Last year, I counted down my twenty-five favorite Christmas songs. This year, it’s time to do the same with my favorite country Christmas albums. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comment section.
SHeDaisy, Brand New Year
This is not a typical, conservative country Christmas album. SHeDaisy spices things up by not only including originals, but rearranges the classics to make an unpredictable, unique Christmas album that stands out from the pack.
Dolly Parton, Home for Christmas
This is an incredibly cheesy Christmas album. As only Dolly can do, however, it’s at least delightfully cheesy.
Charlie Daniels & Friends, Joy To the World: A Bluegrass Christmas
This album flew under the radar this year, but it’s a wonderful bluegrass album with a few famous friends. Daniels even steps aside to allow his guests to sing while only accompanying them. Jewel steps up with an impressively country vocal on “Blue Christmas” and Kathy Mattea offers a rollicking version of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”
John Denver and the Muppets, Christmas Together
I grew up with this album. On the strength of nostalgia, I’d put it at the top of this list, but for the sake of being reasonable, I’ll settle for this ranking. Who doesn’t love the Muppets, anyway?
John Cowan, Comfort and Joy
John Cowan’s Comfort and Joy is a new release, but its acoustic production and Cowan’s clear voice is instantly appealing. He interprets some classics, but also includes some worthy originals and lesser-known songs. The sprightly “Christmas Everyday”, the thoughtful “Little Match Girl” and the gospel “Good News” provide welcome depth to this Christmas project.
Mindy Smith, My Holiday
Mindy Smith adeptly covers well-known standards on her Christmas album, but her original inclusions are what really stand out here, particularly “Follow the Shepherd Home” and “I Know the Reason.” With guest appearances from Alison Krauss, Thad Cockrell and Emmylou Harris (not to mention Smith’s own beautiful voice), My Holiday is one of the most outstanding mixes of originality and tradition on this list.
Loretta Lynn, Best of Christmas…Twentieth Century Masters
This is a collection of Loretta Lynn Christmas songs. It’s my favorite traditional country Christmas album.
Emmylou Harris, Light of the Stable
If you enjoy Harris’ bluegrass album, Roses in the Snow, and her Live At the Ryman, you’ll likely enjoy this acoustic-based Christmas album as well. It has a live, relaxed feel to it. While it doesn’t necessarily sound big-budget, it is still a well-crafted Christmas album.
The Tractors, Have Yourself A Tractors Christmas
The Tractors are infamous for their cringe-worthy novelty song, “Baby Likes To Rock It”, but they made an excellent Christmas album nonetheless. Their blend of swing and shuffle makes for a crisp album that I love to hear every year. I enjoy the entire album with the exception of their Christmas twist on “Baby Likes to Rock It.”
Lee Ann Womack, A Season for Romance
Lee Ann Womack is successful in conveying a romantic vibe on this album that suggests just that. With her easy southern drawl, Womack knows her way around a gorgeous Christmas melody. Her fun side should not be ignored, however, as her version of “the Man with the Bag” is easily the superior track on the album.
Travis Tritt, A Travis Tritt Christmas: Loving Time of the Year
Tritt rocks on songs like “Winter Wonderland”, adds a bluesy twist to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, waxes nostalgic on “Christmas in My Hometown” and reverently sings “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Nevertheless, he keeps Christmas in perspective as he philosophizes on the title track and, possibly naively, proclaims it to be the “most loving time of the year.”: “I wish I could bottle up this feeling/Pass out a little everyday/’Cause all the scars of pain have started healing/And troubles of this world just fade away…”
Dwight Yoakam, Come on Christmas
Dwight’s signature quirky vocal style does not disappoint on this Christmas album. He does some standards and a few originals. His bluesy version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” just may be the only version of that song that I like. Among the originals, the dysfunctional “Santa Can’t Stay” and the album’s sensual title track are the highlights of the project.
Gene Autry, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Classics
Like Bing Crosby, Gene Autry’s name is simply synonymous with Christmas music.
John Prine, A John Prine Christmas
Prine’s rough, unpolished voice does not try to navigate beloved classics that conjure up feelings of warmth and frivolity. Instead, he does what works best for him, which means writing songs that reveal insightful observations of real life. As a result, A John Prine Christmas is darker than a typical Christmas album.
