All country albums, regardless if they emanate from a major label or receive radio play, are considered for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year nominations. But not every year does a mainstream album make it. Even though one didn’t make it to the top of the heap in 2019, we had a bumper crop of quality mainstream country releases nonetheless, and it’s worth running them down and giving them their opportunity for recognition.
“Mainstream” doesn’t just mean from a major label. Tyler Childers is on a major label, but probably doesn’t qualify for what we consider mainstream country music, at least not yet. Kalie Shorr is not on a major label, but her music includes those pop sensibilities regularly associated with mainstream country. In previous years, Cody Johnson would have been considered more Texas country. But now that he is signed to a major label and receiving radio play, he’s most certainly a mainstream participant.
As we can see from the selections below, mainstream country continues to turn a corner, and if nothing else, has become much more twangy in the last couple of years in the continued implosion of Bro-Country. So let’s celebrate these titles and hope they go on to influence and strengthen this trend heading into 2020.
11. Justin Moore – Late Nights and Longnecks
Just like we’ve seen from many mainstream country performers recently, from Blake Shelton, to Reba McEntire, to Jon Pardi, to Randy Houser, making your album more country is the hot thing at the moment. Of course this is all relative since the baseline from where many of these performers started at was not very country at all aside from symbolic gestures and lyrical dog whistles. But Justin Moore might be the one of those to overhaul his sound the most, and aside from a few moments of contemporary styling, delivers a pretty damn solid country music album cover to cover in Late Nights and Longnecks.
But perhaps the greatest compliment to be paid to Late Nights and Longnecks regardless of the regular appearance of critical faux pas is you feel like this record is the real Justin Moore. It may not be great, and it’s downright bad in some spots, but you can take Justin Moore at his word when he says this is the kind of record he wanted to make, and saw it through. That in itself is admirable, and an achievement.
Almost irrespective of anyone’s personal taste on the outcomes, if the artists under control of Music Row were allowed to just be themselves and call their own shots, the music would see a marked improvement across the board. Justin Moore’s Late Nights and Longnecks is a good illustration of that and probably the best album of his career, even if it falls a bit short of being a good illustration of great country music, beyond comparing it with its peers in the mainstream. (read review)
10. Miranda Lambert – Wildcard
This new Miranda Lambert album is terrible, until it’s excellent. It might simultaneously be Miranda’s worst and best album ever. It includes some catastrophically bad moments to the point where you feel downright embarrassed for listening, along with some of the best tracks she’s ever recorded. Wildcard is just that—a spin of the wheel and a roll of the dice, because you just don’t know what you’re gonna get dealt when you cue up the next track. But there’s too much good stuff here to cast it off as just another mainstream country pop record. You have to be willing to dig a little to get to the gold. But it’s ultimately worth the patience and effort.
Saving Country Music takes the stance that country should sound like country, and quality songwriting should trump all other concerns. That is why Wildcard ends up being regarded here more positively than negatively. Nonetheless, it is important to point out the album’s shortcomings, not only to offer constructive criticism to the creative process in hopes for more positive outcomes in the future (which is the real way to “support” women or any artist), but to also warn those traditional country fans, independent country fans, and Americana fans that you may be turned off by the first few tracks from this record, but it’s worth persevering and finding the better material. Because in the case of Wildcard, that perseverance is handsomely rewarded. (read review)
9. Midland – Let It Roll
There should be no forgiveness for Midland and their naked plays to piggy back off the authenticity of actual Austin honky tonk bands until they ask for it, and the marketing run up to the release of Let It Roll was not much better than with their debut record. But if country music is ever going to be saved, the mainstream must also be conquered, and it’s going to take savvy marketers like the ones behind Midland to help do it. It’s time to bury the hatchet, to be the bigger people in the room, to recognize the good they’re doing and the quality behind their efforts beyond the qualifiers, and say, “If you want to help make classic country cool again, fine by us.”
