THESE DAYS VINCE GILL For three decades, Gill has been country's Gary Cooper--a heroically modest pro's pro, with a range that extends from earnest ballads to really earnest ballads. This four-disc set of 43 original tracks, all of which Gill wrote or co-wrote, is downright Garthian in its ambition--and it changes everything. Each disc covers different musical terrain--bluegrass, jazz, Southern rock, country--has well-cast guests (Bonnie Raitt shines) and reveals Gill as an astonishingly dexterous guitar player and singer. A few songs miss, but more than enough hit to make this collection, priced with characteristic humility at $29.95, one of the best of the year.
SONGBIRD WILLIE NELSON With seven original scattershot albums since 2003--including one of just reggae covers--Nelson formally entered the doodling phase of his career. A collaboration with fellow profligate Ryan Adams (a mere five albums in three years) would seem like the exact wrong move, but as a producer, Adams brings along his excellent backing band, the Cardinals, and a shrewd instinct for songs that keep Willie focused. The two originals and nine covers--including Gram Parsons' $1000 Wedding and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah--are so good that Nelson resists the temptation to oversell them and returns to the effortless speak-singing that made his greatest hits so poignant. Best of all is a closing minor-key version of Amazing Grace; Nelson and Adams add an Animals-like organ to this most clichéd of spirituals and take it on a trip to the House of the Rising Sun.
LIKE RED ON A ROSE ALAN JACKSON An all-balad album from a chronic sentimentalist is the reason a music critic needs a thesaurus. (Did you know there are at least 40 synonyms for corny?) But Jackson is a sentimentalist with a minimalist's taste in lyrics, so tracks like The Firefly's Song ("I don't want you like I used to/ This old man wants you more") feel honest, especially when sung in his regal baritone. Fellow minimalist Alison Krauss produces, and bans take-it-up-a-notch! key changes and swollen strings. What's left is something worthy of a really good antonym.
LONG ISLAND SHORES MINDY SMITH Smith gets filed under country because her songs tell little stories (the title track is about a family reunion that ends with a trip to a grave), but she's really a hybrid of folk and adult pop: equal parts Patty Griffin and Norah Jones. For lyrics, this native New Yorker leans on just a few evocative nouns, and her melodies grow in the wide open spaces between delicately played guitar chords. Her singing on the standouts You Just Forgot and Please Stay is cool and restrained--not from an absence of feeling but from an excess.
IT JUST COMES NATURAL GEORGE STRAIT Strait has 53 No. 1 country hits, a number so high that it loses meaning. Luckily, there's a track on the old Texan's new album that illuminates his commercial genius. Why Can't I Leave Her Alone starts out as your basic country stalking song, but with the melody of a rock power ballad. Strait's vocals swing from flash-free, honky-tonk lows to top-of-his-range, quavering highs. Then the song gets funny--"I've wrote her letters signed I was a fool/ She wrote me back saying go find a stool/ And driiiiiiiiink one"--and Strait laughs and cries in his beer. It's a sure bet No. 1 for No. 54.