The Best Country Albums of 2010, Part 2: #10-#1

There was a lot of good music out there in 2010, provided you knew where to look.  Sometimes, you could even find it on the radio.  Here are the top ten albums of 2010, according to our staff:

Easton Corbin
Easton Corbin

With the charisma of Clay Walker and the chops of George Strait, Easton Corbin sauntered onto the mainstream country music scene with a hit song that –refreshingly– name-checked “country” in all the right ways. He needs no such affirmation, though, as his debut album is a collection of effortlessly neo-traditionalist songs, ripe with sincerity. It’s fair to compare Corbin to his obvious influences, but there’s something about the natural, youthful effervescence he brings to his music that makes it sparkle all on its own. – Tara Seetharam

Freight Train
Alan Jackson

Like an old, trusted friend, Freight Train is easy to take for granted – and that’s a shame, because it’s as rousing as any of the boundary-pushing albums released this year. Jackson returns to his signature sound on this album, sinking comfortably into the set of twelve songs but never skimping on emotional investment. From the smoking “Freight Train” to the exquisite “Till the End” to the shuffling “I Could Get Used To This Loving Thing,” Jackson reminds us that his formula of bare-bones authenticity and quiet charm is as relevant and rewarding as ever. – TS

I Am What I Am
Merle Haggard

You know what’s so great about a veteran country star acting their age? In the process, they prove that those on the latter end of their life are every bit as interesting – more so, really – than the young folks that dominate all forms of media today.

Haggard’s body may have aged.  His voice, maybe a little bit.  But his razor-sharp songwriting is still as potent as ever, whether he’s writing a love song, reflecting on politics on his lifetime, or simply telling the story of an entire life through the house that they never got around to moving up from.  The album’s title track would’ve sounded defiant in his younger years, but today, it’s as calm and confident a statement of self-assurance as Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.” – Kevin Coyne

The Reason Why
Little Big Town

A welcome return by the most sonically unique act in mainstream country. Several reviews of this album have pegged Karen Fairchild as the group’s star; I say all four members are compelling soloists, and the real star is still the harmonies, which imbue each song they touch with unique textures and communal warmth.

The title track or “All the Way Down” would feel like slight filler in most artists’ hands; with Little Big Town, they become campfire anthems. “Rain on a Tin Roof” could be a snoozer; with Little Big Town, you actually hear the rain as the voices swell. They’re even better when they and producer Wayne Kirkpatrick take chances with the arrangements; check the groovy beat driving “Runaway Train” or the swampy gospel trimmings of “Little White Church.”  Continued experimentation encouraged – though what’s here already sounds mighty fine. – Dan Milliken

Lifted Off the Ground
Chely Wright

The spectrum of Lifted Off The Ground is wide, ranging from tender-to-the-touch to caustically honest to brilliantly clever (the fantastic “Notes to the Coroner”) – and that just describes its lyrics. Sonically, it’s a blast of sounds, expertly crafted but largely diverse. In the hands of another artist, the sum of all these mismatched parts might have been disastrous, but Wright is the glue that holds this album together, an artist staunchly committed to exploring her perspective, her emotions and herself, painful and messy though the process may be. The result is an album that cuts more deeply than perhaps anything else released this year. – TS

Achin’ and Shakin’
Laura Bell Bundy

She can sing, she can write, and she’s got as clear a point of view that shines through so clearly it’s unmistakably her own.  Much has been made of the concept album set up – six Achin’ ballads, followed by six Shakin’ rockers.  But what could have been a gimmick, and certainly would’ve been with weaker material, ends up a timely reminder of the album as an art form in the first place.

In an era where albums are overly bloated with more songs than there are ideas, only to be whittled down to a few tracks cherry-picked for the iPod, Achin’ and Shakin’ demands to be listened to in sequence and in its entirety.  Not because it’s so deep and meaningful. Just because it’s pure entertainment. – KC

Elizabeth Cook

Smart, frank, audacious and sneakingly sensitive, Welder feels like Elizabeth Cook properly claiming the spirit of country’s pioneering women as her own. Very much her own – who else could include one song called “Yes to Booty” and another called “Mama’s Funeral” on the same album and have them both totally work? It can be a bit of tonal whiplash if you’re the full-listen-through type, but the high quality, at least, is pretty consistent. – DM

Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions
Marty Stuart

Marty Stuart is lauded for his preservation of country music history. He’s even published a book of photos that essentially chronicles country music. So, it’s only fitting that he creates an album that recognizes the history of the music as well.

Ghost Train is a crisp collection of mostly original songs that hearkens back to the sounds of yesteryear while still managing to sound accessible to the modern listener. The arrangements are variations of what is generally accepted as traditional country music. Therefore, they’re not narrowed down to a single sound, but rather, the album represents several facets of the traditional side of country
music history.

