Top 10 Country Albums Of 2008
The return of a legend. The emergence of two legends’ sons. The unexpected pairing of two husband-and-wife duos. These were among the stories that defined country music in 2008.
This year’s top albums came to us from every corner of the country music spectrum–from Australia to the coal mines of Appalachia to the stage of a CMT talent competition. And despite the wealth of utterly atrocious music that we had to endure in 2008, it was a year that, in many ways, celebrated the great diversity of the genre; our list includes an acoustically-driven Americana album, the oft-humorous musings of a trendsetting Texan, and a collection of country classics as sung by one of our all-time great voices. It was, to that end, a good year for country music–at least in the eyes of those willing to dig a little bit beyond the surface of the mainstream.
Our list was compiled by taking a survey of The 9513’s writers. We then used a numerical ranking formula to assign point values based on an album’s ranking within each individual’s list, with the final Top 10 ultimately resulting from those rankings. The following staffers participated in this year’s survey: Brady Vercher (Editor), Brody Vercher (Editor), Jim Malec (Managing Editor), Kelly Dearmore (Podcast Editor/Host), Ben Cisneros (Correspondent), CM Wilcox (Contributing Writer), Karlie Justus (Contributing Writer), Juli Thanki (Contributing Writer) and Pierce Greenberg (Contributing Writer).
Individual Staff Picks
A note about box sets and re-issues:
2008 saw a wide swath of quality box sets and re-issues, a number of which surely would have earned spots on this list. The Hank Williams Sr. Unreleased Recordings, for example, is considered by many to be the best and most important country music album released in 2008. Other notable albums that fall into this category are the Legacy Edition of Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison and the Mercury release of Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song, an album previously released independently (and which appeared on last year’s list). While we recognize the value of these releases, we have chosen to focus our list on the new music being created and heard for the first time in 2008.
Top Country Albums of 2008
This One Is Two is an album filled with heaven, hell, the road, trains, honky-tonks, Mama, longing for home, a little bit of love and a whole lot of heartbreak–all parts which make up the heart of country music. It is not an album for the post-Idol crowd–those people who say they like country, as long as it’s not too twangy; those people who say they like country as long as it’s not slow and sad; those people who say they like country, so long as it’s not too, well, country. And I’m exceptionally thankful for that because it is, nonetheless, a remarkable record–one made for those of us who not only appreciate but crave all of the above. — Jim Malec
Recommended: “L.A. County,” “They Say I’ll Never Go Home,” “Carter”
Call it country or call it rock–Bulletproof is just outstandingly smart, hooky, hard-charging music that kicks off in high gear and doesn’t let up. Braun and the boys have never sounded more confident. — CM Wilcox.
Bulletproof is exceptionally pleasing. Reckless Kelly has delivered a detail-oriented sonic masterpiece with tracks perfectly constructed so as to give each instrumental nugget enough space to glow, without causing the whole to sound overly sparse. — Jim Malec
Recommended: “Ragged As The Road,” “Love In Her Eyes,” “Bulletproof”
Though his recent spate of gospel records wasn’t half bad, it sure is nice to see Randy Travis back to recording (mostly) secular straight-up country music. Around The Bend is Travis at his very best. — Juli Thanki
After a string of bluegrass and gospel albums, it’s good to have Travis back doing what he does best: using his voice’s unique timbre to relate the full spectrum of emotions of country love songs. The strong variety of material on Around The Bend doesn’t disappoint. — Karlie Justus
Recommended: “Everything I Own (Has Got a Dent),” “Dig Two Graves,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”
The real highlight of this set is the strength of the narrative presence, with Mattea providing the voice of truth and compassion that binds together these disparate tales of life in the mines. — CM Wilcox
Mattea has taken a collection of songs that stood well on their own when released previously and molded them into her greater thematic vision to tell the story of coal mining families and a brief history of coal mining itself. It’s a heavy bit of material that doesn’t pull any punches. — Brady Vercher
