Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Essential Country Albums

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May 20, 2008

Entertainment Weekly has named what they consider “25 Country Albums You Need to Hear (Even if You Hate Country Music.)”  It’s an interesting list which has some clearly essential albums (Johnny Cash, Dixie Chicks,  Dwight Yoakam) mixed in with a handful of peculiar choices that haven’t stood the test of time (Dierks Bentley, Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich.)  I’m also mystified as to why compilations were chosen for Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons, yet Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn are represented with studio albums.

Here are the 25 albums on the list, which weren’t ranked in a particular order.   Click through to read why each album was chosen, and add that albums that you think are missing in the comments!

  1. Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison
  2. Dixie Chicks, Home
  3. Dwight Yoakam, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.
  4. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
  5. Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger
  6. Buck Owens and His Buckaroos, Carnegie Hall Concert
  7. Dierks Bentley, Modern Day Drifter
  8. Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
  9. Gram Parsons, The Complete Reprise Sessions
  10. Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted
  11. Dolly Parton, Coat of Many Colors
  12. Emmylou Harris, Elite Hotel
  13. Robbie Fulks, Georgia Hard
  14. Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris, Trio
  15. Hank Williams, Gold
  16. Merle Haggard, Hag – The Best of Merle Haggard
  17. Shania Twain, Come On Over
  18. Steve Earle, Guitar Town
  19. Vince Gill, These Days
  20. Elvis Costello, Almost Blue
  21. Gretchen Wilson, Here For the Party
  22. The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Definitive Collection
  23. Gillian Welch, Revival
  24. Big & Rich, Horse of a Different Color
  25. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand
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  1. LeeannNo Gravatar says:

    This list seems strange to me. It seems that the list was compiled by people who not only don’t listen to country music, but have never even actually listened to many of the albums on the list. To me, It’s like they collected a list of CDS and artists that have received hype in the past. It looks like a lazy list rather than a thoughtful one.

  2. JosephNo Gravatar says:

    In terms of cohesive, oustanding albums, I feel that Trisha Yearwood is pretty difficult to outclass. I can think of five or six of her albums that I like better than “Modern Day Drifter, “Horse of a Different Color,” and “Time Well Wasted.”

    I think at least one of the following should have made the list: “Hearts in Armor,” “Real Live Woman,” or “Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love.”

    “When Fallen Angels Fly” or “Mountain Soul” by Patty Loveless also would have been good choices.

  3. BrianNo Gravatar says:

    I don’t agree with the lazy list assumption. I know for example “Time Well Wasted” received a glowing review in EW when it came out.

    I would imagine they were looking to compile a list that covered the scope of country music and not just any one era- which so many of these lists do. In that respect I think the list is a success. As much as I dislike Big & Rich and Gretchen Wilson, I can understand why their albums would be looked upon favorably by the general media. Those would be the two minor quibbles I have though with the list.

    “MOdern Day Drifter,” was a modern, classic sounding country album. I like “Long Trip Alone,” better but I have no problem with Dierks being on the list. Besides he’s one of the few on country radio right now that actually sound country.

  4. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    The writer of the feature is Chris Willman, who is a well established music journalist who has extensive knowledge about country music. He wrote an awesome book called “Rednecks & Bluenecks”. which chronicled the history of politics in country music, past and present. I don’t agree with all of his list, but he’s the real deal.

  5. LeeannNo Gravatar says:

    While the list still baffles me a bit, I can retract my statement about the writers. Wilman is respected and Rednecks and Bluenecks is an intriguing read, though dense in some spots. Judging by that book, he’s certainly not lazy.

    While I love Time Well Wasted, Modern Day Drifter and even enjoy Horse of A Different Color and Wilson’s debut disc, I’m still not convinced that they should have made the list…though I realize all of them received plenty of glowing reviews. Likewise, I’m unsure about Elite Hotel being Emmylou’s best album, though I’m a newer fan of her music, so perhaps not qualified to say.

    I think the compilations could have been replaced by actual albums by these artists.

