My 20 Favorite Album Cuts From Country CDs I Own
#20. "Two of the Lucky Ones"--Billy Dean
For several years in the late 90s and early 2000s my mom would forage through the discount CD bin at retail stores and buy some clearance CDs selling for less than $5. Some of these were quite weak but there were some diamonds in the rough. Billy Dean's 1993 "Fire in the Dark" CD was a mixed bag with a couple of good singles but little else worthy of Dean's more memorable songs over the years. But this midtempo cut documenting a couple's years of staying together amidst all of their friends and families' marriages falling apart was nicely sung, had good lyrics, and a strong, addictive melodic hook. It was right in Billy Dean's wheelhouse and unfortunate that he never released it as one of the singles.
#19. "I Was Here"--Lady Antebellum
There were plenty of mediocre ripoffs of Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" in the years following that song's smash success, but the best was this 2011 midtempo cut where the narrator vows to find her way and make a difference in whatever she does. I first heard the song on a "20/20" segment profiling the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and took notice. While the lyrics are relatively hum-ho, Lady Antebellum lead singer Hillary Scott's terrific vocals and the melodic arrangement are what make the song powerful and emotional.
#18. "Joe and Rosalita"--Phil Vassar
There are few CDs in my collection as terrific from beginning to end as Phil Vassar's self-titled debut album from 2000, and Phil was rewarded with five top-15 hits on radio for the effort. Phil's subsequent work never lived up to it but this debut effort was packed with 11 above-average songs that were all worth listening to to experience the album in full, complete with Phil's trademark keyboard licks bridging between two cuts on a few experiences. Aside from the stellar singles, the best album cut was "Joe and Rosalita", an uptempo number documenting a young couple's burning passion from high school to young adulthood that often got them in a wee bit of trouble, all set to a rollicking beat of sizzling fiddle riffs and Phil's keyboards.
#17. "One Day You Will"--Martina McBride
Perhaps the single best voice to come out of country music in my lifetime is Martina McBride, and while she's best known for her power-vocal performances, it's nice when she slows things down and lets the beauty of her voice dazzle in its purest form, as she did in "One Day You Will", an understated cut from her 1997 "Evolution" album. There were already six singles released from this album, and I believe they were all top-10s, but it's too bad they couldn't have held out for a seventh single to give this gem a wider audience.
#16. "The Things You Said to Me"--The Mavericks
The Miami-based band the Mavericks defied categorization when they first came out but managed to find commercial success in the mid-90s without betraying their eclectic sound, and did so most impressively on their most successful album, 1994's "What a Crying Shame", a practical anthology of oldies country sounds and oldies rock sounds that managed to sound fresh and new with lead singer Raul Malo's incredible vocals and fantastic musicianship backing him up. All of the songs on the CD were great, but the album cuts that always stands out is the 50s-style rocker "The Things You Said to Me" which channels the sound of an early Elvis with a beat so addictive I've heard random people humming it over the years.
#15. "The Other Side of Midnight"--Sylvia
Few singers have come through Nashville with vocals as pure as early 80s hitmaker Sylvia, so it's a shame that her legacy is tainted as the auteur of the lowest-denominator country-pop of the urban cowboy era. I frankly think even her clunkiest efforts on that front were a far sight better than the bro-country drivel saturating country radio 35 years later, but the dirty little secret is that much of her material was fantastic, particularly on her early albums. But even by her fourth album--1984's "Surprise"--she cranked out some great cuts, the best of which being the ballad "Other Side of Midnight", a song where both the melody and Sylvia's vocals are so silky smooth they take me to a zen state whenever I listen to it....that rare feeling when all is right in the world for three minutes just because of great music.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvAU-5P6KA4 (not great audio)
#14. "A Kiss is Worth a Thousand Words"--BlackHawk
One of the best and most distinctive country groups of my lifetime is BlackHawk, forging a unique sound that embraced elements of country and southern rock in the mid-90s, and doing so with above-average songs at almost every turn. But even a lyrically average song such as this one found its voice on BlackHawk's outstanding 1995 "Strong Enough" album, which cranked up the guitars and blew the roof off the place in a way I've rarely encountered on a country CD. Something about the melding of Henry Paul's lead vocals with the harmonies of fellow band members Van Stephenson and Dave Robbins, along with a pitch-perfect country-rock melody makes this my favorite of the five album cuts never released as singles on one of the best commercially successful CDs to ever grace store shelves.
