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Top 10 Country Albums of 2008

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Photo by Michael Alan Goldberg

Over the next couple of weeks, Backbeat will feature some Top Ten lists from around the Village Voice Media chain. Click here for previous year-in-review coverage from Backbeat and VVM.



Two

young blondes with toothy smiles and hard-core work ethics, Taylor

Swift and Carrie Underwood, helped country expand its fan base in these

years of shrinking music sales. Meanwhile, Kenny Chesney, Rascal

Flatts, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley and George

Strait kept filling arenas and at least maintaining their popularity on

the road, if not with record sales. But as has often been the case, the

best country music has little to do with what's successful in the

genre. It's made by those who care more about songs and arrangements

than about what the radio is playing or what sparks an arena concert.

Country music's strengths come from timeless elements; the same can be

said of this list of albums.

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HAYES CARLL
Trouble in Mind
(Lost Highway)
MP3:



The

title of the opening song, "Drunken Poet's Dream," tips off the

perspective of this 32-year-old singer-songwriter from South Texas.

With the wry, wise voice of an educated rounder, he tackles liquor,

wild women, lost weekends and the perils of strutting and stumbling

through life. Carll sings colorfully and believably about experiences

most modern country singers ignore -- or hide.

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LEE ANN WOMACK
Call Me Crazy
(MCA Nashville)
MP3:



Womack

and her veteran producer, Tony Brown, combine traditional and

contemporary ideas in spare arrangements that add nuance to the

real-life dramas she sings about. The results reveal how Nashville can

update country traditions without losing emotional heft, and Womack's

voice conveys heartbreak with the resignation of an adult who isn't

encountering pain for the first time.

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JAMEY JOHNSON
That Lonesome Song
(Mercury Nashville)
MP3:



A

salt-of-the-earth antidote for those who consider contemporary country

music too slick and sentimental, Johnson serves up barroom poetry from

the point of view of hard-bitten losers and boozers. But it's not just

the outlaw stance that lifts his work; it's the blue-collar

authenticity of a man writing his truths with a balance of nerve and

sensitivity. He also offers the best backroom honky-tonk arrangements

heard this year.

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THE STEELDRIVERS
The Steeldrivers
(Rounder)
MP3:



Banjoist

Richard Bailey, bassist Richard Fleming, guitarist Mike Henderson and

fiddler Tammy Rogers give the Steeldrivers a formidable instrumental

lineup. But the ace in the hole is lead singer Chris Stapleton, who

shakes the earth with a rumbling baritone growl that has more in common

with soulful modern rockers than with high-lonesome tenors. Add

Henderson and Stapleton's dangerous, distinctive songs about murderers

and haunted souls, and the result is a rare bluegrass outfit you can't

invite to church on Sunday.

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JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
The Good Life
(Bloodshot)
MP3:



An

R. Crumb cartoon come to life, Earle offers a jaunty mix of

vaudevillian swing and Texas shuffles, with a couple of sidesteps into

bluesy, singer-songwriter narratives. His rakish style and fitful

energy, coupled with randy, self-deprecating lyrics, create the

portrait of a charming young hustler -- one likely to have a paperback

tucked into his pocket.

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PATTY LOVELESS
Sleepless Nights
(Saguaro Road)
MP3:



As

the most convincingly old-school female country singer of her era,

Loveless seems a natural for an album of classic covers. Drawing

largely on golden-age songs from the 1950s and '60s, Loveless and

producer-husband Emory Gordy take pains to find fresh ways to interpret

familiar lyrics. The result underscores why these songs endure -- and

why Loveless is held in such high esteem by artists of earlier

generations.

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BRUCE ROBISON
The New World/His Greatest
(Perfect)
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Modern-day

Texas bard Robison manages to compose hits for Nashville stars -- no

easy task for an outsider who writes alone -- while creating laid-back

yet provocative collections of his own. He released two albums this

year, one refashioning hits made famous by others, and another of new

material. Both portray a singer-songwriter who moves at a pace

distinctly different from the in-your-face razzmatazz of Music Row:

Robison's songs lope with funky rhythms or breathe with an acoustic

melodicism perfect for narratives that get inside human emotions.

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THE WRIGHTS
The Wrights/In the Summertime
(ACR/Tour)
MP3:



This

hardworking husband-and-wife duo also put out two collections this

year: an EP of originals that slip from breezy to brave, and a stylish

album of covers notable for how strongly the couple's own vision shines

through on a list of unpredictable choices. Shannon Wright brings a

great song interpreter's sense of nuance to her sweet, sensual voice

and, together with husband Adam, arranges tunes with a grace that makes

listeners lean in and pay attention.

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KATHY MATTEA
Coal
(Captain Potato/Thirty Tigers)
MP3:



As

a leading Nashville star in the 1980s and '90s, Mattea always brought a

folkie's sensibility and earthiness to country radio. As an independent

artist, she's increasingly shed Nashville's easy sentiments for the

deeper truths of singer-songwriters. Coal is the most overt folk album

of her career -- and one of her best. A collection of songs with mining

as a theme, it draws on Mattea's West Virginia roots and her early

musical influences -- and whether she's flashing anger, compassion or

love, her enormous humanity shines through.

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RANDY TRAVIS
Around the Bend
(Warner Bros.)
MP3:



This

is what aging country singers should sound like in the 21st century.

Weathered and wise, Travis presents tough songs about personal

reckonings brought on by bad choices, and balances them with gracious

songs about the comfort brought on by good love. One of his

generation's most identifiable vocalists, Travis takes more risks with

his baritone these days, with solid results. Meanwhile, he and his

longtime producer, Kyle Lehning, blend good taste with bold ideas in

both material and arrangements.

-- Michael McCall