The Best Albums of the Decade, Part Four: #25-#1

The Best of the Decade, 2010-2019

Albums

#100-#76 | #75-#51 | #50-#26 | #25-#1

Singles

#100-#76 | #75-#51 | #50-#26 | #25-#1

#25

Angaleena Presley

Wrangled

Perhaps most associated with Miranda Lambert and The Pistol Annies, Angaleena Presley has released a couple of strong solo albums that display her own strength as an artist. While Presley’s vocals are less assuming than those of her Pistol Annies counterparts, she uses it to great affect. The album is rife with hooky melodies with serious  and thoughtful themes punctuated with a wry sense of humor that allows the listener to contemplate without feeling like they’re being preached to. What’s more, Wrangled contains one of the most chilling murder ballads of modern times. – Leeann Ward

 

#24

Reba McEntire

Stronger Than the Truth

For many country icons long past their commercial prime, the path to renewed artistic relevance has led in surprising directions: Johnny Cash’s collaborations with Rick Rubin, Dolly Parton’s forays into Bluegrass, Loretta Lynn’s pairing with Jack White, or Merle Haggard’s recordings on a punk record label. But Reba McEntire chose to double-down on her status as a mainstream country star for Stronger Than the Truth. There’s no muddled Dave Cobb production, no 90s alt-rock connections, no unfinished vocal tracks. It’s a polished, dead-center contemporary country record, and, song-for-exquisite-song, it’s simply the finest one of McEntire’s storied career. – Jonathan Keefe

 

#23

Sturgill Simpson

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

“Country” only in the sense that Sturgill Simpson’s Kentucky drawl is too thick for the album to be categorized 100% as something else, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth makes good on all of the promises of the alt-country movement that had otherwise gone unfulfilled for two decades. The breadth of Simpson’s influences is matched only by his ambition and his refusal to be pigeon-holed. The arrangements here recoil and rage in surprising ways, creating tension with narratives that are variously profound and even tender. Purists rankled upon its release and continue to keep it at arms’ length, but A Sailor’s Guide to Earth stands as an obvious classic that country is lucky to get to claim. – Jonathan Keefe

 

 

#22

Corb Lund

Cabin Fever

“Gettin’ Down on the Mountain” sounds like a generic bro-country party song, but it’s actually about surviving during the collapse of modern society. “Drink It Like You Mean It” sounds like a drinking song, but it’s not meant for light beer and mixed drinks – it’s liquor only. “Cows Around” sounds like an ode to the bovine, but… okay, that’s exactly what it is. Lund hits a lot of the same themes that you find in country songs – drinking, heartache, rural life – but there’s an edge to it that’s hard to find in country music today. Lund’s songs have an air of authenticity to them, whether he’s singing about German motorcycles or goth chicks or gravediggers. There are no dull moments in Cabin Fever, and there is one of the best song titles of the decade, with the ripped-from-the-headlines “Priceless Antique Pistol Shoots Startled Owner.” – Sam Gazdziak

 

#21

Sunny Sweeney

Trophy

Sunny Sweeney is a delightful force, which is still evident on her fourth album, Trophy.  Her personality shines on “Why People Change,, a jaunty rocker, the empathetic “Pills,” and the title song, which is a turn of phrase kiss off from the new wife to her husband’s ex-wife. But it’s not all fun and brashness, as there is also moving vulnerability on Trophy. “Grow Old With Me” is a sweet love song of unity and dedication, while her soulful cover of “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” conveys heartbreak as well as any song ever has. However, the gut punch of Trophy is “Bottle by My Bed,” a moving acknowledgement of her struggles with infertility, which is a very rare topic in country music. Or music in general, for that matter. Trophy is not bogged down by such seriousness, but rather strengthened by it – Leeann Ward

 

#20

The Highwomen

The Highwomen

In a time when we are lamenting the seemingly never ending trend of men dominating mainstream country music, four very talented women in their own right have joined together to make a statement about the power of sisterhood, and make some great music doing it.  To call them a super group almost seems dismissive of their powerful joint accomplishment, as the album adeptly highlights the emotions and strength of each woman’s individual experiences. The Highwomen is one of the undeniable highlights of country music’s past decade, where women have been trying so hard to claim even a modicum of equality in the genre. – Leeann Ward

