Our Country Albums of the Year

CMT Staffers Pick Willie Nelson, Levon Helm, Teddy Thompson

It’s the time of year for CMT.com staffers to go through their stacks of CDs and downloads from 2007 to select their favorite albums. Here are picks from writer/producer Craig Shelburne, writer Ed Morris and managing editor Calvin Gilbert.

Writer/Producer Craig Shelburne’s Favorites

I am drawn to music where the voice is simply another instrument, rather than the one and only thing you’re supposed to notice. Thus, not all these artists are great singers, but they are all outstanding musicians, and they all released worthy discs in 2007.

Upfront and Down Low, Teddy Thompson
A son of folk singers, he grew up adoring traditional country music and offers reverent and beautiful weepers by George Jones, Dolly Parton and more. Sad songs set against a string section and sung with conviction. To borrow a song title, it’s touching home.

Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love, Trisha Yearwood
This one demands my attention every time I play it, which is a lot. She’s feistier than usual, yet the ballads are still killer — “This Is Me You’re Talking To,” “Let the Wind Chase You,” “The Dreaming Fields,” etc. I can’t wait to hear her sing these live.

The Story, Brandi Carlile
She sounds country to me, even if the title track is a rocker – and the song I was most obsessed with this year. The whole album is strong, even as it eventually mellows out.

Last of the Breed, Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard/Ray Price
You could happily sing these songs on your front porch, but don’t sing too loud, or you’ll miss three of the most distinctive voices ever to (not) come out of Nashville.

Standard Songs for Average People, John Prine and Mac Wiseman
These old-timers are new friends, but their love for these songs goes way, way back. Like a story you don’t get tired of, this is perfect music for letting a day waste away.

Unglamorous, Lori McKenna
Not one to waste words, “Witness to Your Life” and “Your Next Lover” cut to the bone. With her expressive voice, songs like “Leaving This Life” are even more heartbreaking.

Rhinestoned, Pam Tillis
She has a country-tinged voice that keeps you hanging on to every word. With so many memorable melodies, this album is a terrific return by one of Nashville’s coolest singers.

Wagonmaster, Porter Wagoner
This one unfolds like an anthology of Southern short stories. Nobody but Marty Stuart could have made Porter’s last album sparkle like one of his signature Manuel jackets.

In a Perfect World, Gene Watson
An unsung traditionalist gets his due from famous friends on standards and new songs. In a perfect world, the title track would be a classic, too. Can’t beat the harmonies here.

Translated From Love, Kelly Willis
This upbeat record is filled with fun songs like “Success” and “The More That I’m Around You.” She’s clearly having a blast. Keep it close when summer rolls around.

Writer Edward Morris’ 10 Albums to Keep the Sandman at Bay

Here are 10 vintage 2007 albums that I’ve kept at my bedside to soak in during that hour or so just before sleep arrives. They don’t compete with each other in that context nor do they here. So I’ve listed them alphabetically.

Dirt Farmer, Levon Helm
I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I’m pretty sure I first heard this ragged, Promethean voice before Levon Helm was born. These songs are shards of American flint.

Duets, Various Artists — From A Prairie Home Companion
From this collection come vocal and instrumental pairings by the likes of the Everly Brothers, Chet Atkins and Jethro Burns, Robin and Linda Williams, Leo Kottke and Iris DeMent, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Garrison Keillor and Meryl Streep and plenty more. More pleasant than exciting — which is fine with me.

5th Gear, Brad Paisley
Paisley is the brightest young singer around, a fusion of Roger Miller’s cockeyed wit and a folksinger’s eye for the current and absurd. And, man, can he pick that guitar!

Heartaches by the Number, David Ball
A short course in honky-tonk. With a voice made to cut through crowd noises, Ball recaps such smoky classics as “There Stands the Glass,” “Half as Much,” “Please Help Me I’m Falling” and his own authentic contribution to the genre, “Please Feed the Jukebox.” Don’t play this if you’re trying to kick any of the more interesting addictions.

In a Perfect World, Gene Watson
What can you say about the most burnished and sensitive male voice on the planet except “Listen”? Several other impressive vocalists chime in with Watson here, including Vince Gill, Joe Nichols, Rhonda Vincent, Lee Ann Womack, Mark Chesnutt and Connie Smith, but it’s his show all the way.