Alan Jackson, Let It Be Christmas
While Alan Jackson’s first Honky Tonk Christmas album is great, this one was recorded to appease his mother who requested a more traditional-sounding record. This one is especially good when hosting guests with mixed music tastes. Backed by a big band and orchestra, Jackson’s smooth voice navigates these traditional tunes with ease. Jackson’s original composition, the title track, is superb enough to stand with the revered classics.
Martina McBride, White Christmas
Martina McBride made a safe Christmas album with all familiar songs, but she still managed to deliver an album that’s engaging and among the best of its kind. And as one might expect from McBride, she knocks “O Holy Night” out of the park.
Toby Keith, A Classic Christmas
Toby Keith shows his generosity at Christmas time by making two Christmas albums (one of religious classics and the other of secular classics) and packaging them together for one low price. As a skillful interpreter, he treats these classics with both reference and fun as appropriate, with “Little Drummer Boy” receiving the coolest laid back production that I’ve ever heard on it.
Lorrie Morgan, Merry Christmas from London
With the London Orchestra, Morgan is in fine voice and keeps up with the power accompaniment quite well. This is a beautiful, straightforward album that includes many classics and a sweeping version of “My Favorite Things.”
Randy Travis, An Old Time Christmas
This Christmas album is exactly what one would expect from Randy Travis. If you like Randy Travis music and you like Christmas music, this one doesn’t disappoint. Highlights include his version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, Meet Me Under The mistletoe” and “Old Time Christmas.”
Kathy Mattea, Joy for Christmas Day
Kathy’s warm, soothing voice is meant for Christmas songs. She sings some standards along with some awesome originals. The stand out tracks are the gorgeous “Straw Against The Chill” and the infectious “Unto Us A Child Is Born.”
Garth Brooks, Beyond the Season
Garth’s first and best Christmas album sounds a lot like Garth Brooks music of the early nineties. Even the classics get the Brooks treatment, including a soulful version of “Go Tell It On A Mountain.” The highlights include but aren’t limited to “The Friendly Beasts” (in which he enlists the help of some of his songwriting friends), “Unto You This Night” and Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy.”
George Strait, A Classic Christmas
Strait has as many Christmas albums as he has decades in the country music business. This album is far superior to the other two, however. While all of the songs are classics, he has recorded them with rootsy productions to match his warm vocals. Highlights include “Jingle Bells”, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Oh Christmas Tree.”
Clint Black, Christmas With You
This album consists of all original songs composed by Clint Black himself. Most of it contains Christmas through the eyes of children, including “Slow As Christmas”, “Milk and Cookies” and “The Coolest Pair.” It’s fresh, fun and joyous, just as Christmas should be.
Patty Loveless, Bluegrass And White Snow: A Mountain Christmas
As a follow up to Mountain Soul, Patty Loveless delivers a soulful bluegrass Christmas album that radiates Christmas warmth while injecting moments of festive frivolity as well. Appearances by Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Jon Randall are not necessary to strengthen this already masterful Christmas album, but they certainly help the celebration in a special way. (For more on this album, read a review by guest contributor Stephen Fales.)
Pam Tillis, Just in Time for Christmas
Most of the time, I want to hear warmth on a Christmas album. As is the case with many of my favorites, I like to be able to imagine listening to Christmas music by a cozy fire (though I don’t have a fireplace) and a nice mug of hot chocolate. With Tillis’ album, my imagination does not have to stretch very far, because it commands such images with its tasteful, jazzy production and Tillis’ naturally pleasant voice. This is clearly a country Christmas album, but it also manages to blend country elements with other traditional components that result in a perfect hybrid of torch and twang.
