The Best of 2008 in Country Music – The Top 25 albums of the Year

While there are many ‘best-of’ or ‘worst of’ or ‘dissappointing’ lists coming out this time of year, few if any will manage to cover most aspects of Country music as our “Top 25 Country Albums of 2008″ manages to do.

It was a year of historic proportions in America.  There was $4 gas; the economy went into a deep depression and the country managed to elect a man with a funny name as the first African-American President.  The year also provided a lot of interesting things in the Country music world; particularly interesting was the cross-over of pop and rock stars to the chart along with the continued success of stars like Carrie Underwood.  The years also found a CMT show producing one of the genre’s most compelling acts while American Idol struggled to do so. It was a particularly strong year for full albums outside of the mainstream.  Without further hyperbole, here are Roughstock’s Top 25 Country albums for the year 2008.  If you want to read Roughstock’s original album review, click on the album images (where available).

25: “Father Time” by Hal Ketchum (Curb Records)
In an era of pro-tools, auto-tune and other forms of digital studio trickery, Hal Ketchum decided to record “Father Time” the old-fashioned way.  In the course of two days, Hal and band cranked out 14 tunes the old school way; live, in the studio, the singer with the band.  This “old school” approach to writing and recording the album has resulted in a spirited album full of top-drawer performances from the band and Ketchum himself, particularly on the murder ballad “Millionaire’s Wife,” the album opening ballad “Invisible,” “Continental Farewell,” a song about a despicable man, “Sparrow” and the beautiful ballad “Surrounded By Love.”

24. “Anything Goes” by Randy Houser (Universal Records South)
Fans of contemporary radio may like “Anything Goes” more than the traditionalists but nobody can deny the talent that’s present on Randy Houser’s debut. While there are a few songs on this record that may be a big derivative of other artists, this debut album manages to showcase a vocalist with the ability to sing up-tempo tracks like “Boots On” along with heart-felt tracks like “I’ll Sleep” and the title track.  Also thrown in the mix are hard chargin’ country rock tunes like “My Kind of Country.”  With this record Randy has managed to present himself as one of the truly talented newcomers of 2008.

23: “Sounds So Good” by Ashton Shepherd (MCA Nashville)
From the first note of “her late 2007 single “Takin Off This Pain,” I felt that Ashton Shepherd’s album was gonna be different.  Gloriously twangy, the album – produced by Buddy Cannon – instantly announced the arrival of a young true country singer.  While she’s gotten her singles up to the Top 40 of the charts, Ashon’s had a small struggle, as one would expect her to have given the traditional nature of these songs.  Still, radio failure doesn’t mean anything for our list (and it’s a badge of honor for many).  Standout tracks include the title track, “Whiskey Won The Battle,” “I Ain’t Dead Yet,” and the ballad “The Pickin’ Shed.”

22: “If We Ever Make It Home” by Wade Bowen (Sustain Records)
As one of Texas’ most popular touring artists, Wade Bowen hasn’t really needed Nashville or mainstream hits to have a successful career yet with “If We Ever Make It Home,” the artist has managed to maintain his ‘indie’ sensibility while delivering his best and most complete album to date.  The album’s best singles include the title track, “Turn On The Lights,” a heart-felt ballad about his wife’s post-partum depression and “Ghost In This Town,” an ode to anyone who has ever felt like they’ve grown out of thier old town.  

21: “Startin’ Fires” by Blake Shelton (Warner Brothers Records)
What “Home” has done for Blake Shelton is to give the artist the chance to spread his musical wings and try to see where that takes him.  “Startin’ Fires” is the first album to follow this path and while many were hoping for more, the album nonetheless showcases a strong vocalist singing tunes that do indeed showcase Shelton’s vocals.  The strong songs on this record include the fun and sultry title track, first single “She Couldn’t Be Gone” the southern rocker “Country Strong” and “Bare Skin Rug,” a fun, rootsy duet with Miranda Lambert.  

