Top Ten Albums of 2008

In a year where excellent mainstream country albums were few and far between, there were still many wonderful projects waiting to be discovered by listeners willing to look for them.    Among all releases, mainstream and alternative, traditional and contemporary, folk and Americana, the Country Universe staff deems these ten the best.

jim-lauderdale-honey-songs#10

Jim Lauderdale & The Dream Players, Honey Songs

You could forgive Jim Lauderdale if he showed signs of wear on Honey Songs, his fourth release in a span of 18 months. Instead, he’s produced yet another fresh package, this time by cherry-picking the best parts of rock ‘n’ roll’s roots and throwing ‘em into his ever-sharp traditional songwriting blender. His tunes have never been more perfectly framed, either, which you can attribute to the aptly-named “Dream Players,” a droolworthy backing line-up consisting of guitarist James Burton and drummer Ron Tutt (both Elvis Presley vets), pianist Glen D. Hardin and pedal steeler Al Perkins (both renowned session players), and bassist Garry Tallent (of Springsteen’s E. Street Band), not to mention Emmylou Harris, Kelly Hogan, Patty Loveless and Buddy Miller on vocals. If it’s been a while since you heard an instrumental part that sounded like it was actually written to complement its song, rather than just create sound, check out the melancholy electric/steel duet in the intro to “Borrow Some Summertime.” – Dan Milliken

sugarland-love

#9

Sugarland, Love on the Inside (Deluxe Fan Edition)

There has been no shortage of country acts that incorporate arena rock into their spin on country music, but on their third album, Love on the Inside, Sugarland manages to do so without the sound overwhelming the country identity of the work.    At its heart, this is an acoustic country record, with most of the songs beginning with bare-bones instrumentation and more than a few staying that way.

But the clean and fresh production would all be for naught if the material wasn’t so strong, and Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush have collected their strongest batch of songs to date, with “Already Gone”, “Very Last Country Song”, “Keep You” and “We Run” only increasing in charm and power upon repeated listenings.   The Deluxe Fan Edition is the version to go for, as the extra songs prove a fascinating listen.   They’re almost fully formed and make you wonder why they weren’t deemed worthy of being on the regular album, until you notice that the hook isn’t quite strong enough or the lyric starts to fall apart at the bridge.    Such tracks are usually unearthed years later, if at all, so it’s an extra treat to hear the good material that didn’t warrant inclusion on a great album.  – Kevin J. Coyne

peter-cooper-mission-door#8

Peter Cooper, Mission Door

While the melodies on his first album, Mission Door, are enough to draw you in, it’s Peter Cooper’s provocative and insightful lyrics that take you by surprise on this folk infused, steel guitar laden album. Cooper either wrote or co-wrote ten out of the twelve tracks that explores such weighty topics as racism and poverty. He enlists the help of Nanci Griffith and Todd Snider, his two favorite singers, on the album’s stand out title track, along with recording his own mellower version of “Thin Wild Mercury”, which he co-wrote with Todd Snider for Snider’s The Devil You Know album.

The best and most powerful song on the album, however, is “715 (For Hank Aaron), a song that discusses the duality of Aaron being a revered baseball player and an oppressed black man. This mostly ignored album that sounds like a mix of Darrell Scott and Todd Snider, with lots of steel guitar thrown in for good measure, is one of the year’s most intriguing albums. – Leeann Ward

lee-ann-womack-call#7

Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy

When There’s More Where That Came From arrived in early 2005, Lee Ann Womack was lauded for her fidelity to traditional country music. Commercial plaudits were harder to come by, and the album only sold gold. Unsure of her next step, she abandoned country stardom for a time.  The return is rather terrific; Call Me Crazy slows down the tempo, with producer Tony Brown complementing Womack’s once-in-a-generation warble by laying off the busy production of most Music Row releases. Exploring left-for-dead romances (“Either Way,” “If These Walls Could Talk”) or deep-rooted loneliness (“Have You Seen That Girl,” “I Think I Know”), Womack slides beautifully across every melancholic melody. – Blake Boldt

