In 2005, Nashville hunks-in-arms like Toby Keith tuned down their jingoist jingles, the Muzik Mafia treaded water, and most of alt-country's best contenders simply looked back. But as these 10 albums from country's mainstream and underground demonstrate, these quiet scenes were still full of ferment beneath the surface. Only the top two finishers count as tours de force, and only Paisley and Larsen sold many copies, but all 10 testify to a surge of renewed creativity in these musically conservative heartland genres, even as heartland political conservatism is showing signs of strain. (And with three Chicago entries representing the underground, and Bobby, Brad, and Blain composing their own Killer B's above ground, it's also a World Series rematch.)
1. Robbie Fulks, Georgia Hard (Yep Roc): From its oldfangled Buck Owens beats to its newfangled buffed-as-Buffett ballads, the stylistic gamut here puts to shame the limits of both contemporary Nashville and "I've got more Faron Young rarities than you" neotraditionalism. Some potential fans might be put off by bright bursts of irony like "Countrier Than Thou"-- which nails everyone from Boston bluegrass snobs to a fake hick in the West Wing ("You went to Andover, so what's the banjo fer?"). But Fulks lovingly carves his dark stuff out of the finest ebony, including a pair of perfectly turned domestic murder songs and back-to-back tests of marriage that live up to their titles -- "Doing Right (For All the Wrong Reasons)" and "You Don't Want What I Have." Which is to say, on this perpetual comer's artistic breakthrough, ebony and irony live together in perfect harmony because, for once, they're equally complex and earnest.
2. Bobby Pinson, A Man Like Me (RCA): Montgomery Gentry has louder amps, and plenty of cowpunk bands have dirtier roots, but this is the toughest country album of 2005, because this son of a rural Texas high school football coach knows how to take his hits as well as land them. (In the album opener, he gets pummeled by a schoolyard bully, yet later he beats the devil that he's come to know as well as his old Ford.) From start to finish, Pinson fights his own youthful pride to a draw, acknowledging that it's given him the gumption to escape the nothingness that can trap small-town youths in a downward spiral. With almost every lyric justifying the grim grandeur of its country-rock setting, this debut is as impressive -- and just as overlooked by Nashville, where it was born -- as Steve Earle's Guitar Town.
3. Shelby Lynne, Suit Yourself (Capitol): Lynne's second-best album is deceptively offhand, with studio chatter and semi-improvised jams setting the relaxed mood. But her club tour in support of Suit Yourself made its quiet strengths stunningly clear: From the searching "Where Am I Now" to the great tribute "Johnny Met June," it contains many songs as acutely affecting as those on her masterpiece of mod indigo, I Am Shelby Lynne.
4. Lucinda Williams, Live @ the Fillmore (Lost Highway): Country artists have taken to live albums as they have to many other questionable cultural relics of the '70s. But like Shelby Lynne, this southern iconoclast's comfort with folk, blues, and steady-simmering southern rock also makes her a vital inheritor of that decade's cultural crosscurrents. Here, she lays out her quarter-century career over two discs that take their time without wasting a moment.
5. Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted (Arista): "Alcohol" metes out the pros and cons of overindulgence with the witty bravura that's the secret reward of mature moderation, and so it goes with Paisley's impressive career and the rest of his fourth album. Older critics have called it his best, but even those who prefer Paisley's looser, all-original debut have to acknowledge that few imbibers have walked the line so straight so far.
6. Waco Brothers, Freedom and Weep (Bloodshot): Transplanted British punk-rocker Jon Langford started this Chicago institution 10 years ago, and even while there are wilder country-rock bands out there today, it's hard to imagine any mastering bitter politics and dark humor like the Waco Brothers. This seventh release is slightly better than the sixth (though not quite up to the definitive fifth), but as Langford's four comrades step forward with the album's bluntest Bush whacks and sweetest stein-swinging anthems, it justifies his English socialist commitment to serious party-building, in every sense of the term.
7. Dwight Yoakam, Blame the Vain (New West): This concept album isn't just about boy-loves-girl, but Dwight-loves-Buck-and-Merle and everything else redolent of rockabilly-meets-honky-tonk. But with a zippy new guitarist and a hip new label behind him, Yoakam's lyrics are no more important than his fine suit and the leggy model in the CD booklet -- they're just places to rest your eyes as his reanimated twang has its way with your ear-holes.
8. Various artists, For a Decade of Sin: 11 Years of Bloodshot Records (Bloodshot): Herein are 41 tracks celebrating the strengths and pretensions of alt-country at a Chicago label that's home to the genre's most blustery artists. The styles vary from smoky-voiced ballads to blazing rockers; the acts, from cult faves like Richard Buckner and My Morning Jacket to bohemian legends like John Doe and Graham Parker. The quality varies too, but the mood never settles into numbing formula, as befits a label in the heartland's most diverse city.
9. Blaine Larsen, Off to Join the World (BNA/BMG): This is the year's most surprising Nashville debut, not only because the owner of the rich, mature baritone turns out to be a baby-faced 19-year-old (from just outside Tacoma, no less), but because there's almost no stylistic difference between its moments of stale cornpone and fresh insight. A few foreshortened song structures, a couple unconventional chord changes, and some nonjudgmental, carefully observed lyrics, and suddenly an album from well within the adult-suburban country subgenre is delivering utterly arresting numbers about nonbiological dads, public education, and teenage self-destruction. Hey, if the Rolling Stones can make a good rock record in 2005, anything's possible.
10. Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell, Begonias (Yep Roc): Purty, purty, purty go these duets by Ryan Adams's former Whiskeytown partner and the celebrated musical son of a Baptist minister. It's far less momentous than some noted stylistic predecessors, from Whiskeytown itself to the doomed partnership between Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. But the underground has always nurtured small-scale focus, country music has always honored humility, and this simple set of love and heartbreak songs suggests how those values could apply to duets at home, as well as in the recording studio.