100 Greatest Contemporary Country Albums: #30-#21

Lead On
George Strait


While a parade of nineties stars grabbed the headlines around him, Strait was quietly making fantastic music. Lead On was one of the strongest studio albums of his career, and produced four big chart hits; any one of the remaining six tracks could have found success at radio, as well. Strait would follow this up with a box set, and then his next two studio albums would win Album of the Year at the CMA’s. This album is better than those two award-winning sets.

RIAA: 2x Platinum

Download This: “Lead On”, “I Met a Friend of Yours Today”, “Adalida”

I Hope You Dance
Lee Ann Womack


There’s no getting around the fact that this album sold triple-platinum for one reason, and one reason only: the title track. Consumers who chose the album over the single were in for quite a treat, however, as the title cut is one of the weakest songs on the album. Womack had shown promise on her first two albums, but she comes fully into her own here, establishing herself as one of the finest selectors of melancholy material. With writing contributions ranging from Bruce Robison to Bobbie Cryner, and carefully chosen covers of songs originally recorded by Rodney Crowell, Joe Diffie and Don Williams, Womack puts together an album that is consistently good from start to finish.

RIAA: 3x Platinum

Download This: “Lonely Too”, “I Know Why The River Runs”, “Lord, I Hope This Day is Good”

No Fences
Garth Brooks


No Fences ranked as the top-selling country album in history for almost a decade, and it’s easy to hear why. Brooks turned in a more aggressive sound on his sophomore set, and turned what was a pedestrian honky-tonker when recorded by Mark Chesnutt, into an anthem when he covered “Friends in Low Places.” It wasn’t the only leftover that Brooks turned into a signature song. Tanya Tucker had first recorded “The Thunder Rolls”, with the infamous third verse intact, but Brooks’ menacing take is indispensable. Best of all is “Unanswered Prayers”, a poignant tale of a high-school reunion and how God “knows what He’s doing after all.”

RIAA: 16x Platinum

Download This: “The Thunder Rolls”, “Friends In Low Places”, “Unanswered Prayers”

Under the Covers
Dwight Yoakam


Yoakam’s self-written material is almost exclusively one song after another about getting his heart broken. So it was quite a surprise when he released a covers album that featured positive love songs mixed in with heartbreak numbers of artists he admired. But this album soars because of the startlingly original arrangements Yoakam brought to the material. “Tired of Waiting For You” becomes a big-band number, “Train in Vain” is given a bluegrass arrangement, “Wichita Lineman” becomes an up-tempo rocker. It’s the most restlessly creative album in Yoakam’s catalog.

Download This: “Train in Vain”, “Things We Said Today”, “Wichita Lineman”

Come On Over
Shania Twain


The biggest-selling album by a female artist of all-time. The biggest-selling country album of all-time. Eleven hit singles out of the sixteen tracks on the album. Those are the statistics, but they make it easy to overlook the artistic accomplishment of this record. Twain, with producer “Mutt” Lange, completely reinvented their sound, creating an album that didn’t even have a passing resemblance to its smash predecessor, The Woman in Me. Almost relentlessly up-tempo and not featuring one sad song in the bunch, Twain established herself as positive force of energy that charmed the hell out of America, and then the world.

RIAA: 20x Platinum

Download This: “You’ve Got a Way”, “I’m Holdin’ On To Love (To Save My Life)”, “Whatever You Do! Don’t!”

Lonely Runs Both Ways
Alison Krauss & Union Station


Since O Brother and New Favorite combined to make Krauss & Union Station household names without any significant radio airplay support, they’ve been consistently popular at retail, selling gold each time out. Their latest studio album, Lonely Runs Both Ways, won the Grammy for Best Country Album, which is no surprise. It’s the most consistent and varied record they’ve released yet. Krauss has evolved into something of a torch singer, and Dan Tyminiski, duly lauded for his lead vocal on “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, has seen his stock rise since, and is given several lead vocal turns. His traditional style provides balance to the haunting acoustic pop that Krauss seems to favor these days.

RIAA: Gold

Download This: “Doesn’t Have To Be This Way”, “Gravity”, “A Living Prayer”

American Recordings
Johnny Cash


Much of this album was recorded in Cash’s living room, with just the legend and his guitar. The stark simplicity of the album, his first collaboration with Rick Rubin, marked a return to Cash’s roots in many ways. It was also notable for being the darkest thing Cash had recorded in a generation. The tortured tales of Vietnam vets (“Drive On”), murderous lovers (“Delia’s Gone”) and even the emotionally cold (“The Man Who Couldn’t Cry”) piled on the sadness in between layers of black humor. It didn’t have the breakout hit that would lead American IV to platinum, but it’s one of the most important records Cash ever made.

Download This: “Drive On”, “Why Me Lord”, “Delia’s Gone”

Right Out of Nowhere
Kathy Mattea


Mattea’s most recent album is also her best, a mature and thoughtful set that deals with the big stuff: mortality (“Live It”), war (“Gimme Shelter”) and the meaning of life (“Give It Away”, “Right Outta Nowhere”.) There’s nothing cloyingly sentimental or shallow and silly here. Just one great song after another about the realities and complexities of human life. In short, music for adults.

