How time flies! It’s already 5 days into the New Year, but that won’t stop us from letting you know what we thought were the best albums of 2010.
We all wondered whether Jamey Johnson could follow up on a potentially career-defining album and how Dierks Bentley’s ‘bluegrass’ project would pan out–sales-wise and from a quality standpoint. In the era of free-falling album sales, both projects have sold relatively well, even if radio hasn’t jumped on board.
Blake Shelton rode his success at radio to A-list status in the country realm–even picking up the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year trophy in an upset bid–but with two releases (3 counting his Greatest Hits package), it remains to be seen whether Six Paks will ever be remembered by listeners as an artistic whole or just a vehicle for commercial success.
When it came to Reckless, the questions weren’t so much about the quality of The SteelDrivers’ sophomore release, but rather about their future without Chris Stapleton. However they fare in the future, he left on a high note. Johnny Cash opened his final American Recording proclaiming, “Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down,” while his ex-son-in-law schooled us in traditional country music.
And amongst them all, a few independents continued to prove their mettle, releasing superb records with no hope of fattening their wallets.
With over 300 albums in contention, only one unanimously landed amongst the staffs’ 10 best records of the year. A couple more came close, but overall, a total of 39 different albums received Top 10 honors. Considering those kinds of numbers, results are bound to be contentious and the runners-up should be commended: Randy Houser, Johnny Cash, Justin Townes Earle, and Zac Brown Band all nearly made a dent on the list.
Without further pontification, here is the crème de la crème de 2010.
With the possible exception of Brennen Leigh, Mike Stinson is arguably the most unsung singer on this list, but it’s my hope that that lack of notoriety doesn’t lead to his dismissal. He writes the kind of songs that feel transported from a bygone era (“Late Great Golden State” appeared on the 2003 Dwight Yoakam album Population Me, which is almost a bygone era) and were only recently discovered. Some are better than others, but a dud there is not. Robert Black put it best in his review when he described Stinson as “sounding like the distillation of a thousand heartaches.” Check out these songs: “Square With The World,” “No One to To Drink With,” and “Ashes of a Dream.” — Brody Vercher
For a man often criticized for playing it safe, Alan Jackson has managed to keep his fans on their toes for the last few years. After a brief romance with adult contemporary music, a gospel tribute to his mother and a collection of songs penned entirely by himself, Freight Train is, in a sense, a return to the normal, everyday Jackson album. When you’re one of country music’s few remaining legends still getting radio airplay, however, “normal” and “everyday” are compliments well-deserved for an album full of wise additions such as its titular cover song and a gorgeous duet with Lee Ann Womack. — Karlie Justus
With her rich voice and unflinchingly honest songwriting, Brennen Leigh delivers some of the best country music you’ll hear all year. The Texan’s most recent album is a collection of midtempo, wistful traditional-leaning country. Though there isn’t a bad song to be found on the record, pay special attention to the superb “Are You Stringing Me Along,” featuring brother Seth Hulbert, a song which sounds influenced by close harmony duos like the Louvins or Delmores. — Juli Thanki
From the moment Joe Diffie and Rounder Records walked down the aisle to slicing fiddle and mandolin music, a beautiful marriage was born. Diffie had a string of hits during the Garth-dominated 1990’s, but he was always just too country to appeal to the suburban and international audiences that Brooks captured. But throw Diffie’s thick twang in front of some of the best bluegrass pickers (and singers) in town and you’ve got a great album. Diffie pays respect to the murder ballad (“Till The End”) and the upbeat romp (“Hard To Handle”). Hopefully this marriage lasts. — Pierce Greenberg
One of country’s sharpest, quirkiest female voices is here and there and everywhere on this musical mish-mash of an album that would’ve ranked higher if it had lived up to its title a little better. Working for the first time with Don Was, Cook pretty much does whatever she wants and leaves the welding of all these disparate identities up to us. The results are a little uneven at times, but the best of these songs – “El Camino,” “Heroin Addict Sister,” “Mama’s Funeral” – more than take up the slack. In fact, they’re downright stunning. — C.M. Wilcox
On Carryin’ On Dale Watson pays tribute to the Nashville of the 1960s and ’70s with polished shuffles and smooth, poignant ballads. He’s backed by some of Music City’s best session musicians (Lloyd Green, Pete Wade, and Pig Robbins), and his songwriting is sharp as ever. If there’s one song from 2010 that you should hear, it’s the Bakersfield-sounding “Hey Brown Bottle,” which sounds as though it could’ve been a hit had Merle Haggard recorded it in his prime. — Juli Thanki
Chris Stapleton makes his SteelDrivers swan song one to remember on this outstanding combination of dark delta blues and traditional Appalachian bluegrass. It delivers fresh takes on traditional bluegrass themes with a flair for the history of the area. The tragic ending of the protagonist on “Good Corn Liquor” is told in sharp dobro notes representing shots ringing out. While that little bit musicianship is just a snapshot, it makes a great analogy to the rest of the album as it captures the imagination of scenes on almost every track. — Ken Morton, Jr.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Bentley could put together a standout bluegrass album. He’s been showing off his bluegrass writing and vocal chops on every album he’s released. The impressive part is that he so successfully blended bluegrass into mainstream without creating a diluted half-hearted effort. “Draw Me a Map” is one of the best singles of the year, but “Bad Angel,” “Fiddlin’ Around” and “Love Grows Wild” are just a few of the must-listen tracks. — Sam Gazdziak
As one of the key stewards of traditional country music, Marty Stuart has also crafted a number of exemplary albums that speak to the still-beating heart of the common people. His harmonizing with wife Connie Smith on two songs is alone worth the price of admission, but the best track is “Hangman,” a riveting tale written by Johnny Cash mere days before his death. Stuart pays homage to his musical heroes—Elvis, the Louvin Brothers, Ray Price—and testifies to all the grace and power that can fit in a four-minute country song. — Blake Boldt
Johnson makes following That Lonesome Song seem deceptively easy, neatly sidestepping the problem of ‘matching’ his previous work by giving us something different enough that it defies one-to-one comparison. Where That Lonesome Song was a lean, concise wonder modeled after Waylon Dreaming My Dreams, The Guitar Song is a sprawling epic that finds Johnson exploring a wider range of sounds and emotions over two ‘Black’ and ‘White’ themed discs. The extended length left some critics wishing Johnson had pared it down a bit, but it’s testament to the quality of these compositions that there’s little agreement on which tracks should have been axed. Even if we could all agree on three to cut, there’d still be 22 deserving of this top spot. — C.M. Wilcox