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 & 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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
Charlie Louvin, Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs
Historical music performed by one of the greatest figures in musical history.
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.
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.
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
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.