20: “Fearless” by Taylor Swift (Big Machine Records)
Traditionalists would like nothing better than to discredit Taylor Swift from what she is, one of the younger, new generation of Country music’s best songwriters.  While her songs are firmly on the pop side of the fence, “Fearless” does find the 19 year old moving from young teen romances to more mature material (as evidence by 2nd single “White Horse”).  Other standout tracks on the album are “Breathe,” “Fifteen,” “The Best Day” and the title track.  With more sharply written songs like these, Swift has the ability to write a truly classic album.  

19: “X” by Trace Adkins (Capitol Nashville)
Trace Adkins often has left polarizing opinions about the quality of songs he records. While he has undoubtedly one of the best male voices in Country music, Trace has also recorded fan-loved, critic-loathed ‘ditties’ throughout his career.  Ironically, that polarization has often left Adkins out of these kind of ‘best of’ discussions but “X” finds him taking creative license –afforded with that string of hits– to record a record that is mostly a compelling listen.  Songs like the stellar “I Can’t Outrun You,” “All I Ask For Anymore,” the playful “Sweet” and the outright outstanding “Til The Last Shot’s Fired.”  While the Album’s biggest hits will most likely be those ‘ditties — for example new single “Marry For Money” — it is these songs which make this record outstanding.

18: “Lady Antebellum” by Lady Antebellum (Capitol Nashville)
From the moment that “Love Don’t Live Here” was first played, the staff at Roughstock thought “Lady A” was destined for great things and this album certainly didn’t disappoint.  Mixing country rock and pop production values with country lyric and vocals certainly wasn’t a new idea but the trio of Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood certainly managed to perfect the sound in a way that coalesced into a cool sounding new band that children and adults alike could like.  The standout tracks on this self-titled record include “Love Don’t Live Here,” “I Run To You,” the fun “Slow Down Sister,” “Long Gone,” and “Things People Say.”

17: “Sunset Man” by James Otto (Warner Brothers Records Nashville)
After recording a solid but overlooked debut for Mercury Nashville five years ago, James Otto regrouped and was determined to record another record that paid homage to his various influences.  “Sunset Man” managed to do that and more as he scored 2008′s biggest hit in “Just Got Started Loving You.”  “These Are The Good Old Days” is a slinky, R&B tinged ballad that will recall the best of Ronnie Milsap while “Ain’t Gonna Stop” reminds folks that this album is from a Muzik Mafia member.  the Title Track has some interesting melodic moments and a great vocal from Otto while “The Man I Am” is a downright sexy song, even if the roots of country are stretched quiet a bit on the track.  All of these songs helped to shape Otto and this album into one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.

16: “Sex & Gasoline” by Rodney Crowell (Yep Roc Records)
Rodney Crowell is one of the greatest singer-songwriters to ever walk the earth, let alone write country songs so we were eagerly anticipating this album release and despite being initially taken aback by the way in which Rodney went about making this record, we grew to appreciate it with each successive listen.  Burned out by over-analyzing his own stuff, Rodney instead handed the reigns over to Joe Henry who framed Rodney’s sharp songwriting — this time all the songs are written from a female perspective — in a wall of Americana sounds.  While this record isn’t quite as good as his trio of “life” albums (“The Houston Kid,” “The Outsider,” and “Fate’s Right Hand”), “Sex & Gasoline” is nonetheless a one of country music’s best of the year. After all, a sub par Rodney Crowell album is still better than most anything else released in a given year.

15: “Comal County Blue” by Jason Boland & The Stragglers (Thirty Tigers)
This is a real honky tonk record.  It isn’t going to ever garner Boland and his merry gents a platinum record but the Southwestern superstars aren’t looking for such things when they write and record albums.  This record, released in the middle of the year, finds Boland singing about personal topics that most people can relate to.  One of the major topics discussed is finding redemption and God after walking away from the bottle.  Both “God Is Mad At Me” and “Bottle By My Bed” discuss that topic at length (they also discuss how Boland’s life was in shambles due to the bottle).  This kind of sharp honest songwriting has always been a hallmark of great country music but the mainstream has lost sight of that.  Fortunately for us there are artists like Boland and the Stragglers out there recording these songs for anyone who wants to give them a listen.  

