By request, here are the greatest country and roots albums of the last decade in Saving Country Music’s estimation. Albums were regarded primarily on quality, and how they held up over the decade, as well as the influence they had on country music, and music at large. The list ended up on an odd number, but includes all the albums that should not be overlooked over the last 10 years of music. As always, YOUR opinions matter too, so please feel free to leave them below. However, please mind the below ground rules (for those who don’t just skim through to #1).
- 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 won Saving Country Music’s “Album of the Year” and not be near the top, while others may have been graded moderately initially, yet may have ended up much higher. 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. And yes, there are not a lot of mainstream country titles here (though some made the cut). Perhaps there will be a mainstream-centric list at some point in the future, so Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves Stans, please be patient. There also will likely be a Songs of the Decade list as well, which will probably include more mainstream titles.
- 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.
33. Lindi Ortega – Cigarettes and Truck Stops
Cigarettes & Truckstops is a succulent endeavor into the very fabric of country music, dusting off country’s roots, adding a little rockabilly, and re-emerging with them in a sexy and relevant candor, talking care free about drugs and danger, and not doing anything to be cool but being herself. Lindi Ortega doesn’t need to paint flames on her chest, she’s hot enough.
Good luck poking holes in what Lindi is throwing down here. The taste that Cigarettes and & Truckstops is constructed with is impenetrable. It all starts with Lindi’s songwriting, brought to life with her voice that seems so at home in the high register that commonly is a stretch for even the most-skilled of female singers. The production is laid back, giving Lindi’s voice and words tremendous space to breathe while the vocal track is buffered with a tasteful dollop of vintage reverb, allowing it to reach for the stratosphere and stick to your bones. (read full review)
32. Jason Eady – I Travel On
The songwriting of Jason Eady is unquestionable, and has been for some time. In the realm of Texas country and beyond, Jason Eady’s penmanship is arguably the pinnacle, with only a select few performers to be consider beside him, including his wife Courtney Patton. Eady’s approach to country music has always been a measured one. The sounds come from wood and wire, in acoustic-only arrangements, not letting anything get in the way of the songs themselves, which is where the spotlight and attention should always be with an artist like this. But while lumping worthy praise upon Jason Easy’s last few records, Saving Country Music has been vocal about the lack of muscle, or gas behind the music.
How to resolve adding a little bit of enthusiasm to the music, but still adhering to Jason Eady’s acoustic-only proclamation was a tough riddle to solve. Since Jason Eady fits more the model of a Texas honky tonker, bluegrass never really entered the mindset as a possibility. But adding a couple of hot shot bluegrass ringers was the exact injection Jason Eady’s music needed to not just coast, but soar, and the results speak for themselves on I Travel On.
No toes are stepped on. The music never drowns out the emotion of the story or the moment. It’s probably not even fair to call this a bluegrass album. It’s a Jason Eady album with some badass instrumentation to go along with his established and beloved sound, with incredible music runs embellishing the songs, and adding new textures to Eady’s storytelling experience. Still even with a fuel-injected bluegrass kick behind great songs, the music of Jason Eady will never be for everyone. It’s too damn good for the masses. (read full review)
31. Sunny Sweeny – Trophy
With Sunny Sweeney’s album Trophy, it’s country, it’s Texas, and most importantly, it’s Sunny Sweeney all the way. It is the full package. It is a homecoming for Sunny. Like she says so well in the song “Nothing Wrong with Texas,” we all get so swept up in thinking there’s greener pastures, and better opportunities in latitudes and locations beyond our own, we forget that sometimes the things we go searching for in life are right under our noses. It’s not always a compromise to settle. Sometimes there’s nothing better than what you already have.
Trophy is the name of Sunny Sweeney’s fourth record, and a song about an attitude problem of an ex-girlfriend or wife. But the title is also indicative of a victory. The problem with money and fame is that you can always have more of it. The true victories in life are the ones earned when you discover something about yourself, and achieve a goal that is personal to you. Sometimes this comes with the earning of great wealth and recognition, and sometimes it comes at the compromise of them. But the measurements of fame and wealth are arbitrary and capricious. What’s most important is the personal discoveries you achieve. That is the point of the pursuit of happiness, and what is at the heart of Trophy. (read full review)
30. Olds Sleeper – New Years Poem
When it comes to the obscure artist from Pennsylvania that works under the name Olds Sleeper (among others), you get a sense that at any moment, his music could turn iconic, almost like a Daniel Johnston storyline, where even though he continues to remain obscure amongst the general public, amongst a microburst of important or influential artists, he could become a legend.
