Were we ready for the country? In 2019, the best efforts of veterans like Tanya Tucker, Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill and next-generation talents like Maren Morris, Yola and Kalie Shorr ensured we were. Here’s a ranking of some of the year’s finest country albums … followed by a genre best-of for the entire 2010s.
The Highwomen, “The Highwomen”
The debut effort from a hastily formed supergroup turned out to have just about everything you could want in a record: sex, death, social justice, personal stock-taking, community-building, patriarchy-tweaking, barroom comedy, kiss-offs and loads of literal and figurative harmony. Of course, we may not be speaking for the universal “you” with this wish list fulfilled. But there’s truly something for almost everybody in the deliciously combined efforts of Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby, even if you’re neither exalted nor female. Between starting this group and producing Tanya Tucker, Carlile turned into one of the true heroes of country music at the end of the decade, even though her own history of record-making existed at the margins of the genre, at most. Part of her heroism as the Highwomen’s unofficial leader was not hogging the show and allowing an even more prominent writing role to Shires, who’s responsible for the funniest and most tragic tunes, or Hemby, whose “Redesigning Women” was such a warm and funny feminist anthem that it inspired gender-neutral sing-alongs across America.
Maren Morris, “Girl”
If all Morris had done for us in 2019 was to be the primary writer and singer on the Highwomen songs “Loose Change” and “Old Soul,” that would’ve been enough; either of those should have been a country hit, in a more reflective time. But in her day job as a solo headliner, she came up with a jinx-breaking sophomore album that established her as the chart-topping keeper the genre so desperately needs. The Country Music Association had it right in awarding album of the year to a big umbrella of an album that included self-searching rock balladry, slinky R&B, unabashed pop and even a touch of too-country-for-country twang. The only thing missing here that was a feature of her debut, “Hero,” was the crushing breakup stuff; as a newlywed, on “Girl,” Morris found for herself the love songs she’d previously said she could use.
Tanya Tucker, “While I’m Livin’”
Tucker psychically dictated this autobiographical album to its primary writers, Brandi Carlile and Phil and Tim Hanseroth. She didn’t knowit, of course, and was initially taken aback when presented with a batch of custom-written songs that deigned to tell her own life story rather than, after such a long time away from the recording studio, provide her with an obvious comeback hit. After that initial hesitation, she got what they were up to — boy, did she get it, you think, as you listen to her dig into songs about her daddy, her home turf or hard times as if she’d written them all herself… which, in some cosmic sense, she did. Tucker delivers tenderness, gratitude and defiance better than she ever has, with the supple rasp that sounded preternatural at 14 and feels fully lived in now that she’s rounded 60. This album’s closing command, “Bring My Flowers Now,” proved prophetic: all the acclaim and Grammy love for this career reclamation have added up to quite a bouquet.
Yola, “Walk Through Fire”
Speaking of Grammy coronations, Yola’s current slate of nominations is terribly deserving, for a thirtysomething “newcomer” so bursting with bravado, it seems like she always has been and always will be around. You might hesitate to put her on a “country” list when her touchstones include so many elements that barely fall under the Americana banner, much less a genre with seemingly stricter limits than that. Put on the opening track of this black Brit’s solo debut and the first song you’ll hear, the grand ballad “Faraway Look,” has more in common with ‘60s pop queen Lulu than it does with Loretta. But with a boost from producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Yola does get severely in touch with her love for American roots music as the album progresses, even as her incredible vocal prowess and control make you think of a not-so-twangy countrywoman like Adele (for whom she once briefly sang backup vocals). “Screw genre — I’m over it!” Yola told Variety with a laugh earlier in 2019. Maybe we all should be, too, but this genre is blessed to have as magnificent a talent as Yola’s on its outskirts, before fans of every other form of music fall in love with her, too.
