on the Tires
    Part II
    Who Needs Pictures
    Time Well Wasted

    Does the Cornography on his albums irritate anyone else? I was so glad there wasn’t any on American Saturday Night. I do miss the hymns he used to put on though.

  7. Steve:
    Well, if we’re including non-standard releases, somewhere below the Christmas album. ;-)

    The talking tracks are good for a play or two, then I usually start skipping them. I didn’t miss that on American Saturday Night either, but you’re right that a hymn would have been nice.

  8. I thought “No” counted as the hymn on ‘ASN.’

  9. I think Play would have to rank below Christmas too. :)

    Anyway, I agree with the ranking except that I would have probably switched Time Well Wasted and Who Needs Pictures and Part II & American Saturday Night.

    1. Mud On the Tires – (The title cut and “Little Moments” are two singles that are still easy on the ears.)
    2. American Saturday Night – (“Welcome to the Future” may be my favorite single of his (after “Whiskey Lullaby and “When I Get…”. It’s the perfect balance of humor and maturity. The final verse sometimes puts a lump in my throat and he’s taking a risk by releasing to radio. It’s the right thing to do and he’s brave. I think it may break his string of #1′s.)
    3. Time Well Wasted – (You’re right, the Dolly and AJ collaborations are the highlights, but I still think “Alcohol” is fun.)
    4. Part II (“Two People Fell In Love” is still enjoyable but I’ll take Patty Loveless’ version of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” over his any day.)
    5. Who Needs Pictures
    6. 5th Gear (“Letter To Me” was the only saving grace.)

  10. I have liked all of Brad’s albums, although PLAY is probably my least favorite. I miss the odd bits of humor that Brad was placing on his albums – they are what really set him apart from his largely humorless competition . I probably play 5th GEAR and WHO NEEDS PICTURES more than I play his other albums, so I guess those would be my two favorites .

    I suspect that much of the animus toward 5th GEAR is because too many have drunk the Kool-Aid dispensed by the PC Thought Police

  11. I just find most of 5th Gear forgettable. I like the very un-P.C. “Ticks” because it does the creepy thing well, but I do find “I’m Still A Guy” pretty stupid, and I could see where “Online” could be perceived as bullying.

    • I’ve never had a personal problem with “Online”, because I have a couple of younger siblings who’ve at least lied about their age online/Myspace. I liked it at first, but got really sick of it after awhile. Like Dan, I think “I’m Still A Guy” is just inane and I actually enjoy “Ticks.” I even like “Bigger Fish to Fry”, even though it’s pretty silly. I just can’t really remember much beyond those songs from that album, which attests to its forgettableness for me. It definitely doesn’t have anything to do with being offended by the album as a whole (as I don’t even think any of the other songs could even be thought of as offensive), but only to do with songs that I thought were pretty weak in general.


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