emmylou-harris-all-i-intended#6

Emmylou Harris, All I Intended to Be

Emmylou Harris’ angelic, yet well-worn voice and ability to timelessly interpret a lyric puts her in a class of her own. Yet while she can sing the phone book and make it sound like scripture, All I Intended To Be rises above, seamlessly blending sublime covers of well-chosen songs, including Merle Haggard’s “Kern River,” Tracy Chapman’s “All That You Have Is Your Soul”, Mark Germino’s “Broken Man’s Lament,” Patty Griffin’s “Moon Song” and Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” and sensitive originals, with a graceful touch. The production is spare, but it only serves to highlight Harris’ moving interpretations. – Lynn Douglas

justin-townes-earle-good-life#5

Justin Townes Earle, The Good Life

Justin Townes Earle is the son of Steve Earle, but his first complete project is mostly independent of his father’s musical influences.  On The Good Life, Earle embraces various types of music, but mainly acoustic and traditional country music. For example, “Hard Livin’” opens the album with an incredibly catchy honky tonker that flows so naturally that it sounds like a cool jam session rather than a rigid studio recording.

While various topics are explored on this album, The prevailing theme of The Good Life seems to be loneliness. Townes Earle’s rich, warm baritone perfectly accentuates those melancholy feelings without making the album feel too dramatic. Moreover, the album manages to sound both nostalgic and fresh, which should appeal to traditionalists and country music newcomers alike.  - Leeann Ward

patty-loveless-sleepless-nights#4

Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights

To justify their existence, collections of cover songs should accomplish one of two things: preserving the legacy of songs that are in danger of being forgotten, or bringing something new to the material through the artist’s interpretations.   Sleepless Nights accomplishes both.   It’s no secret that Patty Loveless possesses one of the finest voices in the history of country music, and the ache in her vocals make her a perfect match for the songs collected here, both those that are well-known today  (“Cold, Cold Heart”, “He Thinks I Still Care”) and those that have unfairly faded into obscurity (“There Stands the Glass”, “Color of the Blues.”)

And while the influences of traditional vocalists like Ralph Stanley and George Jones are all over this record,  Loveless’ phrasing and Emory Gordy, Jr.’s production are heavily influenced by the work of Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.    The songs are presented cleanly and reverently, without a Nashville Sound flourish to be found.    The title track sounds like a glorious revival of the Harris version found on Pieces of the Sky.   The result is an essential album that preserves not only the traditional songs that formed the foundation of modern country music, but the legacy of those country-rockers who lovingly revived it decades later.  – Kevin J. Coyne

jamey-johnson-lonesome#3

Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song

It’s easy to love That Lonesome Song for what it’s not. With mainstream country at what could well be an all-time artistic low, with fans and even some de facto music “critics” blissfully unaware of where the genre came from musically, with radio reycling the same five life-affirming themes over and over again and record labels playing exclusively to earn radio’s favor, it’s tempting to canonize Johnson’s latest offering just for being so damn counter-cultural, for daring to sound negative or mention “cocaine and a whore” or express sentimentality without smashing through the the fourth wall to manipulate the easy listener.

But Johnson’s latest is much more than a collection of tasteful avoidances; it is an album’s album, a set of songs which are strong on their own but combine to illustrate something much greater. Over the course of his fourteen tracks, Johnson embodies a character who endures lingering sadness in seemingly every aspect of his life, who searches for its antidote in drugs and relationships and humor and vacations and passive-agressive revenge and the past and the future, all to no discernible avail. You could interpret the album’s final moment, the Here-I-Am-World “Between Jennings and Jones,” as Johnson’s last, beautifully inconclusive answer to himself: he finds release from his demons through country music. Country music would do well to use him similarly. – Dan Milliken

kathy-mattea-coal#2

Kathy Mattea, Coal

In a time when most songs about the poor working man are coated in sugar and wrapped in uplifting lyrics, Kathy Mattea brings us an album of poignant honesty, heart wrenching despair and searing realness. With Coal, the West Virginia-raised Mattea gives a voice to the coal miner, bringing us closer to his life and experiences, and reminding us all of the blood, sweat and tears that went into the building of America.

