It’s no surprise that the catalog releases just keep getting better each year. Labels have learned that the best way to lift up their sagging bottom lines is to repackage their old material, and the trend of trying to fit as many hits as you can on one disc continues. Here are the ten best examples of labels doing right by their active artists and those of days gone by.
#10 Greatest Hits Crystal Gayle
Crystal Gayle was not a one-hit wonder, though she may very well be considered one at this point of time. The 25-track Greatest Hits does a great job dispelling that perception, putting her mega-hit “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue” in its historical context, surrounded by all of Gayle’s other country-pop hits. Highlights include “Ready for the Times to Get Better”, “Half the Way” and the gorgeous Rodney Crowell classic, “‘Till I Can Gain Control Again.”
#9 The Definitive Collection Series Various Artists
Universal Music Group continues to be the best at collecting all of the hits for artists that can be defined with a single CD. This year, thorough collections were released for Tracy Byrd, Mark Wills, and Chely Wright, among others. The Definitive Collection series distinguishes itself from those of competing labels (I’m lookin’ at you, “16 Biggest Hits”) by being more generous and careful with the track listing choices, and putting remarkable effort into the liner notes, often including new interviews with the artist being profiled. Look for this line to continue with a Terri Clark edition on Feb. 5, 2008.
#8 The Ultimate Hits Garth Brooks
It doesn’t quite live up to its title, as it’s missing some major chart hits. Also, the sequencing is schizophrenic, with the new mixed in with the old, perhaps because Brooks knows most fans would only listen to Disc 1 if he went the chronological route. Disclaimers aside, this two-disc set (with bonus DVD) is the best compilation to date for the genre’s biggest act of all-time.
#7 The Hits Faith Hill
A relentless parade of pop-country confections, with two new songs and a live cut mixed in with all of Hill’s smash hits. Fans looking for a more nuanced compilation will have to wait a bit longer, but The Hits accomplishes its titular goal. The reverse chronology of the track listing proves just how good she’s been all along, with her earliest hits sounding just as great today as her recent ones do.
#6 Greatest Hits Gary Allan
There’s no possible way to make a perfect Gary Allan compilation, with so many great album cuts that are either the equal of or superior to his radio hits. I’m hesitant to recommend this at all, as I would rather mandate that each country fan own each of his studio albums. Hopefully, this introduction to Allan’s distinctive brand of California country will entice listeners to go back and get the rest of his albums. If not, they’ll still have as solid a collection of country hits as any artist from the past decade could produce.
Tim McGraw’s previous album, Live Like You Were Dying, topped my first year-end album list back in 2004. Let it Go strays from the musical formula that Dying perfected, with more challenging vocals attempted and off-beat material that ranges from introspective (“I’m Workin’”) to just plain dark (“Between the River and Me.”) It’s a sharp, confident album, and while it doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessor, it’s an interesting and entertaining listen.
#14 Raising Sand Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
This unexpected collaboration between Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and bluegrass icon Alison Krauss finds common ground in the rockabilly roots that both artists share. T. Bone Burnett spearheaded this project, but don’t expect O Brother revisited. The sound here is fully contemporary, even when drawing on influences from generations gone by. The album closes with a beautiful reprise of “Your Long Journey”, which was recorded by Emmylou Harris in the mid-eighties.
#13 West Lucinda Williams
Williams has never been known for happy, up-tempo songs in the first place, but West is her most sorrowful work to date, as she explores the emotions resulting from the death of her mother and the end of a long-term relationship. Some of the best tracks, like “Everything Has Changed” and “Are You Alright?”, aren’t clear about which grief they deal with. There’s no questioning the source of the anger in “Come On”, however, where she rips her ex-lover to shreds over his shortcomings.
#12 Wagonmaster Porter Wagoner
The comparisons to Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmaster and Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series were immediate, with Wagoner’s weary voice and sparse accompaniment reminiscent of the iconic “Hurt”, Cash’s final hit. It’s fair to compare Wagonmaster to the later American albums, when Cash was falling ill. Wagoner revisits some of his classics and records some new songs in the same style. While the album lacks the vitality of the first two American albums, or Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, it’s a fine swan song for one of the genre’s greatest talents.
#11 Pure BS Blake Shelton
Shelton channels the negative energy produced by his recent divorce into a solid honky-tonk album, with some of the smartest break-up material I’ve ever heard sung in this particular style. Most notable is “She Don’t Love Me”, which finds Shelton running into his old flame and her new lover, and he “can tell by the way he shook my hand, he never heard of me before. “
When I did this list in 2006 and in 2004, I knew the number one song before I started. This year was more like 2005, where the song revealed itself to me as I was compiling the list. The top ten is filled with songs that I love, and I’ve had a chance to live with all of them. In the end, one did resonate just a bit more than the rest, the crowning jewel in a year full of gems.
