Music

The Best Country Music of 2008

The year's best country music may be topped by archival releases from deceased artists, but the living managed to offer a strong alternative to the Nashvegas machine.

What's the state of country music in 2008? Well, the top two albums were released by dead guys. Luckily the living musicians out there exerted a pretty good effort this year too, even if several of them will never receive airplay on radio or music television. This Top Ten was a tough list to compile, and several albums just barely missed the cut, but are still worth a listen any way. It seems that despite the vapidity of releases from commercial stars such as Chuck Wicks and Kellie Pickler, country music as a whole is still in pretty good shape.

Artist: Hank Williams Album: The Unreleased Recordings Label: Time Life Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/h/hank-williams1.jpg US Release Date: 2008-10-28 UK Release Date: 2008-10-27

Display as: List

List number: 1

In 1951, Hank Williams recorded a series of radio shows sponsored by Mother's Best Flour for early morning play on WSM 650. Although the acetate discs which held these shows were notoriously fragile, they somehow managed to survive being thrown in the trash, and were later rescued by a WSM employee. After years of lawsuits regarding ownership of these recordings, the Mother's Best shows are finally available to the public. This three-disc set picks the best cuts from those early morning radio shows, including dozens of songs which Williams never officially recorded for release such as "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and "The Pale Horse and His Rider." These songs along with the occasional snippet of Williams' commentary on them reveal a heretofore unseen side of the Hillbilly Shakespeare.

Must Listen: All of it. It's Hank Williams as you've never heard him before.Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings

Artist: Johnny Cash Album: At Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition Label: Columbia Label: Legacy Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Folsom-Prison-Legacy-2CD-DVD/dp/B001DDCVCI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1222803527&sr=8-1 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/a/at-folsom-prison-legacy-edi.jpg US Release Date: 2008-10-14 UK Release Date: Available as import

Display as: List

List number: 2

Forty years after their recording, the landmark Folsom Prison concerts of January 13, 1968 are finally released in their entirety with this 2CD/1DVD collection. In addition to Cash's spellbinding performance, At Folsom Prison includes songs from Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, a hillbilly poetry reading from June Carter, and announcements from country radio disc jockey Hugh Cherry. The more cynical listener may wonder why Sony/Legacy waited to release these recordings until the Man in Black became a cash cow years after his death. But country music fans can finally rejoice at being able to hear the legendary Folsom Prison concerts the way they were originally performed, mistakes, profanity, and all.

Must listen: Watch the DVD and see the Man in Black in action.

Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition

Artist: Justin Townes Earle Album: The Good Life Label: Bloodshot Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/e/earlejustintownes-thegoodlife.jpg US Release Date: 2008-03-25 UK Release Date: Available as import

Display as: List

List number: 3

Despite the pressure that the Earle name could put on a young country musician, Justin Townes Earle has managed to create an album blending prewar folk, classic country, and a certain je ne sais quoi reminiscent of a young Guthrie or Van Zandt. The resulting product is downright amazing, more so if you consider that The Good Life is Earle's first full-length release. Furthermore, the fact that Earle has developed such a mature and confident sound at the age of 25 means that this young man has a long and successful career ahead of him. Perhaps decades from now, Steve won't be the only legendary Earle music historians write about.

Must Listen: "Ain't Glad I'm Leaving." Hands down the best song of any country album released in 2008 thanks to Earle's sly, wink-wink delivery and the mandolin picking of Cory Younts.

Justin Townes Earle: The Good Life

Artist: The Sacred Shakers Album: The Sacred Shakers Label: Signature Sounds Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/s/sacredshakersthe-thesacredshakers.jpg US Release Date: 2008-08-19 UK Release Date: 2008-08-18

Display as: List

List number: 4

When it's done poorly, there's nothing more awful to listen to than gospel; lackluster Contemporary Christian Music is one of those things that seems to disprove the existence of a higher power. Luckily, for those who want some rhythm with their gospel music, there are the Sacred Shakers, a Boston-based band that incorporates bluegrass, rockabilly, and old-timey into their infectious sound. While most of the songs on this debut album are of the public domain, the Shakers' high-energy arrangements make even the most mournful hymn sound like a jukebox staple.

Must listen: "Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel", an irresistibly catchy, banjo-heavy, classic country gospel number. Just try not to sing along.The Sacred Shakers: The Sacred Shakers

Artist: Peter Cooper Album: Mission Door Label: Red Beet Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/cooperpeter-missiondoor.jpg US Release Date: 2008-03-10 UK Release Date: Available as import

Display as: List

List number: 5

Premiere country music journalist Peter Cooper takes a shot at the other side with his debut album Mission Door. Cooper's perceptive journalist's eye suits him well as a songwriter, creating slice of life moments like "715 (For Hank Aaron)" and "Andalusia". In addition to these originals, Cooper also records two covers -- "All the Way to Heaven" and "Mission Door" -- the latter of which includes guest vocals from folk luminary Nanci Griffith. Add in some pedal steel from living legend Lloyd Green, and you have one of the best debut records to hit Nashville in years.