#13. "Pink Bedroom"--Rosanne Cash
Never before in the history of commercial country music has a star artist come to a stylistic crossroads and successfully declared "Fuck it....I'm making a rock album and calling it country!" in the way that Rosanne Cash did with her audacious 1985 "Rhythm and Romance" album. Artists like Ronnie Milsap and Eddie Rabbitt had dabbled in infusing country music with rock stylings in the early 80s but Rosanne Cash broke down all the walls and went full-on Pat Benatar with an album that would still defy belief if it was released today, 30 years after country music has embraced rock as a natural component of its sound. Amazingly, country radio embraced it and the album produced four top-five hits. The most fun track on the album was this John Hiatt-penned rocker about a teenage girl rebelling against the stuffed-shirt corporate world of her parents that she sees on her horizon, all set to a pitch-perfect Bo Diddley-meets-Joan Jett arrangement.
#12. "Somebody Save Me"--Chalee Tennison
I picked up Chalee Tennison's massively underrated 2001 sophomore CD on eBay about a decade ago for the one single that was a semihit that I just had to have in my collection, but never could I have anticipated how first-rate the whole 12-song CD would be. Tennison's vocals and lyrics exude authenticity in a way that very few commercial singer-songwriters can pull off. You believe Tennison has lived every word of what she sings about, and while there are any number of great choices to select on the underappreciated album, the best is this polished slow-to-midtempo cut where the narrator is the "friend" always lending emotional support to others while quietly crying out for her own that just isn't coming.
#11. "You Keep on Loving Me"--Sherrie Austin
For the life of me I can't figure out why drop-dead gorgeous Aussie-born Sherrie Austin was never the tour de force in country music that her vocals, stage presence, and song selection would indicate. The unevenness of her 1999 sophomore CD was sort of explained it, but the lack of complete radio allegiance to her first-rate 1997 debut continues to mystify nearly 20 years later. All but a couple of the songs from the album are fantastic and three of them were semi-hits on radio, but of all the memorable cuts that never got to be hits at all, Austin's self-penned "You Keep on Loving Me" which closes the album is the most impressive and indicative of the kind of sound that I think could have set Austin apart from the crowd had she explored it more deeply, with powerhouse vocals and a wildly dramatic midtempo arrangement that came to a blazing finale at the song's closing notes. It was the kind of song that felt like it could go along with an emotionally charged movie finale.
#10. "Stronger than I Am"--Lee Ann Womack
One of the best CDs in my collection is Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" which dazzles from beginning to end with a mix of surprisingly dark songs of varying tempos and genre influences all set to Lee Ann's one of a kind vocals which we hear far too little of on radio today. Most of the songs on the record feature something to love, but the most poignant is the stone cold country ballad "Stronger than I Am" featuring a single mother narrator impressed by toughness of her baby girl in the face of their adversity, in contrast to her own difficulty turning the page after being abandoned by the baby daddy. The closing lyric wraps things up nicely...."she's just like her old man....stronger than I am".
#9. "Pick Up the Tempo"--The Thompson Brothers Band
One of the more unique country acts to emerge in the last 20 years was the Massachusetts-based roots college-aged rockers The Thompson Brothers Band, whose sound was an eclectic combination of Steve Earle, Neil Diamond, and Creedence Clearwater. There was a ton of potential to their stripped-down country-rock sound but they needed a little more time to improve their songwriting skills before they were foisted on the shallow and skeptical minds of country radio. They still managed one big hit video on CMT but other than that their tenure in the country music scene was limited to a single album released in 1997. The best song from the album was the closing cut, a reimagining of Willie Nelson's "Pick Up the Tempo", where they really did pick up the tempo, joined by Steve Earle on vocals and cranking up the guitars to produce a performance worthy of the very best country-rock is capable of and all within the context of their no-frills, just-the-basics-ma'am musical production.