The fact that he’s just some weird guy, hunkered down in a walk-in closet with a 4-track or something, who plays all his own instruments and does all his own recordings, rarely plays out live, and puts out albums at a 4-per year clip and makes them all cheap or free, doesn’t diminish from one’s ability to take him seriously, it adds to his mystique. Sure, there’s tons of armchair musicians out there balancing studio time in their basement between a bad job and honey-do’s, but they rarely, if ever have the level of substance, heart, and dedication that Olds Sleeper does. (read full review)
29. Brent Amaker and the Rodeo – Year of the Dragon
From the “not for everyone” file, but nonetheless an excellent offering, comes Year of the Dragon from the ultra mod, space cowboy audio curiosity known as Brent Amaker and the Rodeo. This may be your first interfacing with Brent Amaker, but the Seattle-based throwback/futuristic country innovator has been around since 2005, garnering a strong cult following over the years especially in and around their Pacific Northwest haunt.
There’s a lot of gimmick and show surrounding the endeavor. Brent and The Rodeo dress up in either all white or all black suits, sometimes wearing Lone Ranger-like masks, sometimes accompanied by burlesque dancers on stage. Amaker sings in one of the most monotone ranges you can find in music, and with nearly every song employing the same horse gallop or train beat, the casual listener may regard the band favorably for a few songs, but overall see it as a short-lived stunt.
But whether our own misgivings kept us from seeing the genius behind Brent Amaker and the Rodeo before, or this new project just represents a big step forward, Year of the Dragon is a wickedly creative, well-written, brilliantly orchestrated, and an infectiously entertaining. (read full review)
28. Roger Alan Wade – Deguello Motel
Every once in a while an album comes along that you can tell the extra effort was put out to make it right. It’s far beyond just a collection of songs, it unfolds like a story, with all the songs together becoming stronger than the sum of their parts. Its an album that shows patience and wisdom. There’s a grand vision, and more importantly, that vision is realized in the final cut. Deguello Motel is one of those albums.
The inspiration for Deguello Motel may have been thirty years of hard living, but the approach was a sober one. The first challenge was for Roger Alan Wade to get sober. The second challenge was to see if he could write a song that way. But that wasn’t enough for Wade. He had something to prove. “He was good till he kicked the drinking and drugs” is how the cliche goes. Years of prejudice and misguided notions were waiting to be quashed. Wade quashed them, and then kept moving. He wasn’t satisfied proving the notions wrong, he wanted to prove that the opposite was right. (read full review)
27. John Moreland – In The Throes
If John Moreland was a boxer, he’d be a bruiser, a punnisher. No fancy footwork, no bobbing and weaving here. Every single line John Moreland throws out is like a lyrical haymaker meant to score an empathic knockout punch right between the eyes. Even the most emotionally-fraught songwriters tend to give you a short breath somewhere from the morose moments, but not Moreland. He is relentless in how he unburdens his soul without any worry of exposing his vulnerabilities, or how the emotional fortitude of the listener will handle such despondency delivered with such honesty.
In The Throes builds from a sparse acoustic footing, with some light country elements floating just above the surface in a classic Americana songwriter approach. This allows the listener to focus on the lyrics, and for the lyrics to come alive in the open space. At the same time, Moreland doesn’t get so enamored with his own stories to ignore the music and melody.
Does anybody give a damn about songs anymore? When taking a wide perspective of the popular music landscape, this generalization is certainly true. And with an album like In The Throes, it shows why this loss of focus on artistry by the masses is so unfortunate. (read full review)
26. Joseph Huber – Bury Me Where I Fall
It might be easy to gloss over just how good of a songwriter Joseph Huber is from his work with the .357 String Band. The break neck nature of their music tends to make your brain focus on the energy instead of the enigmatic lyricism and above average song structuring. But slow the songs down and you can see it, and that is exactly what Joe did with Bury Me When I Fall.
