You know, I can remember not so long ago when it was hard to scratch up a credible Top 10 list of the best country albums of the year. The big problem this year is trying to stick to only 10. There's been a real passel of good music in 2002, with many CDs demanding regular listenings. Even the superstars kicked in with good stuff this year. Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw all delivered career albums. Alan Jackson became country music's statesman. Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith defined themselves with expressive CDs that finally said who they were.
Here are my 10 personal 2002 favorites as of this moment (one of the great things about Top 10 lists is that they really do change from day to day):
1. Home, Dixie Chicks
Right now, nobody in the whole wide world can touch this album or this group in terms of exciting, authentic and accessible country music.
2. American IV: When the Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash
He is not the same Man in Black who recorded all those cutting-edge country classics years ago: age, experience and introspection have made Johnny Cash far more interesting now.
3. Drive, Alan Jackson
Quiet and unassuming as Alan Jackson is, he has become the standard-bearer for modern country music. And quite apart from the enduring "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," Drive is full of solid, lasting music.
4. Midnight and Lonesome, Buddy Miller
Country music's most valuable utility man -- as guitar player, songwriter, singer, producer and all-around sidekick -- is making a name for himself as a major influence in the industry, let alone in the music.
5. Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years, Dwight Yoakam
This package is proof plenty that Dwight Yoakam has been one of the major pillars of country music for two decades and deserves that recognition. This is, of course, a re-issue but there's enough previously unreleased material on here for it to qualify for this list.
6. Hey Y'all, Elizabeth Cook
She appears unstoppable as a country star of tomorrow. What really shines through on this debut album is her exuberant, sheer love of country music.
7. Freedom's Child, Billy Joe Shaver
If country music had a Mount Rushmore, his rugged face would be up there. His life and career themselves are a damned good country song or two.
8. Halos & Horns, Dolly Parton
She has been one of country music's most saving graces for more than three decades. These songs are as fresh and vibrant as anything she recorded 30 years ago.
9. Man With a Memory, Joe Nichols
A superlative debut album by a young, forward-looking traditionalist. He has the musical chops and the attitude to go as far as he wants in country music.
10. The Peer Sessions, Merle Haggard
One of the old masters again shows why wisdom and experience yield lasting music. Smart old guy + seldom-heard old songs = fresh sound.
And let us also praise:
(BNA). A sparkling new Nashville group with an appealing mix of traditional and modern country on their self-titled album.
- Alison Krauss & Union Station, Live (Rounder). When it comes to bands, there are no better practitioners of sizzling bluegrass.
- Flatlanders, Now
Again (New West). A massive chunk of America, set to music, by a trio of country mavericks who record together
once every 30 years.
- Mary Gauthier, Filth & Fire
(Signature Sounds). Take an eloquent walk on the darker side of alt-country.
- Guy Clark, The Dark (Sugar Hill). One
of the best songwriters ever returns to mine some familiar themes.
- Heather Myles, Sweet
Talk and Good Lies (Rounder). Unrivaled hardcore honky-tonk music from a truly distinctive voice.
Wilkins, Rivertown (Western Beat). Quirky and appealing music from a
gifted young Austin writer.
- Darryl Worley,
I Miss My Friend (DreamWorks). Darryl Worley's appreciation of
country traditions and his seasoned approach to the music will stand him well.
- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the
Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. III (Capitol). The 30-year lovefest to country's roots continues in fine song.
- Various Artists, Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash (Lucky Dog). Springsteen, Dylan, Yoakam, Earle, et al sing hosanna to the master.
And here are some fine other 2002 albums that I know will interest you:
- Norah Jones, Come Away With Me (Blue Note). She's become a
jazz/pop sensation and rightfully so, but this young singer has an eerily comfortable and knowing way with a country song
as well. Listen to her take of Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart."
- Bruce Springsteen, The
Rising (Columbia). He is a country singer in the same way that Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan are
country singers. No one but Alan Jackson addressed the matter of 9/11 better than Springsteen.
Burke, Don't Give Up on Me (Fat Possum). The living master of soul music and of country soul music. If you die
without having heard Solomon Burke sing, your soul will rest uneasily throughout all of eternity.
- Little Feat, Waiting for Columbus (Rhino/Warner Bros). Little Feat recorded one of the best live rock albums ever and now their fabulous Waiting for Columbus is released in a 2-CD package. This wonderful fusion of Southern rock, roots country and New Orleans dance music jumps out of the speakers and demands your attention. When's the last time an album forcefully reminded you that you actually are a great dancer?
See the complete Best of 2002.