As 2014 comes to a close, the Country Universe staff has been collectively impressed by the number of quality albums that were released this year. How many of those albums, however, will we still be listening to in twenty years?
We have that benefit of hindsight for the year 1994, and we’ve compiled our twenty favorite studio sets from that year. At their time of release, some of our favorites were comeback albums from veteran artists, some were from current artists reaching new artistic and commercial peaks, and some were debut sets from artists that went on to become mainstays on country radio or in the Americana music scene that was just coming together twenty years ago.
What they all have in common is that each and every one of them still sounds great today, and they collectively show the wide breadth that the country music landscape was transforming into as the genre reached wider levels of popularity than it had ever seen before.
This is Me
BF #11 | KJC #15 | LW #19
Travis’ legendary status was practically secure by 1994, but This is Me shows an artist neither resting on his laurels nor struggling to keep up with the young new talent of the era. The album serves up one solid song after another, with its best tracks delivering clever new takes on signature country themes, thus further advancing an already respectable legacy. – Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Before You Kill Us All”, “This is Me”, “The Box”
Cryin’, Lovin’, Leavin’
SG #5 | JK #13
Brown never did find the success he deserved with his three MCA albums, but he left some excellent traditional country music in his wake. His own tunes like “You Must Be Mistakin’ Me” or “Too Blue to Crow” fit in naturally with his cover of “Cherokee Boogie.” This is not to say that Brown was tied to tradition. The title track has a buddy Holly feel to it, but the arrangement is thoroughly modern. “I Love Only You” is a lovely duet with fellow underrated artist Joy Lynn White. – Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Shameful Lies,” “Cryin’, Lovin’, Leavin’,” “You Must Be Mistakin’ Me”
BF #7 | KJC #7
One of the better nineties albums from Strait, it features four great singles, particularly the gorgeous title track, and a spot-on cover of Mel Street’s classic hit, “I Met a Friend of Yours Today.” – Kevin John Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Lead On”, “You Can’t Make a Heart Love Somebody”, “I Met a Friend of Yours Today”
Pretty Close to the Truth
SG #6 | JK #7
While his debut album, Planet of Love, was more of a mainstream country album, Jim Lauderdale explored the Americana realm here – long before Americana became the common name to describe it. “Don’t Trust Me” and “This Is the Big Time” are solidly country, but others, like the title track and “Why Do I Love You?” hint at some of the genre-defying creativity that was to come. – SG
Recommended Tracks: “I’m on Your Side,” “Run Like You,” “Divide and Conquer”
JK #9 | KJC #11 | BF #17
1994 wasn’t a huge aesthetic departure for Merle Haggard— his late-career reboot came with 2000’s If I Could Only Fly — but it was easily The Hag’s finest album in more than a decade. It’s really saying something that “In My Next Life” is as strong as any working-class anthem in Haggard’s rich catalogue, while “Set My Chickens Free” and “Ramblin’ Fever” find Haggard at his feisty, rambunctious best. Nearly 30 years into a career that deservingly landed him atop Country Universe’s countdown of the 100 Greatest Men in country music, 1994 proved that Merle Haggard hadn’t lost a step.- Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “In My Next Life,” “Way Back in the Mountains,” “Troubadour,” “Ramblin’ Fever.”
Suzy Bogguss & Chet Atkins
JK #8 | BF #9 | LMW #17
It’s hard to argue with the pairing of Chet Atkins, the guitar virtuoso who stands as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, with Suzy Bogguss, blessed with one of the purest voices in popular music, on Simpatico. Both are in fine form on their renditions of Jimmie Rodgers’ “In the Jailhouse Now” and R.L. Kass’ “Forget About It,” and they were no less impressive on their Elton John or Johnny Cash covers.
