Brand New Man
Brooks & Dunn
Their monster debut album is still their most memorable, mostly because the formula sounded so fresh the first time out. There’s a contagious energy to the production and performances. It’s still their biggest-selling album to date, with only the follow-up, Hard Workin’ Man, coming close to the numbers they posted the first time out.
RIAA: 6x Platinum
Download This: “Brand New Man”, “My Next Broken Heart”, “Lost and Found”
Clark stunned her fans and disappointed radio when she released this somber, folk-tinged collection of reflective ballads that hardly resembled the uptempo country-rock hits she’d made her signature since hitting the scene in 1995. Writing much of the project, and collaborating with pensive artist-writers like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Kim Richey, the album remains an intriguing and ultimately satisfying detour in her catalog.
Download This: “Sometimes Goodbye”, “No Fear”, “A Little Gasoline”
Adams is remarkably inconsistent, but he put together some great material and performances for his solo debut, after the demise of his band, Whiskeytown. Worthy of the hype that instead went to the following year’s Gold, Adams is in fine voice and gets vocal support from Emmylou Harris on the mesmerizing “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” “Amy” sounds like a Rubber Soul outtake, and he is wonderfully clever in the midst of misery on tracks like “Why Do They Leave?”
Download This: “Come Pick Me Up”, “In My Time of Need”, “Amy”
Cash channeled her grief over losing her father and stepmother into this moving reflection on mortality. Rather than wallowing in sadness, she remains her usual, deep-thinking self, pondering the purpose of her own journey as she mourns the journey ending for those she loved.
Download This: “I Was Watching You”, “Like Fugitives”, “God is in the Roses”
Time Passes By
The runaway success of “Where’ve You Been” helped pave the way for Mattea’s first truly great album. She visited Scotland and fell in love with the music of Dougie Maclean, and returned to record a folk and Celtic-flavored album that indulged in material ranging from the wistful (“Asking Us To Dance”) and the absurd (“Harley”), to meditations on time in the title track and prayers for world peace with her closing take on “From a Distance.”
Download This: “Ready for the Storm”, “Time Passes By”, “Asking Us to Dance”
After experimenting with bluegrass, Parton fully returned to her mountain roots with Litle Sparrow, which featured inspired covers like “Shine” and “I Get a Kick Out of You”, but soars even higher with songs like “Mountain Angel” and the title track that recall Parton’s very best work in the early 1970’s. She even revisits her best composition from those early days, “Down From Dover”, restoring the missing verse that producer Porter Wagoner had her remove to shorten the running time when recording the original version.
Download This: “Shine”, “Mountain Angel”, “Down From Dover”
Fate’s Right Hand
No mid-life crisis here. Crowell sounds absolutely rejuvenated as he rejoices in middle age, thankful for the blessing he’s been given, hoping for a few more, and certain to fully appreciate them when they come along. He’s wise enough to know there’s still room for personal growth, and seems determined to make it happen. Still, he’s not only looking at himself, as the title track foreshadows the tangling he’ll do with the world around him next time out.
Download This: “Earthbound”, “Time to Go Inward”, “Still Learning How To Fly”
Every once in a while, in between off-the-wall collaborations and genre experiments and concept albums, Willie Nelson decides to remind everybody, in case they’ve forgotten: “Oh, by the way, I’m a frickin’ genius.” Here, he picks up a guitar, plays some gorgeous memories and writes lyrics that cannot be traced.
Download This: “She Is Gone”, “Your Memory Won’t Die In My Grave”, “Too Sick to Pray”
There was always something dark about Garth Brooks, an intensity that suggested there was more to him than timeless ballads and honky-tonk anthems. He started to show those cards on his fourth album, The Chase, which is still the most interesting and challenging record he’s ever made. Sure, there’s the uplifting hippie hit “We Shall Be Free” and the charming saga of dating again after divorce (“Learning To Live Again”), but there’s a lot more going on here.
The dysfunctional marriage tale of “Somewhere Other Than The Night”, for example, sounds like a sweet romantic tale until you listen closer, and notice it’s really about a wife who only feels appreciated when her husband has sex with her. And the May-September romance in “That Summer” somehow makes you think that it’s the teenage boy taking advantage of the older woman who seduces him. But nothing compares to the stunning closer, “Face to Face”, where over the course of two verses-and-choruses, a boy confronts a schoolyard bully and a woman confronts her rapist in court. It’s not his best album, but it’s definitely his most interesting.
RIAA: 8x platinum
Download This: “Face to Face”, “We Shall Be Free”, “Learning to Live Again”
See What You Want To See
When Foster put out this rock-tinged album, it was like hearing him again for the first time. The material is uniformally strong, as other artists have since noticed. Keith Urban covered “Raining on Sunday” and it’s one of the best things he’s released to date, and the Dixie Chicks turned “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)” into a timeless lullaby. Foster’s gravely voice has an aching melancholy to it, lending a sadness to his original versions that is missing from the hit versions. When you listen to the Chicks do “Godspeed”, it sounds like a promise from mother to child that they’ll be safe in dreamland and they’re right down the hall. Foster wrote the song for his son that moved to Paris with his ex-wife, and recorded it so his son could play it every night before he went to bed. The pain of separation is tangible in Foster’s recording of the song, and it’s easily the most powerful thing he’s ever recorded.
Download This: “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “You Were So Right”, “Raining on Sunday”