  6. LeeannNo Gravatar says:

    I should clarify that when I say that it doesn’t seem that they’ve listened to some of the albums on the list, I really meant to say that it doesn’t seem as though they’ve really listened to some of the artists on the list, though the Wilman factor pretty much changes that assertion altogether.

  7. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with your opinions on what should/shouldn’t be on the list, Leeann. Lord knows one thing I’ve learned from almost four years of blogging is that they only person who agrees completely with any list is the one who actually wrote it!

    I do love Willman’s writing, I have to say. I remember when he reviewed Shania Twain’s “Up!” and described it as “Abba Gold without all the melancholy”, and then proceeded to blame Shania & Mutt for the worldwide shortage of exclamation points!

  8. DanNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with Brian, and I think it’s worth actually reading through the feature to hear why Wilman made the choices that he did. It does seem that he wasn’t trying to simply name the BEST albums to ever come out of country music; he was trying to name the albums that have the most non-country “cred” and that illustrate the full creative spectrum of the genre, which accounts for the unusual juxtapositions of treasured classics (Folsom Prison) and seemingly random contemporaries (Modern Day Drifter). If the list is truly meant for people who hate country music, I think that approach makes sense. It’s hard to predict what will truly stand the test of time and what won’t, and in my opinion it’s probably way too soon to tell for most of the contemporary albums he listed, so it’s inevitable that there are a few choices that seem goofy.

    What’s most shocking to me about the list are the glaring absences of Garth Brooks, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, and Patsy Cline, all artists with rather wide appeal who have made terrific albums. Wanted! The Outlaws would have been a perfect addition to the list. And as Dierks’ albums go, I think Long Trip Alone is a lot more cohesive and original than Modern Day Drifter. I have a lot of affection for the Gretchen Wilson album and do think its impact was bigger than it gets credit for, so I’m happy to see that one there, and Wilman gets definite props from me for including Robbie Fulks.

  9. Cowboy Blue says:

    I gotta say I thought Entertainment Weekly would pick the biggest crossover country albums one could think of, but they made an excellent mixture of country classics and modern favorites. Hell yeah for Johnny making #1!!!!!

  10. TomNo Gravatar says:

    this list does what the title says: it comes up with 25 country albums worth listening to in order to get a grasp of the genre. of course, 25 records seems to be a very ambitious limitation, but ew’s choice does the job amazingly well. there’s no question that one could easily make a list with further 25 or more albums that would qualify as being essential but setting the bar at 25 is fun and challenge at the same time. all in all a very nice little excercise.

    since my youngest son is doing the not so long trips to the bathroom alone now, i can use the “pampers-money” to buy the dierks bentley, gary allan and brad paisley albums that i haven’t got yet. in my ears, their sound is outstanding country music that will easily stand the test of time and quite likely also being considered essential by following generations.

  11. CharlieNo Gravatar says:

    I’d be interested to see what the people who disagree with some of these albums would add. It seems like a CU type-of list.

    As someone who knows both Alison Krauss’ and Robert Plant’s work, I think that their album together is not representative of their best work (personal opinion) and that an AKUS record would be a better fit. No Garth (best-selling solo male and one of the biggest tourers ever if I’m not mistaken)? i would also move Lambert or Wilson for someone out of the Wynonna, Trisha, MCC, Reba group. I admit I am not as equiped as most of you to be able to name the definitive album from any of those ladies, but I have heard enough to be able to say they represent more essential country than some of the other choices.

  12. DougNo Gravatar says:

    I like and respect Chris Willman’s work, too. I’m just not sure where he’s going with this list. If it is intended to be “The 25 Essential Country Albums for People Who Hate Country Music,” then that’s different than “The 25 Top Country Albums of All Time.”

    For instance, the latter list should include Lee Ann Womack’s “There’s More Where That Came From.” But it’s such a traditional country album that some non-country fans might think of it as too twangy and hate it.

    So I’m a littel confused.

