2010 was an interesting year for country music in that it announced the arrival of quite a bit of fantastic new talent to help usher in a new decade (’11-’20). Along with the new talent, we had an explosion of fantastic superstar new releases, particularly during the final quarter of the year which gave country music the ability to have one of its better years. While it’s true that albums don’t sell nearly as well as they did even five years ago, they still are relevant in an era when the single seems to be returing to a prominence not felt since the 1960s. In this rundown of our favorite albums of the year we wanted to keep it a lean Top 10 but that was then usurped by a Top 20 and then, well you see what happened here. We have collected 40 of our favorite albums that we heard in 2010 and while some are expected to be here, you may be surprised to find other albums among this list. So with that we offer up our Top 40 albums released in 2010. (Note: you can click on any album title to read our review of the album).
The debut album from 2009 American Idol third-place contestant showcased the artists fantastic vocals and while song selection was a bit spotty, the album did feature one of our favorite singles of 2010 in “I Will Not Say Goodbye,” the tender ballad “It’s Only” and a couple of strong ‘tempo’ tunes like “Tiny Life” and the title track.
39: Dave Pahanish – Dave Pahanish (self-released)
This is a ‘songwriter’s album’ that I first picked up this summer at a Dave Pahanish and the Rust Belt show in Nashville. The album features his own versions of songs he wrote like “Without You” for Keith Urban, “This American Life” (Toby Keith’s #1 hit “American Ride”) and “Do You Believe Me Now” for Jimmy Wayne. The album also features the fantastic “Divine Everlasting Love,” “Give It Away” and the song that will and probably has already been recorded by a big star in Nashville: “The One That Got Away.” This is a fully-produced album which showcases a man who should be signed as a recording artist in his own right.
38: The Famous Lefty Flynn’s – The Grascals (Rounder Records)
From their smart remake of hit “Last Train To Clarksville,” to the recording of Jeremy Parson’s “Out Comes The Sun” to the fantastic ballad “Satan And Gramdma” this country/bluegrass band has done nothing but continue to grow into one of the pillars of the roots music movement.
This young twenty-something artist makes music that harkens back to the honky tonk era of Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams and wrote every track on his fantastic debut record. With a voice that suits songs from that era, Jeremy Parsons looks to have carved out his own niche with well-written tunes like “Out Comes The Sun,” the title track and “Since My Baby Left Me” which never fail to give fans of honky tonk music something to cheer for.
36: Shake What God Gave Ya – James Otto (Warner Brothers Nashville)
Lead single “Groovy Little Summer Song” showcased what this album would be about, it would feature country soul and country rock n’ roll a-la Conway Twitty and Ronnie Milsap. The heartfelt ballad “Soldiers and Jesus” may not exactly be a good example of this new sound but it has nonetheless hit the Top 40 and may rise up the charts in 2011. “Are You With Me,” “Good Things Gone Bad” and the title track are particular highlights of this Paul Worley-produced disc.
35: Confessions of a Nice Girl – Katie Armiger (Cold River Records)
The third record of her career, Confessions of a Nice Girl feels like the work of an artist who has blossomed into a star-in-waiting. The album features spirited single “Best Song Ever” and the fantastic “Leaving Home” but it is songs like “Nice Girl” and “I Will Be” that prove her to be an artist on the verge of greatness. Others like “Ain’t Gonna Happen” and “Scream” feel tailor-made for radio airplay like “Best Song Ever” has proven out to be.
34: Original Songwriter Demos 1&2 – Various Artists (Warner Brothers Nashville)
Scott Hendricks came up with the idea to share these fantastic collections of demos with country music fans and they really do give fans a peek behind the curtain and allowed them to hear songs the way their favorite singes heard them for the first time.
33: Freight Train – Alan Jackson (Arista Nashville)
While radio didn’t make “Hard Hat And A Hammer” or “It’s Just That Way” big hits, the album certainly falls well within the standard set by Jackson 20 years ago. The title tune (written by Fred Eaglesmith) and “Till The End” are just two of the other highlights on what may very well be the final all-new album of Alan Jackson’s career with Arista Nashville.