Download This: “Loving You, Letting You Go”, “Gimme Shelter”, “Give It Away”

I Fell In Love
Carlene Carter


Talk about your legacies. Daughter of June Carter & Carl Smith, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash and stepsister of Rosanne Cash, few artists had to emerge from as many shadows as Carlene Carter did. While she’d been putting out records since the mid-70’s, she still had experienced very little success. When she surfaced on Warner Bros. in 1990, she finally broke through, with an album that paid homage to her heritage while still moving country music progressively forward. The breathtaking creativity on I Fell In Love makes contemporary rockers like the title track and “Come On Back” co-exist with covers of her father’s “You Are the One” and the Carter Family’s “My Dixie Darlin'”, and it actually sounds like they belong together. Despite some excellent covers, Carter best honors her family through her own pen. “Me and the Wildwood Rose” tells the story of growing up as a Carter through her own eyes, and recounts the death of Mother Maybelle, when the family gathered at the grave and “stood in a circle and sang.”

Download This: “Come On Back”, “Me and the Wildwood Rose”, “You Are the One”

Kim Richey


The bright and jangly guitars were uplifting themselves, but it was Kim Richey’s persistent optimism and self-deprecating sense of humor that made her first two albums soar. With Rise, the tough breaks and self-deprecation are still there, but it’s as if she’s been drained of all hope for the future, making for a dreary record that packs a powerful punch. It’s as if storm clouds have gathered over the songs, with Richey telling one tale after another of love that has gone wrong and life choices that haven’t been wise. Recorded in London, there’s a use of Eastern rhythms and other unconventional musical touches that create an evocative tone throughout the record. While her first two albums have been pillaged by female country singers looking for great material, it’s reasonable to expect that most of Rise will be left alone. This is Richey’s journey – personal, dark and all uphill – and it’s feels almost voyeuristic to be listening in to her internal monologues.

Download This: “No Judges”, “A Place Called Home”, “Without You”


  1. I’m not sure why Carlene Carter didn’t sustain. She was a tremendous live performer and an excellent singer .

    I know about the later drug problems , but she had already faded away prior to that. Part of the problem was that already 35 years old by the time she emerged as a country star, ancient for a woman in this age of “handsome hunks and sweet young things” . She recorded “Unbreakable Heart” several years before Jessica Andrews, and made a far superior recording of the song. It only got to #51 for Carlene. I have this CD much higher on my perssonal list

  2. On Carlene Carter: First, in case you hadn’t heard, she has a new album coming out in a couple months, her first in a decade or so.

    Second, I wouldn’t dismiss the drug problems as coming after the fadeout. At a point when she could have been a productive, creative artist, she was wrestling demons, big time. Thus, the follow up to “I Fell in Love” took too long, and she wasn’t necessarily as effective as she could have been at promoting it.

    That said, I remember being surprised when “I Fell in Love” became a hit. Carlene had been operating on the fringe of rock/country for 15 years without chart success. Why this one and not, say, the great “Musical Shapes” album?

    My theory: There was a time in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when TNN had a lot of airtime to fill and was giving natonal primetime exposure to many different artists. Suddenly, you had people like Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Chris Hillman (via Desert Rose Band), Rodney Crowell, etc., bubbling up after years of toiling in semi-obscurity. Heck, maybe it wasn’t TNN’s doing, but whatever, tastes seemed to change about the same time that the network started dedicating more of its schedule to line dancing and Dukes of Hazard reruns. Coincidence or not, many high-quality artists were relegated to “used to be a chart-topper” status.

    Now, can I spew my ignorance about George Strait? I’ve never “gotten” his amazing and lnog-lasting popularity. His recordings all sound the same to me. I’ve heard “Lead On,” “Blue Clear Sky” and a couple others, and I honestly can’t tell the difference between them. 10-12 3:00 songs, done at about the same tempo, all about the same things. His voice is lovely, but so are the voices of lots of other less successful singers. Can someone share their insight into what makes George Strait such an iconic figure? (And, yes, I do concede that at this point he has surpassed almost all of his peers and many legendary figures in country music as far as success and influence.)

  3. I, too, am astounded at the enduring success of George Strait. I think much of it has to do with his amazing ability to select good songs and deliver good performances. Virtually every George Straight single I would grade somewhere between a B- and an A- . There are never any outright clinkers, they always “sound country” and if you like songs that “sound country”, his are often the only songs getting any radio airplay.

    He has done a remarkable job of career management. By doing limited touring, eshewing interviews, and keeping TV appearences down to award shows and very little else, he has created a mystique about him, that while not Garbo-lile, is different than any other major star. Since he doesn’t write his own material he has been very selective. He also is loyal to his songwriters, especially those that would pitch him their best material when he was a nobody . Dean Dillon has received 45 cuts by Strait and there are other writers who go first to Strait when pitching their top grade material

    George Strait is one month younger than I am (54) and he is beginning his look his age. My prediction is that radio will stick with him until he has two consecutive singles that stiff. After that he will be history

  4. I agree, Paul. Radio seems to want to hold on to him for now, but I think once they let go, they’ll do it cleanly.

    Mike, I had no idea there was a new Carlene Carter coming. I bought her older albums on vinyl before they finally came out on CD, she’s so good. I can’t wait to hear it and fully expect it to make my year-end list of 2007; she’s had ten years to make it great. You’re right about TNN helping; Carter’s infectious personality came through on clips for “I Fell In Love” and “Every Little Thing.” Also, I agree about “Musical Shapes”. I like her first two 90’s albums a bit more, but that album is mind-blowing, very progressive for its time. It may be heresy, but I’ll take her version of “Ring of Fire” over anybody else’s.

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