  13. JimNo Gravatar says:

    Prior to the mid-70s, country music was prediminantely singles-driven. Most artists would release one single – two tops – on an album surrounded by filler containing remakes of other folks hits. For an artist like Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette, you have to go with a hits package (in Tammy’s case a definitive package of her singles has not been released). Clearly, Chris Willman likes the Muzik Mafia more than I do, as I would never include Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich’s albums among the all-time best (my nephew certainly would, however). My recent “essential” list would include Gary Allan’s Tough All Over and Lee Ann Womack’s More Where That Came From. My late ’90s/early ’90s selections would include Tanya Tucker’s What Do I Do With Me, Clint Black’s Killin’ Time, and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On Come On. What makes these five albums “essential” to me? I love every cut on them, which for me is a rarity.

  14. DanNo Gravatar says:

    Wow, this is a good thread!

  15. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    Chris Willman is a respected and thoughtful writer although I’m not always wild about his writing. Also, I regard him more as a “fellow traveler” than a real country music fan – his choice of a Gram Parsons AND a Flying Burritos album is overkill for that particular subgenre. The absense of STORMS OF LIFE by Randy Travis is probably the bigest omission among recent artists, and he’s picked three albums by horrible vocalists (Robert Plant, Elvis Costello and Robbie Fulks) as representative of genre which has generally prized clear strong and melodic vocals . I think you could safely put a Bill Monroe and a Marty Robbins album and appeal to modern listeners

    I don’t mind the inclusion of live and greatest hits collections. Rather than VAN LEER ROSE , one of the hits collections for Loretta Lynn would have been a far better choice Even in this day most CDs are four singles and a bunch of filler, and with the emphasis of co-writes, much of the filler is mediocre to horrible (“Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in art, in music, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.” —John Steinbeck, East of Eden)

  16. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    If Chris Willman is a “fellow traveler” rather than a real country music fan by the standard you present here, then I am in the same boat as him. Good company to be in.

  17. CharlieNo Gravatar says:

    Paul:

    I’d like to know what you feel, objectively, makes Robert Plant a horrible vocalist? As I wrote above, I think his album with AK could be exchanged on this list for something else more appropriate. I suppose its difficult to argue what constitutes one’s opinion, but isn’t it perhaps more appropriate to say you don’t enjoy his particular vocal stylings than to dismiss one of the more iconic voices in rock music history as “horrible”?

  18. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    The fact that Entertainment Weekly, who are as guilty as anyone of reducing “criticism” to poorly-founded (and, in many cases, poorly-worded) pull-quotes that show little to no regard for analyses of form or content or a history of genre, brought in a writer of Willman’s skill and knowledge to compile a list like this is, frankly, stunning. Hats off to them for exercising good taste and discretion.

    As for the list itself, I think it’s an interesting concept– what songs or albums would you play for someone you were trying to convert? I don’t think all of these picks would make for strong cases to someone who isn’t already at least tangentially a fan of country music– from my experience converting a good number of my college friends, it’s best to start with alt-country acts like Neko Case, Drive-By Truckers, Ryan Adams, Nickel Creek, Patty Griffin, and Old 97s and then slowly and methodically branch out to more mainstream and traditional acts. Throw something completely schema-inconsistent at a person, and they’ll likely reject it. But start with something that has clear ties to what they already like, and they’ll be easier to bring into the fold.

    Because country music is, obviously, a cult…

    Some strange picks, though, as others have mentioned. Bentley’s three studio albums are all solid efforts, but Long Trip Alone is definitely his most “essential,” and I don’t think I’d ever recommend that anyone listen to Wilson’s debut for any reason. And I’m definitely a “big tent” kind of a guy, but I also think it’s a stretch to call Raising Sand a country album.

  19. SpencerNo Gravatar says:

    Good to see dierks on this list….he deserves it!

  20. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    While everyone hems and haws about what should or shouldn’t be on the list, I find it very appropriate that Johnny Cash’s classic 1968 album [i]At Folsom Prison[/i] is the #1 album on it. The Man In Black not only personified the best of what country music had always been about, but he also maintained to the end of his life considerable street credibility in rock, with his roots at Sun Records and his friendships with Bob Dylan and many others. And there are few killer moments that are much better than to hear Johnny’s immortal line, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” done before such a (cliche time here) “captive audience.” This album is not only one of the great country albums of all time, but one of the great albums of all time in any genre, period.

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