As a result, the ghosts of country music legends can be heard on this project, including Johnny Cash, Porter Wagoner and Waylon Jennings. Not only are their signature sounds utilized at various points, but Cash and Wagoner both contributed in their own ways – Cash being the co-writer of the philosophically conscious “Hangman” (the last song that he wrote before he died) and Wagoner being the inspiration behind the mostly spoken “Porter Wagoner’s Grave.”

No song from this album was played on mainstream radio in 2010. However, by using mostly new and all engaging songs, Ghost Train is a wonderful lesson on where country music came from, even as it has drastically changed over the years. – LW

The Guitar Song
Jamey Johnson

This generous 25-track album is divided into two discs: black for the darker songs and white for the lighter fare. While the black disc doesn’t get as bleak as some of the famously dark material on his previous album, it still covers difficult territory in loneliness, poverty, disappointment, heartbreak and the other themes that make a rich country song. The best of these songs include “Lonely at the Top” (a previously unrecorded Keith Whitley co-write), the dark and swampy “Poor Man’s Blues”, the covers of “Set ‘Em Up Joe” and “Mental Revenge” and the desperate “Can’t Cash My Checks.”

The white disc lightens up, but only as much as one might expect from the mostly morose Johnson. Life still isn’t all roses and sunshine, but we’re given relief thanks to glimpses of sensitivity, love and reminiscences, along with comparison to a dog (“Dog in the Yard”) and the personification of a guitar (“The Guitar Song”). The highlight of this disc is the live recording of “That’s Why I Write Songs”, as it pays tribute to his songwriting heroes.

As was the case with Johnson’s breakthrough album, That Lonesome Song (one of Country Universe’s Best Albums of 2008), The Guitar Song is not perfect. But like it is with the man and voice who sings these songs, it doesn’t aim to be perfect, which is the beauty of this album. There’s no glossiness, there’s no auto tune to make a rough voice smoother, and its purpose is neither to get people’s feet moving nor fists pumping. Instead, we’re allowed to have some fun, but we’re also required to face hard times and reality. – LW

Up On the Ridge
Dierks Bentley

It’s admirable that Bentley took on an artistically challenging project that plucked him out of his comfort zone. It’s heartening that his intentions seem pure and firmly rooted in his passion for country music. And it’s inspiring that, as a once commercially successful artist, he’s daring the mainstream to pay attention to his oddball project – and maybe even embrace it.

But let’s be honest: none of this would have mattered much if the result hadn’t been an album as rich and vibrant as Up On The Ridge. Is it bluegrass or bluegrass-flavored? Heck if I know, but it’s so interesting -sonically, lyrically and collaboratively – that it transcends its classification. With its progressive mixture of sounds, voices and ideas, it strikes an intriguing balance of relevant and reverent, and that’s exactly what we need to move the country music genre forward. – TS

Part 1: #20-#11


  1. After Bentley had released “Feel That Fire”, and even moreso after he had re-released it with the mind-boggling lackadaisical boondoggle that was “Sideways”…….I feared that Bentley was really starting to slip, and that he was becoming commercially sandpapered beyond the point of return.

    My respect for him has skyrocketed with the release of “Up On the Ridge”. It neither feels like a return to form, nor does it sound like a representation of any singular genre. It sounds, above all else, like a celebration of all of Bentley’s musical influences. It’s one diverse, whimsical, salmagundi of a record that is deserving of this praise.

    I strongly agree with selections two through four as well. Where I begin to deviate is with Laura Bell Bundy’s release, which harbors a LOT of potential primarily through the ballads, but I don’t see as consistent enough to make the top tiers of this yearly countdown. I also thought Easton Corbin’s debut, though strong certainly, still feels a bit too comfortable stylistically to make the Top Ten, while Alan Jackson’s latest release has some exceptional moments but overall feels like a shadow of his previous levels of greatness.

    I would replace those three releases, as they are situated, with Gary Allan’s “Get Off On The Pain”, Kasey Chambers’ “Little Bird” and a toss-up between Randy Houser’s “They Call Me Cadillac”, Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now” and Peter Cooper’s “The Lloyd Green Album” for the final spot (it would probably depend on my mood for the day)

  2. Good set of albums. I purchased nine of your top ten albums (didn’t bite on Little Big Town’s album). I only bought three of the numbers 11-20 (Peter Cooper, Randy Houser & Zac Brown, although I may yet bite on The Band Perry. I would have Jamey Johnson, Marty Stuart and Zac Brown at numbers one two and three for 2010

  3. Great List! Even though I’ve had it since its release, I gave Easton Corbin’s CD a spin yesterday and really enjoyed it. There aren’t enough standout songs for me, but he is heading in the right direction with his sound. If anything, this album shows a lot of promise and I hope he’s around for a long time. At least he cares to be country.

    Like Noah, and I’ve said this on my own blog, I hated “Sideways.” It was far too slick. Direks was trying to do something new when he recorded that song but he failed. The beat is cool when you first hear it but the song wears thin after a few listens.

