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.
The 9513’s Top Country Albums of the Decade
This list was compiled based on votes contributed by 10 members of The 9513’s staff. Voters nominated a total of 300 albums, ranking his or her top 125 out of those 300. Once all the votes were collected, the data was tabulated using the Borda count points system.
After tabulation, an initial “Top 100″ list was presented to voters for inspection, at which point a round of manual re-ranking and horse trading took place. A handful of albums were moved up or down, or were added or removed, based on consensus opinion. While we knew from the onset that no list such as this can ever be perfect, our goal was to use our combined expertise to build a list that is authoritative, accurate, and which represents the tastes and tendencies of our staff.
Finally, and after lengthy discussion, voters were asked to re-rank the top 10 albums on the list. Once the data from this re-ranking was calculated, and the rankings were appropriately adjusted, no further alterations were made and the list was complete.
The 9513’s staff has worked hard to ensure this list is the best it can be. We hope you enjoy the fruits of our labor, and we invite you to join in the discussion about the best country music of the past 10 years.
- 100. Sweet Talk & Good Lies (2002) – Heather Myles
Texan Myles is like Miranda Lambert’s badass aunt, telling a gentleman caller “If I say no and you say yes/My .38 will take care of the rest” on “Sweet Little Dangerous.” Throw in a duet with Dwight Yoakam (whirlwind Vegas love story “Little Chapel”), and the anti-glitz anthem “Nashville’s Gone Hollywood,” and you’ve got a mighty fine country album. — Juli Thanki
- 99. Fireflies (2004) – Faith Hill
One of the most unfairly maligned and underrated albums of the decade, Faith Hill’s Fireflies came in the wake of two very pop-oriented–and two very typical–albums (1999’s Breathe and 2002’s Cry). But while Cry relied on a bevy of Nashville’s typical songwriters (credits include Jeffrey Steele, Craig Wiseman, Chris Lindsey, Aimee Mayo and Hillary Lindsey), and marked a low-point in Hill’s ill-advised attempt to straddle the pop/country divide, Fireflies was more than a return to form. In eschewing the typical players, Hill unearthed three gems by Lori McKenna, a couple of satisfying cuts from a pre-glory days John Rich, and stellar cast of textured, mature stories from the likes of Georgia Middleman, Rivers Rutherford and Darrell Scott. The result was an album that boasts a series of substantive up-tempos fleshed out by a trifecta of heartbreak ballads–“Stealing Kisses,” “Like We Never Loved At All” and “I Ain’t Gonna Take It Anymore”–that together form the most compelling work of Hill’s career. — Jim Malec
- 98. Georgia Hard (2005) – Robbie Fulks
When Robbie Fulks wants to stick with one genre and do a straight country album, he’s one of the best and wittiest around. Georgia Hard features Fulks staying mostly on the serious side of country, such as the chilling murder ballad “Coldwater, Tennessee,” but songs like “Countrier Than Thou” cement his position as one of the genre’s great smartasses. — Sam Gazdziak
- 97. It’s Not Big It’s Large – Lyle Lovett
Much has been made of Lovett’s sporadic output of material and quality since the mid-90s, and even he ponders his career early on, singing “I’ve been up so long on this lucky star/It could be all downhill from here.” If anything though, It’s Not Big It’s Large affirms that he hasn’t lost his muse, she’s simply grown fickle over time. — Brody Vercher
- 96. Here With Me (2009) – Holly Williams
It would seem almost an injustice to not have at least some form of the Williams family legacy present on this list. Fortunately, Here With Me ensures that legacy extends a third generation. Autobiographical and personal, Here With Me–which features some of the best melancholy textured ballads released in the aughts–is 40 minutes inside the mind and heart of Hank’s granddaughter. — Ken Morton, Jr.
- 95. Population Me (2003) – Dwight Yoakam
Population Me represents Yoakam’s debut as an indie artist after a successful run with Reprise Records, but the change in labels had no affect on the caliber of his work. If anything, songs like a bluegrassed-up “Planes And Boats And Trains” and the duet with Willie Nelson on “If Teardrops Were Diamonds” prove he can release a quality album on any size budget. — Sam Gazdziak
- 94. Honkytonk and Vine – David Serby
Amongst the more obscure albums on this list, David Serby doesn’t attempt to push any boundaries in an indulgent attempt to be original on Honkytonk and Vine, but nonetheless sounds creative drawing from a number of influences and leaning on tradition without using it as a crutch. It’s a showcase in how to build on the genre’s past without losing touch. Style and substance abound. — Brady Vercher
- 93. The Company We Keep (2005) – The Del McCoury Band
Del McCoury keeps getting better with age. Must-listen album The Company We Keep finds the one time Blue Grass Boy at the top of his game. Supported by the expert picking and vocal harmonies of sons Ronnie and Rob along with fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Mike Bub (this was his last album as a member of the DMB), Del rips through a series of enjoyable tunes from the freewheeling “Never Grow Up Boy” to stirring gospel song “I Never Knew Life.” — Juli Thanki
- 92. Universal United House of Prayer (2004) – Buddy Miller
Miller tackles the weighty topic of faith and spirituality in a way that appeals to believers and non-believers alike. His take on the Louvins’ “There’s A Higher Power” is bursting with joy and exuberance, while “Fall On The Rock” falls on the hard blues side of the equation. Between the singing, the production and the guitar playing, Miller demonstrates on this album why he’s Americana’s MVP. — Sam Gazdziak
- 91. Horse Of A Different Color (2004) – Big & Rich
Few albums released during the aughts were as ubiquitous as the debut from the “Cowboy Stevie Wonder” (John Rich) and the “Love Pirate” (Big Kenny). With opening track “Rollin’,” which featured Cowboy Troy rapping (sometimes in Spanish) and the bling-centric single “Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy,” Horse of a Different Color represented the first confluence of mainstream country and hip-hop that amounted to anything more than experimental in context. Beneath the highly publicized urban bend of that pair of tracks, however, Horse Of A Different Color was an album primarily comprised of some of the decade’s smartest and most engaging mainstream country music. Sadly, the duo ran out of collaborative energy; while John and Kenny co-write every track on this transformative debut, their second album was unfocused and disjointed. The duo’s third effort, the wholly uninspired Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace, found the pair teaming up on only three writing credits. — Jim Malec