Tag Archives: Kasey Chambers

CU's Top Albums of 2012

As reflected by the title of our web site, our choices for Top 40 Albums of 2012 span the farthest reaches of the country music universe.  In previous years, the Country Universe staff has counted down twenty albums and forty singles, but this year our album picks included such a wide variety that we were able to stretch our Top Albums countdown to a full forty slots.  What did we miss?  That’s where you, our readers, come in.  Please join in the discussion, and share which albums you had in heavy rotation over the past year.

 

#40
The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake

Martha Redbone Roots Project

Individual rankings:  Sam – #12

The combination of a modern soul singer, an 18th-century Romantic poet and bluegrass music shouldn’t work, at least on paper.  However, when there are talented people like Martha Redbone and John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band involved, the results can be fantastic.  Redbone and collaborator Aaron Whitby drew from the works of William Blake and McEuen and a host of talented musicians helped recast the poems as bluegrass songs.  The resulting songs sound more like Harlan County than Blake’s native London, and Redbone’s vocals are gorgeous throughout.  For music lovers, discovering hidden gems like this album is the equivalent of finding a winning lottery ticket on the street. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day,” “The Garden of Love,” “Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright”

#39
Morning Comes
 
Cuff the Duke

Individual rankings:  Sam #11

A 2011 release in Canada, this batch of jangly-rock goodness finally made it over to the U.S. this year.  Cuff the Duke shares some similarities with fellow Canadian alt-country stalwarts Blue Rodeo, so it should come as no surprise that Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo produced the album.  There are bits and pieces of other bands here and there – harmonies like The Jayhawks, a near-eight minute guitar-heavy epic that could have come from a Sadies album – but singer Wayne Petti and his cohorts combined all the elements into one of the band’s best albums. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Count on Me,” “Time Is Right,” “Bound to Your Own Vices”

#38
New Wild Everywhere

Great Lake Swimmers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #9

Great Lake Swimmers has evolved from a largely one-man project recording albums in an abandoned grain silo to a full-fledged folk group recording in a studio.  Tony Dekker’s songs have a lovely, ethereal quality to them, and they lose nothing from being backed with a full ensemble of violins, banjos, and the occasional fluegelhorn or accordion.  “Easy Come Easy Go” was the band’s first charting single in its native Canada, but with songs like the sweeping title track, there should be many more to come. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “New Wild Everywhere,” “Think That You Might Be Wrong,” “The Knife”

#37
That’s Just Me
Teea Goans

Individual rankings:  Ben – #8

With a rich, emotive vocal style that echoes Pam Tillis, traditionalist Teea Goans nimbly tackles a collection of killer country tunes from the past and present alike.  She lovingly covers classic hits of yore such as “Misty Blue” and “Nobody Wins” alongside solid originals such as the lively “Pour a Little Love On It” and the luscious Jamie Daley duet “That’s Just Me Loving You.”  Nothing over-the-top – simply a collection of quality material well-written, thoughtfully produced, and sung with flair.  What more could a country music lover ask for? - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “Pour a Little Love On It, “Misty Blue,” “That’s Just Me Loving You”

#36
Fear Fun
Father John Misty

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #7

Singer-songwriter Joshua Tillman’s first solo outing since leaving indie-rock outfit Fleet Foxes and his first album under the moniker of Father John Misty, Fear Fun is a throwback to the late 90s era before “alt-country” turned into Americana.  To that end, the album’s title is misleading:  What makes the album so refreshing is its sense of irreverence – Tillman’s refusal to take himself too seriously. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “I’m Writing a Novel,” “Only Son of the Ladies’ Man,” “Nancy from Now On”

#35
Voice of Ages

The Chieftains

Individual rankings:  Sam – #7

To celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary, The Chieftains team up with notables from the indie/folk/Americana sector, including the Pistol Annies, The Decemberists and The Carolina Chocolate Drops. The result is a bouncy, high-energy set that shows that Paddy Moloney and company have plenty of fuel left in the tank. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Lily Love” (with The Civil Wars), “School Days Over” (with The Low Anthem), “When the Ship Comes In” (with The Decemberists)

#34
Restless
Sweethearts of the Rodeo

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #7

It’s hard to believe that it’s been sixteen years between albums for Sweethearts of the Rodeo.  Their late 2012 release Restless will go largely unnoticed by commercial standards, but not because it doesn’t deserve high praise and recognition. A mix of a throwback to the country sounds of their heyday, and sounding like an extension of 1996′s Beautiful Lies, Restless manages to feel both nostalgic and refreshing, not to mention that the sister duo sounds as good as ever. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks: “You Can’t Hold Me Back,” “Restless,” “Hopeless Rose”

#33
Home
Dierks Bentley

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #11;  Sam #20

Amidst the bravado party anthems and the tongue-in-cheek, Dierks Bentley continues to display his penchant for performing heartfelt love songs and thoughtful reflections. His signature ragged voice comfortably wraps around songs like the reflective “Home” and sensitive “Thinking of You” with ease and sensitivity. Likewise, he sounds just as comfortable letting loose on frivolities such as “Diamonds Make Babies” and “Gonna Die Young.” - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Home,” “When You Gonna Come Around,” “Thinking of You”

#32
Derelict
John Kraus and the Goers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #5

When he’s

not playing guitar and banjo for the excellent Los Angeles-based bluegrass/Celtic/rock band Rose’s Pawn Shop, Capt. John Kraus sails tall ships. When he’s not doing that, he’s combining his passions by recording an album of sea shanties. Half the songs are traditional sailing songs, and half are new, though it’s hard to tell them apart without looking through the liner notes. The old songs have been given fresh, contemporary arrangements, and the new songs are so spot-on that it’s easy to picture sailers from the 1700s or 1800s singing them. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Cold in the Ocean,” “Bonny Ship the Diamond,” “Siren”

avett brothers carpenter

#31
The Carpenter

The Avett Brothers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #4

The Carpenter is about as close as you can get to mixing the major-label polish found on the Avetts’s 2009 release I and Love and You, and the reckless abandon found on their independent releases. The Carpenter is again produced by Rick Rubin, but Scott Avett’s banjo returns to prominence, and there is another addition to the “Pretty Girl from…” series (Michigan, in this case). Catchy, sweet songs like “Live and Die” should give the Avetts the same kind of mainstream crossover success like rootsy brethren The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons have enjoyed. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “The Once and Future Carpenter,” “Live and Die,” “A Father’s First Spring”

