Part Five: NPR MIA
Jonathan: In another generation, “Neko” would have taken her rightful place alongside the likes of Dolly, Loretta, Tammy, and Emmylou. Though her more recent albums have veered in an adult-pop direction, her earlier work stands as some of the most powerful country music of the aughts. Furnace Room Lullaby and especially Blacklisted are miracles of American Gothic style and tone, and Case’s astonishing voice is a force of nature. I’m honestly surprised that she wasn’t included on the final list.
Kevin: The preference this list showed for Americana and alternative country acts make the exclusion of Neko Case particularly baffling. Blacklisted lived up to its title in that regard!
Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard
Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard
Jonathan: Dickens and Gerrard were pioneers in Bluegrass music; they were the leaders of their own band in an era when Bluegrass bands were exclusively the domain of men. After the duo broke up, Dickens went on to have the more celebrated solo career, recording albums that were as noteworthy for their aggressive political bent– she was a tireless campaigner for labor unions for coal miners– as for Dickens’ inimitable voice. But, song for song, Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard from 1975 remains their strongest.
Kevin: Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard does such a great job of marrying a feminist point of view with traditional bluegrass sounds. “What you see as want in my eyes in merely the reflection in your own” ranks up there with the best rejection lines of all time.
Jonathan: This is the single biggest oversight on the NPR list, full-stop. Loveless’ masterpiece belongs in any serious conversation of the finest albums released by any artist recording in any musical genre in this century. Mountain Soul isn’t just a testament to the range and power of Bluegrass music, it plays as an insightful, probing sociology of a region that is often underestimated, overlooked, or outright forgotten.
Kevin: Mountain Soul is a career-defining record for Patty Loveless and ranks among the best work that anyone has released this century. Loveless also released one of the finest country albums of the previous century in When Fallen Angels Fly, which features revelatory vocal performances of intelligent compositions, most notably “Here I Am” and “A Handful of Dust.”
Jonathan: Already an accomplished songwriter, Kim Richey’s extraordinary self-titled debut should have launched her onto the genre’s A-list. Buoyed by Richard Bennett’s vibrant production, Kim Richey captures the artist’s clever wordplays and memorable melodies in ways that, two decades later, still sound fresh. Fully half the songs on the album have been covered by artists like Trisha Yearwood, Suzy Bogguss, Lorrie Morgan, and Mindy McCready, but Richey’s original versions remain definitive and essential.
Kevin: Kim Richey remains her finest effort, but I also strongly recommend Bitter Sweet and the criminally overlooked Rise, her final album for Mercury Records.
Hearts in Armor
Jonathan: The most consistent album artist of her generation, Trisha Yearwood has elevated country music for over two decades now with her incomparable vocal skill and her ability to choose phenomenal songs that work together to create records of real scope and vision. While I was tempted to go to bat for either Real Live Woman or Heaven, Heartache, & The Power of Love as her best album– and either of those would have deserved a spot on NPR’s list on their own merits– if I could only choose one album for her, it would be Hearts in Armor.
Kevin: Hearts in Armor is the nineties country album against which all other artists should be judged, particularly those who interpret rather than write their material. It’s a tribute to Yearwood’s high standards and remarkable consistency that another half-dozen of her albums could also be part of this conversation. In addition to Jonathan’s recommendations, I add Thinkin’ About You, Everybody Knows, and Inside Out.