Trisha Yearwood, “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love”
Yearwood’s records are so pristine that she always shows grace and restraint. Even on the tracks where her voice soars, she’s still holding back. The lead single from her new set finds her abandoning her usual caution, and she makes the rafters ring. There’s a raw joy to her performance that lifts the spiritual lyric all the way up to God’s ears.
LeAnn Rimes, “Nothin’ Better to Do”
There’s an old adage that goes something like this: if you want to find your true voice as a singer, start writing your own material. Rimes has always been a gifted vocalist, but she’s never had a discernible style to call her own. Until now. Her album Family finds her writing all of her own material, and she finds her musical voice in the process, and it’s a hell of a lot closer to Bobbie Gentry than it is to Patsy Cline. She also wrote herself a better hook than Nashville songwriters have been giving her for the past decade. Listen once, and the song will be stuck in your head.
Vince Gill, “What You Give Away”
Few artists have been more charitable with their time, money and talent than Vince Gill, who will sing with anyone who asks him, and raise funds for any charity that comes calling. With this single, he demonstrates an intuitive understanding that our God-given talents weren’t sent our way to better our own lives, but to better the lives of those around us. When you use your gifts to help others, you show gratitude to Him for giving you the talents in the first place.
Dixie Chicks, “The Long Way Around”
The opening track to Taking the Long Way finds the Dixie Chicks taking stock of where they’ve been, and taking their sweet time to get where they’re going from there. The initial guitar strums recall Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”, but before long, Martie’s fiddle and Emily’s banjo have made their presence known. Like “Not Ready to Make Nice”, there are some references to “the incident”, but they’re in passing, allowing this song to become an anthem for those of us who take our time getting where we’re going, much like “Nice” became one for those who stood their ground and paid a price for it.
Dolly Parton, “Better Get to Livin’”
When Dolly Parton was at the peak of her crossover popularity, longtime fans were lamenting that her songwriting had peaked years earlier when she was grounded in traditional country – “Coat of Many Colors” and “Down from Dover” had somehow become “Two Doors Down” and “Baby I’m Burnin’.” However, since her bluegrass set The Grass is Blue eight years ago, she’s been back in peak form, with the lead single from her upcoming album Backwoods Barbie being the latest evidence for her artistic renaissance. As she delves out her pearls of wisdom for living a better life in her trademark delivery, you can’t help but be reminded that she is an icon in a genre that’s running out of them.
I have to say that any one of these songs could have been in my top ten in years past. It’s just been a great year for country singles.
George Strait, “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls”
For all of those who have tried to imitate him, there’s never been one that came close. “Cowgirls” is a classic showcase of Strait’s smooth, effortless vocals. A lesser singer would’ve tripped over the line in the second verse, “Those other wide open spaces, nowadays there ain’t as many,” but he delivers it perfectly, then slips right into the soaring chorus. He’s the master.
Steve Earle featuring Forro in the Dark, “City of Immigrants”
Native New Yorkers curse the traffic and slushy winter days. The immigrants Earle celebrates? They send their kids to school to become Americanized while they work themselves to the bone, wishing they were still in their homeland. The only New Yorkers who see the city as a glorious tapestry of diverse cultures and beautiful noises are those like Earle, who came from a more mundane part of the country and moved here. They’re the ones who see the true beauty of going around the world without a passport, and they remind those of us who take it for granted that New York really is a special place.
Carrie Underwood, “I’ll Stand By You”
Underwood’s charity single was also her biggest gift to country music listeners this year. Her cover of the Pretenders classic “I’ll Stand By You” turns a power ballad into a traditional country one. It’s just Carrie, a guitar and a lonesome fiddle, and that’s all the adornment she needs. If she has any mercy on her fans who don’t care for all of the bells and whistles of her studio albums, she’ll do more acoustic records, so we can just listen to the purity of her voice against the backdrop of minimal instrumentation.
Suzy Bogguss, “In Heaven”
Her crystal-clear voice, pure as a mountain stream, has been in hiding for far too long. Thankfully, she returned with a single worthy of her gift, a heartbreaking song that finds a widowed woman visiting her late husband’s grave and asking for his blessing on the new love she’s found. There’s nothing cloying or manipulative in the lyric, just hopeful observations (“I think you’d really like him, if you ever got to know him”) alongside honest confessions (“I’m only flesh and blood, I can’t keep talking to a ghost.”)