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 5: #120-#101
#120 “Tonight I Wanna Cry”
A chillingly frank portrait of loneliness, awkward reference to “All By Myself” notwithstanding. Few mainstream vocalists today could pull off something this intense. – Dan Milliken
#119 “Portland, Oregon”
Loretta Lynn with Jack White
Peak: Did not chart
If you can take a healthy dose of dirty rock ‘n’ roll in your country, this is one of the coolest-sounding records of the decade, a classic one-night-stand duet. That it’s a very cross-generational pairing singing it would be creepy if not for the goofy smiles shining through Lynn’s and White’s performances. – DM (more…)
With Alison Krauss still in the producer’s chair, This Side begins to drift away from the more pure bluegrass feel of Nickel Creek’s debut album. Containing deliciously funky grooves and even tighter musicianship among the trio, Nickel Creek further proves their inimitable creativity and talent on their sophomore project that ultimately secures their popularity among progressive bluegrass fans and perhaps a few unsuspecting traditionalists along the way as well. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Spit on A Stranger”, “I Should’ve Known Better”, “This Side”, “Sabra Girl”
Lee Ann Womack, There’s More Where That Came From
It wasn’t quite the radical return to traditional country music that the album cover and subsequent marketing implied, but There’s More Where That Came From had more going for it than twin fiddles and steel, anyway: the strongest collection of songs that Womack had ever assembled. For those who went beyond the album’s one hit and two subsequent singles, the treasures were bountiful, including a cover of “Just Someone I Used to Know” hidden at the end of the disc. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “One’s a Couple”, “I May Hate Myself in the Morning”, “The Last Time”, “Stubborn (Psalm 151)”
Bill Chambers, Sleeping With the Blues
Kasey Chambers’ father, Bill Chambers, shows that the talented apple doesn’t fall far from the proverbial tree. Chambers’ well worn gravel voice sounds as though he is personally all too familiar with the blues, which appropriately helps in service of the album’s general tone. Sleeping with the Blues is wonderfully produced with pure acoustic country instrumentation, which nicely supports this set of songs that contain straight up country music themes with a sly mix of wit and doom. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “I Drink”, “”Sleeping with the Blues”, “Big A** Garage Sale”, “Hold You in My Heart”
Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell, Begonias
George and Tammy, Loretta and Conway, Dolly and Porter, Caitlin and Thad. Heresy? Perhaps. However, when Begonias was released in 2005, duet albums seemed like a thing of the past in country music. Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell, once neighbors in North Carolina, succeed in questioning that perception with their harmonies, songwriting, and natural chemistry by producing a timeless folk-country album that reminds us that great duets are not something that only exist as part of country music history. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Something Less than Something More”, “Second Option”, “Conversations About a Friend”, “Waiting on June”
Alison Krauss & Union Station, Lonely Runs Both Ways
But just what are the two ways that lonely runs? Through the leaver (“Goodbye Is All We Have”) and the left (“Wouldn’t Be So Bad”)? Through the lovestruck (“If I Didn’t Know Any Better”) and the loved (“Crazy As Me”)? Or just through haunting traditional bluegrass (everything the fellas sing lead on here) as well as haunting grass-pop (everything with Krauss)? I say all of the above – and if Krauss and company are the ones running lonely around, I’ll follow them whichever way they decide to take it. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Restless”, “Crazy As Me”, “If I Didn’t Know Any Better”, “A Living Prayer”
The Be Good Tanyas, Blue Horse
It is true that The Be Good Tanyas are in the periphery of country music’s big tent, but their mellow sound is refreshingly organic. Their unconventional vocal style, delightful harmonies and accessible melodic hooks make this album a joy to hear. Particularly interesting is their meandering interpretation of “Oh Suzanna.” – LW
Recommended Tracks: “The Littlest Birds”, “Dog Song aka. Sleep Dog Lullaby”, “Oh Suzanna”, “Light Enough to Travel”
Dwight Yoakam, Blame the Vain
Fully self-producing for the first time, Yoakam returned to what he’s always does best: smart, simple heartbreak songs with no-frills production and minimal BS. Except on “She’ll Remember,” where the frills and BS are badly British-accented, bizarrely futuristic and fully awesome. He’s the kind of artist so consistent that it’s easy to take him for granted, but here he tried to one-up himself and damn near succeeded. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “Blame The Vain”, “Just Passin’ Time”, “She’ll Remember”, “The Last Heart In Line”
Shania Twain, Up!
