Top 10 Country Albums of 2004

Contemporary Superstars, Newcomers and Seasoned Veterans Make the List

Timing is everything. That's exactly why's daily news writers waited until the end of the year to compile our year-end lists of the best albums of 2004.

To avoid any possibility of fisticuffs during the holiday season, the writers did not openly discuss their choices before committing them to a written list.

• Chet Flippo's Top 10

Lists such as this can change on an hourly basis. This is what mine looked like at 10:40 a.m. CST on Dec. 27, 2004. These are in no particular order.

Julie Roberts, Julie Roberts (Mercury): Enough sass and spunk and country soul for any three musical debuts. She needs stage seasoning, but the goods are there.

Joe Nichols, Revelation (Universal South): About two quality songs shy of greatness but still a stellar statement. Nichols has one of the best new voices in country.

Gretchen Wilson, Here for the Party (Epic): A tough yet sensitive debut from the spiritual successor to Loretta Lynn. This is the funky and real stuff that can't be churned out by the Music Row songwriting appointments and the charm school classes for new young artists.

Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (Interscope): Not so much significant for being co-produced by a rock star -- as many critics are portraying it -- but valuable for Loretta Lynn's re-inventing herself with fresh material. This marks the first time she's written or co-written all of an album. Loretta is free to be Loretta here.

Buddy Miller, Universal United House of Prayer (New West): There's more going on in Nashville than country radio can allow, and this gritty, powerful country gospel album shouts it out.

Drive-By Truckers, The Dirty South (New West): A Southern rock working-class musical journal. The heirs to the Lynyrd Skynyrd tradition still make it fresh and relevant.

Various Artists, Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970 (CMF Records/Lost Highway): For many years, R&B and country in Nashville were fertile grounds for back-and-forth musical propagation. This is the core of that history.

Darryl Worley, Darryl Worley (DreamWorks): Worley shows that he's much more than the song "Have You Forgotten?" He's demonstrating a growing control of reality songs with staying power.

Alan Jackson, What I Do (Arista): More top-of-the-line -- lower key, this time (if that's possible) -- music by a master of the genre.

Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying (Curb): The best collection of songs on a mainstream country album in recent memory. Period.

• Edward Morris' Top 10

OK, OK. I'll tell you my Top 10 list of albums for this year, but I'll be damned if I'm going to rank them for you. That would be like ranking food, sex and Seinfeld re-runs. It all rather depends on the moment, doesn't it? Well, the following have given me some of my best moments.

Tim McGraw , Live Like You Were Dying (Curb): I don't know if Tim McGraw sits alone in the dark and listens intently to songs before he decides to record them. But this album makes me believe so. He's country music's least affected and most emotionally potent emissary.

Steve Earle, The Revolution Starts Now (E-Squared/Artemis): Any man (or woman) who sings for a saner, more compassionate world, as Earle does here, has my vote. See you at the barricades.

Gene Watson, Gene Watson Sings (Intersound): Watson has the kind of voice that would stop George Jones in his tracks. So silky, intimate and sure of itself. Just listen to him put the chrome on the old pop standard, "What a Difference a Day Made," and all will be revealed to you.

Mary Chapin Carpenter, Between Here and Gone (Columbia): Let's just say I'm a pushover for smart women who think too much. Country music is better for the elegance and eloquence Carpenter's songs bring to it.

Con Hunley, Sweet Memories (Immi): This may be the most underappreciated album of the year. Hunley doesn't just sing lyrics; he caresses them. To hear to him transform "Don't Touch Me," traditionally viewed as a woman's song, into raw male yearning is to witness magic. The same goes for his treatments of "Still" and "Sweet Memories." This is a textbook of style.

Various Artists, Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster (Emergent): This aesthetically pleasing and historically important album demonstrates that Foster contributed much more to American popular music than the minstrel songs with which he's most identified. Listen to Olabelle's "Gentle Annie" and hear your heart break. The liner notes are a work of art.

