Top 10 Country Albums of 2008

Sugarland, Jamey Johnson Are Among Writers' Favorites of the Year

It’s the time when music writers start reflecting on the best music they’ve heard during the past 12 months, and four of’s frequent contributors boldly accepted the assignment to come up with their list of the year’s Top 10 albums. No artist made it to all four lists, although Sugarland and Jamey Johnson managed to show up on three.

Rather than a corporate endorsement, consider these the personal choices of CMT editorial director Chet Flippo and writers Alison Bonaguro, Edward Morris and Craig Shelburne. Their selections cover a wide spectrum of music from Hank Williams to Lady Antebellum.

Chet Flippo’s Picks

Hank Williams, The Unreleased Recordings
For my money, this is the best country release of the decade. And the fact that the recordings are now 57 years old is amazing, considering that they sound fresh as today.

Randy Travis, Around the Bend
His first country album in eight years, and Travis has never sounded better, nor found better songs.

Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
It’s not just that he’s channeling Waylon Jennings. Johnson carries the spirit of the Hank Williams era in a modern soul.

Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights
Perhaps the most expressive voice in modern country tackles some of country’s best songs ever.

Alan Jackson, Good Time
The master of the understated song and the understated vocal delivery comes through again.

Ashton Shepherd, Sounds So Good
One of the best singer-songwriter debuts in years. Shepherd looks to become a country music fixture.

Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy
She’s back and not as crazy as much as she is musically astute.

Sugarland, Love on the Inside
From the introspection of “Joey” and “Genevieve” to the impishness of “Steve Earle,” Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush continue to mature musically.

Trisha Yearwood, Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love
One of country’s biggest voices matched with equally big material. Can’t beat the combination.

Emmylou Harris, All I Intended to Be
She is so comfortable with her voice now that it has become an old friend. I’m especially fond of her loving treatment of Merle Haggard’s “Kern River” and the June Carter Cash tribute song, “How She Could Sing the Wildwood Flower.”

Alison Bonaguro’s Picks

Sugarland, Love on the Inside
This insanely, over-the-top country-good album proves to me how deep Sugarland’s talents run, not just because of their songwriting and chemistry, but because of the breadth of songs that fill this must-have track list.

Ashton Shepherd, Sounds So Good
The Hillbilly Housewives Club has a new spokesperson, and she’s got a pint of Crown and a country sound that has woven its way into my heart and those of every other country fan who’s got a baby at home and a to-do list a mile long.

Darius Rucker, Learn to Live
It wasn’t Rucker’s job to pave the way for crossovers, but he did it anyway, by creating an album so packed with genuine country shuffles, ballads and simple love tunes that I think any former rock star would be remiss not to at least try to follow in his footsteps.

Keith Anderson, C’Mon
A meaty voice and poignant lyrics have never sounded so good together to me, but Anderson’s sophomore effort comes across with a big rock-and-soul vibe that suits him well on everything from the bitter break-up tunes to the freshly crafted party songs.

Taylor Swift, Fearless
Yes, she writes the pop culture stories that color teenage worlds, but she does so with a hell of a lot of mandolin and banjo. And for that, I have to respect Swift’s loyalty to country’s instrumental roots.

Kenny Chesney, Lucky Old Sun
No matter far he may have wandered down that tropical path, Chesney’s voice still has the efficacy to transcend his genre-blurring music and make me and country fans like me proud to call him one of our own.

Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum
Good together, alone or in harmony. I hear something different on every song, yet somehow, that signature sound that Lady A has created stays put from the first track to the last.

Trace Adkins, X (Ten)
For anyone (like me) who is a sucker for that sexy cowboy shtick, this one plays very well from all-out gospel numbers to hysterical, husky shuffles.

Phil Vassar, Prayer of a Common Man
Vassar has harnessed his distinctive piano playing and poppy songwriting for himself this time, and I’m so glad he isn’t giving these solid, insightful and grounded tunes away.

Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
Even angry and bitter sound heavenly to me when Johnson gets a hold of them on this collection of bluesy tunes he saturated with his baritone moan of a voice.