It’s a shame that the album derailed Bogguss’ commercial momentum—she was on the heels of six straight top-ten hits prior to the album’s release, then never cracked the top 20 again— but, on its own merits, Simpatico is an endlessly charming one-off that plays to both artists’ considerable strengths. – JK
Recommended Tracks: “In the Jailhouse Now,” “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” “One More for the Road”
Walking Away a Winner
BF #12 | KJC #12 | LW #13 | JK #17
Mattea’s most (and last) commercially-minded set, it finds the troubadour embracing an aggressive country-pop sound, resulting in the title track becoming her last big hit to date. – KJC
Recommended Tracks: “Walking Away a Winner”, “Who’s Gonna Know”, “Clown in Your Rodeo”
SG #3 | JK #16 | KJC #19
Even in an era where country music actually sounded like country music, launching a career with a shuffle – in 1994 – took some guts. But that’s exactly what George Ducas did with “Teardrops.” The follow-up, “Lipstick Promises,” became his biggest hit, but there are plenty of gems here, from the retro feel of “Hello Cruel World” to the rocking “It Ain’t Me.” – SG
Recommended Tracks: “Teardrops,” “Lipstick Promises,” “Hello Cruel World”
Who I Am
LMW #4 | KJC #10 | BF #14
Even though he was four albums into his career, Alan Jackson’s knack for writing and choosing solid songs had not dissipated in the least. The poignancy of “Song for the Life”, “You Can’t Give Up on Love” and “Job Description” was interspersed with the timely commentary of “Gone Country” and the irreverent frivolity of “I Don’t Even Know Your Name.” The album manages to be cohesive by feeling both fun and like it has important things to say without seeming scattered or schizophrenic. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Song for the Life”, “You Can’t Give Up on Love”, “Lets Get Back to Me and You”
LMW #2 | BF #15 | SG #15
On their self titled debut album, BlackHawk accessibly tells stories of loss, triumph, heartache and heartbreak. Formerly associated with a rock band, the original incarnation of BlackHawk fell into a distinctive sound that none of the following lineups of the trio was able to replicate, but this double platinum debut album deservedly struck gold with it’s distinct harmonies and singable melodies. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Goodbye Says it All”, “Every Once in A While”, “That’s Just About Right”
LMW #1 | SG #11 | BF #19
It’s rare when an album can be both progressive and timeless all at once. The Tractors burst into 1994 with a surprising and fresh sound that sounded like nothing else on radio. Luckily, it was at a time when being so individualistic could be embraced in the mainstream rather than relegated to a sub-genre. In fact, the album achieved double platinum status without a top ten single to its credit. Helmed by Steve Ripley’s rough-hewn voice and anchored by a jaunty, rollicking band, The Tractors’ distinctive sound still remains fresh today. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “I’ve Had Enough”, “Badly Bent”, “Settin’ the Woods on Fire”
LMW #5 | KJC #9 |BF #16 | JK #20
From the wistful title track to the bouncier “That’s My Baby” and “That’s How You Know (When You’re in Love)”, Lari White’s easy, clear voice wraps around a set of accessible songs that is quality from start to finish. Despite its gold status, it is not an album that is much talked about today, which is a testament to the high volume of quality albums of the early to mid-nineties. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Wishes”, “If I’m Not Already Crazy”, “That’s How You Know (When You’re in Love)”
Joy Lynn White
BF #6 | SG #9 | JK #11 | KJC #16
No sophomore slump for Joy Lynn White, even after having set the bar so high with her debut Between Midnight and Hindsight. White shows herself equally adept at both classic country weepers (“Tonight the Heartache’s on Me”, “Why Can’t I Stop Loving You”) and contemporary rockers (“Wild Love”, “I’m Just a Rebel”), combining traditional sensibilities with a “What’s next?” outlook, and thus creating an album that still sounds fresh twenty years after its release.- BF
Recommended Tracks: “Tonight the Heartache’s on Me”, “Bad Loser”, “Wild Love”
BF #3 | KJC #6 | LW #8 | SG #12 | JK #19
Sweetheart’s Dance is a remarkably eclectic record, with shades of everything from Tex-Mex (“Mi Vida Loca”) to 60s pop (“When You Walk in the Room”) to gospel (“’Til All the Lonely’s Gone”). Amazingly, however, the final product is no mixed bag. Rather, Sweetheart’s Dance soars on the strongest batch of songs Tillis had collected up to that point, while a thread of hope and optimism runs through the entire record and lends a sense of cohesion to the variety. The result was four Top 10 hits, a platinum certification and a Female Vocalist of the Year trophy. – BF
Recommended Tracks: “Calico Plains”, “Spilled Perfume”, “In Between Dances”
LMW #3 | BF #4 | JK #4 | KJC #5
Iris DeMent included “After You’re Gone,” a tribute to her terminally ill father, on her jaw-dropping debut album, Infamous Angel, in 1992, and the emotional impact of her father’s death informs nearly every moment of her second outing, My Life. DeMent’s songwriting digs into the firmament of the human experience in ways that few artists ever dare to match.