No Audio Clip
#8. "You'll Never Know"--Kim Richey
I had just sensed based on the two semihit singles released by Kim Richey from her 1995 debut album that it was likely to be my kind of CD so I took a gamble and put it on my Christmas list. The gamble paid off as the CD represented a mature-in-sound-and-lyrics variation of country-pop I hadn't experience on country radio up to that point. While the dim bulbs at radio never took to Kim, other Nashville artists noticed as four of the songs from her debut CD were picked up other artists, and released as singles. The late Mindy McCready had a top-20 hit in 1998 with her competent version of Richey's best album cut from the CD, a lushly produced midtempo number about a woman doing her best to pretend she's over an ex-lover even though she's still dying inside. Richey's version operates at a whole different level as McCready's, however, with haunting background vocals augmenting Kim's emotionally charged lead vocals, and a very elaborate and distinctive musical arrangement as a backdrop.
#7. "Stay the Night"--George Ducas
Yet another underrated singer-songwriter from the mid-to-late 90s who was just a little behind the times when he kicked off his commercial career in Nashville, forwarding a progressive variation on traditional country music at the very moment when country radio was beginning to circle the wagons around the safe and familiar. George nonetheless scored one outstanding top-10 hit from his solid debut CD, but it was his hitless 1997 sophomore CD where he busted wide open with an eclectic anthology of Tex-Mex toe-tappers, tear-in-my-beer country ballads, and guitar-charging uptempo rockers that put the mainstream country-rock acts of the era to shame. His best effort was the jangly "Stay the Night", a song with an uptempo hook and closing guitar solo that combined with Ducas' vocals just seemed custom-built as an anthem for a campy werewolf or vampire plotline even though the lyrics only touched upon a monster show theme with a couple of metaphorical flourishes.
#6. "The Real Me"--Rosanne Cash
No commercial country singer has released ballads that have the kind of lyrical rawness as Rosanne Cash. These songs are usually dark and introspective where the narrator reaches an epiphany and becomes honest with herself about a broken relationship. While nothing from this Rosanne Cash subgenre could compare to 1982's #1 hit "Blue Moon with a Heartache", the closest she ever came was this fantastic album cut from 1987's "King's Record Shop", her most successful commercial endeavor. The lyrics were smart, deep, and cutting, with a fitting musical backdrop subtle enough to let Rosanne's vocals carry it. I would have preferred if this song was released as the album's third single rather than the comparatively mediocre midtempo "If You Change Your Mind", and I suspect it would have been just as big of a hit on the charts.
#5. "Dead of the Night"--Tammy Cochran
Tammy Cochran had a couple of undistinguished modest hits on her 2001 debut album, but it wasn't until the poignant--if epically depressing--class reunion ballad "Life Happened" from her 2002 sophomore album of the same name till I stood up and take notice. As luck would have it, she performed at my county fair in 2003 and I was taken by the number of dark story songs she sang and then reported being on her latest album. One song in particular really stood out, the incredibly dark midtempo "Dead of the Night" with one of the most haunting arrangements I've ever heard, which she reported writing after watching a Lifetime movie. I was so impressed I bought the CD. The song features an abused nine-year-old girl who kills her father who "thought he hid that .45" just before "daddy crossed that line". Yikes! Nowadays, female country singers glam up the idea of murdering their cheating husbands/boyfriends, but Cochran's emotional lyrics made it clear the girl forced to pull the trigger would be scarred for life as a result. No surprise this one was never released a single but I'm grateful I heard it in concert and was thus compelled to purchase the CD.
