Discussion: Ten Country Albums to Hear Before You Die

Every once in a while, I stumble upon a list that I instantly know should be adapted for country music.   Earlier today, I followed a link to Ten Albums to Hear Before You Die.   It’s an interesting list.  They picked the right Billy Joel (The Stranger), U2 (The Joshua Tree) and Beach Boys (Pet Sounds) albums.   I disagree with their choices for the Beatles (Rubber Soul and Revolver are better than The White Album) and Madonna (True Blue isn’t in the same league as Like a Prayer and Music.)

There’s not a country album in the bunch (and only one rap album, for that matter.)   Country has historically been a singles genre, and when you exclude greatest hits albums, you find out quickly how difficult this list is to create.   How do you get a full picture of country music’s history with only ten albums?  Perhaps you can’t, but I’m taking my best shot.   Please add your own take in the comments.  I’ll post a list of reader’s choices tomorrow, so be sure to share your reasons for your choices!

Ten Country Albums to Hear Before You Die

Marty Robbins, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs

He’s one of the most versatile singers in music history, but Marty Robbins is most closely associated with the western spirit that is captured on this landmark concept album. Any album that features both “El Paso” and “Big Iron” is already essential listening, but Robbins fleshes out the set with fascinating story songs, some traditional and others from then-contemporary songwriters, including Robbins himself.

Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison

The essence of Johnny Cash, distilled into one fiery live performance in front of a riveted audience.   Too often, the empathy of Cash’s prison albums are overlooked.  By performing there at all, he affirmed the humanity of every captive prisoner he played for.   The stunning “Greystone Chapel” says it all.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken

The historical significance of this album cannot be overstated.  Originally released as a 3-LP set, nearly every still-living country music pioneer of the time is present on this project, including Roy Acuff and Mother Maybelle Carter.   The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band brought legends together to perform traditional and signature songs, resulting in a jam session for the ages.   As good as the music is, the studio dialogue matches it, with exchanges ranging from the precious to the hilarious.

Waylon Jennings, Honky Tonk Heroes

The definitive Outlaws album is not The Outlaws.   It’s Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes.  Comprised almost entirely of songs written by a very young Billy Joe Shaver, this album established the middle ground between classic honky-tonk and rock music that is still a major force in country music today.

Willie Nelson, Stardust

Few artists can boast as many classic albums as Willie Nelson.   While nearly all of his major albums from the seventies are essential listening, it is Stardust that made him a superstar.  By taking on the great American songbook, Nelson proved just how universal music can be, country music included.

Randy Travis, Storms of Life

The essential new traditionalist album.   More than any other artist, Randy Travis was responsible for bringing country music back to its roots.  While George Strait, The Judds, Reba McEntire and John Anderson had already been experiencing success, it was Travis who proved that pure country could be a multiplatinum enterprise.  It doesn’t hurt that his first album was flawless from start to finish, either.   But it was the big retail numbers for this and its followup, Always & Forever, that pushed Nashville away from the watered down pop sound it had been chasing for the previous decade.

Clint Black, Killin’ Time

The country boom starts here.   Black’s brilliant debut album was worthy of comparison to Haggard, and it launched him instantly to superstar status.   This album was so big that it overshadowed the debut of another future superstar.   It drastically altered the sound of country radio, which would soon be dominated by similar traditionalists that were also supported by more aggressive production, knocking almost all of the preceding generation off of the airwaves for good.

Garth Brooks, No Fences

His electrifying concert performances and masterful media presence notwithstanding, it was Garth Brooks’ music that made him the biggest star country music had ever seen.   This was the album that lifted him to that status, anchored by the classic singles “Friends in Low Places”, “The Thunder Rolls” and “Unanswered Prayers.”

Shania Twain, Come On Over

The biggest country music album in history was also a global phenomenon, selling nearly forty million copies worldwide and transforming Shania Twain from superstar to icon.   It’s easy to forget just how radical this album was upon release, now that it’s sound has been distilled into countless country records in the years following its impact.   Like Brooks before her, Twain was aided by a great stage show, stunning music videos and a backstory made for mass media consumption.   But she wrote her own check here with her songwriting, which is too often overlooked, even though her publishing royalties from “You’re Still the One”, “From This Moment On”, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much” dwarf the money that came in from those massive album sales.

Dixie Chicks, Home

The most artistically significant country act of the past decade reached their peak with Home, a mostly acoustic set that drew far more from the Texas roots of the Dixie Chicks than the Nashvile sound that first brought them widespread success.   The Chicks collected songs from the very best Americana and alt-country songwriters, infusing the work of Bruce Robison, Patty Griffin, Darrell Scott and Radney Foster with purpose and resolve.   Even better, the depth and versatility of Emily Robison and Martie Maguire’s musicianship were front and center, most impressively on two tracks penned by the Chicks themselves – the raucous “White Trash Wedding” and the Grammy-winning instrumental piece “Lil’ Jack Slade.”