As distinctive and boundary-pushing as they were, Shania Twain’s first two mega-albums were a bit restrained, as if there was a “let’s not push this too far” voice in the back of her head. With Up!, she fully lets loose her creativity, spinning the same nineteen tracks in three different styles over three discs, with the American release featuring the country and pop editions. Rather than split the difference to please both audiences, she shamelessly panders to each one instead, stacking on the fiddle and steel more so than she ever did before on one disc, while venturing into pure Europop on the other. The winner in all of this is the listener, particularly the one who has a taste for both banjo and synthesizer, as Twain’s relentless zest for lyrical escapism finally has the music to match her infectious positivity. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Nah!”, “Ka-Ching!”, “What a Way to Wanna Be!”, “I Ain’t Goin’ Down”
Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way
Somewhere between the Bush slam heard around the world and the five-Grammy victory seen around the world came this masterful, refreshingly real album, defined only by its own merits. A raw slice of the album deals with the incident that changed the Chicks’ career – and quite possibly the course of mainstream country music – reflecting a tenacity that’s wrapped in still-tender pain. But the same multi-faceted assuredness rings throughout the rest of Taking The Long Way, found in songs that dive deep, lyrically and sonically, into stories of struggle and doubt. With its bone-chilling depictions of life’s realities, the Chicks’ first fully-written album is a piece of art that pays a brilliant, ironic tribute to the heart of country music. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Not Ready to Make Nice”, “Silent House”, “I Hope”, “So Hard”
Nickel Creek, Why Should the Fire Die?
While they have been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album and won IMBA award for Instrumental Group of the Year, Nickel Creek have always insisted that they are not a bluegrass band. With Why Should the Fire Die?, Nickel Creek makes its strongest argument, taking on new producers, introducing more rock and pop influence, and generally going in their own direction. Still, and perhaps most importantly, they have maintained their ability to avoid all things formulaic while pushing beyond the boundaries of youthful talent. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “When in Rome”, “Can’t Complain”, “Anthony”, “Doubting Thomas”
The title track looks forward, pondering what to do with the scarcity of time left, but the best of the rest of these tracks look backward, sometimes with sadness (“My Old Friend”), sometimes with humor (“Back When”), and often with both (“Open Season on My Heart”, “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’.”) – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “My Old Friend”, “Old Town New”, “Open Season On My Heart”
Ashley Monroe, Satisfied
At just nineteen years old, Ashley Monroe has made an album with content comparatively mature, both in lyrics and production, to most other albums on this list. With a voice naturally tinged with both twang and sophistication, Monroe sings of loss, relational strife and even regret and sorrow with acute adeptness. While many of the compositions are sonically and topically subdued, she is not incapable of letting loose on certain numbers such as Kasey Chambers’ “Pony”, which includes a mean yodel, and a delightful duet with Dwight Yoakam, “That’s Why We Call Each Other Baby.” – Leeann Ward
She got her groove back with The Grass Is Blue, but Parton’s career revival truly peaked when she revisited her mountain roots on this classic album. She won a Grammy for her treatment of the Collective Soul hit “Shine”, and she wrote new songs like the title track, which ranks among her best work. She even revisited her finest pre-”Coat of Many Colors” composition, “Down From Dover”, restoring the verse that Porter Wagoner had forced her to edit out for the sake of brevity. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Little Sparrow”, “Shine”, “Down From Dover”
Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts
Six months after taking the American Idol crown, Underwood unapologetically introduced herself as a polished country-pop artist via Some Hearts. With explosive hits like “Before He Cheats” at the helm, the album became the best-selling debut by a solo female country artist, making it easy to overlook that it is as genuine as it is commercially viable. It’s an album that fits Underwood like a glove, bottling a unique combination of naivety and perceptiveness, sass and charm, bombast and reservation – the kinds of paradoxes that have come to define her as an artist and as a person. And while the material is standard country-pop, to be sure, we’re reminded by Underwood’s compelling, crystalline performances that standard material can be made to be just as memorable as anything else. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Wasted”, “Jesus, Take The Wheel”, “The Night Before (Life Goes On)”
Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, Real Time
In which two modern virtuosos sit in a living room and pluck out an acoustic album to match any before or since. The playing is exemplary, the songwriting deeply inspired, and the country-folk-bluegrass sound ageless. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Walk Beside Me”, “There Ain’t No Easy Way”, “Long Time Gone”
Soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Sometimes an album’s perceived quality becomes inextricable from its legend. Such is the case with the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ modern-day Odyssey, one of the bestselling country sets of the decade and a landmark in the genre’s history for its regeneration of mainstream interest in roots music. In essence, it’s really just a bunch of old-time covers done in exceptionally convincing old-time form. Whether that’s enough to put it among the decade’s finest country albums is up for debate – but there’s no denying it’s among the most essential. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby”, “O Death”
Buddy and Julie Miller, Written in Chalk
Americana’s favorite couple outdo themselves on one of this year’s most revelatory albums, a tour de force of down-home soul and raw depth. The Millers excel at finding just the right sound to express the sentiments of their material, scoring randy lovemakin’ (“Gasoline And Matches”) and quiet grief (“Don’t Say Goodbye”) with equal aplomb. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “One Part, Two Part”, “Chalk”, “Everytime We Say Goodbye”
Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights
The last decade has seen numerous well executed traditional covers albums, but none of higher quality than Patty Loveless’ tribute to tradition, Sleepless Nights. Loveless culls songs from various places, including compositions mostly previously attributed to male singers, to create an album that solidly stands as a cohesive unit. Due to Loveless’ naturally distinctive twang and her producer husband’s (Emory Gordy, Jr.) tasteful arrangements (prominent bass, light percussion and steel guitar), Sleepless Nights does well at staying authentic while still sounding progressive enough to warrant yet another covers project. – LW
While The Good Life gained considerably more attention among traditional country audiences than Midnight at the Movies, with Justin Townes Earle’s follow-up, we are presented with his first fully mature album. Nominated for an Americana Music Award for Album of the Year, Midnight at the Movies delivers a voice fallen far from the rough gravel of Earle’s father, Steve Earle, but with gleaming jewels of writing equal to some of his father’s best work. – William Ward
Urban’s second solo album is an exuberant, original piece of work that solidified his place as one of the genre’s most gifted and charismatic male artists. The album showcases both his fine musicianship and intuitive sense of balance, as the material embraces exhilaration without feeling frivolous, and sentimentality without feeling melodramatic. Much like his other albums, it’s hard to classify Urban’s style on Golden Road, with its intermixed elements of rock, pop and traditional country – but who the heck cares when it’s this good? – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me”, “You’ll Think Of Me”, “Raining On Sunday”
Pam Tillis, It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis
By the time she released a tribute to her father Mel, she’d become something of a legend in her own right. So it’s no surprise that she approached Mel’s stellar songwriting catalog as if she was recording any other studio album, taking the best of the bunch and making them her own. Bonus points for preserving the original fiddle breakdown from “Heart Over Mind” while making that classic shuffle a forlorn ballad, and a few more for hitting the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame until she found a forgotten gem that should’ve been a hit back in the day (“Not Like it Was With You.”) – Kevin Coyne
Yoakam takes a new, inspired spin on the greatest hits album concept, presenting us with a hearty sampling (over 20 songs) of his catalog served acoustic style. It simply works for the country legend. He introduces some delightful new twists and turns to his old classics, and as it should go with acoustic music, the album is driven by unadulterated, raw vocals, coupled with honest storytelling – the purest form of country music. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”, “Things Change”
Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator)
Time (The Revelator) is Gillian Welch and David Rawlings with much of their typical production stripped away. Accompanied by acoustic guitar and banjo, Gillian sings with emotions as much as she sings notes that create a surprisingly full sound. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll”, “Red Clay Halo”
Reba McEntire, Reba Duets
That McEntire is able to smoothly and effortlessly wrap her voice around eleven other distinctive voices is a tribute to her sheer talent as an artist. With duet partners stretching from Justin Timberlake to Ronnie Dunn, McEntire presents a stunning, layered mix of sounds and styles, demonstrating that when gifted artists come together, no perceived boundaries can stop them from making good music. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “The Only Promise That Remains”, “When You Love Someone Like That”
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy
Very few country artists can express pain more poignantly than Womack, who taps into a place of tender desperation with her highly-acclaimed 2008 album. The stories are deep and reflective, the sorrow palpable, and the production adeptly sparse – a potent combination. – TS
Nickel Creek has been nominated for Best Bluegrass Album and Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammys and won Best Contemporary Folk Album, yet the group does not easily fit into any of those categories. Produced by Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek’s self-titled album is their most bluegrass-influenced album. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “The Fox”, “The Hand Song”
Sara Watkins, Sara Watkins
