This is my fifth such list in as many years, and I have to say that I was mostly underwhelmed by the albums of 2008. If it wasn’t for the contributions of the other writers, who made me aware of some fine albums I might have otherwise missed, it would’ve been difficult to compile a list at all. That being said, there were at least ten albums from 2008 that I will be listening to in 2009 and beyond.
Jim Lauderdale & The Dream Players, Honey Songs
No matter how much honey you put in the mix, the ragged words and vocals of Jim Lauderdale will cut through. The glorious contrast between Lauderdale and his sonic surroundings make for a fascinating listen.
Joey + Rory, The Life of a Song
It’s rare for any act to make a debut album without compromise, let alone one that hails from a reality competition show. This is pure, straight off the back porch joy.
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones
A pure roots album with a progressive edge, the best of its kind since the Dixie Chicks moved to L.A.
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy
While it doesn’t reach the heights of There’s More Where That Came From, there are some fine moments here that are on par with Womack’s best work, especially the passive-aggressive “Either Way” and the Wynette-worthy “If These Walls Could Talk.”
Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights
Effortlessly excellent. Loveless is so in her element here that it’s a wonder that it took more than two decades to record this in the first place. A wonderful treat to feast on while we wait for her next proper studio album.
Chris Stapleton’s voice just blows me away. As Lee Ann Womack has recently observed, he sings like a real man. He takes Travis Tritt’s soulfulness to a whole new level. With incredible harmonies and terrific songs not limited to “Blue Side of the Mountain” and “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey”, this is a strong project that certainly stood out in 2008.
Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Comal County Blue
I love Boland’s folk-tinged country voice, which sings these memorable fiddle laden melodies to great affect. While the lyrics can be abstract at times, they still manage to feel meaningful. I’ve come to realize that what ultimately appeals to me about this album is the fact that it reminds me of good nineties country music, which is the era that drew me to this genre in the first place.
Darrell Scott, Modern Hymns
My admiration for Darrell Scott is unending. I, of course, love his voice, but I especially love his thoughtful songwriting. “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” just floors me every time I hear it. In this project, however, he chose to cover some of his favorite songs that he classifies as modern hymns. Unsurprisingly, these choices turn out to be as interesting as his own compositions, which simply confirms that his talent is inspired by tasteful writing equal to his own.
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
Admittedly, nothing about this album is warm or pretty. Johnson’s vocals are harsh and the songs are mostly darker than we’re accustomed to hearing in country music these days. Along with the outlaw tinged productions, these factors are the fundamental elements of this great album.
Peter Cooper, Mission Door
While the melodies on his first album, Mission Door, are enough to draw you in, it is Peter Cooper’s provocative and insightful lyrics which catch 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 grossly 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.
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.
1. “In Color,” Jamey Johnson
2. “Waitin’ on a Woman,” Brad Paisley
3. “This Is Me You’re Talking To,” Trisha Yearwood
4. “She Left Me for Jesus,” Hayes Carll
5. “What I Cannot Change,” Leann Rimes
6. “Last Call,” Lee Ann Womack
7. “Anything Goes,” Randy Houser
8. “Dig Two Graves,” Randy Travis
9. “Please Read the Letter,” Alison Krauss & Robert Plant
10. “Fine Line,” Little Big Town
11. “Mockingbird,” Allison Moorer
12. “Crazy Arms,” Patty Loveless
13. “This Town Needs a Bar,” Jeremy McComb
14. “Just Got Started Loving You,” James Otto
15. “Takin’ off This Pain,” Ashton Shepherd
16. “Gold,” Emmylou Harris
17. “Every Other Weekend,” Reba McEntire & Skip Ewing
18. “You Look Good In My Shirt,” Keith Urban
19. “More Like Her,” Miranda Lambert
20. “Love Don’t Live Here,” Lady Antebellum
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
Country Universe has presented you with its top 40 singles of 2008, but as you know, singles rarely scratch the surface of a great album. Over the course of the past year, while listening to various albums, I made note of songs that stuck out for one reason or another. Although this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, here are some of my favorite songs of 2008:
#1 “She Left Me For Jesus” (Hayes Carll, Trouble in Mind)
Honestly, when is the last time you heard a song this slyly clever? This laugh-out-loud engaging? But not just anyone could pull off this song. Carll’s slow laughing drawl is absolutely perfect and he nails every punch line. He not only gets the joke, he assumes you do as well. Carll readily acknowledges that this song isn’t for everyone, but in my book, it’s an instant classic.
#2 “Red River Shore” (Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8)
Bob Dylan, that enigmatic icon, continues to raise the bar for singer-songwriters. It’s nearly ridiculous at this point. This year, Dylan treated us to a grand smorgasbord of songs with the latest in his bootleg series. “Red River Shore” was one of the few previously unreleased songs on the set, and it’s perhaps the best on the album. I could spend hours ruminating over what Dylan intended with his lyrics about star-crossed lovers, but instead I’ll leave you with his opening lines: “Some of us turn off the lights and we live / In the moonlight shooting by / Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark / To be where the angels fly.” This is, as the album booklet suggests, an elegant summation of Dylan’s artistic credo. If only others took note.