As slow and sad as these songs are, this album isn’t a downer to listen to, and doesn’t solely rely on its artistic nature for appeal. It may take a few listens for your music brain to settle into the right gear, but after that, there are some songs that are highly addictive. “Bury Me Where I Fall” let’s you know right off the bat what you’re dealing with here: slow, soul-stirring almost dirge-like compositions that rip at your chest. Bury Me Where I Fall challenges the ear, it’s smart without being pretentious, and set Joe up as so much more than just a superpicking banjo player. (read full review)
25. Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
The Stand-In is frighteningly good. It’s an enterprise in the evocation of rich human emotions, interwoven with delicious hooks and intelligent riffs, stirring vocal performances delivering meaningful, elevated lyricism, and a towering production performance that may go down in the history books. Just simply… Wow.
Scoring high on all the basic music food groups–singing, songwriting, arrangement, instrumentation, production, and performances–there are songs on The Stand-In that Caitlin Rose will labor the rest of her career to top. This is a career album. This is an album the rest of the industry will use as a measuring stick in the coming years. By casting a wide sonic net that takes only the finest ingredients from country and rock’s classic era, and then emboldening them with modern, relevant sensibilities, The Stand-In grips you and won’t let go.
This album has so many of those rising moments that music lives for. You can’t help but compare the album to some of the landmark production accomplishments of the past in how it brings Caitlin’s A-list songwriting to life. (read full review)
24. Zephaniah OHora – This Highway
Zephanaiah OHora’s This Highway just very well might be a modern classic country masterpiece. It’s flawless for what it is, which is a reawakening of everything brilliant and beautiful about the Countrypolitan era of country music, while leaving all the superfluousness of strings and choruses and other overproduction aside. In fact in a strange way, Zephaniah OHora, some 60 years after the original Countrypolitan era, has represented the essence and spirit of what made that era so great even better than some of the original artists and albums that helped define that epoch of American country music.
And don’t let me hear a peep about how some slicked back guy from the Big Apple is incapable of singing country music. Just listen to This Highway, and that perception is immediately discredited. If you want a good excuse to disregard Zephaniah OHora and This Highway, I offer my sincerest apologies. It is still eclectic to take this type of vintage approach to country music, and it won’t put Zephaniah on the Sturgill Simpson trajectory to superstardom. But for what it is and how it’s presented, This Highway leans heavily towards perfection. (read full review)
23. Jack Ingram – Midnight Motel
Jack Ingram wanted to let everyone know as soon as they turn this record on that he doesn’t give a damn anymore about “making” it in music, or making tons of money from it. That’s all in the past. Finito. If he does make money henceforth, it will be on his terms. And just in case you question his resolve about this after hearing some of the stuff he released on Big Machine, Jack’s gonna yammer a bunch in between songs to show you he’s serious that he doesn’t want anything more than regional radio touching this stuff.
Midnight Motel is not just an album, it is an experience. Many artists try this, but Jack Ingram, producer Jon Randall, and his Beat Up Ford Band pull it off. There are so many great songs, but there’s maybe even more better moments.
So many of these Texas country artists are saddled by past trespasses in the eyes of certain country purists who scoff when they simply see their names. But the loss is theirs. Jack Ingram has paid the dues, fought the battles, seen it all, and now can sing about it with authority. It’s easy for some to sit back and swear they’d never sell out when the truth is they never had the chance to because they’re either not talented enough or too lazy. Meanwhile Jack Ingram has seen both sides of the coin, is man enough to admit he went dancing with the devil, yet made it back in one piece and made a record that not only atones for any past transgressions, but is bred specifically from those lessons while being fearless in its approach and articulating things no ordinary 13-track record could ever convey. (read full review)
22. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
Stay Gold captures First Aid Kit fearlessly unburdening their fears, confiding in the listener very personal matters of self-doubt and worry that are exacerbated by a world of constant change, endless travel, and the inherent travails of navigating life as a young woman amongst prying eyes and directionless paths. The honesty in the songwriting, and the sentiment that bleeds over demarcation lines of gender or situation to find sympathetic ears with most who have the patience and disposition to listen make Stay Gold a songwriting feat before any discussion is broached about the music itself.
