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 listen to when no one else is in the car.
This system creates 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. 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.)
Like Red on a Rose (Arista Nashville)
When Jackson tapped Alison Krauss to produce his new album (instead of longtime collaborator Keith Stegall), 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.
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. That's why Urban was allowed to explore his previously hinted-at merger of mainstream country and the panoramic rock of Joshua Tree-era U2, stitching it all together with passion, melodic invention, and furious rock and roll guitar work.
These Days (MCA Nashville)
Gill hasn't scored a hit single since 2000. But the recent "The Reason Why" crept into 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 an incredibly talented, genre-hopping musician finally allowed to demonstrate all the different things he can do in one glorious, extended tour de force.
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 all his other fine albums by dint of its extended length and by the fact that Strait and his band decamped to a tiny Florida studio owned by pal Jimmy Buffett. The result exudes a freshness that's occasionally been missing from Strait's work.
Stand Still, Look Pretty (Maverick)
Can a potty-mouthed young pop singer who bared half her ass in Maxim be welcomed in ultraconservative Nashville? With a hit like the Wreckers' sterling "Leave the Pieces," it's not a problem. That song rose to No. 1 and turned Michelle Branch and her country-centric collaborator Jessica Harp into country stars.
Danielle Peck (Big Machine)
Perhaps the most difficult way to make an outstanding 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 powerful voice. But if she fails to become a big star, it will be for extra-musical reasons: Peck is way too sexy -- not "pretty" like Faith Hill -- for country's predominantly older female demographic.
Here and Now (903 Music)
Worley was tagged as a Toby Keith wannabe after riding the conflation of 9-11 and the Iraq war to the top of the charts, with the single "Have You Forgotten?" But Worley is actually a thoughtful singer-songwriter. Recently freed from both his marriage and major-label deal, he releases a holler of liberated glee here. Sealing the deal is "I Just Got Back From a War," which details a 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 10-foot flag.
Taylor Swift (Big Machine)
Nashville tried to get in on the teen-pop extravaganza of a few years ago, but didn't succeed until marketing this 16-year-old. Swift neither plays for cuteness nor poses as jailbait; she simply uses her native intelligence to express clearly her hopes for the future, her growing worldliness, and her dawning awareness that boys may be more trouble than they're worth.
Small Town Girl (BNA Nashville)
The big-voiced Pickler finished sixth on the latest season of American Idol, which for Nashville is a marketing dream. Add the right collaborators (like songwriter Aimee Mayo and producer Blake Chancey), and you wind up with a pop-country jewel who's not as dumb as you think.
Jace Everett (Sony Nashville)
Justin Timberlake brought sexy back to pop in 2006, 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" 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" though -- but I'm sure someone in Music City can swing it.