Top Country Albums of the Decade (#70-#61)

Staff | December 3rd, 2009


Taylor Swift’s first appearance on our list is balanced out by a heft of traditional country music, including two icons doing their best to pay tribute to each other. From Texas to Canada to a pickin’ shed in Georgia, these 10 country albums were among the best of the previous decade.

  • Sounds So Good (2008)70. Sounds So Good (2008) – Ashton Shepherd

    Every now and then, a spunky, twangy female voice comes along that is undeniably, unmistakably made for singing country music. Like Dolly, Tammy and Loretta before her, Shepherd joins those ranks with her debut effort. The album, written entirely by Shepherd and her brother-in-law, manages to be at once traditional and radio-friendly. Considering county music’s cyclical nature, coupled with other traditionally rooted albums released at the end of the decade that have garnered mainstream attention, Sounds So Good could note a burgeoning shift in popular country music. — Karlie Justus

  • Fearless (2008)69. Fearless (2008) – Taylor Swift

    Just two albums and three years into her career, Swift has rewritten “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” as a starring role. And while she’s been a compellingly “real” presence at awards shows and SNL, her music is still the vehicle, as bright, clever songs like “Hey Stephen” and “You Belong to Me” show. But the standout is “Fifteen,” a song too mature to have been written by a teenager but too open-hearted to have been penned by anyone else. — Stephen M. Deusner

  • Scarecrow (2001)68. Scarecrow (2001) – Garth Brooks

    Scarecrow (which was a “retired” Garth Brooks’ final studio album) may be the least cohesive record in the superstar’s catalog, but a Garth set that only partially hits its mark is still better than most. The album is weighed down by three bulky, brooding ballads (“Mr. Midnight,” “The Storm” and “When You Come Back To Me Again”) that find Garth aiming a little too high, but these misfires are offset by the surprisingly quaint (for Garth) “Thicker Than Blood,” the effervescent (Chris Gaines inspired) “Wrapped Up In You,” and the quirky “Big Money.” And then there’s a joyous cover of Dan Peek’s “Don’t Cross The River,” a bluegrassy romp that reminds us that Brooks is both a masterful interpreter and and underrated vocalist. — Jim Malec

  • The Notorious Cherry Bombs (2006)67. The Notorious Cherry Bombs (2006) – The Notorious Cherry Bombs

    Any project by Rodney Crowell is going to be good–especially one that includes his old backing band from the 1980s, and especially if that band includes Vince Gill. The Notorious Cherry Bombs is just a fun album; you can tell these guys are having a ball reliving the old days. — Pierce Greenberg

  • I Hope You Dance (2000)66. I Hope You Dance (2000) – Lee Ann Womack

    Heartland dreamers and Hallmark execs clung to the poetic title cut, but this triple-platinum wonder is truly sparked by a pair of searing songs (the Rodney Crowell-penned “Ashes By Now” and a furious cover of Buddy & Julie Miller’s “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”) that revealed Womack as a torch-bearing goddess for tradition-laced modern country. With her lively Dolly-like soprano, she sang her ever-hurtin’ heart out about the domestic dramas of faithful, strong-willed women. — Blake Boldt

  • Country Sunshine (2001)65. Country Sunshine (2001) – Bruce Robinson

    Although he’s better know as the songwriter behind others’ songs, Bruce Robison has accumulated an impressive catalog of quality albums, with Country Sunshine topping that list as the best. The sound is more polished than recent efforts, but it’s done in a way that enhances the songs. The songs themselves are chock-full of jilted characters–lovelorn, broken, and stuck in apathetic relationships–making this perhaps the quintessential breakup album. — Brody Vercher

  • Kickin' Out The Footlights... Again (2006)64. Kickin’ Out The Footlights… Again (2006) – George Jones & Merle Haggard

    It may come as no surprise that the only offerings from Jones or Haggard on this list come in the form of compilations of classics, with a twist or two thrown in here or there. In this case, that twist comes in the form of a tribute both for and by the two country music legends some 25 years after the duo’s first project was released. While the Hag picks up where the Possum lags vocally, both show that their abilities to interpret a song haven’t waned with age. — Karlie Justus