Sara Watkins’ self-titled debut holds more than a few surprises, including more country influence than you will hear from any of her former Nickel Creek bandmates’ solo work. Produced by John Paul Jones, pedal steel is prominent on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time,” performed as western swing, “All this Time,” and Tom Waits’ “Pony.” – WW
Recommended Tracks: “All This Time”, “Give Me Jesus”
Dierks Bentley, Modern Day Drifter
Rife with accessible melodies, solid lyrics and a penchant for traditional sounds, Dierks Bentley’s sophomore project, Modern Day Drifter, confirmed the promise that was only hinted at on his first album. The title of the album rightly suggests that Bentley will explore the components of breaking the chains of domesticity, which include the freedom (“Lotta Leavin’ Left to Do”, “Modern Day Drifter”, “Domestic Light and Cold”, “the Cab of My Truck”) and the ultimate consequences (“Settle for a Slowdown”, “Down on Easy Street”). Nevertheless, Bentley does not stop with those themes. He also finds room for common themes as love and loss, as demonstrated in the pretty “Good Things Happen”, the smoldering “Come A Little Closer” and heartbreaking “Gonna Get There Someday.” – Leeann Ward
Todd Snider, The Devil You Know
An explosion of righteous anger over poverty with an undercurrent of joyous celebration of America’s underclass. You can never tell for sure if he sees himself as their advocate or their peer, but the songs are so powerful, it doesn’t really matter. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Just Like Old Times”, “The Devil You Know”
Rodney Crowell, The Houston Kid
After a string of somewhat underwhelming major-label releases in the 90′s, Rodney Crowell rebounded in a big way with this remarkably deep set on celebrated indie label Sugar Hill. Childhood joys and adult insights stand side-by-side in The Houston Kid, producing an emotionally rich and complicated survey of the album’s world. Such is the detail and soul of Crowell’s writing that every second comes across as autobiographical, even the ones that probably aren’t. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “The Rock Of My Soul”, “I Walk The Line (Revisited)”
Ah, the naughties. The decade began and ended with pop crossover queens, with Shania Twain and Faith Hill at the top of their game in 2000 much like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood reign supreme today. In between, we had the roots music boom, best exemplified by O Brother and the platinum-selling Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss & Union Station; the post-9/11 patriotic explosion, which brought Toby Keith and Darryl Worley to the top of the charts; the near-total banishment of women from the country radio dial for a good part of the decade, which started to fade as redneck pride ascended, thanks to a certain woman trying to make Pocahontas proud; and far too many tributes to country living and island-flavored beach bum songs to count.
All of this made for a fascinating decade to be a country fan. As radio worked its way through all of the above (with the notable exception of roots music), the internet made it far easier for acts to be discovered without ever getting a single spin of traditional radio play. With MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and the explosion of country music blogs, the barriers have been torn down between artist and audience in a way that was never possible before.
The motley crew of Country Universe has a diversity of tastes that fit within the widest boundaries of country music, as reflected our collaborative list of the 100 best albums of the decade. Five of our writers contributed to the list, with all writer’s selections being weighed equally. We’ll reveal ten entries a day until the list is complete. A look back at the greatest singles of the decade will then follow.
The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 1
Abigail Washburn, Song of the Traveling Daughter
Song of the Traveling Daughter is the debut album from Uncle Earl claw hammer banjo player Abigail Washburn. Produced by Béla Fleck and featuring Ben Sollee, it is a subdued album filled with intriguing instrumentation and influences. Standout songs include “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” with its interesting Civil War period influence; the upbeat “Coffee’s Cold,” originally performed by Uncle Earl; and “Song of the Traveling Daughter,” based on the classical Chinese poem “Song of the Traveling Son.” – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”, “Coffee’s Cold”
Kim Richey, Rise
Her ambitious swan song for Mercury Records was perhaps her least accessible record, with an emphasis on eclectic arrangements instead of hook-laden melodies. It’s also her most deeply rewarding record, one that is remarkably introspective and fully delves into themes of faith and mortality that her earlier work had only hinted at before. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “A Place Called Home”, “No Judges”
Little Big Town, The Road to Here
The quartet’s second album catapulted them to the forefront thanks to the swampy anthem, “Boondocks,” and was a breath of fresh, earthy air to mainstream country music. Packed with tight harmonies and songs ranging in style from bluegrass-leaning to Fleetwood Mac-inspired, the album served as a window into the raw talent and potential of one of the best groups to hit country music in quite some time. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Boondocks”, “Live With Lonesome”
Dolly Parton, Halos & Horns
