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.

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


The Pajama Sessions
Sarah Buxton

Buxton is the only songwriter I’ve ever heard on a songwriter’s night that was even more interesting in her introductions than she is when she’s actually singing.  Don’t bother with the too-glossy studio versions that make up the standard version of the album. Skip right to the same songs done live in the deluxe version, as she chats with the songwriters and tells the stories behind the songs, all before singing them with far more personality and enthusiasm than she does the first time around. – KC

Punch Brothers

Anyone who is even remotely familiar with the insanely talented and creative force of the Punch Brothers should not be surprised that the band has turned out one of 2010’s most sonically satisfying albums.

With the devastatingly talented Chris Thile serving as frontman, Punch Brothers is equally served by his worthy counterparts, Gabe Witcher (fiddle/violin), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Paul Kowert (bass). Together they have created a crisp album that intricately infuses sounds of bluegrass, classical and acoustic music to form an ethereal listening experience. Just don’t make the mistake of settling into a certain tempo or intensity on a given track, because both might vary, as heard in songs like “You Are” and “Rye Whiskey”, among others. Likewise, Punch Brothers isn’t afraid of exploring different genres within one song either.

All focus shouldn’t be placed on the instrumentation, however, as Antifogmatic is rife with intriguing lyrics as well, including the reflective “This is the Song (Good Luck)” and the aggressive chorus of “You Are”: “You take my love and my lust / cold clock my mind out / turn in my keys to the kingdom / and lip-lock my body down.” – Leeann Ward

Allergic to Crazy
Don Schlitz

You know him as one of the pens behind such classics as “The Gambler,” “On the Other Hand” and “Rockin’ with the Rhythm of the Rain.” But get Don Schlitz on his own, and it’s like listening to an especially colorful uncle catch you up on all his latest appraisals, glass of wine in hand. Whether it’s a goofy kiss-off (“I’m allergic to crazy, so baby, you’ve got to go”), folksy social commentary (“When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money”) or a heartfelt relationship reflection (“We’ve been too cold too long to ever be warm again”), Schlitz is a master of the clever yet revealing turn of phrase. – Dan Milliken

You Get What You Give
Zac Brown Band

The only way to define You Get What You Give is to call it a Zac Brown Band album, as it draws from a funky mishmash of influences – from reggae to bluegrass, southern rock to neo-traditionalist country. But it’s cohesive in that every track sounds entirely authentic and radiates with a palpable commitment to the music, particularly in terms of melody and instrumentation. Brown’s rich, underrated vocals, along with his unique blend of wit and charisma, top off this album. – Tara Seetharam

Little Bird
Kacey Chambers

Coming off her masterpiece collaboration with husband, Shane Nicholson, Kasey Chambers subtly backs away from the mainly acoustic base of Rattlin’ Bones with a more muscular sound for Little Bird. Like Rattlin’ Bones, however, this album is produced by Nicholson and father, Bill Chambers, which helps to keep the album from being as pop sounding as prior Chambers solo outings have been.

As a result, Little Bird has a sampling of bluegrass, Jazz, old school country, pop, and simple acoustic music. While this is a bit of a departure from her previous album, it still maintains many of its most tasteful qualities, including a variety of musical influences that blend seamlessly together, along with a continuation of fascinating songwriting. With this album, she’s just as honest and raw as ever while maintaining a willingness to have some fun once in awhile too. – LW

Speak Now
Taylor Swift

Country much? Nah, but blame the market. Swift is growing into a fantastic pop singer-songwriter, adept at choosing telling details, constructing potent hooks and recording it all with nuance and character. The general story here is one of her coming to terms with a world of seemingly colder, less sensitive people, with “Sparks Fly,” “Dear John” and “The Story of Us” in particular offering sucker punches of romantic desperation and confusion.

