HITSVILLY'S BEST ALBUMS OF THE NINETIES
In the nineties I acquired my CD's the old-fashioned way ~ by going to a record store and hand-selecting them. Of course, Amazon was simply a seller of books and if there were any other online businesses hawking CD's, I didn't know about them. I had enough trouble keeping my dial-up from disconnecting.
Of course, nobody buys CD's anymore. I don't even play the three hundred or so that are currently sitting on my shelf collecting dust bunnies. The good news is that Spotify, too, has albums, so if there's one oldie I have a yearning to hear, I search it out, click on the heart emoji, and it's safely tucked away in my online library.
But twenty-five or so years ago, there was nobody to tell me which CD's to buy. It was a crapshoot. Sure, I picked up George Strait's latest, and sometimes it was good, sometimes it was ehh; once in a while it was great. Too, I never failed to grab Dwight Yoakam's newest release, but after that, it was hit or miss. I bought tons of CD's, mostly because I liked a track I heard on the radio. Too often, though, that turned out to be the disc's only decent song. I'd listen through once, sometimes catching a hidden gem, most of the time not; then tuck the CD into an empty slot on the shelf and forget about it. Admittedly, I was a tough taskmaster.
But sometimes a CD stood out. Unexpectedly. Tastes are individual. I am a sucker for real country music, which I define as not pap. Ballads are fine, but they still have to be country. I like Sinatra, too, but he has his place, and it's not Nashville or Bakersfield.
What stands out as a stellar album? My woeful experience tells me that it has to have at least four outstanding tracks. Five would be superb, but that's a high bar. Did I find any? Yes! I did! Let me tell you about them.
(Click on the photos to sample the albums on Spotify.)
The Mavericks ~ What A Crying Shame ~ 1994
With lead vocals by Raul Malo, stone-country tracks spiced with Miami bravado polished to a sheen by bandmates Robert Reynolds and Paul Deakin, What A Crying Shame contains (count 'em) at least nine standout tracks. That's like hitting the jackpot at Ol' Lucky Sevens Casino! When I slid the CD into my changer for the first time I was stunned. I was expecting to like only the title track, but as it played on, my awe grew. The (original) Mavericks recorded subsequent albums, but What A Crying Shame seals their legacy.
Dwight Yoakam ~ A Long Way Home ~ 1998
I think I bought every single one of Dwight Yoakam's albums. That's what one does when they are a super-fan. Sometimes it's simply the possession that matters, as opposed to the overall quality. Dwight's albums probably even out to 50/50. A couple were awesome, most were pretty good, some I played only once. This one, though, is awesome. It contains at least five memorable tracks. Out of eleven that's a win. While it's still no Buenos Noches From A Lonely Room, it's 1990's Dwight in his element.
Easy Come Easy Go ~ George Strait ~ 1993
Easy Come Easy Go is Strait's most consistently traditional album since Beyond The Blue Neon. Not only are five out its ten tracks exceptional, they're superb. The two Jim Lauderdale compositions, "I Wasn't Fooling Around" and "Stay Out Of My Arms" are traditional country at its best. George also covers Wayne Kemp's/Faron Young's "That's Where My Baby Feels At Home", which, too, was only an album track and sadly never released as a single. "Love Bug", a 1966 hit by another George (Jones) is possibly the track fans remember most, although the title song surpassed it on the charts. This is my go-to album whenever I'm in the mood for some palate-cleansing true country.
The Pilgrim ~ Marty Stuart ~ 1999
It takes a few plays-through before it becomes clear that The Pilgrim belongs on the list of all-time classic country albums. The Pilgrim is Stuart's concept album; it tells the true story of a man from his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. There are cameos woven in, from the likes of Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, among others; but this is Marty's album all the way. All the songs were written by him. The Pilgrim turned out to be his MCA Nashville swan song. Apparently the powers-that-be wanted radio hits, and thus artist and label head agreed to disagree. Good decision. Stuart went on to form the Fabulous Superlatives and produce music more substantial than, say, "Western Girls". Listen to it...at least twice.
A Lot About Livin' (And a Little 'bout Love) ~ Alan Jackson ~ 1992
Alan Jackson's third album hit the sweet spot. Leading off with the massive "Chattahoochie", which is still cute, regardless of the thousands of times it was played on the radio, and followed with "She's Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)", co-written by Jackson and Randy Travis, which happens to be one of my top two favorite Jackson songs, AJ combines neotraditional with flat-out traditional, from the Patsy Cline-ish steel on the second track to his homage to Buck Owens, "Up To My Ears In Tears". Even the ballads on the album are lovely, since Jackson understands that a ballad doesn't need to follow the stylings of pop crooners of the fifties in order to be fine. There are easily seven excellent tracks here, ending with the hit, "Mercury Blues", on which Jackson makes generous use of the Nashville session players. A Lot About Livin' would make a jaunty traveling companion on any road trip.
Brooks and Dunn ~ Brand New Man ~ 1991
There was once an NBC variety show produced by Dick Clark, "Hot Country Nights", which was where I first laid eyes on Brooks and Dunn. I'd become disillusioned with country in the late seventies/early eighties and had turned away from it completely. When I stumbled upon it again toward the turn of the decade, I had some catching up to do. But Brooks and Dunn were "brand new" in 1990, so no catching up was required. At the time of their TV appearance I still wasn't sure which was Brooks and which was Dunn, but that lanky redhead, whichever one he was, sure had a hell of a voice, with just a hint of hillbilly cry. The duo couldn't be mistaken for anything but country, but they didn't spare the electric guitar licks or drums. This was country, but amped-up country ~ just the way I liked it. I think the song they performed that night was "My Next Broken Heart", the second track on this album. You'll also find here one of the finest country ballads of all time, "Neon Moon", as well as that bow to the latest country craze, line dancing, with "Boot Scootin' Boogie". Even the Kix Brooks selections on this, their debut album, aren't bad. All in all, five out of the ten offerings here are stellar. If you're new to Brooks and Dunn, start here.
Come On, Come On ~ Mary Chapin Carpenter ~ 1992
I'm not deliberately excluding female artists, but since this is a list of the best, I can't help it if there are more male artists with timeless albums from the 90's era (see the upcoming 80's list for better female representation). Chapin Carpenter began her career as a folk singer, which may be why she's not afraid to belt it out. There's nothing worse than a timid singer. Come On, Come On features "He Thinks He'll Keep Her", as well as the goofy, happy "I Feel Lucky" and Mark Knopfler's "The Bug". For sheer quality, this album is a very cool offering.
Pure Country ~ George Strait ~ 1992
I don't subscribe to the axiom that a "best of" list can only contain one album by each artist. If it's one of the best, then it's one of the best. Pure Country was an awful movie (A ponytail? Really,
This Time ~ Dwight Yoakam ~ 1993
I'm a thousand miles from nowhere; time don't matter to me. Oh, excuse me. I got lost inside a song for a minute there. From the album's kickoff, "Pocket Of A Clown", we're pretty sure this is going to be something great. "Ain't That Lonely Yet"? Come on! "Fast As You"? Dwight was on fire on this masterpiece. He wrote all the songs, but let's also not forget producer Pete Anderson, who is the man responsible for the sound. I'm not even going to cite the other songs on this jewel ~ if you've got three catch-your-breath classics, there's nothing more to say. Awww, Sookie....
This list will be updated as I make more discoveries or jog my feeble memory, whichever comes first.
Michelle Anderson, Senior Country Editor