And when talking about the music, Johanna and Klara Söderberg put on a melody-crafting clinic, endowing Stay Gold with one rich, fulfilling composition after another full of soaring, frothy vocal exhibitions that run circles around the modern age’s garden variety mainstream singers. One of the reasons First Aid Kit can concoct such astounding melodies and match them so well with story is because their range and adeptness allows them a vocal pasture much wider that most have access to. (read full review)
21. Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil
I’m Not The Devil is an ambitious, unwavering, slow and plodding volley of songwriting body blows that makes no apologies, incorporates no compromises, and gives no quarter to those with open hearts that love to listen to music that makes them swoon with one emotional onslaught after another, all served in a down home deep-fried unapologetically country style.
Where previous efforts from Cody Jinks would maybe have a few songs that were ready for regional radio acceptance with sanguine attitudes and sensible production, or were more distinctly rock than country, I’m Not The Devil is Cody Jinks leaving it all out there and burying his hands deep into his country roots, worrying more about how honest he’s being with himself and the inspiration of the song than if anyone wants to hear it. And aside from one track, it’s all expressed in half-time or waltz-time sludgy power punches, stringing out an underlying tension and sense of dusk throughout this record, except for the moments he decides to let a little bit of light shine through.
True country music fans right now don’t just want good music, they want reassurance that good country music will continue to remain a part of music moving forward. Too often have they had their heart broken. Too often they’ve seen worthy talent pushed aside or put out to pasture, or put their hope in an artist who ultimately lets them down. Cody Jinks started in rock, and we can’t rule out entirely that he won’t veer back in that direction in the future, even if for a moment. But for now, Cody Jinks and I’m Not The Devil is exact shot of country-infused goodness that real country fans need. (read full review)
20. Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled
The Turnpike Troubadours exuded a patience and steadiness that put them steadfastly in touch with the underlying spirit of country music. If they wanted to pivot just slightly and go some big rock route, they could blow up huge. But they didn’t and they don’t . . . and they still blew up huge. This isn’t old country. This is new country, only the roots are still attached, and the branches fan out wide.
You can look at The Turnpike Troubadours as an ass kicking live band, or you can look at them as a band behind a singer/songwriter that happens to have some ass kicking songs. Their melodies could rise a little bit more. They could shorten some of their songs, or contemporize the instrumentation. This is surely what they would hear if they sailed their ship for Nashville looking for a larger slice. But they refuse to tinker with what has led them here. You get the sense they would rather quit than let down their long-term fans, or themselves. It’s still the same guys, and mostly the same sound. They remain the Turnpike Troubadours. And their destiny and prospects are better off for it. (read full review)
19. Turnpike Troubadours – A Long Way From Your Heart
A new vitality marks the songs of A Long Way From Your Heart. Where their last record seemed to lean at times on the strength of Evan Felker’s songwriting, most of the selections from A Long Way From Your Heart are the full package. The song construction is smarter, the melodies fattier, the turns of phrases more witty, and the choruses rise under their own volition as they should in a country song, as opposed to the forced action of the popular music influence.
Though a high bar had already been set across a number of musical gradients from previous Turnpike projects, A Long Way From Your Heart feels more virile on multiple counts, bested only maybe by those first few songs from their first LP (“Every Girl” and “7&7”). The sound is full with the addition of steel guitar, and this gives guitarist Ryan Engleman and fiddler Kyle Nix the freedom to stretch their legs in segments. There’s a vitality seasoned from the influence of the famous Sonic Ranch in West Texas where the album was recorded. And the songwriting of Evan Felker and the other contributors is more spirited and refined, fueled by a full-bodied passion for the music, where perhaps previous energies were parsed somewhat on anxieties. (read full review)
18. Slackeye Slim – El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa
Every once in a while, an album comes along that changes everything. It’s an album that inspires other albums, and dynamic shifts in tastes and approach throughout a sector of music, while at the same time dashing the dreams of other artists, as the purity and originality are way too much to attempt to rival. Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa is one of those albums.
El Santo Grial is about a man, and a gun. It is a concept or theme-based album that follows Drake Savage, a man torn by religion, told since he was a boy that he was “The Chosen One”, but conflicted by his desire to see proof of a higher power. That proof is eventually bestowed one day in the form of a legendary gun for which the album is named.
