100 Greatest Contemporary Country Albums: #15-#11


#15
Homeward Looking Angel
Pam Tillis
1992

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If she hadn’t already released a mediocre pop album in the early 80’s, Pam Tillis would be able to claim one of the best debut albums ever with Put Yourself In My Place, which was her first of two collaborations with producers Paul Worley and Ed Seay. They streamlined the formula for their second album together, with Tillis-penned autobiographical songs like “Rough and Tumble Heart” and the title track fitting in nicely with first-rate material from Gretchen Peters (“Let That Pony Run”) and Chapin Hartford (“Shake the Sugar Tree.”) Tillis paid homage to Tammy Wynette (“Do You Know Where Your Man Is”) while pushing country as close to rock as she could get away with on “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.” The result was an album that still sounds fresh today, fourteen years after it was released.

RIAA: Platinum

Download This: “Homeward Looking Angel”, “Rough and Tumble Heart”, “Shake the Sugar Tree”

 


#14
Up!
Shania Twain
2002

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One album. Ninenteen Songs. Three different styles – country, pop and east Asian rhythm. The follow-up to Come On Over, by far the top-selling country album of all-time, is remarkably ambitious, with Twain attempting to appeal to her original country fan base, the American pop market that adopted her through radio remixes and the international audience that had never even heard the original country versions of her songs. It would be an impossible task to pull off on one album without sounding disjointed, so the brilliant solution was devised to record each song in three different genre styles. Hence, the green version of Up! was more country and the red version was more pop than anything on Come On Over was able to be.

As wildly entertaining as it is to compare the different versions of the songs, it would all be moot if Twain hadn’t assembled nineteen (yes, nineteen!) of her best compositions to date. Relentlessly peppy, the album still digs deeper in content, with a biting satire of materialism (“Ka-Ching!”), a touching single-mom saga (“I Ain’t Goin’ Down”) and a rapid-fire deconstruction of beauty images in the media (“What a Way To Wanna Be!”) taking up residence next to some of Twain’s most beautiful ballads (“Forever and For Always”, “It Only Hurts When I’m Breathing”) and upbeat love songs (“Thank You Baby”, “I’m Gonna Getcha Good”) to date. Once again, Twain seems to be taking five years between studio albums, but if Up! is any indication, her best music is still to come.

RIAA: 11x Platinum

Download This: “Ka-Ching!”, “Up!”, “What A Way To Wanna Be”

 

 


#13
Kim Richey
Kim Richey
1995

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Simply put, the best debut album by a female country artist of the last generation, if not of all-time. That it failed to make a dent in the charts is of no significance, as one major female country artist after another – Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Lorrie Morgan, Suzy Bogguss – turned to this shockingly good record for material of their own. (Yearwood had enough sense to record “Those Words We Said” before the Richey version even hit stores.) Jangly guitars and stacks of harmonies support Richey’s quivering vocals, which have just enough wry humor to undercut the raw vulnerability of her plain-spoken lyrics. Richey is a songwriter first, and her unique perspective, often heavy with nature-laden metaphors, distinguish her from the crowd of literate folkies that populated coffeehouses and clubs in the mid-nineties. With everyone from Brooks & Dunn to Kathy Mattea covering her since, Richey’s success as a writer has overshadowed her own recordings so far, but as her stunning debut proves, she can be a superstar if she slows down enough to stop being so damn ahead of her time.

Download This: “Good”, “That’s Exactly What I Mean”, “You’ll Never Know”


#12
The Outsider
Rodney Crowell
2005

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He’s always been so earnest that many a casual listener missed the sharp wit and slow-burning anger that often lurked under the surface of his work. Crowell the antagonist fully comes into his own on The Outsider, a powerful polemic that works to destroy the common perception that a bleeding heart must also be soft, and to remind that righteous anger is interwoven with the open-minded tolerance of modern progressivism. In his own way, Crowell’s album is his call to arms for a modern left still shell-shocked after September 11 and the political fallout that followed. The seething “Obscenity Prayer” rips to shreds the hypocrisy of the flag-waving crowd that send soliders to die without making the slightest of personal sacrifices of their own. “Don’t Get Me Started” viciously tears apart the needless escalation of Middle East tensions, and avoidable death and destuction created by the invasion and occupation of Iraq while Americans continue to suffer in poverty on our streets at home.

It’s not all fire and brimstone, as Crowell poignantly reminds those on his side that “Ignorance is the Enemy”, in the form of a solemn prayer that features spoken verses from Emmylou Harris and John Prine, and the gospel-tinged closer, “We Can’t Turn Back”, which encourages resistance and hope in the face of the overwhelming feeling that a worldview with significant support is being completely silenced through schoolyard-bully intimidation. With the left finally having a voice in Washington again, one can only hope that Crowell is paying attention, with pen in hand, ready to celebrate or condemn in response, depending on where his righteousness takes him.

