December 24, 2007
Let it Go
Tim McGraw’s previous album, Live Like You Were Dying, topped my first year-end album list back in 2004. Let it Go strays from the musical formula that Dying perfected, with more challenging vocals attempted and off-beat material that ranges from introspective (“I’m Workin’”) to just plain dark (“Between the River and Me.”) It’s a sharp, confident album, and while it doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessor, it’s an interesting and entertaining listen.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
This unexpected collaboration between Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and bluegrass icon Alison Krauss finds common ground in the rockabilly roots that both artists share. T. Bone Burnett spearheaded this project, but don’t expect O Brother revisited. The sound here is fully contemporary, even when drawing on influences from generations gone by. The album closes with a beautiful reprise of “Your Long Journey”, which was recorded by Emmylou Harris in the mid-eighties.
Williams has never been known for happy, up-tempo songs in the first place, but West is her most sorrowful work to date, as she explores the emotions resulting from the death of her mother and the end of a long-term relationship. Some of the best tracks, like “Everything Has Changed” and “Are You Alright?”, aren’t clear about which grief they deal with. There’s no questioning the source of the anger in “Come On”, however, where she rips her ex-lover to shreds over his shortcomings.
The comparisons to Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmaster and Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series were immediate, with Wagoner’s weary voice and sparse accompaniment reminiscent of the iconic “Hurt”, Cash’s final hit. It’s fair to compare Wagonmaster to the later American albums, when Cash was falling ill. Wagoner revisits some of his classics and records some new songs in the same style. While the album lacks the vitality of the first two American albums, or Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, it’s a fine swan song for one of the genre’s greatest talents.
Shelton channels the negative energy produced by his recent divorce into a solid honky-tonk album, with some of the smartest break-up material I’ve ever heard sung in this particular style. Most notable is “She Don’t Love Me”, which finds Shelton running into his old flame and her new lover, and he “can tell by the way he shook my hand, he never heard of me before. “
Far and away, the most interesting and significant album that LeAnn Rimes has ever recorded. It was a bold move, writing her own record for the first time, and the risk paid off. Her lyrics are sharp and incisive, and she sings with style, rather than with power. “What I Cannot Change” is a masterpiece that has the potential to be a career record if it gets the exposure it deserves.
Big Dog Daddy
The genre’s finest male vocalist that still gets radio play finally takes the time to make an album worthy of his talent, with less filler than any album that he’s released since Dream Walkin’. “White Rose” tells the story of a small town’s rise and fall through the opening and closing of a filling station, “Burnin’ Moonlight” relives his first time with effective restraint and vulnerability, and “Get My Drink On” is relentless in its driving rhythm.
Tough All Over found Gary Allan processing the horrific suicide of his wife. That raw, exposed project topped my album list back in 2005. Living Hard is the next step forward from that tortured record, with Allan beginning to gain perspective and see a brighter tomorrow, while still working through the pain of yesterday. The best tracks on Living Hard find him playing the hillbilly philosopher, and there’s plenty of wisdom to be found in those songs, especially “As Long as You’re Looking Back” and “Half of My Mistakes.”
The title track sings of an enigmatic man, likening him to “Chinese boxes, one inside the other one.” Richey could just as easily be describing her own musical odyssey, with each album being a new discovery, a revealing of a side of her artistry that she hadn’t hinted at before. This time around, Richey is Abbey Road pop, wrapping her typically brilliant lyrics in a Beatlesque package. No matter what trimmings she uses, songs like “The Absence of Your Company” and “Not a Love Like This” are wonderful gifts.
On the opening track “Bus Ride”, strangers leaving town form a bond of friendship as they begin a journey into the unknown. Bogguss takes her music into similar uncharted territory on Sweet Danger, and the title sums up the dichotomy of this project: the sounds are sweet, a laid-back jazzy kind of thing, but the emotional territory gets treacherously dangerous. Intensely intimate lyrics, mostly from her own pen, make “In Heaven”, “Even if That Were True” and “It’s Not Gonna Happen Today” some of the best performances of Suzy Bogguss’ long and winding career.
Everything is Fine
2007 may go down as the year that Josh Turner confirmed his status as the finest new male country singer of the decade. The promise that surfaced on his multi-platinum Your Man has been delivered on and then some, as Turner turns in a confident and thoroughly consistent third album that is completely devoid of filler. The finest moments, particularly the red-hot lead single “Firecracker”, the tender Trisha Yearwood-supported ballad “Another Try” and the nautically-themed “The Longer the Wait (The Sweeter the Kiss)”. prove that while his talent may not be very broad – he’s a traditionalist and little more – his talent runs very, very deep.
Lori McKenna is a throwback in the very best sense. She’s an introspective singer-songwriter with a keen eye for the joys and sorrows of the working-class family experience. Her frank discussion of the effects of alcohol on the household is reminiscent of the candor of Loretta Lynn. Witness “Written Permission”, where she’s leaving a goodbye letter and refers to it as something she’d write for her child to excuse a missing homework. Then there’s “Drinkin’ Problem”, where she details how the drinking of her husband is wearing down her body, mind and soul.
A rare case of the music living up to the hype. Lambert’s debut album showed potential, but her sophomore album is a fully realized artistic statement, a young singer-songwriter who has found her voice and is fearless in using it. The title track and the raucous “Gunpowder & Lead” have garnered the most attention, helping to establish Lambert as an alt-country rebel, but the wry humor of “Guilty in Here” and the aching vulnerability of “Love Letters” and “More Like Her” reveal her to be far more than just a tough chick. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend suggests what the Dixie Chicks might have sounded like if they hadn’t lost interest in commercial country music after Fly.
Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love
It’s become easy to take Trisha Yearwood for granted. The singing is always impeccable, the taste in material sophisticated, the production immaculate, particularly when it’s Garth Fundis at the helm of the soundboard. Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love shakes things up just enough to assertively remind listeners of Yearwood’s remarkable craftsmanship. She lets loose more as a vocalist than she ever has before on record, the production takes more musical chances, and even in the already impressive canon that is Yearwood’s catalog, “Dreaming Fields” and “Sing You Back to Me” stand out.
A timeless record that references country music’s tradition without being needlessly restricted by it. Pam Tillis has long been one of the genre’s most ambitious artists, incorporating pop, rock, jazz and R&B into her music while always remaining authentically country. What’s stunning about Rhinestoned is that Tillis made a pure country record without any of those trappings, and in the end, it was the finest album of her career.
It helps to have the pens of Leslie Satcher and Bruce Robison on your side, but Tillis herself wrote two of the best tracks: the autobiographical “The Hard Way” and the duet with John Anderson, “Life Has Sure Changed Us Around”, both tracks that look back on a life with many twists and turns, trying to figure out just how yesterday led to today.
Best of all is “Someone Somewhere Tonight”, a ballad that examines all the stages of life, and how there is always someone in the world right at this very moment, experiencing their life changing forever. It just might be the best thing that Tillis has ever put down on tape, and it’s the centerpiece of Rhinestoned, the best album of her career and the best country album of 2007.