El Santo Grial is a masterpiece, exquisitely produced, arranged, and performed. This is a patient, uncompromising album. You can tell time was never introduced into this project as a goal. The goal was to flesh out Slackeye’s vision without ever settling for second best, and that goal was accomplished. (read full review)
17. Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
Emerging from the coal region of Kentucky, to working on trains in Utah, to Nashville, TN to tackle the nasty business of trying to make it in music, Sturgill’s path has been windy, but like the stitches on the cover of High Top Mountain, it has lead to a sunny ending of seeing the realizations of his dreams—dreams that we all benefit from in the form of a great new gift of country music. This record would mark the emergence of an artist that would turn country music on its head, and impact and influence music for the years to come.
And the scariest thing is that however good this album is, Sturgill left some talent on the shelf. He’ll tell you his guitar playing is novice compared to the caliber of pickers he’s surrounded with in his new home of Nashville, but I have to respectfully disagree. Though technically he may be junior to some players, when it comes to taste and originality, Sturgills bluegrass-inspired style of takeoff Telecaster is something few of the slickest session players could ever touch. You only get a nibble of this when Sturgill is holding an acoustic, but it’s give and take because the acoustic allows you to focus more on the song. To say this debut for Sturgill Simpson was auspicious is an understatement. (read full review)
16. Mike and the Moonpies – Steak Night at the Prairie Rose
The romantic notion of what an old school honky tonk band from Texas should be has been used to stoke fantasies and fill television and movie screens for years. It’s also been a template for Music Row-molded fashion plates to play dress up and role play the part for many patently unaware fans. But putting your finger on the actual embodiment of a Texas two-step honky tonk band who can play covers and originals for four hours non stop and make it look easy—and all while looking cool themselves—is a little more myth than reality. Yes, there are many smoky bars and wooden dance floors throughout the Lone Star State. And there are many cover and original bands that play them. And then there’s Mike and the Moonpies.
It’s the local flavor, the authenticity, the dedication to themselves, their fans, the music, and the true-to-life dues paid by Mike and the Moonpies that make them darn near the perfect embodiment of the Austin, TX dance hall and dive bar band so many want to emulate, but so few want to put in the sweat or make the sacrifices to actually become. And with such a salivating appetite for authenticity now stirring out there among the country music listening pubic, it’s time for Mike and the Moonpies to step out of the shadows of being considered an undercard band of the Texas music circuit, a “poor man’s Turnpike Troubadours” as some have referred to them in the past, and be hoisted forward as just about the perfect example of what a true Texas country dancehall band is all about. It also happens to be that Steak Night at the Prairie Rose is about the perfect record to do that with. (read full review)
15. Turnpike Troubadours – Goodbye Normal Street
Goodbye Normal Street starts off a little deceptively, with two heavy, hard country songs that may hint a new direction the Turnpike Troubadours are going in when in truth they’re just getting your attention. “Gin, Smoke & Lies” with its Queen-esque “We Will Rock You” opening beat and banjo lead-in let you have fair warning not to expect your usual sweet and safe mainstream fare from this release. “Before The Devil Knows Were Dead” builds out from the sharp wit of the title line to become a tribute to mortality with an approach that waxes towards an almost Hank3, Johnny Hiland-style heavy handed guitar solo.
After two soldier-themed songs “Southeastern Son” and “Blue Star”, the album settles in with the style of material you might more be expecting from the Troubadours, yet Goodbye Normal Street is more consistently boss throughout, and devoid of some of the valleys of their previous offerings.
Call it a maturing or a coming into their own, but Goodbye Normal Street marked a defining of the Turnpike Troubadours sound, their place in the music world, and proved they were a band that music world should pay more serious attention to. (read full review)
14. Sarah Shook and The Disarmers – Years
You think music is a skills competition? You think what speaks deeply to people in music is the perfection served through drum loops and Auto-Tune, or technically adept musicianship, or even vintage styling conveyed through cute production techniques trying to emulate past greatness? Four scraggly dudes and a single mother from North Carolina just proved they can supersede all other efforts simply by assuring the pain and the blood of real life experiences are sown straight into your songs, embedded between the notes, and born out in the melodies. Years is soaked in whiskey and sweat, tenderized through conflict, forged from 700-mile van rides to play $200 shows, and ultimately captured in studio recordings that like a great sponge, are able to soak up all of that pain, and convey it with lossless quality.