  • From The Cradle To The Grave (2007)63. From The Cradle To The Grave (2007) – Dale Watson

    The cover of 2007’s From the Cradle to the Grave–recorded at a cabin studio formerly owned by Johnny Cash–imagines the gravesite of country music, but the material inside makes a convincing case that it’s alive and well as long as Dale Watson is still performing. Besides, any record that includes the line “I’d gun that bastard down with a smile on my face” can’t be all bad. – Brody Vercher

  • 5th Gear (2007)62. 5th Gear (2007) – Brad Paisley

    5th Gear has Brad Paisley in his whimsical best form–who else could develop a smash single from a little critter on “Ticks.” Humor also shines through on witty tracks like “Online” and “I’m Still A Guy” and his thoughtful “Letter To Me” makes for a touching look back/forward at what really makes up the “good ole days.” Want a speeding ticket? Blast his GRAMMY winning instrumental “Throttleneck” while cruising down the freeway. — Ken Morton, Jr.

  • Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier! (2007)61. Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier! (2007) – Corb Lund

    This mostly concept album tackles the subject of the cavalry and war with surprising depth, starting with the optimism of the new soldier in “I Wanna Be In The Cavalry” and concluding with the laments of a battle-weary veteran with “My Saddle Horse Has Died” and a reprise of the opening cut. There are few singers who could have made this album work, but Lund’s love of the subject matter shines through on each cut. — Sam Gazdziak

  1. Jon
    December 3, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Brooks’ cover of “Don’t Cross The River” is a fine one, but insofar as it closely follows the version he was familiar with – Doyle Lawson’s – it’s not exactly evidence of being a masterful interpreter.

  2. Jim Malec
    December 3, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    It depends on whether you think the Lawson version is superior–which I don’t. Brooks takes that outline and squeezes infinitely more energy out of it than Lawson was able to. To that end, I think he achieved what Lawson was trying to achieve.

    If you think the Lawson version is equitable or superior, then Brooks’ version probably sounds like a copycat.

  3. Rick
    December 3, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    I’m glad to see Ashton Shepherd make the cut on this countdown list. Ashton is one of the most truly “country” artists to emerge on a major label this decade and her vocal style is unique. Sadly its those same two factors that drew me to her music that put off Top 40 mainstream programmers. Since no 3rd single was ever released from this fine album, there is a good chance Ashton’s label has lost interest and is probably searching for a Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood clone that would garner radio airplay. Tsk, tsk…

  4. Razor X
    December 3, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    I definitely would not have included the Swift album under any circumstances.

  5. Leeann Ward
    December 3, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    I love Shepherd’s voice and the album was a good debut, but it has some glaring weak spots the more and more I hear it.

    There’s a particular album that I’m kicking myself for not including on my list, but I can’t reveal what it is right now since our list is currently running as well.

  6. Mike K
    December 3, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    “It may come as no surprise that the only offerings from Jones or Haggard on this list come in the form of compilations of classics,”

    It surprises me a little bit. I would definitely have Haggard’s “If I Could Only Fly” (2000) on my list.

    I’m really enjoying this countdown and it has already inspired some new music purchases for some of the artists that I am not as familiar with.

    I love the Bruce choice and I hope that Ashton Shepherd gets a chance to develop on a major label and doesn’t have to get dropped and then resigned (like so often happens, i.e. Jamey Johnson) for more people to appreciate.

  7. Noeller
    December 3, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Ashton is someone that we’re not terribly familiar with up north here. I only know of her via American Country Countdown ep’s, which I’ve occasionally caught. Might be something to look into on ITunes…

  8. Jon
    December 3, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    @Jim It depends on whether you think the Lawson version is superior

    Well, no, it doesn’t. Whether you like Brooks’ singing or Jimmy Haley’s better – and that’s pretty much all that the stuff about Garth having “infinitely more energy” amounts to – this isn’t a matter of Brooks “taking an outline.” The fact is that virtually all of the heavy lifting involved in reinterpreting the song by transforming it from mid-tempo country rock to uptempo bluegrass was done by Doyle’n’em, and Brooks’ arrangement follows the theirs pretty damn closely for the first 3 of its 4 minutes – from the opening pedaled chords (not present in America’s original) to the altered chord progressions to the split dobro/banjo break. Jimmy Mattingly recaps Bobby Hicks’ opening fiddle (which in turn echoes Bill Monroe’s “Cheyenne,” on which Hicks played), Jerry Douglas quotes himself midway through his solo, the split break is divided between dobro and banjo by the same ascending chord line over rhythm kicks, etc.

