If your musical tastes are anything like mine, you’ll remember 2010 as one of the worst years for country music in a very long time. Mainstream country was almost unbearable, and some of the year’s most promising Americana releases (Ryan Bingham, Robert Plant) were lackluster affairs that failed to live up to their predecessors.
But, for every Colt Ford there’s a Jamey Johnson, and for every Danny Gokey there’s a Gary Allan. And just like every year, a handful of talented artists stepped up and delivered albums full of inspired music. Here’s a list of the ten best albums of the year.
#10. Darrell Scott – A Crooked Road
Songwriter Darrell Scott, who has penned such hits as Sara Evans’ “Born to Fly” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Long Time Gone” (as well as the modern roots staple “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”) followed up his critically acclaimed 2008 album Modern Hymns with a collection that’s every bit a worthy successor. A Crooked Road is a dense (20 songs over two discs), emotionally complex album on which Scott compliments introspective ballads with tracks that feature flourishes of bluegrass instrumentation. His songwriting shines especially brightly on the uncomfortably honest “The Day Before Thanksgiving,” a song perfectly suited to a year (2010) characterized by economic stagnation and political frustration. “It’s the day before Thanksgiving I’m not feeling much of thanks,” he sings. “Just a low-grade desperation that leaves me reeling in the ranks.” Elsewhere, “Snow Queen and Drama Llama” employs grungy electric guitars and gives the collection a shot of adrenaline. The songs are good, but Scott’s sense of musicality and pacing makes this lengthy playlist an essential album.
#9. Rose’s Pawn Shop – Dancing on the Gallows
Indie country (especially that of the self-released variety) is typically—how should I say this—terrible. And when I write “terrible,” I don’t mean merely mediocre—I mean “undeniably terrible by any set of reasonable stands.” So, I was simply blown away when I first listened to the sophomore effort from Los Angeles outfit Rose’s Pawn Shop this summer. Dancing on the Gallows features genuinely interesting songwriting, and the record sounds great from a production standpoint. What really makes this album so compelling, however, is the way it successfully blends sounds and styles together into something that’s actually unique and progressive. Rose’s Pawn Shop brings together subtle rockabilly rhythms with Celtic flare, occasional bluegrass flavor and even a spattering of Texas honky tonk, and the result is a sound that really can’t be described in terms of anything else. It’s unique, and worthwhile. If you overlooked Dancing on the Gallows (and it’s likely that you did), rectify that mistake as soon as possible.
#8. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions
Ghost Train plays like a history lesson taught by a master professor, as Stuart—one of country music’s eminent historians—meticulously constructs new compositions that sound like classics. Like a history lesson, the content can be dry and tedious—especially for the casual observer. Ghost Train is only concerned with breathing life into old things, and the result is a record that’s incomparably accurate but not especially valuable to listeners who don’t already possess a great interest in the types of songs presented. Still, it’s difficult to understate Ghost Train’s excellence. Stuart executes his vision of traditional country music to perfection and underscores it with astonishingly crisp production. The Johnny Cash co-write “Hangman” is essential listening.
#7. The SteelDrivers – Reckless
Reckless, The SteelDrivers’ sophomore album, was released five months after lead singer Chris Stapleton announced that he was leaving the fast-rising bluegrass band. That fact zapped some of the energy from the lead-up to its release, and shifted media focus away from the music and onto the switch at vocalist. That is undoubtedly one of the year’s greatest injustices, because Reckless is every bit as good (if not better) than its predecessor. Stapleton sings his bluegrass like he’s a rockstar, driving powerfully through a series of impeccably written songs that sound progressive (even when they stick to traditional themes) and founder Mike Henderson inventively adds slide guitar throughout.
#6. Taylor Swift – Speak Now
The most courageous release of 2010, a brave Taylor Swift poured herself into 14 songs and turned them over to the world. Any observer who has been paying attention over the last five years already knew that Swift is a deft songwriter who understands how to take the personal and make it universal. But what’s most striking about Speak Now is the way she takes what’s personal and keeps it personal. Songs like “Mean,” “Back to December” and “Dear John” are not just epistolary works of fiction that draw from her experiences; they’re secrets culled from a deeply personal place, and they show weakness, and flaw, and failure. There are few artists—young or old, country or pop—who have the courage to wear those things on their sleeve. If Speak Now doesn’t prove that Swift is the real deal, I don’t know what will.
#5. Kasey Chambers – Little Bird
Long one of country music’s (and/or Americana music’s) most under-appreciated artists, Australian singer/songwriter Kasey Chambers finally “broke out” in 2008, thanks to the masterful roots album Rattlin’ Bones (which she recorded with her husband Shane Nicholson). The follow-up to that record is Little Bird, which was only released in Oz. It’s a logical successor; the album is full of what music critic Juli Thanki described as “rootsy pop-rock with sharp lyrics and oodles of hooky melodies.” In addition to those hooky melodies, you’ll find songs like “Somewhere,” a mournful ballad which proves that few modern singers do heartbreak and sadness as well as Chambers.
#4. Gary Allan – Get Off on the Pain
With Get Off on the Pain, Gary Allan reminded us that mainstream country music can be made for adults, too. Of course, lines like “Sometimes I think I get off on the pain,” “Come on over, kick me to the ground and kiss me when I’m down” and “Hurry home lover, I’m wearing nothing but a smile” doomed the record at country radio, but that lack of airplay doesn’t detract from Allan’s accomplishment. This is a gritty, sexy record full of great songs that Allan sings with passion. It’s cool to hate doesn’t mainstream country these days, but don’t overlook a gem just because it has a bit of polish.
#3. Elizabeth Cook – Welder
Cook came into her own with Welder, her most balanced and powerful record yet. The album soars high on the spunk of opener “All The Time,” the sex of “El Camino” and the sass of “Yes To Booty,” but it’s a pair of deeply personal ballads (“Heroin Addict Sister” and “Mama’s Funeral”) that gives the album its soul.
#2. Peter Cooper – The Lloyd Green Album
Peter Cooper is best known as the country music reporter for Nashville’s daily newspaper The Tennessean, but he’s also a gifted songwriter with a quirky sense of humor and a keen eye for detail. For the follow-up to his acclaimed 2008 album Mission Door, Cooper enlisted the services of legendary steel guitar player Lloyd Green, who lends his masterful musianship to each of the album’s 12 tracks, including a sterling cover of Tom T. Hall’s “Mama, Bake a Pie,” on which the instrumentalist’s mournful licks brilliantly compliment Cooper’s delivery of the ballad. The album’s highlight, however, is “Elmer, The Dancer,” which intricately tells the story of a quiet, snowy night in a South Milwaukee polka bar. It’s a character piece, but if there’s a better rumination on the death of America’s rust belt I have yet to hear it.
#1. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
The Guitar Song isn’t a perfect record. It’s long, slow and unwieldy, like the unedited version of a manuscript that contains a few too many of the author’s tangents, subplots and indulgences. But, as an artistic achievement, the record is simply monumental. The Guitar Song is 105 minutes of unbridled country music delivered by one of the genre’s most enigmatic figures. Yes, a concentrated, 15-song version of this 25-song double disc would have packed a more focused musical punch, but this bulging tome provides a rare look into the psyche of a unique artist who was given space to create without restriction.