Five albums. Seven women. Fourteen million copies sold. The latest list comes to an end as I said it would in the beginning, dominated by the female artists who have been such a potent creative force during the genre’s boom years. These are the five albums that I’ve found to be the best over the last seventeen years, the ones that keep my fingers away from the skip button and make me linger in the car longer than I need to because the music is so damn good, I don’t want to stop listening to it.
When Fallen Angels Fly
Many of the artists that are praised for being staunch traditionalists bore the hell out of me. They seem to regurgitate and repeat the sounds and ideas of classic country music without moving the genre forward in any meaningful way. Patty Loveless, on the other hand, I’ve always seen as a progressive traditionalist. The records she has made with producer Emory Gordy, Jr. are drenched in steel guitar and fiddle, but the arrangements are more aggressive and fresh.
This new sonic approach fully bloomed on her seminal When Fallen Angels Fly, which won Album of the Year at the 1995 CMA’s. Here, the production is rustic without sounding rusty or dated, and Loveless’ pure honky-tonk voice is finally matched by the purest of instruments around her. The arrangements are as bold as the material, which includes a sharp cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “When the Fallen Angels Fly”, two Gretchen Peters ballads that explore love being found in a Vegas casino (“Ships”) and falling apart at the end of a marriage (“You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”), and deeply probing and brutally honest reflections on her own worth when falling in (“A Handful of Dust”, “I Try To Think About Elvis”) and falling out of love (“Halfway Down”, “Over My Shoulder”), and on the best track, trying to figure out whether its still love at all (“Here I Am.”)
Download This: “Here I Am”, “When The Fallen Angels Fly”, “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”
For My Broken Heart
Recorded in the aftermath of the tragic plane crash that killed her tour manager and most of her band, For My Broken Heart is Reba McEntire’s masterpiece, a somber album that pays tribute to the loss by tying together ten songs around the theme of missed opportunities, most notably the chance to let true feelings be shown before it’s too late.
With the exception of the murder ballad “The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia”, which within the context of the album manages to sound less campy than one would expect, the characters in these songs are anything but broadly drawn. They are wounded, vulnerable and conflicted, unsure if the right opportunity has already passed them by or if they’re doing the right thing by putting faith in those they love.
Witness the quiet elderly woman who waits in the lobby of her nursing home every Sunday for her family that never shows up (“All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)”, or the woman in “Buying Her Roses”, who has been betrayed by her husband, but isn’t sure which step to take next, with the tough feminist ideal conflicting with her own sense of identity (“I know I should tell him to leave me forever, but what’ll I do if he goes?”). In “He’s In Dallas”, the woman who was sold on the dreams of her husband but let down leaves on a Greyhound bus with child in tow, “holding on to the only dream that turned out right.” In “I Wouldn’t Go That Far”, she’s a career-minded woman who lets the man of her dreams slip away so she can chase her ambitions, but realizes in the end that “I didn’t follow my heart” and that happiness has eluded her.
The best two songs on the album deal with the loss of a loved one where words were left unspoken. “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” has a daughter remembering her father, who loved her so deeply but was never able to express it to her: “He was good at business, but there was business left to do. He never said he loved me, guess he thought I knew.” Most powerful of all is the album closer, “If I Had Only Known”, which may be the greatest thing McEntire has ever recorded. She sings to a person who has died unexpectedly, and mourns not only the loved one who is gone, but also the opportunity to tell them how she felt: “You were the treasure in my hand, you were the one who always stood beside me. So unaware, I foolishly believed that you would always be there. Then there came I day, and I turned my head, and you slipped away…”
The circumstances that birthed this album were tragic, but also brought the very best out of McEntire as an artist. In recording the best album of her career, she honored those who were lost in a way that only a person with her stunning level of talent could do.
