Country music purists may be stockpiling vinyl and dry goods for the Swiftocalypse, but all things considered, 2009 was a pretty good year for country music. Eric Church, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ashley Monroe, Elvis Costello, and John Doe, to name just a few, all released solid albums and the ever-reliable George Strait was, well, reliable, but nudged at some boundaries by delivering a version of Mexican folksong “El Rey”. Here are PopMatters’ picks for the year’s best country albums, both mainstream and independent.
Carolyn Mark is a headstrong singer with wanderlust and critical-thinking skills that she exercises in songs that never settle for easy answers. Witness her here: “Put your hand too close to my mouth when you feed me / I just have to bite it.” She’s in fine form here, and so are her collaborators, the group NQ Arbuckle. Together, they find a common place of melancholic contemplation, and then occasionally burn the barn down. Mark and the band are Canadian, but don’t consider them a token non-US country act on this list. They’re token nothings: unique talents always blazing their own trail. Dave Heaton
Viper of Melody
US: 21 Apr 2009
UK: 21 Apr 2009
Wayne Hancock is hands down the hardest working man in country music. Fifteen years after his debut album Thunderstorms and Neon Signs had fans proclaiming him the successor to Hank Williams’ legacy, Hancock is still playing 250-plus dates a year, bringing his brand of juke joint swing (a blend of classic country, rockabilly, big band, and swing) to gin joints across America, gleefully proclaiming his disdain for commercial country music before ripping into a song that could’ve been a jukebox staple had he only been born 50 years earlier. With Viper of Melody, his seventh studio album, Hancock is at the top of his game. A must-hear is the highly danceable murder song “Your Love and His Blood”, which finds Wayne the Train crooning to his lady love, “The next time we’re together, I’ll be on the witness stand / I’ve got your love and his blood on my hands”. Juli Thanki
Mainstream country music spawns a never-ending debate about who is or isn’t ‘country enough’. Yet there are some musicians in the genre, like Keith Urban, whose music gets better the less they try to sound ‘country’. Where the emotional turmoil within his last album drew critics’ praise, this generally dismissed album is the better of the two, and his best so far. It’s fluff, but beautifully constructed, rather intriguing fluff. A collection of daydreams, the album offers romance-novel delusions—the feeling that everyone you meet is about to fall head over heels in love with you—packaged as intricately layered, sublimely melodic spring-time pop anthems and late-summer hazy ballads. The more Urban embraces romantic illusion, musically and lyrically, the better the album gets. Dave Heaton
Though he’d been playing country music professionally since his teens, oddball Texan James Hand didn’t release his national debut until he was in his mid-50s. Now pushing 60, he’s released sophomore effort Shadow on the Ground, an album that’s pure country, with a dash of wry, self-aware humor as Hand sings about country music’s favorite topics: drinking, heartbreak, truckin’, and the love of a good pet… in this case, a parakeet. Co-producers Lloyd Maines and Ray Benson also contribute their none-too-shabby guitar skills to Shadow, Benson most notably on the album’s lone cover, a Texas-flavored version of pop standard “Mona Lisa.” Juli Thanki
Those Darlins don’t consider their music ‘just’ country, and I guess it’s not, but their spunky concoction of bubblegum-pop and down-home blues sure taps into country-music traditions galore. There’s country not just in their cover of the Carter Family, but in the way they sing together, as a trio, while shuffling their way through Southern-themed singalongs about defending your mama’s honor and getting so drunk you eat a whole chicken in one sitting. New Yorkers now, they’re still Southern and proud, which feeds into the vivid setting they provide for fun, fiery songs. Dave Heaton
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