03 May 2013

George Strait Discography, Ranked

April was a rough month for me. I only watched four movies and didn't watch a single Reds game in its entirety. I have, however, spent the last two weeks going through George Strait's entire discography, from 1981's Strait Country through 2011's Here for a Good Time. I even sat through the redundancy of the assorted hits compilations and all three Christmas albums. As I played each song, I gave it a star rating in iTunes and then calculated the mean star rating of the album itself. You can see the entire list here on Google Docs.

So what was the highest rated album? Surprisingly enough, it was 1986's Merry Christmas Strait to You with a 4.7 rating. Each of his three Christmas albums has a distinct musical aesthetic, and by far the most entertaining remains the first one with its western swing arrangements. The Christmas album is always a tricky entry in a discography, because it's ultimately either a covers album or an even riskier original work. Between the song choices and the production, Strait nailed it the first time out.

I remember buying the CD. It was my first ever Black Friday, in 1997. My friends and I ran all over Louisville, not even really knowing what we were doing or after. Just bouncing from one place to the next, really. We stopped at one point at Biggs Hypermarket and that's where I bought this CD as well as Garth Brooks's The Hits.

The highest ranked of Strait's standard studio albums wound up being 1998's One Step at a Time with a 4.6 rating. I had known his music since the 80s, but I didn't become an active fan until 1997 when a friend introduced me to that year's Carrying Your Love with Me album - which for the longest time I thought was my favorite Strait album. In fact, any time I was ever asked to name my favorite albums of all time, that was one of the first five I'd cite.

One Step at a Time was the first album Strait released new once I became a fan. That might seem the obvious reason why it would be my favorite, but I'm not convinced of that. In truth, I was initially disappointed by it. As happens so often, my real problem with it was that it wasn't Carrying Your Love with Me. One Step isn't as lively or as breezy as its immediate predecessor. The lead single, "I Just Want to Dance with You", was an instant favorite but the rest of the album took a little time to win me over. Two of my favorite songs Strait has ever recorded, "Neon Row" (which was "I Just Want to Dance with You"'s B-side) and "Maria", are both on this album.

"You Haven't Left Me Yet" was originally the fourth single from the album but that was abandoned after I guess either it stalled or they were just ready to release the next album, 1999's Always Never the Same. "You Haven't Left Me Yet" became the B-side to Always's lead single, "Meanwhile". I've always wished that song had been given more time to chart, because it's a personal favorite but fifteen years later it's just one of hundreds of album cuts that's been overshadowed by the 59 #1 singles.

I think the album that surprised me the most was actually 1994's Lead On. It was released during that stretch of time after I was made to listen to country music but before I chose to start, so I missed it entirely. When I started to catch up on Strait's music in 1997, though, I instantly fell in love with that album. "Adalida" should have been a #1 single. "I Met a Friend of Yours Today" is another of those choice album cuts that really stands out to me. It's a confrontational song, but Strait's inflections aren't purely angry. There's a mix of "gotcha" and sadness, too. Strait has long been a master interpreter of songs, and this is as fine a showcase of that as any. Still, for all my love of the album, Lead On only placed with a 3.9 rating, tying it with 1990's Livin' It Up for 24th on the overall list (#13th if Christmas and hits collections are excluded).

The lowest rated turned out to be Strait's most recent album, 2011's Here for a Good Time. I love the title track, and I liked his take on "A Showman's Life" (though not as much as Gary Allan and Willie Nelson's duet version). "Lone Star Blues" is a lot of fun, and the album-closing "I'll Always Remember You" is one of the most personal songs in Strait's discography but there are just too many songs that didn't work for me. There are two songs about alcoholism ("Drinkin' Man" and "Poison"), which isn't an intrinsic problem but they're sequenced as tracks #2 and #4, they're both very slow and overlong. "Blue Marlin Blues" is fun, but it also feels like a throwaway song. I've only played the album twice (and the first time, I streamed it from Spotify, where I was instantly disappointed) so it may grow on me.

As far as the hits compilations go, the highest rated turned out to be Icon 2: The Best of George Strait (Deluxe Edition) from 2011 with a 4.64 rating. It was #2 overall, right behind Merry Christmas Strait to You. The Icon series, though, is just a label-wide series of compilations from Universal Music Group and not an "official" Strait album. There's also a single-disc Icon collection, which ranked #3 overall.

About a decade ago, UMG had another label-wide line of compilations, 20th Century Masters. There were two lines: The Millennium Collection and The Christmas Collection. Strait himself compiled the songs that represented him in both lines. I was surprised that The Millennium Collection placed third of the hits compilations (and fifth overall). In fact, all three of the highest rated hits collections on my list wound up being the three unofficial releases!
20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection and The Christmas Collection, which is really just a retread of Merry Christmas Wherever You Are.
The Christmas Collection is also a bit of a curiosity. It's essentially 1999's Merry Christmas Wherever You Are album resequenced, with two tracks from Merry Christmas Strait to You added at the beginning. I wish there'd been more of a balance between the two albums, because Wherever is actually my second-lowest ranked Strait album. There are some nice individual recordings, but as an album it just doesn't grab me. There are two things that would have helped. One, I'll never understand why he recorded "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" without singing it with a lisp. Seriously, what was the point of that?

Two, there was an eleventh song from those sessions, "Christmas Cookies", which originally appeared on the Target-exclusive A Country Christmas 1999 release and has shown up subsequently on a few various artists Christmas discs. It's one of my favorite Strait recordings and I really wish it had been part of Merry Christmas Wherever You Are.

Not surprising to me, the highest ranked of the official hits albums was 2000's Latest Greatest Straitest Hits, which surveyed the material from Lead On through One Step at a Time. It's sort of a fifth disc to 1995's Strait Out of the Box, but unlike the box set it's not sequenced chronologically. I've never understood why Latest Greatest Straitest Hits omitted "I Just Want to Dance with You". My only guess has ever been that since it had a CD single release that worked against it for some reason but that never made any sense to me. Its absence is conspicuous - and irritating.

I was also disappointed by 2004's 50 Number Ones. It crams 51 songs onto two discs, and to squeeze them all into that set they did some harsh editing. On some songs it isn't so bad, but I'll never forgive them for butchering the end of "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind". Also, the discs don't breathe, going from the end of one song directly into the beginning of the next. It's just too frenetic, especially for nearly 160 minutes. I was aware of these deficiencies when I first bought that set nine years ago, but I'd largely forgotten about how aggravating they are.

I think it also irks me because I'm convinced that if not for that hasty, abridged release we would have likely gotten a second box set at some point. I've long toyed with wondering just what a Strait Out of the Box II would include and 50 Number Ones stole the thunder from that very idea. Though maybe there was never any thought or interest in putting together a second box, of course. The companion release, 22 More Hits, was put together more thoughtfully but curiously enough it's not arranged chronologically as is 50 Number Ones. It's also kind of odd that they reversed the photo of Strait for the cover. Who actually thought a reverse photo was a smart album art choice?

Strait's next album, Love Is Everything, comes out in a couple weeks on 14 May. I'm kind of interested to see where it ranks now that I've got this list. In the interim, I would point you to the playlist I recently made  of Strait's career, Phase One: 1981-1992. There'll be probably two more playlists in that series, most likely 1992-2001 and 2003-2013 (he didn't release anything in 2002), but those will probably wait until after Love Is Everything.

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