Jesse McReynolds With Travis Wetzel, Bending the Rules (OMS): Since his brother's death, the surviving half of Jim & Jesse has continued to turn out inspired music. Here the trailblazing mandolinist teams up with "the mad fiddler" Wetzel for a romp through such finger-twisters as "El Cumbanchero," "Limehouse Blues" and "Sweet Georgia Brown."

James Alan Shelton, Half Moon Bay (Rebel): Shelton's job as Ralph Stanley's lead guitarist doesn't really afford him the room to stretch and shine. But this album does. There are a lot of familiar tunes (some with vocals) that Shelton makes brand new again. It's the kind of music you put on to work to -- and then realize you've stopped working to listen.

Various artists, The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family (Dualtone): Herein you can hear Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Willie Nelson and others of their galaxy. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, there hasn't been this much musical talent in one place since the Carter Family recorded alone.

Alecia Nugent, Alecia Nugent (Rounder): Welcome a major addition to bluegrass. Nugent's delivery is sharp, intense and way past nuance. It is a voice that deals in strong feelings, not fuzzy, complex ones. Although she sounds like neither, Nugent is in the rarefied league of Rhonda Vincent and Sonya Isaacs, both of whom back her on this project.

• Craig Shelburne's Top 10

Every year, I listen to hundreds of CDs, from every imaginable branch of country music. While outsiders are quick to criticize mainstream country music, I contend you can still find quality albums coming out of Nashville if you know where to look. Here are 10 places to start, with Loretta leading the parade.

Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (Interscope): Though it's book-ended by two outstanding biographical songs, I'm still curiously partial to "Women's Prison." Maybe that's because I haven't heard a good cheating-honky-tonk-murder-mama-prison song in a while. But the buzz on Van Lear Rose has been deafening not for its rock star producer but because it's so darn good.

Julie Roberts, Julie Roberts (Mercury): Julie Roberts' bubbly personality shines through on several tunes, but it's the dramatic ones that keep me coming back. Nobody's proud of hooking up with a stranger after being dumped, but "Wake Up Older" never apologizes for its behavior. My vote for the next single: the optimistic, melodic "Pot of Gold."

James Otto, Days of Our Lives (Mercury): He's in the Muzik Mafia, but this soulful album came out too early to cash in on the hype. Too bad, because Days of Our Lives is one hell of a strong debut. Some people might compare him to Toby Keith, but to me, his soulful vocals and vivid songwriting call to mind Travis Tritt's glory days.

Gretchen Wilson, Here for the Party (Epic): I'm neither a redneck nor a woman, but I loved the ready-for-a-throwdown spirit of "Here for the Party" and the true-to-my-man "When I Think About Cheatin'." Last year at this time, you'd never heard of those songs. Now, you can expect them to live forever in honky-tonk bars everywhere.

Sugarland, Twice the Speed of Life (Mercury): The ambitious Atlanta trio Sugarland kick country music in the pants with this debut album. For that, I credit their diverse original songs and a smart producer (Garth Fundis) who kept the energy of their live show intact. "Baby Girl" shows promise, but there's not a track that I skip on the whole album.

Cowboy Jack Clement, Guess Things Happen That Way (Dualtone): A lively, behind-the-scenes character in country music since the 1950s, Clement revives his own classics (the title track and "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" -- both with Johnny Cash cameos) with some fantastic new tunes. His singing voice is surprisingly smooth for a so-called cowboy, but it's his warm, witty perspective on life that is most impressive.

Joe Nichols, Revelation (Universal South): Still in his 20s, Joe Nichols possesses a baritone made for traditional country music. The lazy-day song "The Shade" reminds me of those simple-but-catchy tunes from Alan Jackson in the mid-1990s, and he found "No Time to Cry" on a Merle Haggard album. Here's hoping Nichols' own farewell party is a long, long way off.