32: Brantley Gilbert – Halfway To Heaven (Average Joes)
Nary a tune from this record has made a dent on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart but that doesn’t mean that Halfway To Heaven isn’t worthy of being here as it did find an audience and scored a #1 heatseaker’s debut and did make a dent on the Top Country Albums and iTunes Country Albums charts. The highlights on the album include “Saving Amy,” the title track (which chronicles parts of Gilbert’s life, including a near-death experience), and the country rockers “Hell On Wheels,” “My Kind of Crazy” and “Them Boys.”
31: All The Woman I Am – Reba McEntire (Starstruck/Valory Music Company)
It’s easy to dismiss this album as ‘pandering’ to what radio wants for this country diva to stay relevant but what really matters is that aside from radio-ready numbers like #1 “Turn On The Radio,” (a song that is more of a modern take on many of her spirited 80s and 90s kiss-off numbers than people want to admit), there are classic Reba social ballads like “Somebody’s Chelsea” and “When You Have A Child.”
30: Burning The Day – Randy Rogers Band (MCA Nashville)
The Randy Rogers Band have crafted a fantastic album that would be, in a perfect world, getting just as much airplay on the Country Radio charts as The Band Perry, Zac Brown Band and Lady Antebellum. The songwriting is sharp and is some of the best of Randy Rogers’ career. Songs like “Interstate,” “I’ve Been Looking For You For So Long” “Steal You Away” and “I Met Lonely Tonight” are particular standouts.
29: Welder – Elizabeth Cook (Thirty Tigers/RED)
Perhaps ‘more country’ than some of mainstream radio’s favorites, Elizabeth Cook somehow seems to simmer under the radar more than she should. Her music may not be the joyful honky tonk of her earlier records but that doesn’t mean she’s ‘gone pop’ or ‘rogue.’ Far from it.
28: Whitey Morgan and the 78’s – Whitey Morgan and the 78’s (Bloodshot Records)
Fans of Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser will find something to like here as Whitey Morgan and the 78s play some fantastic country music in the mold of the ‘outlaws.’ Yes it can get a bit ‘derivative’ of classics at times but it’s still a refreshing and consistent album to listen to.
27: Chicken & Biscuits – Colt Ford (Average Joes)
While not as immediate as Ride Through The Country, this album is nonetheless a perfect example of how one can successfully navigate a career without much in the way of radio success. 2011’s Second Helpings promises to deliver more of the same and perhaps it’ll be that album that gets Colt Ford even more into the mainstream and on radio everywhere.
26: The Age of Miracles – Mary Chapin Carpenter (Zoe/Rounder)
She’s long passed the desires of country radio but that hasn’t stopped MCC from making passionate, cerebral country/folk tunes with the same panache of her 1990s hit making days, particularly “I Put My Ring Back On” and “I Was A Bird.”
25: Charleston, SC 1966 – Darius Rucker (Capital Nashville)
Darius Rucker’s music may be unabashedly aimed at mainstream country radio but that isn’t a bad thing here as all of the songs on Charleston, SC 1996 are smartly written, well-produced affairs. With “Come Back Song” and “This” leading the way, the album also features stellar tunes like “Whiskey and You” and the haunting ballad “We All Fall Down,” which feels like a modern take on “Cat’s In The Cradle.” All of the songs sung by one of country’s best vocalists.
24: 1994 – Shawn Camp (Reprise Nashville)
This is an album that never got a chance to shine in the more ‘wide-open’ 90s thanks to a kerfuffle between Camp and the labels executives who ‘didn’t know what to do with’ 1994, an album which should’ve been Camp’s follow-up to his well-received debut for the label. After becoming an in-demand songwriter for country and bluegrass acts, Camp’s live show inspired Warner Music Nashville’s president John Esposito to un-shelve this gem and release it (along with Shawn Camp) to the public.
23: Achin’ and Shakin’ – Laura Bell Bundy (Mercury Nashville)
This album from the Broadway star features six ‘achin’ and six ‘shakin’ songs with each ‘album’ feeling distinctly different. The first half, the Achin’ side was mainly produced by Nathan Chapman and he helped to guide the torch side to fantastic reviews thanks to “Curse The Bed,” “Cigarette” and “Drop On By,” the lone tune to not feature Laura Bell as one of the songwriters. The Shakin’ side may not be as critically appealing but it has its own playful side with Top 40 hit “Giddy On Up” and upcoming single “I’m No Good (For Ya Baby” being joined by the playful “Boyfriend” as highlights of the album.
