My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Discussion: Ten essential albums

I recently retired a group of CDs that have lived primarily in my car for the past year or so, and thus have been greatly overplayed. While flipping through my collection for albums to replace them with, I had one of those rude awakening moments when I came across one album in particular and realized that it has been almost twenty-five years since its release. I’ve had it since it first came out, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. It’s an album that I can’t imagine ever being without, and it inspired me to put together a list of other albums that I’ve had for longer than I care to admit, that I’ve always enjoyed and still play all the way through on a regular basis.

In putting together the list, I decided to limit it to studio albums that I’ve had for at least twenty years. I’ve been listening to country music for much longer than that, but in the beginning when I was still too young to earn my own money, I was somewhat limited in what I could buy so my purchases in those days tended to be hits compilations. For that reason, some of the usual suspects — Haggard, Jones, Wynette and Parton don’t appear on the list. So, without further adieu, here are my selections, in no particular order, for the ten most essential albums in my collection:

1. Keith Whitley Don’t Close Your Eyes (1988). I had heard a few of Keith Whitley’s songs on the radio prior to the release of this album, but I wasn’t really aware of who he was until the title track became his breakthrough hit. Up to that point, his material wasn’t always worthy of his considerable vocal talent, but everything about this album was just perfect. The follow-up, I greatly prefer it to his follow-up album, the posthumously released I Wonder Do You Think of Me.

2. Randy Travis — Storms of Life (1986). All that needs to be said about this album is that it changed the course of country music. It’s arguably the greatest country album released during my lifetime, and indisputably the most important. What more needs to be said?

3. Anne Murray — Let’s Keep It That Way (1978). I didn’t actually get this one in 1978, but I did buy it on cassette sometime in the early 80s and later bought it again when it was released on CD many years later. While never primarily a country artist, Anne was one of my gateways to country music back in the days when country radio stations were virtually non-existent in the north. The album included “You Needed Me”, one of the biggest hits of Anne’s career, and her only record to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. Aside from that, however, it is one of her more overtly country efforts. It was the first of ten Murray albums to be produced by Jim Ed Norman, who later went on to run Warner Bros’ Nashville division.

4. Barbara Mandrell — I’ll Be Your Jukebox Tonight (1988). By the late 80s, the New Traditionalist movement was in full force and many veteran acts had been swept off the charts. Many of the artists who had enjoyed great success with crossover material tried to adapt by releasing more traditional material. After a lengthy dry spell, Mandrell looked as though she were poised to defy the odds and reclaim her throne at the top of the charts. Her excellent cover of Ray Price’s “I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today” reached #5, but unfortunately it was her last appearance in the Top 10. Though it doesn’t contain any of her signature hits, I’ll Be Your Jukebox Tonight is the finest album of her career.

5. Willie Nelson — Always On My Mind (1982). Prior to the release of this album, I wasn’t much of a Willie fan, but he won me over with the title track, which had previously been recorded by both Elvis Presley and Brenda Lee. Willie’s version was one of the biggest hits of 1982 (has it really been 30 years?!?) and became his signature tune. The album also includes excellent cover versions of “Let It Be Me”, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and a remake of his own “The Party’s Over”.

6. Reba McEntire — Whoever’s In New England (1986). It’s hard to pick a favorite Reba album from this era, because all of her work during this period was excellent. Whoever’s In New England marked a move back to a slightly more contemporary sound, following two ultra-traditional albums, 1984’s My Kind of Country and 1985’s Have I Got a Deal For You. Whoever’s In New England became her first gold album and the beautiful title track earned her a Grammy award.

7. Tanya Tucker — What Do I Do With Me (1991). I’ve been a Tanya Tucker fan for longer than I can remember. I can remember singing along to “Delta Dawn” when I was about four years old, though it was probably the Helen Reddy version that was getting played on local radio stations at the time. I bought and wore out quite a few of her hits compilations on cassette, and I also won an autographed copy of 1982 LP Changes, her only release for Arista Records. She had been a guest on a late-night syndicated radio show called Hot Country Nights. I remember trying to stay awake for it but I fell asleep before her segment of the program aired. She left some copies of her album, however, which were offered as prizes in a contest the next night. I got mine for correctly identifying Charlene Tilton as the spouse of Johnny Lee. However, it is her platinum-selling 1991 album that is her finest and the one that I play all the way through most often. It seems like it was released only yesterday, but on the other hand, it does seem like a very long time since music this good was heard regularly on country radio.

