We’ve already run down the Greatest Country Albums of the Decade, and in there, albums in the mainstream were given fair competition to be included, and some made the cut. But in the spirit of inclusiveness and impartiality, let’s make sure the great records from the mainstream get their due as well. After all, this is the realm of “country” most people are listening to, and a great album released in the mainstream can have a greater impact on the effort to save country music.
- This list is simply Saving Country Music’s opinion on the greatest albums released in the last ten years. This list isn’t entirely bunk because one album or artist was or wasn’t included on it. See something you think should be highlighted? Then by all means, please inform the rest of us in the comments section.
- Nothing was “forgotten.” The point of this exercise it to hopefully inform you of what you might have missed, not to reinforce what you already know. Please approach it as such.
- Yes, some albums may have been graded differently when they were first released. That is the thing with time—it sifts out the wheat than the chaff better than our judgements do in the here and now. So don’t be a ninny and back check opinions and claim hypocrisy.
- Albums were graded on quality and longevity first, but influence was also considered.
- Yes, many consider a “decade” to not end on an even number, but an odd number, meaning 2021 would be the true end of the decade (including myself). But we’re following the more commonly recognized end of the decade marker here, so all you numerologists, take a deep breath.
20. Kip Moore – Slowheart
The whole “Is it rock, or is it country?” ship sailed with Kip Moore in the Wild Ones era. We’ve already had that discussion. Now here we are already here, we might as well regard what we have with Slowheart with a critical ear. And when you do so, you find a record that’s inspired, energetic, and enjoyable, capturing an artist enthusiastically diving into what he wants to do creatively, and resulting in tunes that do quite well in engaging the audience. You can’t emphasize enough just how “rock” this record is, and that Kip Moore has a “sound.” The smoother vocals captured earlier in his career have been replaced with a distinctive rasp.
Look, we’re all music fans first, and then our allegiances break down certain genre lines. Kip Moore has made a record that has a lot of appeal to it, and even some forward thinking despite a few missteps. Give him credit, and give him even more credit for doing it within the bounds of the restrictive environment of Music Row. But it’s not country, and can’t be quantified in the way with any convincing manner. But listen, and you may like it. (read review)
19. 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)
18. 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)
17. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge
The idea is that this is a “bluegrass” album, but Flatt & Scruggs fans shouldn’t get their hopes up too much. Though there is some straight up bluegrass here like the song “Rovin’ Gambler”, most of the music is more of a progressive take on bluegrass, incorporating drums for example. Nonetheless, it is fervently true to it’s concept, and to a fresh approach. There’s virtually no electric instruments on the album. That in itself is supremely bold for modern-day Music Row fare.
This album started off as a side project that grew into something more, and with the tremendous amount of collaboration in it, that can be seen. The Punch Brothers and Chris Thile appear numerous times. Del McCoury, Rob McCoury, Ronnie McCoury, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, Sam Bush, Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson are some of the other names that might get you excited just by seeing the list of contributors. This album is very much a collaborative effort.
Instead of taking a myopic view on one bluegrass approach, Up On The Ridge takes a world view and attempts to hit on most aspects; more a bluegrass primer, meant for the unfamiliarized masses than the devotees of the sub-genre, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Released in 2010, this album proved Dierks Bentley was one of the most cool and honest guys in the mainstream—something he would go on to prove again a few more times in the impending decade. (read full review)
16. Ashley McBryde – Girl Goin’ Nowhere
We’re at war for the soul of country music ladies and gentlemen, and recruiting cute little pop stars from affluent Southern suburbs, and then attempting to refine their sugary styles to be even more pop, and more cute under the misguided notion that this is how to tap into the passion of the masses has only resulted in continuing losses in that fight. As Waylon Jennings once said, “We need a change.”
We need a woman who can do battle with the bros, and beat them at their own game. We need a woman who refuses to take “no” for an answer, and won’t be demoralized by short-term losses. We need a woman who is used to battling through adversity, and whose first instinct when she faces a roadblock is not to turn to social media to complain, but to put her head down and barrel through it. We need a woman that slings her guitar around her shoulder like a Medieval barbarian firmly grips their two-handed hilt of a bastard sword, ready to go into battle. And finally we have that woman, and one who has infiltrated the ranks of major label performers, and even penetrated the once-thought impenetrable fortress of country music radio. Look the hell out, because Ashley McBryde is here, and she’s a badass.
