100 Greatest Contemporary Country Albums: Introduction

Something about these CMT lists just gets my juices flowing. This weekend, the cable network presented a barely publicized entry into their countdown series: 40 Greatest Albums. This one was apparently worth so little fanfare, it didn’t even warrant a host, but it was one of their most informative and entertaining lists to date.

Now, readers of this site will know that my area love of country music developed in the early nineties. Thanks to New Country magazine and a willingness to spend most of my disposable income on music, I have a pretty wide knowledge of all eras of country music, but I remain most interested and well-versed in the contemporary country era that was ushered in with the Class of 1989. I’ve already compiled a list of the 400 best singles of that time period, which can be read in the features section. I am now inspired to present the companion list: the 100 Greatest Contemporary Country Albums:1989-2006.

A few points that readers should be aware of:

1. Some artists have been such proficient album-makers that they could dominate this list to the extent that there’d be little room for others, even with a hundred slots open. Hence, I’ve limited the number of albums an artist can have on the list to three. For artists who have been adventurous over the last seventeen years, I’ve attempted to represent the diverse elements of their artistry with my selections.

2. Women dominate this list, and I make no apologies for it. My personal tastes lean towards female singers anyway, but I believe they simply made better music during this time period, particularly in the nineties, when the men were a sea of interchangeable hat acts.

3. Chart success is meaningless to me, as are the quality of the singles on each album. The albums on this list are here because they succeed as a cohesive piece of art. Some major country artists barely make a dent on this list, and some aren’t on here at all. That’s not a reflection of their talent or musical importance; they just make fantastic singles and their albums are mostly filler. Similarly, there are some artists and albums on this list that didn’t dent the singles list, which had an additional 300 positions. Sometimes songs don’t work as well outside the context of the album, or the label just picked the wrong songs to send to radio.

4. Hindsight is 20/20, and I know that I tend to like an album most the first year of release. With that in mind, albums released recently are lower on the list than I’d like them to be, just to allow for the fact that time may temper my opinions. The handful of 2006 albums on this list that would be higher had I not moved them down out of caution. If it’s been out more than a year, I’m comfortable ranking it as high as I feel it should be.

5. Personal taste is always subjective, so I’m sure there will be disagreement with some of my choices. If you think the list should look differently, feel free to write your own feature or alternate list; I’ll be happy to post it. I’m sure there are albums I would put on this list, but I haven’t heard them. Suggestions are always welcome.

6. Each album will feature the artist, title and year of release. If the album has been certified gold, platinum or multi-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, that information is included after the album write-up, along with suggested tracks to download.

7. Finally, no compilations are eligible for this list. CMT seemed to have the same policy, though they made the mistake of including Now That I Found You by Alison Krauss, which was a hits collection. Interestingly enough, the CMA made the same mistake in 1995, nominating it for Album of the Year initially; when the mistake was realized, it was removed from the ballot and replaced by the sixth-highest vote-getter, When Fallen Angels Fly, by Patty Loveless. Amazingly, and deservedly, that album went on to win.


  1. It was not unusual during the era of 78 RPM records for artists to issue 10-12 singles per year. When LPs first were issued during the mid 1950s, many of the initial albums were compilations of singles. Albums issued during the 1950s should not be held to the “no compilations” standard.

    As for concept albums, while concept albums have always existed in Country Music, they were (and are) fairly rare. For anyone who thinks Johnny Cash invented the concept album (or Willie Nelson) give a listen to Jean Shepard’s 1956 Album SONGS OF A LOVE AFFAIR or Merle Travis’ FOLK SONGS OF THE HILLS featuring his compositions “Sixteen Tons”, “I Am A Pilgrim” and “Dark As A Dungeon” (this was issued in several formats before 1956)

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