5. The Wreckers

Stand Still, Look Pretty


Hits settle all questions in Music City. Can a potty-mouthed young pop singer who's bared half her ass in Maxim be welcomed in ultraconservative (at least in public) Nashville? With a hit like The Wreckers' sterling "Leave the Pieces," it's not a problem. That song rose to number one and turned Michelle Branch — who formed the duo with more country-centric collaborator Jessica Harp — into a country star. And if you've got a hit in your pocket, Nashville wants to buy you a drink, too.

6. Danielle Peck

Danielle Peck

(Big Machine)

Perhaps the most difficult way to make a really superlative 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 voice, a forceful instrument that gets more powerful the more gently she applies it. If Peck fails to become a big star, it will be for extramusical reasons: She's far too sexy — not "pretty" like Faith Hill, but sweet-merciful-Jesus-I'd-tap-that-without-a-warrant hot — for country's predominantly older female demographic.

7. Darryl Worley

Here and Now

(903 Music)

Worley was tagged as a Toby Keith wannabe after "Have You Forgotten?" (a bold riposte to the ... uh, approximately zero Americans who didn't want Osama bin Laden obliterated) rode the conflation of Sept. 11 and the Iraq war to the top of the chart in spring 2003, just as the Dixie Chicks were getting Dixie Chicked. "Forgotten" aside, Worley is actually a thoughtful singer-songwriter with a flair for naked emotion and an eye for detail. Newly free of both his major-label deal and his marriage, his latest is a holler of liberated glee, the sound of a man who can't wait to get into trouble. Sealing the deal is "I Just Got Back from a War," about an American soldier's anger and confusion at not being greeted as a liberator. It's bleak, daring and Keith wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot flag.

8. Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift

(Big Machine)

Nashville tried, and failed, to get in on the teen-pop extravaganza of a few years ago. Now that Britney is a divorcee with two kids, it finally succeeds with this 16-year-old wunderkind. Swift neither plays for cuteness, nor poses as jailbait; she simply uses her native intelligence to express clearly to anyone who will listen her hopes for the future, her growing worldliness, and her dawning awareness that boys may be more trouble than they' re worth.

9. Kellie Pickler

Small Town Girl

(BNA Nashville)

The big-voiced, calamari-hating Pickler finished sixth on the latest season of American Idol, which in Nashville narrowcasting terms is a dream marketing setup. Add the right collaborators (like songwriter Aimee Mayo and producer Blake Chancey), and you wind up with an unvarnished pop-country jewel featuring a surprisingly confident headliner who's not as dumb as you think.

10. Jace Everett

Jace Everett

(Sony Music Nashville)

Justin Timberlake brought sexy back to pop in 2006 (or at least announced that intention), 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" (as in, things he wants to do to you, sweet thing) 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," but I'm sure someone in Music City can swing it. Chris Neal

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