George Strait: Classic Christmas

George Strait has one of the purest, most recognizable voices in a genre not known for that type of clarity, and he’s one of those singers who likely doesn’t need much help (read: pitch correction) in the studio. If you’re a fan of Strait or of country music in general, you’re going to love this guy’s straight-ahead, twangy approach to classic Christmas fare, aptly titled Classic Christmas. For the rest of you, you may be left with the feeling that these takes are a bit vanilla and even a tad mundane. As holiday albums go, though, you sure could do a lot worse. After all, Mr. Strait is a living legend at this point, and his voice alone is reason to pick this one up. Standout tracks are “We Three Kings” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” (MCA Nashville)

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Lee Ann Womack: Call Me Crazy

Lee Ann Womack has been around for a while on the country radio scene, and while we can poke holes in the genre all day long, we can’t poke anything at someone who has a really good voice and who picks good songs to record. A lot of the music coming out of Music Row these days is absolute schlock, but Womack and her team have done a nice job of finding good material that suits her as an artist on her latest album, Call Me Crazy. In fact, if you take the twang out of Womack’s voice, a lot of the songs more closely resemble timeless country/pop along the lines of Crystal Gayle or Linda Ronstadt, especially on the likes of “Either Way” or “I Found It in You.” But she also has a Dolly Parton-ish throwback thing going on, particularly on lead single “Last Call,” “Solitary Thinkin’” or “The Bees.” Producer Tony Brown adds some nice touches and some of George Strait’s band on Call Me Crazy, and while there are no magical tracks such as Lee Ann’s smash “I Hope You Dance,” this is a more complete collection of good country music. (MCA)

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Now That’s What I Call Country

Aside from the pop/punk genre, there really isn’t a more tired style of music than “new country,” a.k.a. the kind of country music that is coming out of Nashville’s Music Row these days, which is more like classic pop with steel guitars, and lyrics that try to make you remember your youth or complain about your lot in life today. This is opposed to the country music of your parents and grandparents, which wasn’t nearly as forced or made to fit into a pattern musically or lyrically. So anyone with a musical brain is likely going to be insulted if someone tries to convince them to like this stuff. Enter Now That’s What I Call Country, a compilation of some of the biggest chart-toppers of the past year or so. For fans of new country, it’s not really any different than what’s been beaten to death on your favorite radio station. For the rest of us, it’s mostly the same bland fare that gives us headaches—the nasally Carrie Underwood (“All-American Girl”), Lady Antebellum’s “Love Don’t Live Here;” a song with the same chord progression and melody as about 300 other songs you’ve heard in this genre alone. Ditto for Brad Paisley’s “Letter To Me” and Kenny Chesney’s “Don’t Blink” — seriously, in any other genre those two guys would be bagging groceries. We’d be remiss, of course, if we didn’t point out some of the bright spots here, such as Keith Urban, who actually makes his songs compelling on “Everybody” (maybe it’s because he can actually sing); and George Strait’s “I Saw God Today,” a stunning number about the beauty of becoming a father that any parent can relate to. At some point, someone is going to step in and shake this genre up, but not until advertisers stop ruling terrestrial radio. (LABEL: UMG Recordings)

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