    Objectively speaking, the only significant differences between Brooks’ arrangement of the song and Quicksilver’s are 1) the high baritone trio, which accomodates the use of a girl harmony singer, and 2) the extra minute that accomodates a second split solo that features Jimmy and Pat Flynn; there’s no fiddle or guitar breaks in the latter version.

    Nice? Sure. Well done? Absolutely. Signs of masterful interpretive abilities? Not so much.

  9. Kelly
    December 3, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Noeller – I think Ashton’s album is one of those $5 deals on Amazon right now (unless that is over with)…it’s really great.

  10. Drew
    December 3, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Awesome to see Corb Lund make it on here. I hope his newest album finds a spot too… he’s really come into his own as a great singer-songwriter.

  11. Jim Malec
    December 3, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    @Jon: While I respect your opinion on this, and appreciate your contribution to the discussion (you’ve shared some very welcome technical insights into the various versions of the song), we just disagree.

    The Quicksilver version sounds stuffy to my ears. Maybe it’s because of Haley’s voice, but I feel like the record prods along whereas Brooks’ version has a much more lively, colorful vibe.

    A big part of that is the mix, but I feel that Brooks does a better job in capturing the spirit of “Don’t Cross The River” as a bluegrass song. There’s more urgency in his voice than in Haley’s.

    Going back to the mix, while the two may be technically identical in many areas, the Brooks version provides more breathing room for the individual parts than the Quicksilver version, which sounds small in comparison.

    I just get two very different vibes from these two recordings, and I would bet that most people who hear them would be in agreement with me. Care to co-fund a study? ;-)

  12. Michael
    December 3, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Hmmm… With the inclusions of the efforts by Brooks, Paisley and Swift, this is a weaker bunch, in my opinion, than 100 – 91. I would hardly consider them to be among the best of the decade. I’m with you on the other 7 though. Looking forward to the next batch!

  13. Steve M.
    December 3, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Taylor Swift? Really? Perhaps in the category of those seeking to ruin country music.

  14. Andrew
    December 3, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    I’m okay with Taylor being in the top 100, but this is a bit high.

  15. Steve Harvey
    December 3, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    None of these albums are a patch on THE HOUSTON KID, except for maybe HORSE SOLDIER! HORSE SOLDIER! (which isn’t Lund’s best album), especially not 5TH GEAR, one of Paisley’s worst records.
    TOUGH ALL OVER and SMOKE RINGS IN THE DARK better be in at least the top 50.

  16. Jon
    December 3, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    @Jim I’d say it’s mostly the mix. Doyle’n’em’s was recorded in a small studio on what even 30 years ago was a limited budget. Garth’s is, not surprisingly, better recorded – and much louder (which, BTW, is a useful reminder that, while Chris N.’s column on loudness wars was right on, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, and there are reasons why these wars got started in the first place).

    Once you remove that element, which I hope you’d agree doesn’t really relate to interpretive abilities, what you’re expressing is mostly a preference for Garth’s singing. I have no quarrel with that per se, just as I’d have no quarrel with anyone who preferred Alan Jackson’s or Joe Nichols’ singing on “Farewell Party” to Gene Watson’s (although I prefer Watson’s myself). But I’d argue with anyone who cited their versions, which are scarcely any closer to Watson’s in arrangement and approach than Brooks’ is to Quicksilver’s here, as evidence of their interpretive mastery; it just seems to me that where a version closely follows an earlier one with respect to so much of the nitty-gritty of a performance – tempo, arrangement, instrumentation and so on – that notion in particular just doesn’t hold much water.

