Top nine country albums of 2010

Nine. Nine! That’s all I could come up with for my favorite albums of the year. Any more and I would be lying, just to fill up a list. In fact, I don’t have a single album where I love every song from this year and that’s a first. 2010 was a singles year over a year of outstanding albums. Below is my list, the nine country albums I feel are of highest quality in 2010.

Let us all hope that 2011 brings some masterful albums. It looks like new music is on the way from Alison Krauss, Brad Paisley, and Lori McKenna while Carrie Underwood should have album #4 ready by years end. And maybe, just maybe, that long awaited new release from Faith Hill will see the light of day. Anyway, here is my list. My #2 surprised even me, but when another blog listed “I Put My Ring Back On” as one of the best singles of 2010, I gave the album another listen and fell in love with it all over again.

Now, unlike with the singles, there will not be a worst albums of the year list. At some point, year end countdown lists are overkill. I do have one more post regarding country music in 2010, and that’s my year-end assessment. That’ll be ready in a few days time. Until then check out these nine albums. You won’t be disappointed.

9. Various Artists – Crazy Heart Soundtrack

While nothing in the legion of O, Brother, Heart is T-Bone Barnett’s showcase for classic country music. Well-chosen songs from the likes of Waylon Jennings, Kitty Wells, and George Jones sit comfortably next to originals from Jeff Bridges and Ryan Bingham.

It isn’t flashy nor upbeat but it does its job of creating a backdrop for the movie. If you’re only going to spend your money on one film soundtrack this year, let it be this one – you won’t find a better collection of songs anywhere on the big screen.

8. Marty Stuart Ghost Train – The Studio B Sessions

Stuart’s mission in recording Ghost Train was to create a traditional country album like those from the golden age of the genre. After assisting the late Porter Wagoner and Kathy Mattea with their latest efforts, he returns with a collection of songs unlike anything being turned out in 2010 Nashville.

His mission has been accomplished; these songs are everything a purist is dreaming of – an argument against the death of traditional country music. It isn’t flashy nor will it spawn a hit single, but it still an important album none the less. Plus, anytime Connie Smith puts her voice to record (the duet “I Run To You”), is a cause for celebration (and a Grammy nomination).

7. Sugarland The Incredible Machine

When I was reviewing the top albums of the decade last December I commented saying, “following this (Love On The Inside), will be no easy feat.” While this isn’t quite what I had in mind, it does have its modest charms.

I like this album more than most. Lead singer Jennifer Nettles adds a cutesy quality to many of the tacks including “Every Girl Like Me,” a song that just makes you feel good when you listen to it. Lead single “Stuck Like Glue,” is an infectious dose of pop confection while “Little Miss” is down home country at its best. The gospel closer, “Shine The Light” showcases all of Jennifer Nettles’ gifts and “Wide Open” perfectly captures the energy of a live Sugarland show.

The rest of this album is very much a miss but the great moments more than out way the bad. This is an album worthy of the listener forming his or her own opinion and taking the critical reception with a grain of salt.

6. Little Big Town The Reason Why

In a year that saw Lady Antebellum soar to new heights and Zac Brown Band cement themselves as a band to watch, Little Big Town had a lot riding on their fourth album. Could they come back strong and, maybe, get their piece of the action?

For the most part, the answer is yes. While they’ve done far better in the past, The Reason Why has shining moments that put them ahead of their closest competitors. Songs like “The Reason Why,” “Shut Up Train,” and “Why Oh Why” show why they are the best harmonizing group around. When she’s singing lead, singer Karen Fairchild cannot be beaten – she’s a far better (and much more underrated) singer than either Hillary Scott or Zac Brown. She has an earthy quality to her voice that elevates anything she is singing.

For the men, Phillip Sweet is king. His vocal on “Kiss Goodbye,” the best ballad of their career to date, is a revelation and showcases the other somewhat hidden asset of the group. They deserve to be huge and with material this carefully constructed they are well on their way. It isn’t perfect, but it beats those getting far more attention.

