Top Ten Country Albums, 2006

Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music

The Nashville way of making music is unlike any other, comparable only to the studio system of Hollywood's golden age— a closed system of songwriters, producers, record labels and artists that creates most of the sounds you don't want to admit you listen to on the radio when no one else is in the car.

This system is designed to create consistently good, but not great, music. For the latter to occur, an unpredictable element must be introduced, a ghost in the machine that animates the gears and brings the whole contraption roaring to life with a cybernetic melding of skill and soul. These are the happy accidents responsible for most—but not all—of the albums to find a home on country radio in 2006.

(Disclaimer: The best mainstream country album of the year, the Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way, received little to no airplay on country radio, and is therefore ineligible for this list. How could something that idiotic happen, you ask? Um ... it's a long story.)

Alan Jackson Like Red on a Rose (Arista Nashville) Like R&B, commercial country is at its heart a producer's medium . For instance, if you're an Alan Jackson fan, you're also a fan of producer Keith Stegall , who's helmed nearly all of Jackson's umpteen hits . So when Jackson tapped Alison Krauss to produce his new album, listeners expected a sidetrack into bluegrass. Instead, we got this: A shimmering suite of mature , thoughtful country songs about the difficulty and rewards of reconciling the youthful ideal of romance with the reality of adulthood and family .

Keith Urban Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing (Capitol Nashville) Sometimes, superlative music gets made in Nashville because the artist becomes so popular that he or she earns the right to assume full artistic control over his or her work. That's why Jackson was able to call on Krauss, and why Urban now gets to fully explore his previously hinted-at vision of a merging of mainstream country with the panoramic rock of Joshua Tree-era U2 , stitching it all together with passion, melodic invention and furious (and fully rock 'n' roll) guitar work .

Vince Gill These Days (MCA Nashville) Okay, this one's almost a ringer — Gill hasn't seen the inside of Billboard's country Top 10 singles char t (except in his role as a prolific harmony singer) since 2000 . But the recent "The Reason Why" lodged in the Top 40, and the four-disc set from which it springs is nothing less than country's own Sign o' the Times : An example of a scarily talented singer , songwriter and instrumentalist with a playful wit , randy sense of humor and flair for genre-hopping, finally allowed to demonstrate all the different things he can do in one glorious , extended tour de force.

George Strait It Just Comes Natural (MCA Nashville) When a formula is as well-entrenched as Strait's, even a tiny digression can make a difference. It Just Comes Natural stands out from his dozens of other fine albums by dint of its length ( 15 songs, and not a clinker in the bunch ) and by the fact that for the recording, Strait, band and producer Tony Brown decamped to a tiny Florida studio owned by pal Jimmy Buffett . The result is a freshness that's occasionally been missing from Strait's work, wedded to the vocal mastery and canny song selection that hasn't.

The Wreckers Stand Still, Look Pretty (Maverick) Hits settle all questions in Music City . Can a potty-mouthed young pop singer who's bared half her ass in Maxim be welcomed in ultraconservative (at least in public) Nashville? With a hit like The Wreckers' sterling "Leave the Pieces," it's not a problem. That song rose to number one and turned Michelle Branch — who formed the duo with more country-centric collaborator Jessica Harp — into a country star . And if you've got a hit in your pocket, Nashville wants to buy you a drink, too. - CHRIS NEAL

Look for Part II of The Top Ten Country Albums, 2006 in tomorrow's blog.

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