22: Enjoy Yourself – Billy Currington (Mercury Nashville)
Billy Currington has managed to score hit after hit with a winning blend of laid-back charm a la Kenny Chesney and a soulful sexiness a-la Conway Twitty. Enjoy Yourself finds the vocalist and sometimes songwriter honing in on both styles via songs like #1 hit “Pretty Good At Drinkin’ Beer,” “Love Done Gone, “Like My Dog,” “Until You,” and “Let Me Down Easy.” With any of the songs on the record being potential radio hits, it’s hard not to enjoy Enjoy Yourself.
21: Keith Urban – Get Closer (Hit Red Records/Capitol Nashville)
The 8-track version of the album may be a bit brief by modern album standards but it’s as lean-n-mean a collection as you’re likely to find thanks to future hits like “Without You,” “You Gonna Fly” and “Long Hot Summer” being joined by the fantastic “Georgia Woods,” the lone song on the album in which Urban lets his guitar god flag truly fly. The Target-exclusive editon features four live tracks and two three more fantastic tunes in the banjo-filled “Big Promises” and Lori McKenna’s “The Luxury of Knowing” and a great remake of “Winning,” a Santana song. Perhaps sometime in the future fans will get to hear an ‘extended’ version of the album for stores everywhere with “Luxury of Knowing” and “Big Promises” being added to the album.
20: Get Off On The Pain – Gary Allan (MCA Nashville)
Gary Allan may not have the same mainstream country radio relevance he did 2-3 years ago when he still scored #1 singles but that doesn’t mean that Get off on the Pain is any ‘less-good.’ The title track has some of the same country-rock that made Living Hard stand-out while “Kiss Me When I’m Down” should’ve been a bigger hit than it’s been so far. Add those up with Bakersfield country rock like “That Ain’t Gonna Fly” and we’ve got one of the most mainstream ‘under the radar’ country releases of the year.
19: Haywire – Josh Turner (MCA Nashville)
The fantastically gifted vocalist returned with what has become one of his most successful single-spawning albums as it features the #1 hits “Why Don’t We Just Dance” and “All Over Me” along with current single, a remake of Don Williams’ “I Wouldn’t Be A Man.” In addition to these fantastic songs are the title track, “I’ll Be there” and “Your Smile,” the latter song may just be the fourth single released from this record.
18: Nothing Like This – Rascal Flatts (Big Machine Records)
After their only label home in Nashville packed-up and moved to Burbank, California, Rascal Flatts decided that they needed to stay with a Nashville-centered label and jumped to the supremely successful label Big Machine Records to release this album, which is a return to their ‘signature’ blend of pop-leaning country tunes. “Why Wait” hit #1, the album has quickly gone Gold and the trio looks poised to make this album one of the biggest of 2011 as well.
17: Ghost Train: Studio B Sessions – Marty Stuart (Sugar Hill Records)
Marty Stuart’s goal for his return to the label he started his recording career with was to make as fantastic a country album he could make. He wanted to make a traditionally-minded contemporary release and that’s exactly what was accomplished with Ghost Train: Studio B Sessions. Obviously Grammy voters agreed as “I Run To You, a duet with wife Connie Smith, was nominated for an award. Other highlights include “Country Boy Rock And Roll,” “A World Without You” and the fantastic “Hangman.”
16: Hemingway’s Whiskey – Kenny Chesney (BNA Records)
2010 was to be the ‘quiet’ year for Chesney as he relaxed and worked on this album. While he didn’t tour that much, that quiet time allowed for a refreshed artist to emerge with a record that may touch on his past themes but also digs a little deeper thanks to the title track, the hit “The Boys of Fall” and “Somewhere With You,” a tune which is a ‘new direction’ for the superstar.
