It’s hard to believe that 1991 was a full 25 years ago, when artists now in the Country Music Hall of Fame were still in the early stages of their hitmaking careers.
1991 was the biggest commercial year of country music yet, and the advent of Soundscan would soon demonstrate just how popular the genre was. It was the year that a country album entered at #1 on the Billboard 200 for the first time (Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind), and the year that longtime stars Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker released their biggest-selling studio albums ever.
But as this list demonstrates, even the impressive quantity of sales took a backseat to the overall quality of releases, and in many cases, those quality releases sold impressive quantities. Such was 1991, when a best-of list could include the year’s radio favorites alongside undiscovered gems, and even the most cynical critics could be impressed by what radio was willing to embrace.
Here’s a look back at what the writers of Country Universe believe are the twenty best albums of 1991.
#9 – JK | #17 – SG
The greatest injustice of country music in the 1990s is that Kelly Willis didn’t become a superstar. Her sophomore effort, Bang Bang, had all of the elements that made A-listers out of contemporaries like Dwight Yoakam, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, and Hal Ketchum, but Willis was, instead, dubbed the “Queen of Alternative Country” in the popular press at the time. Tackling first-rate songs from the likes of Jim Lauderdale, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, and Joe Ely, Willis proved herself a feisty, rambunctious powerhouse. – Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Sincerely (Too Late to Turn Back Now),” “Settle for Love”
The Chill of an Early Fall
#9 – LMW | #16 – KJC
By the time that he released his eleventh studio album, Strait was an ol’ pro at making albums. It’s a testament to his natural talent and penchant for choosing good songs that an album that wasn’t even his most successful is still among the best of 1991. – Leeann Morrow Ward
Recommended Tracks: “If I Know Me,” “You Know Me Better Than That,” “Lovesick Blues”
It’s All About to Change
#8 – LMW | #11 – SG
Many male country singers like to call themselves outlaws, but Travis Tritt showed exactly how this outlaw thing is supposed to be done. Equal parts country music and Southern rock, Tritt swaggers through his sophomore album, featuring the ultimate kiss-off song with “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)” and “Homesick,” a hard rocking, soulful number. “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’,” a duet with Marty Stuart, was one of the year’s most enjoyable vocal events. In the middle of the bravado and whiskey bottles, Tritt showed off his sensitive side with the beautiful ballad, “Anymore.” – Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'” (with Marty Stuart), “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares),” “Anymore”
High and Dry
#4 – JK | #18 – SG
Proof that artists can, in fact, be too country for country, Marty Brown’s High and Dry stuns for the emotional range of Brown’s inimitable, plaintive wail. “Ole King Kong” and “Indian Summer Blues” skew toward novelty territory, but there’s jaw-dropping power in Brown’s deliveries of “Every Now and Then,” “Nobody Knows,” and the title track. Brown resurfaced on America’s Got Talent a few years back, earning a degree of the recognition that High and Dry, by all rights, should have brought him more than two decades earlier. – JK
Recommended Tracks: “Nobody Knows,” “Every Now and Then,” “Wildest Dreams”
Up Against My Heart
#10 – KJC | #15 – SG, LMW
Starting with the slightly creepy “Jealous Bone,” and moving along to the offbeat “Hurt Me Bad (in a Real Good Way),” Loveless’ final album for MCA Records was solid country, with lots of personality with charm sprinkled throughout. – LMW
Recommended Tracks: “Jealous Bone,” “I Came Straight to You,” “Hurt Me Bad (in a Real Good Way)”
What Do I Do With Me
#6 – JK | #8 – KJC
Tanya Tucker reinvented herself in the late eighties and early nineties, emerging as one of the genre’s last victim queens. The title track is a classic country weeper, and she showcases both vulnerability and grit on “Down to My Last Teardrop.” – Kevin John Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “(Without You) What Do I Do With Me,” “Bidding America Goodbye (The Auction),” “Down to My Last Teardrop”
Don’t Rock the Jukebox
#10 – SG | #11 – KJC | #18 – LMW
You have a lifetime to write your first album and nine months to write your second album, so a sophomore slump is inevitable. Somebody forgot to tell Alan Jackson that, who revealed the true depths of his talent by putting together an even stronger set the second time around. – KJC
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” “From a Distance,” “Midnight in Montgomery”
Kevin Welch & The Overtones
#2 – SG | #8 – JK
There wasn’t an Americana genre in 1991, so Kevin Welch’s Western Beat album didn’t really have a niche when it was released. Too country for the punkish alt-country world and too raw for mainstream country, it was an album ahead of its time. Welch set the scene with “Early Summer Rain,” a beautiful, poetic opening track. The rocking “Happy Ever After (Comes One Day at a Time)” features the stellar work of Nashville guitar god (and former Steeldriver) Mike Henderson. “Sam’s Town,” about a perfectly named protagonist, delivers a wonderful, feel-good story with nary a wasted word. Throw in covers of John Hiatt and Joe Ely songs, and Western Beat was an introduction to the Americana world that was to come. – SG