Martina McBride, “Anyway”
The core message of McBride’s first self-penned hit can be found on the walls of Mother Teresa’s home for Children in Calcutta, though variations of it have existed for years. It’s a message that resonates because it directly confronts the futility of the human existence, the reality that all that we do may be forgotten and not matter in the long run. “Anyway” counters that since what we do makes a difference now, it has value even if the impact fades over time.
We’re getting closer to the top. Here’s the next ten:
Amy Dalley, “Let’s Try Goodbye”
The latest attempt from Dalley pulls yet another excellent song from her long-shelved debut album, and it rivals “I Would Cry” as her best single to date. She has a gift for melody and a unique point of view in her lyrics. If Curb would just put out the album, they may find she’s already earned an audience.
Porter Wagoner, “Committed to Parkview”
It’s a solemn and poetic song from the point of view of a patient in a mental hospital. It doesn’t reach the glorious, delirious heights of his seventies camp classic “The Rubber Room”, but it’s a fine swan song for one of the last great hillbilly superstars.
Keith Urban, “Everybody”
Written before he went into rehab himself, it’s hard not to think that Urban was his own audience for this powerful motivational number, reminding us all that everybody needs to reach out for another person sometimes.
Dwight Yoakam, “Close Up the Honky Tonks”
Most of Yoakam’s tribute album is slavishly true to the original Buck Owens records, but he colors outside the lines here, making this classic an epic ballad that fits quite well into Yoakam’s never-ending “love gone wrong” canon.
Kenny Chesney, “Don’t Blink”
The message that the 102 year-old man delivers to all the young folks out there is that life goes by faster than you think, but the pain he radiates when recounting the angels taking his wife away implies that the real suffering comes when it doesn’t go by fast enough once the love of your life is gone.
Rodney Carrington, “Show Them to Me”
That’s right. There were a lot of attempts at humor sent to country radio this year, but this is the only one that made me laugh then, and still makes me laugh today. Sauciness aside, the production and performance is a dead-on send-up of the Hallmark country ballads that have polluted the airwaves in recent years, right down to the gospel choir and the pander to patriotic sentiment at the end.
Trace Adkins, “I Wanna Feel Something”
Good to know that Adkins can still dig deep, despite his recent reputation as a ditty man. His best single since “I’m Tryin’” finds him growing frustrated with his own indifference to the heartache in his life and the world around him, as just living day to day has worn him down.
Heartland, “Built to Last”
I rolled my eyes at “I Loved Her First”, but this tender old-age ballad got me. Set at his grandparent’s fiftieth anniversary party, the toast celebrates those loves that are “built to last.” The sentiment is beautiful, but it’s the attention to the small details – “black leather wingtips and big bouffant hair, your typical senior affair” – that make the record come to life.
Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, “I Need You”
When they did their first full-fledged duet “Let’s Make Love”, McGraw & Hill were quite a bit younger. They’ve both grown so much as artists and singers that there is a cool confidence to this record, even as they turn up the heat.
Pam Tillis, “Band in the Window”
A joyous celebration of the bar bands on Broadway in downtown Nashville. Pam Tillis is the perfect singer to tell their story, a kindred spirit with a pure love of music for its own sake. When Todd Snider sang a few years back that “there ain’t nothin’ wrong with Nashville”, this is what he meant. For all that Music Row unwittingly does to kill the heart of real country music, there’s a band in the window downtown bringing it back to life. This is their anthem.
After watching his parents divorce, a love that went “from great to good to bad to worse”, he’s still picking up the pieces years later, and pleading with his wife to promise that they’ll never go their separate ways, like his mother and father did. He sings the hell out of it, too.
Brooks & Dunn, “God Must Be Busy”
Ronnie Dunn is one of the best male vocalists of his generation, so it’s frustrating to wade through the trite cowboy rave-ups and color-by-number ballads he usually wastes his time with. Give him a fantastic song like this one, however, and it’s impossible not to be reminded of his talent.
Kim Richey, “Jack and Jill”
Get Sir George Martin’s son to produce your album, and you’re going to have the Beatles sound seep into your record. Richey bounces around in this sonic landscape like it’s a wonderland, and she takes her voices to places that it’s never gone before. Truly inspired.
Eli Young Band, “When it Rains”
Melancholy and melody go very well together. There’s nothing I love more than a record that makes misery feel so good. All he wants is for it to rain so he can walk outside and see everybody outside being as miserable as him.
Sunny Sweeney, “If I Could”
You can get whiplash trying to keep up with this one. Her rapid-fire delivery and twanged-up band are tremendously entertaining, even if it’s little more than hillbilly camp delivered with a knowing wink.
