Paste has long heralded great storytellers. That’s why back in 2006, in the midst of another decade entirely, we constructed a list of the 100 best songwriters alive. Several men and women on that list, including Jason Isbell, Gillian Welch and John Prine, appear on this list, too. And that’s no accident. Country music is and has always been about telling and preserving the real stories of everyday people, which is why when we started discussing our favorite country records of the 2010s, a lot of these familiar storytellers kept popping back up.
While stories are a vital part of the country genre, the sound specifications are a little blurry. This list will likely share some crossover with our forthcoming Americana and folk lists, and that’s OK—roots music is the umbrella that covers all of these musical styles. But we tried our best to confine this list to traditional country works, which is why artists we love like Brandi Carlile and The Civil Wars don’t appear here. We also restricted each artist to no more than two albums, which is why favorites like Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free and Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material didn’t make the cut. Without further ado, please enjoy this list of the decade’s best country albums, as voted by the Paste staff.
Listen to the Best Country Albums of the 2010s Spotify playlist right here.
On Speak Now, Swift’s third full-length, she whispers her secrets into the eager ears of millions. Like Fearless, she’s still telling you about the boy who broke her heart and what she would have said if only she’d had the chance. This time, though, the boys are superstars and those imaginary conversations aren’t taking place in high school hallways. Swift was growing up, and her lyrics were too. You see hints of it on songs like “Mean,” where she boldly quips to her critics, “All you are is mean/ And a liar/ And pathetic/ And alone in life.” And on “Dear John,” where she laments her John Mayer tryst with a wizened “I should have known.” Perhaps she should have. But it’s that earnestness, simplicity and willingness to over-share that has, in part, earned Swift a legion of best friends—not to mention all the platinum albums, Grammys and a fistful of Number One songs. Of course, it’d be foolish to ignore Swift’s spot-on pop sensibilities. At its best, her songwriting stands as a shining example of Top 40 music—full of cinematic build-ups and addictive repeatability. On Speak Now, Swift is strongest when she lets her country roots shine through. Both “Mine” and “Mean,” are examples of her ability to craft instantly catchy hits. —Liz Stinson
Ruston Kelly’s debut full-length Dying Star wasn’t the best album anyone released in 2018. It wasn’t even the best album his own household released in 2018. That title goes to his wife, Kacey Musgraves, for her stunning Golden Hour. But Dying Star is a very impressive effort from Kelly, a heretofore little-known Nashville singer-songwriter with a perfectly fine-grit voice and a gift for pairing heavy lyrics with remarkably graceful melodies. Evidence of both appears all over the album, revealing an artist who is not only ready for a slice of the spotlight, but also capable of his own crossover someday. “Mockingbird” boasts a dense, wheezing wall of harmonica, complete with references to drugs and Parker Posey. “Blackout” is a lovely midtempo fusion of strummed strings, pretty harmonies, plenty of heartbreak and booze, and this passage: “You know I ain’t doing too well / But I’ve found a few things that help / I black out in a bar…I get so fucked up to forget who you are.” That pretty much sums up Dying Star’s recurring themes: love, loss, pain, substances, desperation, self-discovery and salvation—or hope for salvation, at least. As Musgraves’ marriage to Kelly inspired the blissful sound on Golden Hour, perhaps Kelly’s next record will cover happier topics. For now, though, Dying Star is a dazzling deep-dive to rock bottom. —Ben Salmon