 

#19

Kacey Musgraves

Same Trailer Different Park

Some artists simply arrive fully formed, and so it was with Kacey Musgraves.   Same Trailer Different Park establishes her sardonic wit and incisive insightfulness right out of the gate, with a remarkably strong collection of self-penned songs that are allowed to shine with sparse arrangements that don’t get in the way of the storyteller at the mic.  “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go ‘Round” were instant classics, and there are a bunch of hidden gems that radio never got a chance to not play, like the playful “Step Off” and the wearily resigned “It is What it is.”  – Kevin John Coyne

 

#18

Allison Moorer

Blood

An album of staggering maturity and insight, Allison Moorer’s fourth-or-fifth outright masterpiece, Blood, burrows deep into autobiography without losing broader resonance. Without shying away from her past’s horrific details, Moorer embraces the idea that no one should be judged entirely on their worst moment. But she also rejects the idea that victims of abuses are obligated to forgive their abusers because that obligation further robs them of their agency. Instead, Blood looks for grace in the space between those two points. She finds that grace often over the course of the album— and the accompanying memoir— and she comes to a deeper understanding of herself when she searches for grace that she can’t extend. Blood isn’t just a retelling of what Moorer has experienced in her life: It’s a declaration of what she’s decided her life will look like moving forward. – Jonathan Keefe

 

#17

Tanya Tucker

While I’m Livin’

Tanya Tucker’s critically lauded return is a masterclass in how to reintroduce a legendary artist through helping them rediscover their own strengths.  Tucker had a lot of hits during the nineties golden era, but while she was able to match her female peers on the radio charts, she wasn’t one of the women who were pushing the genre forward at that time.  While I’m Livin’ has more in common with her breakthrough Southern Gothic records from the early seventies, in terms of emotional heft.  But the wisdom of age and experience does wonders for Tucker’s vocal performances here, as she’s never done a finer job on record as an interpreter of song.  Here’s hoping this isn’t a one off, and Tucker sticks around for a while.  – Kevin John Coyne

 

#16

Kacey Musgraves

Golden Hour

Golden Hour is experimental in its sound, but where Kacey Musgraves really pushes the boundaries is in her willingness to be emotionally vulnerable on record.  “Happy and Sad” is the ultimate romantic song for those who are decidedly unromantic, and the gorgeous “Slow Burn” allows Musgraves to center her own personal narrative without using humor or irony to keep deep feelings at a distance.  “Rainbow” is the most beautiful song that radio sort of played last year, and “Lonely Weekend” or “Oh, What a World” could still brighten up radio playlists today.  Seems like there should be a little room on the airwaves for the genre’s most acclaimed female vocalist of the day, right? – Kevin John Coyne

 

#15

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Leaving Eden

Many of the members of the CCD – Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Leyla McCalla – have made brilliant music this decade as solo artists or in various collaborations. Leaving Eden is a gorgeous blend of all the members’ talents, whether it be on minstrel instrumentals or contemporary ballads. In one sense, they’re acting as preservationists by keeping these nearly forgotten tunes in circulation. But this isn’t a grainy field tape or a note-for-note re-recording. These old songs are given a new lease on life, with wild enthusiasm, Giddens’ powerful vocals and contemporary arrangements. “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?’ include a beat boxer, and it fits the song perfectly. Modern-day tunes like the title track or “Country Girl” are lovely and contemporary but don’t feel out of place. Leaving Eden, along with the rest of the CCD’s catalog for that matter, is an important music history lesson. It’s also excellent music and a fun listening experience. – Sam Gazdziak

 

