The Best Country Music of 2010

Dave Heaton and Steve Leftridge

The synthesis of the past, present and future is so much of what country music is about these days. The traditions haven’t disappeared, but the music is changing all of the time.

2010 began with Taylor Swift winning Grammy’s Album of the Year award for Fearless, the top-selling album of 2009. She also had the two most-played radio songs of 2009. In 2010, she sold over a million copies in the first week of Speak Now, her third album. The New York Times (Nov 3, 2010) proclaimed it to be “a sales triumph” and 2010 “a notable year for country music”, in terms of sales. It wasn’t just Swift; the year was filled with country-music money-makers, including artists spreading that success beyond the confines of the genre.

Earlier in the year it wasn’t Swift you saw every time you turned on the TV or opened a magazine, it was the trio Lady Antebellum, who hit big with their second album. They were another face of country-music success 2010, but again not the only ones. In the fall, there was a streak of weeks where the #1 Billboard album was a new country release nearly every week, including heavy hitters Sugarland, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, and the Zac Brown Band.

Within the broader picture of records sales declining year by year, country stars have been doing well commercially, seemingly continuing to extend their reach beyond what was thought of as the genre's audience. In some ways, this story runs parallel to the musical diversification of country. The ambitions of Sugarland, Lady Antebellum, and Taylor Swift are clearly bigger than one genre, and musically you can hear it, as they look towards ‘80s and ‘90s pop and rock music as much as they look towards the legends of country.

At the same time, it’s a mistake to think that country music’s past is disappearing. Some of the most noteworthy albums of the year came from legends who made their names decades ago, like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, or from stars who reached popularity in each of the decades after that. For example, 2010 saw another new album by Reba McEntire, who signed her first record deal in 1975.

Jamey Johnson’s epic double-album The Guitar Song seems representative of the way the young and the old commingle in country music today. Clearly indebted to the “outlaw country” stars and lonesome-jukebox songwriters of the past, he’s also one of the genre’s rising stars (even with country radio all but ignoring him this year).

This synthesis of the past, present and future is so much of what country music is about these days. The traditions haven’t disappeared, but the music is changing all of the time. “It’s Just That Way”, like the Alan Jackson song says, though it’s also possible that for all of the genre’s seeming permanence, it’s always been changing.

In country music, as in the music industry overall, there is actually a persistent sense of impermanence, that we're living in ever-changing times where the ground can shift from underneath you. Country artists seem in a constant struggle to keep up, to figure out what having a career in country music means these days. What does the album mean, for example? Keith Urban's 2010 album has only eight songs. Blake Shelton temporarily bypassed the album with two successful "six-pak" releases; essentially two EPs spread apart in place of one album. On the flip side of that were artists trying extra-hard to give their albums a sense of importance, either through adopting a theme (Jerrod Niemann, Laura Bell Bundy) or lengthening it (Johnson's double album).

A literal reminder of impermanence came in the spring, when the Cumberland River flooded Nashville, damaging the Grand Ole Opry House, other significant structures, and the homes, instruments, and memorabilia of so many country musicians. It was one of those moments where everyone involved in making country music (whatever kind of country that might be) came together to help, in the process paying tribute to the roots and legacy of country music.


Artist: Alan Jackson

Album: Freight Train

Label: Arista


Display Width: 200

US Release Date: 2010-03-30

UK Release Date: 2010-03-29


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List number: 10

Alan Jackson
Freight Train

After a few more ambitious "concept" records, Alan Jackson pared back for his 16th studio album, a relatively simple collection of tried-and-true truckstop country songs about heartbreak, family matters, “the working man”, and weekends spent fishing. At this point in his career, Jackson has an affable casualness about his singing; he makes everything seem easy. On Freight Train, in theme the songs may seem generic, but it’s exactly that everyday quality that, in Jackson’s hands, make the songs feel like they’re capturing universal stories. It’s a Zen version of Jackson’s music, breaking it down to its base elements. Dave Heaton


Artist: Randy Houser

Album: They Call Me Cadillac

Label: Showdog

Label: Universal


Display Width: 200

US Release Date: 2010-09-21

UK Release Date: 2010-09-21

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List number: 9

Randy Houser
They Call Me Cadillac

Randy Houser looks like a drywaller who will take your requests for Waylon covers in exchange for shots of Jack. Houser might, in fact, be country's great democratizer: by splitting the difference between outlaw-country revivalism and modern hard country, Houser's sophomore set has something for everyone. With his brawny, expressive vocals, Houser can belt out radio-friendly shitkickers like “Whistlin' Dixie”, but it's Houser the songwriter -- his tough tunes like the rattling ballad “Addicted”, and the teflon honky-tonk of the title cut -- that makes this Cadillac worth the ride. Steve Leftridge


Artist: Merle Haggard

Album: I Am What I Am

Label: Vanguard


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US Release Date: 2010-04-20

UK Release Date: 2010-04-19


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List number: 8

Merle Haggard
I Am What I Am

After over 45 years in country music, Merle Haggard has earned the right to comes across as the wise elder. That’s how he sounds on I Am What I Am, which comes close to the Grammy-seeking traps that legends can fall into, but eschews them with a shrug. Instead, he sounds like he’s sitting on the front porch, surrounded by his friends and family, watching the days go by, sharing with youngsters his observations on love, life, and music. It can be heard as a potential closing statement, and does contain looks backward to childhood and forward to the hereafter. Yet it also can be breezy, light, and fun. Dave Heaton


Artist: Laura Bell Bundy

Album: Achin’ and Shakin’

Label: Mercury Nashville


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US Release Date: 2010-04-13

UK Release Date: 2010-04-13

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List number: 7

Laura Bell Bundy
Achin’ and Shakin’

Laura Bell Bundy’s career in Broadway musicals may prevent her from getting country cred, but country music is (and always has been) a rather big tent, not ready to turn away talented singers. There is something stagey about this album’s split into two stylistic halves -- representing two approaches to heartbreak, sullen versus boisterous -- but she inhabits each fully. The dancier “Shakin’” half has some of Dolly Parton’s ’80s cheekiness; on the "Achin’" half she seems to be drawing from the sadness of so many country singers before her, who were in turn drawing on the sadness of so many human beings before, and around, them. Heartbreak doesn’t care about cred. Dave Heaton


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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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