Masked country crooner Orville Peck is forging a path all his own. Hot on the heels of his illustrious and mysterious debut album Pony (out now on Sub Pop), Peck first caught our attention thanks to his look, act and secret identity (we still don’t know who he is, exactly), but his music secured the hold. Pony is a weirdly satisfying musical milkshake, an at-times spooky blend of classic country, shoegaze ambience and vintage rock ‘n’ roll that goes down more like a smooth slurp of whiskey. At its core is an emotional journey, at times told through the lens of outlandish characters who’d feel right at home in a spaghetti western (two canyon-traversing cowboys caught up in a doomed romance on “Dead of Night”), and, at others, through more personal anecdotes (“Turn to Hate” tracks a series of internal struggles, told from a male, gay perspective we may not otherwise hear in country). The voice of Merle Haggard and the heart of an earnest indie-rocker make for a singular combination, one that should solidify Orville Peck as a country innovator, not an outsider. —Ellen Johnson
On Country Squire, Childers takes some of life’s grittiest moments—the stuff that’s defined country music for ages—and punches them up with humor and honky-tonk. The Kentucky native doesn’t change the formula he established on Purgatory, or even really freshen it up. He just applies those same sonic building blocks—scorching fiddle, relaxed mandolin, and lots of wheeze and funny little springy noises—to an even more realized story, one that stretches from Childers’ schooldays crushing on the “Bus Route” to hesitantly facing the big city on “Creeker” to writing love songs with a “Days Inn pen” in “All Your’n” (its amusing music video sees all those album art creatures come to life). Country Squire is Purgatory’s splashier sequel. And within itself, it makes for a very cohesive listen. Childers ropes you in and shares tales from a rocking chair, cracking jokes, romanticizing the good ol’ days, bemoaning the lonely life of a touring musician and holding your attention for a round, just short-enough 35 minutes. Childers is a different kind of bro-country. On Country Squire, his best release yet, he grapples with masculinity, family and the South in ways that feel entirely new, despite sounding really traditional. I’ll listen to his rocking chair tales any time. —Ellen Johnson
On “Hanging Up My Heart” and Roger Miller’s vintage “Invitation To The Blues,” Old Yellow Moon’s opening tracks, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris seem to embrace a randy hard-country throwdown, tinged with Texas shuffles and twin fiddles. But that’s hardly the point. Their duet project—the first for the man who became the Emmylou Harris to Harris’ Gram Parsons on her solo debut, Pieces of the Sky—is certainly classic country, but its greater truth emerges as Harris’ brooding take on Patti Scialfa’s “Spanish Dancer” presages a contemplative journey through lives lived to the hilt, addictions and their costs and recognition of one’s ultimate place on the horizon.
But it’s the pensive moments that close Moon that matter. “Back When We Were Beautiful,” Matraca Berg’s chilling song of aging sung by an old woman to her much-younger listener, sets up Crowell’s “Here We Are.” The hushed ballad realizes what was sought was already within the singer’s grasp. “Old Yellow Moon,” the closing track, finds Harris’ voice slightly catching on the melody as Crowell gently rises to meet her soprano; voices merging, they suggest solace in the companionship of old friends as an accordion wheezes and the steel ripples. Ahh, the beauty of lives realized. —Holly Gleason
Brandy Clark’s debut disc, 12 Stories was released not on some glittering Music Row major—but on the Dallas-based indie Slate Creek Records. The album opens with the gently loping “Pray to Jesus” and its sad small-town, fingers-crossed existence. “We pray to Jesus and we play the Lotto / ‘Cause there ain’t but two ways we can change tomorrow / Well, there ain’t no genie and there ain’t no bottle.” And she’s just getting started. “Who’d have guessed that Aquanet / Could start a fire with a single cigarette / She wasn’t drunk, she wasn’t stoned / Just sick and tired of wondering if he was coming home,” Clark murmur-croons while blues harmonica wheezes on track two, “Crazy Women,” which unequivocally states in the chorus that “crazy women / were made by crazy men.” The backwoods-rustic “Get High” also touts pot, with a bored housewife who simply relaxes at the kitchen with a joint. A military-marching “Hungover” brilliantly documents the dissolution of a marriage from the missus’ fed-up perspective, and the forlorn “Take A Little Pill” slams Prozac-numbed modern society with “If one won’t work then another one will / If you got a little hurt you take a little pill.”
