It’s difficult to say with any definitiveness what is or isn’t country music. The term has always meant different things to different people, and it has always encompassed more than one stylistic vein at any given time in the genre’s history.
The emergence of Americana as a full-fledged genre with a distinct audience complicates the issue even more. Many of the artists embraced by Americana (like 2010 “Artist of the Year” Ryan Bingham) make it a point say that they’re not country, yet many of Americana radio’s most played albums in 2010 came from artists like Willie Nelson and Patty Loveless.
So, creating a list of the year’s “best country music” is as much an art as it is a science. Why is Taylor Swift called country, but Justin Townes Earle isn’t?
To some extent, it has to do with proclamation. Does the artist in question consider himself or herself to be a country artist? And, to some extent, it has to do with context. Does the music fit what a reasonable person would think of as country music?
Finally, and perhaps most of all, it has to do with how the definer hears the music. Sugarland says they’re a country band, and The Incredible Machine was marketed as a country album. Surely, if you ask most people what kind of music The Incredible Machine is, they’ll say it’s country music. When I listen to that album, however, I don’t hear anything that relates back to any of the things that I know country music to be. Not the production, the musical approach or the construction of the lyrics.
Of course, I reviewed that album right here on this country blog.
Every case is unique, and every case has to be evaluated based on whatever criteria one chooses to use. Many of the artists on this list could have be featured on one of our country lists. They weren’t, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be mentioned in conversations about country music.
I hope that this list inspires you to explore music that you might have otherwise missed.
To help you along with that exploration, we’ve created a MOG playlist that features all of the “recommended tracks” from this list. MOG is a brilliant, cloud-based music application that gives you access to over 8 million songs on your computer or mobile device for $10 per month. I use the mobile app every day on my iPhone, and can either stream songs or download them to listen to when I’m offline. I don’t normally pitch products on this blog, but MOG is a service that I genuinely believe in and hope you’ll check out. When you sign up for a free trial by clicking on the button above, you also help support American Twang financially.
#10. Madison Violet – No Fool For Trying
Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac’s third full-length album doesn’t fully capture the energy of the Canadian duo’s stage show, but No Fool For Trying is still a beautifully crafted collection of bluegrassy folk and acoustic pop songs on which the singers’ exquisite voices are backed by a quartet that features acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and upright base–with a dash of accordion for flavor. It’s not the crispest album released this year, but No Fool For Trying is a great choice if you’re in the mood for some calm, soothing roots tunes.
#9. Eilen Jewell – Butcher Holler
The better of the two Loretta Lynn tribute records released in 2010, indie artist Eilen Jewell brings a sexy jazz swagger to her delivery of these classic songs, and outstanding electric guitarist Jerry Miller fleshes them out with rockabilly-informed solos.
#8. Peter Cooper & Eric Brace – Master Sessions
This album’s title is no misnomer. Master Sessions features the musianship of Dobro icon Mike Auldridge (Seldom Scene), pedal steel legend Lloyd Green and electric guitar guru Richard Bennett, with guest vocal appearances by Julie Lee, Jon Randall and even Kenny Chesney. Top that off with Cooper and Brace—two gems of Music City in their own right—and you have a throughoughly enjoyable record. Master Sessions features a mix of covers and originals, and while the songwriting isn’t quite as sharp as that found on Cooper’s 2010 solo album (The Lloyd Green Sessions), it has a fuller and more robust sound.
#7. Ray Wylie Hubbard – A: Enlightenment B: Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C)
Hubbard mixes blistering slide guitar with grungy electric riffs on this raw and compelling release that draws from blues, rock, gospel and country wells. “Drunken Poet’s Dream” was written by Hayes Carll, and was named the 2010 Americana Music Association’s “Song of the Year.”
Recommended tracks: “A: Enlightenment B: Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C),” “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and “Whoop And Hollar.”
#6. Tift Merritt – See You On The Moon
Tift Merritt is a singer-songwriter with a haunting flutter of a voice whose songwriting is poetic in the best ways, and See You On The Moon is a sensitive, thoughtful collection that manages beauty without seeming frail, airy or timid. These songs are hopeful but realistic and sung with the conviction of a woman who has something important to say to the world.
#5. Bobby Bare, Jr. – A Storm, A Tree, My Mother’s Head
It’s hard to go wrong with an album that includes terrifying song titles like “Your Goat Is On Fire,” “A Storm – A Tree – My Mother’s Head” and “Liz Taylor’s Lipstick Gun.” This is a somewhat bizarre record that takes a few listens to truly appreciate, but Bare is an inventive songwriter who is worth the effort.
#4. Ray LaMontagne – God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise
“Beg Steal or Borrow,” which legions of listeners mistakenly believed was a Joni Mitchell song, brought folk singer LaMontagne a wealth of mainstream attention. The little single grew and grew until we were hearing it in places that folk and Americana artists seldom penetrate. In turn, LaMontagne’s reputation grew and his album became something of a celebrity fetish. Fortunately, it’s a worthy obsession.
#3. Shawn Mullins – Light You Up
Atlanta’s Shawn Mullins co-wrote Zac Brown Band’s #1 “Toes,” but his country tendencies shine brightest on Light You Up, which received a five-star review from our sister site American Noise. Mullins is a storyteller at heart, and songs like “Catoosa County,” “Can’t Remember Summer” and “The Ghost of Johnny Cash” fit firmly within the scope of modern Americana music.
#2. Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues
Good luck finding a more compelling folk singer alive today than Justin Townes Earle. Although he has only three albums under his belt so far, in my book he’s already eclipsed his father Steve as both a singer and a songwriter. Harlem River Blues may be jarringly less country-sounding than its predecessors, but the collection delivers more songs that will go down as some of the best of the era.
#1. Brandon Flowers – Flamingo
It’s rare in this age of single-song downloads to find an album that contains no dispensable parts, but Brandon Flowers’ Flamingo is a masterfully cohesive and compelling record from beginning to end. Once you start listening to this rootsy yet forward-looking rock album, you won’t be able to turn it off. A special and visionary album, Flamingo was 2010’s best by leaps and bounds.
The 50 Best Country Songs of 2010 [American Twang]
Top 10 Country Music Albums of 2010 [American Twang]
10 Worst Country Albums of 2010 [American Twang]
The Best Country Music of 2010 [PopMatters]
The Best Country Songs of 2010 [The 9513]
Top 10 Bluegrass Albums of 2010 [The 9513]
The 10 Best Country Singles of 2010 [Country Universe]
20 Hidden Treasures of 2010 [My Kind of Country]
Dogs and Duds: The Worst Singles of 2010 [My Kind of Country]
Bucky Covington’s Top 10 Resolutions for 2011 [Farce The Music]
Top Country Songs of 2010 [The Boot]
Top Country Albums of 2010 [The Boot]