#30
Unfinished Business
Wanda Jackson

Individual rankings:  Ben – #10;  Jonathan – #15

On 2011′s The Party Ain’t Over, Wanda Jackson too often found herself overshadowed by producer Jack White’s impressive, if show-offy, blend of rockabilly and modern blues. Justin Townes Earle, in producing Unfinished Business, wisely keeps the focus on Jackson, whose feistiness and inimitable presence on record are undiminished by her 60-plus years as a recording artist. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Tore Down,” “Am I Even a Memory,” “California Stars”

#29
Nashville, Volume 1:  Tear the Woodpile Down
Marty Stuart

Individual rankings:  Sam – #6;  Ben – #19

Featuring a raucous roadhouse jam one moment (“Tear the Woodpile Down,” “Truck Driver’s Blue”), and a straight-up steel weeper the next (“A Matter of Time,” “The Lonely Kind”), Nashville, Volume 1 offers an entertaining fusion of country music past and present from one the genre’s most staunch advocates of tradition.  A solid set of songs along with some unexpected collaboration (Hank Williams III, Buck Trent, Lorrie Carter Bennett) ensure that there is never a dull moment.  - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “A Matter of Time,” “Truck Driver’s Blues,” “Picture from Life’s Other Side”

#28
Original Soundtrack:  The Hunger Games –  Songs from District 12 and Beyond
Various Artists

Individual rankings:  Dan – #8;  Jonathan – #11

A truly weird effort: bleak, rootsy…and tied to a blockbuster movie based on a Young Adult novel. How do you wind up with that combo? Well, get T-Bone Burnett on the job. In truth, Burnett’s vision captures the tone of Suzanne Collins’s tense, disturbing death-match better than the serviceable film does, with songs that explore the heroine’s psyche in complement to the way Collins’s first-person narrative did. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “Abraham’s Daughter,” “Nothing to Remember,” “Just a Game”

#27
Hello Cruel World
Gretchen Peters

Ben – #5;  Jonathan – #16

Dense, poetic, and uninhibited, modern songwriting legend Gretchen Peters turns her inner emotions outward on this deeply absorbing set, ripe with clever yet accessible metaphors (“St. Francis,” “Paradise Found,” “Natural Disaster”) and intriguing character sketches (“Camille,” “Five Minutes”).  Her songwriting chops are formidable enough, but she also brings the goods as a singer with lived-in performances that are layered, expressive, and authoritative. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “Hello Cruel World,” “St. Francis,” “Five Minutes”

#26
Mindy Smith
Mindy Smith

Leeann – #6;  Dan – #10

Five albums into her career, Mindy Smith revisits the organic feel of her first album, which, thankfully, mostly abandons the pop trappings of her previous project.  This isn’t to say that she has lost any sense of creativity.  In fact, the album hosts a diverse mix of  straight-up country, alt-country, gentle jazz, and soft acoustic songs.  As a result, her stellar self-titled album proves quite worthy of her immense talent.  Three songs are specifically recommended here, but the album as a whole is worth recommendation. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Take Me Back,” “Everything Here Will Be Fine,” “Cure for Love”

#25
The Time Jumpers
The Time Jumpers

Individual rankings:  Ben – #2;  Leeann – #17

From the warm familiar tenor of Vince Gill to the whine of veteran Paul Franklin’s steel guitar to the Connie Smith-esque vocals of Dawn Sears, it’s a wonder this eleven-piece traditional country outfit even manages to fit so much talent into one room.  On the band’s first proper studio effort, twangy toe-tappers like “On the Outskirts of Town” and “Texas On a Saturday Night” will make you want to get up and dance, but ballads such as the sorrowful “So Far Apart” and the introspective “Three Sides to Every Story” demonstrate that there’s plenty of substance to go along with all the fun.  Simply delightful. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “Texas On a Saturday Night,” “On the Outskirts of Town,” “Three Sides to Every Story”

#24
And So It Goes
Don Williams

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #10;  Ben – #11;  Dan – #16

Seemingly the very personification of country sincerity, Hall of Fame member Don Williams ably sells material that might scan as maudlin if delivered by a vocalist lacking his restraint and age-earned wisdom.  Williams delivers songs of love and heartache with a recurring theme of optimism on his first studio outing since 2004, with songs like “Better Than Today,” “She’s With Me,” and “Imagine That” seeming like could’ve-been classic hits had they been released a few decades earlier.  A pairing with the exquisite vocals of Alison Krauss on “I Just Come Here for the Music” supplies what is arguably the album’s finest moment. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “She’s With Me,” “I Just Come Here for the Music,” “Imagine That”

#23
Carry Me Back
Old Crow Medicine Show

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #6;  Dan – #11;  Leeann – #20

A significant rebound from the dreary Tennessee PusherCarry Me Back finds Old Crow Medicine Show delving further into their old-timey stringband persona while still retaining a contemporary, relevant point-of-view. Taking a light-handed but still perceptive approach to matters of war and economic hardship but also cutting loose for a bit of pure escapism every now and then, OCMS prove that they’re not just a band who thought they’d dress like bootleggers and pick up a banjo to mask the fact that they don’t have anything more substantive to say. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Carry Me Back to Virginia,” “Levi”

#22
Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Todd Snider

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #3;   Dan – #9

It’s his most quintessentially Todd Snider-ish album title yet, and in some ways, it does feel like his signature piece: loopy-sharp commentary on religion and socioeconomic issues, down-on-their-luck protagonists with hearts of gold or darkness or both. It’s impossible to always agree with Snider the man or even Snider the fable-teller, probably; he puts it all out there so brazenly, with such bold detail, that some of it is bound to repel. But as country-folk troubadours go, there’s hardly a finer craftsman. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “New York Banker,” “In Between Jobs,” “Brenda”

#21
I Like to Keep Myself In Pain
Kelly Hogan

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #2;  Dan – #6

Armed with a voice of extraordinary power and versatility and, perhaps more importantly, with a better ear for quality material than just about anyone recording in any genre, Kelly Hogan is simply one of the finest interpretive singers in contemporary music.  On I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, she tackles heady, complicated songs that hinge on deep emotional conflicts and surprising narrative turns, and she wraps those songs into a take on country music that’s both quirky and genuinely progressive. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Plant White Roses,” “Haunted,” “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain”

#20
AM Country Heaven
Jason Eady

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #5;  Dan – #12;  Ben – #12

Good, pure country music is not dead! The solid proof is in AM Country Heaven. With fiddle, steel guitar, bass and honky tonk piano aplenty, this album is unadulterated country music that maintains the perfect balance of classic and freshness. Just like any good country album, the songs and melodies are memorable without being covered with a sickening shine, but rather, allowing each song and vocal to stand on its own with the support of tasteful instrumentation that works together to enrich the listening experience. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Tomorrow Morning,” “Man on a Mountain” (with Patty Loveless), “Lying to Myself”

