Part Four: NPR #101-#150
110. Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Recorded with frisky production at a moment when women were relegated to the margins of a seemingly homogenized, male-dominated country format, Lambert’s riffs on womanly wisdom were both proudly countrified and thoroughly contemporary. She summoned confessional vulnerability, hard rock theatricality, gossipy candor and knowing sentimentality in songs about everything from the bizarre, transformative effects of celebrity to the perverse attraction of nostalgia and the simultaneous brutality and utility of beauty regimens. She not only made one of the most sophisticated, and fun, gestures of gender solidarity in the history of country music, but on Platinum, she finally displayed her real range. —Jewly Hight
Kevin: If I had to include only one Lambert album, I’d also go with Platinum. But a strong case could also be made for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and perhaps, with time, The Weight of These Wings.
Jonathan: Lambert’s an interesting case for a list like this. On one hand, I think Platinum absolutely is one of the best 150 albums by women and is ranked about where it should be… But it’s also only, depending on the day, her second, third, or fourth-best album. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an outright masterpiece, as dense and smart an album as anything by the likes of Beyoncé, PJ Harvey, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, or Kate Bush. It’s an album about how people construct their identities– about how, if we’re all the protagonists of our own narratives, we engage with the world and choose which details to share– and it’s a whip-smart reaction to country music’s problematic gender politics. It should be in the top 20, at the very least. And then there’s Revolution and The Weight of These Wings…
114. Reba McEntire, Rumor Has It
Her chameleon-like ability to take on any character and make it her own is why Rumor Has It stands apart in McEntire’s huge discography. While the songs run on familiar themes — love, loss, infidelity — each one is an ode to moving on, discovering yourself, and figuring out how to live the life you want to live. —Elena See (Folk Alley/MPR)
Jonathan: I love that they included Reba. She’s so often overlooked and, frankly, disrespected when it comes to her influence and the quality of her work. But no way should they have chosen anything but For My Broken Heart.
Kevin: For me, For My Broken Heart is in contention for the best country album ever released, so I echo Jonathan’s choice. I’d rank Rumor Has It as second, so I won’t quibble with this choice. For those discovering Reba through this feature, pick up these albums after Rumor and Broken Heart: My Kind of Country, What if it’s You, and Love Somebody. For a good McEntire compilation, you can’t top 50 Greatest Hits, which covers her MCA years.
132. Shelby Lynne, I Am Shelby Lynne
For the first time, Lynne wrote or co-wrote her entire album, weaving earthy vernacular and masterful manipulation of tone into a barbed, powerfully sensual distillation of desire and disappointment. She loosened her phrasing and deployed a variety of vocal attacks — from toughened and tart to supple and insinuating — even supplying her own headstrong, soul-influenced background vocals, as if to affirm the singularity of the voice she’d cultivated. And she wasn’t wrong. As both song interpreter and songwriter, she had a revelatory angle on self-regulated, southern-accented expression. —Jewly Hight
Kevin: I Am Shelby Lynne is a landmark album in her career, but I will always remain partial to Restless and Temptation. Of those two forgotten gems, the latter is the stronger one.
Jonathan: 100% agree. I’ve never been able to decide if Shelby Lynne, Kelly Willis, Kim Richey, or Mandy Barnett was mainstream country’s biggest WTF-is-wrong-with-you “miss” of the 90s. I love both of Lynne’s Western Swing-inflected albums, and I’m with you that Temptation is the better of the two.
142. Iris DeMent, My Life
My Life is the antithesis of a party album, though, given that it’s filled with introspective songs and relatively sparse arrangements. But whether she’s singing about a failing relationship (“You’ve Done Nothing Wrong”), the passing of a parent (“No Time To Cry”) or emotional struggles (“Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Every Day”), DeMent’s moving album inspires listeners to lean in and listen close to every word. —Linda Fahey
Jonathan: My initial reaction was that My Life was a surprising choice for the inimitable DeMent, but I don’t know if I’m still as puzzled by it after some reflection. It’s such an intimate collection of songs– and Iris was still enunciating her consonants when she made this album, so it’s a bit more accessible than some of her later work– that I think it’s a fine choice. But Sing the Delta has my heart; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of album that showcases everything that make DeMent such a monumental artist.
Kevin: My favorite DeMent songs are on My Life, but I agree that Sing the Delta is the best album of her career.
146. Patty Griffin, Flaming Red
This is the only album in Griffin’s catalog where her preternatural vocal control approaches an edge, opening up into exhilarating hollers and cracking into an unfiltered rock and roll scream. While many artists use an “unplugged” approach to get to the heart of their sound, at this early point in her lengthy and varied career, Griffin plugged in to find hers. —Katie Presley
Jonathan: I adore Griffin, and I like that Katie Presley honed in on her voice, which is so often overshadowed by her songwriting. The rawness of Living With Ghosts makes it one of the strongest debut albums in popular music, but Children Running Through is revelatory, the album on which Griffin truly found her voice as an artist. It’s an album that draws equally from country, folk, and gospel, and it’s her most powerful collection of songs.
Kevin: Children Running Through is absolutely killer, and I would also recommend checking out The Impossible Dream. But for me, the first two minutes of Living With Ghosts made me an instant Patty Griffin fan, and the rawness of that record keeps me revisiting it more than anything else she’s released, great as her work has been.