Kalie Shorr, “Open Book”
Country isn’t a genre where young performers are necessarily encouraged to be bold right out of the gate — or necessarily ever — so it’s bracing to put on this 25-year-old’s debut and hear her staring you down with sharp lines and tough themes that go where veterans fear to tread. “Open Book” is a self-conscious but apt title for what Shorr has referred to as her “moody b—- album” — a record that earns its trip to the dark side of the mood ring after some of the experiences that fed into it, like her sister’s fairly recent heroin OD, or other family and relationship dramas she addresses unflinchingly. “I don’t really like dating a–holes / But I do it ’cause I have a weird relationship with my dad,” she bluntly announces at the outset of one song. The album isn’t just an emo-country candor dump, though: She’s learned lessons about craftsmanship as well as the art of true confessions from an obvious role model, Taylor Swift. You could also see her taking cues from Miranda Lambert inside the genre or Alanis Morissette outside of it, but Shorr sounds just a little more dangerous than either of them. If life lightens up on her, great, but here’s hoping this debut won’t be her last moody b—- album.
Rodney Crowell, “Texas”
Vince Gill, “Okie”
Crowell and Gill go back a ways together, as friends and career equals (and fellow ex-members of a long-lost supergroup, the Notorious Cherry Bombs). Strictly by coincidence, both released albums in 2019 named for their home states. And both of them confounded expectations about what type of albums they might produce to reflect those upbringings. Crowell released a very lyrical account of his youth nine years ago, “Chinaberry Sidewalks,” and leaned toward the more contemplative side in a previous album that harked back to his geographic roots, “The Houston Kid,” so you could expect an album called “Texas” to be on the ruminative side, right? Instead, this is nearly a non-stop party — the most fun set of music he’s ever released, and one with room for plenty of guests to join in the loose and funky frolic, from Ronnie Dunn and Billy Gibbons to Ringo Starr. On the other hand, I was expecting Gill to deliver more of a good-time set with “Okie,” but he’s the one who turned in his most meditative album to date. Its primarily acoustic tunes address issues like racism, abortion, sexual abuse and the absence of Merle Haggard in the world, as well as more clearly personal musings like “When My Amy Prays,” in which he admits he’s religious mostly by proxy. These two legends’ respective states of mind are both worth the road trip.
Allison Moorer, “Blood”
If I were making a list that consisted of all works of art produced by musicians in 2019, Allison Moorer’s book, “Blood,” a memoir about living and working through family tragedy, would almost surely be at the pinnacle. Nothing else in or out of music has felt that revealing, shattering and wise. The companion album of the same name is obviously less detailed and not nearly as unsettling, with the warmth of her voice and dominance of healing themes easing any shared sense of trauma. They’re best experienced in tandem, but you can still get a sense of catharsis from the album alone, which is not afraid to mix classic and newly penned murder ballads in amid the approaching light.
Joy Williams, “Front Porch”
Fans of Williams’ former duo, the all-acoustic Civil Wars, waited patiently as she got a (good) synth-pop album out of her system when she went solo. With a long-aborning second album, she finally satisfied that rootsy craving, nuzzling back up to mandolins. Going back to that sound doesn’t feel like a concession to fan demand, though: This was the best, most natural and inevitable music she’s made. The tone was a very long way from contemporary country, but not quite as far as the retro-hillbilly stylings of the Civil Wars. Her butter-melting voice was an audio balm when the tensions of 2019 required it most.
Sheryl Crow, “Threads”
Crow was needling a lot of threads on what she’s insisted will be her last album. But the country music of her adopted Nashville was the most consistent, and consistently satisfying, one, with a list of duet partners that included Maren Morris, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill. Even some of the non-Tennessee natives got more in touch with their country sides as they harmonized with Crow, as Keith Richards did in a reprise of his “Voodoo Lounge” deep album cut “The Worst.” A reprise of her own “Redemption Day,” with Johnny Cash joining as a guest from beyond the grave, frankly sounded like a terrible idea, but turned out to be bone-chilling. The kind of collaborations she pulled off in this mostly-duets album deserve to continue to happen in the studio, not just on stage.