15: The Incredible Machine – Sugarland (Mercury Nashville)
Originally introduced by the duo as something that would incorporate elements of ‘steampunk’ into their expanding country music sound, The Incredible Machine instead felt more like a record destined to be remembered for its arena-ready sound thanks to “All We Are,” the title track, “Tonight” and “Wide Open.” The ear worm hit “Stuck Like Glue” proved the band knew what they were doing while “Little Miss” looks to follow-suit as a big radio hit. “Every little Girl Like Me” and the previously mentioned “Tonight” likely will find themselves becoming radio hits in 2011. No matter what Jennfer Nettles and Kristian Bush would like to call the album, The Incredible Machine is nonetheless one of 2010’s best releases.
14: My Kinda Party – Jason Aldean (Broken Bow Records)
The title song (written by Brantley Gilbert) was polarizing to many but it hit home with many fans and helped to propel this soon to be mega star up another notch. Songs like “Tattoos on this Town,” “Church Pew Or Bar Stool” and “Fly Over States” certainly tell of an artist finding some top-shelf songs (all expertly produced by Michael Knox) and the ability to pull in pop star Kelly Clarkson for the power-ballad hit duet “Don’t You Wanna Stay” only helps to make My Kinda Party a record that is not only consistent but daring in challenging conventionalism (something future single “Dirt Road Anthem” does as well).
These were released a separate SixPak albums in the spring/fall of 2010 (and followed-up by Loaded: The Best of in November) and the first SixPak Hillbilly Bone only had one radio single but what a massive success it was as it helped Shelton gain awards including the coveted Top Male Vocalist award from the CMA. “Delilah” is a sweet with fiancée Miranda Lambert while “Kiss My Country Ass” found Shelton willing to take ‘risks’ with songs. All About Tonight featured the #1 title track and it’s follow-up, the clever Bud Lee co-write “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking” and the duet with Miranda in“Draggin’ The River.”
12: Easton Corbin – Easton Corbin (MCA Nashville)
Easton Corbin has been on a roll since debuting with “A Little More Country Than That” and “Roll With It” hitting #1 on the singles chart. His self-titled debut is nothing different with a fine collection of neo-traditional tunes that ranged from the Strait-like hits to Joe Nichols-like “I Can’t Love You Back” and “This Far From Memphis.”
11: Speak Now – Taylor Swift (Big Machine Records)
Say what you want about Taylor Swift being country or not or her competency as a vocalist but one thing you cannot say about Swift is her ability to write songs that relate to her growing-with-her audience. Nathan Chapman once again has wrapped up Swifts songs with a wall of sound that helps each song strike a different chord with some songs firmly in the pop side of the fence with others sitting in contemporary country categories. Whatever genre it it, Speak Now is good.
10: The Reason Why – Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville)
“Country’s Fleetwood Mac” returns with their fourth album and first all-new album for Capitol Records (who re-issued A Place To Land after the quartet left Equity Records in 2008). The move hasn’t changed anything about Little Big Town, except perhaps the chance at major country music success, and it may have actually helped the quartet expand on their rootsy vocalized country with fantastic tunes like the title cut, the Top 10 hit “Little White Church” and current radio single, the heartbroken “Kiss Goodbye.” Add in potential radio hits in “Runaway Train” and “All The Way Down” and we have a contender for ACM and CMA Album of the year in the coming award show cycle.
9: Quicksand – Randy Kohrs (Rural Rhythm Records)
Randy Kohrs is an in-demand Dobro guitar sessionist and most people would be quick to lump him in as a bluegrass artists but as he proves on this fantastic and often overlooked early 2010 release, he’s one of the better country tenors working in Nashville thanks to tunes like “Die On The Vine,” the title track, and “Sunday Clothes.” With a whole ‘country’ album in the works for 2011, Randy Kohrs may just end up here again next year.
8: They Call Me Cadillac – Randy Houser (Show Dog-Universal)
Like his good buddy Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser came out with a new recording in 2010. Also like Jamey, the album featured a moderate radio hit and a sound that harkened more to the country sounds of the 1970s with a little Skynyrd thrown in for good measure. Songs like the criminally ignored “A Man Like Me” and the title track find Houser showcasing just who he is while ballads like “Will I Always Be This Way” and “Addicted” showcase one of country music’s finest vocalists. Perhaps ‘rockers’ like “Lowdown and Lonesome” and “Out Here In The Country” can give radio a reason to play him again.