RIAA: 4x Platinum
Download This: “If I Had Only Known”, “The Greatest Man I Never Knew”, “I Wouldn’t Go That Far”
Hearts In Armor
Brilliant in its melancholy, Yearwood’s majestic sophomore album established her as the Emmylou Harris of her generation, an astute selector of material who always turns in nothing less than a stellar vocal performance. It was a sharp turn from her debut album, which was good for a first effort and endeared her to young girls across America with the lead-off smash “She’s In Love With the Boy”, but only hinted at the breadth of her ability. Hearts In Armor kicks off with the bluesy “Wrong Side of Memphis”, featuring mesmerizing harmonies from Raul Malo and Yearwood herself, and never ceases to amaze as it continues. “Nearest Distant Shore” is a quiet plea for a woman to leave her abusive husband, “Walkaway Joe” rues the loss of a young girl’s innocence, “Down On My Knees” pleas for a lover’s devotion with an earth-shattering wail, and “For Reasons I’ve Forgotten” is as potent a dose of regret as has ever appeared on record: “Damn the pride that makes me want to break instead of bend, for reasons I’ve forgotten now, I lost my one true friend.”
She transforms Harris’ “Woman Walk the Line” into a honky-tonk classic, pulling no punches as she fends off unwanted suitors, since she’s just there to kill time as her man is in another woman’s arms: “Tonight I wanna do some drinking, I came to listen to the band. Yes, I’m as good as what you’re thinking, but I don’t want to hold your hand.”
Most powerful of all is the album’s closer, “Heart’s In Armor”, which was written by Jude Johnstone after her father passed away. With only Matt Rollings accompanying on the piano and Don Henley helping with harmony, Yearwood proves herself to be a master intepreter beyond her years, eschewing vocal histrionics in favor of a quiet intensity that builds as the song progresses. Her performance captures vulnerability, doubt, regret and even self-loathing, but also a sense that she’s realizing something deeply true about herself that she wants to change. You can’t communicate that type of nuance if you don’t do two things: one, pick excellent material that reveals truth; and two, sing that material with the respect and dignity it deserves, showcasing the song rather than your own abilities to hit the high notes. Yearwood has become the most consistent recording artist of her generation by doing both, time and time again; her remarkable string of excellent records begins here.
Download This: “Heart’s In Armor”, “Woman Walk The Line”, “Wrong Side Of Memphis”
When Home arrived four years ago, it was so starkly different from the glossy two albums that had preceded it, that it was startling to listen to. As good as their first two records with Natalie Maines in the band were, they pale in comparison in every way to Home. For the first time, the true musicianship of the band is fully showcased, and they are recorded as an actual vocal trio, rather than just Maines with two backing vocalists. The harmonies on tracks like “Landslide” and “More Love” are goosebump-inducing, and there are no musical frills to get in the way.
I have a deeper personal connection with Taking the Long Way, but Home is the ultimate showcase of every facet of the Chicks’ talent. Maines has never sounded more natural as a vocalist, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire play their instruments front and center, and their impeccable taste in outside material results in brilliant selections from the catalogs of Bruce Robison (“Travelin’ Soldier”), Radney Foster (“Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”), and best of all, Patty Griffin (“Truth No. 2”, “Top of the World”.)
They also write some of the best tracks, with “More Love” being a powerful appeal for peace in the household as well as the world at large, and “I Believe in Love”, a poetic ode to seeking true love and settling for nothing less.
This is a 12-track collection that never dips down to mortal levels. Flawless.
RIAA: 6x Platinum
Download This: “Truth No. 2″, “Top Of The World”, “Travelin’ Soldier”
Stones In The Road
Mary Chapin Carpenter
This is my favorite album of all-time. A list like this is bound to be subjective, as no art is self-interpreting. We bring our own experiences to what we read, see and hear, and it colors how we receive it in ways we can’t filter. When I discovered country music in 1991, I had already been an avid music fan for six years, but it opened up a whole new world for me. I didn’t know music could be that immediate and visceral. At that age, I didn’t even know what visceral meant. But I knew that the music was affecting me and I needed to seek out as much of it as possible. Music went from being an interest to passion. I dare say that it became, and has remained, something of a religion, in that I believe the essence of God is reflected in the very best art. By that standard, for the last twelve years, Stones in the Road has been my gospel, the defining record that I have turned to at every stage of my life and learned something new from it, a truth that had already been revealed to me but I wasn’t ready to understand at an earlier time.