The Notorious Cherry Bombs, The Notorious Cherry Bombs (Universal South): Written mainly by Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill and accompanied by their longtime pals -- who also happen to be Nashville's top-shelf studio musicians -- The Notorious Cherry Bombs pops with enthusiasm. It's hard to pick my favorite part of this reunion project, but I will say that Crowell's melodies here are impeccable.

Keith Urban, Be Here (Capitol): If Keith Urban ever gets too busy to write his own songs, he has proven with Be Here that he's capable of choosing outstanding outside material, such as Rodney Crowell's romantic "Making Memories of Us" and Matraca Berg's brutally honest "Nobody Drinks Alone." But may he always find time to tear up that guitar.

Mark Chesnutt, Savin' the Honky Tonks (Vivaton): While most comeback albums would emulate the bells-and-whistles production of current country, Chesnutt steps back to let the musicians shine. Even better, his distinctly traditional vocals are never lost in the mix, allowing listeners to savor Lee Ann Womack's harmonies on the fine remake of "Would These Arms Be in Your Way."

• Calvin Gilbert's Top 10

I hate these lists. On any given day, my Top 10 albums could easily change. That said, here are some good ones from 2004 -- in alphabetical order:

Cowboy Jack Clement, Guess Things Happen That Way (Dualtone): Even at age 73, country music visionary Jack Clement has never lost his enthusiasm for great music or life itself. You know his work as a songwriter and producer. Even if you've never heard him sing, it's the voice of somebody who matters and still somehow gives a damn.

Alan Jackson, What I Do (Arista): It's probably not the best album he's ever released, but a good album from Jackson nearly always surpasses finest efforts of a lesser artist. "Too Much of a Good Thing" and "Monday Morning Church" are two of the best country singles of the year.

Alison Krauss & Union Station, Lonely Runs Both Ways (Rounder): Krauss and her band just get better with each passing year. Lonely Runs Both Ways shows why her music manages to please traditionalists while simultaneously appealing to folks who profess to dislike country and bluegrass music, in general.

Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (Interscope): It was an odd pairing that resulted in an odd album, and I still doubt that Jack White of the White Stripes is Loretta Lynn's ideal producer for the new millennium. Once you got past the novelty and the hype, though, Lynn's continued vitality as a songwriter and singer was readily apparent on Van Lear Rose.

Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying (Curb): McGraw's albums are good because he chooses great songs. And if you think McGraw's music is too bright and shiny for your tastes, name another contemporary superstar who would've recorded the suicide song, "Kill Myself."

Buddy Miller, Universal United House of Prayer (New West): With his overdriven guitar bursting at the speakers, Miller creates some of the deepest musical grooves you'll ever hear. Combining original material with several well-chosen cover tunes, Miller makes a joyful noise of the sort you're unlikely to forget.

Charlie Robison, Good Times (Dualtone): When was it written that grit, soul and emotion should be taken out of country music? Well, Robison didn't get the memo or, more likely, got it -- and immediately ignored it. Good for him.

Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, You Were There for Me (Rounder): Two acoustic masters teamed up for a project that maybe had more to do with the notes that weren't played as it did with the sounds that actually made it to the album. There were scattered flashes of Rice's guitar virtuosity, but the album demonstrated the subtle power of sparse arrangements created by people who realize that music should breathe.

Blake Shelton, Blake Shelton's Barn & Grill (Warner Bros.): Shelton's latest album is filled to the brim with drinking songs. Call him crazy or politically incorrect for recording such a collection in 2004, but his music goes a lot deeper than his recent No. 1 single, "Some Beach," would indicate.

Gretchen Wilson, Here for the Party (Epic): When particularly urbane friends and acquaintances initially kept saying how much they hated "Redneck Woman," I could only cite the aural pleasures of "When I Think About Cheatin'," the only other Gretchen Wilson track I'd heard prior to the release of Here for the Party. The biggest danger Wilson faces is the possibility of becoming a caricature or, ultimately, a novelty act. The promise shown on her debut album strongly suggests it doesn't have to turn out that way.

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