#19
Edens Edge
Edens Edge

Individual rankings:  Tara – #6;  Kevin – #9;  Dan – #14

Edens Edge teased us with “Amen” in 2011, an adorably written gem with the kind of spirit that’s been missing from country radio since the 90s.  The trio’s debut album is equally charming, built on strong storylines and engaging performances.  Perhaps most impressively, they understand the power of a full-bodied melody, skillfully using its dips, crescendos, and color to convey a range of emotions. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “Amen,” “Feels So Real,” “Swingin’ Door”

#18
Sun Midnight Sun
Sara Watkins

Individual rankings:  Dan – #2;  Jonathan – #17;  Leeann – #18

It’s fitting that the cover features Watkins posed like some kind of dark angel, or maybe an ancient Egyptian goddess, big yellow star-glow encircling her head. After a promising debut, Sun Midnight Sun is her moment of almighty ascension as a solo artist, a helping of fiddly folk-pop that is accessible but smart, cute but cutting, steady but adventurous. She duets with Fiona Apple on “You’re the One I Love”; she covers Willie Nelson on “I’m a Memory”; and on the timeless “Take Up Your Spade,” she suggests she might be able to hang with either as a songwriter. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “When It Pleases You,” “I’m a Memory,” “Take Up Your Spade”

#17
Bear Creek
Brandi Carlile

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #2;  Dan – #3

While Brandi Carlile may not particularly consider herself a country artist, it’s obvious that she can aptly play the part when she has a mind to. Not only did she write “Same Old You,” one of the best and most country songs on Miranda Lambert’s latest album, but Carlile turns in a sturdy album with strong country elements in the heart of its songs. From the first addictive riff of “Hard Way Home” to the straight-up twang of “Keep Your Heart Young” to the final notes of the ethereal “Just Kids” and all points in between, Bear Creek is a powerfully sensational experience. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”

#16
Cabin Fever
Corb Lund

Individual rankings:  Sam – #1;  Jonathan – #4

Songs about gravediggers, cowboys, killers, cows and goth chicks? Must be a Corb Lund album. Lund has never been a predictable songwriter, and the songs on his latest album are no exception. “Pour ‘em Kinda Strong” and “Dig Gravedigger Dig” are more outlaw than any wannabe with a ballcap and a wallet chain can hope to sing. “September” and “One Left in the Chamber” display Lund’s chops as a serious songwriter. And for those who favor the bizarre, there’s “The Gothest Girl I Can” and “Cows Around.” They’re all good, and Lund is one of the few who can combine them all into one cohesive, excellent album. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  Dig Gravedigger Dig,” “One Left in the Chamber,” “Bible on the Dash” (with Hayes Carll)

#15
Leaving Eden

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Individual rankings:  Sam – #2;  Leeann – #10;  Dan – #15

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are so steeped in tradition that it’s hard to fathom how they can sound so classic and modern all at once.  Listening to them, it’s easy to think that it’s all effortless, but the fact is that they’ve trained extensively and know just what they’re doing as a result.  Leaving Eden is an extension of Genuine Negro Jig inasmuch as it ingeniously incorporates commonly utilized instruments with the not-so-common.  In addition to traditional fiddle, cello, and banjo, you can also hear bones, jugs and quills, along with impressive beat-boxing.  Above the impressive, warm and crisp instruments, however, are the wildly soulful vocals of Rhiannon Giddens, particularly on the a cappella “Pretty Bird” and the slow-burning title track.  Moreover, the Chocolate Drops’ energy and passion for what they’re doing is what we are ultimately hearing in this generous offering of energetic and thoughtful string-band music. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “West End Blues,” “Leaving Eden,” “Pretty Bird”

#14
For the Good Times
The Little Willies

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #4;  Jonathan – #12;  Leeann – #13;  Ben – #20

By recasting classic country songs into a jazz house style, the Little Willies prove a powerful truth that genre aficionados have known all along.  The songwriters showcased on For the Good Times – Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Lefty Frizzell, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Ralph Stanley, Scotty Wiseman – are craftsmen and craftswomen that rival and often topple the legendary writers of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building. - Kevin John Coyne

Top Tracks:  “Remember Me,” “Permanently Lonely,” “Jolene”

#13
Tornado
Little Big Town

Individual rankings:  Tara – #2;  Jonathan – #5;  Ben – #17

On its fifth album, Little Big Town isn’t interested in making a foot-stamping creative statement.  Instead, the group dives into a diverse but thoughtful stylistic grab bag, from the backwoods swamp of “Front Porch Thing” to the shameless accessibility of “On Fire Tonight” to the celestial lullaby of “Night Owl.”  With its shifting spotlight, Tornado reminds us that all four vocalists are skilled in their own right, but never strays too far from the quartet’s defining harmonies, underscored by the album’s a cappella pockets.  While “Pontoon” may be the album’s claim to fame, its signature is “Sober,” an exquisite, arms-raised surrender that pierces like no other song in Little Big Town’s catalogue. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “Sober,” “Front Porch Thing,” “Leavin’ In Your Eyes”

#12
High, Wide & Handsome
The Trishas

Individual rankings:  Dan – #4;  Kevin – #6; Sam – #7

Miss the Dixie Chicks and getting antsy waiting for the next Pistol Annies installment? Wish either of those groups would do some good, old-fashioned heartbreak and settle down with all that pill-takin’ and Lubbock-hatin’? Say howdy to The Trishas. This fresh-faced quartet fills their first LP with tasty neo-trad of all different flavors, from the hooky shuffles of “Mother of Invention” and “Strangers” to the lounge-in-Texas aesthetic of “Cold Blooded Love” and “Rainin’ Inside.” But the common theme is love gone bad, and they do it oh so good. It helps that they’ve got Natalie Hemby, Jason Eady and Turnpike Troubadour Evan Felker writing with them. But the knockout punch is their harmonies, which call to mind what a “Cool Younger Daughters of the Pioneers” group might have sounded like. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “Mother of Invention,” “Little Sweet Cigars,” “Liars & Fools”