But Clark’s finest moment is the rockabilly-rollicking “Stripes,” wherein a cuckolded female protagonist catches her lover, mid-affair, points a gun, cocks the trigger, and then….has this chorus of second thoughts: “I hate stripes and orange ain’t my color / And if I squeeze that trigger tonight I’ll be wearing one or the other / There’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion / The only thing saving your life is I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes.” —Tom Lanham
Plenty of vocalists can sing with power, and some can sing with convincing subtlety. There aren’t very many who can do both in the same breath. Courtney Marie Andrews is one of those rare artists. Though Honest Life is technically Andrews’ sixth album, she withdrew the first three, so these 10 songs served as a bit of an introduction. They make a hell of a first impression, too. Andrews sings with the knowing air of someone who has seen a lot of life, and the quiet optimism of someone who knows there’s so much more yet to see. It’s a powerful blend on songs about itinerant lives, fragile hearts and the steady determination of people searching for something they themselves would likely be hard-pressed to name. Alongside her quietly picked acoustic guitar, the songs on Honest Life comprise an album at once elegant and deeply moving. —Eric R. Danton
Personal struggles with addiction and troubles with the law, not to mention the connection of his folk-royalty father, Steve Earle, have meant that Earle the Younger, gifted as he is, has always had a specific narrative attached to him and his music. He lays it all down for us less than a minute into this album, and beautifully, amid gentle, echo-y electric picking and mournful horns that wind around his words like the Carolina coast he references. The gentle, plaintive beauty of the first track makes the mood whiplash of the next track, the driving sax-and-keys boogie of “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea,” all the more jarring. Again, Earle recounts his flaws and uses the “I wish I were a better man” line, but this time it’s about a woman, and his longing and frustration seems to grow with every growl and wail and admission he watches her while she sleeps. Nothing’s Gonna Change… is ultimately the kind of album you can curl up into, let the warm tones surround you and rest easy in a way that makes you feel like, “damn, everything feels right about now.” At the risk of sounding like a jerk, Earle’s album title is true. Nothing will change the way we feel about him: he will forever be tied to his father, his mythos, his demons, but above all, his ability to make really wonderful music. Nothing will change how we feel about him, and in his case, that’s a good thing. —Lindsay Eanet
Yola Carter’s mere presence—the rare Black artist amid the otherwise pale skinned world of roots music—would have been enough to at least train one’s ear in her direction. But the British singer/songwriter’s performances are nothing short of revelatory, a conjoining of American musical interests (country, blues, soul, pop) warped by years of personal turmoil and bursting free via her sturdy, resolute vocal performances—a far cry in tone from her artistic heroes (Dolly Parton, Neil Young and The Byrds, among them) but firmly connected to their influences, lyrically and emotionally. Her debut full-length Walk Through Fire only solidifies Yola’s position as a talent of rare vintage. Recorded with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys at his studio in Nashville with a crack team of backing musicians, including former Johnny Cash bassist Dave Roe, legendary session pianist Bobby Wood and a guest spot from Vince Gill, the album is steeped in woozy country (the dusty title track), hip-swinging ’60s R&B à la Dusty Springfield (“Still Gone,” “Ride Out in the Country”) and the peaceful, easy feeling that can arrive when trying to meld those two aesthetics. —Robert Ham
If you’re an artist who plays music that sounds as if could have been written a century ago, what difference does it make if you take eight years between albums? No difference at all if you’re Gillian Welch. She and David Rawlings didn’t seem to tinker much with their approach. Their interplay was as empathetic as ever on The Harrow and the Harvest, reminding us how rare it is to hear musicians with such highly developed senses of intuition. At times, it’s still difficult to know when Welch’s vocals end and Rawlings’ harmonies begin with the interweaving of string melodies as expansive and deceptively complicated as anything this side of vintage Grateful Dead. —Douglas Heselgrave