Jon Pardi, “Heartache Medication”
A nation full of viewers that’d just finished watching Ken Burns’ 16-hour “Country Music” series might have turned to country radio to see what they could find that existed on a happy continuum with the historic country they’d just seen and heard — and come away going: Huh? Unless they happened to tune in at a time when Pardi was playing, in which case all might have seemed right with the world and genre. His third album pulled off the neat hat trick of satisfying traditionalists who grumble that they don’t make ‘em like they used to and young country neophytes from whom “used to” has nothing to do with it.
Midland, “Let It Roll”
Pardi wasn’t the only one momentarily making country radio safe for fans of music that’s recognizably country; so did this Texas-based trio. If you were to read a checklist of the classic country tropes they ran through on their second album — including, but not limited to, cheating, drinking, road-dogging, leaving, and more cheating — you’d likely groan. But there’s such cleverness to how they run through these potentially hoary chestnuts that you can’t help but chuckle along, and possibly two-step along, at how well they make everything old in country seem new again, adultery and accordions included.
Tyler Childers, “Country Squire”
Sturgill Simpson took a vacation from country music in 2019; at least, if you’re including his deeply loud fall release, “Sound & Fury,” on a best-country-of-the-year list, you’re taking serious liberties with the outer boundaries of the genre that few others might. But he’s hardly forsaken classic country — Simpson did his part to foster it by producing the third album from Childers, who’s probably a lot less likely to detour off into any electro-metal realms. Possibly no one in country right now is better at establishing a sense of place than Childers, who is definitely not writing about the exurbs and trying to pretend they’re small towns, like so many of his contemporaries. His label is called Hickman Holler, and this is a guy who knows his hollers — and sounds eager to get back to them in the many songs he’s written about missing his loved ones while he’s on the road. When he sings about “the bills the bank keeps sendin’/ Lord, the zeroes on the end keep pushing further to the right/ Like a freight train hauling sorrow and moving ever onward / Through the tunnel of forever to the never ending light,” it’s clear Childers is a man who’s equally at home with the poetic and prosaic, and can turn a phrase in either.
Miranda Lambert, “Wildcard”
As you could tell from the lighter and sexier album cover forward, Lambert’s latest was a retreat to slightly safer ground after the more balladic and personal tone of her double album “The Weight of These Wings” left some fans wondering where the rowdy went. And in this case, a step backward was just fine: Commercial Miranda is every bit as satisfying as contemplative Miranda. And while her track record with previous producers was difficult to beat, the introduction of Jay Joyce did inject some fresh energy into what we could argue has been the most important country music career of the 21st century.
Speaking of centuries and decades: Here are 25 of the best country albums of the 2010s. (We’ve limited the slots to one per customer, lest Lambert, Musgraves and others hog an inordinate amount.)
Kacey Musgraves, “Same Trailer, Different Park” (2013)
Miranda Lambert, “Four the Record” (2011)
Maren Morris, “Hero” (2016)
The Highwomen, “The Highwomen” (2019)
Pistol Annies, “Interstate Gospel” (2018)
Jason Isbell, “Southeastern” (2013)
Taylor Swift, “Speak Now” (2010)
Brandy Clark, “12 Stories” (2013)
Margo Price, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” (2016)
Chris Stapleton, “Traveller” (2015)
Ashley McBryde, “Girl Going Nowhere” (2018)
Gillian Welch, “The Harrow and the Harvest” (2011)
Tanya Tucker, “While I’m Livin’” (2019)
Robbie Fulks, “Upland Stories” (2016)
Dierks Bentley, “Up on the Ridge” (2010)
John Prine, “The Tree of Forgiveness” (2018)
Yola, “Walk Through Fire” (2019)
Little Big Town, ”Pain Killer” (2014)
Eric Church, “Desperate Man” (2018)
Ashley Monroe, “Like a Rose” (2013)
Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, “Not Dark Yet” (2017)
LeAnn Rimes, “Spitfire” (2013)
Brothers Osborne, “Pawn Shop” (2016)
Drive-by Truckers, “American Band” (2016)
Lori McKenna, “The Tree” (2018)