14: “For All The World To See” by Becky Schlegel (Lilly Ray/IGO Records)
Placed into the CD player without any expectations, “For All The World To See” really did open my eyes to the fact that talented country/bluegrass/roots music can come from anywhere in this vast country as Schlegel (Ssh-lay-gull) has carved out quite a successful career in Minnesota and the mid-west.  With classic tracks like “Jenny” and “Lonely,” mixed in with solid tracks like “Bound For Tennessee” and “Sound Of Your Voice,” Becky Schlegel has managed to make a record that recalls Allison Krauss and Union Station’s soft pop/bluegrass hybrid.  Quite simply “For All The World To See” is relaxing piece of music that needs to be heard multiple times to fully appreciate.  

13: “A Place To Land” – Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville)
Little Big Town is a band that has forged through two previous wonky label deals to come out on top with not only their pride but a successful career to boot.  Country music’s own twangy version of Fleetwood Mac (a comparison that’s really evident on “Fine Line”) has returned to the stores with this expanded edition of “A Place To Land.”  With Capitol backing their albums, the quartet added three new tracks to the album including the great single “Good Lord Willing” and a song that they first sang together years ago, producer Wayne Kirkpatrick’s “Love Profound.”  Other standouts on the album include “I’m With The Band” “Fury,” “Vapor” and “Evangeline,” a song so good that we hope that radio is brave enough to play –if given the chance– because many women can certainly relate to the lyrics in the song.  

12: “Keep On Walkin’” by The Grascals (Rounder Records)
Devoted fans of Bluegrass often love to complain –just as traditionalists do to Country music proper– about modern bands which expand the genre.  While The Grascals manage to keep their music firmly rooted in the traditions of bluegrass (take a listen to the opening track “Feeling Blue”), the sextet also isn’t afraid to mix in some great traditional country tunes like Billy Yates’ “Choices” or Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again.”  It’s a great high-lonesome album that features great pickin’, songwriting and vocals.  “Keep On Walkin’” may just be the band’s best album yet.

11: “All I Intended To Be” by Emmylou Harris (Nonesuch Records)
One of the true legends of Country music, sweet Emmylou has recorded what could be her finest album is since “Wrecking Ball” from a decade ago.  Great gems like “All That You Have Is Your Soul” and “Kern River” and “Broken Man’s Lament” are mixed in with equally great tracks like “Shores of White Sand” and “Not Enough.” While mainstream radio ignores records like this that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be heard.  In a just world, artists like Emmylou, Rodney Crowell, Hal Ketchum and Dolly Parton would still have their music played by Country radio, even if it’s only to be something different than what everyone else is doing.

10: “Honey Songs” by Jim Lauderdale (Yep Roc Records)
As prolific as artists from the sixties and seventies were, singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale latest album is perhaps his finest “mainstream” record since the 1990s.  A go-to songwriter for the likes of George Strait and Lee Ann Womack, Lauderdale has recently earned Grammy awards for his series of bluegrass albums (both solo and with Ralph Stanley).  He’s such a revered artist in the Nashville community that his shows at places like the Station Inn routinely sell-out.  His sharp songwriting is particularly strong on this collection of honey soaked tracks.  “I Hope You’re Happy,” “Honey Suckle Honey Pie,” “Daughters of the Majestic Sage” and “It’s Finally Sinkin’ In” and “Stingray” are but a few of the highlights from this record.  