As her career has progressed, singer/songwriter Ashley Monroe has been able to move farther and farther away from the standard Nashville plot. Some of that is due to the success that she has accrued through her association with her buddies Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley in the Pistol Annies and her other friend Jack White, with whom she performed as part of his house band for a few years. The most notable name that is not on Sparrow, Monroe’s fourth LP, is Vince Gill, the country superstar who produced her previous two albums. Choosing instead to work with Dave Cobb, the man behind the boards for Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton’s recent triumphs, was a brilliant move on her part. Their collaboration resulted in one of the strongest and most grown-up country albums to be released this decade. Monroe dug deep on Sparrow after spending some time in therapy to unpack some of the pain of her past. Those shadows stretch over many of these songs, particularly the loss of her father to cancer as a teenager, which inspired the string-soaked opener “Orphan” and the wholehearted direct address “Daddy I Told You.” Through them, you can hear Monroe loosening her tight grip on the pain and letting acceptance rest gently in her palms. Cobb supports her by exercising restraint, letting the string section and some swirling organ lines carry some of the emotional weight while pushing the pangs of sorrow and shivers of memory in her voice to the fore. Much of the rest of Sparrow plays like a country cousin to the metropolitan pop of Tracey Thorn’s solo venture Record. Both women have very adult concerns on their minds, from the joy/struggles of raising children to the agony of watching someone else suffer even with the knowledge that they’ll be better off in the long run. There’s still lust (Monroe’s “Hands On You” is steamy and perfect) and life’s fleeting moments of joy, but the consequences of one’s actions are weighing on these songs. —Robert Ham
Every Lori McKenna album has at least one song that will make you cry—and depending on who you are, and where you are in life, it could be any of them that gets you choked up. It’s not that McKenna is trying to put a lump in your throat. The Massachusetts songwriter is just singing the truth as she knows it, which is well enough: she’s a mother of five who has been married to the same man for 30 years and still lives in the town where she was born. She has a well-informed perspective, then, on growing up and growing older and watching the world change around you. Like most of her work, McKenna’s latest is a family-centered collection of rootsy folk songs, and as usual, she finds profundity in the ordinary moments of everyday life. McKenna’s attention to detail, and the way she makes universal sentiments suddenly, and piercingly, specific, are why her songs are special enough to have earned the deep respect of her fellow folk singers, and to have caught the ear of the big-ticket country stars who have recorded them, including Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Little Big Town. Wistful songs about love and family would be deeply uncool in the wrong hands, but McKenna seems more interested in being honest than hip. Her voice is warm and frank, and her understated, mostly acoustic musical arrangements never overshadow lyrics in which she almost always manages to say the right thing. —Eric R. Danton
Elizabeth Cook’s 2007 album, the Rodney Crowell-produced Balls, was straight up Dolly-worshippin’ country, full of stretchy peddle steel and yodel-peppered sass. But if Balls was chilled-in-the-box strawberry wine, Welder is mulberry-flavored moonshine: homemade, delicious and completely unsanitary. First of all, there’s Cook’s twangy alto, which used to slip-slide melodically through her lyrics to warm, sweet-as-peach-cobbler effect; on this release, though, her voice is less massaged—shriller, harsher and even more heavily accented—and she doesn’t sing too much. Instead, she chortles and spits and coos and chants. Previous releases were sprinkled with her characteristic wit, which has gone to seed and run wild on Welder. In “El Camino” she recalls delirious sex in a 1972 refurb: “If we get married, gonna have to annul it / Right now my hands are in his mullet.” Hill-top funerals, soup kitchens and backcountry hoe-downs become the stuff of legend in Welder’s emotionally expansive tales, and though it features production by Don Was and guest appearances by Crowell and Buddy Miller, this album is all about Cook finally finding her voice—irreverent, hilarious and gritty as Appalachian soil. —Rachel Dovey
Following his 2014 breakthrough, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was more ambitious by an order of magnitude than anything the Kentucky-born singer had done before. It’s a country album at its core, but there’s a whole lot more happening here besides. Simpson dips into the sound of vintage soul with horns courtesy of the Dap-Kings. He often evokes the countrypolitan flipside to the outlaw movement with lush string charts and full-throated vocals that suggest there’s a “Rhinestone Cowboy” for every generation. And he indulges his moody inner teen with a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” that swells from spare and brooding to full on rhapsodic by the end. But as an album of songs that he mostly wrote for his son, Simpson captures the passion, joy, anguish and exhaustion that are part of first-time parenthood. It makes the album a powerful tribute to his son, while establishing Simpson as an artist who, despite his country heart, simply won’t be confined by notions of genre or, for that matter, anyone else’s expectations. —Eric R. Danton
