If you're only now discovering that contemporary country music is more than chest-pounding, patriotic braggadocio, read on. Our favorite country records of the year wade deep into Southern gospel, plain-spoken existentialism, and just plain weird storytelling.
In the preface to his 1998 lyrics collection, A Long Way Home: Twelve Years of Words, Dwight Yoakam revealed his songwriting strategy: "I'm engaged in a continuous struggle to live life in the present tense of each moment, without being so distracted by it that I am incapable of making any pure or meaningful observations about it." His technique remains so complex. On Blame the Vain, Yoakam's writing is as charged as ever. Its particular moment is raw and beaten and straining, as ever, for sense in love and life. In a genre that continues to distance itself from the hillbilly funk of old, Yoakam remains wild-eyed and passionate about his roots. Blame the Vain is a stellar release from one of music's classiest troubadours.
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Cost of Living is exactly the kind of record William Kennedy would come out with had he ever elected to swap his pen for a plectrum. There's just something about McClinton, with his tenderness and wit, that evokes Kennedy's Francis Phelan or Legs Diamond. Cost of Living is McClinton's best CD to date. With him, there's no longing for the old days and the old stuff. He gets better with age � like wood-aged bourbon (or a classic novel). Tracks "One of the Fortunate Few" and "I Had a Real Good Time" suggest Delbert's still got a youthful fire in him, while "Your Memory, Me, and the Blues" and "Kiss Her Once For Me" hint at the darkness and the stones on Delbert's life-road. There's just so much here that's joyous and sad and spirited. This one surpasses best of 2005 � it's an immediate genre classic.
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Maybe it's just the image of Hank Williams brightly dressed in drag performing at a Philadelphia bar or the declarations of psychotics who lovingly assert that they killed for love and would probably do it again. Whatever it is, Robert Earl Keen knows how to attract a listener by telling stories and tales so weird that they must be true. Even when Keen's obviously fantasizing or telling fables as in his tale about "Mr. Wolf and Mamabear", he gets the details right. Keen's morality tale about the animal kingdom ends with the title characters feeding on a dead raccoon, whew! The other great thing is the music. The Texas singer/songwriter knows how to put across a song. His relaxed Lone Star drawl deftly weaves through the sound of well-played acoustic instrumentation. Keen hits the low notes without resorting to false grittiness and can sing sweet and lonesome, like the way Hank Williams used to do.
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It's not that he's making his best music at age 66, although that's a part of it. And it's not that his band, made largely of his offspring, burns like coal, although they do in their non-show-offy way. (A great band that doesn't show off in bluegrass music is, how you Americans say, rare as hell.) What it is, is great songs. His version of "Fathers and Sons" could draw blood from a parsnip, and "Untamed" burns harder (and hornier!) than anything this side of hip-hop. Del doesn't write a lot of songs, but when he does, like the autobiographical "Never Grow Up Boy", they are funny and wise. This is the year's best philosophy book.
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"There's really three kinds of duets," said country traditionalist Thad Cockrell. "There's duets where people sing with each other, duets where they sing to each other, and duets where they're singing at each other, and I think we got all three of them." Indeedly doodly, neighborino. With Cockrell tending to reach for the emotional heights and the more travelled Caitlin Cary seeking frequently to ground him, these two exceptional talents combined wonderfully well in early 2005 to produce a modern classic country duets album that honors all the traditions of the form. Standout tracks? The opener, "Two Different Things", was so perfectly conceived and performed that it avoided all the clichés while remaining utterly true to the classically symmetrical country duet. Meanwhile, the least traditional of Cary and Cockrell's songs, "Conversations About a Friend (Who's in Love With Katie)", clocks in at almost seven and a half minutes and every single second is a joy.
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I don't think any vocalist in country music can touch Gary Allan right now, and this semi-concept record about the tragic 2004 suicide of his wife contains many of the best performances of his career. It sounds like a bummer, and it is pretty hard to hear songs like "Puttin' Memories Away" if you are sober and/or inclined towards depression. But Allan avoids bathos and mostly eschews even pathos � as songs like "I Just Got Back From Hell" demonstrate, he's one tough son of a bitch. Okay, so the big first hit single, the Vertical Horizon 1999 chestnut "Best I Ever Had", makes NO literal sense whatsoever. But it works because of the creamy Bakerstown/Beach Boys harmonies and because of Gary Allan's badass tenor voice, which I'd put up against anyone else in the world right now for sheer expressiveness and beauty. Tragedy plus time equals wisdom.
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That one of country music's best albums of the year comes from one of its most outspoken critics shouldn't be surprising. After all, you've got to know what's wrong with the system before you start offering up solutions. While Georgia Hard isn't an "answer" record, it is a reminder of what good country music was, occasionally is, and still can be: funny, insightful, cold-blooded, and existential. Coming off a two-album exile into eclectic genre-jumping, Fulks returns to his bread and butter, and restores some dignity to country's Wal-Mart-ized image in the process. Most of all, Georgia Hard is a remarkable songwriter's record � its emotional accommodation is so generous that both a murderous confession ("If They Could Only See Me Now") and a horndog's unsolicited come-on ("I'm Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me)") cut deep.
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Lee Ann Womack is quite the finest singer working in any genre today, and her fifth studio album was her very best work to date. Really. So what more do you want to know? Exchanging her profitable crossover pass for a return ticket back to basics, Womack utterly nailed a classic country vibe with a selection of honky tonk hymns, beautifully bruised ballads, and a dash of hard rocking country, y'all. Range, power, technique. Emotion, honesty, humanity. Lee Ann Womack has it all. Apart from the wonderful cover art � stolen straight from a forgotten golden age � there's not even a trace of artifice or irony here. There's More Where That Came From is all twang and soul and authenticity. With songs and themes as timeless as the title track (cheating) and "Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago" (pained reflection), this record is every bit as fine as Van Lear Rose, without any of the novelty appeal.
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Southern gospel? Ordinarily, you wouldn't be able to get me up in one of those things for all the hamhocks in the world. But that was before Philadelphia, Tennessee's proudest son, the boldly mulletted Marty Stuart, made the best record of his intriguingly progressive career. It doesn't hurt that his drummer, Harry Stinson, is the finest high-harmony singer in Nashville, or that he imports old pal Mavis Staples to sing on the sultry slow-drag "Move Along Train". But what makes this swing is the surprisingly sexy double-guitar attack of Stuart and Kenny Vaughn. Tracks like "It's Time to Go Home" and "Come Into the House of the Lord" glow with a fire that isn't entirely holy. Between this and the huge Indian-themed album Badlands both dropping in 2005, is it too early to anoint Stuart as country's prog-rock hero?
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Possessing a voice as plain as the "Khaki and Corduroy" that she sings about, Laura Cantrell makes one downright comfortable. The unadorned clothing of her vocals takes on the personalities of the wearers. She croons story songs about pleasantly stalking a potential lover down "14th Street", the joys of getting "Letters" in the mail, and the confession of a man who unconvincingly pleads he didn't kill "Poor Ellen Smith" in a tender voice that cleverly understates what's really going on in the minds of the narrators. Cantrell subtly captures the psychological complexities and emotional mix by using the intonations and styles of old time country music. She also writes and covers first-rate material that concerns the existential questions of love and death. The meaning of life might just be found by listening to Cantrell's "Humming".
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