Gary AllanGary Allan - Living Hard
When Gary Allan released Tough All Over in 2005, it was a turning point. He'd been running all over the country map from the beginning of his career in 1995 (label A and R types and certain producers can feel more like oppressive regimes than nurturers of talent). But on that effort he finally contributed substantially to the songwriting by co-penning four of the album's tracks, and by embracing rock 'n' roll in a way he hadn't before. He had to be happy with it. It was still a really slick record but it was harder, leaner, and reflected its title without giving up an ounce of the accessibility or appeal of his earlier albums. Living Hard is part two of that evolution. Allan co-produced with Mark Wright, and co-wrote six of the album's 11 cuts. Read more >>

Kenny ChesneyKenny Chesney - Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates
There's no denying that the title Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates, Kenny Chesney's tenth studio album, bears an undercurrent of autobiography, as if he's telling us exactly what he's all about. Given this, it would seem logical that this album would be built upon original songs -- especially since its title echoes Be as You Are (Songs from an Old Blue Chair), his intimate 2005 album of originals -- but Just Who I Am has not one original song, when even its 2005 predecessor, The Road and the Radio, had a pair, including the very good "Beer in Mexico." Just Who I Am might not come from Chesney's pen, but these songs nevertheless have the appearance of being autobiographical, as they dwell upon teenage nostalgia, bittersweet memories, and the importance of family because life speeds by faster than you'd think. Read more >>

Miranda LambertMiranda Lambert - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Miranda Lambert didn't win the first Nashville Star in 2003, but she sure is the first bona fide star the televised music competition has produced, as her stellar 2007 sophomore album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt. Taking her cue from the vengeful spurned woman of "Kerosene," her hit debut single, Lambert has built her second album around a tough-chick persona, something that may be clear from the very title of the album, but this isn't a one-dimensional record by any stretch. Sure, she plays the crazy ex-girlfriend of the title track -- stalking her beau and his new girl to the local bar, which she promptly starts tearing apart -- but that's hardly the extent of her hell-raising here. Read more >>

Tim McGrawTim McGraw - Let It Go
Tim McGraw stayed out of recording studios for nearly three years after his smash single and album Live Like You Were Dying. McGraw is a road dog and a husband to Faith Hill. The pair had a child and McGraw comes back to a style of country music he helped form in the early '90s. His backing band, the Dance Hall Doctors, is the E Street Band of country music in the 21st century. McGraw -- who, with help from Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith, produced Let It Go -- is once more willing to push the sonic formulaic envelope with a wonderfully textural array of sounds and the moods they help to underscore. (Think, if you will, Mitch Easter as a country music producer with a big road band to rein in.) Read more >>

Willie NelsonWillie Nelson - Last of the Breed
The title Last of the Breed speaks with a defiance that, for the most part, the music on this album does not, and that's just as it should be -- while Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price are indeed among the last functioning practitioners of pure, unadulterated Western swing, honky tonk, or countrypolitan blues in the classic manner, on this album they seem less concerned with fighting the changing face of country music than with playing this music with the easy confidence and quiet conviction that's been the hallmark of their respective careers. For the most part, Last of the Breed finds these three friends and occasional collaborators working through a set of old-school country classics... Read more >>

Blake SheltonBlake Shelton - Pure BS
With Pure BS, Blake Shelton proves he is one of the country music artists who are in it for the long haul and cannot rest on his laurels. From the cover photo to the last track, the listener can easily be startled by what is on offer here. As his first three albums showcased, Shelton has always had a powerful baritone range and can write and sing drinking, heartbreak and driving songs all night. Working with producer Bobby Braddock, Shelton forged a sound that showcased him as a country music hell raiser who had a tender side, but he did it all with one voice. On Pure BS (a great double entendre), Shelton worked not only with Braddock, but with producers Paul Worley and Brent Rowan as well. Read more >>

Travis TrittTravis Tritt - The Storm
Since contemporary country records have little to do with sounding like country music from any other era -- other than the use of pedal steels, fiddles or banjos in their instrumentation at times -- it's a wonder that Travis Tritt, one of those responsible for ushering in the current era and a hitmaker of major proportion, is no longer with a major record label. It just doesn't make sense. Tritt was considered one of the "new traditionalists" back in the day. Whatever. He could still rock harder in his approach to the country tradition (without forsaking honky tonk or rockabilly in the process) than most any mainstream pop band. And while he isn't Merle Haggard, he is still a hell of a songwriter when he wants to be. As a performer, he is second to none. Read more >>

Kelly WillisKelly Willis - Translated from Love
Translated from Love is Kelly Willis' seventh album and her first (aside from a Christmas set in 2006) in five years. It was produced by Chuck Prophet with a small group of musicians that rotates a bit but is more or less a unit: Prophet, Greg Leisz, Marc Pisapia, John Ludwick, and Michael Ramos. Guests include Willis' husband Bruce Robison, the Tosca String Quartet, and Jules Shear (who wrote or co-wrote a couple of tunes here). Prophet, Willis and Shear take on the lion's share of writing credits here, often in combinations. Willis is the darling of alt country fans and NPR listeners, and each recording has received more platitudes than the one before. Read more >>

Trisha YearwoodTrisha Yearwood - Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love
Trisha Yearwood left MCA Nashville on a high note in 2005 with Jasper County. It was her first record in five years, and one of her best. That said, it was merely a taste of what was to come when she spread her wings and went off on her own. Two years later the bounty of that decision comes to the listener on Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love. Produced by Garth Fundis, who worked on Yearwood's early records and Jasper County, the album appears on the independent (but well-distributed and promoted) Big Machine Records, and it is obvious that this is the album Yearwood's wanted to make her entire career. Read more >>