Though her career as Nashville’s foremost female hat act put her in sometimes uncomfortable positions of compromise, Terri Clark was – and, in her new Canadian indie incarnation, continues to be – one of the most consistently compelling female artists in contemporary country music. As I revisited all of her albums for this feature, I was struck by just how many fine moments there are on each one. Some are certainly better than others, though, so here are the studio albums of Terri Clark ranked from best to least best (aka worst). If you’re a Terri Clark nut, or if you just like being contrary, feel free to give your own rankings in the comments.
1. The Long Way Home (2009)
It’s a bit hard to define what it is about Clark’s latest that makes it such an intuitive fit for the top slot – certainly, there are one or two missteps material-wise – but perhaps this comes close: Clark is finally singing like she means every bit of every emotion in the lyrics. The force of her commitment is startling, and you’re left with the impression that this is exactly the album she wanted to make. For an artist who has often seemed too willing to compromise in the past, that’s a big deal. Clark rocks as convincingly as ever on the two versions of “Gypsy Boots” that bookend the album, but the heart of the collection is in the ballads, with “Million Ways to Run,” “The One You Love” and “You Tell Me” (the latter two featuring vocals by Vince Gill and Johnny Reid, respectively) being particular highlights.
2. How I Feel (1998)
As far as I’m concerned, the unheralded gem of Clark’s discography. This could almost be classified as a theme album, focused intensely on broken relationships and finding the strength to move on in their wake. Nearly every song focuses on some stage of love lost, from hoping a relationship on the skids can still be saved (“That’s How I Feel”) to cutting your losses and moving on (“I’m Alright,” “This Ole Heart”), hopefully having grown a little older and wiser from the experience (“Everytime I Cry,” “You’re Easy on the Eyes”). The key scene in this disordered dissolution mini-play is “Getting Even With the Blues,” where Clark whispers and wails at her low-down situation with all the poise and nuance of a modern-day Patsy Cline.
3. Fearless (2000)
While the AC style makes this one of the less-played Clark albums for me personally, it undoubtedly deserves some special consideration because it was such a bold shift from her previous recordings, pulled off so remarkably well. The only song from this introspective collection that would have been at home on any previous Clark album was “A Little Gasoline,” and that one was reportedly only included to ease the transition; the rest was uncharted territory. Ten years later, this is still her boldest recording.
4. Pain to Kill (2003)
After the artsy Fearless became her first album not to produce multiple Top 10 hits – or, for that matter, even one – Clark seemed determined to get her commercial career back on track. She did so with a pop-country gem that aims successfully for the charts on “I Wanna Do It All” and the sassy “I Just Wanna Be Mad” (they rose to #3 and #2, respectively), then proves its artistic mettle when Byron Gallimore hands the production reins over to Keith Stegall at the halfway point. Stegall employs a slightly airier production style that gives Clark enough room to sound utterly at ease on album highlights “Working Girl,” “The First to Fall,” and “Not a Bad Thing,” the last of which was later recorded by Trisha Yearwood.
5. Terri Clark (1995)
Clark’s eponymous debut sounds a lot like a textbook mid ’90s hat act release, but represents something more: a strong-willed woman storming the veritable sausagefest that was ’90s hat act country with a set of tunes largely cowritten and convincingly performed by herself. We now take it as inevitable that it worked – as though it was time for a female hat act and Clark merely stepped up to fill the spot – but the truth is that her debut album was a fair deal better than those by many of her male counterparts. Even today, it’s still quite a bit of fun.
6. Life Goes On (2005)
Of the four albums Clark has released in the 2000s, this is arguably the most direct descendant of her ’90s work, characterized by a similar chart-minded honky tonk sheen. The tenor and quality of the material reminds of Brooks & Dunn’s final decade – in fact, “Damn Right” also showed up as an exclusive track on some editions of the duo’s Cowboy Town. A thoroughly proficient and enjoyable album that nevertheless fails to leave much of a mark.
7. Just the Same (1996)
Objectively every bit as good as her self-titled debut, but hews so closely to the same formula that it felt a tad repetitive the second time around. Not exactly a disappointment – anyone who likes Terri Clark will like this too – but an album that put a couple more hits under her belt (and, like the debut, went platinum) without revealing anything new about her identity as an artist.