Produced with a judicious and loving hand by Marty Stuart, Coal touches on all facets of the coalmining experience. The album embraces songs about the horror of black lung (Hazel Dickens’ “Black Lung” and Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Red Winged Blackbird”), the modern destruction of a way of life (Wheeler’s “Coming of the Roads”), the hopelessness brought on by economic hardship (Jean Ritchie’s “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and “Blue Diamond Mines” and Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”) and the back-breaking mining experience itself (Merle Travis’ “Dark as the Dungeon”). Interwoven all together, these songs, both contemporary and traditional, paint a heartbreakingly bleak picture of a way of life lived out of necessity, and not out of choice.

By making an album from her heart, inspired by real life tragedies and her Appalachian roots, and with the sole focus on doing justice, not only to the songs, but to the people that lived them, Mattea has created a timeless classic. – Lynn Douglas

chambers-nicholson#1

Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones

Last year’s critically-beloved duet, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, transported us to a sort of hillbilly nirvana. This year’s entry, Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson grounds us with a more down-to-earth approach.  Rattlin’ Bones, an acoustic-driven set, resonates with its tight harmonies and terrific song choice.

Blending Appalachian music with blues and country, the duo gracefully glides through this exquisite exercise. Most notably on “One More Year” and “No One Hurts Up Here,” Chambers transcends heartache with her tender vocal. With husband Nicholson, whose hardy tenor supplies its share of lonesome, she echoes her desires and doubts.  “Once in a While” and “Sweetest Waste of Time” are vulnerable moments where the pair stands witness to a dying relationship, and the title track is a dark, depressing look at an untameable loneliness. Love and life are full of tension and trouble, but these two, even through the darkness, hint that rich rewards lie beyond the sorrow. – Blake Boldt

Honorable Mentions

These albums didn’t make our final list, but are also recommended.

Joey + Rory, Life of a Song
Little Big Town, A Place to Land
Charlie Louvin, Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs
Dolly Parton, Backwoods Barbie
Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof
Ralph Stanley II, This One is Two

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24 Comments

Filed under Best of 2008

24 Responses to Top Ten Albums of 2008

  1. Lynn DouglasNo Gravatar

    “It’s easy to love That Lonesome Song for what it’s not.” – Great line Dan. I’ve often wondered if that’s part of the album’s charm, and I struggled against that impulse when I listened to the album. I don’t know if the album is as great as all of its accolades suggest, but there’s no doubt Johnson played the right notes this year.

  2. Lynn,

    I had one traditional honky tonk loving friend who absolutely hated “That Lonesome Song;” calling it nothing more than music row’s current idea of a traditional record and not too far removed from a Trace Adkins record (or something like that). I don’t agree with her in the slightest but ’tis good to hear various opinions of records that everyone is ‘told’ they should ‘love.’

  3. Soul Miner's DaughterNo Gravatar

    Thanks for the Sugarland shout-out!
    ITA that the “deluxe edition” is the one to splurge for and totally worth it. Their work impresses me so much in that while it does stay “country”, it’s not the typical “Music Row assembly line” sound that has sadly become more than predictable.
    I really hope “Love on the Inside” gets it’s proper due next awards season. It’s much better material-wise, production-wise, and overall performance-wise than the same old “ten songs from a hat act” we are still being inundated with.

  4. Many thanks, Lynn. I don’t think That Lonesome Song is really as stone-cold brilliant as a lot of people have made it out to be, and I think it’s received more hype than most quality albums could be expected to live up to (which, as an aside, is also how I felt about The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s performance especially, though I might be alone in that one). If you look at it on a song-by-song basis, I think there were at least a few stronger albums this year. But it stands out to me because of its cohesiveness; it feels like a fully-formed expression rather than a bunch of pretty good songs haphazardly slapped together. I just wish it didn’t borrow so much from Waylon; that aspect got a little old for me.

  5. Well, I only have a top 5 albums list for our blog, and all 5 of those albums are on this list. xD

    Do I even need to post my list? I could just link here and say look at #’s …

    Good job on this list, I’ll have to check out the 5 that I don’t have!