On Ashley McBryde’s major label debut Girl Going Nowhere, there are no edges shaved off, and no punches pulled. That goes for the stark honesty and detail embedded in “Livin’ Next To Leroy,” to the emotionally-wrenching storytelling of “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega.” It ranges from unrepentant Heartland rock anthems like the guitar-driven “El Dorado,” to totally stripped down and soul-wrenching love sonnets like “Andy (I Can’t Live Without You).” Girl Going Nowhere doesn’t hide the tattoos and scars, it bears them. There’s no powder foundation to buff out the bad parts, there’s a circle drawn around them, and a show-and-tell undertaken. Ashley McBryde reveals the true America, warts and all. (read review)
15. Mo Pitney – Behind This Guitar
Mo Pitney is music for a simpler time and a decidedly rural and laid back sentiment. He’s an old soul who used songwriters like Dean Dillon and Don Sampson to bounce ideas off of instead of the usual Music Row songwriting crowd. Though this makes Behind This Guitar undoubtedly country, some of the songs could come across as corny to younger country fans, especially if they’re converts from the punk and rock worlds.
But once you get Mo, his simplicity of approach and undeniable authenticity become quite endearing, while his sense of performance, even when it’s just him and an acoustic guitar, can go as far as jerking tears. “It’s Just a Dog” might seem like sappiness to some, or many. But damn if Mo’s delivery and sense of timing don’t suck you in, or at least they did when he released the song acoustically. (read full review)
14. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer, Different Park
Same Trailer, Different Park is the loss of corporate country’s innocence. It is a total flip of perspective from the fare the mainstream country public is used to, and not just because of relatively mild references to smoking pot or girls kissing girls–these cherries were popped years ago. It’s an awakening, an awareness of an alternative set of ideas that dash the mores that keep radio country and its listeners locked in suffocating patterns that don’t allow the soul the space for self-exploration and growth. It affords the listener the right to question their reality, and then it inspires them to find a new reality that is all their own. Same Trailer offers hope for both the individual listener, and the country radio format.
The Same Trailer, Different Park experience is dominated by some really killer tracks highlighting Kacey’s powerful songwriting, namely “Merry Go’ Round,” “Silver Lining,” “Follow Your Arrow,” and “It Is What It Is.” Then there are some really lighthearted and fun, yet deceptively-deep tracks like “My House,” “Blowin’ Smoke,” and “Step Off.” This album also has a few filler tracks. However a rising tide raises all boats, and even though Same Trailer, Different Park has some passengers, its strong songs carry the project. When you boil it all down, this is a quintessential Americana album, not a country one, with intelligent songs and sparse arrangements. There’s more drums in 30 seconds of any given Rush song than on this entire album. There’s really no solo parts, and the one’s there are stick very close to the melody. (read full review)
13. 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)
12. Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town
After careful consideration of Big Day in a Small Town, it feels fair to say that this effort by Brandy Clark and producer Jay Joyce is worthy of being considered right up there with a very select few others as one of the best mainstream country music albums released in the last decade, and arguably trumps Clark’s previous effort that was also well-received, 12 Stories.
Here is the key to Big Day in a Small Town: Instead of solely looking down its nose at small town American life like Kacey Musgraves has made a career out of doing, Brandy Clark takes a perspective from behind the nose of an ordinary small town individual—still self-aware, but focused more on the everyday struggles themselves as opposed to who or what is to blame for them.
Big Day in a Small Town is not a concept record, but numerous songs run cohesively into each other, and a wise track order makes for an enhanced listening experience cover to cover. (read full review)
11. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album
It’s not that you can’t find a better bluegrass album released in 2013. It’s not that you can’t find a more intriguing collection of songs, or a better showcase of instrumentation. The bluegrass world these days is filled with such unparalleled and inspiring musical talent, the sub-genre might mark the biggest concentration of aptitude in popular Western music. But to have Alan Jackson—3-time CMA Entertainer of the Year winner, and a man that has sold more than 60 million records worldwide—release a straightforward, traditional bluegrass album with no caveats, no tangents, simply straight ahead acoustic instrumentation in a traditional style, is a feat and a victory all on its own. And the music ain’t too bad either.
