While a parade of nineties stars grabbed the headlines around him, Strait was quietly making fantastic music. Lead On was one of the strongest studio albums of his career, and produced four big chart hits; any one of the remaining six tracks could have found success at radio, as well. Strait would follow this up with a box set, and then his next two studio albums would win Album of the Year at the CMA’s. This album is better than those two award-winning sets.
RIAA: 2x Platinum
Download This: “Lead On”, “I Met a Friend of Yours Today”, “Adalida”
I Hope You Dance
Lee Ann Womack
There’s no getting around the fact that this album sold triple-platinum for one reason, and one reason only: the title track. Consumers who chose the album over the single were in for quite a treat, however, as the title cut is one of the weakest songs on the album. Womack had shown promise on her first two albums, but she comes fully into her own here, establishing herself as one of the finest selectors of melancholy material. With writing contributions ranging from Bruce Robison to Bobbie Cryner, and carefully chosen covers of songs originally recorded by Rodney Crowell, Joe Diffie and Don Williams, Womack puts together an album that is consistently good from start to finish.
RIAA: 3x Platinum
Download This: “Lonely Too”, “I Know Why The River Runs”, “Lord, I Hope This Day is Good”
No Fences ranked as the top-selling country album in history for almost a decade, and it’s easy to hear why. Brooks turned in a more aggressive sound on his sophomore set, and turned what was a pedestrian honky-tonker when recorded by Mark Chesnutt, into an anthem when he covered “Friends in Low Places.” It wasn’t the only leftover that Brooks turned into a signature song. Tanya Tucker had first recorded “The Thunder Rolls”, with the infamous third verse intact, but Brooks’ menacing take is indispensable. Best of all is “Unanswered Prayers”, a poignant tale of a high-school reunion and how God “knows what He’s doing after all.”
RIAA: 16x Platinum
Download This: “The Thunder Rolls”, “Friends In Low Places”, “Unanswered Prayers”
Under the Covers
Yoakam’s self-written material is almost exclusively one song after another about getting his heart broken. So it was quite a surprise when he released a covers album that featured positive love songs mixed in with heartbreak numbers of artists he admired. But this album soars because of the startlingly original arrangements Yoakam brought to the material. “Tired of Waiting For You” becomes a big-band number, “Train in Vain” is given a bluegrass arrangement, “Wichita Lineman” becomes an up-tempo rocker. It’s the most restlessly creative album in Yoakam’s catalog.
Download This: “Train in Vain”, “Things We Said Today”, “Wichita Lineman”
Come On Over
The biggest-selling album by a female artist of all-time. The biggest-selling country album of all-time. Eleven hit singles out of the sixteen tracks on the album. Those are the statistics, but they make it easy to overlook the artistic accomplishment of this record. Twain, with producer “Mutt” Lange, completely reinvented their sound, creating an album that didn’t even have a passing resemblance to its smash predecessor, The Woman in Me. Almost relentlessly up-tempo and not featuring one sad song in the bunch, Twain established herself as positive force of energy that charmed the hell out of America, and then the world.
RIAA: 20x Platinum
Download This: “You’ve Got a Way”, “I’m Holdin’ On To Love (To Save My Life)”, “Whatever You Do! Don’t!”
Lonely Runs Both Ways
Alison Krauss & Union Station
Since O Brother and New Favorite combined to make Krauss & Union Station household names without any significant radio airplay support, they’ve been consistently popular at retail, selling gold each time out. Their latest studio album, Lonely Runs Both Ways, won the Grammy for Best Country Album, which is no surprise. It’s the most consistent and varied record they’ve released yet. Krauss has evolved into something of a torch singer, and Dan Tyminiski, duly lauded for his lead vocal on “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, has seen his stock rise since, and is given several lead vocal turns. His traditional style provides balance to the haunting acoustic pop that Krauss seems to favor these days.
Download This: “Doesn’t Have To Be This Way”, “Gravity”, “A Living Prayer”
Much of this album was recorded in Cash’s living room, with just the legend and his guitar. The stark simplicity of the album, his first collaboration with Rick Rubin, marked a return to Cash’s roots in many ways. It was also notable for being the darkest thing Cash had recorded in a generation. The tortured tales of Vietnam vets (“Drive On”), murderous lovers (“Delia’s Gone”) and even the emotionally cold (“The Man Who Couldn’t Cry”) piled on the sadness in between layers of black humor. It didn’t have the breakout hit that would lead American IV to platinum, but it’s one of the most important records Cash ever made.
Download This: “Drive On”, “Why Me Lord”, “Delia’s Gone”
Right Out of Nowhere
Mattea’s most recent album is also her best, a mature and thoughtful set that deals with the big stuff: mortality (“Live It”), war (“Gimme Shelter”) and the meaning of life (“Give It Away”, “Right Outta Nowhere”.) There’s nothing cloyingly sentimental or shallow and silly here. Just one great song after another about the realities and complexities of human life. In short, music for adults.
Download This: “Loving You, Letting You Go”, “Gimme Shelter”, “Give It Away”
I Fell In Love
Talk about your legacies. Daughter of June Carter & Carl Smith, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash and stepsister of Rosanne Cash, few artists had to emerge from as many shadows as Carlene Carter did. While she’d been putting out records since the mid-70′s, she still had experienced very little success. When she surfaced on Warner Bros. in 1990, she finally broke through, with an album that paid homage to her heritage while still moving country music progressively forward. The breathtaking creativity on I Fell In Love makes contemporary rockers like the title track and “Come On Back” co-exist with covers of her father’s “You Are the One” and the Carter Family’s “My Dixie Darlin’”, and it actually sounds like they belong together. Despite some excellent covers, Carter best honors her family through her own pen. “Me and the Wildwood Rose” tells the story of growing up as a Carter through her own eyes, and recounts the death of Mother Maybelle, when the family gathered at the grave and “stood in a circle and sang.”
Download This: “Come On Back”, “Me and the Wildwood Rose”, “You Are the One”
The bright and jangly guitars were uplifting themselves, but it was Kim Richey’s persistent optimism and self-deprecating sense of humor that made her first two albums soar. With Rise, the tough breaks and self-deprecation are still there, but it’s as if she’s been drained of all hope for the future, making for a dreary record that packs a powerful punch. It’s as if storm clouds have gathered over the songs, with Richey telling one tale after another of love that has gone wrong and life choices that haven’t been wise. Recorded in London, there’s a use of Eastern rhythms and other unconventional musical touches that create an evocative tone throughout the record. While her first two albums have been pillaged by female country singers looking for great material, it’s reasonable to expect that most of Rise will be left alone. This is Richey’s journey – personal, dark and all uphill – and it’s feels almost voyeuristic to be listening in to her internal monologues.
Download This: “No Judges”, “A Place Called Home”, “Without You”