#14

Sturgill Simpson

Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

The most common defense for the unremarkable singles by interchangeable post-Bros clogging up country radio playlists is that country music must “evolve” in order to stay relevant. It’s an argument ignorant of basic principles of biology, first and foremost, and it utterly fails to provide a rationale for why it’s somehow a step forward on the evolutionary ladder for country radio to sound like outtakes from Maroon 5’s fourth album. For what it’s worth, I actually believe that country music— all popular music, even— must evolve, and Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is the past decade’s finest example of what that process can and should sound like. Every track is steeped in country genre idioms, but it’s a step forward from Simpson’s High Top Mountain in that it could never be mistaken for mere mimicry. Simpson’s country bona fides aren’t in question, so he incorporates other influences, particularly vintage R&B and soul, with purpose and clarity. In contrast, within a year of this album’s release, Zac Brown Band and Lady Antebellum were suddenly dropping singles with prominent brass sections and clearly had no idea why they were doing so. On Metamodern Sounds, Simpson repays his deep investment in country music by refusing to let country music stagnate or to transmogrify into badly outdated imitations of top 40 fodder. – Jonathan Keefe

 

#13

Iris DeMent

Sing the Delta

There’s a line in Iris DeMent’s Sing the Delta that has stuck with me for nearly eight years now, and it’s one that DeMent, in the most quintessential Iris DeMent kind of way, tucks unassumingly into a song about three-quarters of the way through the album without drawing any special attention to it. “When it all goes dark and I start losing vision… I gotta go back to telling my truth.” It’s a mission statement not only for DeMent and for Sing the Delta but, frankly, for all country music of real, lasting value. Few songwriters in any genre have ever told their truths with the plainspoken candor and unflinching realism of DeMent, and I say without hyperbole that Sing the Delta is the best-written album of her career. The simplicity and bluntness of her language never undercuts the complexity of her ideas, which are drawn from relationships with her close-knit family and her unease with some tenets of her religious upbringing. Sing the Delta is an album of revelatory country songs cast as Southern Gospel hymns; DeMent plays that ol’ church piano throughout, and her vocal performances range from intimate confessionals to pew-jumping testimonials. DeMent knows that telling her truth is what illuminates a world that seems darker with every passing day. – Jonathan Keefe

 

#12

Tami Neilson

SASSAFRASS!

Without pretense, Tami Neilson tackles women’s equality head on with the aptly titled SASSAFRASS!  With a rockabilly production, earworm melodies, and a soulful voice that rivals anyone in the business, Neilson tackles the lose-lose (“Stay Out of My Business”) and double standards (“Devil in A Dress”) with which women are faced. “Bananas” sardonically calls for equal pay and treatment in the workplace, while “Smoking Gun” sounds as if it was written about  the explicit predatory behavior of Harvey Weinstein, even though the song existed before his fall from power, which demonstrates just how widespread such behavior is. Neilson is not afraid to explore the inequality that women face, and this album is both a tribute to their resilience and a call for recognizing and rectifying the injustices. – Leeann Ward

 

#11

Shovels and Rope

O’ Be Joyful

Years before Billie Eilish and her brother, Finias, recorded Billie’s hit album in Finias’ bedroom, the married couple that make up Shovels and Rope recorded their crisp sounding album in their garage and in
their touring van, which one would never guess by its pristine sound quality. O’ Be Joyful is as joyful and delightful as its title suggests. Vibrant songs like “Birmingham,”, “Hail Hail,” and the title track are toe tappers that force a smile from the listener, while songs like “Lay Low and “Carnival” slow things down with their soothing melodies.  O’ Be Joyful is the exuberant album that this decade needed. – Leeann Ward

 

#10

Dierks Bentley

Up On the Ridge

Bentley, more so than any other male singer in country music today, knows how to have it both ways. He scores plenty of radio hits, and most of them are good, quality tunes. But when he wants to focus on artistic intent more than #1 hits, he can nail a work of sonic art like Up on the Ridge. It’s a delightful mix of coal-mining ballads, bluegrass, hardcore country and the amazing combination of Del McCoury covering U2. There’s almost nothing that’s by the book or expected on this album, but it doesn’t stray so far from Bentley’s more mainstream sound that it’s unrecognizable. The covers are excellent, but Bentley adds some new songs like the title track or “Draw Me a Map” that stand up to well to songs written by the likes of Dylan, Kristofferson and Buddy Miller. – Sam Gazdziak

