Happy holidays, everybody! I’m back with my personal top ten albums of the year, a list that took a stupid-long time to put together but is very nice to have done. All I would say as a note is that I like all of these albums very much and don’t think the rankings should be scrutinized to death, because my tastes certainly change frequently enough.
Okay, you get it. Let’s do this. Va-VOOM!
Dailey and Vincent,Dailey and Vincent
I typically lean progressive in my bluegrass tastes, but there’s simply no arguing with this dynamic twosome, whose debut finds them ripping into a straight-ahead traditional style with such crazy-polished singing, playing and writing that they practically become the new standard. Excellent.
Kathy Mattea, Coal
Confession: I wasn’t quite sure how to take this one. Although I like Kathy Mattea’s voice and generally love concept albums, I had trouble getting into this set of mining-related songs as a whole, which may be because I personally have trouble digesting so many bare-bones story songs in one sitting, or may be because the album itself becomes a bit monotonous after a while. It’s kind of hard to say, and I finally decided that it’s just the sort of thing I personally have to be in the right mood for. Objectively speaking, though, I think what Mattea and producer Marty Stuart have achieved here is easily one of the most fully realized artistic expressions of 2008, and it’s pretty hard to gripe about on a song-by-song or sonic basis. So #9 feels about right for me.
Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof
Randy Rogers, Wade Bowen and Cody Canada take note: Reckless Kelly’s latest set showcases just how tersely effective the whole “country-nodding Texas rock” shtick can be when you pay the same attention to developing compelling lyrical ideas that you do to ‘tude (and I say that with love, because I enjoy work from all of the acts mentioned above). Bonus points for the year’s best album cover.
In a year where excellent mainstream country albums were few and far between, there were still many wonderful projects waiting to be discovered by listeners willing to look for them. Among all releases, mainstream and alternative, traditional and contemporary, folk and Americana, the Country Universe staff deems these ten the best.
Jim Lauderdale & The Dream Players, Honey Songs
You could forgive Jim Lauderdale if he showed signs of wear on Honey Songs, his fourth release in a span of 18 months. Instead, he’s produced yet another fresh package, this time by cherry-picking the best parts of rock ‘n’ roll’s roots and throwing ‘em into his ever-sharp traditional songwriting blender. His tunes have never been more perfectly framed, either, which you can attribute to the aptly-named “Dream Players,” a droolworthy backing line-up consisting of guitarist James Burton and drummer Ron Tutt (both Elvis Presley vets), pianist Glen D. Hardin and pedal steeler Al Perkins (both renowned session players), and bassist Garry Tallent (of Springsteen’s E. Street Band), not to mention Emmylou Harris, Kelly Hogan, Patty Loveless and Buddy Miller on vocals. If it’s been a while since you heard an instrumental part that sounded like it was actually written to complement its song, rather than just create sound, check out the melancholy electric/steel duet in the intro to “Borrow Some Summertime.” – Dan Milliken
Sugarland, Love on the Inside (Deluxe Fan Edition)
There has been no shortage of country acts that incorporate arena rock into their spin on country music, but on their third album, Love on the Inside, Sugarland manages to do so without the sound overwhelming the country identity of the work. At its heart, this is an acoustic country record, with most of the songs beginning with bare-bones instrumentation and more than a few staying that way.
But the clean and fresh production would all be for naught if the material wasn’t so strong, and Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush have collected their strongest batch of songs to date, with “Already Gone”, “Very Last Country Song”, “Keep You” and “We Run” only increasing in charm and power upon repeated listenings. The Deluxe Fan Edition is the version to go for, as the extra songs prove a fascinating listen. They’re almost fully formed and make you wonder why they weren’t deemed worthy of being on the regular album, until you notice that the hook isn’t quite strong enough or the lyric starts to fall apart at the bridge. Such tracks are usually unearthed years later, if at all, so it’s an extra treat to hear the good material that didn’t warrant inclusion on a great album. – Kevin J. Coyne
Peter Cooper, Mission Door
While the melodies on his first album, Mission Door, are enough to draw you in, it’s Peter Cooper’s provocative and insightful lyrics that take you by surprise on this folk infused, steel guitar laden album. Cooper either wrote or co-wrote ten out of the twelve tracks that explores such weighty topics as racism and poverty. He enlists the help of Nanci Griffith and Todd Snider, his two favorite singers, on the album’s stand out title track, along with recording his own mellower version of “Thin Wild Mercury”, which he co-wrote with Todd Snider for Snider’s The Devil You Know album.
The best and most powerful song on the album, however, is “715 (For Hank Aaron), a song that discusses the duality of Aaron being a revered baseball player and an oppressed black man. This mostly ignored album that sounds like a mix of Darrell Scott and Todd Snider, with lots of steel guitar thrown in for good measure, is one of the year’s most intriguing albums. – Leeann Ward