Top 10 Country Albums of 2005

CMT.com Writers Share Their Choices for Favorite Country Albums

•Edward Morris’ Top 10

Unless, I see some sudden spikes in SoundScan, I’ll be forced to conclude that my critical opinions mean nothing to you. Do you want that? I do have my limits. Nonetheless, here are my choices, and count yourself fortunate that I went to the trouble. Except for the first entry, which would be my No. 1 no matter how I sliced and diced them, the albums are not listed in any particular order.

Bobby Pinson, Man Like Me (RCA)
I have absolutely no affinity for small Texas towns, Friday night football, religion, repentant drunks or old cars — and I detest the brashness of rock music. So why does a Texas rocker belting out observations on all these unlovely subjects set me weeping? “One More Believer,” “Nothing Happens in This Town” and “Ford Fairlane,” to cite but a few of the gems, are more short stories than songs. This album is a masterpiece.

The Chapmans, Simple Man (Pinecastle)
These are country-themed songs delivered with bluegrass style and intensity. Pay particular attention to “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” and the crushingly forlorn “The Photograph.” Ringing vocal harmonies and top-tier picking.

Miranda Lambert, Kerosene (Epic)
This gal is way too worldly for her years. You get the feeling that even an old road warrior like Bonnie Raitt might be able to pick up a few pointers on living from such experience-drenched tunes as “Bring Me Down,” “What About Georgia” and “Mama, I’m Alright.”

Robbie Fulks, Georgia Hard (Yep Roc)
There’s no doubt that Fulks sees the humor in a lot of country music conventions. But he writes and sings with such a mastery of attitude and vocabulary that you can enjoy his songs either straight or subtle, depending on how much you’ve had to drink. Best cuts: “All You Can Cheat,” “Countrier Than Thou,” “Where There’s a Road” and the outrageously goofy “I’m Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me),” in which a liquored-up Lothario tries to pick up his own wife.

Martina McBride, Timeless (RCA)
Knowing she couldn’t possibly make definitive recordings of songs that were already classics, McBride concentrated on catching their shadings of spirit rather than imposing her sometimes distracting vocal power. In surrendering the mountaintop (however momentarily), she has won the world.

Patty Loveless, Dreamin’ My Dreams (Epic)
Loveless has such an earnest, no-frills voice that her songs have the emotional impact of late-night phone calls. Among the shining examples here are “My Old Friend the Blues,” “When Being Who You Are Is Not Enough,” “On the Verge of Tears” and “Nobody Here by That Name.”

Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted (Arista)
Paisley is so lavishly talented that each new album has the showy variety of a Broadway revue — a little melodrama, a little pathos, lots of humor and a dollop of instrumental pyrotechnics. It’s always a potent package. My favorites in this particular production tend toward the lighter fare, especially “You Need a Man Around Here,” “Flowers,” “Out in the Parkin’ Lot” and the almost boastfully candid “Easy Money.” Why doesn’t the CMA get this guy to host their awards show?

Marty Stuart, Badlands (Superlatone/Universal South)
Now that the movies have pretty much bypassed American Indians, if we think of them at all, it’s usually in relation to casinos. In this album, Stuart, who’s a longtime champion of Indian causes, urges us to confront the destruction, deception and squalor our political policies have wrought. The songs, all but one of which Stuart wrote, are melodic, stark and heartbreaking — which is why they must be heard.

Rodney Crowell, The Outsider (Columbia)
Country music isn’t known for its introspection or breadth of vision. Thank goodness, then, it has Crowell to carry the load with such keen lyrical appraisals as “The Obscenity Prayer,” “Don’t Get Me Started” and “Ignorance Is the Enemy.” (He also does a fine job on Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.”)

The Stanley Brothers, An Evening Long Ago (Columbia/DMZ/Legacy)
This collection of 20 mostly traditional songs was recorded live at a Bristol, Va., radio station in 1956. But until Columbia issued it this year, the album was available only in a homemade edition on Ralph Stanley’s merchandise table. The beauty of these songs lies in their back porch simplicity. There’s no vocal showing off, no dazzling banjo or guitar runs — just the unadorned rendering of mostly tragic stories (e. g. “Poor Ellen Smith,” “Little Bessie,” “The Story of the Lawson Family,” “Dream of a Miner’s Child”). This is country music as it started.


