Part One: The NPR Top 50
11. Dolly Parton, Coat of Many Colors
For most of Dolly Parton‘s performing career, it’s been impossible to separate the sequins and spangles of her outsize image from her humble, hardscrabble mountain roots, so intertwined are the two in the persona she’s presented. Her 1971 album Coat of Many Colors was a formative moment both in the way it helped established her artistic self-sufficiency — no longer viewed simply as Porter Wagoner’s “girl singer,” she was making her mark on the country charts as a standalone singer-songwriter — and how it sketched the contours of her enduring narrative. —Jewly Hight
Kevin: Dolly Parton’s long run of studio albums for RCA were always stronger than those of her female peers because her songwriting was so prolific. Even though I suspect this album was largely chosen because of its title track, it still has more gems than could reasonably be expected from a country album of that era. Is it the best representation of her work from that period? No, that would be My Tennessee Mountain Home. But she didn’t put out an album that wasn’t chock full of great songs until the nadir of her crossover years a decade after Coat was released.
Jonathan: Jewly Hight has been one of my favorite music writers for years now, and I love that she highlighted how this album changed the perception of Parton’s role as Wagoner’s “girl singer”– and any argument regarding the genre’s latent sexism can use that as Exhibit A– into one of the most vital artists in country music’s storied history. I agree that, song for song, My Tennessee Mountain Home is the better album, but “Coat of Many Colors” casts such a long shadow that I can’t quibble too much with the selection of this album to represent Parton.
18. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels On a Gravel Road
In the late 1990s, alternative country was still a nascent scene with a palpable absence of both female voices and female songwriters in the genre. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road changed all of that. The album won the 1998 Grammy Award for Contemporary Folk, and also went gold — a first for Williams. Tracks like “Can’t Let Go” and “Right In Time” became modern classics and solidified Lucinda’s position as one of the best American songwriters of our time, thanks in part to her talents for capturing granular slices of life, delivering them with a poet’s eye and a craggy, world-weary voice. —Jessie Scott
Jonathan: If anything, I’d argue that Car Wheels is ranked too low at #18, and there’s a case to be made that Williams’ self-titled album is even stronger. But Car Wheels is truly a landmark album; Williams was already a Grammy winner before its release, but this was the album that broke her to the wider audience that her talent deserves. Songs like “Drunken Angel,” “Joy,” and “Jackson” may not be the standards they ought to be, but they’re songs that defined Americana music in its purest sense long before that became a catch-all term for everything from contemporary folk to too-country-for-country music.
Kevin: The mainstream female country artists of the nineties are sorely underrepresented on this list, but NPR did a bang up job at selecting folk and Americana albums to represent the time period. I can’t quibble with Car Wheels either, though I wouldn’t put up a fit if Lucinda Williams or Sweet Old World had also been included!
24. Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter
If Loretta Lynn is one of the queens of country music, Coal Miner’s Daughter is the jewel in her honky-tonk crown. By 1971, Lynn was already a well-established Nashville songwriter, had sung her way onto the Grand Ole Opry, and had a reputation for her boundary-pushing, feminist songs about infidelity and domestic abuse. While the album doesn’t betray those roots, its most beloved song is a sentimental autobiography. —Lauren Migaki
Kevin: A mixed bag of okay original songs and decent covers, Coal Miner’s Daughter is a brilliant title track accompanied by the standard filler of early seventies country albums. That era of Lynn’s work is best represented in compilations, which weren’t eligible for this list. Van Lear Rose, her epic comeback album from a few years back, should’ve been included instead of Daughter.
Jonathan: I agree whole-heartedly. I’ve read “hot” takes that Van Lear Rose is more of a Jack White album that Lynn happened to sing lead on, but that’s a gross exaggeration that denies Lynn’s agency as an artist. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is Lynn’s defining single, sure, but Van Lear Rose is her career-best album by a huge margin, with its rough-and-tumble production a perfect match for Lynn’s plainspoken but brilliant lyrics and lived-in performances.
39. Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator)
The result is a raw, emotionally stirring collection of songs that are at once deeply influenced by various southern music traditions, including string band gospel, country-blues and Appalachian old-time, while definitively contemporary and palatable to twenty-first century listeners. It’s been almost two decades since it’s been released, and hindsight makes it even more clear that Welch and Rawlings’s approach to roots songwriting on Time (The Revelator) has proven to be a guiding force in roots and Americana. —Kim Ruehl
Jonathan: Welch and Rawlings are powerful arguments against the “authenticity” fetish that plagues so much discussion about country music and who belongs under the cover of its tent. It’s hard for me to fathom how someone could listen to Time (The Revelator) and come away feeling like Welch doesn’t fundamentally get it. She’s been a consistent album-artist over the course of her career, and I think the NPR crew chose both her best album and ranked it about where they should have.
Kevin: The NPR list did a better job with this type of music than any other. You can tell that they get it, too, in a way that they don’t quite get it with pop and mainstream country music. Time looms large over Welch’s impressive catalog.
46. Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball
It was a courageous reinvention that gave Harris’s career a second wind and left the music world questioning what was thought of as roots music, which previously would have been fiddles, pedal steel guitar and maybe a banjo. But this album helped to opened up endless possibilities within Americana and country. —Cindy Howes
Kevin: With a career defined by the highest level of excellence, Emmylou Harris could be represented on this list with several entries. My personal favorites remain Cowgirl’s Prayer and Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, but Wrecking Ball captures her innate song sense while also pushing the sonic boundaries of her work like never before.
Jonathan: I get the selection of Wrecking Ball based upon its overall impact– along with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, it’s one of the albums that alt-country / Americana artists have been trying to re-record for the past two decades, and it definitely served as the album that rebooted the latter half of Harris’ career. My pick for the list, though, would have been her sterling Bluegrass collection, Roses in the Snow.