#11
Blown Away

Carrie Underwood 

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #1;  Tara – #5;  Ben – #16

The hardest-working woman in country music.  She could’ve coasted on the material of others, but she’s put the work in to develop into a great songwriter in her own right, with a distinctive point of view that is becoming just as essential to her artistry as those powerful pipes that made her a star in the first place.  She’s said that “Blown Away,” one of the few songs she didn’t write, set the tone for the album.  What a blessed discovery that song was then, as it challenged Underwood to be bolder than she ever dared before.  She consistently sings about and writes about strong women who refuse to be defined by their relationships with men and who ultimately triumph over the ones who compromise their physical or emotional well-being.  “Good Girl” might be the most obvious cautionary tale to the young girls that make up a good chunk of her audience, but here’s hoping they also hear her calls to reject the media’s narrow definitions of beauty (“Nobody Ever Told You”) and the judgment-free reminiscence of first-time love on “Do You Think About Me.”  Leave it to Carrie Underwood to kill off two men and still preserve her distinctive position as country music’s best role model. - Kevin John Coyne

Top Tracks:  “Blown Away,” “Do You Think About Me,” “See You Again”

#10
Up All Night
Kip Moore

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #3;  Dan – #5;  Tara – #7

Kip Moore is blatantly derivative, über-conventional, and possibly the best thing to happen to FM country in 2012. (Well, aside from that other K.M. sitting atop our singles list.) How’s that work, now? He makes the old feel new again. The magic is two-pronged: first, an excellent tune-sense that fortifies even staid phrases and ideas with infectious melodic power; and second, a sandy-sweet rasp, effortlessly sexy and tender and…well, those are pretty much his two modes so far. But he makes ‘em work like few singers can, resulting in a set of songs that often sound the same, but all in a rather likable way. More risks in songwriting and production could take him to the next level, but even now, he’s the Springsteen tribute we never knew we wanted. Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “Beer Money,” “Where You Are Tonight,” “Hey Pretty Girl”

 

#9
Long Ride Home
Darrell Scott

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #2;  Leeann – #7;  Dan – #7

It’s naïve to suggest that there are many quick fixes to the mind-boggling banality of contemporary country music.  But pitching the Darrell Scott songbook around town is one of them.  A great songwriter can elevate an entire genre when given the chance, like Kris Kristofferson did in the late sixties and early seventies, and Matraca Berg did in the mid-nineties.  Scott’s latest set is as strong a collection of songs as I’ve heard in the past few years.  His delivery is rough but authentic. We write so often about the great singers we wish could just record better material.  Imagine Blake Shelton singing, “When first I took the ring off, I was surprised to see another ring just underneath, as white as snow can be.”  Or perhaps Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles singing, “I am grounded, oh but I have wings to fly.  I don’t use them, I just look up in the sky.”  Or perhaps some unknown, third-string act just waiting for their chance to prove themselves, walking into a studio armed with a set of songs stronger than anything being pushed by the Music Row publishing houses or our generally overrated “singer-songwriters” on the radio.  Fingers crossed. - Kevin John Coyne

Top Tracks:  “Someday,” “Too Close to Comfort,” “No Love In Arkansas (The Ring)”

#8
Uncaged
Zac Brown Band

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #8;  Tara – #9;  Leeann – #12;  Ben – #15;  Sam – #19

Having secured their spot on the genre’s A-list, Zac Brown Band used their third studio album, Uncaged, as an opportunity to see what they could really get away with.  Even beyond its just spectacular cover art, Uncaged finds the band tackling styles from contemporary bluegrass to Jimmy Buffett-inspired isle rock to campy Quiet Storm soul balladry, all without losing their distinct identity or straying too far from their genuinely good-natured aesthetic.  In the process, they prove that it’s possible to sound authentically “Southern” (if not always “country”) without ever relying on the cheapest, emptiest of signifiers. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Goodbye in Her Eyes,” “Sweet Annie,” “The Wind”

#7
KIN:  Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
Various Artists

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #1;  Ben – #4;  Kevin – #7

As the story goes, Rodney Crowell mentioned poet Mary Karr in his song “Earthbound” on the album Fate’s Right Hand.  After reading her book The Liars’ Club, he had an inkling that Karr might possess the heart of a songwriter – and it turns out that his premonition was right on.  Due to their similar backgrounds, which consisted of hard-scrabble living, they were able to relate in a way that pushed them to create one of the most intriguing albums of the year.  While Karr isn’t a singer, Crowell certainly is.  However, with the exception of four excellent songs on which Crowell sings, they opted to enlist a brilliant cast of known artists to play the roles found within their songs.  Not only do these guest artists play the parts perfectly; in some cases, they even turn in performances that are among their best recordings. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Momma’s on a Roll” (Lee Ann Womack), “My Father’s Advice” (Rodney Crowell/Kris Kristofferson), “Just Pleasing You” (Vince Gill)

#6
100 Proof
Kellie Pickler

Individual rankings:  Tara – #4;  Ben – #7;  Leeann – #15;  Jonathan – #18

Gone is the glitzy, polished pop-country princess from the American Idol stage. In her place is a poised, sincere interpretive vocalist with a palpable love for traditional country music, as well as a gifted songwriter with a willingness to get personal.  With “Where’s Tammy Wynette” and “Stop Cheatin’ On Me,” Pickler nods to the classic country passed on to her by her grandparents, while addressing her troubled past with “Mother’s Day” and “The Letter (To Daddy),” and channeling her present-day marital contentment with the title track and the broadly charming “Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song).”  With the artistic leaps evident on this project, Kellie Pickler finally comes into her own as an artistic force, while hinting that the best is yet to come. - Ben Foster

 Top Tracks:  “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” “Long As I Never See You Again,” “Mother’s Day”

#5
Thirty Miles West
Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  Tara – #4;  Kevin – #5;  Ben – #14;  Leeann – #19;  Jonathan – #19

Thirty Miles West is just another solid Alan Jackson album – and there’s nothing wrong with that.  At 54 years old, Jackson is still the most effortless every-man in country music, able to tap into the foundation of human emotion with breezy precision.  From his astute perspective in “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” to his delightful open-mindedness in “Her Life’s a Song,” Jackson makes honest, relatable storytelling look easy.  Amidst the shuffle of mainstream country artists struggling to do the same, Jackson, thankfully, remains the trusted friend we can turn to when we need to be understood. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” “Her Life’s a Song,” “You Go Your Way”

#4
Wreck & Ruin
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

Individual rankings:  Sam – #3;  Leeann – #9;  Ben – #9;  Tara – #10;  Jonathan – #10

