The combined efforts of nine women and three men form the upper echelon of our Best Albums list from 1993. This embarrassment of riches showcases just how much great music there was to choose from that year, especially given how many of the genre’s biggest and most acclaimed stars – Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Pam Tillis, just to name a few – were between albums that year.
It was also a strong and diverse enough year that despite some overall consensus among the lists of all of the writers, each one of us has a different album at #1 on our personal lists.
Enjoy the second half of our list, and look for the Singles list to kick off next weekend.
#1 – JK | #3 – SG
In jumping to a major label, Uncle Tupelo was supposed to give alt-country its Nirvana; though that didn’t happen, the critical acclaim and indie following that Anodyne earned served as an impetus for the nascent alt-country scene.
An album that’s both legitimately great and historically important in equal measure, Anodyne proved that alt-country was commercially viable as a refuge for artists and fans who felt at-odds with the increasingly slick mainstream country of the early 1990s. Borne of long-simmering conflicts between co-frontmen Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, Anodyne is a sprawling and ambitious album that finds Uncle Tupelo at their most fully-realized as a band.
Drawing heavily from country-rock, folk, and traditional styles, it’s easy to hear the band’s lingering influence on both contemporary Americana and on modern country acts like Miranda Lambert and Eric Church. – Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Acuff-Rose,” “The Long Cut,” “Chickamunga”
#7 – LW, SG | #12 – JK | #13 – BF
Thanks to digital music, streaming albums, advance listens and the like, no other generation will know what it’s like to count down the days to an album release and head to the record store to buy it on release day. A new Taylor Swift release comes close, but nothing will have that buzz like a new Garth Brooks album in the 1990s.
While it’s become common to dismiss Brooks as nothing more than marketing hype, the fact is that he was one of the most consistently good traditional country acts during his run, and In Pieces is no exception. “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)” and “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association” quickly became fan favorites at his now-legendary live shows, but they sounded great on the radio as well.
Brooks started focusing more on statement songs like “The Red Strokes” and “Standing Outside the Fire,” but those are excellent songs that never get too preachy. Plus, there’s the fact that he got New Grass Revival played on the radio with his cover of “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” which is more than enough to atone for any of his supposed musical sins. – Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Standing Outside the Fire,” “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)”
Something Up My Sleeve
#1 – BF | #7 – KJC | #16 – JK
Bogguss bookended her hitmaking streak with her finest studio set up to that point, covering material by the industry’s finest songwriters while showing herself to be an equally formidable tunesmith in her own right.
Something Up My Sleeve is an album that exemplifies the era in which intelligent women in country music were celebrated rather than marginalized, and it’s a loss to country radio that Bogguss hasn’t been in the Top 20 since. – Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Hey Cinderella,” “You Wouldn’t Say That to a Stranger,” “Something Up My Sleeve (with Billy Dean)”
Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette
Honky Tonk Angels
#2 – KJC | #3 – BF | #11 – LW | #13 – JK
Three of country music’s most important women joined voice in this momentous release, tackling an eclectic collection of covers, both beloved classics as well as a few more obscure selections.
A particular joy of this release is its inclusion of lesser known compositions from each participant (Lynn’s “Wouldn’t it Be Great”, Wynette’s “That’s the Way it Could Have Been”, and Parton’s “Let Her Fly”) – a reminder that these legendary talents remained vital long after their hitmaking days had passed.
Recommended Tracks: “It Wasn’t Got Who Made Honky Tonk Angels (with Kitty Wells),” “Wouldn’t it Be Great,” “That’s the Way it Could Have Been”
Only What I Feel
#5 – BF | #8 – LW | #10 – SG | #11 – KJC | #14 -JK
Loveless sounds completely rejuvenated on her first Epic Records release. The throat surgery that had the potential to end her singing career instead left her voice richer, fuller and more beautiful than ever, while she shines anew amidst Emory Gordy, Jr.’s fresh, forward-sounding production arrangements.
She would outdo herself the following year with When Fallen Angels Fly, but it was this album that heralded the beginning of her career’s most vibrant era. – BF
Recommended Tracks: “Nothin’ But the Wheel”, “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye,” “Love Builds the Bridges (Pride Builds the Walls)”
#4 – JK | #5 – LW | #6 – SG | #15 – BF | #18 – KJC
As great a decade for country music as the 1990s undoubtedly were, it’s also a decade overrun with missed opportunities, with major talents like Marty Brown, Kim Richey, and Mandy Barnett all failing to capture the wide audiences they deserved. But perhaps no missed opportunity remains more inexplicable than Kelly Willis. Tagged as one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World,” armed with a powerful and versatile voice, and blessed with an ear for quality material, Willis had all the makings of an A-list star.
That she’d been dubbed the “Queen of Alternative Country” in the popular press probably didn’t help her cause, but, listening to her self-titled third album more than two decades later, that “alternative” tag seems like even more of a stretch than it did at the time of its release. Produced by Don Was and Tony Brown, Kelly Willis is characterized by its skillful blend of traditional country elements with contemporary pop hooks and late-70s country-rock styles.