Recommended: “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” “Dark as a Dungeon,” “Green Rolling Hills”
It hardly seems fair that Patty Loveless should deliver another career record just seven years after 2001’s Mountain Soul, but the always-estimable singer can’t help but astound when paired with some of the finest country songs ever written. The album’s subtitle–The Traditional Country Soul of Patty Loveless–is no mere marketing catchphrase: Loveless bares it all, offering a bit of herself in every syllable. — CM Wilcox
Recommended: “Crazy Arms,” “Sleepless Nights,” “I Forget More Than You’ll Ever Know”
Womack is hands down the best female singer being played on commercial country radio these days. She’s got pipes like you wouldn’t believe, a knack for picking—and co-writing—strong material, and a traditionalist soul that will hopefully serve as a gateway drug to pop-country fans. “Everything but Quits,” her collaboration with George Strait, is destined to become one of country music’s classic duets. — Juli Thanki
If you want proof of Womack’s dyed-in-the-wool traditionalism, hear the way her voice drips regret and sorrow even on the honeyed pop confections here. She’s an exceptional country singer regardless of the material handed to her, but becomes damn near unbeatable when hooked up with stone-cold traditional numbers like “If These Walls Could Talk” and Jim Lauderdale’s “King of Broken Hearts.” — CM Wilcox
Recommended: “Either Way,” “Everything But Quits,” “If These Walls Could Talk”
4. The Good Life, Justin Townes Earle
Justin Townes Earle wants to save country music–and he seriously might. The Good Life is a charming and impressive debut that finds Earle making the old new again. He has a distinct and smooth baritone with a touch of twang, he has a firm grasp on the rhythm of language, and he’s bold enough to play his mix of honky-tonk, riverboat folk, and pop music with no apologies. It’s young, old, smart, simple, and is almost surely going to mark the start of an impressive and impactful career. A really beautiful record. — Ben Cisneros
Recommended: “Far Away In Another Town,” “The Good Life,” “Lonesome And You”
Carll’s album mines the rich interior life of the traveling troubadour and barroom loser, finding room for remarkable expressions of regret, humor, and self-understanding. Handling rollicking rockers and reflective ballads with similar proficiency and his trademark wit still very much intact, Carll is one of the finest young singer-songwriters working today. — CM Wilcox
Although Carll may be best known for “She Left Me for Jesus,” the year’s best collection of drinking songs also delivers one of the best lyrics, from its cut “A Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”: “Does anyone care about truth anymore/Maybe that’s what songs are for.” — Karlie Justus
Recommended: “Knockin’ Over Whiskeys,” “Beaumont,” “Drunken Poet’s Dream”
Joey + Rory’s The Life Of A Song is notable for the way the husband and wife duo seamlessly blend their voices together, and also for the often startling strength of its material. It is most notable, however, for its vulnerability–a trait seriously lacking from most contemporary country music (mainstream and otherwise). Joey sings about her man’s obsession with the rodeo with a desperate weakness and about her grandfather’s stories with a child-like charm, and her ability and willingness to completely open herself up and allow us to see the most private parts of her emotions sets her uniquely apart as a vocalist. — Jim Malec
Recommended: “Sweet Emmylou,” “Cheater Cheater,” “The Heart Of The Wood”
The Australian husband and wife duo knock it out of the park on the first pitch with Rattlin’ Bones, an album with tracks that range from Gram-and-Emmylou style duets to bluegrass-tinged oldtimey gospel. Though both Chambers and Nicholson are accomplished solo artists, clearly this record is worth more than the sum of its parts. — Juli Thanki
Chambers and Nicholson strip country music down to some of its most elemental roots on this stunning and unapologetically gritty collection. Here is country music the way it was meant to be, a satisfying exploration of the coarseness of the human condition and the sweetness of redemption. Supported by acoustic foundations and blending a stark, sparse traditionalism with hints of bluegrass, Rattlin’ Bones is a country music masterpiece. — Jim Malec
Recommended: “Rattlin’ Bones,” “Once In A While,” “The House That Never Was”
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