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: US Release Date: 2008-10-28 UK Release Date: 2008-10-27

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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: Image: US Release Date: 2008-10-14 UK Release Date: Available as import

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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: US Release Date: 2008-03-25 UK Release Date: Available as import

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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: US Release Date: 2008-08-19 UK Release Date: 2008-08-18

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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: US Release Date: 2008-03-10 UK Release Date: Available as import

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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: US Release Date: 2008-10-21 UK Release Date: 2008-10-27

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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: Image: US Release Date: 2008-09-16 UK Release Date: Available as import

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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: US Release Date: 2008-09-23 UK Release Date: Available as import

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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: US Release Date: 2008-01-03 UK Release Date: Available as import

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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: US Release Date: 2008-07-15 UK Release Date: 2008-07-21

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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

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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