Jumpin’ Time, the Time Jumper
This is the 11-piece superband of touring and session musicians that plays every Monday night at Nashville’s Station Inn. Boasting triple fiddles, the band’s core sound is Western swing, but it plays every format it tackles with verve, historical perspective and rollicking good humor.

Rhinestoned, Pam Tillis
Once you hear the enervating “Something Burning Out,” the first song on this album, you know you’re in for an emotional workout. Tillis is unerring in her choice of material and flawless in achieving a pure country sound on which to float her lyrics.

Songs for Somebody, Bobby Pinson
I’ve always preferred contemplation to energy in my music. But Pinson keeps reminding me that I can have both. He sings like he’s coming clean to his therapist.

Wagonmaster, Porter Wagoner
Never a remarkable instrument, Wagoner’s voice is touchingly fragile in this final album. But he buttresses it with compelling lyrics and a tone of desperate sincerity. It’s hard to imagine a better career summation than what we have here.

Walking Down the Line, James Alan Shelton
Ralph Stanley’s lead guitarist presents a gallery of his personal favorites — ranging from the traditional “Fair and Tender Ladies” to Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.” He’s backed here by some of the best pickers in bluegrass, among them Steve Sparkman, Adam Steffey and Barry Bales, and he enlists the peerless Judy Marshall to back him on the vocals.

Managing Editor Calvin Gilbert Picks His Favorites

Last of the Breed, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price
It’s not just three legends, it’s three of the greatest singers in country music history. The fact that they still sound good and made a great record isn’t as inspiring as the fact that they obviously still give a damn and are still looking for new concepts to explore.

Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love, Trisha Yearwood
The woman can sing — and she just keeps getting better. Now she just needs to start recording and releasing albums on a more frequent basis.

Living Hard, Gary Allan
While others consciously try to meld country with rock, Gary Allan does it without even thinking. Time after time, he’s making some of the best records in country music.

Took Down and Put Up, Larry Cordle
Larry Cordle plays a style of bluegrass that’s both spirited and accessible. How many albums these days include songs about coal mining and train robberies or a title like “Old Cheater’s Blues”? And it’s hard to imagine a more eloquent tribute than the song he and Randy Scruggs co-wrote about their late friend, Keith Whitley.

Family, LeAnn Rimes
With an early level of commercial success that has destroyed the talent (and lives) of others, LeAnn Rimes somehow avoided the pitfalls of being a child star. She has grown up and made a seamless transition from being a great voice to being a great singer. And there is a difference.

Mescalito, Ryan Bingham
I’m still trying to figure out if this Texas singer-songwriter is for real, but I’m fascinated by his music. The instrumentation is sparse and stark, most of the songs are rather bleak and his vocals are only a little smoother than what you might hear from Tom Waits. He pulls you into another world, though, and music doesn’t do that often enough these days.

Dwight Sings Buck, Dwight Yoakam
One of the late Buck Owens’ truest disciples, Dwight Yoakam didn’t take the obvious route of trying to recreate the classic recordings from the ’60s. Instead, he emphasized the power of Owens’ songwriting by coming up with totally new arrangements that really work. Owens would have been happy with the results.

Real Things, Joe Nichols
Joe Nichols doesn’t get the credit he deserves — or the record sales, either, for that matter. On Real Things, the songs are above average, but Nichols’ vocals are as good as anything that came out of Nashville this year.

Revival, John Fogerty
OK, maybe this isn’t a country album, per se, but tell me that “Broken Down Cowboy” isn’t a great country song. Revival rocks a little harder in spots than you might expect, but there’s lots of stuff that falls into that wonderful brew of rock, country and swamp music that only Fogerty can create.

5th Gear, Brad Paisley
I’m putting this on my list even though I don’t think Brad Paisley is fully displaying the musical depth he’s capable of. That said, there’s plenty to recommend on 5th Gear, including “With You, Without You” and “When We All Get to Heaven.” Not that he wants or needs any advice from me, but one novelty song per album is probably enough.

See also editorial director Chet Flippo’s picks in his NASHVILLE SKYLINE column.