Midland will never be the authentic Austin honky tokers they tout themselves to be. But they can be authentic to themselves, which is the challenge we all face when trying to find ourselves, when trying to win acceptance from the world at large, while also trying to carve out our unique place in it. And if they did, it would allow their music to reach an even wider audience of true country fans who want to like their music through all the trepidation. Because the music is there. (read review)
8. Luke Combs – What You See Is What You Get
Luke Combs is not the William Faulkner of country music. He’s the Grisham, or the Clancy. Ripe for mass consumption, easy to get into, riveting in moments, it’s a much more healthier alternative to a People Magazine or some trashy romance novel for a long flight, but it’s not exactly material for the Pulitzer Prize. It’s country, it’s easy on the ears, it’s above average quality for its weight class. But most importantly, it’s the undisputed most popular thing in American country music during this the streaming era.
You are kind of surprised just how country this record is—probably more country than Luke’s breakout album This One’s For You. You still definitely have some of that post Bro-Country list-style lyricism lingering on a host of these songs, but not enough to make you switch it off. For the toughest country connoisseurs out there, Luke Combs will remain on the outside of their listening rotation, and for fair reasons. But for a greater number of general listeners every day, Luke Combs is who they prefer over Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line. He is the biggest country music artist in 2019, and will hold that title into 2020 barring unforeseen circumstances. And regardless of what you think personally about him, that assessment bodes well for the future of country music. (read review)
7. Cody Johnson – Ain’t Nothin’ To It
If anything, Cody Johnson’s major label debut Ain’t Nothin’ To It is just as country as his previous records, if not more. And it may be just as well-written, if not better. That’s the other concern you have when a Texas country artist finally gets his shot at the big time, especially if they already have a bevy of releases under their belt like Cody does. Did they shoot all their best bullets off getting there, only to arrive with nothing left in the chamber? That’s definitely not the case with Ain’t Nothin’ To It.
Blessed with a good variety of songs that fit many specific moods and tastes, if there was any specific takeaway from Ain’t Nothin’ To It, it’s that Cody Johnson is maturing at the right time. Some of his earlier albums were anchored by songs that were a little too self-ingratiating. This album is anchored by songs that speak to life and love. Better albums were released in country music in 2019. But just appreciate that Cody Johnson’s Ain’t Nothin’ To It is a mainstream release. It went to #1 in all of country music. Cody’s got a songs doing well on radio. This is the moment that a truly independent Texas music artist went to Nashville, did it his way, and succeeded. It’s country, and cool, and twangy. And all of country music is better off for it. (read review)
6. Kalie Shorr – Open Book
Open Book a standout in the usually cotton candy world of country pop. It’s always sunny in Nashville, at least west of the Cumberland River, or unless you’re eliciting for alligator tears in some sappy, formulaic radio ballad. But Kalie Shorr isn’t having any of that. Open Book is just that—an unabashed revelation of bad decisions, naked sin, sadness, anger, personal issues, and self-loathing, making her persona more dark and manic than most of the Americana artists on the east side of town who love to lie about the pathetic nature of their lives to give their songs “soul.”
What Kalie Shorr has also done in Open Book is what every true artist wishes to do whenever the make a record, which is capture raw emotions in bold strokes that resonate deeply with an audience and connect us with our shared humanity. Even when she’s doing wrong, you want to root for her, because you’ve been there too, but didn’t have the guts to put it out there for public consumption like she does. (read review)
5. Randy Houser – Magnolia
Whether you think Magnolia by Randy Houser is any good depends on your perspective. But from the perspective of an album released in the mainstream where often you’re just happy to get through most of the songs without suffering a drum machine, it’s pretty great.
Randy Houser not only co-writes all twelve tracks of Magnolia, he sings the shit out of them. You’re almost caught off guard by the power, soul, and potency in his voice in songs like the emotional “Good Place to Cry,” and the warble and control he exhibits in “What Leaving Looks Like” is spellbinding beyond the quality of the lyrics and story.