Jamey Johnson looks like an escapee from The Hell’s Angels, so you’d be forgiven if you expected some sort of death-metal caterwaul to erupt from your stereo speakers. Instead, Johnson sounds like a good ol’ boy from Montgomery, Ala., which is exactly what he is, and his second album, That Lonesome Song, recaptures everything that was great about those classic Merle Haggard and George Jones honky-tonk singles from the mid-to-late ’60s. The pedal steel weeps, the lead guitar rumbles deep in the bass range, and Johnson unleashes one of those voices that is equal parts heavenly soul and red clay dirt. Chronicling the sordid and sad events of the past three years, The Guitar Song is both a traditional country music tour de force and a harrowing singer/songwriter confessional album. This is wild, untamed music sung in a wild, untamed voice, and it’s brilliant. There’s repentance here, and some clear-eyed acknowledgement of being a fuck-up, but there’s plenty of righteous and not-so-righteous indignation as well. What else would you expect from somebody who signs off with a song called “Between Jennings and Jones,” which is right where you’ll find Johnson’s music at the record store? Like Waylon he carefully cultivates that outlaw image, and like George he has the voice of a slumming angel. He’s made a superb album. And I’m not just saying that because he looks and sounds like the kind of guy you don’t want to piss off. —Andy Whitman
For decades now, John Prine has operated as a kind of people’s poet—a layman’s Proust whose plainspoken prose has made albums filled with his country-folk tunes as simple as they are penetrating. With The Tree Of Forgiveness—71-year-old Prine’s first album of all-new material in 13 years—he doesn’t miss a beat, doling out material that highlight every facet of his still-underrated talent. “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door” and “Egg & Daughter Night, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” deliver Prine’s sly, homespun humor. The second is a charmer that intercuts the nostalgic memories of the big night when farmers would bring their eggs (and their pretty daughters)—into town, with a frequent allusion to a “crazy bone” that makes men do mischievous things—the kind of excusable naughtiness that is usually accompanied by an embarrassed, half-scolding, half-laughing, “Grandpa!!” “I still love that picture of us walkin’,” he sings slightly plaintively, his rich, gravelly voice, noticeably deepened by a 1998 battle with squamous cell cancer, sounding weary as he gently pleads with a loved one to come home to him. It’s deeply moving, and a much more somber moment than the album closer, “When I Get To Heaven,” which has Prine reveling in mock seriousness with harps and spoken word before he can’t seem to take it anymore and bursts into the raucous chorus. “I’m gonna get a cocktail / vodka and ginger ale / Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette / That’s nine miles long,” he sings triumphantly, painting a vivid picture of an appealingly vice-filled heaven in the way only he can. —Madison Desler
This self-consciously ambitious album packed 94 minutes of music into 24 songs in a variety of styles spread over two CDs. The first line she sings on the set comes from the song “Runnin’ Just in Case”: “There’s trouble where I’m going, but I’m gonna go there anyway.” The narrator is fleeing a relationship gone bad in search of something better, but as Lambert, over a U2-ish guitar drone, murmurs the names of the music-infused cities she’s passing through—Lafayette, Birmingham and Lubbock—she seems to also be looking for a new kind of Southern song, a new kind of country music. There’s trouble where she’s going—the sales numbers will always be lower on the frontier than down at the swimming hole where all the pick-ups full of six-packs are parked—but she’s headed for the mountains where history will be resurrected and reshaped. She’s proving that you can write and sing songs as sad as “Tin Man,” as funny as “Pink Sunglasses” as romantic as “To Learn Her” or as bittersweet as “The Ugly Lights” with one foot in the past and one foot in the future. —Geoffrey Himes
When it comes to humor, straightforwardness and never, ever giving a shit, Kacey Musgraves takes all the right cues. Lyrics about same-sex kissing and double standards may still be scarce on commercial country airwaves, but that never stopped Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” from rising as a fan favorite. A top-seller despite its lack of radio play, the song became popular across genre lines by promoting open-mindedness in a way country music hasn’t necessarily seen before. The writing on Same Trailer Different Park builds on the simplicity and straightforwardness of country classics while mixing in distinctly modern romantic sentiments, freshening the sound for a new generation of music-lovers. —Dacey Orr