 

#9

Jason Isbell

Something More Than Free

Jason Isbell followed his landmark Southeastern set with a more intimate and optimistic collection.  “24 Frames” rocks out while spouting its wisdom, and would’ve been a great addition to country radio playlists. (Still could be, if a Stapleton or an Urban cover it.)  But the quietest moments are the most powerful here, as we get brief glimpses into the lives of a vacationing couple that vows to never lose its spark (“Flagship”), an old flame trying to reconcile the woman he knew with who she is today (“The Life You Chose”), and a nostalgic musician expressing gratitude “To a Band That I Loved.”   Something More Than Free won Isbell his first two Grammy Awards, yet it still feels like something of an undiscovered treasure.  – Kevin John Coyne

 

#8

Kasey Chambers

Dragonfly

When Kasey Chambers returned from her nodule surgery, her voice was newly strengthened. On Dragonfly, the baby voice that was once her signature has turned into something more mature and soulful, which is especially showcased on the knockout “Ain’t Not Little Girl.”  Dragonfly is an ambitious, twenty track album that cohesively mixes Appalachian mountain music, country gospel, talking blues, and radio-friendly pop without sounding cluttered. The entire album is captivating, without a single throwaway track. – Leeann Ward

 

#7

Miranda Lambert

Platinum

Hindsight being 20/20 and all, it’s easy to see that Platinum was Miranda Lambert’s “pre-divorce” album: There’s a palpable unhappiness to “Girls,” “Priscilla,” “Bathroom Sink,” and “Two Rings Shy,” and the whole point of the “backyard swagger” of “Little Red Wagon” and “Platinum” is that the swagger is a projection. That the album also happens to be the catchiest and best and most adventurously produced record of Lambert’s career—sorry, not sorry, Wildcard apologists, but this one is her pop-country masterpiece— only elevates it further. Lambert had proven with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Revolution that she has a better grasp of how to create a loaded public persona than any of her contemporaries, but Platinum found her playing dress-up with equal parts purpose and glee. Still, there’s the dark undercurrent of why Lambert, five albums into her career and a bona fide A-lister, would choose to trade in this kind of artifice. That tension is what makes Platinum, though it has been underestimated and misunderstood in the larger context of Lambert’s career, one of the most compelling albums in a catalogue that, by my count, boasts four solo and two group albums that belong in country music’s canon. – Jonathan Keefe

 

#6

Rhiannon Giddens

Freedom Highway

Freedom Highway is a landmark album that proudly claims the music of the American South as the birthright of those who were brought to this country against their will, and brought their music along with them. Rhiannon Giddens is a uniquely gifted storyteller, able to draw influence from slavery era newspaper ads (“At the Purchaser’s Option”) and current headlines (“Better Get it Right the First Time”) with equal power.  One of the album’s most powerful tracks, “Julie,” confronts the corrupted love that a plantation mistress expresses for the woman in her captivity with the harsh truth of the irreparable harm that has been done to her.  But there are joyous moments, too, like the euphoric “Hey Bébé” and the soaring “We Can Fly,” which only make richer the tapestry of stories given life by the artist’s peerless voice. – Kevin John Coyne

#5

Brandy Clark

12 Stories

Before releasing her debut album, 12 Stories, Brandy Clark had already proven herself to be a respected songwriter with cuts by LeAnn Rimes, The Band Perry, Miranda Lambert, and Reba McEntire.  Therefore, it is no surprise that the album is a showcase of her skilled songwriting about complex but still relatable characters.  Clark’s clear and soothing voice and the album’s strong but unassuming production are in service of the stories that these songs so expertly tell. One of the biggest disappointments in the 2010s for country music is that 12 Stories was not a bigger commercial success. It is regretful that so many people have missed out on hearing this album, which surely deserved a wider audience. – Leeann Ward

 