5. Zac Brown Band You Get What You Give

This second set of songs proves that The Foundation was just that – a foundation to a long career in country music. While they’re not charting any new ground here, Zac and the boys are doing what they do best, which is coupling classic country sensibilities with a modern edge.

Songs like “As She’s Walking Away” and “Colder Weather” are some of the freshest, if not the best songs, being played on country radio. While this isn’t a masterpiece, You Get What You Give is a solid collection of mainstream country that lives up to all the hype.

4. Jamey Johnson The Guitar Song

In an era marked by infectious ear candy and singles over albums, who would have the guts to release a 25 song double album filled with traditional country – a seemingly dying medium? Only Johnson, who has defied all expectation and won.

Song is 2010’s musical tour-de-force – the only gutsy country album of the year. Johnson infuses each tune with his signature wit and angst and proves he can let loose and brood with the best of them.

He speaks the truth better than anyone and you know he’s lived each lyric he sings. That’s the mark of a true country singer – someone not afraid to spill his or her life in song, no matter how gritty.

Song is Johnson’s reality and what a dark place that can be.  If you only take one musical journey this year, let it be this one – nothing is more fulfilling or satisfying.

3. Taylor Swift Speak Now

The more I listen to Taylor’s new record the more I peel away the layers of complication hidden inside most of the songs. This is not just a great record – it’s outstanding. Her growing maturity is showcased on each of this album’s fourteen tracks and the romantic entanglements are deeper and more complex.

If Fearless brought fourth her playful side than Speak Now is her lament – the chance to write the wrongs of love and put people firmly in their place. Swift is best when she’s screaming out (“Dear John,” “Innocent”) at those who caused her pain but she isn’t afraid to admit when her own emotions got in the way (“Back To December”).

But the truly remarkable thing about Swift is, for the first time, she’s attacking her shortcomings and thoroughly enjoying the last laugh. With “Mean” she lashes out at her critics – including those who pounced on her Grammy Performance with Stevie Nicks – and wins. She’s bold, says what’s on her mind, and leaves nothing (and no one) unscathed.

By writing each song solo she also proves she doesn’t need the help of co-writers to bring her songs to life. Just give Swift pen and paper – and room to create. She may not be the most country but it doesn’t matter; when music is this good (and important) the barriers of genre deserve to be torn down.

2. Mary Chapin Carpenter The Age of Miracles

After a three-year recording hiatus and an embolism that nearly cost Carpenter her life, she’s back with her best collection of songs since Stones In The Road. To listen to Carpenter these days is to listen to an artist mellowed by time and the perils of existence.

She barely emotes above a whisper on many of this album’s tracks and has created a project that showcases everything that makes her stand legions above the pack. Her best songs are when she lets loose (“I Put My Ring Back On,” “The Way I Feel”) but the quieter moments, requiring a deeper listen, are what makes this album shine.

With The Age of Miracles Carpenter has reached a new platform in her storied recording career. Ever the teacher she’s schooling those half her age in the art of introspective songwriting and analytical lyrics. Carpenter’s is a rich, satisfying record that proves you don’t need much to pack a powerful punch.

1. Dierks Bentley Up On The Ridge

The boldest country album of 2010 comes from one of the genre’s slickest hit makers. It’s also the year’s best because, like Bentley, it isn’t afraid to stand out and be different.

While leaning on his Bluegrass roots, Bentley has made his first statement album and left the radio-friendly crap (“Sideways”) that propelled him to the top, in the dust. He isn’t afraid to go the other way and stay firmly within the country genre.

With Ridge Bentley has made a complete album worthy of all its praise. By surrounding himself with expert pickers and acoustic protégés he’s assembled an excellent collection of songs that more than prove his worth.

Unlike the Dixie Chicks’ similarly styled Home, Ridge was largely ignored by country radio – a fact that’ll likely limit Bentley from further experimentation in the near future. As cruel as that may sound I’m enjoying his return to glory while it lasts. Let’s hope it marks the beginning of wonderful music to come from this modern day drifter.

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