Assessing Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Country Albums of All Time”

The impulse for so many of us these days is to take a very cynical and negative approach to any list that is compiled for the purpose of helping you navigate through the increasingly cluttered world of music. With so many choices, and everything at our fingertips thanks to streaming, it’s made curation, criticism, and musical sherpas more valuable than less these days, despite what some will tell you.

Still, so many use the opportunity of lists to focus on either what they hate that’s included, or what they love that isn’t. But that’s not really the point. The point is to (hopefully) fill in the gaps in your body of knowledge to expose you to something you may enjoy to enhance your musical experience. It’s also worth expressing that no list is definitive. It’s simply the opinions of whomever made it.

Rolling Stone published a list of the The 100 Greatest Country Albums of All Time this week, and as per usual, it has many arguing its merits, omissions, and inclusions. There was a time when whatever Rolling Stone said was taken as the definitive word in music, especially when the immortal Chet Flippo was the one manning the country music beat. These days, the publication has been bought and sold to corporate masters, editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman is an embarrassment to journalism, and the publication has perjured itself so many times lately, it’s hard to take anything it publishes seriously.

But I think this 100 Greatest Country Albums List is fine. It’s certainly not my list, but it’s also not so out-of-bounds to be offensive. It’s Rolling Stone’s opinion, and they have a right to their opinion as much as anyone, and for that opinion to be respected. And though you may assume that Rolling Stone in 2022 would go “super woke” with a list like this—and it certainly does lean that way—it’s not demonstrative in that direction at all, and nothing that the semi-educated country music consumer can’t compensate for in their mind.

The truth is, a lot of the top entries on a list like this are long-established, and though Rolling Stone has switched a few things around, there’s nothing here that seems egregious. For comparative purposes, you can pull up Saving Country Music’s very outdated (2013), and needing of updating Greatest Country Albums of All Time, and a neutral party with CMT’s 40 Greatest Country Albums of All Time.

Here Are Rolling Stone‘s Top 20 Albums:

20 | Rosanne Cash | Seven Year Ache | 1981
19 | George Strait | Strait from the Heart | 1982
18 | Gary Stewart | Out of Hand | 1975
17 | Loretta Lynn | Coal Miner’s Daughter | 1970
16 | Tom T. Hall | In Search of a Song | 1971
15 | Patsy Cline | Showcase | 1961
14 | George Jones | I Am What I Am | 1980
13 | Miranda Lambert | The Weight of These Wings | 2016
12 | The Judds | Why Not Me | 1984
11 | Johnny Cash | At Folsom Prison | 1968
10 | Taylor Swift | Fearless | 2008
9 | Randy Travis | Storms of Life | 1986
8 | Shania Twain | Come On Over | 1998
7 | Merle Haggard | Serving 190 Proof | 1979
6 | Lucinda Williams | Car Wheels on a Gravel Road | 1998
5 | The Chicks | Fly | 1999
4 | Ray Charles | Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music | 1962
3 | Willie Nelson | Red Headed Stranger | 1975
2 | Waylon Jennings | Dreaming My Dreams | 1975
1 | Dolly Parton | Coat of Many Colors | 1971

We can’t be surprised Rolling Stone put a [Dixie] Chicks album in the Top 5, but it is surprising they chose Fly when Home is the album that has been long-established as the superior title. SCM has Home at #31, and CMT had it at #15 on their “Greatest” list. Similarly, it’s great to see Waylon Jennings at #2 with Dreaming My Dreams, which is a great album. But the established thought is Honky Tonk Heroes is the top Waylon title, with SCM placing it at #4, and CMT coming in at #10. Dreaming My Dreams is #39 on the SCM list, and #35 at CMT.

Putting Dolly Parton at #1 with Coat of Many Colors is also against established precedent. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger has long been thought of as the greatest country album of all time. But Coat of Many Colors is usually not far behind, and you can’t blame Rolling Stone for pandering for a retweet from Dolly for the placement. Coat of Many Colors is #16 on SCM’s list. It doesn’t appear on CMTs. They have Jolene at #26 instead.

Some are making a big deal about Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams coming in at #6, both positively and negatively. Seems a little high for a highly-influential, but decidedly alt-country title. But I’m fine with it. It came in at #37 on SCM’s list. Taylor Swift’s Fearless once again could be swapped with her much more mature Speak Now, which was also all written and produced by Swift (a landmark achievement for a country woman). You can argue what any Taylor Swift album is doing on a country list at all, but it’s fine. Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings is her greatest title, but seems slightly high on the list as well.

A bigger, more global question when compiling a list like this is if you choose to include compilations and “Greatest Hits” records. Saving Country Music chose to exclude such releases. An album isn’t just a collection of songs, it’s a concept. Hank Williams never released an “album” because they weren’t really around in his time. Instead, he released a succession of singles that were later compiled into albums, for example.

However, if you are going to include compilations like Rolling Stone does (and so did CMT), you’d have to include country music’s first Platinum-selling album Wanted: The Outlaws. A critical and commercial achievement that saved country music in its era, not including it at all was either a pretty serious oversight or a seriously poor decision since Rolling Stone included much less popular and influential compilations. CMT put Wanted: The Outlaws at #7 on its list. Also, long-time Rolling Stone writer Chet Flippo is who wrote the legendary liner notes for the compilation, which makes it even more strange it was overlooked.

Another compilation you would want to consider is the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack from 2000, which won the superfecta of awards, and spawned a bluegrass resurgence we’re still in the midst of today. In fact, Rolling Stone‘s list is light on bluegrass in general, with really important albums like Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom (SCM #20, CMT #21), and John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain (SCM #13) curiously missing.

Meanwhile, Rolling Stone includes compilation albums from Patsy Cline, The Carter Family, Bob Wills, Maddox Brothers & Rose, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and others under the “well, we need something from these artists” idea when arguably some of these titles aren’t even the best compilations of these artists’ music. They also included at #64 From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music released by the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998. A fine collection of music, and one that underscores how the black contribution to country was not completely erased as some love to claim. But do we think this obscure compilation is really better, more popular, or more important than Wanted: The Outlaws? They could have picked a Stoney Edwards or O.B. McClinton album to include here instead of this compilation.

The other element fans will complain about is the lack of some newer independent country artists. Purgatory by Tyler Childers is definitively an omission. It is one of the most important albums of the last decade, and perhaps is even beginning to rival Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music that comes in at #25. Fans would have loved to see The Adobe Sessions by Cody Jinks, or Diamonds and Gasoline by The Turnpike Troubadours. But looking who compiled this list, like so many things in society today, it comes from a close-knit crop of Twitter connected individuals mired in an echo chamber who maybe have heard those names, but don’t really understand the importance of these titles.

Meanwhile, Margo Price comes in at #81 with Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, and Brandy Clark at #82 with 12 Stories. They’re both quality records, but you would have liked to see a little bit more representation of Texas artists and independent artists on this list in general if they were including albums that were critically-acclaimed, and commercially undervalued over the last decade.

Another omission is Loretta Lynn’s Grammy-winning Van Lear Rose produced by Jack White. CMT has it at #18, and SCM at #51. Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. also feels like it’s missing (#24 SCM, #24 CMT).

Again, it’s really easy to pick anyone’s “Greatest” list apart, and this Rolling Stone one gives you some fair openings to do so. But it also includes some really excellent country records, including from both older artists, and independent artists that hopefully will benefit from the exposure. After all, that is the point here—to turn you onto something you may have missed. The Rolling Stone list does a decent job fulfilling that goal, and giving us all something to discuss.

© 2023 Saving Country Music