#4

Pistol Annies

Interstate Gospel

The best and I’d argue truest gospel music wrestles with hard questions of faith and why that faith is important despite the ongoing struggle; the reason so much of the CCM genre is utterly vapid is its unquestioning sense of certainty and easy comfort. The Pistol Annies’ third and finest album, Interstate Gospel, isn’t a religious album, but it is certainly a gospel record. Over the course of this extraordinary song cycle, the Annies give voice to characters who are looking for answers. Their lives are filled with hardships and doomed relationships (“Five Acres of Turnips,” “When I Was His Wife,” “Got My Name Changed Back”) and transience (“Sugar Daddy,” “Leavers Lullaby”) that raise deep questions about why we feel connected to hometowns by birthright or by choice and why we remain loyal to those who have wronged us. They sing of choices tinged with regret (“Milkman”) and bitterness (“Commissary”) and, even at their most confident, never settle fully into the belief that their choices were the correct ones. Still, they recognize these struggles as sources of the sublime: Whatever paths they trace, there’s meaning and opportunity for growth in the journey, and both god and God in the connections they’ve made. – Jonathan Keefe

 

#3

Miranda Lambert

The Weight of These Wings

All too often, a double album amounts to one really good album’s worth of songs, along with a lot of filler. The Weight of These Wings is one of the rare instances where there is a high degree of quality from song one to song twenty-four. Credit goes to Lambert and her co-writers for assembling such a strong batch of songs that highlights both Lambert’s badass, snarky side as well as her quiet vulnerability. If it takes two albums to contain both the playful “We Should Be Friends” and the solemn and beautiful “Tin Man,” then so be it. Lambert noticeably drifted far from modern country into distorted, gritty rock or Americana, and while it may have cost her some radio play (“Vice” was the only song to crack the Top Ten), Weight was an artistic triumph. Considering that country radio has decided that women don’t belong in country music, Lambert may as well continue to follow her own muse. – Sam Gazdziak

 

#2

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

The Nashville Sound

To hear country radio program developers tell the tale, the sound of Nashville circa 2018 consisted of an immaculately groomed white frat-bro half-singing over the one exact snap track Music Row producers could figure out how to program. Jason Isbell, on the heels of two critically hailed masterpieces, teamed back up with his ace band, The 400 Unit, to offer a spirited rebuttal built around a spirited rallying cry: “There can’t be more of them than us / There can’t be more.”

The political undercurrent of that message is laid plain by the remainder of “Hope the High Road” and the blistering “White Man’s World” and by Isbell’s social media presence, generally. But The Nashville Sound isn’t the Steve Earle-type political screed Isbell’s detractors would like for it to be: Instead, it’s an album about creating spaces for people to find their own voices. Country music, at its best, has always done that, but it hasn’t been at its best very often in the last decade. Isbell emerged by the end of the 2010s as one of a small handful of artists with the name recognition, built upon the quality of their output, to push back against the status quo in Nashville. He hasn’t broken fully into the mainstream the way Chris Stapleton and, to a lesser extent, Brandi Carlilie have, but The Nashville Sound still rallied enough support to snag an Album Of The Year nomination from the CMAs. That matters.

The Nashville Sound doesn’t have to be— and shouldn’t be— just one thing. Country music is richer when it makes room for beautifully written meditations on love and mortality like “If We Were Vampires” or paeans to hope and optimism like “Someone to Love.” Country music and its audience isn’t nearly so homogenous as radio PDs would like to believe: There are those of us who find their own stories reflected more in “Last Of My Kind” or “Cumberland Gap” than in Morgan Wallen’s “The Way I Talk” or Riley Green’s “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” or Florida Georgia Line’s “Dirt” or any of the countless other radio hits from the last decade that are just lists of rote lifestyle signifiers that reinforce sameness and exclusion… and that exclusion is exponentially more harsh and impenetrable for anyone who isn’t a white man. The Nashville Sound is Isbell’s attempt at a much-needed course correction. – Jonathan Keefe

 

#1

Jason Isbell

Southeastern

Jason Isbell had been a steady force on the Americana scene for years, showing great promise with the Drive-By Truckers and his own albums with his backing band, the 400 Unit.  But the twin life changes of marriage and sobriety brought his talents into sharper focus, and with 2013’s Southeastern, he newly emerged with Southeastern, our pick for the strongest album of the decade.