  1. Nice list! Glad Home made the cut, I love that album. If I could suggest one more, I would pick Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From, not that this list needs anymore albums.

  2. Sorry, forgot a reason! I think the album is just amazing and cohesive from start to finish, and is so much better than any modern country.

    Another idea is Fly by the Dixie Chicks, it’s the Chicks best non-bluegrass-y album.

    (sorry for the double post!)

  3. Since it seems I come from a different type of Country than most here, my list would be much different. a few of my first thoughts were…Gram Parsons – Return of the Grievous Angel, Buck Owens – Live at Carnegie Hall, Merle Haggard – Friend In California, Steve Earle – Guitar Town, Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Dwight Yoakam – Guitars, Cadillacs etc etc, Dale Watson – I Hate These Songs. However, I overall can accept most on the original list too, except for a couple that I disagree with.

  4. A very good list – I don’t know that I’d include HOME on the list (I’d replace it with one of Haggard’s albums), but it would be easy to expand this list to 20 Country Albums to Hear Before You Die and add some Buck Owens, Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn and others

  5. I aghree with “HOME” I’m not going to take the time to type in 10 albums, but my list would also include “Storms of Life” and although there were no hits on it, i’d include “woman in the moon” by Chely Wright..now that’s country.

  6. A decent list and I’m pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of newer albums. Most lists tend to focus on the old and not give any credit to some of the amazing new stuff we’ve gotten.

    That said, Home isn’t even my favorite “Natalie era” Chicks album.. the recent Taking the Long Way has my favorite and strongest songwriting, but Fly and Wide Open Spaces have the best overall songs. Such a tough pick. They really do have a solid discography (from Wide Open forward)

  7. THE GILDED PALACE OF SIN–The Flying Burrito Brothers
    HEART LIKE A WHEEL–Linda Ronstadt
    PIECES OF THE SKY–Emmylou Harris
    G.P./GRIEVOUS ANGEL–Gram Parsons
    WANTED: THE OUTLAWS–various artists
    TAKING THE LONG WAY–The Dixie Chicks
    DESPERADO–The Eagles
    AT SAN QUENTIN–Johnny Cash
    ELVIS COUNTRY–Elvis Presley (1971 album)

    Most of these are borderline country albums to begin with, but a lot of times the changes in country music have been wrought from without instead of within.

  8. Whether or not one cares for Shania Twain’s music– personally, I’m not a fan of the majority of her material– I think there’s definitely a case to be made for being familiar with any album that is the kind of broad-based phenomenon of Come on Over, just as a matter of basic pop-cultural literacy. While the album isn’t on my own list of “Ten Country Albums to Hear Before You Die,” I can certainly understand and respect its inclusion.

    Anyhow, alpha-ma-betically:
    01). Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison.
    02). Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music.
    03). Rodney Crowell, Diamonds & Dirt.
    04). The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin.
    05). Kris Kristofferson, Kristofferson.
    06). Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul.
    07). Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose.
    08). Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger.
    09). Buck Owens, I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail.
    10). Billy Joe Shaver, Old Five & Dimers Like Me.

  9. This post, if political correctness weren’t a consideration, could easily be re-named Ten Country Albums You Would Die to Hear in Heaven. I imagine that the reverse of that list would also induce some interesting responses.

    Presuming box sets and greatest hits albums are not included (no The Complete Hank Williams for example), I have listed my ten suggestions. This is made particularly difficult due to the fact that artists in previous generations were operating in a singles-minded genre and terrific complete albums were rare. Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb would be shoo-ins if that had been a priority in those days. Unfortunately, few women turned in fine efforts from start to finish, so my list is imbalanced in that way, too.

    With a dash of my personal taste included, I decided on ten that represent the genre’s history best.

    Garth Brooks, No Fences
    Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison
    Dixie Chicks, Home
    Merle Haggard, Okie from Muskogee
    Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul
    Buck Owens, I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail
    Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger
    The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken
    Marty Robbins, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
    Randy Travis, Storms of Life

  10. Shania Twain????

    I would think the Dixie Chix wouldn’t be here, although I haven’t listened to a full Dixie Chix album, and after seeing this article, maybe I need to download one. The videos I have seen are hot, but do not merit this lofty status. After all, life is short.

    And if you have contemporaries here like the Chix and Twain, what about Brad Paisley and/or Gary Allen? These two artists have taken everything they can from Willie and Johnny and even further back to the beginning, and perfected the tradition to their style and they both have good clean steel backing them up.

