Following up what is arguably the greatest debut country album of all-time was no easy feat, but Black acquitted himself admirably with his second collection. The ballads are a bit stronger the second time around, and new stylistic flourishes like the Tex-Mex charm of “Gulf of Mexico” reveal Black’s ambition to stretch the boundaries of his music.
RIAA: 3x Platinum
Download This: “Where Are You Now”, “The Old Man”, “Loving Blind”
McGraw came into maturity on record with his landmark album Everywhere. A strong and diverse collection of material revealed McGraw’s ability to find a hook and a hit in a song most artists would overlook, like the Marcus Hummon ballad “One Of These Days” and the bittersweet “Just To See You Smile.” This was the first of two consecutive McGraw albums to nab the CMA Album of the Year trophy.
RIAA: 4x Platinum
Download This: “Just To See You Smile”, “You Just Get Better All The Time”, “One Of These Days”
Dreamin’ My Dreams
She was long past her commercial peak when recording this album, and her choice of material for the album suggested she could honestly care less. Loveless gained a new following with her Mountain Soul project, and unlike the album that followed it, On Your Way Home, Loveless sated fans of that side of her music with a few excellent mountain numbers towards the end of this album. She also turns in a ferocious cover of the Buddy & Julie Miller song “Keep Your Distance”, and covers signature songs from Steve Earle and Waylon Jennings with aplomb.
Download This: “Keep Your Distance”, “Nobody Here By That Name”, “When Being Who You Are Is Not Enough”
We All Get Lucky Sometimes
Lee Roy Parnell
Tim DuBois had a wide vision of what could succeed in the relatively narrow framework of country music, and one of the most notable reflections of this on the Arista roster was Lee Roy Parnell, a bluesy slide guitar master with a voice that could handle both rough rockers and smooth ballads. His 1995 album We All Get Lucky Sometimes is a prime sampler of the man’s many talents, with radio hits as pleasant as “A Little Bit of You” alongside roadhouse jams like “If The House Is Rockin'” and a take on “Squeeze Me In” that makes the Garth & Trisha hit version sound boringly pedestrian.
Download This: “If The House Is Rockin'”, “Catwalk”, “Givin’ Water to a Drowning Man”
Calm Before the Storm
Since his debut album, Brandt has been a major star in his native Canada, but he received his only commercial success south of the border with this confident debut. Besides a fresh songwriting style, Brandt brought some much-needed use of the lower register to the hat act parade, making contemporaries like Rhett Akins sound absolutely impotent in comparison.
Download This: “I Meant to Do That”, “My Heart Has a History”, “On The Inside”
A superstar is born. Urban broke through to the big time with this album, on the strength of the mega-hit “Somebody Like You.” But his talents were best showcased on the songs that allowed him to play to his strengths: bitter vulnerability (“You’ll Think of Me”), virtuouso guitar playing and brutal honesty (“You’re Not My God.”) His next album, Be Here, refines the formula, but this remains his strongest album to date.
RIAA: 3x Platinum
Download This: “You’ll Think of Me”, “You’re Not My God”, “Jeans On”
By 1998, viewers were used to seeing Vince Gill cry on national television, usually in response to winning an award about a song that has deep meaning for him or for being praised for his charity work. But nothing matched the power of him choking on the final lines of “The Key to Life”, his tribute to his late father that taught him how to play the guitar. It’s the emotional anchor to one of Gill’s best albums, which featured some of his most traditional work to date.
Download This: “The Key to Life”, “There’s Not Much Love Here Anymore”, “I Never Really Knew You”
What a Crying Shame
Magic happens as one of country music’s most astonishingly gifted male vocalists gets matched (and writes) material perfectly suited for his voice. To call this album Orbisonesque hints at the quality of the music here, but the youthful energy here is anything but derivative. Raul Malo knocks one song after another out of the ballpark, climaxing with a dizzyingly effective cover of The Boss (“All That Heaven Will Allow”.)
Download This: “What A Crying Shame”, “I Should Have Been True”, “All That Heaven Will Allow”
Blue Clear Sky
Strait suddenly started winning major awards again in 1996, with a box set that reminded everyone just how good he’d been all along being followed up by one of his best studio albums, Blue Clear Sky. The title track would’ve been fairly ordinary in lesser hands – in fact, some B-list hat acts passed on the song before Strait ever heard it – but he wraps around the melody in a way that suggests youthful new love without sounding childish or immature. He also turns in one of his best rodeo songs (“I Can Still Make Cheyenne”) and one of his better self-pitying numbers (“King of the Mountain.”) The CMA named this set their Album of the Year in 1996.
RIAA: 3x platinum
Download This: “I’d Just As Soon Go”, “Blue Clear Sky”, “I Can Still Make Cheyenne”
Living With Ghosts
Griffin’s debut album is actually just a set of demos that her label was so moved by that they couldn’t bring themselves to add production to them. Griffin has mellowed since, but her introductory set is raw, urgent and intense, the sound of a ferocious talent being uncaged. The Dixie Chicks covered “Let Him Fly” beautifully, and would improve on Griffin’s originals later on, but they can’t touch the poignancy of Griffin’s recording of that ballad here. This is essential listening for folks who like their music unfiltered and unsentimental.
Download This: “Moses”, “Every Little Bit”, “Forgiveness”