Isbell spends some times exploring his demons, revisiting the fear of dying at a “Super 8” motel and recounting poor choices made on “Different Days.”  The stark murder ballad “Live Oak” is the album’s centerpiece, and its tale of a man severing himself from “the man I used to be”  doubles as a powerful allegory for what addiction does to your self-identity.

But most of Southeastern is about reaching for redemption and mercifully finding it.  The man of “Traveling Alone” shares his tale of loneliness in heartbreaking detail, but all in service of asking the woman he loves to join him on his journey.  “Cover Me Up” is all about getting so lost in a lover that the world outside no longer exists and the past no longer matters.  And then there’s “Elephant,” the finest song on the album, in which a man is able to right his past wrongs through his expression of unconditional love in the most tragic of circumstances.

As our top ten so clearly reflects, Jason Isbell firmly established himself as the most significant artist of the past decade that country and Americana can claim as their own.   All of his works this decade are essential, but Southeastern is the very best. – Kevin John Coyne

 

The Best of the Decade, 2010-2019

Albums

#100-#76 | #75-#51 | #50-#26 | #25-#1

Singles

#100-#76 | #75-#51 | #50-#26 | #25-#1

8 Comments

  1. I saw Brandy Clark at Summerfest in Milwaukee last year. Had to wait out a severe thunderstorm warning on the grounds which caused delays and that’s most likely why not many people stayed for her abbreviated set. I was so disappointed that they didn’t stay because it really was a wonderful set.

  2. Wow! What a great overall list of the decade’s 100 best country albums. I second many of the assessments for the top ten especially (love seeing the acclaim for Pistol Annies’ Interstate Gospel, the two incredible Lambert albums, Bentley’s best record, and Isbell’s stunning Southeastern). This series has given me reason to revisit some of my own personal favorite albums for the last several years, as well, including some not mentioned on any of the sectioned lists. (I’ve been happily reacquainting myself with Nora Jane Struthers and Kellie Pickler over the last few days.) Thanks for the as-always thoughtful and passionate writing!

  3. Totally agree with the comments regarding Tanya Tucker and Reba McEntire’s albums, they’ve both proved in my opinion that just because you’re over 40 that great singers can still make great music. I’m disappointed that these albums weren’t nominated for the ACM’S.

  4. Well done. I really like this group of 25. I wasn’t a real fan of the 26 to 50 group but any disagreements here are fairly minor. I agree on Southeastern as #1 of the decade. For me, it has aged well and I expect I’ll be listening to it regularly until I die.

    I expected Freedom Highway somewhere in the Top 25 but happy to see it so high. A wonderful album. I’m also a big fan of Kacey Chambers so I love your Dragonfly placement. I would have probably had the Lambert selections down a little but minor quibbles.

    Nice list.

  5. I would have had 12 Stories #1 and Big Day much higher but at least Brandy got a lot of richly deserved respect from the writers at CU. Leeann said “One of the biggest disappointments in the 2010s for country music is that 12 Stories was not a bigger commercial success.” Do any of you think it’s the lesbian issue – which shouldn’t be an issue at all. Maybe that’s the reason the great Cheryl Wheeler never had any commercial success that i’m aware of. Right now I’m listening to Brandy’s new album, “Your Life is a Record”. Sounds great. CU should review it.

  6. This was a awesome list. The women made arguably the best country music of the entire decade. Albums I felt could of made the list:

    Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class
    Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose
    Brandi Carlile – By the Way, I Forgive You
    Chely Wright – Lifted Off the Ground
    Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof
    LeAnn Rimes – Lady And Gentleman
    Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis – Dos Divas
    Pistol Annies – Annie Up
    Sunny Sweeney – Concrete
    Tami Neilson – Dynamite!
    Taylor Swift – 1989 and Speak Now

  7. Thank you for this list. I have discovered many amazing albums over the last several years through your year end best albums lists and always look forward to seeing them. I do find it inexplicable that Ashley Monroe’s excellent album Like A Rose was not only not high on this list but not on the list at all. It also seems strange that Kellie Pickler’s 100 Proof wasn’t on the list.

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