Country music fans continue to be a fickle bunch. Country sales were up 12 percent last year, with three albums among the year's overall top sellers — a good year on Music Row (search).

But 2004 follows a drop in 2003, a spike in 2002, a nudge up in 2001, and dips in 2000 and 1999. Does anyone really know where the genre is headed?

"I'm very bullish at the moment about the format and the opportunities," said Jeff Walker, owner of Aristo Media (search), a company that promotes country music videos and singles. "I think there are a lot of artists who, by this time next year, will really be taking it to the next level for us."

Country artists sold 77.9 million albums last year, compared with 69.3 million in 2003, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Overall, album sales increased 1.6 percent, reversing a four-year decline. Some 666.7 million albums were sold in 2004 compared to 656.2 million in 2003.

Total music sales — which includes albums, singles and digital tracks — increased to 817 million last year, up from 687 million in 2003. It marks the first time since 2000 that overall music purchases went over 800 million.

Kenny Chesney's (search) "When the Sun Goes Down" was the top country album of the year with more than 3 million copies sold. He was followed by Gretchen Wilson's "Here for the Party" and Tim McGraw's (search) "Live Like You Were Dying."

Rounding out the top 10 were Shania Twain's (search) "Greatest Hits," Toby Keith's "Greatest Hits Vol. 2," George Strait's (search) "50 Number Ones," Big & Rich's "Horse of a Different Color," Toby Keith's "Shock 'N Y'All," Jimmy Buffett (news)'s "License to Chill," and Brad Paisley's "Mud on the Tires."

Chesney, Wilson and McGraw also were among the year's top sellers in all genres, at Nos. 4, 5 and 6, respectively. R&B singer Usher's "Confessions" was the top-selling album with nearly 8 million in sales.

McGraw and Chesney are established hitmakers, but newcomer Wilson was the surprise of the year with her smash "Redneck Woman."

"Her music is so much what the community was looking for," Walker said. "It ties in contemporary with traditional and is sort of the perfect marriage of both formats of country music."

In recent years, only 2002 was stronger for country, with the genre accounting for four of the nation's 10 best-selling discs. One of those was the Grammy-winning soundtrack "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

In 2003, Keith's "Shock'n Y'All" was the only country album to crack the Top 10, reaching No. 9.

Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Association (search), said the ups and downs in recent country sales has a lot to do with consolidation in the recording and radio industries. The trend has meant fewer album releases and tighter radio playlists.

"In country music, like many formats, the top 10 sellers account for a larger and larger percentage of the total pie," Benson said. "Country's top 10 sellers were 27 percent of the (genre's) total sales. That means that in years when you have a lot of new product, releases by established stars, you're going to do well, and in years when there's not new products released by superstars you can easily see a downturn in sales."