Ten Essential Country Music Titles
Songwriting is storytelling. And few things in this world are as compelling as a good story well told.
Though its popularity on these shores doesn’t quite match its status in America, country music offers some of the best storytelling going. Indeed, unlike pop - where the catchy chorus is the premium component – country music lives or dies by its lyrics.
Whether the subject matter is heartache or joy, cheating hearts or drinking and thinking, the best country songs create snapshot worlds that listeners inhabit like an old pair of Levis. It’s also one of the few musical genres where women equal men in number and rank. Not to put too fine a point on it, but to know country music is to love country music.
This spring, hmv celebrates country music – and its amazingly diverse roster of artists past and present – with a special promotion: 2 CDs for £10 throughout February and March. With nearly 200 titles by dozens of marquee musicians available, there has never been a better time to explore this rich genre… or for fans to expand their collections.
In that spirit, we humbly submit 10 country music titles that really raise the bar. All are available as part of hmv’s 2 CDs for £10 bonanza.
Luke Bryan, Crash My Party
Even without his strapping good looks, 38-year-old Bryan would be a star, thanks to his rollicking tunes which consistently locate that tingling point three beers into the night. His latest and fourth album is a chart-topping monster. If you needed to explain ‘Saturday night’ to an alien, this is the album you’d play.
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
Propelled by the knock-kneed title track, which was a runaway hit single, the tuneful trio’s second album from 2010 scored the Grammy Award for Best Country Album, confirming their place at the top of the country-pop heap.
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
When the elegiac, spare Car Wheels on a Gravel Road finally dropped way back in 1998 after years in stop-start development, critics went bananas and not just because Williams blended country, folk and Americana into a seamless (yet appropriately messy) mix. It went on to be named one of Rolling Stone magazine's 500 greatest albums of all time.
Willie Nelson, Legend: The Best Of
Country music’s most lasting and admired elder statesman simply cannot be rivalled. His songs – many recorded and made famous by others – are musical portraits of simple perfection. That Nelson was able to turn what might have been a punchline into a massive hit (we reference his duet with crooner Julio Eglasias) speaks to the man’s palpable sincerity as a performer. This sprawling collection features the above-mentioned Eglasias duet plus cameos by Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Ray Charles.
George Jones, Definitive Country Collection
If there is a voice more plaintive or yearning than Jones’ (sorry Mel Tormé) we’ve yet to hear it. The late, great country crooner could bring cowboys to tears with his songs of drinking and loving, often in that order. Luckily, his melodious tones live on in recorded form.
Zac Brown Band, Uncaged
Hard-working, hugely collaborative and as chicken-fried as they come, the Atlanta brawlers just keep getting better. Of this recent title from 2012, band leader Brown said: "It’s your basic country-Southern rock-bluegrass-reggae-jam record." Couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Florida Georgia Line, Here's to the Good Times
In addition to writing prolifically for others, the fast-rising (and heavily inked) duo of Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard are making a name with their vivid party anthems, which have at least a nodding acquaintance with hip-hop and rock, but never stray too far from the country fold. This is what 21st century honky-tonk sounds like.
Johnny Cash, American Recordings
A later title in Cash’s extensive back catalogue but hands-down one of his most affecting and enduring. Cut with label honcho-cum-producer Rick Rubin – who made his name alongside rap and metal acts – this mostly covers set from 1994 finds the incomparable Man in Black facing down mortality... but with his boots strapped on tight. The sparse, often candlelit songs collected here are uniformly jaw-dropping.
Alison Kraus with Robert Plant, Raising Sand
Besides earning unanimous critical acclaim and a boatload of Grammy Awards, this seemingly oddball collaboration between rock screamer Plant and bluegrass vet Kraus yielded striking results… unfussy arrangements of simple but evocative songs, expertly captured by producer T-Bone Burnett.
The Band Perry, Pioneer
There’s something weirdly irresistible about siblings performing together in bands, and the stupendously watchable Perry clan – singer/guitarist Kimberly, bassist/vocalist Reid and drummer/percussionist Neil – are no exception. The trio’s second studio album has produced four singles including the fabulously named "Better Dig Two." Definitely not your grandma’s country.