Songs for the Daily Planet
Todd Snider


Snark hit country music in full-force when Snider made his kick-ass debut album. Produced by the usually timid Tony Brown, Snider’s sharp wit tackled everything from the banality of Generation X’ers (“My Generation (Part 2)”), the waning alternative music scene (“Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues”) and even the forceful acquisition of land from Native Americans (“This Land is Our Land”).

Download This: “Alright Guy”, “This Land is Our Land”, “Easy Money”

Van Lear Rose
Loretta Lynn


Producer Jack White pulled a Rick Rubin and got a legend to get back in touch with her roots. White may have been an encouraging nudge, but this album is all Lynn, a collection of self-written songs that manage to cover new ground while still recalling her halcyon days.

Download This: “Portland, Oregon”, “The Story of My Life”, “God Makes No Mistakes”

Twice the Speed of Life


A sharp and entertaining album, this is the best debut country record of the decade so far, a wonderful reminder that good singing and great songwriting actually makes for a fantastic band. The then-trio wrote all of the songs, which helped them establish their own voice right away, and they were duly rewarded with a double-platinum disc.

RIAA: 2x Platinum

Download This: “Something More”, “Stand Back Up”, “Hello”

It Matters to Me
Faith Hill


I held an unfair grudge against Faith Hill for many years because this album skewed my expectations of what her musical story was going to be. Here, she’s literate and intelligent in her selection of material, and made a mature, adult album with one great song after another. When she went a little too frothy and frivolous for her next two albums, I couldn’t enjoy those records for what they were. How could I, after she’d recorded brilliant songs like “A Man’s Home in His Castle”, a spousal abuse tale that lacks a resolution, or the powerful Alan Jackson-penned “I Can’t Do That Anymore”, where she first explores the psyche of the quietly sinking housewife?

RIAA: 4x Platinum

Download This: “A Man’s Home is His Castle”, “Someone Else’s Dream”, “I Can’t Do That Anymore”

Chris Thile


Thile may be the most frighteningly talented singer-songwriter-musician working today, at least anywhere near country music. His virtuoso skill on the mandolin is impressive, but what’s fascinating is his complete disregard of convention, resulting in lyrics and arrangements that are initially jarring but so brutally honest and original that they actually expand the listener’s musical landscape. His creativity broke through completely on this solo album from 2004.

Download This: “The Believer”, “I’m Nowhere and You’re Everything”, “On Ice”

Mark Chesnutt


It’s difficult for a country album to be both ambitious and staunchly traditional, but Chesnutt pulls it off on this fantastic album, which has him selecting unconventional material from writers like Todd Snider and Jim Lauderdale. The opening cut, “As the Honky Tonk Turns”, is almost theatrical in scope, still maintaining a traditional arrangement as it sets the stage for a ten-song set on the more complex elements of the honky-tonk lifestyle; the album even ends the way many nights at the bar do, with some casual sex from a barfly that you’ll want nothing to do with in the morning (“Strangers.”)

Download This: “Trouble”, “It Wouldn’t Hurt to Have Wings”, “Strangers”

Forget About It
Alison Krauss


Krauss hasn’t made a solo album since this one, but the formula she stumbles on has been present on every album with Union Station since. This is where Krauss fully transitions from a bluegrass star to a pop vocalist with country and bluegrass trimmings, and she sounds awesome in the process, transforming middling country hits (“Ghost in This House”) and stellar classics (“Dreaming My Dreams with You”) into soft, poetic prayers.

RIAA: Gold

Download This: “Ghost in This House”, “Maybe”, “Dreaming My Dreams With You”

Rumor Has It
Reba McEntire


McEntire switched producers and embraced a more muscular production with complete abandon, pushing her signature sound into a new decade and establishing herself again as a superstar in the genre. She finally covered “Fancy”, which she’d been wanting to do for years, and managed to turn that prostitution saga into an anthem of self-determination, and turned in her best vocal performance yet with the chilling “You Lie”.

RIAA: 3x Platinum

Download This: “You Lie”, “Fancy”, “Fallin’ Out of Love”

It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis
Pam Tillis


Tillis the singer pays tribute to her father, the songwriter. Self-financed and produced and released only a year after her middling pop-flavored swan song for Arista, Thunder & Roses, Tillis fully immerses herself in traditional country music, while still creating contemporary arrangements for the timeless classics from her father’s catalog. By turning “Heart Over Mind” and “Detroit City” into haunting ballads, she manages to discover new depths in songs that have been endlessly recorded and performed for two generations.

Download This: “Unmitigated Gall”, “Detroit City”, “Mental Revenge”

Love Travels
Kathy Mattea


Kicking off with the Celtic sound of the title track and covering material of everyone from Gillian Welch to Cheryl Wheeler before calling it a day, Mattea resurfaced after a three-year absence with a new confidence and clearer focus, as she starts to leave the commercial Nashville sound behind, in favor of the more philosophical work that she was always best at anyway.

Download This: “Love Travels”, “Further and Further Away”, “Beautiful Fool”