Edward Morris’ Picks

Dailey & Vincent, Dailey & Vincent
When Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent’s voices converge into a plaintive wail, it’s like hearing the Louvin Brothers reborn — but with even more power and urgency.

Charlie Haden, Family & Friends, Rambling Boy
Although he made his reputation as a jazz bassist, Haden has deep country roots, and they hold him firmly in place here as he explores country and folk classics with the likes of Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Dan Tyminski, his daughters (the Haden Triplets) and his son-in-law (movie star Jack Black).

Joey & Rory, The Life of a Song
Listening to this reminded me of hearing the Judds for the first time. The sounds aren’t alike, of course, but both duos convey a sense of the world viewed anew. Joey Martin’s primly authoritative voice is like a mating call.

Jypsi, Jypsi
If network television were still a civilized, family-oriented medium, this arrestingly talented, vividly photogenic foursome would be hosting a musical variety show. And it would be a hit. The three sisters and a brother are masters of every pop music style in the book. Alas, this album is, at the moment, available only as a download.

Kathy Mattea, Coal
In her breezy but intensely moral way, Mattea has long been one of country music’s most consistently political singers. Here, this coal miner’s granddaughter conveys the complex relationship miners have with the mineral that both sustains and slaughters them.

John Michael Montgomery, Time Flies
Given the right song — whether the goofy “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)” or the somber “The Little Girl” — Montgomery is a formidable interpreter of lyrics. Each song in this collection is strong in its own way, and Montgomery brings his dramatic understanding to them all.

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass, Tribute to 1946 and 1947
With uncanny fidelity to the original sound and spirit, Skaggs and his band take us back to the dawn of bluegrass and let us glimpse why this new music was so exciting.

Ralph Stanley II, This One Is Two
The younger Stanley grew up on his father’s tour buses. So when he sings about the rigors and loneliness of the road, you can believe him. He leans on some pretty heavyweight songwriters for this outing, among them Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Elton John and Fred Eaglesmith.

Rhonda Vincent, Good Thing Going
Next to Ricky Skaggs, Vincent is probably the best bandleader in bluegrass. Her talent for getting the most imagination and energy from her players — whether it’s a road or studio ensemble — comes through magnificently here, via such gems as “I Gotta Start Somewhere,” “Hit Parade of Love” and her lovely duet with Keith Urban, “The Water Is Wide.”

Hank Williams, The Unreleased Recordings
This three-CD treasury of live radio performances enables us to know Williams as his contemporaries did, not as a peerless hillbilly icon but simply as another good ol’ boy trying to hustle up an audience and make a living, mostly by singing other people’s songs.

Craig Shelburne’s Picks

Sugarland, Love on the Inside
Creative and refreshing, this ambitious album is packed with unique stories and undeniable hits. Jennifer Nettles’ distinctive singing still stands out from the pack.

Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
Nobody looked over Johnson’s shoulder for this moody album — except that little devil. He’s drawn to writing about bad decisions, but he finds poetry in the consequences, too.

The Imus Ranch Record
If his radio gig falls apart (again), Don Imus should pursue an A&R job at a country record label. The cuts by Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and Raul Malo are as fine as anything they’ve ever recorded.

Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy
I do call her crazy, but she’s also a marvelous vocalist with a knack for finessing a lyric. And it’s comforting to have at least one female singer who isn’t always so damn happy.

Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum
The more I heard “Love Don’t Live Here,” the more I liked it. One singer is graceful, the other is scruffy. Along with cool melodies, it all works. The CMA Award was deserved.

And here are five more albums beyond the mainstream that merit a mention:

Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
Both elegant and eerie, this modest album was recorded in a Wisconsin hunting cabin.

Hayes Carll, Trouble in Mind
Sure, you’ll laugh, but this clever songwriter (and old soul) will keep you listening, too.

Tift Merritt, Another Country
She often writes about feeling stuck, but that’s easy to forget with such buoyant melodies.

Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof
Two reasons: It’s smartly written, and you can drink a beer to it. See ’em live if you can.

Dan Tyminski, Wheels
The unassuming bluegrass star succeeds with understated songs and an outstanding band.