#4. "Someone's Out to Get Me"--Steve Holy
It was years after Steve Holy's 2000 debut album that my mom came home with it from the discount bin at ShopKo, having spent like $3 on it. There was one single from it I really liked but I went in with very modest expectations given how lukewarm I was on the other three songs from the album that were released as singles. What a pleasant surprise that the album cuts were exceptional, featuring Holy's modernized take on Roy Orbison and their contemporaries The Mavericks through the prism of modern commercial country. Holy didn't have the vocal chops of Orbison or Raul Malo but his smooth tone was nonetheless well-suited for these kinds of songs. But as much as I liked the entire album, standing out the most was the fiendishly clever tongue-in-cheek horror show anthem "Someone's Out to Get Me", which cheekily depicts the faux paranoia of a man expecting to be "attacked" by his significant other's libido, all set to a campily haunting midtempo arrangement that is pitch-perfect for the tone of the song. Like George Ducas' "Stay the Night" listed above, this song would be great for the soundtrack of a lighthearted horror movie or TV show.
#3. "You're a Legend in Your Own Mind"--Sylvia
The 1982 sophomore effort by Sylvia was a masterpiece, a collection of country-pop classics with a couple of very traditional cuts thrown in just for balance. The syrupy ballad "Sweet Yesterday" was the odd selection for first single, but it's too bad the uptempo "You're a Legend in Your Own Mind" wasn't released as one of the album's three singles as I suspect it would have given Sylvia additional career momentum after the smash pop crossover "Nobody". "Legend" was a more fun and better produced ripoff of Carly Simon's "Your So Vain", with super-slick production elements unlike anything heard in country music before. Perhaps the slickness of the production is what kept nervous record company executives from releasing it as a single, but it stands out as one of the biggest sins of country music history because it was a song that desperately needed a more widespread platform.
#2. "A Thousand Memories"--Rhett Akins
If ever there was a country album that represented the perfect hybrid of 90s-era new country with a believable hard rock edge, it was the 1995 debut album from Rhett Akins, an album that blended the best of both genres and fused blaring rock guitars with enough fiddles and twang to effectively impress both audiences. And while the album enjoyed some commercial success, it didn't enjoy nearly enough. Rhett had the vocal chops to become a star but a credible case could be made that he wasn't quite ready for primetime to successfully interpret a good song vocally. Nonetheless, his country boy vocal stylings nailed the heartfelt uptempo breakup title track, a song that was lyrically interesting but taken to an entirely different level with an out-of-this-world 90-second guitar riff at the end that still stands out 20 years later as one of the most sophisticated I've heard, giving the song an unforgettably raging energy level that would-be listeners really got screwed for never hearing.
#1. "Halfway House"--Rosanne Cash
One album cut from Rosanne's groundbreaking 1985 "Rhythm and Romance" album has already made this countdown, but I saved the most earth-shattering for last, the electrified rocker "Halfway House" which is lyrically ambiguous but widely interpreted as an autobiographical double entendre from Rosanne's personal struggle with drug addiction in the months before she produced this album. The song starts out with a vintage 80s synthesized keyboard surge that blends with rock guitars for the choruses, continually building momentum throughout the course of the song before all hell breaks loose at the end with a soaring arena rock backdrop unlike anything anybody before or after would imagine a country song would song like. Any country music purist should stay miles away from this song but anybody who wants to discover what a country song on the extreme edge sounds like should check out this 30-year-old classic which I recall listening to as a young boy on my mom's cassette player in the early morning getting ready for school.
My purchases of modern CDs have become extremely rare in recent years as the availability of online music has so dramatically changed the business model. And it's a shame because a lot of great songs recorded as album cuts are being heard by even fewer people than 20 years ago when music sales were more brisk. Had I purchased CDs in the last 10 years as frequently as I did in the 10 years prior, this list might look quite a bit different. The best I can do is seek out some album cuts from online here and there and see if I find any hidden treasures.