#3 “I’ve Done Everything I Can” (Rodney Crowell, Sex and Gasoline)
On “I’ve Done Everything I Can,” Crowell acknowledges that incredibly delicate interplay between father and daughter; that difficult line a father must walk between wanting to protect his little girl, and preparing her for the real world. He sings: “The sun comes up tomorrow / But there are no guarantees / It can rock you like a baby / It can knock you to your knees / The path that lies between us / Is a rough and rocky rue / I’ve done everything I can / There’s nothing I can do.” This song reminds me rather poignantly of my own father, who occasionally walked that fine line with grace, but usually just blundered over it with good intentions.
Let’s face it, 2008 has not been a particularly strong year for country music albums. Sales are down both due to the struggling economy and as a result of big name artists not exactly releasing their most quality work. These factors, of course, are only part of what’s to blame for the decline, but is all that needs to be covered for the purpose of this discussion.
While in all reality there have been a number of very good albums in the past year, I am pained to realize that I have only been able to give one album the coveted five-star rating treatment. It’s true that I have not listened to every album that has been released in 2008, but I’ve certainly listened to enough albums that I think I should have been able to come up with at least one more album worthy of five stars this year.
What are your five star albums? In particular, what albums released in 2008 would you give five stars to? Hopefully, you’ll do better than I’ve been able to do.
Kasey Chambers and her husband, Shane Nicholson have come together to create magic on their first joint effort, Rattlin’ Bones. While this album is new to those of us in the United States, it has already won awards and spent time at the top of the album charts in their native country of Australia. Regrettably, it is not likely to receive the same attention here, but not because it’s in any way undeserving.
The couple either wrote separately or collaborated together on each song for this album that was recorded in the space of eight days with all of the musicians recording in the same room. The final result is a crisp blend of acoustic and traditional flavored songs that sound so much like retro classics that one might easily be fooled into believing that they were covers rather than Chambers’ and Nicholson’s own original compositions.
Upon a cursory listen to Rattlin’ Bones, it would be easy to hear the warm harmonies, the relaxed arrangements and memorable melodies and mistakenly presume that the album consists of light fare. However, further intake reveals an album that expertly explores the theme of heartache in its various forms. With that in mind, the Title track appropriately opens the album with “Smoke don’t rise/Fuel don’t burn/Sun don’t shine no more/Late one night sorrow come around/Scratching at my door/But I cut my hands/Break my back/Draggin’ this bag of stones/’Til they bury me down beneath the ground with the dust and rattlin’ bones.”
Like “Rattlin’ Bones”, the songs of heartache on this project are accompanied by haunting melodies that help to create the intended atmosphere of hopelessness and desperation. An instance of such hopelessness is when the narrator in “Adeline” asks, “Who’s gonna save you now?” “Oh, what a Mess you’ve made today,”, they sing, which makes us assume that Adeline has caused her own destruction through the choices that she’s made and, therefore, has finally reached her demise.
Without a doubt, the most haunting and intriguing song on this record is “One More Year.” Sadness emanates from its every element—The tender vocals, the lone acoustic guitar accompaniment and the vulnerable but gorgeous melody. It’s evident that the couple in this song is in a desperately destructive relationship where hope is nowhere to be found. “One more year/One more year/Let’s hold our breath and give it just one more year”, they sing. However, by the end of the song, we find that the man is trying to repair the relationship, but instead of him being the one “holding a loaded gun”, it’s her who’s holding it now, while She’s “hoping that what we fear ain’t what we’ve become.” So much of the song seems simple on the surface, but it’s a captivating song that only gains depth with repeated listens.
Another prevalent theme of the album is matters of the spiritual nature. The pretty and traditional “No One Hurts Up Here” would perfectly fit into a church hymnal, while the gritty “The Devil’s Inside My Head” provides more provocative lyrics, such as “I gave my life to save my soul, but the devil took them both.” Similarly, the unshakably catchy “Monkey On A Wire” explores the tenuous act of attempting to resist the desires of temptation, but ultimately recognizing the futility of the exercise. With us as flawed humans playing the part of the symbolic monkey on a wire who’s attempting to evade the devil, they sing: “Oh, here I go/Me and my desire/Everyone’s got their own monkey on a wire/Oh, down below/Leader of the choir/He’s waiting for the next monkey on a wire.”
In a departure from the rest of the album, the hopeful “Jackson Hole” is funky and unique. It’s the only song with a prominent percussive beat. It would be a jarring experience if it weren’t so sonically intriguing.
Kasey Chambers is a beloved country artist in Australia, but Shane Nicholson is generally known for his rock influenced work. However, without outshining each other, their voices naturally meld perfectly to create tight and warm harmonies that unmistakably fit the genre for which this album was made. As they developed the concept for this project, their ultimate standard bearers were the pairings of Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, along with Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. While this was admittedly a lofty goal to attain, Chambers and Nicholson have brilliantly joined their talents to produce an extraordinarily well crafted project that is worthy to someday be counted in the pantheon of classic country music albums. Moreover, they’ve created an album that manages to resonate deeper and deeper with each successive spin.