  6. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    Dan, that’s pretty much how I feel about the album too, now that I’ve lived with it for awhile. My personal list will reflect as much, I think.

  7. MarcNo Gravatar

    Agree with everything but #3… still.. no idea. Any of the runner ups would happily shuffle in/up the ranks as well.

  8. Blake BoldtNo Gravatar

    In defense of That Lonesome Song, I imagine a little backlash is to be expected. When critical response is tilted to such an extreme, there’s going to be a natural balance back towards the other side. In this case, the hosannas for That Lonesome Song have reached an almost fever pitch. The deafening cheers (so to speak) for the album are so overwhelming that it ignores the fact that some listeners don’t like it. The consensus, however, holds that it’s a worthy album, and they explain, for different reasons, why.

    I sense that That Lonesome Song was fully considered by most of the media that I’ve seen. Sometimes the stars align and there’s passionate fervor in one direction, good or bad. It’s not a conscious effort to deify a piece of art, just a force of nature. An extreme position, especially about something as subjective as art, has to be handled carefully. The job as critic is to fully justify our educated interpretation of the art, and the job as reader/viewer is to use that opinion as a guidepost, not as a be-all, end-all.

    For what it’s worth, That Lonesome Song is not a completely perfect album (what album is?), but I ranked it #1. In my opinion, the album is based on a certain concept and skillfully goes about fleshing it out. There are clever touches and hidden meanings that blur by the first time, so I would suggest a second listen to anybody. And if you don’t enjoy it after that, well, that’s O.K., too. One critical opinion shouldn’t be the gospel truth.

  9. Blake,

    As ‘they’ say opinions are like…..

  10. bobbyNo Gravatar

    great list. I especially love the summaries. My personal favorite is That Lonesome Song, but I haven’t listened to Rattlin’ Bones yet, so I will have to check that out!

  11. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar

    While That Lonesome Song wasn’t among my favorite albums of the year, I think it struck a chord with fans of that style of country music and that the songwriting was solid. I’m just not partial to that particular style of country music, so I didn’t care for it that much.

    To a certain extent, musical criticism is quite subjective. I think it’s most useful for readers to identify writers who tend to share similar tastes for similar reasons, and use that as a guideline when reading reviews. I think at this point, our voices are pretty well established here at Country Universe. Thankfully, we have writers with diverse enough tastes to cover a wide range of country music fairly.

  12. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    I think you folks do cover all the bases, giving due coverage to the divergent styles that make up today’s Country as well as Traditional and NeoTraditional Country.

    Great job everybody…I really like this list. And your write-ups for each song are interesting and very well stated, as usual.

    There are some albums here by artists I have not heard of, and some albums I have not heard yet by well know artists. I am especially intrigued by Jim Lauderdale, Jamey Johnson, Emmy Lou Harris, and Kathy Mattea’s albums and cannot wait to hear each of these.

    And I applaud the top five inclusion of Patty’s Sleepless Nights CD..My bias, (as well as my good taste, jk) would have put Patty’s latest masterpiece at #1, but #4 is a fantastic rank as well.. It’s great to see both Country Universe and the Grammys among those who honor Patty Loveless with some very well deserved recognition.

  13. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    Also, on a side note, and perhaps a point of general interest…

    “Slant” magazine had Patty’s Sleepless Nights, at #12 on their ALL-GENRE year end album countdown, and Kathy Mattea’s “Coal” at #18…These were the only two Country artists that I detected, (or at least recognized) on their countdown!

  14. MarcNo Gravatar

    My 10… without a whole pile of thought put in:

    #10 Sugarland – Love on the Inside
    #09 Lady Antebellum – Lady Antebellum
    #8 Patty Loveless – Sleepless Nights
    #7 Ashton Shepherd – Sounds So Good
    #6 Katie Perry – One of the Boys
    #5 Rebecca Lynn Howard – No Rules
    #4 Lee Ann Womack – Call Me Crazy
    #3 Kasey Chambers – Rattlin Bones
    #2 Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
    #1 Los Campesinos! – Hold On Now Youngster… (US release ’08)

    Props also to:
    Dido – Safe Trip Home
    Chairlift – Does You Inspire You
    Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
    Girl Talk – Feed the Animals
    Carter’s Chord – Carter’s Chord (Showing Promise)
    Marié Digby – Unfold

  15. Soul Miner's DaughterNo Gravatar

    Re: Jim Lauderdale review….
    “and drummer Garry Tallent (of Springsteen’s E. Street Band)”

    Garry Tallent plays bass.
    Springsteen’s drummer is Max Weinberg.
    (I’m a drummer… not so much a B.S. fan.)

