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.)
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Vince Gill. These Days (MCA Nashville): OK, this one's almost a ringer Gill hasn't seen the inside of Billboard's country Top 10 singles chart (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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Danielle Peck. Danielle Peck (Big Machine): Perhaps the most difficult way to make a really superlative commercial country album is to play by all the rules, and just do it better than everyone else. The lift here comes from smart songwriting and from Peck's voice, a forceful instrument that gets more powerful the more gently she applies it. If Peck fails to become a big star, it will be for extramusical reasons: She's far too sexy not "pretty" like Faith Hill, but sweet-merciful-Jesus-I'd-tap-that-without-a-warrant hot for country's predominantly older female demographic.
7. Darryl Worley. Here and Now (903 Music): Worley was tagged as a Toby Keith wannabe after "Have You Forgotten?" (a bold riposte to the... uh, approximately zero Americans who didn't want Osama bin Laden obliterated) rode the conflation of 9/11 and the Iraq War to the top of the chart in spring 2003, just as the Dixie Chicks were getting Dixie Chicked. "Forgotten" aside, Worley is actually a thoughtful singer/songwriter with a flair for naked emotion and an eye for detail. Newly free of both his major-label deal and his marriage, his latest is a holler of liberated glee, the sound of a man who can't wait to get into trouble. Sealing the deal is "I Just Got Back From a War," about an American soldier's anger and confusion at not being greeted as a liberator. It's bleak and daring, and Keith wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot flag.
8. Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift (Big Machine): Nashville tried, and failed, to get in on the teen-pop extravaganza of a few years ago. Now that Britney is a divorcee with two kids, it finally succeeds with this 16-year-old wünderkind. Swift neither plays for cuteness nor poses as jailbait; she simply uses her native intelligence to express clearly to anyone who will listen her hopes for the future, her growing worldliness, and her dawning awareness that boys may be more trouble than they're worth.
9. Kellie Pickler. Small Town Girl (BNA Nashville): The big-voiced, calamari-hating Pickler finished sixth on the latest season of American Idol, which in Nashville narrowcasting terms is a dream marketing setup. Add the right collaborators (like songwriter Aimee Mayo and producer Blake Chancey) and you wind up with an unvarnished pop-country jewel featuring a surprisingly confident headliner who's not as dumb as you think.
10. Jace Everett. Jace Everett (Sony Music Nashville): Justin Timberlake brought sexy back to pop in 2006 (or at least announced that intention), but country apparently wasn't ready for the same. Everett's slyly insinuating singles "That's the Kind of Love I'm In" and "Bad Things" (as in, things he wants to do to you, sweet thing) barely dented the charts, and his album was quietly dumped into stores. Everett lost his deal in a merger and by July was ranting about "the dumbing down and homogenization of our culture" on his MySpace page. You know what that means: a great screw-the-music-business album is brewing somewhere. Good luck finding a rhyme for homogenization, but I'm sure someone in Music City can swing it.