Countless albums were released in 2010, in mainstream country music, Americana, bluegrass, and all the other loosely associated sub-genres that make up the country universe. Of those albums, our writers particularly enjoyed the following twenty. All four writers submitted top ten lists for the year, and amazingly enough, there were exactly twenty different albums among them. So if you’re wondering if your favorite album just missed the list…it didn’t. But we’d love to hear why we were wrong in the comments.
Enjoy part one now, and look for the top ten on Friday.
Tomorrow’s hits today, should the current crop of hitmakers want something as good on the radio as “Long Time Gone” or “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” or just want to have an album cut for the ages like “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Scott’s a singer’s songwriter, delivering his songs with enough personality to elevate them above demos but leaving enough room for improvisation, so that any singer can put their own spin on it.
This twenty-track collection is stunningly strong, with his observations about politics and religion and history intriguing, but his take on human relationships being downright enlightening. – Kevin Coyne
Buxton is the only songwriter I’ve ever heard on a songwriter’s night that was even more interesting in her introductions than she is when she’s actually singing. Don’t bother with the too-glossy studio versions that make up the standard version of the album. Skip right to the same songs done live in the deluxe version, as she chats with the songwriters and tells the stories behind the songs, all before singing them with far more personality and enthusiasm than she does the first time around. – KC
Anyone who is even remotely familiar with the insanely talented and creative force of the Punch Brothers should not be surprised that the band has turned out one of 2010’s most sonically satisfying albums.
With the devastatingly talented Chris Thile serving as frontman, Punch Brothers is equally served by his worthy counterparts, Gabe Witcher (fiddle/violin), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Paul Kowert (bass). Together they have created a crisp album that intricately infuses sounds of bluegrass, classical and acoustic music to form an ethereal listening experience. Just don’t make the mistake of settling into a certain tempo or intensity on a given track, because both might vary, as heard in songs like “You Are” and “Rye Whiskey”, among others. Likewise, Punch Brothers isn’t afraid of exploring different genres within one song either.
All focus shouldn’t be placed on the instrumentation, however, as Antifogmatic is rife with intriguing lyrics as well, including the reflective “This is the Song (Good Luck)” and the aggressive chorus of “You Are”: “You take my love and my lust / cold clock my mind out / turn in my keys to the kingdom / and lip-lock my body down.” – Leeann Ward
You know him as one of the pens behind such classics as “The Gambler,” “On the Other Hand” and “Rockin’ with the Rhythm of the Rain.” But get Don Schlitz on his own, and it’s like listening to an especially colorful uncle catch you up on all his latest appraisals, glass of wine in hand. Whether it’s a goofy kiss-off (“I’m allergic to crazy, so baby, you’ve got to go”), folksy social commentary (“When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money”) or a heartfelt relationship reflection (“We’ve been too cold too long to ever be warm again”), Schlitz is a master of the clever yet revealing turn of phrase. – Dan Milliken
The only way to define You Get What You Give is to call it a Zac Brown Band album, as it draws from a funky mishmash of influences – from reggae to bluegrass, southern rock to neo-traditionalist country. But it’s cohesive in that every track sounds entirely authentic and radiates with a palpable commitment to the music, particularly in terms of melody and instrumentation. Brown’s rich, underrated vocals, along with his unique blend of wit and charisma, top off this album. – Tara Seetharam
Coming off her masterpiece collaboration with husband, Shane Nicholson, Kasey Chambers subtly backs away from the mainly acoustic base of Rattlin’ Bones with a more muscular sound for Little Bird. Like Rattlin’ Bones, however, this album is produced by Nicholson and father, Bill Chambers, which helps to keep the album from being as pop sounding as prior Chambers solo outings have been.
As a result, Little Bird has a sampling of bluegrass, Jazz, old school country, pop, and simple acoustic music. While this is a bit of a departure from her previous album, it still maintains many of its most tasteful qualities, including a variety of musical influences that blend seamlessly together, along with a continuation of fascinating songwriting. With this album, she’s just as honest and raw as ever while maintaining a willingness to have some fun once in awhile too. – LW
Country much? Nah, but blame the market. Swift is growing into a fantastic pop singer-songwriter, adept at choosing telling details, constructing potent hooks and recording it all with nuance and character. The general story here is one of her coming to terms with a world of seemingly colder, less sensitive people, with “Sparks Fly,” “Dear John” and “The Story of Us” in particular offering sucker punches of romantic desperation and confusion.
She needs to work on her responses to non-exes, apparently: the critic-lashing “Mean” begs for some added maturity and cleverness, while the Kanye-directed “Innocent” seems self-important and patronizing given the actual triviality of the incident it addresses. But even when her judgment misfires, Swift’s persona feels fully human and her craft remains damn near impeccable. – DM
We often hear about artists who wish that they could record more country material. Sometimes, it’s difficult to know who is sincere in their claims or who is simply giving lip service. Randy Houser was one such artist who said that his second album would be more organic and more country than his first.
In one of the surprises of 2010, Houser came through on his promise and gave us just that—an album that dialed back the bombast and loudness and focused more on the actual music and lyrics. Furthermore, he created an album that is worthy of the best instrument that he has, his voice.
Not only are his production choices much more palatable on this project, but the lyrical content is more solid as well. He’s still able to have fun with lighthearted fare as we hear in the title track, but he’s also willing to go deeper, as evidenced in “Lead Me Home”, “Addicted” and “Somewhere South of Memphis.” – LW
So here’s a new band that has learned all the right lessons from Nickel Creek, Taylor Swift and the Beatles. The depth isn’t totally there yet, and the songwriting is still a work in progress, but when it works, it’s better than everything else on country radio today. When it doesn’t, it’s still a ball to listen to. – KC
Moonlighting journalist Cooper continues making an underground case for himself as one of the most thoughtful artists working anywhere near the country genre. His approach hasn’t changed much since 2008′s Mission Door: richly detailed stories brought to life with spare arrangements led by master steel guitarist Lloyd Green. But once again, give Cooper a poignant song – like his own “Elmer the Dancer” or John Hiatt’s “Train to Birmingham” – and he and Green knock it (softly, and pensively) out of the park. – DM