9: “Around the Bend” by Randy Travis (Warner Brothers Nashville)
Randy Travis may have sang mostly southern gospel numbers on his last few albums but that hasn’t kept the artists from wanting to record a full-fledged album of secular music.  “Around The Bend” is his first release of all-new secular Country music in a decade and, despite a slightly worn-out voice, Travis is still as vibrant as ever.  Produced with long-time collaborator Kyle Lehning, “Around Be Bend” features material from top-shelf writers and songs like “Dig Two Graves” and “He Didn’t Have A Good Time” and “Everything I Own (Has Got A Dent)” really reassure us that great singers still know their way around a great lyrical melody.  

8: “Rattlin’ Bones” by Kacey Chambers and Shane Nicholson (Sugar Hill Records)
While this married couple are stars in their native Australia in their own respective genres (her country, him pop/rock), nobody could’ve guessed that they’d have released one of the sharpest duets records recorded in recent memory.  While “She & Him” are getting all of the critical love from around the musicworld and blogsphere, I’d counterpunch those critics with this fantastic album.  Once Again this completely sterling album won’t be touched with a ten-foot-pole by country radio but that truly is their loss.  Songs like “Sweetest Waste of Time,” “Wildflower,” “Jackson Hole,” and “The House That Never Was” help propel the record.

7: “The Foundation” by Zac Brown Band (Homegrown/Big Picture/Atlantic Records)
While the selection of this album might be the most ‘controversial’ on this list, the album does deserve its place. While “Chicken Fried” might be silly and clunky lyrically to some critics out there, it did resonate with many fans and helped bring Zac Brown Band an “out of nowhere” Number One hit single.  The band, which plays most of the instruments on “The Foundation” does like to have fun (as evidenced by “Where The Boat Leaves From” and “Toes”) but that doesn’t mean they aren’t one of the better true bands to reach national attention in Country music.  While the ‘words’ to “Sic ‘em on a Chicken’ are silly as hell, the songs serve as a novel way for the band to flex their musical muscles while keeping cursory fans somewhat interested in the actual songs.  “Free” is one of the best ballads to be recorded this year and “Highway 20 Ride” is a divorce song that truly showcases the bands talent, particularly the vocals from Zac.  Another stand-out is their cover of Ray LaMontagne’s “Jolene.”    

6: “Call Me Crazy” by Lee Ann Womack (MCA Records)
Call me Crazy but once I saw the artwork for this record, I wasn’t so sure what would come out of the album.  An amalgam of her critically-praised “There’s More Where That Came From” and the pop-leaning “I Hope You Dance,” “Call Me Crazy” is a mighty fine album with many great songs, particularly “The Bees,” “I Found It In You,” “Either Way” “If These Walls Could Talk,” “Have You Seen That Girl” and the first single, the sharply written “Last Call.” Oh hell, the whole album is great.  If you don’t have it yet, shame on you for you’re missing out on a true classic in the making.  

5: “Love On The inside” by Sugarland (Mercury Records Nashville)
While many people hated “All I Want To Do,” we were rocking out to it.  Sure it doesn’t say all that much and is a bit repetitive but it was pure fun and sometimes we all need mindless entertainment.  It’s been fun to see this band morph from a slightly awkward trio into a superstar but still slightly awkward duo.  Songs like “It Happens” and “Steve Earle” manage to keep up the fun while “Joey” and “Already Gone” have something to say but two songs stand out more than all of the others; “Love” and “The Very Last Country Song.”  The former may be a bit misunderstood or underappreciated by many but it is at its core about seeing love from various vantage points (and it probably is the title track) while the latter is a “Stay-like” acoustic gem about the fact that country music is the soundtrack for the forlorn and weary people.  Add in a stellar version of The Dream Academy’s “Life In A Northern Town” with tour mates Little Big Town and Jake Owen on the fan edition and we have the makings of a super-sized smash-hit album.

