While some may be hamstrung by a "Top 10," Country Standard Time is not. As a result, our best of consists of the "Top 18" plus honorable mentions. The list includes some tried and true country stars, an artist going back to her West Virginia roots, a comeback album, some great bluegrass albums, even an unknown band from Brooklyn (Yes, there is country music in Brooklyn).
Who avoided the sophomore slump? Who's the best new artist? And what took home the Kiss of Death award?
This is just one person's opinion, but here goes the best of 2008:
1. Alan Jackson - Good Time (Arista). AJ has been a solid purveyor of traditional country since the get go with odes to small town America, rural life and love, not to mention a sense of humor. Jackson proves ultra generous with 17 songs on a most meaty, enjoyable, enduring batch of songs.
2. Kathy Mattea - Coal (Captain Potato) Like a few others on this list, Kathy Mattea's career once upon a time was on an upward trajectory. Now, she does her own thing. She reaches back to her West Virginia roots for a theme album on coal. Great singing as usual and writing. A real surprise.
3. The SteelDrivers - (Rounder) Bluegrass bands seem to come together and then disappear, but let's hope this quintet sticks around for awhile. The combustible element is singer and writer Chris Stapleton who gives his bluegrass a distinctive bluesy edge.
4. Jamey Johnson - (MCA Nashville) - This was an out of left field surprise especially considering his previous effort yielded one sort of hit, The Dollar, The writing is brutally honest, and Johnson's voice is well suited.
5. Carlene Carter - Stronger (Yep Roc) After all her ups and downs, Carlene Carter lives up to the title. Her voice is strong as are her songs. A welcome return.
6. George Strait - Troubadour (MCA Nashville). The traditional country purveyor's best, most consistent music in years.
7. Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson - Rattlin' Bones (Sugar Hill) Kasey Chambers works with husband Shane Nicholson in a career way too under the radar screen in the States. The Aussies ought to leave home more often especially with music like this.
8. Hayes Carll - Trouble In Mind (Lost Highway) All the attention seems to be on highly irreverent She Left Me For Jesus, but there's a lot more here than only that from the humorous, affable Carll.
9. The Dixons - Still Your Fool (Cow Island). The Dixons just may be Brooklyn's best country band. Real traditional and real good.
10. Rhonda Vincent - Good Thing Going (Rounder) Maybe the most solid recording of Vincent's career. She's the hardest working woman in bluegrass. Strong songs and singing.
11. James Intveld - For pure honky tonk with confidence and swagger, this is the guy. He left LA for Nashville, but that hasn't negatively affected him.
12. Patty Loveless - Loveless, aka the queen of country music, has not enjoyed a high profile in recent years, but this covers disc is top notch. Loveless remains exceedingly easy on the ears.
13. Joey + Rory - The Life of a Song (Sugar Hill) Husband-and-wife duo came out of nowhere with excellent singing from Joey. They even tackle Free Bird successfully!
14. Dailey & Vincent (Rounder) A brand new, great duo who took bluegrass by storm. Great singing and harmonies.
15. Tift Merritt - Another Country (Concord). Beautiful sounding from a very pensive singer who goes to her own muse.
16. The Grascals - Keep on Walkin' (Rounder). One of the top new bands in bluegrass picking some excellent covers with a country bent.
17. Dan Tyminski - Wheels (Rounder) Alison Krauss' band mate finally returns with a solo disc. With quality like this, Tyminski better not wait so long next time.
18. The Wrights (ACR) Husband-and-wife duo resurface with another excellent set with the kind of country you just don't hear nowadays.
Honorable mention: Crooked Still - Still Crooked (Signature Sounds); Girls Guns and Glory - Inverted Valentine (self-released); Chatham County Line - IV (Yep Roc); Mudcrutch (Reprise); Old Crow Medicine Show - Tennessee Pusher (Nettwerk); Lucinda Williams - Little Honey (Lost Highway); Lee Ann Womack - Call Me Crazy (MCA Nashville); Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder - Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass Tribute to 1946 and 1947 (Skaggs Family); Justin Townes Earle - The Good Life (Bloodshot); Bruce Robison - The New World (Premium); Ashton Shepherd - Sounds So Good (MCA Nashville); Toby Keith - That Don't Make Me a Bad Guy (ShowDog Nashville)
Far more happened in country, bluegrass and Americana music during 2008 than just thinking about what was the best. So, the following is the author's viewpoint about artists, CDs, concerts and more that caught our attention.