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Todd Sterling’s Top Ten Albums of 2008
By: Todd Sterling, CSO Contributing Journalist

1. Chris Knight: Heart Of Stone

Knight, one of the most underrated singer/songwriters in the Americana genre, hammered out another fine country-rock-folk-blues collection. Former George Satellites frontman Dan Baird sat in the producer’s chair for Heart Of Stone. Baird and Knight make a powerhouse team. Knight continues to mine the dark side of life in his songs. Rattling rockers "Homesick Gypsy" and "Hell Ain’t Half Full" are tempered with the 3/4 time "Danville" and the delicately fingered "Crooked Road."

2. John Mellencamp: Life Death Love Freedom

Who would have thought Mellencamp would release one of the best albums of his career this year? The Indiana native returned with an acoustic album of well-crafted gems. Save for the first single, the clangorous "My Sweet Love," Life Death Love Freedom is a stark collection made up of folk songs that sound like they could have been written a hundred years ago. Whether it’s the delta blues texture of "If I Die Sudden," or the strummy spiritualization of "Don’t Need This Body," Mellencamp strips away the mainstream sheen of the past and comes up with a jaw-dropping effort.

3. Jamey Johnson: That Lonesome Song

People who complain that "country ain’t country" anymore need look no further than Nashville wordsmith Jamey Johnson for a dose of the real thing. Johnson, the man behind hits for George Strait and Trace Adkins, digs deep in the dirt and comes up with a fistful of diamonds. The singer/songwriter chronicles the personal misery that came calling right around the time he was enjoying his greatest success as a songwriter. "High Cost Of Living," a drug and booze soaked canticle that ends with the gruff singer’s redemption, and the tear stained "Stars Over Alabama," an emotional number written for his mother, are as real as it gets.

4. Rodney Crowell: Sex & Gasoline

Riding a string of brilliant albums – The Houston Kid, Fates Right Hand and The Outsider – Rodney Crowell returned this year with Sex & Gasoline. Once again Crowell is in fine writing and vocal form. While not as penetrating as Fates Right Hand or as lyrically and musically gripping as The Outsider, Sex & Gasoline is a solid album. Guitarist Will Kimbrough, who played a big role in both Fates Right Hand and The Outsider, is absent this time around (which might be one of the reasons the disc doesn’t quite live up to Crowell’s last two releases). "Sex & Gasoline" and "Forty Winters" stand among the best compositions Crowell has ever written.

5. Jakob Dylan: Seeing Things

Jakob Dylan stepped out from the shadows in a big way this year. On break from his band The Wallflowers, Dylan released Seeing Things, a stripped down acoustic album that rivals his legendary father’s best work. Dylan has penned a set of timeless folk songs, songs that live and breathe in the sparsest (and often darkest) environments. Tracks like "Evil Is Alive And Well," "War Is Kind" and "On Up The Mountain" are poetry set to music. Dylan may or may not return to The Wallflowers, but one thing is for sure, he doesn’t ever need to write another song to prove he is every bit the artist his father is.

6. Lucinda Williams: Little Honey

"Singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams is the female equivalent of Steve Earle. Scratch that, Steve Earle is the male equivalent of Lucinda Williams." These words were lifted from my review of Little Honey which appeared on Walmart.com. There really is no better description of Williams. The singer/songwriter is the Queen of Americana. The raw-voiced wonder is a master at cutting right to the bone with simple words and melodies. Whether she’s rocking out on the AC/DC like opener "Real Love," or berating a loser ex-boyfriend on the whiskey and tobacco streaked "Jailhouse Tears," Williams has never sounded better.

7. Ray Scott: Crazy Like Me

After being unceremoniously dumped by Warner Brothers Nashville, Ray Scott did what any wise singer/songwriter in the digital age would have done, he released an independent album. Crazy Like Me may not have the major label polish of Scott’s competitors, but what it lacks in production (which is actually very little) it more than makes up for in soul and authenticity. Scott, who’s Warner debut My Kind Of Music was a hardhitting, old-school collection, sticks to his Waylon and Haggard steeped sound on Crazy Like Me. Standout tracks include "Hell Got Raised Tonight" and "Sometimes The Bottle Hits Ya Back."

8. Kenny Chesney: Lucky Old Sun

Chesney’s Lucky Old Sun was a huge surprise. Country music’s entry into the rock star world turned down the amps for a tasteful singer/songwriter collection that shows there’s more underneath the hood than the arena rock anthems he’s come to be known for. On Lucky Old Sun Chesney sounds like he’s found life’s sweet spot and is loving every minute he spends cradled in it. "Boats" and "Spirit Of A Storm" are soulful tracks worthy of numerous repeats.

9. Wade Bowen: If We Ever Make It Home

Texas singer/songwriter Wade Bowen is one of the lone star state’s brightest rising stars. Bowen has matured a great deal between Lost Hotel and If We Ever Make It Home. From the gear jamming opener "You Had Me At My Best, to the ear-pleasing "Somewhere Beautiful," Bowen has whipped up a magical Americana collection. Chuck Cannon’s "Daddy and The Devil," a lump-in-the-throat tale of a lost soul who just never found his wings, is the album highlight. Bowen smothers the track in red dirt emotion and sells it like a prosperity preacher sells religion.

10. Zac Brown: The Foundation

If you could jam Jimmy Buffett, Uncle Cracker, Greg Allman and the original Lynyrd Skynyrd (not the current cover band version) into a magical musical blender, you would probably come up with Zac Brown. Brown is the anti-country music star; he doesn’t look like he has a stylist on the payroll. The singer/songwriter, who earned his stripes the hard way- by busting his ass, pens meaty songs that reach beyond the soccer mom audience. The Georgia native is proof positive that you don’t have to sell your soul to have a hit single. The Foundation is all killer, zero filler. The island flavored "Toes," the Groovelicious "Chicken Fried" and the funny bone tickler "Sick 'Em On A Chicken" are album highlights.

Other notable releases from 2008:

George Strait: Troubadour, Alan Jackson: Good Time, James Morrison: Songs For You, Truths For Me, John Hiatt: Same Old Man, Lee Ann Womack: Call Me Crazy, James Otto: Sunset Man

(Todd Sterling is a freelance writer and songwriter from Canada: www.myspace.com/toddsterling / www.toddsterling.com)


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