    Don’t throw eggs, but what about John Denver, isn’t he country?

  11. The (correct) justification for the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain are what they’ve done (good or bad in your eyes doesn’t matter) for the genre. Shania had one HUGE album, and the chicks have had a couple worth mentioning that came close. If you want a full scope of the genre… before you die… I still agree completely with their inclusion. I’d be more apt to argue Nitty Gritty or Clint Black off the list.

  12. I do claim ignorance on the Chicks and Shania, as I plan to pickup a Chicks album, out of curiosity soon.

    So I am not in a good position right now to insist on their exclusion.

    I was kinda thinkin’ the same thing as you were about the exclusion of Nitty Gitty and Clint, too.

    I will not argue Randy Travis, or even Marty Robbins.

    And I am worried I might be shot if I question the inclusion of Garth Brooks, but this pick may be on shaky ground.

  13. I’d have chosen “The Woman In Me” before “Come on Over.” Try to forget the history and the hype that we’ve come to live with regarding Shania, and it becomes clear that a song like “Who’s Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” is really the genesis of today’s country (right or wrong).

    It wanted so badly to be successful as only country music, until it started breaking out — we used the slick production to argue against it; and she & Mutt haven’t come close to this sound since — that, looking back, it’s remarkable how country it actually is.

    Just listen to the melodies to a few of those songs: “Is There Life After Love” “No One Needs to Know” “Leaving is the Only Way Out”

    Even though it’s sold 10 million copies, too, The Woman in Me might be considered one of those albums we overlook when we try to canonize Shania. Country folk, then, should be standing up for The Woman in Me.

  14. Marc, you are joking right. Shania has had multiple huge albums.
    Before her massive icon making global 40 million selling COME ON OVER album, she had her massive THE WOMAN IN ME album that sold 18 million worldwide and changed the face of country music forever.

  15. I agree Joe, people seem to overlook Shania’s massive impact of her THE WOMAN IN ME album because COME ON OVER was such a massive icon making album.
    But THE WOMAN IN ME was also massive and changed the face of country music forever.
    I would of put 2 of Shania’s albums on the list for their massive impact and influence in country music and worlwide.
    But this list is okay and I understand not including 2 albums of one artist.

  16. I love John Denver, to be honest. However, whether or not he’s country is somewhat controversial, I guess. I think people consider him more folk than country, though I think much off of the An Evening With John Denver and various other album tracks lean more toward country than much of what we’re hearing today.

    As for Garth, I don’t know how a Garth album could be left off of a list such as this.

  17. Oh yes,

    While I liked Come On over, The Woman In Me is my favorite Shania album. However, when Come On Over initially came out, I thought it was the better of the two at the time.

  18. Just because an album sold a ton of copies does not make it earn a place on a list of country albums to listen to before you die. Sales = quality? I don’t think so.

    “My pantyline shows, got a run in my hose”? Wow, those are some songwritin’ skills.

    No, I’m not a fan of Shania. However, I’m also not a Garth fan, but I do think No Fences deserves to be on the list.

    As for the Dixie Chicks, they’re superb, but if I were to choose a female act for the list, I’d choose one of the Judd’s albums and definitely a Patty Loveless (Mountain Soul or Long Stretch of Lonesome).

  19. Leeann Ward:

    Regarding John Denver–yes, he probably wouldn’t even be regarded as country even today; he was, after all, a participant in the East Coast folk music scene of the 1960s; and his “Leaving On A Jet Plane” was a #1 hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary in December 1969.

    But I do think his songwriting has a quality to it that wouldn’t be mistaken for anyone else’s. Nobody ever talked up nature, life, and true family values in song like Mr. Denver did. I submit his 1974 album BACK HOME AGAIN, which does have plenty of country elements to it, as proof of this.

  20. Kim, and who are you to judge what quality is? Everyone has different tastes.
    And it is not just the massive sales of all of Shania’s albums that put her on the list.It is the impact she made and how she changed the face of country music.She and her husband created a sound that turned country music upside down for a decade and till this day newcomers are trying to copy Shania.
    So it is not just the sales, it is the impact and unique quality of Shania’s music that puts her near the top of any top album list in my opinion.
    I have never understood the hate some people have for this woman.
    Shania has more class,style and talent than all of Nashville put together and she proved it for over a decade worldwide.
    There is nothing to argue, of course Shania deserves a spot on any top album list or even 2 spots.