Must Listen: "Thin Wild Mercury", a song about troubled troubadour Phil Ochs that Cooper wrote with friend -- and interview subject -- Todd Snider.Peter Cooper: Mission Door

Artist: Lee Ann Womack Album: Call Me Crazy Label: MCA Nashville Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/leeannwomack-callmecrazy.jpg US Release Date: 2008-10-21 UK Release Date: 2008-10-27

Display as: List

List number: 6

Womack is one of the few modern singers who can walk the line between tradition and commercialism: glamorous enough to fit in with the Faiths and Martinas, but old school enough to incorporate into her music the classic country sound of the 1960s and early '70s. Those who loved the syrupy pop ballad "I Hope You Dance" won't find much to enjoy on Call Me Crazy, a pure country album from start to finish, chock full of ennui and alcohol. George Strait joins Womack for the Conway-and-Loretta-esque "Everything but Quits" (one of four songs on the album that were co-written by Womack) while "Solitary Thinkin'" seems made for jukeboxes in seedy honkytonks across the country.

Must Listen: "Either Way", a simply amazing ballad in which Womack's arresting vocals are reminiscent of Tammy Wynette in her prime: "You can go or you can stay / I won't love you either way." Oof.

Lee Ann Womack: Call Me Crazy

Artist: Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson Album: Rattlin' Bones Label: Sugar Hill Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Rattlin-Bones-Kasey-Chambers/dp/B001DSNFRI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1228241211&sr=1-1 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/chambersandnicolson-rattlin.jpg US Release Date: 2008-09-16 UK Release Date: Available as import

Display as: List

List number: 7

Alt-country darling Kasey Chambers joins forces with her husband to create a starkly beautiful roots music tour de force. Despite their Australian heritage, the two fit seamlessly into the American country music tradition, channeling classic duos like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris with soft, intimate harmonies as well as borrowing from the more recent collaborative styles of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings or Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell. And although all of the songs on Rattlin' Bones are written by Chambers and Nicholson, several sound like classics pulled out of some Appalachian holler at the turn of the century.

Must listen: "One More Year", a heartrending story of a slowly disintegrating relationship.

Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson: Rattlin' Bones

Artist: Crowe Brothers Album: Brothers-N-Harmony Label: Rural Rhythm Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/c/crowebrothers-brothersnharmony.jpg US Release Date: 2008-09-23 UK Release Date: Available as import

Display as: List

List number: 8

Sadly, the classic brother duos of 50 years ago seem to have fallen by the wayside in country music. Luckily the Crowes are around to pay tribute to the Louvins, Stanleys, and Monroes. On Brothers-N-Harmony, the two men blend bluegrass and 1940s country on a nostalgia-heavy mix of covers and originals. Josh and Wayne are equally at home covering the Louvins' classic "Are You Teasin' Me" as they do on the C&W number "God Must Be a Cowboy", making this an album for anyone who is sick of the overproduced, poppish country music of the past 20 years and longs for the 78rpm era. This record is hardly innovative or groundbreaking, but it adeptly addresses a facet of country music that seemed to be slowly fading away.

Must listen: "Holdin' on When You’ve Let Go." If it had been recorded 50 years earlier, it would be a standard by now.Crowe Brothers: Brothers-N-Harmony

Artist: The Doc Marshalls Album: Honest for Once Label: self-released Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/d/docmarshallsthe-honestforonce.jpg US Release Date: 2008-01-03 UK Release Date: Available as import

Display as: List

List number: 9

If the Flying Burrito Brothers were from Louisiana, they might have sounded something like the Brooklyn-based Doc Marshalls, who blend Parsons' style of alt-country with the Cajun sound. Frontman Nicholas Beaudoing ardently tackles the depressing subject matter of the lyrics: heartbreak, murder, and desperation. The Doc Marshalls also go the dancehall route with a couple of toetappers sung in French; the peppy bayou musical arrangements make those songs a little less gloomy than their lyrics would suggest, but all in all, misery is what these boys do best.

Must Listen: "Dakota", an updated "We Gotta Get Out of This Place", this time featuring a stripper with a heart of gold.The Doc Marshalls: Honest for Once

Artist: Randy Travis Album: Around the Bend Label: Warner Brothers Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/t/travisrandy-aroundthebend.jpg US Release Date: 2008-07-15 UK Release Date: 2008-07-21

Display as: List

List number: 10

In his 20-year recording career, Randy Travis has chalked up a dozen albums, 16 number ones, and multiple Grammys. Around the Bend, his first country record in nearly a decade -- Travis has been recording gospel albums in this hiatus -- might just be his strongest all-around album yet, mixing country, gospel, and even folk. Travis' instantly identifiable baritone transforms Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" into a straight up, two-stepping country song complete with fiddle solo, while the record's first single "Dig Two Graves" is a tender love song whose title belies its sentiment: "So I've made up my mind, girl if it's your time / They can dig two graves, just carve one stone / 'Cause without you here, I won't last long." Although Around the Bend lacks the chart-topping singles of his earlier releases, it cements Travis' place as the most talented of the early '90s traditionalists, one who is able to flow with the changing state of the industry without ever betraying his classic influences.

Must listen: "Everything I Own (Has Got a Dent)" has got everything: a catchy hook, clever lyrics, and a tongue in cheek delivery from Travis.

Randy Travis: Around the Bend



So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image