Singers/songwriters/spouses Chambers and Nicholson set a pretty high standard for duet albums with 2008′s Rattlin’ Bones, but Wreck & Ruin more than lives up to its predecessor. Backed by fiddles and banjos galore, their voices blend beautifully, from the whimsical “Flat Nail Joe” to the tender “The Quiet Life.” Too many “event duets” (Jason/Kelly, Brad/Carrie) turn into a vocal competition, as the two singers try their best to outshout each other. Wreck & Ruin is a much more low-key affair, but it demonstrates the subtle beauty of a man and woman singing together. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Adam and Eve,” “The Quiet Life,” “Familiar Strangers”

#3
Calling Me Home
Kathy Mattea

Individual rankings:  Ben – #1;  Leeann – #4;  Kevin – #8;  Tara – #8;  Jonathan – #13

Kathy Mattea may be the one standing behind the microphone, but she allows her home state of West Virginia to be the star of this stellar roots project.  Through deeply heartfelt vocal renderings backed by gorgeous Appalachian instrumentation, Mattea allows us to feel the heartbreak of the bereaved household in “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” as well as the frustration of a rural dweller watching his land overrun by “Black Waters,” even causing us to empathize with entities as simple as a wood thrush and a maple tree.  By turning to her own roots for inspiration, Kathy Mattea creates a career-best album that absolutely soars from beginning to end. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “The Maple’s Lament,” “Black Waters,” “Now Is the Cool of the Day”


#2
Sing the Delta
Iris DeMent

Individual rankings:  Dan – #1;  Jonathan – #1;   Leeann – #3;  Ben – #6

She sings of the vital importance of “telling [her] truth” on a heartfelt tribute to her mother that’s tucked away near the end of Sing the Delta, and Iris DeMent spends the duration of her extraordinary fifth album doing precisely that. She structures her songs like traditional Southern gospel hymns, but DeMent isn’t one to adhere blindly to conventions, as she weaves intimate autobiographical details into songs of profound personal and spiritual questioning and insight. Sing the Delta captures, in DeMent’s wondrously plain-spoken way, how faith and love, whatever their forms, are the most rewarding of struggles. It’s the gospel according to Iris, and it should be shouted from the rooftops. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth,” “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” “Out of the Fire”

#1
Living for a Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran
Jamey Johnson

Individual rankings:  Tara – #1;  Ben – #3;  Leeann – #8;  Jonathan – #9;  Sam – #10

Since he quietly rose to fame in 2008 with “In Color,” Jamey Johnson has played the part of our dependable, unbending 21st-century outlaw – sometimes to a fault.  His brand has often felt airtight, his expressiveness always one step behind his authenticity.  Living for a Song, then, does something momentous:  It deconstructs Johnson’s persona and paints him in a sweeter, more accessible light.

Maybe it’s the late Hank Cochran’s exceptional touch: graceful, disarming and frank all at once.  Maybe it’s the pairing of Johnson with a stellar cross-generational cast of characters, who deliver the 16 songs with zest and reverence.  Or maybe it’s simply Johnson’s surprising versatility, drawn from his genuine, careful appreciation of his former mentor.

Does it matter?  The sum of these parts isn’t just an album that pumps depth into one of our generation’s definitive artists, or that pays tribute to one of our finest composers.  Living for a Song did what we sorely needed something to do in 2012:  It took us back to the basics of country music – simple, straightforward and, at its best, achingly vulnerable. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “Make the World Go Away,” “This Ain’t My First Rodeo,” “She’ll Be Back”

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Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Three: #20-#11

The countdown continues to continue. Scroll down to the bottom to hear samples of each song and to share your comments!

Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Three: #20-#11

#20
Headache
Joey + Rory

Individual Rankings: #6 – Sam; #15 – Leeann; #17 – Ben

Joey Feek is not a woman to be trifled with. Blow off a day with her to go fishing with your buddies, and be prepared for a holdout that would make the recent NBA lockout look like a bathroom break. Along with a steel guitar-centric, pure country sound, the song’s humor doesn’t wear thin after repeated listenings. (Are you paying attention, Brad “Camouflage” Paisley?) – Sam Gazdziak

#19
Drink Myself Single
Sunny Sweeney

Individual Rankings: #6 – Ben; #13 – Sam; #18 – Jonathan

Sweeney showed her vulnerable side with “From a Table Away” and “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” but here she reminds us that she still knows how to cut loose and have a good time. With “Drink Myself Single” Sweeney delivers an up-tempo track that’s rowdy and fun, with a jaunty electric-guitar-meets-steel-guitar arrangement.

Better yet, she does it without sacrificing lyrical intelligence, and even gets through the whole thing without having to resort to the crutch of citing ‘Ol’ Hank.’ With a seething undercurrent of hurt and anger echoing George Jones’ “Why Baby Why,” “Single” shows an artist with one foot grounded in country music’s storied past, but also with an eye toward the future. – Ben Foster

#18
Mary Was the Marrying Kind
Kip Moore

Individual Rankings: #4 – Kevin; #9 – Dan

A song that manages to characterize eight different girls more believably than a lot of songs characterize one. As the narrator runs through his rocky dating history, you get why he wasn’t conditioned to appreciate Mary when they met, and you mourn with him now that he’s learned to too late. – Dan Milliken

#17
Paper Airplane
Alison Krauss & Union Station

Individual Rankings: #2 – Dan; #10 – Ben

 The quiet melancholy of Krauss and Robert Lee Castleman’s previous collaborations seems to come to a crescendo. “Here all alone and still wondering why,” Krauss sings in the soaring chorus, with yet another relationship crumbling around her. She’s resigned to a cycle of build-up and letdown, as lovers’ feelings and her own toss senselessly about. – Dan Milliken

#16
Teenage Daughters
Martina McBride

Individual Rankings: #4 – Leeann; #7 – Ben; #19 – Tara

The sassy “Teenage Daughters” was a refreshing departure from the inspirational songs and rangy vocal performances that we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Martina McBride by now. Instead, with restrained vocals rife with personality, McBride slyly offers a realistic take on the frustrations of raising teenage daughters with honesty and without sap. More of that please, Martina! – Leeann Ward

#15
Home
Dierks Bentley

Individual Rankings: #2 – Sam; #5 – Leeann

“Home” sounds like a pretty love song. And it is. it’s an emotional love song to America from a respectful Dierks Bentley. As the best love songs tend to go, it realistically acknowledges ups and downs while ultimately declaring the strength of the ties that bind. Best of all, not only is it a love song to America, it manages to be patriotic without the jingoism or chest thumping that has all too often pervades patriotic songs in the last decade. – Leeann Ward