A gorgeous, gospel-heavy album, with tasteful bluegrass elements. Parton is effervescent as usual, and rid of any self-consciousness, which makes “Hello God” overwhelmingly stirring. A response to the September 11 tragedies, the song has Parton pleading and philosophically wrestling with God, in the sincerest of ways. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Hello God”, “John Daniel”
Brad Paisley, Part II
Sometime back before the Future, before the smirking social commentary and the endless odes to his wife, Brad Paisley was just a silly little neotraditionalist writing silly little neotraditional songs about the twists of everyday life and love. Part II captures him at his most unassuming and tuneful, waxing breezily about courtships and feeling out his new place as a neotrad spokesperson with a few classic roots songs, plus a cute Bill Anderson/Chuck Cannon co-write (“Too Country”). – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Wrapped Around”, “Come On Over Tonight”
Patty Loveless, Strong Heart
More so than any Loveless album since leaving MCA, Strong Heart draws on her pop and rock influences, with a healthy dose of Ronstadt thrown in for good measure. The contrast between her hillbilly wail and the pop-leaning arrangements of several songs manages to make her sound even more rural than she normally does. Arguably her last mainstream project, she proved that she can sound just as good chasing radio as she does ignoring it. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “The Last Thing On My Mind”, “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”
Sara Evans, Real Fine Place
One of the finer female vocalists in the genre, Evans is a fantastic interpreter on her fifth album, carefully treading both traditional and pop country waters. The warmth and purity to her tone is prominent on this album, and this is particularly true of the songs with more traditional arrangements, on which she shines the brightest. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Cheatin’”, “These Four Walls”
Sarah Jarosz, Song Up in Her Head
Sarah Jarosz’ much hyped debut with Sugar Hill Records features Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Aofie O’Donavan, and Abigail Washburn. Notable tracks include “Shankill Butchers,” a Decemberists cover that outperforms the original; the progressive acoustic “Song up in Her Head,” reminiscent of Nickel Creek; and “Come on Up to the House,” an impressive Tom Waits cover. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Shankill Butchers”, “Come On Up to the House”
Terri Clark, Pain to Kill
This album made Clark a serious contender for Female Vocalist, the only time in her career that she reached that level of success. It’s as radio-friendly as her first two albums, but the material is substantive. This is the best collection of songs that she ever assembled, and by a healthy margin. When Trisha Yearwood finds something to cover from a record, you’ve done a great job picking songs. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “I Just Called to Say Goodbye”, “Not a Bad Thing”
Dwight Yoakam, Population: Me
Genre superhero Yoakam stretched his habit of excellence into a third decade, beginning with the quirky South of Heaven, West of Hell soundtrack and continuing with this solid set. The album is notable for distilling a wide assortment of Yoakam’s mastered sounds into about half an hour, from the Eaglesy (“The Late Great Golden State”) to the Owensy (“No Such Thing”) to the Elvisy (“I’d Avoid Me Too”), all united by the singer’s uniquely buoyant brand of fatalism. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “I’d Avoid Me Too”, “The Back Of Your Hand”
As song titles go, “Johnny Cash is Dead (And His House Burned Down)” doesn’t have quite the eloquence of “The King is Gone”, does it?
Not that subtlety would suit anything about this record anyway, which is as bluntly written and performed as you’d expect from the combination of title and artist here. Plenty of other late stars are name-dropped along the way, including Marty Robbins, Waylon Jennings, and Chet Atkins, with predictable lamenting that the “empty cowboy hats” of today can’t replace those who we’ve already lost.
Of course they can’t. But they can build on the legacy and create lasting music of their own. I’m nearing twenty years as a country fan, and I’ve been able to watch once-young acts like Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam and Alison Krauss gradually move toward legendary status. It takes time.
The Gatlins would do well to pay a little more attention to what has actually happened in country music since the heyday of the stars he laments. If they can’t do that, they could at least find a song that’s closer in quality to “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes”, instead of this piece of trite claptrap.
Few artists command as much critical acclaim as Dwight Yoakam, yet he was also a stunningly successful commercial act from the start. Nine of his releases have been certified gold or better, and his biggest set to date – This Time – has sold more than three million copies.
His catalog is deep with classic cuts. Here are ten of the best, a solid introduction to one of the genre's greatest talents.
And while it's not represented on the list, I highly recommend his stellar Under the Covers, an excellent covers album that is best heard in its entirety.
“Guitars, Cadillacs” from the 1986 album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.
It's tempting to kick off with “Honky Tonk Man”, Yoakam's effective cover of Johnny Horton's classic that was also his breakthrough hit. But what's missing from that track is Yoakam's signature heartache and pain. In Yoakam's best songs, he's not seeking out the night life because he enjoys it. It's to distract him from the loneliness and rejection that his lover has inflicted upon him.