  17. CMW
    December 3, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    TOUGH ALL OVER and SMOKE RINGS IN THE DARK better be in at least the top 50.

    Smoke Rings was a 1999 release, so is ineligible. Otherwise, it definitely would have been in my top 10.

    With a list of this size and ten different votes going into it, each contributor can surely point to a handful of items on the final list that did not show up in his or her individual ranking. 5th Gear didn’t even register for me (I think it’s Paisley’s weakest album by far), but a number of others obviously disagreed. That’s what makes these lists so interesting.

  18. Leeann Ward
    December 3, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    Absolutely, CMW! There are entries on our collective Country Universe list that was not even close to being on my personal list, but I think the varying perspectives is what makes these lists more well rounded, therefore, interesting.

  19. Jim Malec
    December 3, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    “I think the varying perspectives is what makes these lists more well rounded”

    It takes a lot of discipline to admit that an artist such as Taylor Swift (for example) deserves to be on this list, but I think the fact that some of these entries are surprisingly mainstream is a great testament to the fair-mindedness of The 9513’s writers. I’m really proud of the list this team has put together–the amount of thought and respectfulness that went into this process amazed me.

  20. Steve Harvey
    December 4, 2009 at 12:01 am

    Smoke Rings was a 1999 release, so is ineligible.
    Ah yes, I’d forgotten.

    But if SOME HEARTS, LIVE LIKE YOU WERE DYING, SHOCK’N Y’ALL, THE FOUNDATION, ENJOY THE RIDE, AMERICAN SATURDAY NIGHT et al are rated above TOUGH ALL OVER I’ll be a little upset. It’s one of my favourite records and its superiority to the majority of Nashville output shines like a beacon in the night sky. Still, I expect it will end up somewhere in the 40s.

  21. luckyoldsun
    December 4, 2009 at 1:01 am

    I don’t know anything about Lawson.
    But Garth’s version of “Squeeze Me In” with Trisha on that album doesn’t come anywhere near Delbert’s earlier version. And Garth’s cut of “It Pays Big Money” isn’ near as good as Mark Chesnutt’s original version on his “Lost In the Feeling” disc.

  22. Leeann Ward
    December 4, 2009 at 8:15 am

    Delbert’s version of “Squeeze Me In” is pretty great. I like Garth’s and Trisha’s version too, but Garth does get insufferably shrill in places on it.

  23. Leeann Ward
    December 4, 2009 at 8:16 am

    I should also say that I like Wayne Kirkpatric’s (the songwriter) version of “Wrapped Up in You” better than Garth’s. Garth’s is good, but I don’t like how his phrasing is stilted throughout the song.

  24. Jeff Dykhuis
    December 4, 2009 at 10:00 am

    Like it or not having Taylor on the list is relevant because of the impact she has made on music, whether i would call it country or not or whether i like her or not(and i say no to both) she is a force to be reckoned with.

  25. Razor X
    December 4, 2009 at 10:10 am

    I thought this was supposed to be a list of the decade’s best albums, not necessarily the ones that had the most impact.

  26. Brenda
    December 4, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Confirms I have good taste in liking Dale Watson’s music and thinking him a Legend. His album “Whiskey or God” is also No. 55. YAY DALE!!!!!!!!!!

  27. John P
    December 4, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Gary Allan’s Tough All Over will hopefully be in a respected spot. As an artist, he consistently releases unique albums that don’t conform to the banal sounds on Top 40 -which is why I guess radio rarely gives him enough airplay.

  28. Josh
    December 5, 2009 at 12:57 am

    Personally for me, I know half of the albums mentioned here…so this list is a must-listen-to category for the upcoming weekend. God bless…

  29. Vance
    December 5, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    I definitely would not have included the Swift album under any circumstances.


    100% agree.

  30. Wade
    December 18, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Remind me why Taylor Swift is anywhere near a best of list?? Especially in fron of Ashton Shepherd?!! Thats a crime!

  31. SonnyBob
    February 17, 2010 at 3:36 am

    Whoever came up with this list has got to be on some sort of bad stuff. Rating anything Jones did and the reviving Singletary disc short of the top 10 is asinine

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