Faith Hill, “Lost”
Over the years, Faith Hill’s voice has developed this smoky quality that was absent in her earlier recordings, which makes her delivery of sultry love songs like “Lost” so powerfully effective.
Sara Evans, “As If”
You can never go back to the innocence of first love, but you can try. Evans knows that the new guy is too good to be true, but just wants to pretend for a little while until reality kicks in. Hook-laden and catchy, like you’d expect from one of our best singles artists.
Toby Keith, “Get My Drink On”
Keith’s bark rarely matches his bite, but he’s ferocious on this rocking drinking anthem. He knows he screwed up, and that his woman left because he didn’t treat her right, but he’s determined to drink her out of his mind. No pity fest here. There won’t be one tear in his beer and he won’t be going home alone.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)”
It’s hard to imagine too many artists that both Robert Plant & Alison Krauss could cite as influences, but The Everly Brothers might fight the bill. They certainly tear into this old Everly track with conviction, hitting that peculiar musical sweet spot that fits no radio format but finds its audience anyway.
Whiskey Falls, “Last Train Running”
Far and away, the best debut single of 2007. The harmonies are tight, the musicianship solid and the lyric powerful, combining to make a record that resonates long after you finish listening to it. Country music loves the faith explorations of the Hallmark variety, but this is what it really sounds like when a man is struggling with the meaning of life and what’s waiting for him when it’s over.
All this week, Country Universe will be counting down the fifty best singles of the year. It’s been a great year for country singles, and this is the most diverse list compiled yet for this site. Some of these songs were given great reviews from the start, and some grew on me over time. Today, we’ll get things started with #50-#41. Check back every day for ten more entries, culminating in the top ten on Friday.
Tracy Byrd, “Better Places Than This”
Back in his heyday, Byrd turned in some of the funniest – and silliest – drinking anthems you could find on country radio. With this single, he shows he can keep the humor while drinking away the memory of the woman he still loves. As he says to the bartender, “I’ve been thrown out of better places than this.”
Hal Ketchum, “In Front of the Alamo”
One of country music’s smartest singers returns with a ballad about a woman taking back control of her life and leaving her man behind. She throws her wedding ring out the window of her car, right in front of the alamo, which of course is “a pretty good place to make a stand.”
Pat Green, “Dixie Lullaby”
How do you write a song about your childhood memories of your parents dancing to the radio late at night, then turn it into a requiem for a parent that has died, and not end up drenched in sap along the way? It helps to have the understated, gravely voice of Pat Green, who honored his father with dignity here.
Faith Hill, “Red Umbrella”
Sweet as cotton candy, bursting with personality and soda pop hooks. Nobody fuses pop with country more skillfully than Faith Hill. Don’t let the sing-a-long fool you. There’s a lot more to the lyric when you dig beneath the surface.
Montgomery Gentry, “Lucky Man”
Humble is a coat that this duo wears well, and they’d do well to wear it a bit more often. This is a deep and meaningful self-evaluation, a reminder that the little things that bother us from day to day only get under our skin because so many big things that could be going wrong are humming along nicely.
Bomshel, “The Power of One”
Nice little history lesson here, weaving the stories of everyone from Rosa Parks to Anne Frank to remind the listener that yes, one person can really make a difference. They whitewash Jesus a bit in the second verse – he did indeed do some judging – but the sentiment is there, and it’s beautifully presented.
Sarah Buxton, “That Kind of Day”
I really didn’t like this song when I first heard it. Then I saw Buxton perform it at a Songwriter’s Night, and after being charmed by her infectious back story and the enthusiastic performance that followed, I was hooked. This really is who she is, and there’s something gloriously unfiltered about it.
Elizabeth Cook, “Sometimes it Takes Balls to Be a Woman”
It’s the kind of title that would make Loretta Lynn proud, so it’s no surprise that her and Dolly get a shout-out at the end. But to her credit, Cook doesn’t depend on that eye-popping line to prop up the entire song. “Sometimes looks can be deceiving, when you’re quietly overachieving” captures more of the challenge of the modern woman than the titular line, really.
Jack Ingram, “Measure of a Man”
It’s tempting to roll your eyes at the start, as it sounds like another tired example of the country-rock rebel guy who leaves home because he doesn’t see eye to eye with his old man. Mellencamp redux. By the end, however, father and son are reconciled when the narrator becomes a father himself. He doesn’t suddenly believe his father was right all along, mind you; he just doesn’t want to deny his dad from being in his grandson’s life.
Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
One of the charms of this song is Lambert’s sincerity. You can tell that she really does value her fame in her own hometown more than her place in the spotlight in Music City. She sees the connection between where she came from and the characters she sings about in her songs. That, and she just gets a kick out of the small-town gossip.