She needs to work on her responses to non-exes, apparently: the critic-lashing “Mean” begs for some added maturity and cleverness, while the Kanye-directed “Innocent” seems self-important and patronizing given the actual triviality of the incident it addresses. But even when her judgment misfires, Swift’s persona feels fully human and her craft remains damn near impeccable. – DM

They Call Me Cadillac
Randy Houser

We often hear about artists who wish that they could record more country material. Sometimes, it’s difficult to know who is sincere in their claims or who is simply giving lip service. Randy Houser was one such artist who said that his second album would be more organic and more country than his first.

In one of the surprises of 2010, Houser came through on his promise and gave us just that—an album that dialed back the bombast and loudness and focused more on the actual music and lyrics. Furthermore, he created an album that is worthy of the best instrument that he has, his voice.

Not only are his production choices much more palatable on this project, but the lyrical content is more solid as well. He’s still able to have fun with lighthearted fare as we hear in the title track, but he’s also willing to go deeper, as evidenced in “Lead Me Home”, “Addicted” and “Somewhere South of Memphis.” – LW

The Band Perry
The Band Perry

So here’s a new band that has learned all the right lessons from Nickel Creek, Taylor Swift and the Beatles.  The depth isn’t totally there yet, and the songwriting is still a work in progress, but when it works, it’s better than everything else on country radio today.  When it doesn’t, it’s still a ball to listen to. – KC

The Lloyd Green Album
Peter Cooper

Moonlighting journalist Cooper continues making an underground case for himself as one of the most thoughtful artists working anywhere near the country genre. His approach hasn’t changed much since 2008’s Mission Door: richly detailed stories brought to life with spare arrangements led by master steel guitarist Lloyd Green. But once again, give Cooper a poignant song – like his own “Elmer the Dancer” or John Hiatt’s “Train to Birmingham” – and he and Green knock it (softly, and pensively) out of the park. – DM

Part 2: #10-#1


  1. As much as I can’t stand Taylor Swift, I will say that I liked nearly every song off Speak Now, I think it was a much better album (as a whole) compared to Fearless…. Though, I will say that her inclusion of “Mean” did bring the set down for me. As I thought it was an immature inclusion for a girl who should be recording more mature material at this point in her career… But the song does have a good beat and it’s one of the more country ones I’ve heard from her in a while.

    I’m hoping to see Laura Bell Bundy’s Achin’ & Shakin’ in the top 10, it was the first debut album since Sugarland’s Twice The Speed Of Life that I loved in full.

  2. On Swift…
    I couldn’t agree more. It does seem like Taylor’s songwriting is growing more mature. Even though she’s not a strong vocalist, it does seem like her vocals are developing more nuance and expression (though I haven’t heard her sing these songs live yet).

    On The Band Perry…
    I couldn’t have said it better myself. Even when they misfire with their lyrics (e.g. “Hip to My Heart”), their arrangements and performances are still fun to listen to. I just love their sound so much.

  3. I liked “Mean” largely for the fact that it’s one of Taylor’s more country-sounding songs, and because it’s, for lack of a better word, “cute.” But I still can’t say I’d call it an album highlight. Jim Malec sure seemed to like it though.

  4. I think it’s one of her coolest-sounding tracks, for sure. I just wish it were more effective as a retaliation. “Better Than Revenge” isn’t necessarily more mature, but it’s well-observed and quite biting. “Mean” feels like a lot of weak speculation wrapped up in a limp comeback (“all you’re ever gonna be is mean”) that feels more knee-jerk than carefully considered.

  5. TS could write the greatest lyrics and melodies and as long as she does the singing I’ll pass. I don’t feel compelled to buy every well crafted song, especially if the vocals make me cringe or even annoy me. I’m glad I don’t have the job of reviewing her efforts. Speaking of annoying, “Boots On” turned me off Houser, but he did sound good on “Anything Goes”. He may be worth a second look. I’ll probably check out Scott and Cooper too. Since these are your favorites, your reviews understandably make them all sound great.

    I like BP’s “If I Die Young” but my favorites here are ZBB and Don Schlitz. I finally got to see Don’s D4A$ show at the Bluebird about 6 months ago. It was an evening of great songs and lots of laughs that I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Nashville.

  6. I really like Mean, but I think I’d like it more if it were a bit more tongue in cheek, which I don’t really feel it is.