Magnolia might not be great for you. But it’s great for Randy Houser, and great for a mainstream release, which means it’s great for country music, even if it may not be great for you. The trend of country music reverting back to quality continues, and now Randy Houser has contributed his exemplary voice to this movement. (read review)
4. Vince Gill – Okie
Vince Gill and Okie come completely out of left field in both the power and scope this project contains. We had a sense it would be one of Gill’s most personal records to date, and it most certainly is. And now that the Hall of Famer doesn’t need to hassle with recording radio singles or keeping the suits happy, he can write and record whatever he wants. All twelve of the tracks on Okie were co-written by Gill, and eight were written all by himself. His faith is at the forefront, his concern about the tempest-tossed nature of today’s societal upheaval is sincere, and his wisdom is sharp and biting in a record that speaks to our time poignantly and surprisingly free of judgement. In short, a 62-year-old with grown kids who is well past his commercial prime has released the album that we needed right now, and not because it leans on popular platitudes about social causes, but because it avoids them for the cool and calming nature of eternal truths that regardless of religious affiliations, have always been universally true.
When you first heard about Okie, perhaps you expected Vince Gill to compose some rag tag version of country music tunes evoking the early sounds of Merle Haggard and notions of Grapes of Wrath, especially when he told you he had sheathed his Telecaster completely for this effort. That still might be there under the surface, but the experience of Okie is much more involved, spiritual, and important. In a time when everyone is engrossed in the here-and-now battles of everyday polarization, when winning in the short term is sacrificed for long-term gains and understanding, Vince Gill tries to exercise prudence and foster understanding. And if approached with an open heart and mind, he succeeds in Okie. (read review)
3. George Strait – Honky Tonk Time Machine
It seems strange to characterize George Strait’s latest record Honky Tonk Time Machine as a return to his roots. After all, this is George Strait. But nonetheless, it’s a fair accreditation to make, and a welcome conclusion to settle upon when you appreciate the authority with which George Strait can deliver a honky tonk heartbreaker, or a barroom boot scooter, which he does on numerous occasions on this album.
You get everything you want out of a George Strait record in Honky Tonk Time Machine, from some great mid tempo stuff that’s perfect for Saturday night, along with few serious tear jerkers, to the point where you don’t feel uncomfortable telling people you believe this might be one of Strait’s better efforts in the latter half of his career.
Debate upon what country music is and who is allowed to make it will continue into eternity. But if tasked with describing country music in two words, a damn good answer would simply be “George Strait.” (read review)
2. Reba McEntire – Stronger Than The Truth
From albums of adult contemporary songs to multi-season sitcoms bearing her name, Reba McEntire’s celebrity has swelled well beyond the borders of country, and her financial well-being has long since been secure. Her spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda is minted, and she’s one of the few entertainers commonly allowed to use “queen” alongside her name. Reba McEntire has nothing to gain by making a strong country record at this point in her career. But she did it anyway because she wanted to. And that sense of deliberate passion and artistic freedom comes through in the twelve inspired songs of Stronger Than The Truth.
Even with all of the musical meandering that Reba McEntire has done in her career, there’s still something immediately familiar and comforting about hearing her voice. From the strong efforts of her early career, to the apex of her commercial fame with “Fancy,” and irrespective of her more contemporary efforts, Reba McEntire immediately reminds you of an era in country music where everything made much more sense. Stronger Than The Truth is an album worth doting on not just because it might be Reba McEntire’s most country record to date, but because it very well may be one of her best. (read review)
1. Jon Pardi – Heartache Medication
It’s a good thing that Jon Pardi is a big guy. Because bravely, and with little regard for life and limb, he’s chosen unilaterally to use himself like a human bulwark against the invading hordes of pop, hip-hop, and EDM descending from the surrounding hillsides like unwashed hordes of undead looking to consume every last bit of roots and twang still left clinging onto the picked-over carcass of mainstream country, and he’s doing so by releasing an album that actually sounds like country music cover to cover. My God, give this man a medal of honor, and pray for his soul.
The resurgence of more country-sounding material in the mainstream in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse that was Bro-Country is real and resounding, and Jon Pardi has been a spearhead of that movement. He’s not out there hard cussing his fellow performers. He’s leading by example and being a gentleman about it, proving that strong country sounds can still be successful to wide audiences if they’re just given a chance, and opening doors for other performers to do the same.
Some will criticize it simply because it is from the popular side of country, while others may laud it too much simply because it’s head and shoulders above its mainstream competitors. But no matter where it lands in your little country music ethos, it’s undeniable Jon Pardi is putting himself in a leadership position towards returning twang to country in all its forms with Heartache Medication, and that should be universally applauded. (read review)