    Thank goodness he came to his senses with Up On The Ridge. This is the album he should’ve made in the first place. I placed it at #1 on my list as well because it shows a modern artist who cares to keep his music country. I just wish “Bad Angel” had won the CMA for Musical Event. Maybe, it’ll score a Grammy.

    Because of the polarizing nature of “Giddy On Up,” I never gave any attention to Laura Bell Bundy. I loved “Drop On By” but those are the only two songs I’ve heard from her album. I have to go back and give it a listen since everyone seems to like it. I bet I’m going to enjoy the ballads more, though.

    Ghost Train is the best country album from 2010 that few mainstream fans even know exists. More than anything it’s a history lesson that proves just how great country music can be. I’d started to wonder if this kind of country was a thing of the past or at least exclusive to the Grand Ole Opry, but Marty has made it accessible for everyone. With all the recent covers of “Crazy Arms,” I like how Marty took the approach of recording it as an instrumental. I would never thought of that.

    Plus, he has the secret weapon in his corner: Connie Smith. It would be a traditionalists dream if they would record a duets project. I would definitely buy that.

    It’s funny, the only album I couldn’t get into was Alan Jackson’s. I didn’t buy it because “It’s Just That Way” was far too middle of the road and predictable. He’s been hit or miss for me lately, and I can’t remember his last truly great single. It just seems like the music he’s making of late isn’t up to par with some of his best work. Of course, nothing measures up to the likes of “Wanted” and “Midnight in Montgomery,” or any of his other classic hits. He did come back to form with Zac Brown Band, but as far as his own work goes, he’s missing the mark for me.

    My favorite album from this list is Jamey’s because it’s authentic to country music and his gritty reality. Like Leann said, it isn’t perfect, far too slow in places, but no one can argue about the quality of the material. “Playing The Part” should’ve been a much bigger hit single, but the video kind of sunk that one. The concept, with the monkey suits, didn’t fit the song.

    It was nice to see LBT come roaring back with “Little White Church.” I had forgotten how much I missed their music until that song came out. This may not be their best album, but they did take the time to find and write some great songs. “Kiss Goodbye” is their best ballad yet, and I love Karen’s vocal on “Shut Up Train.” This is the album Lady A should’ve made.

    I don’t agree with “Rain On A Tin Roof,” though. Their version pails in comparison to Julie Roberts’. She just knew how to wrap her voice around that song. I also didn’t like “Runaway Train,” too fast, and I couldn’t get into it. But overall it’s a very solid album.

    Great list, and I couldn’t agree more about Dierks Bentley landing at #1.

  4. Really cool comments so far, y’all.

    I’ve never been much for Julie Roberts’ version of “Rain on a Tin Roof,” personally. It was honestly what I was thinking of when I said the song is a potential snoozer, though I didn’t want to bring it up in the blurb and distract from the praise for LBT. I like the slightly faster tempo LBT gives it and the chorus harmonies, and think Jimi Westbrook’s lead vocal is beautiful. It’s interesting role reversal to hear the song from a male perspective, where the woman is the roving free spirit and the man is the one waiting at home, both lovestruck and heartbroken.

  5. Up on the Ridge was my prediction to top a lot of 2010 Best Of lists the first time I played it. It’s something that increasingly few albums seem to be: fun. I never felt like I was playing a collection of radio-friendly singles; it’s an actual album, with its own aesthetic and indulgences. Love it.

    I took a chance on Lifted Off the Ground (which, incidentally, I ordered from Amazon with Up on the Ridge). I was never much of a fan of Chely Wright’s; I found her material fairly generic. But, knowing Rodney Crowell produced it and knowing it was material she’d written herself, and in the context of her coming out, I thought maybe I’d see if there was some substance beneath the previously uninteresting superficiality of her music and lo and behold I found an album I loved. “Notes to the Coroner” would be a standout on any album, and it’s a little unfair to the rest of the songs here because most of them are pretty strong in their own right. The lead single, “Broken,” has a great sound for such a readily accessible story about a frustrating time in a mistrusting relationship. Kudos all the way around.

    I checked out Freight Train from the library, and I have to say I found it tiresome. I think 2006 ruined me on Alan Jackson. That was the year, you may recall, that he released the Gospel collection Precious Memories and then the Alison Krauss produced Like Red on a Rose. I loved that he finally took some artistic chances–which I felt worked great–only to revert to business as usual ever since. Commercially, it makes sense as neither really went over particularly well with buyers or radio, but I just feel like his post-’06 output has been mailed in to satisfy the fan base that wouldn’t follow him outside that pre-’06 box.

  6. Eh…. LBT? I think TBP did a far better job and should be in the top 5. I think I played that album a thousand times on my iTunes when I first got it. Still, though, not a terrible list… No T Swift in the top 10 which is a good sign. No Keith Urban, though? I realize he might be on the more mainstream part of Country but I do believe he did an amazing job with Get Closer. It could possibly be his best album to date (or right after Golden Road).

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