Sarah Shook is the badass woman we’ve been waiting years for. She can play the guys off the stage and drink them under the table, all on a half night’s sleep and her eyelids at half mast. Years is the exact type of country music album you crash little music websites and Spotify playlists searching for—that album that immediately sucks you in, and promises years of enjoyment and recurring listens, even in the world of endless audio variety. It’s a record that feels like it was made specifically for you, regardless of you’re in the midst of a breakup and a bout of drunken depression, or you’re beyond all of that and enjoying a stable, sober family life. It’s an album where every song begs to be heard, and not one gets passed over. There’s nothing expressly special about any of it. But there’s something especially warm about all of it, making you say, “This is what I’m talking about when I say I love country music.” (read full review)
13. James McMurtry – Complicated Game
Venturing into ramshackle dive bars and overturning the stones of socioeconomic depravity to unearth the forgotten refugees cast off from the American dream and escaping the enslavement of technology by hammering out livings on the outskirts of society, Texas singer and second generation writer James McMurtry pens odes to the marginalized inhabitants of the margins, meticulously chiseling out curvatures with such intimate understanding and attention to detail that he eventually reveals canonized demi-heroes of everyday forgotten life tied to the land and living like prose in their tacked together existences while the masses speed past on the highway unbeknownst.
Six long years it took, and it may be six more before a fresh new batch arrives. But James McMurtry delivers on the promise of being one of our generation’s preeminent songwriters who can say the things that twist the rest of our tongues, create characters we never knew but feel hauntingly familiar, and fill us with and appreciation of life, both the good and the bad, and understand it is all part of the brilliant tapestry we’re all embedded in and unrolling before us. (read full review)
12. Emily Scott Robinson – Traveling Mercies
With stunning insight, masterful use of character and setting, and tastefully sparse but complete and fulfilling arrangements, a journey through Traveling Mercies makes you a changed human with lessons learned, perspectives expanded, and moments cherished, not dissimilar to the experience of taking a long road trip across the country following a loose itinerary of friends to visit and places to see.
A travel record at heart, with stories that enchant your perspective similar to the heightened senses that speeding down the highway and taking in new scenery imparts, songs like “Westward Bound” and “White Hot Country Mess” make for enjoyable listens. But this is just the canvas that Emily Scott Robinson stretches taut to create space for her most brilliant master strokes of expression, including in moments where her songwriting becomes so cutting, cunning, poignant, and resonant, it’s only fair to characterize it as authoritative in quality.
Not dissimilar to how you often recall your most warmest or touching memories in quiet moments of reflection, an open heart will entrust similar moments to pondering the stories of Traveling Mercies. Because in an era full of noise and ever-present distraction and priority, this is an album worth slowing down for, reflecting upon, and cherishing fondly. (read full review)
11. 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)
10. 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)
9. The Mavericks – In Time
Take the West Coast country coolness of Dwight Yoakam, the haunting tremolo of Roy Orbison, the sweaty rhythms of Los Lobos, and what you get is Miami’s indescribable and enigmatic throwback old-school all-things-to-all-people house band for America known as The Mavericks.
Some bands like to espouse themselves “defying genre,” when many times this is just a front for lacking a musical compass or an original sound, hoping disparate elements will meld together simply from the uniqueness of the experience. That is not the case with The Mavericks. Every one of their songs is a country song. Every one is a Latin song. And every one is rock n’ roll, all the way through. It’s because their influences overlay each other in parallel layers instead of being haphazardly mixed together. They aren’t a blend of genres, they’re every classic genre all at the same time. The Mavericks’ sound means something to such a wide range of people by being able to tug at the music roots of listeners from a myriad of diverse backgrounds.
In Time was The Mavericks comeback record, to spirit them into a new decade of entertaining crowds and influencing music on a grand scale. (read full review)
8. Mike and the Moonpies – Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold
If this all had played out like it should have, The Moonpies would have mashed down on the accelerator with a new record and released something with even more hard charging honky tonk country songs to fuel new their intense live shows for the next year or so, and sent this thing into the everloving stratosphere. And so what do they do? They fly to London to record an album of mostly understated and nuanced material at Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony. Risky? You bet. Out of left field? No doubt. Bold? To put it mildly. Successful? Speaking to anyone who has heard it, the answer would be most resoundingly “yes.”
