So many of my perennial favorites released new material this year that no room was left on the top 10 for new faces. It wouldn’t have been hard to double this list as I bought twice as much music as last year, and had even more than that sent to me, and I found myself enjoying more and more of it as the months went on. This always makes listing your favorites in order a task to undertake. So this year, I simply ranked my albums list according to their plays on my iPod and the 2 media players on my computers. So here then, are my favorite and my most-played albums of 2010.
10. Alan Jackson – Freight Train
The ever-dependable Jackson released one of the best sets of music Nashville offered this year. Too bad more of these songs weren’t released to radio since this is likely the best Alan Jackson album most people will never hear. If you haven’t yet, listen to ‘Tail Lights Blue’, ‘Till The End’, and the title track.
9. Sarah Buxton – Sarah Buxton
Four years in the making, Sarah Buxton’s first full-length album was finally released earlier this year, though 6 of the songs were released digitally in 2007. In addition to Buxton’s original take on the Keith Urban hit ‘Stupid Boy’, this disc features the raspy-voiced singer-songwriter’s four top 40 radio hits, and will likely continue to be mined for future hits by more A-listers.
8. Willie Nelson – Country Music
Nelson’s sedate take on these country standards and other songs from the Great American Songbook, including more than one hymn, are each one sublime. My personal favorites are ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’, ‘You Done Me Wrong’, and an almost-hushed take on ‘Satisfied Mind’.
7. Reba – All The Women I Am
Aside from that ghastly first single, Reba’s newest album is either half-full of good songs or half-empty, depending on how you look at it . Either way, the few tracks that do hit home pack a mighty punch. ‘The Day She Got Divorced’ stands as McEntire’s finest recording in years, while the weeping ‘Cry’ and the horn-infused title track remind us there’s still a gifted vocalist behind all that makeup and leather.
6. Coal Miner’s Daughter: Tribute to Loretta Lynn
Tribute albums? Meh. That’s usually my reaction too. But very rarely does a multi-artist collection offer so many one-time gems. (Think: Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles.) The usual suspects are all here – Reba’s awesome slice of western swing with ‘If You’re Not Gone Too Long’ is flawless – while even the likely Faith Hill and the unlikely Kid Rock step up to competence with Loretta Lynn’s material. Added kudos for pairing Lynn with Miranda Lambert for the title track.
5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
Jamey Johnson’s epic follow up to his career-making That Lonesome Song doesn’t pack the knockout punch of that first record. Instead, these 25 songs deliver their message with subtle dark overtones, and the stories told here are the kind you just can’t make up. Check out ‘Lonely At The Top’, ‘Can’t Cash My Checks’, and ‘Playin’ The Part’.
4. Gary Allan – Get Off On The Pain
Allan’s eighth album is another installment of the gritty, pathos-infused West Coast country that only Gary Allan is doing. These songs find a man addressing the harsher realities of everyday life; lyrics driven all the way home with Allan’s competent vocal work throughout. Favorites include ‘Kiss Me When I’m Down’, ‘Along The Way’, and ‘No Regrets’.
3. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions
Stuart’s throwback to country’s first golden era is highlighted mostly by warm musicianship, which features up heaping dollops of fiddle and steel while keeping that signature Bakersfield-meets Mississippi sound that made Stuart’s early recordings so engaging. Choice cuts include the high-octane ‘Bridge Washed Out’ and ‘I Run To You’ with Connie Smith.
2. Chely Wright – Lifted Off The Ground
Lifted off the Ground finds Chely Wright ably making the leap to a mature, serious, and literate artist in the vein of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash, with a brilliant blend of country and folk with tinges of rock and pop, aided in part by Rodney Crowell, who urged Wright to pursue her inner songwriter, and also produced the set.
1. Zac Brown Band – You Get What You Give
It’s been a fairly slow build for me, but the Zac Brown Band have firmly planted themselves as one of my favorite mainstream country acts today. I’m not sure why their sometimes warm and fuzzy, sometimes humorous, always charming kind of country took two albums and half a dozen singles for me to get them, but I think I finally do. These guys are the opposite of what so many are trying to do in Nashville right now: these are legitimate southern rock stars recording actual country music (as opposed to the imposters with their ‘I’m country’ lyrics and hard-rocking guitars). Here’s a band that can out-island Kenny Chesney – ‘Settle Me Down’, ‘Let It Go’, out-country Strait – ‘Cold Hearted’, and probably out-Hollywood Tim McGraw if they chose to, but at the moment they’re making music. Substantial, memorable music full of hooks and melodies. I really like these guys.