Willis’ co-writes hold up well alongside standout cuts from Marshall Crenshaw, Jim Lauderdale, and future-husband Bruce Robison, and her stellar performances range from the sensual “That’ll Be Me” (a duet with fellow should-have-been-star Kevin Welch) to the brash “Shadows of Love.” Even if it was considered a forebear of the alt-country movement, the material on Kelly Willis ranks alongside the best of Trisha Yearwood, Dwight Yoakam, or The Mavericks from its era.
Recommended Tracks: “Whatever Way the Wind Blows,” “Get Real,” “World Without You,” “Shadows of Love”
#1 – LW | #2 – JK | #6 – SG | #15 – BF | #18 – KJC
As noted above, the nineties had a fairly open playing field as far as potential to achieve mainstream success, especially compared to the current era. Although country music was so good in 1993 that most of the choices for this feature were legitimate mainstream hits, Temptation is one of the few that wasn’t.
Although Shelby Lynne’s deep soulful voice was perfectly paired with country swing and jazz style music, it just wasn’t what country radio was looking for. The album, however, is full of quality songs from start to finish, with not a misstep among them.
With its songs of heartache, loneliness and love, Temptation finds a way to sound both breezy and like it has something relevant to say. Its engaging melodies, timeless arrangements, and Lynne’s rich vocal contributions allows the twenty-two year old album to still sound fresh and timeless all these years later. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Temptation,” “Feeling Kind of Lonely Tonight,” “Little Unlucky at Love,” “I Need a Heart to Come Home to”
Little Love Letters
#1 – SG | #2 – BF | #3 – KJC | #5 – JK
Following up a masterpiece like 1990’s I Fell in Love would be a tough order for most any artist, but Carter knocked it out of the park like it wasn’t a challenge. With a bevy of excellent co-writers (Al Anderson, Radney Foster, Howie Epstein and Benmont Tench), Little Love Letters presented Carter at her rocking, sassy, charming best.
“Every Little Thing” and “Wastin’ Time with You” remain perfect examples of how uptempo songs can still have clever lyrics. Elsewhere, she channels the spirit of A.P. Carter with “Hallelujah in my Heart” and “Nowhere Train,” original songs that sound like they could have been sung by Mother Maybelle herself.
“Unbreakable Heart,” the one song Carter didn’t have a hand in writing, is a quiet, tender gem of a song. Carter was (and is) a vocal powerhouse, but her quiet moments are lovely, too. – SG
Recommended Tracks: “Every Little Thing,” “Unbreakable Heart,” “I Love You ‘Cause I Want to”
#3 – JK, LW | #4 – KJC, SG | #6 – BF
This Time boasts some of Yoakam’s best loved singles, including the biting “Ain’t that Lonely Yet”, the mournful “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” and the addictive “Fast As You.” What’s even more impressive, however, is that not many albums begin as startlingly as hearing Dwight Yoakam’s distinctive twang singing the line, “Inside the pocket of a clown” a cappella before a chorus of doo-op style singers join in.
This unique introduction perfectly sets up an album rife with mixed diverse styles while still managing to sound distinctly country. It’s a career album that any country artist would be proud to have in his discography, but it’s likely that only Dwight Yoakam could pull it off so successfully.
Recommended Tracks: “Pocket of a Clown,” “Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” “Fast as You,” “Lonesome Road”
#1 – KJC | #2 – LW | #4 – BF | #8 – JK | #9 – SG
Emmylou’s widely acclaimed, Grammy-winning 1995 release Wrecking Ball is often viewed as the album that re-established her as an artistic force to be reckoned with, but her musical rebirth truly began with 1993’s often overlooked Cowgirl’s Prayer. While it is still a conventional country record, it is thematically more ambitious and cohesive than anything she’d released since her 1985 concept album, The Ballad of Sally Rose.
Her legendary song sense returns with a vengeance, as she collects some of the best compositions to be found in the catalogs of such diverse writers as Leonard Cohen, Tony Arata, Jesse Winchester, Cindy Walker, and Lucinda Williams. Her skill as an interpreter finds new layers of nuance and heartache in both standards like “You Don’t Know Me” and Americana favorites like “Crescent City.” She even flawlessly executes a spoken word gospel number (“Jerusalem Tomorrow.”)
Perhaps most telling is that even among these wonderful songs by other writers, the album’s strongest moment comes from Emmylou’s own pen. “Prayer in Open D” serves as the album’s centerpiece, capturing all of the conflicting emotions that come with being a sinner desperate for salvation. When she wails that “there’s a valley of sorrow in my soul,” you can’t help but be brought down there with her. That she can have you believing by the end that there’s a light that awaits at the end of that valley only serves to validate her status as one of the genre’s finest interpretive singers of all time. – Kevin John Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Prayer in Open D,” “Jerusalem Tomorrow,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Thanks to You”