With a voice like good claret or damp moss, Rosanne Cash’s singing is something to sink into. Surrender to the tones, mostly dark, but marked by the occasional glimmer of light, and let the emotions they contain seep inside. For Cash, the emotions on The River & The Thread are complex and tangled, especially the Grammy-winner’s own difficult relationship with the South, her roots and her own musical journey. What emerges, beyond a woman grappling with a legacy as much in the rich bottom land as her father Johnny’s iconic presence as the voice of America, is a knowing embrace of the conflicts in the things we love. The 11-song cycle is mostly a meditation on the textures and musical forms that emerged South of the Mason Dixon. Finding not just resolve, but acceptance is a gift. Cash, who’s sidestepped her heritage, and eschewed a career as a country star with 11 Number Ones, a marriage to a country writer/producer/artist Rodney Crowell and the city/industry where she found prominence, savored her wandering and the Manhattan life she built. With The River & The Thread, she comes home with the warmth reserved for knowing where we’re from. As powerful a witness for the region—Memphis, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas—as it is a lovely quilt of musicality, braiding blues, folk, Appalachia, rock and old-timey country, this is balm for lost souls, alienated creatures seeking their core truths and intellectuals who love the cool mist of vespers in the hearts of people they may never encounter.—Holly Gleason
Jason Isbell is often called one of the world’s best songwriters. That sort of expectation can be a challenge to live up to, but Isbell continues to sally forth, upping the ante in all aspects of his craft. The Nashville Sound, his first record with the 400 Unit since 2011’s Here We Rest, is triumphant in its topical resonance, but draws influence from the timelessness of lyrical curiosity. Whether delivering heart-wrenching lines on the crumbling of the American Dream, or the crumbling of a relationship, each is given an equal shake, and that makes his songs unreasonably powerful. “Last of My Kind” recalls the melodic cadence of The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” “Cumberland Gap” is the first song to showcase the 400 Unit’s riotous rock ‘n’ roll combustion. Isbell, maybe better than anyone else on the planet, can tap into the polarizing societal veins of the country’s manias and transform them into anthems for (hopefully) much better days ahead. —Ryan J. Prado
Always ambitious, Americana/traditional folk artist Rhiannon Giddens uses Freedom Highway, her second solo album, for a contemporary end: tracing the roots of the #BlackLivesMatter movement from plantation property to today. Joined by two protest songs (Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday” and Pops Staples’ title track) and one old blues cut (Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 murder ballad “The Angels Laid Him Away”), the Carolina Chocolate Drop weaves a song cycle from slavery’s pain and abuse, the jolt and reality that drove the Civil Rights movement and our current epidemic of young black men shot by police. Whether she shuck’n’shimmies through the flirty trombone-laced “Hey Bebe,” the bowed cello and moan lullaby “Baby Boy” or the staccato romance denied “Love We Almost Had” (featuring fellow roots journeyer Bhi Bhiman), the emotions of desire and elation run strong. Giddens’ earthy, opera-trained soprano maintains not just dignity, but savors the world around her. It culminates with a roiling boil on “Freedom Highway,” a low impact James Brown revel. Brass pumping, hands clapping, blasts of Wurlitzer and a needlenose electric guitar buzzing, Giddens’ and Bhiman’s voices rise up in triumph, the shackles of abuse cast aside. They’re joyously resolved, “marching that freedom highway, and aren’t gonna turn around.” —Holly Gleason
The deck feels perpetually stacked against women in the modern country marketplace. To make any kind of commercial inroads, the constantly moving pathways currently require these ladies to either hide their twang behind a wall of pop production (RaeLynn, Maren Morris), ape the blustery sound that the boys are making (Carly Pearce) or shoot for something far outside the norm and pray for crossover success (Kacey Musgraves). Where does that leave a country traditionalist like Ashley McBryde? Surprisingly, it finds her on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with “A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega,” a single from her debut album Girl Going Nowhere and opening up for platinum-selling artist Luke Combs on his headlining tour. Both are sensible