  21. Oh, I forgot to say something to kim.For your information if you have read any of the lyric to GEorge strait or alan jackson songs then you would laugh.
    You can pick a line out of any song in history and say it is stupid. Just take a look at the beatles I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND, that is some of the dumbest lyrics ever.
    You don’t like Shania, that is okay but for you to pick and choose lines of song for your motives is unfair.
    And for anyone to say that Shania’s albums don’t deserve a spot on any top impact album list is not that smart.
    I think most of the jealousy from you and others stem from the fact she had very little connection to Nashville and she did it on her own with her husband and they took all the money and Nashville got nothing.
    You have to respect what Shania has done and the class she has shown doing it.Not once in her career has she said I told you so to Nashville and not once has she ever said anything negative about her treatment.
    Shania is one class act who deserves more respect that what people on this site give her.

  22. I think Shania does deserve a spot on this list…but I have to say I’m not a huge fan of hers. Just personal taste. But that doesn’t mean that I under estimate her influence on the genre.

    I can’t say I’ve listened to a lot of the albums on the list…I’m a relatively new country music fan. I’ll definitely chech them out though…

  23. “I think Shania does deserve a spot on this list…but I have to say I’m not a huge fan of hers. Just personal taste. But that doesn’t mean that I under estimate her influence on the genre.”

    What exactly was Shania’s influence on the genre aside from making it less country and more pop-oriented? Is that really something we should be celebrating?

    I’m not a Shania hater, BTW. I like a lot of her stuff, but don’t consider it groundbreaking enough to include it on a list such as this.

  24. I actually included Haggard on my list, but you have an important point. As I alluded to in my post, many artists in past generations released albums with 3-4 singles, with the rest of the album containing filler or covers of recent hit songs. If you were making a time capsule, it would be hard not to include those three artists in the package with their greatest hits albums. I said the same thing about wanting to include The Complete Hank Williams.

    Substitute “albums” for “artists” would surely yield some interesting responses.

  25. Razor, you don’t consider Shania’s albums groundbreaking? lmao!!!
    Well everyone else in the industry does and nobody can deny her massive impact on the genre and globally. Her sound changed the face of country music forever and thats what I call groundbeaking.
    Shania is the very definition of goundbreaking.

  26. Kenny, what was Shania’s impact on the genre other than to make it more pop-oriented and why on earth would we want to celebrate that? What’s groundbreaking about marketing pop music as country? She was certainly not the first to do so, nor, sadly, the last.

  27. Razor, don’t try and sell me your narrow point of view, tell it to the historians who have said Shania’s sound was groundbreaking and took country music to another level worldwide.
    But by you saying that Shania’s only impact on the genre was to make it pop is beyond laughable.
    Shania impacted the genre because of the way she did things her way outside of Nashville and created a sound for herself. Shania’s music was far from pop, it was a unique sound that changed the face of country music.HER THE WOMAN IN ME album was not pop and is created a whole new sound for country music.COME ON OVER album took it on massive global trip.
    Shania no doubt impacted the genre like no other. People are always trying to compare new artists to Shania .

  28. Narrow point of view? All I’ve done is ask you to explain how Shania’s music was ground-breaking? And I’m still waiting. So she did things her own way outside of Nashville. Guess what, that has all been done before. Dolly Parton did that 30 years ago.

    If Shania’s sound was unique as you say, that suggests that she DIDN’T have an impact on the genre. Either her sound was unique or it had an impact on the sound of the music that came after it. Which is it? You can’t have it both ways.

    What were Shania’s lasting contributions to the genre other than selling a lot of CDs?

  29. Razor,you can’t explain something to somebody with a closed mind.
    Shania’s music and sound impacted a generation after her and will continue to.
    There are many copy cats and shania wannabes without the goods over the years.
    It must be cool to be a Shania hater with a closed mind on this site because it doesn’t matter what I or you say, the truth is in the historians who have described Shania’s massive impact.
    Every single new female act coming into country music is always comparred to Shania.
    Even Reba said and Dolly said that Shania took it to another level and helped so many woman in country music all over the world.

  30. “Razor,you can’t explain something to somebody with a closed mind.”

    You also can’t have a meaningful conversation with someone who is indoctrinated. I’m not a Shania hater. But I don’t see any Shania copycats out there and new female acts are NOT compared to her. But go ahead and think that if it helps you sleep at night.

  31. Yes you do have a closed mind judging by your comments and lack or research.
    Nobody can compare to Shania because she took it to a level never scene before or since on a massive global scale. But that doesn’t stop people trying to compare every new act to her.
    Maybe do your research or read reviews of these new wannabes in country music. Shania’s names is always mentioned.
    I understand your jealousy that Shania’s impact and success is so great but there is no use saying the sky is red when it is blue.

  32. Kim, and I never came across so many jealous people of Shania on one site.
    To be jealous of a big icon like Shania is not good for you.

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