7: Judge Jerrod & The Hung Jury – Jerrod Niemann (Sea Gayle/Arista Nashville)
Who knew that a remake of “You Don’t Treat Me No Good” would be the breakthrough song for Jerrod Niemann. His self-recorded and produced album (taking a page outta buddy Jamey Johnson’s playbook) caught the attention of Brad Paisley and Frank Rogers and they brought the album to Arista Nashville and Joe Galante, in one of his last acts as label boss, approved the release of the album completely as Niemann and his band had recorded it. Songs like “Bakersfield,” “One More Drinking Song” and “I Hope You Get What You Deserve” showcase versatility while the end of the year hit “What Do You Want” joined “Lover, Lover” to make Niemann more than a ‘one hit wonder.’ In fact, the record’s far from over with songs mentioned as potential radio hits in the next year with “Down In Mexico” and “Old School New Again.”
6: The Band Perry – The Band Perry (Republic Nashville)
This trio opened 2010 with “Hip To My Heart” gaining popularity on the radio and what is interesting about that song is that for as polarizing as the tune proved to be, it helped radio take notice of “If I Die Young” and gave the trio the break-through of the year. “You Lie” “Postcards From Paris” “Independence” and “Lasso” are amongst the other standouts from 2010’s best-selling newcomers and a band that feels like they’re only getting started (despite a wholly uninventive name).
5: Need You Now – Lady Antebellum (Capitol Nashville)
Released in early 2010, this album ended up spending most of the year as the best-selling album with over 3,000,000 copies sold. The title tune became a mult-format smash and is universally hailed as one of the year’s best singles while “American Honey,” and “Our Kind of Love” both proved to be worthy follow-ups on the country radio dial. My favorite track on the record from the first moment I heard it was Tom Douglas’ “Hello World.” Add in “Love This Pain,” “Stars Tonight” and “If I Knew Then” and it’s hard to not to see why this album made Lady A the biggest break-out stars of 2010.
4: The Guitar Song – Jamey Johnson (Mercury Nashville)
Jamey Johnson has often been hailed as a ‘savior of traditional country music’ and while this may or may not be true, it’s hard to argue with that sentiment when listening to The Guitar Song. This two disc opus was recently certified Gold despite little radio airplay love and with a winning collection of newly written tunes like “Can’t Cash The Checks,” “Macon,” and fantastic covers like “Set ‘Em Up Joe” and “Mental Revenge” all of the praise of The Guitar Song is not without merit.
3: You Get What You Give – Zac Brown Band (Southern Ground/Atlantic)
This album proves that the genre-bending Zac Brown Band are going to avoid a sophomore slump as the Gold-selling album features a #1 duet in “As She’s Walking Away” and fantastic tunes concert-tested like “Colder Weather,” “Who Knows” “I Play The Road” and “Whiskey’s Gone.” The gifted band is destined to be country music’s answer for the Dave Matthews band and truly are a collective and You Get What You Give proves why.
2: Sing The Statler Brothers – Dailey & Vincent (Rounder Records)
This fantastic collection of Statler Brothers covers came out through Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores and while it may have meant that a few left coast fans had to work hard to get a copy of the disc, it served as a loving tribute from Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent to the Hall of Fame quartet with rootsy versions of “Flowers On The Wall,” “Sosan When She Tried,” “Class of ‘57” and “Elizabeth” among the highlights of a fantastic disc.
1: Up On The Ridge – Dierks Bentley (Capitol Nashville)
It’d have been easy to dismiss this album as neither a country record or a bluegrass record but to do so would be to dismiss what Bentley and Jon Randall Stewart have done, which is successfully marry both contemporary country and traditional bluegrass into a winning and rewarding album that is Up On The Ridge. A plethora of roots music guests like Del McCoury, The Punch Brothers and more join Dierks on the album leaving it vibrant and rich. Standouts include single “Draw Me A Map,” “Senor,” “Fallin’ For You,” “Rovin’ Gambler,” and a brave cover of “Pride (In The Name of Love).” The latter song could very well be a country radio single sometime in 2011 (if not passed over for “Love Grows Wild”).