Little Love Letters
Carter honed her rockabilly-tinged style on the follow-up to her hit album I Fell in Love, and while there was only one hit this time around (“Every Little Thing”), the album succeeded as a cohesive whole, even including a kick-ass instrumental (“First Kiss”) and an old-time tent revival gospel song (“Hallelujah in my Heart”).
Download This: “Nowhere Train”, “Sweet Meant to Be”, “Long Hard Fall”
East Nashville Skyline
Snider finally left his addictions behind him, and returned to his music with a new determination. Subject matters ranged from those addictions (“Alcohol and Pills”) and artistic freedom (“The Ballad of the Kingsmen”) to underrated music meccas (“Nashville”) and attempted suicide (“Sunshine”).
Download This: “The Ballad of the Kingsmen”, “Sunshine”, “Age Like Wine”
Nickel Creek won a Grammy for their second Alison Krauss-produced set. The kids showed sparkling ambition, following up their polite debut with a strong batch of original material, and only one instrumental this time around (“Scotch & Chocolate.”) Chris Thile is clearly the driving artistic force of the band, and his unique phrasing and quirky songwriting made this one of the most interesting albums of the past few years.
Download This: “Green and Gray”, “Speak”, “Spit on a Stranger”
Who I Am
“Chattahoochee” had made him a superstar, and while Jackson acknowledged that groove with a similarly styled cover of “Summertime Blues”, he spent a lot more time pondering the meaning of his suddenly massive success, with deeply personal original material (“Job Description”, “Let’s Get Back to Me and You”) and philosophical covers (“Song for the Life” and a surprisingly poignant revival of “Thank God for the Radio”).
RIAA: 4x Platinum
Download This: “Song for the Life”, “Gone Country”, “Job Description”
Between Midnight & Hindsight
Joy Lynn White
A worthy debut that never received nearly the attention it deserved. White establishes herself as a honky-tonk firebrand, with a vocal style that would later be mainstreamed by Natalie Maines on her first two albums with the Chicks. This is one of those sturdy collections that wise artists will pillage for hits of their own.
Download This: “Why Do I Feel So Good”, “Cold Day in July”, “True Confessions”
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
For those who find the Alan Jackson gospel album timid and antiseptic, Stuart has the album for you. Smart, fresh songs of faith that are clearly influenced by black southern gospel music, Stuart sings with authority and reverence.
Download This: “Lord, Give Me Just a Little More Time”, “It’s Time to Go Home”, “I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand)”
Pain to Kill
Clark finally found a balance between her hard-driving novelty hits and soft, pensive material, going for the obvious solution: record deep songs with ass-kicking arrangements. The result is a remarkably loud country album which doesn’t compromise the message for the sake of the beat.
Download This: “Not a Bad Thing”, “Three Mississippi”, “I Just Called to Say Goodbye”
Long Stretch of Lonesome
Loveless didn’t seem much interested in having his this time around, with the only obvious nod to radio being “High on Love.” She collected one of her best batches of songs for her 1997 album, with highlights including the pleading title track, the Orbison-hued “To Have You Back Again” and the pure hard country bliss of “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me”, featuring harmony from George Jones.
Download This: “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”, “Too Many Memories”, “To Have You Back Again”
Jo Dee Messina
Messina breaks through, with major thanks due to Phil Vassar, who penned the title track and “Bye Bye”, both of which topped the charts. She establishes herself as the most relentlessly optimistic woman in country music since Kathy Mattea, pushing towards a bright future, no matter how dark the past has been.
RIAA: 2x platinum
Download This: “I’m Alright”, “Stand Beside Me”, “No Time For Tears”
Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare & Jerry Reed
Combine four legends, the songwriting brilliance of Shel Silverstein and a fully engaged live audience, and you have one of the funniest and smartest albums of the era. Silverstein was close to death when he wrote much of the material, and the black humor of songs like “Still Gonna Die” and “Rough on the Livin'” lets the legends ponder their own mortality without sounding bleak or sentimental. The sexual innuendo of the title track (“An old dog don’t waste his licks, but he can still bury a bone”) surfaces again throughout the album, and the men have trouble containing their laughter when it does. A highly entertaining collection.
Download This: “Still Gonna Die”, “Rough on the Livin'”, “Young Man’s Job”