  16. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    Also, the only omission that comes to mind and one that I would have included(even in the top five), would have been Brad Paisley’s daring and dynamic “Play” album.

    On this nearly all-instrumental album, Paisley mostly lets his fingers-on-the-fretboard do talking, and mixes his eloquent six-string voice with other masters in the field. The result is often breathtaking, and makes for an inspired and very unique album from a mainstream artist.

    I think for it’s brilliance and it’s boldness, Paisley’s “Play” deserved a place on your list as well.

    It would be REALLY interesting to see if any of the instrumental tracks gets released as a single, and actually gets PLAY-ed on country radio!

    But once again, great list with great commentary everybody!

  17. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    Hey Steve,

    I’m glad Patty got a good placement on this collective list of ours. I think you’ll like where you’ll find it on some of our individual lists as well.

    As for the Paisley album, I didn’t even consider it because instrumental albums really aren’t my thing, not even bluegrass instrumentals (and I love me some bluegrass). I know there is some singing on the Paisley album as well, but none of the songs really stood out to me except the one with Buck Owens–that was pretty cool. So, over all, nothing really interested me too much on the album, but I didn’t think it was horrible for what it was.

  18. Soul Miner’s Daughter,

    Nice catch! Don’t know how I managed to flub that one – I probably should have noticed I had two drummers written down! :/

  19. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    Thanks Leeann,

    It’s great to see Patty’s work placed so high up, where it belongs. And intentional or not, this recognition that Country Universe (and the Grammys and others as well) have given her acts as a rebuke to “country” radio and tv and even the marketplace which has shamefully neglected her and some other high quality artists. If not a rebuke, a correction and a counterbalance at the very least.

    I’m looking forward to seeing all your individual lists as well..

    Regarding Brad’s latest…I just think it was a gutsy move that he went ahead with this project in the first place. I think he was advised against it, and even caught some flak from some of his own fans. But it’s good he’s at a place in his career where he can afford to follow his Muse wherever she leads him.

    Kinda natural that this kind of album gets overlooked when folks compile their lists, but your reasons make sense. Also, there is a huge danger that such an album (being mostly instrumental and all) can all too easily fall into “novelty” territory. But Mr. Paisley has more than enough skill and God given talent to keep it in the realm of art, even as he has a blast doing so!

    And on a side note…can you imagine an episode of “Crossroads” where Brad would team up with Lynyrd Skynrd, or some other Southern guitar army? I can just picture Brad and Gary Rossington dueling it out with their blistering six-strings …THAT would be amazing!

  20. I have been meaning to check out Peter Cooper’s music for a while.

    I first heard of him on BBC Radio a couple of months ago where they brought him on, as a journalist, to preview and review the CMA’s.

    A couple of weeks ago the same BBC show had a live session from him with Eric Brace, which I enjoyed.

    After finding Mission Door in your top ten it nudged me into buying the album from Itunes today and I think it might leap into my top… wel if not top 10 mighty high up, soon. “Wine” is the song that stands out for me most immediately.

  21. CFNo Gravatar

    Good list. I’ll have to check some of those albums out. I keep putting off buying songs from Coal. I need to re-listen again.

    I listened to Jamey Johnson’s album, and I liked what I heard. I’m just not too blown away by his voice, and when he released that one single a while back (it was very “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”-ish, but really really bad), from his last album, it turned me off Jamey. So maybe this is his redemption for me.

    My other favorite albums not listed would be Ashton Shepherd’s Sounds So Good, Crystal Shawanda’s Dawn of a New Day, and George Strait’s Troubadour.

    I’d say Call Me Crazy is definitely my most favorite of this year.

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