•Craig Shelburne’s Top 10

Lee Ann Womack, There’s More Where That Came From (MCA)
Sure, there are touches of contemporary country, too — this is 2005 after all — but I bet no other Nashville album would have made Tammy Wynette as proud. Womack often thanks the writer of “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” for saving her career. Let me add my gratitude to Womack for an album I’ve listened to more than any other this year.

Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell, Begonias (Yep Roc)
These two longtime friends sing country-tinged duets with warmth and fondness, almost like they’re finishing each other’s thoughts. While most singing partners try to out-scream each other, Cary and Cockrell go for another angle — they blend.

George Jones, Hits I Missed … And One I Didn’t (Bandit)
After countless nights in honky-tonks, I didn’t think I’d ever want to hear Hank Jr. or Merle sung by anybody else. I stand corrected. From “Funny How Time Slips Away” to “On the Other Hand,” this satisfying set will hopefully lead to a second volume.

Wynonna, Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime (Curb)
What a cool souvenir from my favorite concert of 2005. More than just a “greatest hits” show — and that would have been terrific, too — the stunning singer also dares to cover Tina Turner and Elvis Presley. Sure, it rocks, but how did she make it look so easy?

Gretchen Wilson, All Jacked Up (Epic)
“All Jacked Up” gets the debauchery exactly right, and songwriter Matraca Berg strikes again with “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today.” But I put my money on “Rebel Child,” which offers a hard-won life lesson but sounds like a long-lost Skynyrd track.

Gary Allan, Tough All Over (MCA)
Following his wife’s suicide, a Greatest Hits album would have bought some recovery time. Instead, Allan puts his misery on display, to borrow a song title. I often cringe at pop remakes, but “Best I Ever Had” is certainly among his career-best singles.

Shelby Lynne, Suit Yourself (Capitol)
Despite its laidback approach and homegrown origins, Suit Yourself somehow sounds concise, clear-headed and complete. The elegant narrative “Johnny Met June” stands out, but she totally kills on Tony Joe White’s melancholy “Old Times Sake.”

Dierks Bentley, Modern Day Drifter (Capitol)
He readily admits that he’s not into long-term relationships (“Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do”). So why the sudden elopement? Well, wouldn’t you run off with him if he sang “Come a Little Closer” to you? Don’t miss the other top-notch love song, “Good Things Happen.”

Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted (Arista)
He veers dramatically close to the corny side of country (“Alcohol,” “Flowers”), which is probably why I enjoy his albums so much. “When I Get Where I’m Going,” a fine collaboration with Dolly Parton, still gets me every time — and that’s time well spent.

The Bellamy Brothers, Angels & Outlaws, Volume 1 (Curb)
Am I the only one who is still fond of the Bellamy Brothers? No way. Alan Jackson, Hal Ketchum, Montgomery Gentry, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton all nail their parts on this overlooked duets project. “Sugar Daddy,” as sung here by George Jones, is sublime.


•Calvin Gilbert’s Top 10

Gary Allan, Tough All Over (MCA)
Songwriters are advised to write about what they know. Unfortunately, Allan’s knowledge now includes his wife’s suicide in 2004. Confronting and working through the pain by writing songs such as “I Just Got Back From Hell” and “Puttin’ Memories Away,” he bared his soul on Tough All Over. Brave music like this will endure and add to his reputation as one of today’s most important country artists.

Lee Ann Womack, There’s More Where That Came From (MCA)
Great songs, stellar musicianship and, regardless of what she’s singing, an amazing vocalist. However, Womack is even more amazing when she’s concentrating on traditional country. Let’s hope she continues on this path.

Patty Loveless, Dreamin’ My Dreams (Epic)
Loveless and producer-husband Emory Gordy Jr. consistently assemble wonderful songs and novel groupings of musicians for her albums. Dreamin’ My Dreams doesn’t sound like a typical album coming out of Nashville, and we’re all the better for it.

Larry Sparks, 40 (Rebel)
As the International Bluegrass Music Association’s male vocalist of the year for two years running, Sparks doesn’t need help from celebrities to make great music. But it sure added to the fun when he teamed up with the likes of Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, Alison Krauss and Vince Gill.

Dwight Yoakam, Blame the Vain (New West)
Maybe he felt like he had more to prove following his split with longtime producer and guitarist Pete Anderson. In any event, Yoakam’s music hasn’t sounded this vibrant in years.

Merle Haggard, Chicago Wind (Capitol)
He reunited with producer Jimmy Bowen for Chicago Wind although the production seems less important than Haggard remaining a vital force even at age 68. He’s in fine form although it’s not necessarily Haggard’s best work ever. However, keep in mind that he scored his first hit in 1963.