    As for Innocent, I wrote a blog entry (click on my name) about how I don’t actually think it’s anything to do with Kanye West. To summarise, there’s so much about the song that jars with the events, and so little that could only be about that – I fully suspect it’s more general, or written about someone else who let her down, and was just plugged as being about Kanye West by Swift’s PR people.

    There’s a couple of albums on here I haven’t heard, but will not have to check out. End of year lists seem to always result in me having a massive queue of albums to listen to!

  7. Bob,
    You’re the one who turned me onto the Schlitz album. Thank you very much for that. I love it. Dan had it even higher on his list and I probably would have if I had lived with it more. It’s a gem.

    Dan, I agree with you on the Swift track. It doesn’t offend me, but it could definitely be written better. I mostly love how it sounds.

  8. …”speak now” should be higher up on the list. it’s a hot grammy contestant again, that album. if not, no problem, because that would mean that there will be a few more quite terrific albums released in the course of the year – sounds good to me, too.

    randy houser’s effort is one of the best mainstream releases this year – his trend remains intact.

    zac brown band’s album is a must have, like their debut, which was even stronger. they are the most outstanding new act in country music without any doubt. bands of such quality a rare treat – not only in country.

    kimberly perry and her brothers a very talented bunch. it’ll be fun to see what happens next with them.

    i’d love to get hold of the schlitz record but that could be a little bit difficult here in europe. oh, well.

  9. I really loved “Speak Now”. “Mean” was also my weakest song on the list, but even so it was a catchy fun sing along. “Better than Revenge” is one of my top singles on the cd and “Never Grow Up” made me cry, in part b/c I just went through the same thing, moving out, living on my own in an apartment far from any family.

    I’ve never listened to a ZBB cd, only heard what’s on the radio, but I guess I’ve never really “gotten” all the hype over them.

    I’ll have to check out some of the others on the list. Never heard of the Punch Brothers.

  10. @KatieR – I don’t get the fuss over Zac Brown Band, either, and the first I heard of the Punch Brothers was their appearance on Dierks Bentley’s Up on the Ridge, which I suspect will be near the top of the 2010 albums list.

    As for the assortment here, I only heard one of these albums, Speak Now. (The .mp3 version was $3.99 on Amazon and I had a $3 credit.) I’ll have to give it another few listens to be sure, but I found it strayed into what I call “Keith Urban Territory,” meaning the arrangements were a bit too self-indulgent and meandering for my taste. It lacked the accessibility of her first album and seemed to take the tack of “bigger, louder, more” of what she had done with Fearless. That said, I really did like “Back to December.” I like the aforementioned attention to detail that Swift pays in her songwriting.

  11. Travis,
    Have you heard of Nickel Creek? Chris Thile was one of the vocalists and the mandolin player for that trio. Now, he’s the frontman for Punch brothers. This is one of the albums that is in “the loosely associated subgenres that make up the country universe” category, as was Nickel Creek.

  12. @Leeann – Yes, I’m familiar with Thile and Nickel Creek. Now that you mention it, I do kind of recall reading that he was part of the Punch Brothers though my retention of that knowledge was obviously fleeting.

  13. @SamB:

    Whether or not Swift originally wrote the bulk of “Innocent” about West – and it seems plausible to me that she might not have, sure – she’s been incredibly blatant about making it seem like the song is about him, from including the clip of the interruption before her performance of it at this year’s VMAs (which I agree with Zack was crass and ridiculous) to mentioning in her liner notes that one of the songs is “to someone who I forgive for what he said in front of the whole world.” If the song wasn’t originally about West, it sure is now. I suppose she could just have dropped those big, misleading hints for publicity’s sake, like you argue, but I’m inclined to believe she’s more sincere than that and just genuinely did write a somewhat lame song about Kanye West.

    I agree with your comment about “Mean,” though.

  14. Hey since it’s on the list I figured I’d ask, the version of Sarah Buxton’s album I bought on itunes has the Pajama Sessions but she doesn’t talk about the songs, does anybody know why?

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