8. George Strait — Livin’ It Up (1990). As with many of the other artists on this list, most of my early George Strait albums were hits packages. The first studio album of his I ever had was a homemade copy of 1987’s Ocean Front Property, which a friend had given me. I got a CD player for Christmas in 1988 and got his If You Ain’t Lovin’, You Ain’t Livin’ album through Columbia House shortly thereafter. But it is Livin’ It Up that I come back to most often.

9. Patty Loveless — Honky Tonk Angel (1988). This was the first Patty Loveless album I ever owned. At the time it seemed like her commercial breakthrough — it contains her first two #1 hits “Timber, I’m Falling In Love” and “Chains” — but it was really only scratching the surface of what was to come in the following decade following her switch from MCA to Epic. My favorite track on this album and the reason I bought it was “Don’t Toss Us Away”, which features harmony vocals by Rodney Crowell. MCA had thought this would be her first #1, but it only got to #5. Despite its more than respectable chart performance, it’s not one of her better remembered records today.

10. Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn — Making Believe (1988). Conway and Loretta stopped recording together in the early 80s when Conway moved to Elektra Records, which was later absorbed by Warner Bros. At that time, it was still relatively uncommon for artists on different labels to record together. When Conway rejoined MCA in 1987, it was announced that he and Loretta would once again record together. This album was their one and only reunion in the studio. It consisted of five previously released tracks and five newly recorded cover versions of country standards such as “Release Me”, “Half as Much”, “Please Help Me, I’m Falling”, “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” and the title track. But despite being only half a new album, the magic was still there. This is another album I wore out on cassette before buying it on CD.

What are some of the albums in your collection that you consider to essential listening, and that you can’t imagine being without?

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11 responses to “Discussion: Ten essential albums

  1. Michael A. March 21, 2012 at 7:30 am

    Haha. Nice shout out to Columbia House. Those were the days. Good call on What Do I Do With Me, too. One of my favorites.

    I don’t really have CDs anymore but I do have a few albums in their entirety on my iPod:

    Reba – Rumor Has It
    Dixie Chicks – Taking the Long Way
    Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles
    Mary Chapin Carpenter – Come On Come On
    Sarah McLachlan – Surfacing

    There are others that I revisit as well from Wynonna, The Judds, Lorrie Morgan, Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless.

  2. Occasional Hope March 21, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    I’m still very album-oriented and generally prefer to listen to a whole album through most of the time. But that makes it harder to pick out favourites.

    Having said that, mine would include:

    John Anderson’s self titled debut
    Keith Whitley, Sad Songs And Waltzes
    Dolly, Linda and Emmylou’s Trio
    Bobbie Cryner’s self titled debut
    Storms Of Life
    Trisha Yearwood, Hearts In Armor
    Vince Gill, I Still Believe In you
    Suzy Bogguss, Somerwhere Between
    Vern Gosdin, Alone
    Terri Clark’s self titled debut
    Joy White, Between Midnight And Hindsight

    I can’t decide which George Jones or Gene Watson album I’d include.

    Some of them are a bit more recent than your cutoff date, and I’d also include Patty Loveless’s Sleepless Nights even though that’s only a few years old.

    • Ben Foster March 22, 2012 at 8:18 pm

      I tend to be very album-oriented myself as well. I know some, my mother for example, who generally prefer mixed playlists of various hits by different artists, not liking to listen to the same artist over and over. But these days I find myself favoring full albums because they tend to give a fuller picture of the performer’s artistry, particularly with strong album artists like Trisha Yearwood and Emmylou Harris.

      I’m with you on ‘Sleepless Nights’ – I meant to include that one in my previous comment.

  3. Michelle March 21, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    Yes I agree on these espically Tanya Reba and George Strait I do not own those albums but they are some of my favourite singers. I do however own Storms of Life I have one word for that album Brillant. Good choices although I would add Alan Jackson’s Good Time and Vince Gill’s The Key to the list.

