Kevin J. Coyne’s Top Ten Albums of 2008

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December 28, 2008

This is my fifth such list in as many years, and I have to say that I was mostly underwhelmed by the albums of 2008.  If it wasn’t for the contributions of the other writers, who made me aware of some fine albums I might have otherwise missed, it would’ve been difficult to compile a list at all.  That being said, there were at least ten albums from 2008 that I will be listening to in 2009 and beyond.

jim-lauderdale-honey-songs#10

Jim Lauderdale & The Dream Players, Honey Songs

No matter how much honey you put in the mix, the ragged words and vocals of Jim Lauderdale will cut through.  The glorious contrast between Lauderdale and his sonic surroundings make for a fascinating listen.

#9

Joey + Rory, The Life of a Song

It’s rare for any act to make a debut album without compromise, let alone one that hails from a reality competition show.   This is pure, straight off the back porch joy.

#8

Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones

A pure roots album with a progressive edge, the best of its kind since the Dixie Chicks moved to L.A.

lee-ann-womack-call-me-crazy#7

Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy

While it doesn’t reach the heights of There’s More Where That Came From, there are some fine moments here that are on par with Womack’s best work, especially the passive-aggressive “Either Way” and the Wynette-worthy “If These Walls Could Talk.”

#6

Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights

Effortlessly excellent.   Loveless is so in her element here that it’s a wonder that it took more than two decades to record this in the first place.   A wonderful treat to feast on while we wait for her next proper studio album.

#5

Charlie Louvin, Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs

Historical music performed by one of the greatest figures in musical history.

dolly-parton-backwoods-barbie#4

Dolly Parton, Backwoods Barbie

Ignore all the hype about this being her return to mainstream country.   No matter what musical template she currently fancies, a Dolly Parton album rises and falls on the strength and quantity of her songwriting contributions.   Here, she wrote most of the album, and the best of them (“Better Get to Livin’”, “Cologne”, “Only Dreamin’”, “I Will Forever Hate Roses”) are as good as anything she’s written this decade.

#3

Emmylou Harris, All I Intended to Be

One of Harris’ saddest albums to date, it’s also her strongest collection since 1995′s landmark Wrecking Ball.   Sorrow has rarely sounded as beautiful as it does on “Gold”, and Tracy Chapman’s cautionary tale “All That You Have Is Your Soul” is transformed into an older woman’s regretful lament.  The pain of losing a loved one to death forms the foundation of two of the most harrowing tracks, with “Kern River” and “Not Enough” being two of Harris’ most heartbreaking performances ever.  The young girl who sang “Boulder to Birmingham” sounds bright-eyed and cheerful in comparison.

#2

Sugarland, Love on the Inside (Deluxe Fan Edition)

I’m trying to remember the last time a country album made me smile with such joy and surprise, and I think I’d have to go all the way back to Shania Twain’s Up!, released six years earlier than Sugarland’s new set.     There isn’t an album this year that I truly enjoyed listening to more, and it keeps me coming back.   Even though I still enjoy the thrill of “We Run” and “Love”, and “It Happens” and “Steve Earle” still make me grin, it’s the album’s heavier moments that have hooked me the most deeply.   “Keep You” and “Very Last Country Song” both deserve to follow “Stay” into country music immortality.    I just can’t wait to see what the duo that created them will do next.

kathy-mattea-coal#1

Kathy Mattea, Coal

Mattea may not be a coal miner’s daughter, but hailing from West Virginia, the mining industry played a prominent role in the lives of her ancestors.   Her collection of coal mining ballads isn’t successful because of the authenticity she brings to these songs, but rather the sincerity with which she performs them.     By singing the stories of the coal mining men and their families, she preserves their history and keeps alive their contributions to the growth of our country.

The compensation that they received for their work was far less than the profit that was made from their efforts, and too many paid the ultimate sacrifice, their lives ended by their livelihood.   But there are lessons to be learned from their experiences, and as recent mine disasters have shown, they’re still relevant today.   Perhaps that’s why Mattea’s album manages to communicate a sense of urgency, even while she sings material from days gone by.

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  1. Chris D.No Gravatar says:

    Very nice list, this is one where I actually have almost all the albums!

    I agree, I think “Keep You” and “Very Last Country Song” would be amazing singles. Lee Ann’s “Either Way” is also one of my favorites on Call Me Crazy.

  2. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    Kevin,

    Reading this, I’m now even more annoyed to have missed the new Jim Lauderdale record, even though, in my defense, he’s turned out to be so prolific that it can be hard to keep up with his pace. I also didn’t hear the terrific Charlie Louvin album until well after all of my year-end deadlines had passed, which is a shame, as it handily would’ve made my top 10 country albums this year.

    Great write-ups here, as always. Even though I didn’t care for about two-thirds of the Sugarland album at all, I’m also interested to see what they do next because of how great that other one-third is. And I agree that All I Intended to Be is Emmylou’s strongest work since Wrecking Ball, which I’ll always value as my introduction to her music.

    I actually thought it was a pretty strong year for country albums overall– five country albums (including three from your list) made my all-genre top 10 ballot– but a fairly lackluster year for music in general. Percentage-wise, I liked more of the country albums I heard in 2008 than the indie-rock, pop, or hip-hop albums. So it’s been interesting to see the depth of 2008′s slate of country records reflected in both the overlap and divergence in opinions among the pool of writers here this year.

  3. Blake BoldtNo Gravatar says:

    Love on the Inside impressed me, and if I’d judged every album on pure first opinion (it’s a pretty terrific rush, isn’t it?), I imagine it would’ve been included on my list. The thrill died (for me) a little with repeated listens, but I still see the artistic quality of it despite that feeling. It had the potential to be out of this world, but just missed the mark. The album is encouraging, though, I agree with that.