The Moonpies navigated themselves out of their comfort zone on purpose, wrote and recorded a record taking a holistic approach to everything involved in it, and worked without a net. Where many bands and artists probably think, “Shit, wouldn’t it be cool to fly to Europe and record at Abbey Road?” Mike and the Moonpies actually did it. They called their own bluff like many of us wish we had the guts to do.
One thing it’s easy to settle upon when listening to Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold is that Mike and the Moonpies are one of the most interesting and unexpected bands in all of country music at the moment. And their efforts should not just be resigned to the Austin honky tonk mindset. From London and all the parts in between, Mike and the Moonpies should be considered on of the preeminent projects in all of country music, and so should Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold. (read full review)
7. Tami Neilson – Dynamite!
Your brain is going to want to file Tami Neilson into the rockabilly lobe initially because of the angry bangs she’s rocking on the album cover, and no doubt there’s a healthy dollop of that old school rock and roll vibe in her sound. But Dynamite! is a country throwback old-school 1950’s record with no tone or sentiment offered foreign to this time, and no anachronism overlooked. At the same time, the songs are timeless, speaking to the modern heart as universally as they would have if they were released 60+ years ago.
A big hand needs to be given to producers Ben Edwards and Delaney Davidson. So many albums try to evoke the throwback sound with close approximations of vintage tones and by simply relying on tubes and tape instead of true interpretations of styles. Just like Tami’s singing, if nothing else, Dynamite! might be one of the best-produced albums in recent memory. And not just in the tones, but in the instrumental performances themselves—the arrangements, the classic electric guitar, the pedal steel and fiddle. It’s all so splendidly compiled and blended to inflict the intended mood.
Unlike some other artists who released landmark albums in the last decade, Tami Neilson still remains a relative unknown. But for those who know her, they know her to be peerless as a singer, with a style that counts across all major influences of American roots. She has released many great records since and will hopefully have more in the future. But Dynamite! is the one that has defined her career so far. (read full review)
6. Tyler Childers – Purgatory
Timing is the intangible quantity that is often overlooked for why sweet lady luck smiles upon certain artists and allows their music to succeed, and why others fall flat, or never seem to find the success their relative talent deserves. If Sturgill Simpson had started his career in earnest at age 23, he may have become a known quantity in music way before he was ready, typecast as just okay, and not be in a position where if he randomly chooses to produce an album from some unknown Kentucky songwriter, it immediately results in a necessity to pay attention.
Just like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, Tyler Childers was playing and writing music for many years before he was ready to become a part of the national country music conversation. It was only after years of failure, perseverance, tempering in the fires of everyday life and dues paid on small stages that Tyler was able to find enough wisdom furrowing his brow and the proper resources beneath him to take it to the masses.
It’s that nexus between rural, real-world vernacular, filtered through an intelligent perspective, and gifted with poetic insight that makes an album like Tyler Childers’ Purgatory more infectious than your average throwback country effort. This album makes no apologies, and no attempts to sand down the rough edges, speaking candidly about drug use and womaizing similar to those early underground records from folks like Hank3 that helped set the table for the current country insurgency, yet is still distinctly Kentucky in perspective, steeped in the hollers of coal country, where the action happens down winding roads shaded from the sun due to the looming hills, and debauchery is so easy to discover if you know where to go looking. (read full review)
5. Cody Jinks – Adobe Sessions
Looking like a hippy, writing like an Outlaw, sounding like a Texas country stalwart, and touring like there’s no tomorrow, the name Cody Jinks belongs smack dab in the mix when you’re speculating on who is the best and the brightest in the current crop of insurgent country songwriters and performers.
Cody’s voice is twangy, but not too overstated. He wants you to know he’s country, but he’s not trying to prove to you how country he is as some do—he’s a lot more laid back than that. But this is country music, both honoring and indicative, while sweetening the sound enough to appeal to a wider ear.
Adobe Sessions launched Cody Jinks into the stratosphere of independent music, set the table to have him start challenging for attention even in the mainstream, and delivered multiple songs that have since become standards, well recognized beyond the realm of independent country fandom. “Career defining” is the only way to characterize this record.
4. Hellbound Glory – Old Highs and New Lows
Leroy Virgil, frontman, singer, and songwriter for the band is a tireless student of country music. His use of lyric is superb. He turns a phrase as good or better than any songwriter in the underground, or mainstream today. The way he constructs his songs is purely in the tradition of country music, but as fresh and relevant as anything else you will hear. With his use of key changes at the end of songs and modulation in others, you can tell Leroy has done his homework of how to engage the human spirit in song, and then drive it home at the end. He doesn’t ape the styles of Johnny Cash and Johnny Paycheck, he learns from them and builds on their legacies.
