Every once in a while, I stumble upon a list that I instantly know should be adapted for country music. Earlier today, I followed a link to Ten Albums to Hear Before You Die. It’s an interesting list. They picked the right Billy Joel (The Stranger), U2 (The Joshua Tree) and Beach Boys (Pet Sounds) albums. I disagree with their choices for the Beatles (Rubber Soul and Revolver are better than The White Album) and Madonna (True Blue isn’t in the same league as Like a Prayer and Music.)
There’s not a country album in the bunch (and only one rap album, for that matter.) Country has historically been a singles genre, and when you exclude greatest hits albums, you find out quickly how difficult this list is to create. How do you get a full picture of country music’s history with only ten albums? Perhaps you can’t, but I’m taking my best shot. Please add your own take in the comments. I’ll post a list of reader’s choices tomorrow, so be sure to share your reasons for your choices!
Ten Country Albums to Hear Before You Die
Marty Robbins, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
He’s one of the most versatile singers in music history, but Marty Robbins is most closely associated with the western spirit that is captured on this landmark concept album. Any album that features both “El Paso” and “Big Iron” is already essential listening, but Robbins fleshes out the set with fascinating story songs, some traditional and others from then-contemporary songwriters, including Robbins himself.
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison
The essence of Johnny Cash, distilled into one fiery live performance in front of a riveted audience. Too often, the empathy of Cash’s prison albums are overlooked. By performing there at all, he affirmed the humanity of every captive prisoner he played for. The stunning “Greystone Chapel” says it all.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken
The historical significance of this album cannot be overstated. Originally released as a 3-LP set, nearly every still-living country music pioneer of the time is present on this project, including Roy Acuff and Mother Maybelle Carter. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band brought legends together to perform traditional and signature songs, resulting in a jam session for the ages. As good as the music is, the studio dialogue matches it, with exchanges ranging from the precious to the hilarious.
Waylon Jennings, Honky Tonk Heroes
The definitive Outlaws album is not The Outlaws. It’s Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes. Comprised almost entirely of songs written by a very young Billy Joe Shaver, this album established the middle ground between classic honky-tonk and rock music that is still a major force in country music today.
Willie Nelson, Stardust
Few artists can boast as many classic albums as Willie Nelson. While nearly all of his major albums from the seventies are essential listening, it is Stardust that made him a superstar. By taking on the great American songbook, Nelson proved just how universal music can be, country music included.
Randy Travis, Storms of Life
The essential new traditionalist album. More than any other artist, Randy Travis was responsible for bringing country music back to its roots. While George Strait, The Judds, Reba McEntire and John Anderson had already been experiencing success, it was Travis who proved that pure country could be a multiplatinum enterprise. It doesn’t hurt that his first album was flawless from start to finish, either. But it was the big retail numbers for this and its followup, Always & Forever, that pushed Nashville away from the watered down pop sound it had been chasing for the previous decade.
Clint Black, Killin’ Time
The country boom starts here. Black’s brilliant debut album was worthy of comparison to Haggard, and it launched him instantly to superstar status. This album was so big that it overshadowed the debut of another future superstar. It drastically altered the sound of country radio, which would soon be dominated by similar traditionalists that were also supported by more aggressive production, knocking almost all of the preceding generation off of the airwaves for good.
Garth Brooks, No Fences
His electrifying concert performances and masterful media presence notwithstanding, it was Garth Brooks’ music that made him the biggest star country music had ever seen. This was the album that lifted him to that status, anchored by the classic singles “Friends in Low Places”, “The Thunder Rolls” and “Unanswered Prayers.”
Shania Twain, Come On Over
The biggest country music album in history was also a global phenomenon, selling nearly forty million copies worldwide and transforming Shania Twain from superstar to icon. It’s easy to forget just how radical this album was upon release, now that it’s sound has been distilled into countless country records in the years following its impact. Like Brooks before her, Twain was aided by a great stage show, stunning music videos and a backstory made for mass media consumption. But she wrote her own check here with her songwriting, which is too often overlooked, even though her publishing royalties from “You’re Still the One”, “From This Moment On”, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much” dwarf the money that came in from those massive album sales.
Dixie Chicks, Home
The most artistically significant country act of the past decade reached their peak with Home, a mostly acoustic set that drew far more from the Texas roots of the Dixie Chicks than the Nashvile sound that first brought them widespread success. The Chicks collected songs from the very best Americana and alt-country songwriters, infusing the work of Bruce Robison, Patty Griffin, Darrell Scott and Radney Foster with purpose and resolve. Even better, the depth and versatility of Emily Robison and Martie Maguire’s musicianship were front and center, most impressively on two tracks penned by the Chicks themselves – the raucous “White Trash Wedding” and the Grammy-winning instrumental piece “Lil’ Jack Slade.”