Another remarkable thing about The Bluegrass Album is it is very much Alan Jackson’s original expression. Jackson wrote the majority of the album himself, including many of the standout tracks. When you think about bluegrass, you think about instrumentation just as much, if not more than you think of songwriting. But The Bluegrass Album is as much as songwriter’s album as any. Without any real blazing speed, and featuring journeymen pickers without flashy names except for maybe Rob Ickes on resonator, this album doesn’t set off to wow you with anything but its words, and its simple honesty. (read full review)
10. Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood
Despite being an arena act, Eric Church can still go wherever a song leads him, and even indulge himself in a few moments of sonic exploration if he must to help keep things interesting for himself and the audience. But as long as it starts with his acoustic guitar and a good song, and never bounds too far away from those parameters regardless of the justifications given for self-indulgences, he can still prove himself a talent above the median. And that’s exactly what Eric Church does in Mr. Misunderstood.
For the most part, this album is not a country effort, and so let’s just all hold hands, come to a universal consensus on this particular matter, and then sweep that issue off the table. Eric Church is an arena rock star in the country realm for better or worse, and belaboring the point at this late stage in his career, especially given country’s current trajectory, is redundant. Dock him a fair share of points for this trespass, and move on to actually considering his specific efforts simply as music.
But on this point, where The Outsiders reached towards fantasies of progressive rock and heavy metal, Mr. Misunderstood is more of the Heartland rock variety. It’s more Mellecamp and less Primus if you will, meaning that naturally there’s going to be a bit more of a rootsy, country feel in places. The Outsiders had it’s rootsy moments too, just as Mr. Misunderstood has its hard rock indulgences. But overall, the new effort is a more stripped down, sedated, and conventional project. It relies on song, chord movements, and melody structure as opposed to trying to impress you with technique, composition, or shock value. Eric Church got back to being Eric Church. (read full review)
9. William Michael Morgan – Vinyl
This is it folks. Without qualifiers, caveats, or commercial dalliances outside of his tightly-knit traditional-leaning comfort zone, William Michael Morgan has released a mainstream country record that is quality cover to cover, true country at every turn, and most importantly, one that might actually pique the interest of the masses as its lead single eyes a top spot in the charts and people are actually paying attention.
This isn’t Hank Williams or Waylon Jennings country mind you. But it’s not Garth Brooks or Brooks & Dunn either. It’s not even Chris Stapleton, who despite his singular talents and true country treatments, still leaves a bit to be desired if you’re looking for country music straight down the middle. There’s no wiggle room here, no play in the action, no latency in the line. Like a pearl snap Western-patterned Wrangler shirt and starched jeans, you can count on William Michael Morgan. There’s no compromise, no pandering or pop-related material. If the heyday of the George Strait / Alan Jackson era is what you wish country music would hearken back to, then ladies and gentlemen, here it is embodied in a young and promising talent who will hopefully have years of similarly-minded music coming. (read full review)
8. Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings
Whether one ultimately settles upon The Weight of These Wings with a more positive or negative take, what is next to indisputable is that it was a significant release. And to explain it as such, a bit of history is needed. Miranda Lambert did not show up to Nashville like most artists—so hungry for a deal they sign their life away. She has always had a level of freedom that most mainstream artists can only strive for. That’s how she was able to run off with her sisters in crime, The Pistol Annies, without her label pitching a bitch. And that’s how she was able to put a release like The Weight of These Wings together. And now that she owns her own publishing company in Vanner Records, her artistic freedom is even more secured.
The question surrounding Miranda Lambert has always been what she chooses to do with that artistic freedom. She’s always cut songs from artists outside the Music City beltway, including John Prine, Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, and even Fred Eaglesmith. But as her career has continued, we’ve seen Miranda Lambert collaborating more and more with the Nashville songwriting jet set, and some of her songs and singles have eaten away at her reputation as a mainstream renegade. With the breakthrough success of 2009’s Revolution, all of a sudden Miranda Lambert was a franchise, and though she may have never been obligated, feeling the pressure of remaining at the top had her shifting her sound into more safe and calculated territory.
Not much about The Weight of These Wings is safe though. This was her bold stroke of deliving into her songwriter side and working with some of the best songwriting collaborators throughout country music. Miranda Lambert’s career will be defined by her big hits, like it is for every artist. But her ability and appreciation for songwriting will albums be tied to The Weight of These Wings. (read full review)
7. 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)
6. The Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel
Beneath the Southern female glitz and unruly frivolity on the surface of the Pistol Annies’ persona is perhaps the trio’s most involved work, and one that is more revealing and personal than even possibly their solo efforts. From a band that has made its name running up against stuffy Southern customs and exposing small town hypocrisy, it might be the deep personal revelations from the Annies themselves that makes this record the most potent in perforating antiquated social mores.