Download This: “Don’t Get Me Started”, “The Obscenity Prayer (Give It To Me)”, “Dancin’ Circles ‘Round The Sun (Epictetus Speaks)”

 

 


#11
Cowgirl’s Prayer
Emmylou Harris
1993

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A transitional album if there ever was one, a case could be made that this was Harris’ last conventional country record, but an equally strong case could be made that it was her first full-fledged rejection of those conventions. Regardless, Cowgirl’s Prayer is a powerful spiritual record, an audio document of a middle-aged woman’s alternating struggle with and reliance on her faith. This theme is best captured in Harris’ own “Prayer In Open D”, a starkly confessional inner monologue that reveals a desperation so deep that she questions even God’s ability to lift her out of it. Contrast that with the more hopeful “I Hear a Call”, where she wonders if she’ll serve the Lord the way she knows she’s being called to, and the glorious “Thanks To You”, where she wonders if “One day up in glory, I’ll weep and tell the story to someone who will smile and say, ‘You’re a mess, but you’re my child’.”

Some of the hallmarks of her early work are still here: canon-worthy covers of classic standards (“You Don’t Know Me”) and the very best of modern Americana songwriters (Lucinda Williams’ “Cresent City”) but there’s a restlessness here that indicates Harris is seeking something deeper and more outside the boundaries of mainstream music. It may have been her last shot at winning country radio’s favor – and they were crazy for ignoring “High-Powered Love” – but this is the beginning of what just might be the most satisfying musical chapter of her career.

Download This: “Prayer In Open D”, “Lovin’ You Again”, “Thanks To You”

 

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5 Comments

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5 Responses to 100 Greatest Contemporary Country Albums: #15-#11

  1. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    Kim Richey’s voice just doesn’t cut it. I love her songwriting, which has greatly enriched the genre but I, like many others, fnd her voice quite annoying

    Emmylou, always a classy singer, deserved a better fate than has befallen her over the last twenty years

  2. Emmylou seems to have had a good run over the last twenty years. “Wrecking Ball” kicked off a new audience for her, she’s won a few Grammys , her high-profile collaborations with Dave Matthews, Mark Knopfler and Linda Ronstadt have done well, and she got to perform on the Oscars and participate in the O Brother phenomenon, all without compromising her artistic integrity. Plus she’s started writing most of her own material and been successful at it. Maybe it’s not the glory days of her gold-selling run in the mid-70’s to early 80’s, but she’s aged a lot more gracefully than most of her contemporaries from back then.

    Kim’s voice I love, absolutely, positively love. I can see others finding it annoying though. Very distinctive and different. (Come to think of it, same goes for Emmylou. I have friends who just can’t get into her because they can’t stand her voice and think she doesn’t sing the words clearly enough to be understood.)

  3. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    I don’t really know of anyone who dislike’s Emmylou’s voice. I do know a lot of people, myself included, who think she is the greatest harmony singer ever, but regard her voice as a bit lightweight for a solo artist. Her artistry is beyond question

    One thing I find sad about Emmylou’s career is that even during her glory days, according to several sources, she didn’t rake in the big bucks. She had a lot of “radio hits” that didn’t translate into album sales to nearly the extent that you’d think, although a number of albums went gold, and she never was the biggest concert draw which is where most country stars really make their money. Because she writes much of her own material, she’s probably doing better financially than at her commercial peak

  4. JonathanNo Gravatar

    I can see how Richey’s voice might be an acquired taste– on her ballads, she can skew a bit “chirpy”– but count me among those who think it’s lovely, wonderfully expressive, and underrated, if only because her songwriting steals the show (see also: Matraca Berg).

    And I’m in 100% agreement that there’s never been a better harmony singer than Emmylou Harris. And that she, too, seems to be an all-or-nothing proposition as a solo singer– “Together Again” came up on my iPod while I was driving with a friend of mine, who asked, “What the hell is that old woman shrieking about?” Which made me sad for her (the friend) for a bit…

    I’m a big fan of that Crowell record, too, though I think there are arguments to be made that each of his last three is a career-best. It’s quite a run he’s on these days.

  5. I agree with Emmylou being an A-rate harmony singer, and she’s one of my favorite vocalists of all-time anyway. It drives me crazy that I have friends who can’t get past her voice to get into her. I have trouble even understanding it, I dig her so much But different people have different tastes, I guess. I do understand the criticism that she doesn’t annunciate well – Emmy herself has said that’s one of her biggest flaws as a singer – but I’d rather hear her mumble the words than listen to most other artists sing them clearly.