#14
Another Like You
Hayes Carll with Bonnie Whitmore

Individual Rankings: #1- Sam; #6 – Leeann

A heated political discussion between a diehard conservative and a bleeding-heart liberal turns into a drunken makeout session in an elevator. If more political discussions in this country ended that way, there would be a heck of a lot more being accomplished in Washington. – Sam Gazdziak

#13
Staying’s Worse Than Leaving
Sunny Sweeney

Individual Rankings: #8 – Ben; #10 – Jonathan; #13 – Leeann; #14 – Dan

Sunny Sweeney just gets the economy of the best country songwriting: There’s nothing flashy about the opening lines of “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” but the weariness in her delivery of a simple aside (“Trust me, it’s really bad”) tells her character’s back-story in just a scant few words and gives her on-the-verge narrative real emotional heft. – Jonathan Keefe

#12
A Little Bit Stronger
Sara Evans

Individual Rankings: #2 – Kevin; #6 – Ben; #10 – Dan

As a portrait of the post-breakup healing process, Evans’ surprise comeback hit is striking in its simplicity, but nonetheless disarmingly effective. Simple vignettes of going through your daily routines with a smile on your face, changing the station when a song reminds you of your ex, coupled with the refrain of “I got a little bit stronger… just a little bit stronger” beautifully capture the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing journey.

Fittingly, Evans’ vocal begins on a hushed, tired-sounding note, building to a dramatic crescendo as the song progresses – a dynamic, layered performance from one of the finest interpretive singers of her generation. – Ben Foster

#11
Little Bird
Kasey Chambers

Individual Rankings: #6 – Kevin; #11 – Leeann; #12 – Ben; #16 – Tara; #16 – Jonathan; #20 – Dan

She’s heard through the grapevine what she needs to do to get her man back, a laundry list of every compromise under the sun.  No wonder she reaches the conclusion that she just doesn’t need him that bad. – Kevin John Coyne

Next: Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Four: #10-#1

Previous: Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Two: #30-#21

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iPod Playlist: Originals And Covers

As I’m sure the rest of you do, I make playlists all the time. Many of them are lists of individual artists, but some of them have a concept.

My latest playlist is of covers. First, I have the original version (or the one that’s famous for being the original) followed by my favorite cover of it. My only rule is that I have to like both versions. So, songs where I like the cover but not the original won’t make the list.

I’ll share a sampling of what I have so far, as long as you share your latest or greatest concept playlist in the comments:

1. Buddy Miller, “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” (Miranda Lambert)
2. Hank Williams, “Hey, Good Lookin’” (The Mavericks)
3. Elvis Presley, “Suspicious Minds (Dwight Yoakam)
4. Dolly Parton, “Coat of Many Colors (Shania Twain/Alison Krauss)
5. Waylon Jennings, “Dreaming My Dreams with You” (Alison Krauss and Union Station)
6. Johnny Cash, “Understand Your Man” (Dwight Yoakam)
7. Merle Haggard, “The Way I Am” (Alan Jackson)
8. John Prine, “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round” (Miranda Lambert)
9. John Anderson, “Swingin’” (LeAnn Rimes)
10. Buddy Miller, “Don’t Tell Me” (Alicia Nugent)
11. Kasey Chambers, “Pony” (Ashley Monroe)
12. Tammy Wynette, “Stand by Your Man” (Dixie Chicks)
13. Bill Monroe, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (John Fogerty)
14. Conway Twitty, “Goodbye Time” (Blake Shelton)
15. Hank Williams, “I Saw the Light” (Blind Boys of Alabama/ Hank Williams Jr.)
16. Bob Dylan, “Shelter from the Storm” (Rodney Crowell/Emmylou Harris)
17. Merle Haggard, “Today I Started Loving You Again” (Buddy Jewell/Miranda Lambert)
18. Nitty Gritty Dirtband, “Fishing in the Dark” (Garth Brooks)
19. The White Stripes, “Dead Leaves in the Dirty Ground” (Chris Thile)
20. Al Green, “Lets Stay Together” (John Berry)
21. David Allan Coe, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” (Doug Supernaw)
22. The Decemberists, “Shankill Butchers” (Sarah Jarosz
23. Steve Earle, “My Old Friend the Blues” (Patty Loveless)
24. Eric Clapton, “Lay Down Sally” (Delbert McClinton)
25. Fred Eaglesmith, “Time to Get a Gun” (Miranda Lambert)
26. Dolly Parton, “Jolene” (The White Stripes)
27. Johnny Cash, “I Still Miss Someone” (Suzy Bogguss)
28. Pearl Jam, “Better Man” (Sugarland)
29. Kris Kristofferson, “From the Bottle to the Bottom” (Dierks Bentley/Kris Kristofferson)
30. Don Williams, “Lord, I hope this Day is Good” (Lee Ann Womack)
31. Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s all right” (Randy Travis)

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The 30 Day Song Challenge: Day 1

Inspired by a recent trend on Facebook, the staff of Country Universe is launching our tweaked version of The 30 Day Song Challenge.

Every day, the staff will share our picks in a different category.  We hope that all of our readers will do the same in the comments!

We’re not limiting ourselves to the country genre. All of us are primarily country fans, but our tastes run wider and deeper than that.

The category for Day 1 is…

Your Favorite Song

Staff Picks

Leeann Ward: “One More Year” – Kacey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

It’s nearly impossible to choose a definitive favorite song, but I can pretty reasonably settle on “One More Year” as one that I haven’t tired of in three years despite my husband’s penchant for playing certain songs repeatedly until I can hardly stand even a great song after a certain saturation point. Such is not the case with “One More Year.” I’m still impressed by its understated devastation every time I hear it.

Dan Milliken: “Days Go By” – Keith Urban

The first time I heard it, on a fuzzy radio station in the background, it sounded like “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me” redux. Within my first proper listens, it had me dancing around my dining room. “Days Go By” takes a sad truth – that time is constantly slipping away from us – and twists it into a joyous, mandolin-clanging celebration of life and the time we do have. Carpe some diem, y’all.

Tara Seetharam: “Bless the Broken Road” – Carrie Underwood

It’s hard to find words that speak to the personal connection I’ve formed with this song, so I’ll let my favorite line sum up its lyrical poignancy: “Now I’m just rolling home into my lover’s arms” is as best a description of the ease of true love as I’ve ever heard. As I said in my very first Country Universe post, I’ll take this song in any form by any artist (literally – I have over ten versions on my iPod), but if I had to choose, the conviction in Underwood’s acoustic version is second to none.