places to be. That song, with its lyrical laundry list of working class signifiers, is catnip to country fans. And traversing the U.S. with Combs as he plays mid-size venues on his ascent up the ladder is the best way to get her songs heard en masse without having to fight for attention at sheds and arenas. She made her name in biker bars and honky tonks before getting snapped up by a major label. And no other song on Nowhere fits as neatly into the eye of the needle that every artist in Nashville is trying to thread as “Dahlonega” does. It’s a no bullshit record free of frills and fat; 11 songs that make their points powerfully and memorably. These songs don’t need to be messed with or tarted up or given a 21st-century shine. They work perfectly in their current roughshod, if gently polished, form. The needle may keep moving for female country artists, but that’s of little concern to McBryde. She’s on a journey toward career longevity and Nowhere is her confident and solid first step. —Robert Ham
On The Highwomen, the group’s debut album and flagship statement in a female-forward country movement that’s stirring up chatter in Nashville and beyond, these four artists dare to imagine every kind of life for themselves. Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile, easily four of the most talented people in the greater Americana sphere, explore every facet of femininity and humanity and how they exist alongside each other, from the beautiful and hard-won to the ugly and downright messy. Work, family, children, straight romance, queer romance, shitty men, imperfect women—it’s all there, made more impactful by the expertly played fiddle, drums, electric guitar and the voices of many. These are songs that scream, “We are here, and we have something to say,” but The Highwomen isn’t just some topical social statement that won’t hold up in a few years—this album was not built uniquely for 2019. While it’s absolutely and unapologetically meant as an addition to the discourse on inequality and lack of diversity that’s been ruling Nashville and country music (country radio in particular) for decades now, it’s also a country classic, no matter which way you spin it. —Ellen Johnson
The loose yet sturdy feel of Eric Church’s latest album is something like seeing the Nashville troubadour in concert. The first spin offers up plentiful surprises: sharp musical turns matched up with sounds that feel familiar and comforting. But unlike an arena show, Desperate Man is so low key that it feels like the Nashville establishment probably missed it. Perhaps they didn’t know how to program the soul explosion of “Hangin’ Around” or the sultry opening track “The Snake” or his folksy and heartfelt tribute to the birth of his son as soundtracked by “Hippie Radio.” None of it sounds terribly cozy next to the nearly pop bombast that passes for most country on the radio these days—not that that’s going to keep Church up at night. As this brilliant album makes clear, he’s on his own path, and the rest of y’all need to step it up if you’re going to keep pace. —Robert Ham
The cover art for Interstate Gospel, the third album by country supergroup Pistol Annies, couldn’t be more perfect: a picture of our heroines, dressed in their finest frocks, holding hands and striking a defiant pose in the woods—glamorous and unafraid to get their hands dirty when it comes to shaking loose of bad relationships or running through men “like a watering can” to get their needs met. As long as they have each other, the ex-husbands, sugar daddies and sundry other bad boys of the world have no chance of survival. Ashley Monroe, Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley are standing strong and providing messages of hope to the women languishing in shitty situations. Even if they can’t remove themselves and head for greener pastures, each spin of Interstate Gospel will help soothe their soul and ease their troubled mind. —Robert Ham
Chris Stapleton’s debut LP is a shoo-in recommendation for the newcomer to country. Stapleton solidified himself as a performer by fronting bluegrass band The Steeldrivers and short-lived rock band The Jompson Brothers, in at the same time he found his footing in mainstream country as a writer, penning hits for top-sellers like Kenny Chesney and Darius Rucker. Stapleton drew from an epic catalog when plucking tracks for Traveller, blending songs he’d written for other artists (“Whiskey and You”) with mainstays from his live show (“Fire Away”) and even a few covers (“Tennessee Whiskey” and “Was It 26.”) The release felt like a long time coming for most Nashville industry insiders, who had known Stapleton for years as the unsung hero behind many of radio’s biggest hits. But this big-bearded singer-songwriter is still helping critical acclaim meet mainstream notoriety in a way that can’t help but raise the bar for years to come. —Dacey Orr
