HITSVILLY'S BEST COUNTRY ALBUMS OF THE EIGHTIES
(click on the photos to sample the albums on Spotify)
Ahhh, the eighties. When things were right with the country music world. One could not turn around without another revelation smacking them in the eardrums. 1986 was about the time I found my way back to country music, after a long sabbatical due to its general suckiness. Being a country music fan since around 1966, turning away from it was a momentous decision, but I'd finally had enough of poppy Dolly Parton and poppy Barbara Mandrell, and even poppy Charley Pride remaking the latest easy listening hit. We tend not to remember those evil tracks because our memories want to go to happy places, but it all happened; it was all real. I suffered through it 'til I could take no more.
But a funny thing happened while I was away. Country turned country again. Somebody at Warner Brothers Records took an audacious gamble and signed a guy named Randy Ray, who was steadfast in his love of country music ~ not Sylvia country music or Kenny Rogers country music, but you know, real country music. And guess what happened? People loved it! Who knew country fans were tired of skim milk?
Storms Of Life ~ Randy Travis ~ 1986
It also didn't hurt that this guy had A VOICE. Listening to the first track on Storms Of Life, "On The Other Hand", I get chills. This debut contains four certified hits, "On The Other Hand", "Diggin' Up Bones", "No Place Like Home", and my personal favorite, "1982". The album was co-produced my Kyle Lehning and Keith Stegall (no slouches), but c'mon, it really was a no-brainer. I mean, just listen to this guy.
During my sojourn I'd missed out on Randy Travis completely, so when my mom and dad invited me along to one of his concerts, I went begrudgingly, to humor them. I was dubious that country had somehow found its way home; thus I sat in the bleachers with my arms crossed until approximately the first song. Suddenly I bolted upright in my bleacher seat and leaned forward. Watched this guy glide from one end of the stage to the other with a hand-held mic, and bathed in those creamy basso tones. I'd seen a lot of artists live ~ I'd seen Merle Haggard (c'mon!), but this guy was second only to The Hag. If you're new to actual country, start here. You won't go back.
Guitar Town ~ Steve Earle ~ 1986
Honestly, there aren't a lot of albums I play over and over. This one I do. I don't know much about Steve Earle; I hear he's some kind of (actual) outlaw or something. And I never bought another of his releases. This one more than suffices. Aside from "Guitar Town" being one of the best songs ever, with lines like these (I'm a big fan of smart lyrics):
Well, I gotta keep rockin' why I still canGot a two pack habit and a motel tan
...the guy's a savant. Listen to "Hillbilly Highway" and try to convince me it's not the ultimate combination of songwriting and twang.
My granddaddy was a minerBut he finally saw the light
This album is a vibe. It's best consumed in its entirety. Crack open a beer, sit back, smoke 'em if you got 'em. You'll play it again, believe me.
Killin' Time ~ Clint Black ~ 1989
My first husband and I used to go dancing. It was our one night of the week away from the kids, away from our jobs, away from stresses and bills. There was a little basement saloon called The Dakota Lounge that featured live music every weekend. I got tipsy on two cans of beer, so it was a cheap date. We weren't the world's pre-eminent dancers, but nobody inside that dank cellar cared. We'd twirl out onto the dance floor, amid the dim light-filtered smoke and two-step to the juke box before the featured act took the stage. "A Better Man" was a prime dancing song; ergo, "Killin' Time". I was a fool for dancing to Clint Black songs, and they were all here on this release ~ "Nobody's Home", "Walkin' Away" (though I couldn't waltz to save my hide),
Is there a better opening line than:
You were the first thing that I thought ofWhen I thought I drank you off my mind
Great singer-songwriters are few and far between in country. Most artists rely on Music Row. But if you've got it, flaunt it. Clint Black's got it.
Diamonds and Dirt ~ Rodney Crowell ~ 1988
I've listened to this album so many times I've come to regard it as regular. It's nothing near regular. All five of its single releases hit number one on the charts. All five. A compendium of Rodney Crowell's achievements would subsume this entire article ~ he produced his (then) wife Rosanne Cash, he was a right-hand to Emmylou and wrote several of her hits; he penned chart-toppers for everyone from The Oak Ridge Boys to The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
But this album ~ this one ~ takes a country soul's breath away. It's near perfect. Try to find a track that not a gem. "I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried", "She's Crazy For Leaving", "Crazy Baby". "It's Such A Small World", "After All This Time". This is the essence of a blue moon songwriter. Add it to your Spotify library. I beseech you.
Highway 101 ~ Highway 101 - 1987
This, the debut release from Highway 101, is breathtaking. Lead singer Paulette Carlson (who began her singing career in Fargo, North Dakota) has sort of a country Stevie Nicks vibe, and her band members, Jack Daniels, Curtis Stone, and drummer Cactus Moser, are outstanding musicians. Featuring the hits, "The Bed You Made For Me", "Somewhere Tonight", "Cry Cry Cry", and "Whiskey, If You Were A Woman", this band exploded onto the charts, driven by a bold, ballsy style; just the balm for fans disillusioned with tepid bath water country. The band in its original formation only recorded three albums (all of them great!) plus a greatest hits compilation, so hear 'em now, then check out their other releases.