On standout cuts like “No Time to Cry” and “Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Every Day,” her plain-spokenness and use of colloquialisms belie the depth of her struggles. With her one-of-a-kind voice—hands-down the most distinctive instrument to emerge in the 90s— DeMent wrestles with perhaps the most difficult material in a career where very little has come easy. – JK
Recommended Tracks: “You’ve Done Nothing Wrong,” “No Time to Cry,” “Mom & Dad’s Waltz,” “Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Every Day”
Songs For the Daily Planet
KJC #3 | JK #6 | SG #8 | BF #10 | LW #14
A stirringly confident debut, with the now-legendary folk star showing some real Nashville muscle in his production. He’s made better records since, but none so ceaselessly entertaining. – KJC
Recommended Tracks: “This Land is Our Land”, “Alright Guy”, “Easy Money”
What a Crying Shame
SG #2 | JK #3 | BF #8 | KJC #14 | LW #20
The album that broke The Mavericks into the mainstream country scene could be considered a love note to the 1960s, Songs like “There Goes My Heart” and “Pretend” would have sounded right at home alongside country sings from that era, while “I Should Have Been True” and “O What a Thrill” have the vibe (and the string sections) of pop songs from the early part of that decade. The title track even throws in a little post-Beatles jangle pop. What a Crying Shame would sound great if it was played in 1964, 1994, or 2014 – no small feat. – SG
Recommended Tracks: “What a Crying Shame,” “Neon Blue,” “O What a Thrill”
When Fallen Angels Fly
BF #1 | KJC #2 | JK #12 | LW #18 | SG #20
A long-promising talent finally comes into full bloom on this flawless CMA Album of the Year. Both the song selections and Emory Gordy, Jr.’s productions champion traditional country music while giving it a thoroughly fresh, modern treatment. Loveless’ pure honky tonk wail is given the worthiest of material with top-notch cuts from Gretchen Peters, Tony Arata, Billy Joe Shaver and others. At a time when artists tend to be over-praised for mediocre self-written material, When Fallen Angels Fly stands as a beautiful reminder that the ability to pick great songs is a gift unto itself.
One of the finest country albums of the nineties, and the magnum opus of a Hall of Fame-worthy career, When Fallen Angels Fly beautifully demonstrates that it is possible to honor the traditions of country music’s past while still moving the genre progressively forward. Most of today’s artists struggle to get even one of those things right, let alone both. – BF
Recommended Tracks: “A Handful of Dust”, “When the Fallen Angels Fly”, “Here I Am”, “Over My Shoulder”
JK #1 | KJC #4 | BF #5 | SG #7 | LW #12
In the early 90s, country music’s veteran artists had only a few viable options for maintaining their careers: Making occasional appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, releasing new music that made strident attempts to fit into contemporary trends, or setting up a theater revue in Branson, Missouri.
Teaming up with rock producer Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash rewrote the script for how the genre’s veterans could stave off retirement. Through careful, shrewd song selection and a gimmick that both embraced and challenged his image, Cash used American Recordings to announce that he wasn’t finished building his legacy.
Rubin’s role in the album is relatively minimal: He set Cash loose with an acoustic guitar and some unexpected rock tunes, then more or less stayed out of the way. Later albums in the American series may have been marred by gratuitous guest appearances— I like Fiona Apple as much as anyone, but her husky alto didn’t mesh well with Cash’s ragged baritone— and by ill-fitting choices of covers (Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”), but American Recordings is an album without a single misstep. Cash’s cover of Nick Lowe’s “The Beast In Me” is one of his finest-ever vocal turns, while the wry “Delia’s Gone” finds The Man In Black toying with his larger-than-life image.
The mix of terrific original material with songs by Kris Kristofferson, Glenn Danzig, and Tom Waits makes for an album that paved the way for the late-career revivals by Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, and Ray Price. American Recordings is an essential album on its own merits, but its critical and commercial successes make it one of the most influential and most important country albums of the 90s. – JK
Recommended Tracks: “Delia’s Gone,” “The Beast in Me,” “Why Me Lord,” “Down There By the Train”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
Stones in the Road
KJC #1 | BF #2 | JK #5 | SG #10 | LW #15
Carpenter’s artistic peak by a wide margin, those stones in the road mark the intersection where her ear for a hook and insight as a songwriter fully intertwined for the first and last time. Every song is written solely by Carpenter and every single one is among the best she’s ever written.
The album is ambitious in theme and in scope, with Carpenter exploring domestic dysfunction (“House of Cards”), political strife (“Stones in the Road”), and even the inner thoughts of a deaf mute from New Orleans (“John Doe No. 24”). But the album’s deepest insights revolve around the aftermath of heartache, the parts that never heal and the hope that eventually dawns for better days ahead. – KJC
Recommended Tracks: “This is Love”, “A Keeper for Every Flame”, “House of Cards”, “Outside Looking In”