This record should not be regarded as a repository for B-level material from these three A-list songwriters. On the contrary, Interstate Gospel includes arguably some of the best songs from each that have been released in recent memory. (read review)
5. Caitlyn Smith – Starfire
For what it is, Starfire is an opus. Even being wise to the talents this young woman possessed for many years, and steeled from multiple spins of her short-run EP’s and scattered video releases, Starfire still cuts deep, surprises with each new track, and universally impresses.
All these incessant releases from Music Row of young women trying to make it in country, rolling off the assembly line one after another with their strident attempts at contemporary styling, stretching average talents to attempt to appear exceptional, trying to win ears with songs written by committee and algorithm—all that effort expended feels like such a waste in the presence of a project like Starfire.
And don’t relegate this music to “Americana” channels or anywhere else. This is music ready for the big time. There are radio hits all over this record. In fact if there’s any draw back from the effort, it’s that a few of the songs like the title track do that rising chorus action that can be predictable and annoying about radio singles, but this is forgivable given the quality of the material. It’s the destiny of Caitlyn Smith and Starfire is to blow up the mainstream. And until that destiny becomes a reality, it’s a curse and a shame on the entire industry for letting it slip through uncelebrated.
Whether anybody else knows it or not, Caitlyn Smith has made a near masterpiece, and made the model of what modern country pop should be. Listen or not, it’s what everything else mainstream should be measured against; for now, in the recent past, and for the foreseeable future. (read review)
4. 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)
3. Chris Stapleton – Traveller
So the same guy that’s written songs for Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, and wrote that terrible Thomas Rhett single “Crash and Burn” decided to release a traditional country record. I guess we’re all supposed to just hop to attention and try to forget all the trash that he’s carved his name into with songwriting credits and sally forth, huh?
Actually, that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do.
Is there a little voice in the back of my head that says, “Okay, this guy just knows how to write songs so well that he can hoodwink us into believing he’s the real deal, just like he hookwinks the rest when he’s writing pop country material?” There used to be. But the thing about Chris Stapleton is you can’t fake the passion behind that voice. There is something there that is tied so deeply with inspiration, it’s unavoidable as anything but an original and heartfelt expression of authentic emotion.
The popularity of this record has made it and Chris Stapleton more polarizing over the years, but Traveller saved country music. It launched the most successful artist of the last decade in country when it comes to sales. It shaded out the Bro-Country of the era and ushered in its descent. There were better records released in the last decade, but none had the impact of Traveller. (read full review)
2. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
This is Jamey Johnson’s major, double album opus released in 2010, and would also be the last record of original music he would release in the decade. The Guitar Song may end up being the last original record Jamey Johnson every releases, period, making it rise in fame in the minds of many of his devoted fans. But helping it along the way are solid songs that have become part of his live rotation like “Can’t Cash My Checks,” and multiple covers that have become staples of his live set as well.
The Guitar Song received incredible reviews, even though when filling out the double record roster, there was likely a little fat to trim. But in put an exclamation point on the previous decade that saw Johnson win two CMA Awards for Song of the Year, and he helped define what a good country song was during the latter half of the last decade. The Guitar Song is one of the reasons so many of Johnson’s fans continue to salivate for new music from the songwriter. They’ve waited half a decade after this record, and counting.
1. Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof
If you are truly a fan of country music and have an open heart, you will love 100 Proof. In the Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn mold, 100 Proof revives the lost appreciation for the strong, yet sweet country woman, while staying away from the surface symbolism that erodes the substance from many of the other artists that attempt this difficult feat. When it was released in 2012, it was one of the best albums to come off of Music Row in years, and has remained so throughout the decade.
Many of the songs on this album are not spectacular on the surface, it’s what’s going on behind-the-scenes that makes them special. Many pop country folks and “new Outlaws” are attempting to evoke Waylon Jennings these days by screaming his name alongside inane countryisms. Kellie instead understands that Waylon worked from the backbone of the music, a trick Waylon picked up on when crossing the tracks in Littlefield and Lubbock to hang out in the blues and jazz bars. The bass on this album, just like Jennings, creates a visceral bed for the music that allows it to shoot straight into your heart.
For releasing the strikingly personal 100 Proof, Kellie Pickler paid with her mainstream career, getting dropped by Sony. But it was a precursor of things to come in country, featuring Chris Stapleton and Brent Cobb as songwriters and contributors well before anyone knew who they were. (read full review)