This is not neo-traditional country. There’s no Cookie Monster lyrics or other “Hellbilly” antics. It is high energy, but not crunchy enough to call it cowpunk. This is pure 100% Cooder Graw Dusty Bumpkins country; the way country would be if it’s evolution hadn’t been stymied by pop. The songs are about drinking, and drugs (pills especially), and the heartache that stimulates such self destructive behaviors. I never knew you could rhyme so many words with Oxycontin. But there’s a depth here that can’t be overlooked.
Everyone loves to talk about Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and now Tyler Childers as the greatest songwriters of our generation, but Leory Virgil deserves top billing in that consideration as well. Old Highs and New Lows proves that. (read full review)
3. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
On Southeastern Isbell goes right for the gut with an elegiac knife, thrusting and stabbing in a morose and unrelenting ritual of emotional evocation. Southeastern is downright suffocating in spots in its weight. It is bold, and merciless in how in preys on the faint-of heart, and can make a faint-of-heart out of even the most devout Stoics.
The hardest thing for a songwriter to do is to write to their vocal strengths—to lead themselves out of their comfort zones so the emotions can come out in their tone and not just their words.And the album is refreshingly quick, lean and deft. And whoever said that sobriety was the pathway to bad music? If Southeastern is any indication, Isbell’s recent recovery has only purified his musical Tao. Completely unfair Isbell, completely unfair. And selfish too. You should have saved some of these songs for others.
Southeastern was the moment when both Jason Isbell and Americana at large arrived. “Cover Me Up” and “Elephant” from the record are now universally-recognized as standards from the American songbook. It’s not just a record that defined a decade, it’s a record that has gone on to define American music. (read full review)
2. Turnpike Troubadours – Diamonds and Gasoline
The Turnpike Troubadours have released many great songs and albums over the years on their way to being regarded as the premier band in the Red Dirt and Texas music scene, while also presenting the greatest opportunity to assuage your mainstream country buddies towards the independent side of music. But Diamonds & Gasoline has been the ever-present fuel and gem to this phenomenon that never tires, never gets old, will never fall out of style, and will continue to give for generations to come.
Though the whole record deserves praise, the combination of the two opening songs, “Every Girl” and “7 & 7” is arguably one of the greatest opening volleys from a country band in history, even though it’s the ending cover of a John Hartford song “Long Hot Summer” day that has become their most streamed song in history.
No matter what happens with the Turnpike Troubadours moving forward, their place in history is cemented thanks to the efforts captured on Diamonds and Gasoline.
1. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
With Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson doesn’t just capture our ears, he captures our imaginations. However misguided the notion is, most every disenfranchised country music fan harbors the idea that at some point some true country artist is going to come along that is so good, it is going to tip the scales back in the right direction. What Metamodern Sounds does is it gives the true country music listener hope beyond the happiness the music conveys. It resolves that ever-present conflict between sticking to the traditional sound, but progressing forward.
Metamodern Sounds was the greatest, and most influential record released in the last 10 years in country music, mainstream, independent, or otherwise. It had Keith Urban wearing a Sturgill Simpson shirt on American Idol. It very directly influenced Chris Stapleton to record Traveller, and the way he wanted. It launched Dave Cobb into the stratosphere as a producer.
It’s still too early to be making comparisons to Red Headed Stranger or even Phases & Stages. But Sturgill Simpson, and Sturgill Simpson alone, defined the pinnacle, and what was relevant in the here and now of independent country music for the last decade. And he did it from the sheer strength of this album. (read full review)
Honorable Mention is probably due to these records, even though they didn’t especially fit in the list:
- Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves, if for no other reason winning the Super-fecta of Grammy Awards in 2019 (CMA, ACM, Country Grammy, and Grammy all-genre), and including some really great songs.
- The Weight of These Wings by Miranda Lambert for also doing very well in the mainstream realm, and including some great songs.
- Less Wise by Cody Jinks is considered by many to be their favorite record from the Fort Worth native.
- Jason Isbell’s Here We Rest and Something More Than Free could have also made the list.