Back in September of 2015, Third Man Records gave a teaser of the forthcoming Margo Price project. A few months later came the release of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, complete with songs that tug at your heartstrings, and songs that encompass the emotions that run the gamut of the human experience from love, loss, confusion, anger, resilience and fear. Price’s voice is equally as engaging as her writing, going from mournful to exclamatory, oftentimes in the same song. There have been comparisons to Loretta Lynn, which must be flattering to the up-and-coming singer. To write, sing and relate to your listeners as she does is a rare trio of traits. While Price has faced a number of setbacks to get where she is today, her talent first beamed golden bright on this album. —Eric Luecking
With the exception of a few artists, modern country has taken a hard left turn for the worse over the past two decades. Ask some people, and they might even say country’s become a shell of its former self. Sturgill Simpson is not one of those people—mostly because he doesn’t seem to care what is happening within the confines of the country music world. Instead the Kentucky-born singer looked to more far-out places on his second full-length, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. One of the first things you’ll notice is Simpson’s voice, which conjures the ghost of Waylon Jennings. Producer Dave Cobb’s warm production can’t be overstated—it holds the entire thing together and also makes Metamodern Sounds a shelf-worthy addition next to the greats. If you don’t like country music, don’t bother. But if you do have an ear for Waylon and Willie and the boys, then you’ll find plenty to love. Simpson may reside in Nashville these days, but he’s operating on a completely different plane. Here’s hoping his own mind-expanding experiments will expand the minds of listeners as well. —Mark Lore
The first few years of Jason Isbell’s solo career were beset with personal problems, including a well-publicized struggle with alcohol abuse, and his first three solo outings often played like too much of the same thing. But with Southeastern, Isbell has broken this hard luck streak, crafting an album worthy of his considerable talents. Each of the songs is a stunner. “Cover Me Up” is on the one hand a gentle, insistent love song, and on the other a moving testament to personal redemption that never once turns a blind eye to past indiscretions. It sets the tone for the remainder of the album, which is given equally to the promise of romance and the ever-looming possibility of suffering, both self-induced and arbitrary. As good as the songs are, Isbell’s singing may be even better. It’s certainly some of the best vocal work he’s yet committed to tape. His baritone, always rich, is deepened here by a grittiness that lends Southeastern a real soulful quality. By any reasonable aesthetic criteria, Southeastern is a triumph. It’s the most potent expression to date of Isbell’s talent (including his Drive-By Truckers output) and, ultimately, was a harbinger of great things to come. —Jerrick Adams
Golden Hour is named, in part, for Kacey Musgraves’ teeny tiny hometown of Golden, Texas; population: about 200. But the title of the singer/songwriter’s triumphant third LP is also an ode to the brief period of daytime occurring right after sunrise or just before sunset, a fleeting 30 minutes during which everything is made more beautiful by a dusky, yellow glow. Perhaps darkness is just ahead, but a for little while, there’s nothing but light for miles and miles. Musgraves is all-too familiar with life’s ups and downs, lights and darks, and how they often co-exist. “Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight?,” she sings on “Happy & Sad.” “Happy and sad at the same time / You got me smiling with tears in my eyes.” That track is a lesson in feeling comfortable with dark emotions, but Musgraves spends the bulk of Golden Hour basking in the light, giddy with new love (in her case, with husband Ruston Kelly) and in awe at the world around her. There’s an ease to the record, which is interesting considering it spends so much time investing in the often complicated work of genre-busting. While there’s more than enough twang and small-town heartache on Golden Hour to constitute a country record, there’s a delightfully surprising melange of sounds—spaced-out AutoTune on the psychedelic “Oh, What A World,” doo-wop keys on the starry-eyed “Butterflies” and, most magnificently, the sweaty disco beats on what should have been a pop radio hit in 2018, “High Horse.” For all its genre-defying powers, Golden Hour is also home to pure, stop-in-your-tracks songwriting. Musgraves has a knack for coy wordplay on “Space Cowboy” and “Slow Burn,” and if “Mother” doesn’t inspire you to call up your mom right this minute, you need to listen again. While life is full of lights and darks, Golden Hour is more concerned with the glow, and it is Musgraves’ sun-soaked masterpiece. —Ellen Johnson
Listen to the Best Country Albums of the 2010s Spotify playlist right here.