What Carpenter acheives here, through a journey of thirteen songs, is both an honest look at the weaknesses present in the human experience, and a hopeful optimism that they can be transcended. I’m amazed, listening to this album again, just how much of my own worldview has been shaped and later validated by the words of wisdom Carpenter communicated. I truly believe, for example, that “in this world you’ve a soul for a compass and a heart for a pair of wings”, as she implores in the gospel-flavored opening track, “Why Walk When You Can Fly”. She captured an essential truth of a small community in “House of Cards” that verbalized my biggest issue with the suburban area I grew up in: “I grew up in a town like this, you knew the names of every street. On the surface it looked so safe, but it was perilous underneath.”
Her unflinching look at how we fail ourselves and the ones we love cut deep. On “A Keeper For Every Flame”, she tells of a man who “just misses what he can’t forget. It’ s just an empty space where something used to be, now he guards the gate but he’s lost the key, so no one enters but no one leaves.” “The Last Word” never directly refers to the title, obliquely referring to it as “it”, but captures in song the empty victory of winning the battle of words but losing love in the process: “Some words will cut you down like you’re only in the way. Why should I stand this ground?” leads to “Sometimes we’re blinded by the very thing we need to see. I finally realized that you need it more than you need me.” In “The End of My Pirate Days”, she notes that “this world is kinder to the kind who won’t look back. They are the chosen few among us now, unbowed somehow.” In the gut-wrenching “Outside Looking In”, she hears “the sound a heart a must make when a memory’s caving in.” When she wonders how to find “Where Time Stood Still”, she wistfully sings, “I remember like a lover can, but I forget it like a leaver will.”
It would be an overwhelmingly depressing album if it wasn’t so seasoned with true hope, the belief that the heartaches of past can lead to a happy future if the right lessons are learned in the present. “Jubilee” implores that “I can tell by the way that you’re talking, that the past isn’t letting you go. Well, there’s only so long you can take it all on, then the wrong’s gotta be on its own. And when you’re ready to leave it behind you, you’ll look back and all you will see, is the wreckage and rust that you left in the dust, on your way to the jubilee.”
And nothing can match the sheer scale of “This Is Love”, the epic album closer that trades in regret for hope as the song progresses, as true a declaration of real devotion as I’ve ever heard: “When the waves are lapping in and you’re not sure you can swim, well, here’s the lifeline.” The narrator comes to terms with her own emotional baggage and insists that her new love can do the same: “If you ever need some proof that time can heal your wounds, just step inside my heart and walk around these rooms where the shadows used to be, you can feel as well as see how peace can conquer.”
Most amazingly is that the love affair in the song doesn’t survive as a relationship, but is still cherished after it has gone, and it works as a reminder that most connections we have with others are transient, but they can still be valued and remembered fondly long after the direct contact has ended. There’s such a beauty to her assertion that “If you ever wish for things that are only in the past, just remember that the wrong things aren’t supposed to last. It’s over and done and the rest is gonna come when you let it”, that it can trivialize all those cliched hold-on-to-love-at-all-cost songs that have always dominated popular music.
I may be the only person of the two million who bought this album who value it this much, but when making this list, #1 was the only position that was filled before I began. For me, it does everything that music is supposed to do, enlightening and inspiring in the process, and I’m thankful that I’ve been able to be changed for the better by knowing it intimately.
RIAA: 2x Platinum
Download This: “This Is Love”, “A Keeper For Every Flame”, “The Last Word”