    Call Me Crazy was almost the exact opposite. Although I still prefer Womack backed by a bunch of traditional instrumentation, I do enjoy the different spin she and Tony Brown put on her album, and the songs burrow down deep inside you after four or five rotations.

  4. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    I tend to agree with Jonathan on Love on the Inside; time has wound up disenchanting me with all but about five tracks, and even those have an assortment of lyrical shortcomings to me (aside from “Very Last Country Song” and “Steve Earle,” which I find perfect). Still, it’s clear that they have more creativity than most of their peers, even if not all the risks pay off (in my opinion).

    In any case, great list and write-ups, Kevin. Wish I could explain things this concisely. I think Emmylou may well have made my list as well if I had given myself a little more time to live with that album.

  5. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I was finally able to find the digital version of Wrecking Ball on Amazon (they must’ve added it pretty recently) tonight and thus completes my Emmylou studio album collection!

  6. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    I really like your list Kevin. Very well done!

    Most of your choices are either albums I own, or would like to…

    And with some slight changes in the order, and a few additions and omissions, this is very similar to a list that I would make, if I were a list maker.

    I especially like your concise and potently distilled encapsulation of Patty’s “Sleepless Nights”…You rendered more meaningful praise for her latest masterpiece in three sentences than I typically could do in three paragraphs.

    Sleepless Nights is indeed an effortlessly natural culmination of Patty’s faithfulness to Tradition..from her inspired early covers of greats like Williams and Jones, to the brilliant expression of her inherent Mountain soul, to her trailbazing acoutic/electric brand of NeoTraditionalism…It’s all led up to this, yet another amazing career pinnacle.

    Patty has been called “The Queen of Mountain Soul” and now she has more than earned the title “Queen of Country Soul”.

    I, too, eagerly await her next project. Whether a part two of Country or Mountain classics, or a new studio album of original material, I cannot wait to see what she does next!

  7. Mike M.No Gravatar says:

    Great list but my #1 isn’t on it. I LOVE “That Lonesome Song.”

  8. White CleatsNo Gravatar says:

    I agree. No That Lonesome Song= faulty and incomplete list. Love you, Kevin. But I’m appalled.

  9. White CleatsNo Gravatar says:

    Well, I guess I’m the only person who doesn’t know you can’t use italics tags. Sorry about that, folks.

  10. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    White Cleats,

    You can use italic tags, but you have to use the arrow things (< , >) instead of brackets ([, ]).

  11. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    White Cleats,

    The italic tag is em, not i. I fixed your comment so it would look the way you intended.

    Regarding Jamey Johnson, I don’t think anybody who has read my writing regularly should be terribly surprised his album isn’t on my list. That particular style of country music isn’t my cup of tea. I’ve heard the album several times, but it just doesn’t do it for me. I don’t really like it or dislike it, so I haven’t written much about it at all.

    Thankfully, I now have a staff of writers with different country music preferences, so the album and Johnson himself have received extensive and quite positive coverage at Country Universe.

    So while you may not think my lists are valid because they don’t synchronize with your tastes, you have four others to choose from. I recommend starting with Blake and Dan, who both topped their album lists with Johnson’s set.

  12. Jim ONo Gravatar says:

    This is a brilliant album but I don’t share your view about Kathy’s sincerityKevin.

    Sorry to sound unkind to Kathy but she came across as decidedly unconvincing in her interviews when promoting this album

    It is only 2 years ago since 12 or so miners died in that West Virginia tragedy.

    That was wrong and people like Kathy should be speaking out about it in my view.

  13. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    I can completely see how That Lonesome Song wouldn’t appeal to a lot of country music fans. If there’s anything doing these lists taught me, it’s how subjective taste really is. I heard a number of albums this year which I think I might have appreciated enough to include in my top 10 if not for my particular musical biases (for example, I think Patty Loveless’ voice is much better suited to bluegrassy stuff, which made her album difficult for me to love even though I recognize its merits).

  14. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Jim, I really don’t understand what you mean by Mattea coming across as insincere. I didn’t get that from her interviews.

  15. CMWNo Gravatar says:

    I think Kevin’s comment above should win some sort of an award for diplomacy.

  16. Kevin J. CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    CMW,

    Thanks for the compliment!

    Jim,

    My reference to Mattea’s sincerity was in regard to her performances on the record. However, I know that she has spoken out frequently and candidly about the recent tragedy, and how it inspired her to both record the album and become a more visible spokesperson against the mine stripping going on in West Virginia.

    Here’s an interview showing what I mean, which especially demonstrates her conviction, given the cluelessness of the interviewer. She had to do most of the heavy lifting. There’s also a great section where she praises Patty Loveless.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dls1os17RRw

  17. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    I didn’t sense anything insincere about Kathy’s comments at all. She seemed quite sincere and down to earth to me, and her comments seemed heartfelt. She has a wonderful personality.

    And of course, I love that section where she praises Patty as well. And she stated the difference I noticed in their vocal styles…Kathy being more folk, and Patty more mountain style. But I love how their voices blend so well.

    And Kathy’s recounting her conversation with Patty and Emory was very sweet, and funny too. Emory has a great sense of humor, with the banshee comment and all!

    Gotta love these folks, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless and Emory Gordy Jr.!

    Thanks for that link, Kevin.

  18. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar says:

    And about the “heavy lifting”…I thought Kathy was very gracious, even as she seamlessly picked up the slack left by the interviewer. Kathy Mattea is a class act.

  19. Jim ONo Gravatar says:

    Kevin.

    Thanks for the link. Much better view about Kathy after that.
    I hadn’t heard her talk about the West Virginia stuff like that previously.

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