Foster and Lloyd ~ Foster and Lloyd ~ 1987
If you're a fan of Texas rockabilly (I am), check out this debut by Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd. It includes one of the best singles of the eighties, or really anytime, "Crazy Over You", as well as "Texas In 1880", plus other radio hits "Sure Thing" and "What Do You Want From Me This Time?" Here you will also find their composition, "Don't Go Out With Him", made much more famous by Tanya Tucker and T. Graham Brown. The duo only remained together for three years, but they were pretty awesome years. (And seriously, if you haven't heard "Crazy Over You", play it now.)
Honky Tonk Angel ~ Patty Loveless ~ 1988
The eighties and nineties were prime decades for female country singers, and Patty Loveless is one of the best. My quibble with most of these women is that they couldn't resist straying from stone country. Patty resisted. To wit, Honky Tonk Angel. My favorites? "Don't Toss Us Away", "Timber I'm Falling In Love", "Chains", "Blue Side Of Town". Loveless is a belter. I like that. She's got it and she flaunts it. Any girl who ever aspired to sing would kill to sing like Patty. Her bluegrass background enhanced the "lonely" of Vince Gill's "When I Call Your Name", as well as her duet with Dwight Yoakam on "Send A Message To My Heart". Honky Tonk Angel is her third album, and her best.
Buenos Noches From A Lonely Room ~ Dwight Yoakam ~ 1988
If you're a reader of Hitsvilly, you know that Buenos Noches From A Lonely Room is one of our picks for the best country albums of all time. And it kind of snuck up on this fan. Yoakam's albums tended to be hit or miss ~ a few great radio tracks and some obscure bare-bones filler. But this album flows. From the opening track, "I Got You", on to the title song, then "I Hear You Knockin'" and "I Sang Dixie", plus the duet that revived Buck Owens' career, "Streets Of Bakersfield", the album is Kentucky candy. Though I haven't cited the remaining tracks, that's no diss. It's all good. If you're new to Dwight, start with this album, then move on to "Just Lookin' For A Hit" (if for no other reason than to hear "Long White Cadillac"). This guy deserves to be in the Country Music Hall Of Fame. Maybe one day the super-secret cabal that makes the selections will have a light hit them in the ass.
Wild-Eyed Dream ~ Ricky Van Shelton ~ 1987
Ricky Van Shelton began his career with such promise, but Nashville is littered with artists who only managed to produce one good album. This is the good one. "Crime Of Passion" and "Wild-Eyed Dream" are worth the listen alone. And he sings the hell of out of covers "Life Turned Her That Way" and "Somebody Lied". Shelton's sound on this release is hard to define. It brings to mind a standup slap bass and an electric guitar plugged into Fender mini-amp ~ and one snare drum. A middle-of-nowhere bar band with a wunderkind lead singer. Right up my alley.
Beyond The Blue Neon ~ George Strait ~ 1989
I love George Strait. That doesn't mean I deny his flaws. He has eclectic tastes, from Sinatra to Petty, which is not a bad thing (I like 'em, too), but country is country is country. George always liked to sneak in a couple of middle-of-the-road tunes on his albums; you know, the boring tracks, but he did not do that here. There's some western swing, like "Ace In The Hole" (Does he still do this one in his concerts?), and two standout ballads, "Baby's Gotten Good At Goodbye" and the heartbreaking "What's Goin' On In Your World". Then back to more western swing with "Angel, Angelina" and closing out with "Oh Me, Oh My Sweet Baby". This is without a doubt George's best album of the eighties.
10 ~ Asleep At The Wheel ~ 1987
Asleep At The Wheel has been around forever, right? The only constant has been lead singer Ray Benson. I've liked western swing ever since "San Antonio Rose", and this album is chalk-full of the same sounds. The lead track, "Way Down Texas Way" sets the mood. Then the band covers "House Of Blue Lights" and other fifties ditties in their distinct fiddle-heavy, honky tonk piano style. My favorite is "Boogie Back To Texas", which is sure to draw even lead-foots out onto the dance floor. "10" is rounded out with harmony-heavy "Blues Stay Away From Me", a fitting end to a Saturday barroom night. This isn't a cry-in-your-beer album; it's a "Yay, beer!" album. Drink up!
More Great Dirt ~ Nitty Gritty Dirt Band ~ 1989
Sadly and inexplicably, this album isn't available on Spotify. It was one of two albums that lured me back to country music. I consider it a country masterpiece. One can tick off, down the row, great track after great track ~ "Cadillac Ranch", "I've Been Lookin'", "Oh, What A Love", "Workin' Man (Nowhere To Go)", "Fishin' In The Dark", "Baby's Got A Hold On Me", "Down That Road Tonight". The closest I could find on Spotify was the album "Workin' Band", which at least contains three of those songs. It's sad when music you need isn't at your fingertips (good thing I have the physical CD). There must be a reason this album isn't streamable, but I can't for the life of me figure out why. It's an essential.
As always, I could go on and on, and who knows? I may add to this list if I run across something I've forgotten, but I'm feeling pretty good about my choices. If you're a new country fan, trust me on these. They tell the true story of country's resurgence.
Michelle Anderson, Senior Country Editor
"More Great Dirt" and "Garth Brooks" not available on Spotify.