Kevin John Coyne: “Hung Up” - Madonna

No matter how much I like a song, I always go through periods where I’m tired of hearing it, and will skip it from time to time when it pops up on shuffle. That’s true about every song I love except this one, which I never tire of. I don’t know if it’s the way the ABBA-borrowed hook fades in and out, or if it’s the insanely catchy chorus that she sings nine times and it’s still not enough.  It’s the perfect pop song by the perfect pop artist and nothing else sounds as good in comparison, even from her own deep catalog of ear candy hits.


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The Best Country Albums of 2010, Part 1: #20-#11

Countless albums were released in 2010, in mainstream country music, Americana, bluegrass, and all the other loosely associated sub-genres that make up the country universe.  Of those albums, our writers particularly enjoyed the following twenty.  All four writers submitted top ten lists for the year, and amazingly enough, there were exactly twenty different albums among them.  So if you’re wondering if your favorite album just missed the list…it didn’t.  But we’d love to hear why we were wrong in the comments.

Enjoy part one now, and look for the top ten on Friday.


#20
A Crooked Road
Darrell Scott

Tomorrow’s hits today, should the current crop of hitmakers want something as good on the radio as “Long Time Gone” or “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” or just want to have an album cut for the ages like “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Scott’s a singer’s songwriter, delivering his songs with enough personality to elevate them above demos but leaving enough room for improvisation, so that any singer can put their own spin on it.

This twenty-track collection is stunningly strong, with his observations about politics and religion and history intriguing, but his take on human relationships being downright enlightening.  – Kevin Coyne Continue reading

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The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 9: #40-#21

The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 9: #40-#21

#40
“This Is Me You’re Talking To”
Trisha Yearwood
2008
Peak: #25

Flawless. Proof positive that the nineties formula at its best is better than anything on naughties radio. Perhaps they can’t play it too much for that reason. It’s not good for business to park a new Lexus in a used car lot of Ford Pintos. – Kevin Coyne

#39
“Famous in a Small Town”
Miranda Lambert
2007
Peak: #14

This is one of those slice-of-life songs that anyone from a small town can easily relate to. What sets it above the pack of songs of that ilk is the witty nugget of truth that “everybody dies famous in a small town.” The Springsteen-esque vibe of the production is pretty cool, too. – Leeann Ward Continue reading

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The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Conclusion: #10-#1

The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Conclusion

As we come to the end of our list, the top ten selections are a lot like the ninety before them, with perhaps a bit more of a roots leaning overall.  If you didn’t see your favorite on the list, or just want to discover more great music that you might have missed, be sure to check out the list at The 9513, if you somehow haven’t done so already. Even better, start a blog and write your own list.  It feels like a lot of barriers fell within country music this decade, and I think one of the best walls to come down was the one between music journalism and the listening audience.  I hope in the next decade, a lot more readers become writers, so we can all keep reveling in the music we love and helping others discover it.

Sappy introduction aside, here’s our top ten of the decade:

10 Patty

#10
Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and few albums have inspired more imitation than Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul. Bluegrass music full of roots influences, Mountain Soul, with its traditional sound, has become a surrogate definition of authenticity for mainstream artists returning to their musical beginnings. Standout songs include “Cheap Whiskey,” a classically dark drinking song; the energetic “The Boys are Back in Town,” with its WWII imagery; and “Soul of Constant Sorrow,” based on the traditional work popularized by the Stanley Brothers. – William Ward

Recommended Tracks: “The Boys are Back in Town”, “Cheap Whiskey”, “Soul of Constant Sorrow”, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”

9 Vince

#9
Vince Gill, These Days

An inordinate amount of praise has already been heaped upon Vince Gill’s prolific, 2006 landmark 4-disc box set of all original material. Moreover, all of the praise is warranted. Not only is all of the material original rather than culled from previous albums; Gill had a hand in writing each of the 43 tracks. Each disc is divided into its own genre (rock, jazz, bluegrass/acoustic and straight-up country). Furthermore, each disc is masterfully executed. Fortunately, These Days does not prove the old “less is more” adage. Instead, it only leaves us longing for more. – Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks: “Sweet Thing”, “Faint of Heart (with Diana Krall)”, “Little Brother”, “Some Things Never Change (featuring Emmylou Harris)

8 Loretta

#8
Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose

She had already made a fine latter-day album with 2000′s Still Country, but Loretta Lynn’s crowning artistic moment of the last thirty years came when rocker Jack White offered to turn his semi-fetishization of Lynn’s music and persona into a full LP. As you’d expect of a project born of such fanboy fantasy, White was not shy about dressing up Loretta in his favorite things – in this case, snaky electric guitars and loose, often atmospheric arrangements that made the Kentucky gal sound more raw, Gothic and edgy than she ever had in her bouncy classic singles. But White also had the good sense not to let his little indulgences distract from the fantastic artist on his hands, who wrote herself a batch of sharp, soulful songs that capture the essence of what truly makes real country music – and Lynn herself – rock so hard. – Dan Milliken

Recommended Tracks: “Portland, Oregon”, “Trouble On the Line”, “Family Tree”, “Miss Being Mrs.”

7 Cash

#7
Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man

It’s astounding how some artists can convey as much meaning through voice as they can through lyric. Cash performs covers and original material alike so affectingly on this Grammy-award winning album that you feel like you can reach out and touch what you’re hearing. It’s a stunningly haunting, uniquely introspective project, carried by the strength of Cash’s wisdom and transcendent voice. – Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks: “Before My Time”, “I’m Leaving Now”, “Solitary Man”, “I See a Darkness”

6 OCMS

#6
Old Crow Medicine Show, Old Crow Medicine Show

Old Crow Medicine Show’s first and best progressive acoustic album is difficult to label as far as genre is concerned. However, what can be defined is that there are elements of bluegrass, country, folk, etc., which all culminate in a mighty fine debut effort from a band that has developed an impressive cult following as a result. With overt drug references, subtler (though still obvious) political undertones, quiet philosophical moments and some simply fun numbers, this album never gets tiresome, which is a testament to its long lasting substance as a whole. – LW

Recommended Tracks: “Tell It to Me”, “Big Time in the Jungle”, “Wagon Wheel”

5 Kathy

#5
Kathy Mattea, Coal

Kathy Mattea’s Coal is a near-perfect example of an album acting as a single piece of art. More than a collection of mining songs, Coal, co-produced by Marty Stuart, is a brutal and beautiful look at a way of life that is both challenging and enlightening. Notable tracks include “Dark as a Dungeon,” delivered with meticulous but even intensity; the haunting “Red-Winged Blackbird,” with its blood and coal color imagery; and the a cappella “Black Lung,” an impressive choice in which Mattea successfully pushes the boundaries of her musical abilities. – WW

