Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Top 10 Country Albums

Well, we might as well have music discussions during the holiday season. So I'll keep posting lists on and off for the next few days. Why not.

Today, my top 10 country albums. A note here. I am mostly avoiding compilations, with one huge exception at #1. This means that artists from the pre-album era are going to be mostly ignored. That's probably OK though. I love Hank Williams but I don't really listen to him that much and I'd rather focus on what I listen to. So no one is going to claim that this list is the 10 greatest country albums of all time. They are just my favorites. The first 9 are in no particular order. But #1 is definitely #1. Note as well that I am somewhat arbitrarily separating country from alt-country and bluegrass, which will probably get their own lists soon.

And to reiterate, yes I love Cash and Hank and George Jones and Loretta, etc. I'm just not including them on this list.

One thing this list really drives home to me is that despite the fact that I have been buying and listening to country music for the last decade or more, I am woefully unknowledgable about much of the genre, specifically actual albums by the more classic artists. I really need to work on this.

10. Joe Ely, Joe Ely. This seminal 1977 self-titled album still is Ely's best work. Great country songs throughout. What a breath of fresh air this must have been to hear when it came out. Not outlaw or Nashville, just great country songs with Ely's great west Texas twang. A lot of people prefer his second album, Honky Tonk Masquerade. That's a very good album too but I can't see this argument. Another thing I like about this album (and several of the other albums on this list) is that it is about 32 minutes long, an ideal length. Who wants to hear a 70 minute album?

9. Willie Nelson, Phases and Stages. I'll admit that Red Headed Stranger is a better album. But I actually like listening to this song cycle about a breakup better. Not all the pieces are there for a complete story. But you can't go wrong with "Bloody Mary Morning," "How Will I Know," or "Down at the Corner Beer Joint." One of the first outlaw albums, it still holds up well, even if it has been kind of forgotten about.

8. Waylon Jennings, Dreaming My Dreams. Another classic outlaw album sees Waylon at his best. He was a hell-raiser, but was really a ballad singer. This album highlights his strengths, with some bad-ass outlaw songs like "Bob Wills is Still the King" and "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," but also great ballads like "The Door is Always Open" and "Turn Back the Years." I'll never forgive myself for not seeing Waylon, even though I'm sure he was a shell of his former self when I had the chance.

7. Guy Clark, The South Coast of Texas. Another underrated album. To the extent that people listen to Guy Clark, it's usually his first album, Old No. 1. That's a good album with a lot of his most beloved songs. But The South Coast of Texas is just a solid country album, most of which is about Texas. "Lone Star Motel" is one of my favorite songs about Texas, "South Coast of Texas" is a fun song about working-class fisherman, and "Rita Ballou," "Heartbroke," and "The Partner that Nobody Chose" are fantastic country songs.

6. Robbie Fulks, Georgia Hard. An album from a few years ago I have reviewed here. Fulks is awesome, funny and sad, sometimes in the same song. A true country artist. One might say that this list is way to present-oriented, but I prefer to move country music forward rather than just wish things were like they used to be. There's still great artists out there, but you have to search for them.

5. Hacienda Brothers, Hacienda Brothers. Another newish album, by a band Lyrad and I have hyped almost endlessly on this blog. Country Soul and damned if doesn't work as a great album in both genres. I am still really sad that Chris Gaffney died earlier this year.

4. The Louvin Brothers, Satan is Real. Jesus Christ, was Ira Louvin a weird dude. This is worth buying on CD, just for the album cover of a weird Satan cutout, a bunch of burning tires, and the band. I don't listen to a lot of Christian music, but I'll listen to this as often as possible. They have a great compliation too that you should buy, entitled When I Stop Dreaming.

3. Wayne Hancock, Swing Time. Yet another album from this decade, this shows Wayne at his best, kicking some serious ass at Austin's Continental Club. "Thunderstorms and Neon Signs" is one of the best country songs ever written.

2. Bob Wills, The Tiffany Transcriptions. This 6 CD set isn't a compilation. Rather, it's a series of live recording Wills and the Texas Playboys did for radio in the late 40s. Wow, is this stuff awesome. Fun as hell, these boys and girls were having a good time. If I could see any show ever in the past, I would go to the Santa Monica Pier in about 1948 and see Bob Wills. The greatest Bob in the history of music, I cannot recommend these albums highly enough. A good Wills compilation is good too, but the spirit of the music really comes through in these live performances.

1. Merle Haggard, Down Every Road. This is the exception to the compilation rule. Merle is the single greatest musical artist in the history of the United States. Rather than pick an album, just get the awe-inspiring 4 CD compilation. "Mama Tried," "Carolyn," "If We Make It Through December," "Silver Wings," "Sam Hill," "I Threw Away the Rose," "Sidewalks of Chicago." I could go on and on about all the awesome Merle Haggard songs.