  4. Hoggy from Oz March 21, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    I’ve only been listening to country music (and music in general) since 2007, so I guess I can only include the albums my parents used to play that I grew up on and I still love today 🙂

    Under the Influence – Alan Jackson

    Don’t Rock the Jukebox – Alan Jackson

    Here in the Real World – Alan Jackson

    Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. – Dwight Yoakam

    Last Chance For A Thousand Years – Dwight Yoakam

    Easy Come, Easy Go – George Strait

    Highways & Honky Tonks – Heather Myles

    Just Like Old Times – Heather Myles

  5. Ben Foster March 22, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Funny I had just been thinking that “Essential Albums” would be a great topic for a blog post discussion, so I’m glad to see somebody’s gotten around to it, and all too happy to join in the discussion.

    I recently settled on the Dixie Chicks’ ‘Home’ as my personal favorite album of all time, and I would consider it essential listening in the fullest sense. The high caliber of song material, vocals, and musicianship is stunning, making it easily the best album of the 2000s, which might not be saying a whole lot, but I think that album would stand tall among the best of any era in country music.

    Other albums that I would consider essential listening would be Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘Stones In the Road,’ which I think also ranks as one of the greatest country albums of all time, and one that grows deeper with each listen. Another would be Patty Loveless’s ‘When Fallen Angels Fly,’ which I consider her best album, though ‘Honky Tonk Angel’ is probably my favorite of her MCA efforts. I would also cite a pair of Trisha Yearwood albums – ‘Hearts In Armor’ and ‘Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love’ – as the two best albums by an artist who couldn’t make a bad album if she tried.

  6. Paul W Dennis March 22, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    A “Baker’s Dozen” of Essential Studio Albums I’ve had at least twenty years – no particular order

    Storms of Live – Randy Travis
    Country Charlie Pride
    Guitar Town – Steve Earle
    Guitars, Cadillacs – Dwight Yoakam
    Mama Tried – Merle Haggard
    John Anderson 2
    In Search Of A Song – Tom T Hall
    Chiseled In Stone – Vern Gosdin
    One’s On The Way – Loretta Lynn
    My Kind of Country – Reba McEntire
    Love In THe Hot Afternoon- Gene Watson
    Highways and Honky-Tonks – Heather Myles
    Where Is My Castle – Connie Smith

  7. Leeann Ward March 23, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    I’ll have to think about this more thoroughly, but I can say that I know for a fact that Randy Travis’ Storms of Life would be on my list.

    …And “Don’t Toss Us Away” is one of my favorite Patty Loveless songs.

  8. Jonathan Pappalardo March 25, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    A most fabulous decision of some great music. I’ve been thinking for about a week about what albums would make my list and some have already been mentioned – (Dixie Chicks HOME & TAKING THE LONG WAY, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s COME ON COME ON & STONES IN THE ROAD). To my list (from music I own) I would add:

    Fly – Dixie Chicks
    Mountain Soul – Patty Loveless
    Come On Over – Shania Twain
    The Woman In Me – Shania Twain
    Everywhere – Tim McGraw
    O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Various Artists Soundtrack
    There’s More Where That Came From – Lee Ann Womack
    Van Lear Rose – Loretta Lynn
    Tough All Over – Gary Allan
    Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’ – Songs of the Louvin Brothers – Various Artists

    In addition, Razor, I agree with your assessment of Tanya Tucker. She’s also one of my favorite artists and every time I hear one her songs I stop and listen. While I don’t own What Do I Do With Me, I love all the singles from that project. The title track is one of the best ballads of her career.

  9. Derrick Mims March 28, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    Holy cow, 1991 was when I started my senior year of high school. Has it really been that long? I remember Tanya’s “If Your Heart Ain’t Busy Tonight” playing nonstop on Dallas radio, and I loved her raspy voice.

    Gotta agree with all the praise for STORMS OF LIFE. It’s just about the perfect country record. And along with LIVIN IT UP, I would add BEYOND THE BLUE NEON. Two of George’s strongest albums, which makes them two of the best country albums in 30 years or more.

  10. Tom April 3, 2012 at 10:13 am

    …my list would contain:

    randy travis – storms of life
    garth brook – garth brooks
    roseanne cash – king’s record shop
    dwight yoakam – hillbilly deluxe
    steve earle – guitar town
    trisha yearwood – trisha yearwood
    alan jackson – don’t rock the jukebox
    clint black – killing time
    mary chapin carpenter – come on come on
    george strait – beyond the blue neon

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