A tense uncertainty hung over 2009, as the world waited to see what would become of a new American president, an economy in crisis, and a full deck of divisive social issues.
Popular music tends to respond to such charged societal circumstances in one of two ways: by confronting the issues and their ramifications head-on, or by cranking up the escapism to drown it all out for a bit. 2009 leaned heavily on the latter course, as the thumping sex-pop of Lady GaGa and the fluttery boy-centrism of Taylor Swift dominated the airwaves and the registers, offering listeners a chance to believe, if only for a few passing moments, that the world was as simple as a ride on a “disco stick” or the defeat of an evil cheer captain.
The tensions were certainly felt in country music, whose mainstream attempted to rally its casual fans against all the fallout by drumming up endless brain-optional reassurances of hometown value, God and gender identity, mostly with the volume at an attention-forcing 11 and the lyrical shrewdness averaging about 3. It made for a remarkably accessible year for that mainstream, but one which fewer fans ultimately cared much about, neutered as it was by its attempts to appease – rather than inspire – the mass public.
But let’s be positive: there were exceptions. For all its white lies and willful ignorances, country music in 2009 still told a great deal of truth. For all the loudness and brashness, the actual chart smashes – “Then”, “You Belong with Me”, “Big Green Tractor”, “Need You Now”, “Consider Me Gone” – were mostly non-exclamatory songs, songs that reflect a cherishing of simple, core ideals: Stability. Support. Romance. Appreciation. And of course, the alternative and independent artists hidden under country’s big tree continued to flourish in their own way, protected by the stability of the music’s thick roots and a less-tainted appreciation for its craft. Kinda like in the first two thirds of Avatar.
The countdown beginning below – our final country music retrospective of the past year and decade – contains albums from every spot on that big tree, from superstars squatting on the apples up top to upstart little sprouts on the middle branches to the legends holding down the withered bark at the base. It has been compiled by combination of equally weighed top-ten lists by Kevin, Leeann, William, Tara and myself, and features commentary from all five of us. Part 2 will come tomorrow, along with our individual singles and albums data. As always, we hope you enjoy the countdown and invite you to share your own top albums in the comments, along with any thoughts you may have as we close the book on 2009, if not on all the issues it brought forth.
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Gretchen Peters is best-known as a singer-songwriter, and a successful one at that, having penned the CMA. Song Of The Year “Independence Day” in 1994 and scored a top five hit when Faith Hill recorded her song, “The Secret of Life” in 1999. It is surprising then that, with her seventh album, One to the Heart, One to the Head, she and Tom Russell would release an album consisting almost completely of covers. Reminiscent of Willie Nelson’s penchant for relaxed delivery, One to the Heart, One to the Head flows with subtle emotion and western imagery. – William Ward
He once sang about how he’d do it better in his next thirty years, an early indication that he’d be paying close attention to the seasons of life and the changes that come with them. The best tracks of what is yet another solid McGraw album find him holding on the past for dear life (“Still”), worrying that life is passing him by (“If I Died Today”), and empathizing with those who have already seen life pass them by (“You Had to Be There.”)
– Kevin Coyne
A masterclass in deep, personal, relatable, evocative country songwriting. Casual listening it ain’t, though, as Kristofferson’s arrangements and singing are too understated to work with anything less than your full attention. Give it. You won’t regret doing so, especially at the end, when Kris whips out the first song he ever completed (at age eleven), a charmer called “I Hate Your Ugly Face.” – Dan Milliken
Somebody’s in love. If Urban’s last album chronicled his descent into addiction, this one is the soundtrack of his own personal redemption. He’s giving thanks to the woman who brought him back from the edge and singing about love and happiness with the giddiness of a much younger man. – KC
Hillbilly Goddess is a first-rate album that went largely unnoticed, which would be unfortunate in any year, but is positively bewildering in a weaker year such as 2009. Tastefully produced by Carl Jackson, who also produced Joey + Rory’s debut album, along with the highly-acclaimed tribute to the Louvin Brothers, Hillbilly Goddess is treated with spare acoustic country arrangements (with splashes of bluegrass for good measure) that serve to accentuate Nugent’s clear voice and songs rather than overpower them. Particularly if you like the production of the Joey + Rory album or Bradley Walker’s Highway of Dreams, Hillbilly Goddess’ arrangements will appeal to you as well. This third album is Nugent’s strongest to date both in sound and songs. – Leeann Ward
Easily among the most interesting moments in this legend’s very large catalog, chock full of typically solid material plus a previously unheard boldness befitting a man now willing to stick his tongue out on an album cover. He’s nearly sixty years old and still sounds more alive on highlights like “Hot Grease and Zydeco” and “El Rey” than most of his younger radio peers. Tway-yay-yang on, sir. – DM
It was time a long time ago, actually. I’d call Dalley the most promising female singer-songwriter that mainstream country had a chance of embracing this decade. Thankfully, she’s included some of her best songs from her unreleased Curb album (“Let’s Try Goodbye”, “Talk.”) The rest of the album is up to par with those cuts, and quite a few surpass them. – KC
He’s a new discovery for many of us at CU, but D.C. native and Nashville favorite Paul Burch has been releasing solid album after solid album since the late 90’s. His latest effort is a sparsely-arranged, unpushy meeting of jukebox pop, Bakersfield twang, and delicate crooning, the kind of effortlessly retro work you can imagine Justin Townes Earle getting totally jealous about. With more muscular production, most any of these songs could be standout cuts on other artists’ albums. – DM
Every once and awhile we’re reminded that there are country “stars” in Nashville who deliver fresh, relevant and exciting music – music that’s as steep with artistic integrity as it is with commercial viability. American Saturday Night is the best recent example, a fine piece of musicianship that, for all its twisted wit, radiates with a sharp, mature perspective. It’s Paisley’s most cohesive album yet, which means some of the enjoyable off-the-cuff-type tracks of the earlier albums have been trimmed; but where the album lacks in diversity, it compensates with character and notable ambition, as on the progressive “Welcome to the Future.” The interesting thing about Paisley is that he places no more weight on songs lined with social commentary than he does on songs that capture everyman emotion (the fantastic “Everybody’s Here”), or songs that are just plain silly (“Water”?). Each seems to be crafted with the same level of ownership and keenness, and the result is an engaging album that has something to say, from start to finish. – Tara Seetharm
Grammy nominee and IBMA award winner Claire Lynch was performing progressive bluegrass well before its recent commercial expansion, experience that serves her well on her latest album, Whatcha Gonna Do. Produced by Lynch herself, Whatcha Gonna Do is an eclectic gathering of well-written material that ranges from the unrecorded “A Canary’s Song,” co-written by Garth Brooks, to the more traditional “My Florida Sunshine,” written by Bill Monroe. Perhaps most impressive is Lynch‘s “Woods of Sipsey,” a haunting song written for her grandmother-in-law that shows the extent to which she continues to be a progressive voice in acoustic music. – WW