“Streets of Bakersfield” (featuring Buck Owens) from the 1988 album Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room
Yoakam was instrumental in making the younger generations aware of the importance of Buck Owens, clearly Yoakam's strongest country influence. When he chose to revive an old Owens tune, he invited the man himself to help him out. The end result was a #1 hit that was a comeback for Owens and a signature smash for both of them.
“It Only Hurts When I Cry” from the 1990 album If There Was a Way
Yoakam's albums got considerably more ambitious in the nineties, but it's the beautiful simplicity of this hit, co-penned by Roger Miller, that's made it so timeless.
“Suspicious Minds” from the 1992 album Honeymoon in Vegas
He'd already had a hit with Elvis Presley's “Little Sister”, which he covered faithfully on his second album, Hillbilly Deluxe. But it was his rocking cover of “Suspicious Minds” that, in my mind, well surpassed Presley's original version.
“Ain't That Lonely Yet” from the 1993 album This Time
Co-writer James House had planned on keeping this one for himself, but when Yoakam heard it, he insisted that he get the chance to release it. It was a good move for both men, as the song became a radio smash and the performance earned Yoakam a Grammy.
“A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” from the 1993 album This Time
There's something hypnotic about this particular hit, which was immortalized with a split-screen video that has since become a classic.
“Nothing” from the 1995 album Gone
Gone is Yoakam's most fascinating album of self-penned material, with creative percussion arrangements and unexpected horn sections popping up here and there. There was never anything on country radio quite like it, nor has there been anything since.
“Things Change” from the 1998 album A Long Way Home
One of Yoakam's catchiest hits is also one of his most venomous, as he rejects the lover that has come crawling back to him after sending him packing earlier in the song.
“Thinking About Leaving” from the 1999 album Last Chance For a Thousand Years
Yoakam added new lyrics and changed the arrangement of this Rodney Crowell song, which had originally appeared on Crowell's Jewel of the South. He turned it into the confessional of a man torn between a life on the road and making a home with the woman who finally has him wanting to settle down.
“The Back of Your Hand” from the 2003 album Population: Me
Yoakam knew he had to cut this song when he heard the line, “There's some things that I just know, like you take two sugars with a splash of cream.” I've always been most fond of the way he frames the choice facing the woman who wants to leave: “Pick a number from one to two.”
I’ve known about Kinky Friedman for some years now. Actually, I should be more specific and say that I’ve known Kinky Friedman’s name for quite some years now. Because, to be honest, the only thing I really knew about him until very recently is that Willie Nelson supported him for Texas Governor in 2006, which should have peaked my interest enough to research him back then.
It wasn’t until recently, after doing an Amazon search for stray Todd Snider songs, that I realized that the colorful and fascinating Friedman, while politically extreme at times, was quite the singing satirist. On the 2006 album Why The Hell Not…The Songs of Kinky Friedman, I discovered an incredible cast of artists (Willie Nelson, Todd Snider, Bruce Robison, Asleep at the Wheel, Delbert McClinton, Charlie Robison, Dwight Yoakam, Kevin Fowler & Jason Boland) doing covers of Friedman’s songs, many so sharp that I was more than a little taken aback at first. Through satire and, sometimes, even seriousness, Freidman offers a lot of social commentary that is often colorful and always intriguing.
Although Friedman’s original versions aren’t especially appe
aling to me, the tribute album is engaging. Two songs in particular caught my attention right away. Kevin Fowler’s cover of “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven” and Todd Snider’s version of “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” are both addictively catchy and amusing. Snider’s song would easily fit next to his own socially charged compositions while Fowler’s choice is performed with a charming cheekiness.
While it would be violating Country Universe’s comment policy to quote Todd Snider’s song that deals with racism, I will provide a sample of the lyrics from Fowler’s deliciously ridiculous ditty, which is hopefully extreme enough to be obviously satirical in nature as social commentary.
Verse 1: You uppity women I don’t understand
Why you gotta go and try to act like a man,
But before you make your weekly visit to the shrink
You’d better occupy the kitchen, liberate the sink.
Chorus: Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed
That’s what I to my baby said,
Women’s liberation is a-going to your head,
Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed.
Kinky Friedman’s brand of social commentary may be understandably too inflammatory and extreme for many people, but my call to Country Universe readers tonight is to recommend a satirical song that you find appealing.