Nickel Creek, Why Should the Fire Die? (Sugar Hill)
With two of its three members still only 24, this is still a very young band. At times intense, at other times lighthearted, Nickel Creek’s commitment to experimentation is in full force here — and they’ve got the musical chops to make it work.

Toby Keith, Honkytonk University (DreamWorks)
Avoiding political songs and egotistical boasts, Keith uses self-deprecating humor and shows a more sensitive side this time around. The singles from the album were memorable, especially “As Good As I Once Was” but more impressive are ballads such as “Knock Yourself Out” and “You Caught Me at a Bad Time.”

Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives, Soul’s Chapel (Superlatone/Universal South)
It would take someone from the Deep South to pull this off convincingly, and Stuart was the perfect instigator with his band, the Fabulous Superlatives. Soul’s Chapel is a gospel album, to be sure, but the tone is a funky mix of rhythm & blues performed by country musicians who understand it all.

Linda Hargrove, One Woman’s Life (Panacea)
This includes remakes of two classics from Hargrove’s catalog — “Tennessee Whiskey” and “I’ve Never Loved Anyone More” — but her newer songs are strong, too, including a co-write with Phil Vassar on “Other Side of Goodbye.” If you’re fortunate enough to own copies of Hargrove’s albums from the ’70s on Elektra and Capitol, you’ll be happy to know she sounds as feisty as ever.


•Chet Flippo’s Top 10

Overall, this was a very good year for albums and I had an extremely difficult time narrowing a list down to only 10. Apologies to all the artists who almost made the list. As always, the definition of what is or is not a “country album” will be called into question by some. I feel that any album written, sung and played with a country music sensibility is a country music album. No matter that it’s recorded in Nashville or New York City or Copenhagen or Sydney or Murmansk, by an artist who’s never been to Nashville. Country sounds country. Period.

Lee Ann Womack, There’s More Where That Came From (MCA)
The country album of the year, hands down. She’s got it all on this one. She sings about motel tales, honky tonk madness, late night lust and all the passion and anger and sadness and regret that country music chronicles so well. If country were grand opera, Womack would be its true diva.

Neil Young, Prairie Wind (Reprise)
The noble grandeur of a master musician coming to grips with many of life’s profound issues. As his music seemingly becomes more and more simple, you begin to sense the levels of complexity and depth that Young conjures.

Rodney Crowell, The Outsider (Columbia)
The literate voice of Nashville issues a resounding musical manifesto. Music that grabs you by the throat and shakes you until you pay attention. And you will.

Lori McKenna, Bittertown (Warner Bros.)
A true original voice. She’s one of the best songwriters to show up on country’s doorsteps in ages. She says more in eight words than I can in a thousand. And she sings in a voice that makes you stop and listen.

Robbie Fulks, Georgia Hard (Yep Roc)
A strong, original voice that has been calling out in the wilderness for years. Now being heard, I hope. He writes the way the best Nashville songwriters used to write, and sings the way the best Nashville singers used to sing, but he still sounds current.

Rick Moranis, The Agoraphobic Cowboy (ArtistShare)
This was nominated for a Grammy in the comedy album category, but it’s one of the most skillfully written country music albums in years. There’s a reason that songwriters such as Shel Silverstein and Roger Miller were so successful with country songs — they ignored the traditional oeuvre and re-constructed the country song in their own witty fashion. That’s what Moranis is doing.

Gary Allan, Tough All Over (MCA)
In the face of great tragedy, great music is often made. Allan persevered through a personal tragedy and wrote and sang his heart out. This is tough, tender, vulnerable music that needs to be heard.

Dwight Yoakam, Blame the Vain (New West)
An old warrior proves he’s still at the top of his skills. He’s never satisfied with just “good.” It has to always be better. And you can hear it in the music.

Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives, Soul’s Chapel and Badlands (Superlatone/Universal South)
Stuart continues staking out territories country music needs to explore. With Souls Chapel he roams through the rich black gospel tradition of the South. Badlands is a fascinating journey into the Native American culture to which the late Johnny Cash introduced him.

Delbert McClinton, Cost of Living (New West)
He has Grammy nominations in both the country and blues categories for this work this year. The old maestro can still kick anybody’s ass in country, rock, blues, gospel, honky- tonk or anything else you want to put up against him. He’s the eternal juvenile delinquent.