Recommended Tracks: “Blue Diamond Mines”, “Red-Winged Blackbird”, “Sally in the Garden”, “Dark as a Dungeon”

4 Miranda

#4
Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Call it potential realized: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the album we all knew Lambert could make, and waited on the tips of our toes to hear. Her follow-up to Kerosene is a rich, defiant album that conveys a sharp perspective and a clear musical identity. Amidst a spunky blend of twang and rock, she draws from a more incisive set of songwriting skills and packs a hell of a believable punch, like on her first top ten hit, “Gunpowder & Lead.” And the punch isn’t reserved for the fiery numbers, as the album’s most gripping track comes in the form of pure tenderness. The wistful lament “More Like Her” is one of the best and most heartbreaking songs of this decade. – TS

Recommended Tracks: “Famous in a Small Town”, “More Like Her”, “Dry Town”, “Love Letters”

3 Gary

#3
Gary Allan, Tough All Over

A rough, scattered, imperfect and wholly realistic 12-track grieving process. By the time of the tragic personal events leading to this album, Allan had already proven he could interpret a song better than just about anyone working in the genre; on Tough All Over, he took on the unimaginable task of interpreting his own battered emotional core. The results are striking, as he confronts not just his inevitable loneliness (“Best I Ever Had”, “Ring”, “Puttin’ Memories Away”), but also less tidy trackings of guilt (“I Just Got Back From Hell”), self-loathing (“What Kind of Fool”), spite (the title track), and reluctant hope (“Nickajack Cave [Johnny Cash's Redemption]“, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”). Country music and Allan himself have produced several more beautiful albums this past decade, but none that sounded quite so necessary. – DM

Recommended Tracks: “Tough All Over”, “I Just Got Back From Hell”, “Ring”, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”

2 Kasey Shane

#2
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones

The fact that neither Kasey Chambers nor Shane Nicholson make particularly traditional-sounding music on their own makes it all the more incredible that they have joined together to create one of the rootsiest records on this list. Aside from the intriguing, though processed “Jackson Hole”, the songs on Rattlin’ Bones sound more like beloved classics than the original Chambers and Nicholson compositions that they actually are. The naturally compatible husband-wife pairing has created an album full of crisp, majestic harmonies, distinctive melodies and intriguing lyrics, easily making this album one of the most sonically pleasing and substantive albums of the decade. – LW

Recommended Tracks: “Rattlin’ Bones”, “Monkey on A Wire”, “One More Year”, “No One Hurts Up Here”

1 Chicks

#1
Dixie Chicks, Home

This was our top selection by such a wide margin that it’s tempting to just say, “Of course it’s the greatest album of the decade. It’s Home.”   But one sentence does not a justification for best album of the decade make, so let me go on to say that Home is conclusive proof that a modern country album can tear down the walls between radio-friendly and artistic, mainstream and Americana, pure country and crossover, revealing that while they looked like stone, they were paper walls all along.

It was a hint of further greatness to come that the Chicks were able to pen some of their own material and have it stand proudly among the very best works of brilliant songwriters, and the album became a classic because the songs really are the best ever written by Darrell Scott (“Long Time Gone”), Stevie Nicks (“Landslide”), Bruce Robison (“Travelin’ Soldier”), Radney Foster, (“Godspeed [Sweet Dreams]), and Patty Griffin (“Truth No. 2 and “Top of the World”). But with the acoustic production and their decision to record three-part harmonies for the first time, the result is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Despite the formula being so simple – great songs + great vocals + great production = great album – Home is a reminder of just how difficult that formula is to pull off.  Released back in 2002, no country album has come along since to match its quality. – KC

Recommended Tracks: “Long Time Gone”, “Truth No. 2″, “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “Top of the World”

- – -

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The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 9: #20-#11

The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 9

20 Nickel

#20
Nickel Creek, This Side

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”

19 Leeann

#19
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)”

18 Bill

#18
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”

17 Caitlin

#17
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”

16 AKUS

#16
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”

15 Be Good

#15
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”

14 Dwight

#14
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”

13 Shania

#13
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”

12 Chicks

#12
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”

11 Nickel

#11
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”

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The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 7: #40-#31

The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 7

40 Tim

#40
Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying

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”

39 Ashley

#39
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

Recommended Tracks: “Pony”, “Satisfied”, “Hank’s Cadillac”

38 Dolly

#38
Dolly Parton, Little Sparrow

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”

37 Carrie

#37
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)”

36 Tim Darrell

#36
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”

35 O Brother

#35
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”

34 Buddy Julie

#34
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”

sleepless nights

#33
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

Recommended Tracks: “Pain of Loving You”, “Sleepless Nights”, “Cold Cold Heart”

32 Justin

#32
Justin Townes Earle, Midnight at the Movies

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

Recommended Tracks: “They Killed John Henry”, “Mama’s Eyes”, “Black Eyed Suzy”

31 Keith

#31
Keith Urban, Golden Road

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”

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2009 Americana Music Association Awards Nominees Announced

The nominations for the 8th Annual Americana Music Association Awards have  been announced:

ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Real Animal, by ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO
Written in Chalk, by BUDDY & JULIE MILLER
Jason Isbell & The 40 Unit, by JASON ISBELL & THE 40 UNIT
Midnight At The Movies, by JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE

ARTIST OF THE YEAR
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO
BUDDY MILLER
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
RAUL MALO

INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR
BUDDY MILLER
GURF MORLIX
JERRY DOUGLAS
SAM BUSH

NEW & EMERGING ARTIST
BAND OF HEATHENS
BELLEVILLE OUTFIT
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
SARAH BORGES

SONG OF THE YEAR
“Chalk,” written by JULIE MILLER, performed by BUDDY MILLER & PATTY GRIFFIN
“Country Love” by the GOURDS
“Homeland Refugee,” by JOE ELY, JIMMIE DALE GILMORE, and BUTCH HANCOCK, performed by the FLATLANDERS
“Rattlin’ Bones” by KASEY CHAMBERS & SHANE NICHOLSON, performed by KASEY CHAMBERS & SHANE NICHOLSON
“Sex And Gasoline,” by RODNEY CROWELL, performed by RODNEY CROWELL

DUO GROUP OF THE YEAR
BUDDY & JULIE MILLER
FLATLANDERS
KASEY CHAMBERS & SHANE NICHOLSON
RECKLESS KELLY

The awards will be given out at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on September 17. Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale will serve as hosts.

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