For whatever reason, I always find it easier to tackle a singles list than one dedicated to albums. It’s easier to dive into the creative merits of a song for me than to look at a whole album, at least where a ranked list is concerned. As country music has veered off course in recent years, I’ve noticed my tastes have shifted away from the mainstream as I’ve filled my ears with the sounds of independent or Americana leaning artists, who still make music for themselves, and not for the corporate machine.
My top ten includes an artist who staged a wonderful comeback, another who treated us to his second album this decade, a group who reunited for their twenty-fifth anniversary, and a duet pairing who’ve spoiled us with riches two years in a row. All are strong artistic triumphs and prove, once again, that incredible country music continues to see the light of day.
10. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line
Nine years after breaking off in different directions, Sara, Sean, and Chris reunite showing astonishing artistic growth. A Dotted Line doesn’t eclipse their breathtaking 2000 debut, but it’s just so great to have them back.
Key Tracks: “Destination,” “Hayloft,” “Love Like Mine”
9. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year
The married couple follow-up 2013’s stellar Cheater’s Game with a traditional delight that packs on the steel and Willis’ once in a lifetime voice with Robison’s brilliant songwriting. It doesn’t get much better.
Key Tracks: “Carousel,” “Anywhere But Here,” “This Will Be Our Year”
8. Miranda Lambert – Platinum
The de facto mainstream entry goes to Lambert’s latest set, which balances progressive sensibilities while remaining nostalgic for times gone by.
Key Tracks: “Automatic,” “Pricilla,” “All That’s Left (with Time Jumpers)”
7. Radney Foster – Everything I Wish I’d Said
Foster’s latest covers wide ground – the grip of creativity, love for the Golden State, and racism, et al – but it all works, thanks to his sharp songwriting and blistering production.
Key Tracks: “Whose Heart You Wreck,” “California,” “Not In My House”
6. Lori McKenna – Numbered Doors
The first of three stellar collections from female singer-songwriters to land on the list comes from McKenna, singing exquisitely about small-town life. It’s always a treat when she releases a new set, and Numbered Doors is no exception.
Key Tracks: “The Time I’ve Wasted,” “Stranger In His Kiss,” “What A Woman Wants”
5. Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class
Holler Annie’s voice is an acquired taste and her production choices aren’t entirely conventional, but her songwriting is vividly clear and features the focused prospective of a woman breathing every last word.
Key Tracks: “Grocery Store,” “Life of the Party,” “Better Off Red”
4. Don Williams – Reflections
And So It Goes was a wonderful reintroduction to Don Williams for a new generation, as a man in his 70s. Fully reacquainted, Williams has released the collection of his life – ten reflections on life from a man who’s lived and breathed every word.
Key Tracks: “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” “Working Man’s Son,” “Talk Is Cheap”
3. Rodney Crowell – Tarpaper Sky
Rodney Crowell is irrefutably one of the greatest songwriter/artists of the past forty years. He’s done it all in his astonishing career, yet he continues to surprise at a point in his profession where artists either hang it up or coast on their success. He’s at the peak of his ability with no signs of slowing down. All the better for us, and the greater good of the country genre.
Key Tracks: “The Long Journey Home,” “God I’m Missing You,” “The Flyboy & The Kid”
2. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’
A new Lee Ann Womack album is a cause for celebration, and while I wasn’t blown away by her latest set, there were some incredible moments throughout. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s championing pure country music, especially at a time when the genre is poppier than it’s ever been.
Key Tracks: “Fly,” “Same Kind of Different,” “Sleeping With the Devil”
1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread
The third consecutive release in which she mines her family legacy is Cash’s masterpiece, the brilliant singer-songwriter project that comes wholly from the soul of its creator. Through twelve immaculate southern-themed songs, Cash vividly paints her landscapes and introduces us to those who call this region of the country home.
Key Tracks: “When The Master Calls The Roll,” “Night School,” “The Sunken Lands”