The SteelDrivers, The SteelDrivers
Chris Stapleton’s voice just blows me away. As Lee Ann Womack has recently observed, he sings like a real man. He takes Travis Tritt’s soulfulness to a whole new level. With incredible harmonies and terrific songs not limited to “Blue Side of the Mountain” and “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey”, this is a strong project that certainly stood out in 2008.
Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Comal County Blue
I love Boland’s folk-tinged country voice, which sings these memorable fiddle laden melodies to great affect. While the lyrics can be abstract at times, they still manage to feel meaningful. I’ve come to realize that what ultimately appeals to me about this album is the fact that it reminds me of good nineties country music, which is the era that drew me to this genre in the first place.
Darrell Scott, Modern Hymns
My admiration for Darrell Scott is unending. I, of course, love his voice, but I especially love his thoughtful songwriting. “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” just floors me every time I hear it. In this project, however, he chose to cover some of his favorite songs that he classifies as modern hymns. Unsurprisingly, these choices turn out to be as interesting as his own compositions, which simply confirms that his talent is inspired by tasteful writing equal to his own.
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
Admittedly, nothing about this album is warm or pretty. Johnson’s vocals are harsh and the songs are mostly darker than we’re accustomed to hearing in country music these days. Along with the outlaw tinged productions, these factors are the fundamental elements of this great album.
Peter Cooper, Mission Door
While the melodies on his first album, Mission Door, are enough to draw you in, it is Peter Cooper’s provocative and insightful lyrics which catch 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 grossly 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.
Joey + Rory, The Life Of A Song
As I’ve said before, Joey + Rory are my favorite new artists of 2008. Their warm voices, solid songs and organic productions make this album a wonderful surprise coming from a reality based television show. As I promised in my initial review of this album, it easily slides into my top five favorite albums of the year.
Kathy Mattea, Coal
Like so many others have disclosed, this album had to grow on me. It was not an instant hit. In fact, when I first heard it, I was disappointed because I felt as though it lacked something. I was expecting something livelier from Mattea. When I think about it though, I don’t know why. The purpose of this project was to expose the life of coal miners, which is not a glamorous way of life. In fact, it is one of the harshest ways to have to make a living. So, in that respect, Mattea was brilliant. She did not bend to the possible temptation to add “life” to songs. Instead, she avoided those surface flourishes and made an album that adequately and accurately captures the subdued consequences of being a coal miner. This album is an incredible example of artistic integrity.
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 both traditionalists and country music newcomers alike.
Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights
Patty Loveless manages to make an album of covers that both stays true to the originals while still sounding fresh. Her soulful twang is meant to sing these wisely chosen songs while Emory Gordy Jr.’s productions are warm, crisp and tasteful.
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones
As any Country Universe reader must be aware, this is clearly my favorite album of 2008. In fact, I’ll be hard pressed to find another album that I’ll like more this decade. The Australian husband and wife team, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, somehow compromise their more rock and pop leaning styles to create this masterpiece of both rootsy and straight up country songs. While the achingly sad “One More Year” remains my favorite of the compositions, my other favorites constantly shift as I’ve listened to Rattlin’ Bones over time.
Instead of trying to further rehash my feelings regarding this project, I will simply refer you to my original review. Just know that anything that I’d add would only be more words of adulation.
Here are some albums that were up for serious consideration for this list:
Ashton Shepherd, Sounds So Good
Randy Travis, Around The Bend
Hal Ketchum, Father Time
Emmylou Harris, All I Intended To Be
Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof
Charlie Louvin, Sings Murder Ballads And Disaster Songs