Girl of Your Dreams
Cryner’s achingly honest writing on the best of this album’s tracks rivals the greatest music to come out of Nashville during this era. Her nuanced portraits of dying relationships, especially in the riveting “You’d Think He’d Know Me Better”, allow for the narrator to be realistically flawed. She’s since contributed wonderful material to Lee Ann Womack (“Stronger Than I Am”), Trisha Yearwood (“Real Live Woman”) and Suzy Bogguss (“Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt”.)
Download This: “The Girl of Your Dreams”, “You’d Think He’d Know Me Better”, “Vision of Loneliness”
Their first project for Sony, on the imprint Monument, was one of the most successful country albums of all-time, but Wide Open Spaces, for all of its strengths, was a somewhat timid record. The confidence the Chicks felt going into the Fly sessions inspired them to choose more challenging material, like the Music Row saga “Heartbreak Town” and Patty Griffin’s bittersweet “Let Him Fly.” Their take on Dennis Linde’s “Goodbye Earl” was campy fun, but what was most impressive about Fly was how strong the girls were becoming as writers. Many of the best tracks – “Without You”, “Sin Wagon”, “Cowboy Take Me Away”, “Don’t Waste Your Heart” and “Ready to Run” – were penned by members of the group, making the album feel a bit more personal and a lot more cohesive than their smash breakthrough CD. As a detractor of the group until I heard Fly, the album remains their first great piece of work in my mind.
RIAA: 10x Platinum
Download This: “Without You”, “Sin Wagon”, “Heartbreak Town”
What the World Needs Now is Love
Wynonna has always worn her spirituality on her sleeve, but on her 2003 album, she turns it outward, viewing the world around her through the prism of her faith. Thus, we get pithy but not preachy calls for action like the title track and “It All Comes Down to Love”, a brilliant lament on the emptiness of fame (“Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis”), and a bittersweet nostalgia tune that recalls the early work of The Judds (“Flies on the Butter”). Her best album to date.
Download This: “Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis”, “Rescue Me”, “It All Comes Down to Love”
If There Was a Way
When Yoakam’s 1993 album This Time suddenly went triple-platinum, the times had caught up with the visionary sound that he introduced on If There Was a Way, an ambitious reinvention of the signature style that was becoming a bit rote after three albums. The production kicks a bit more and the fiddles are more pronounced, but its his newly philosophical material and self-deprecating turns of phrase that turn him into the thinking-man’s honky-tonk hero.
Download This: “It Only Hurts When I Cry”, “Sad, Sad Music”, “If There Was a Way”
Recorded in a converted Mexican theater and featuring songs that were written decades ago, Nelson’s collaboration with Daniel Lanois is a stunning listen, completely different from anything he’d done before or since. Throw in backing vocals from Emmylou Harris on the whole damn album, and the result is an effortlessly cool album of remarkable distinction.
Download This: “I Never Cared For You”, “I’ve Just Destroyed the World I’m Living In”, “I’ve Loved You All Over the World”
Thinkin’ About You
Yearwood’s albums are so consistently good that the basic descriptions go without saying: the material will be tastefully produced, well-written and flawlessly sung. This project stands out among an impressive catalog because of a traveling theme that ties the project together, as Yearwood leaves lovers by car (“Those Words We Said”), bus (“On A Bus to St. Cloud”) and train (“O Mexico”), with the U.K. version of the album featuring another driving lament, “Two Days From Knowing”, that’s as good as the best tracks on the U.S. version.
Download This: “On a Bus to St. Cloud”, “You Can Sleep While I Drive”, “Those Words We Said”
Robison’s writing is brutally honest, the sympathetic tales of lovelorn losers that life has triumphed over but not fully defeated. That two of the best songs on this album – “Travelin’ Soldier” and “Angry All the Time” – would become number one hits for other artists is no surprise. That some of the best material on this album still haven’t been turned into hits, like “Not Forgotten You” and “Match Made in Heaven” is a surprise.
Download This: “Not Forgotten You”, “Lonely Too”, “Angry All the Time”
Something Up My Sleeve
Bogguss broke through by covering smart material by singer-songwriters like Cheryl Wheeler and Nanci Griffith. What’s most impressive about this album is that her own writing rises to the level of the women she’s covering, who include legends Matraca Berg (“Hey Cinderella”, “Diamonds and Tears”) and Gretchen Peters (“Souvenirs”) this time around. The very best songs on this album, especially “You’d Be the One”, come from Bogguss’ pen.
Download This: “You’d Be the One”, “You Never Will”, “Something Up My Sleeve”
Like Red on a Rose
After so many albums with producer Keith Stegall, all composed of mostly self-written material, Jackson’s catalog tends to blend together; the songs on any given album would sound at home on any given other, which can be charitably called consistency, I suppose. His new album with Alison Krauss at the helm is a welcome reprieve. The new sonic settings are surprisingly comfortable, and the material is top-notch, but the wonder here is Jackson’s voice. New depths of tone and nuance are revealed as he wraps around melodies that are from a pen other than his own, allowing him to be a singer first, and he proves that he could’ve been a legend without ever picking up a pen. There are three or four albums’ worth of fantastic material scattered across Jackson’s career, but never such a distinctive collection on one album until now.
Download This: “Nobody Said That It Would Be Easy”, “The Firefly’s Song”, “Wait a Minute”
The Woman in Me
Melancholy is a word that seems foreign in the current world of Shania Twain, after two relentlessly peppy albums since The Woman in Me have made her a pop superstar the whole world over. But the bulk of this album was written as her courtship with future husband and producer Mutt Lange was only beginning, and there’s an undercurrent of sadness and even cynicism throughout most of the tracks, particularly the ballads, like the heart-wrenching opener “Home Ain’t Where His Heart Is (Anymore)”. Twain’s more clever than her detractors give her credit for; she’s a cheating woman in the lament “Is There Life After Love”, where she regrets being honest about her affair (“You gave me forgiveness, but you could not forget/I should never have told you what I’ll live to regret/The truth lies between us, and I can’t take it back.”) This album is essentially Twain’s debut as a writer, and despite her beauty and personality garnering most of the media attention, it’s that talent that’s powered her record-breaking career; it all begins here.
RIAA: 12x Platinum
Download This: “Leaving is the Only Way Out”, “No One Needs To Know”, “Home Ain’t Where His Heart Is (Anymore)”