Top Country Albums of the Decade (#100-#91)
The first decade of the 21st century was a tumultuous one for country music. Piracy exploded, iPods ascended, and within a few years the genre had bid adieu to three of its biggest stars–Garth Brooks, who retired after the release of 2001’s Scarecrow (his final studio album); Shania Twain, who retreated after 2002’s Up!; and the Dixie Chicks, who where removed from country radio playlists in the wake of lead singer Natalie Maines’ controversial anti-war comments, circa 2003 (aimed at then-President George W. Bush).
In the face of a devastated business model, labels and imprints folded, artist rosters and development expenditures shriveled, and the few survivors of Nashville’s tattered music industry contracted or banded together, trying to figure out just how to be profitable in a rapidly and dramatically transformed marketplace.
In this unstable and uncertain environment, and with few true superstars leading the way, country music’s artistic landscape was an open field just waiting to be defined: We witnessed the influx of patriotic and Christian themes that dominated the genre following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the bluegrass revival, the death and resurrection of Johnny Cash, the redneck pride movement, the melding of country and rap, the American Idol phenomenon and the pop invasion.
Each of these movements left recognizable footprints on the music that we loved, tolerated or hated (sometimes, and for some of us, all at once), but their strongest waves passed without truly capturing and transforming the genre. As such, none of them can wholly and sufficiently summarize the following question: What defined country music between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2009?
To the ire of many, the answer to that question can best be found by turning to a little girl with a mediocre singing voice but a big heart full of stories and a natural talent for knowing just the right way to tell them. Country music was, as it always has been, about songs.
In the midst of a decade dominated by celebrity, during which many of a number of country music’s most successful newcomers entered the arena following stints on American idol (and with built-in fan bases), it should be taken as a heartening sign that the most dominating newcomer of all was elevated not by fame or monumental exposure, but by two collections of sincere stories, the first of which came in modest form from an upstart indie label.
Taylor Swift’s music does not reside at the top of our list of the decade’s best albums, and to be sure, there are many who will question whether that music should even be factored into a discussion related to the term “country.” As un-traditional as it may be, however, both in sound and in lyrical theme, the music of Taylor Swift shares a common bond with a substantial bulk of the great country music that came before it: Swift’s lyrics are honest stories about real people, or thoughtful lies about fictional people that are, nonetheless, relatable.
Whatever Taylor Swift becomes in the future, wherever her musical journey takes her, the books are closed on at least one thing: she began her career as a country artist. That’s how history will remember her, and that, too, is how history will remember the country music of the aughts. That’s a good thing, because it means that during this frenzied period, a span in which everything—even the term “country music” itself—was up for debate, the genre’s biggest star was built from the same material as the biggest stars before her. And it means that the power of great songs is still stronger than any other driving force.
Our list of the decade’s best albums is comprised of 100 examples that follow, to some extent, the Taylor Swift model. They are vastly different albums in style, sound, tone and audience. They flow from Mainstream, country radio fare to an Americana album so left-of-center that its inclusion on our country list was met with a fair bit of resistance from some members of our staff. But in each and every instance, the best country albums of the past ten years were built on the backs of songs. These are stories about you and me from birth to death and stories that paint landscapes rooted in every region of America and beyond. These are tales of the here and now, of what it means to be a freshman walking through the halls of a crowded high school, and these are tales of the past, the memoirs of a horse soldier riding into battle. These are tales of coal miners, of alright guys and of everbody’s brother. None of us can equivocally wrap-up what country is now, or has ever been, other than to say that it is these things.
To that end, this decade was a great decade for country music.
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- luckyoldsun: Jim Z-- I get the feeling Barry was this close to calling you what Kinky Friedman called his guy from El …
- Leeann Ward: Thanks, NM. I like a good pop hook, to be honest. So, maybe I need to try it again.
- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim Z. That changes everything. I surrender.
- Jim Z: to call the Dirty River Boys an "Austin area band" is still incorrect. They are based in El Paso.
- nm: Leeann, you and I often have similar tastes in more-traditional country. And, to my ears, Sam Hunt's voice and lyrics …
- Barry Mazor: Matter of fact, as always--I did. The notes say the album was recorded & mixed by and at "The …
- Roger: Looking forward to picking up the Jamey Johnson Christmas EP - love all of those songs and can't wait for …
- Jim Z: that record was recorded in El Paso. (you could look it up) and other than appearing in Austin once in …
- Leeann Ward: Yes, I can always use more dobro in my life! Thanks for the Phil Leadbetter tip! I haven't been able to …
- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim. The record's more or less out of Austin. But I'm sure they're also good in El Paso...