Part Three: NPR #81-#100
83. Bobbie Gentry, Ode to Billie Joe
All of the songs are complex and abstract, full of bright details — a checkered feed-sack dress, two postcards from California — and few of them tell you the whole story. Dramatized by Jimmie Haskell’s cinematic string arrangements, Ode to Billie Joe is a compendium of intriguing, evocative scraps of poetry that always hint at something more lingering just outside the frame, in the dark. —Alison Fensterstock
Jonathan: I couldn’t be happier that NPR included Gentry on their list; she’s such an extraordinary, singular talent, and she’s something of a godmother figure for alt-country and Americana artists. In terms of her overall impact, Ode to Billie Joe was the obvious choice, and there’s no denying that it’s a terrific album. But her Delta Sweete is even stronger, with knottier narratives and a truly Southern Gothic POV. I would have loved for that should-be classic to have found its way onto the list.
Kevin: My experience with Bobbie Gentry is through compilations only, but the NPR selection and Jonathan’s recommendation will be a great starting point for her catalog!
88. k.d. lang, Ingénue
Big ballads with sweeping choruses were not mainstream fare in 1992, but Ingénue turned out to be the album that got lang all over the radio. The awards followed, as did the media storm over her Vanity Fair cover photo with Cindy Crawford, in which the model, in a high femme leotard, shaved the face of the besuited lang. Bold, butch and beautiful, k.d. lang made an album that was never of its time, and as such, is timeless. —Rita Houston
Kevin: Her country albums were very good, but paled in comparison to her first pop opus. She never reached the dizzying heights of Ingénue again, but to get up there even once is to breathe rarefied air.
Jonathan: I do love her early country stuff; listen to “Trail of Broken Hearts” and tell me mainstream country wouldn’t have been better off had it made room for lang. I wouldn’t have voted it into my top 150 or anything, but this is as good a time as any to plug case/lang/veirs, the terrific adult-pop album she made last year with Neko Case and Laura Veirs.
89. Shania Twain, Come On Over
Her songs about equality in marriage (her “9 to 5” update “Honey, I’m Home”), femininity that was never passive (“Men’s shirts, short skirts, oh, really go wild,” she sang in “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!,” perfecting the Southern gal-on-a-bender trope that persists throughout country to this day), and mutually satisfying sex (“If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!” she sang, lending her trademark positivity to the feminist idea of consent). With Come on Over, Twain’s third album, she and Lange got her balance of home truths and forward thinking totally right — and shipped 40 million copies worldwide, making this the best-selling country album of all time. —Ann Powers
Jonathan: Full disclosure: Twain is someone I fundamentally respect as an artist who has very little music that I truly enjoy listening to. I only have a handful of her singles on my iPod, and 4 of those 6 are from The Woman In Me. It makes perfect sense to include Come On Over here, though, for its massive cultural impact and Twain’s version of pop-country that no one has ever been able to imitate with nearly the same panache.
Kevin: Up! is my favorite Shania Twain album. Come On Over is necessary for this list, as it is both the biggest female album and biggest country album of all time. But The Woman in Me should also be on this list, and higher, as it permanently shifted the female point of view in country music from one of submission to one of independence. Yes, it built on the foundation of what other women were doing in country music in the late eighties and early-to-mid nineties. But after Twain, there was no going back to the victim queen archetype, best exemplified by Reba McEntire’s dominance as the biggest female country artist for the decade leading up to Twain’s blockbuster release.
91. Alison Krauss & Union Station, New Favorite
Krauss, a former fiddle champion, did not reject bluegrass’s characteristic grit so much as she synthesized it into something new, channeling the talents of her band’s superlative pickers in service to the songs. That approach changed the landscape of the genre, and you can hear its influence in practically every contemporary bluegrass act today, from Punch Brothers to Sarah Jarosz. With New Favorite, Krauss showed, once and for all, that she had nothing to prove. —Amelia Mason
Kevin: I agree that Krauss has cast a long shadow over contemporary bluegrass, but I don’t see New Favorite as a turning point or particularly significant album in her career, with or without Union Station. Her work has been remarkably consistent, so I can’t quibble with this pick, but I think that the album that shines just a bit brighter than the rest is Lonely Runs Both Ways.
Jonathan: Agreed: This is a strange choice for Krauss. It’s fine in the way that even her lesser albums are always fine– she’s never less than thoughtful and classy– but it isn’t a particularly noteworthy selection of songs or performances. Chalk it up to recency bias, but I’d be inclined to vote for Windy City, which I’ve been returning to frequently this year. Thinking about the representation of Bluegrass and folk artists on the NPR list just now, I realized that Hazel Dickens isn’t anywhere to be found, so that’s another addition to our “Notably Missing” post!
99. Taylor Swift, Fearless
At its simplest, Fearless displays Swift as a brilliant songwriter. At its truest, the album shines with an explosive voice, an ineffable gift. No one can question Swift’s success now, and Fearless proved it then. Just ask a girl. —Maria Sherman
Jonathan: Oh, hell. One of the things I love about the NPR feature is the quality and passion of the writing. Knowing how fiercely Swift’s fans champion her work, this blurb for Fearless strikes me as half-hearted and thin. Granted, that could just be because I’m on record as not thinking this is a good album at all… But I do get why this album, which was her pop breakthrough and an awards-show juggernaut (care to chime in, Kanye?), is the one they selected. I just don’t think the writing is anywhere nearly as strong as the best moments of Speak Now or especially Red, on which she embraced the pop-star ambitions that truly play to her considerable strengths as a writer and a performer. And I don’t think it’s mean to point any of that out…
Kevin: Somewhere along the line, Taylor Swift took a page from the Madonna playbook and started using criticisms of her as a challenge to get better. Fearless showcases the worst of her excesses as a songwriter and her then-crippling limitations as a vocalist. She’s been getting consistently better on both fronts ever since, and I’d pick 1989 as the best representation of her talents at this point. Some artists are just better when they abandon any pretense of being country ones and go full blown pop. She’s one of them.