4: “That Lonesome Song” by Jamey Johnson (Mercury Records Nashville)
What else is there to say about this record that hasn’t already been said.  Sure, technically it was originally released in 2007 but very few people actually heard it or knew about it (only grassroots bloggers and rabid fans) so it rightly deserves being on our ‘best-of’ list of 2008.  There isn’t a terrible song in the bunch but the truly great songs like “Sending An Angel To Hell” “Mowin’ Down The Roses,” “High Cost of Living” and the stellar Grammy-nominated single “In Color” stand out from the rest of ‘em.  Radio, thankfully, has jumped on the bandwagon and pushed the latter song into the Top 10 and while they’re likely to play one or two more singles from the record there may not be anything quite as radio ready as that single was so the album needs all the love it can get so that it doesn’t fall from our collective consciousness in 2009.

3: “Trouble In Mind” by Hayes Carll (Lost Highway Records)
Hayes Carll wrote one of the best songs of the year (and of the past few years) ever in “She Left Me For Jesus” but it’s far from the only good song on this roots-rockin’ major label debut from the Texan.  “It’s A Shame” is a sharply written country rocker while “I Got A Gig” has some wry humor to it as well.  There are a few drinkin’ tracks on the record as well (“Wild As A Turkey” and “Knockin’ Over Whiskeys”).  This troubadour may just be starting out but he’s surely going to be around for a long time if he continues to release records like “Trouble In Mind.”

2: “Sleepless Nights” by Patty Loveless (Saguaro Road Records)
From the opening “Why Baby Why” to the album closing “Cold Cold Heart” Patty Loveless’ “labor of love” truly sparkles.  She and her husband Emory Gordy, Jr. truly loved the songs they recorded and when they brought up the idea of recording these classics –including “He Thinks I Still Care,” “Crazy Arms,” and “There Stands The Glass”– to the label, they were met with an enthusiastic response.  Her song interpretation skill has always fit the steel-soaked classic sounds of tradition country and Bluegrass that doing this kind of album was a natural (it was kind of hinted at on her great “Dreaming My Dreams” album as well.  If parents are looking to introduce the classic country sounds to their kids or grandkids “Sleepless Nights” would be a great place to start.  

1: “The Life Of A Song” by Joey+Rory (Sugar Hill/Vanguard Records)
Wow, what a refreshing piece of work “The Life of a Song” is.  From the stark honest songwriter’s lament of “Play The Song” to the album closing title track, Joey+Rory’s debut album certainly stands out.  Masterful acoustic and traditional country production from Grammy-winner Carl Jackson is but the icing on the cake for this classic piece of work.  There is something for everyone on this record but nothing stands out more than “Cheater, Cheater,” a stone-country kiss-off song that radio is inexplicably playing, “To Say Goodbye,” A number one hit in the making, and “The Heart of the Wood” as good as any song you’ll hear.  As good as these songs are, they wouldn’t be nearly as good as they are as they’re sung by one of the purest female country vocalists you’ll ever hear: Joey Martin.  And to think that if it weren’t for CMT’s “Can You Duet” we probably wouldn’t have gotten the chance to hear her and Rory sing together (outside of songwriter nights around Nashville).  

Well folks, there ya have it, love ‘em or leave ‘em, these are our most favorite albums from the year that was: 2008.  If you feel like we missed something or placed something too low or high, feel free to drop us a comment below.  We hope 2009 brings us as good a crop of albums as 2008 did.  

It was a year of historic proportions in America.  There was $4 gas; the economy went into a deep depression and the country managed to elect a man with a funny name as the first African-American President.  The year also provided a lot of interesting things in the Country music world; particularly interesting was the cross-over of pop and rock stars to the chart along with the continued success of stars like Carrie Underwood.  The years also found a CMT show producing one of the genre’s most compelling acts while American Idol struggled to do so. It was a particularly strong year for full albums outside of the mainstream.  Without further hyperbole, here are Roughstock’s Top 25 Country albums for the year 2008.

 

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