Recommended Tracks: “Something ‘bout You,” “Sam’s Town,” “Early Summer Rain”
Brooks & Dunn
Brand New Man
#7 – LMW | #8 – SG | #13 – KJC
1991 can boast a few impressively strong debut country albums, of which Brand New Man is among the best. Ronnie Dunn’s instantly recognizable, soulful voice, paired with some of the most beloved songs of their career, made this album an instant success. Of the five singles, only one of them didn’t reach number one. – LMW
Recommended Tracks: “Brand New Man,” “Neon Moon,” “Lost and Found”
Planet of Love
#1 – SG | #2 – JK
Country radio may not have taken to Jim Lauderdale as a singer, but the right people discovered this album and treasured it. George Strait ended up covering several of these songs (“Where the Sidewalk Ends,” “King of Broken Hearts”) and most every other song ended up being recorded by other singers somewhere along the line. It’s hard not to prefer Lauderdale’s original versions, though. He may not have the perfect country star voice, but he delivered soaring vocals on “Maybe,” growled and wailed on the bluesy “What You Don’t Know,” and delivered gorgeous harmonies with Emmylou Harris on “King of Broken Hearts,” an instant honky tonk classic. – SG
Recommended Tracks: “Maybe,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” “King of Broken Hearts”
#7 – LMW | #10 – SG, JK | #15 – KJC
It’s a testament to the unrivaled depth of her catalogue that Trisha Yearwood’s self-titled debut is one of 1991’s strongest offerings but is only her eighth or ninth best album. Still, Yearwood’s two greatest gifts– her ear for exceptional material and her extraordinary voice– were evident from her first outing. She chose some killer songs by the likes of Garth Brooks, Hal Ketchum, Kevin Welch, Chuck Cannon, and Jude Johnstone, and she sang the absolute fire out of them. That’s a formula she’d further refine on her subsequent albums, but her first iteration still holds up today. – JK
Recommended Tracks: “The Woman Before Me,” “That’s What I Like About You,” “Fools Like Me”
Pocket Full of Gold
#5 – KJC, LMW | #14 – JK | #20 – SG
Vince Gill refines the winning formula he established on When I Call Your Name, balancing pure country weepers like the title track with revved-up country rockers like “Liza Jane” and “I Quit.” The album also features the anniversary standard, “Look at Us,” which won him his second of four CMA Song of the Year trophies.
Recommended Tracks: “Pocket Full of Gold,” “Look at Us,” “The Strings That Tie You Down”
For My Broken Heart
#1 – KJC | #7 – JK | #13 – LMW
For My Broken Heart is Reba McEntire’s finest moment on record. Recorded in the wake of the devastating plane crash that claimed the lives of her tour manager and most of her band, McEntire was drawn to a collection of songs that explore the twin themes of isolation and helplessness, with the cause of both being the passage of time. There’s a sense of despair throughout because it’s simply too late. It’s too late to choose a career (“Is There Life Out There”) or to choose love (“I Wouldn’t Go That Far.”) It’s too late to fix a broken marriage, whether you stay (“Buying Her Roses”) or you go (“He’s in Dallas.”) It’s too late because you’re already alone, waiting for visitors that never come (“All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go).” It’s too late because death came before you expected it, and you can’t make peace with your father (“The Greatest Man I Never Knew”) or express the love that you had inside but never put into words (“If I Had Only Known.”)
Within this context, it would seem that her winning cover of “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” is an odd fit, but even that tale is of one where the narrator has to live with the guilt of her brother paying the ultimate price for the crime that she committed, and the line that reveals his death has that signature Reba voice crack that pierces through the song’s overall bravado. And it also fits in with the amazing feat McEntire pulls off on For My Broken Heart: despite being broken down and beaten down by life and death and love and loss, she never once sounds likes a victim. If you’ve ever wondered how McEntire became the voice for an entire generation of women, you can learn the answer by listening to this album. – KJC
Recommended Tracks: “If I Had Only Known,” “The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” “I Wouldn’t Go That Far”
#2 – LMW | #12 – SG | #13 – JK | #14 – KJC
A nearly flawless debut— let’s rate it at 5 out of 6 mullets, just like the band itself— that launched Diamond Rio to the genre’s A-list right out of the gate, Diamond Rio is so stacked with quality songs and first-rate performances that nearly every track could have been a hit single, and five of them actually were. What made the band distinctive were the Bluegrass-inspired vocal harmonies and their use of traditional acoustic instruments in a contemporary, rock-leaning production style. They gradually lost those distinctive elements, moving into more banal Adult Contemporary territory over the years, but Diamond Rio remains one of the decade’s most powerful opening salvos. – JK
Recommended Tracks: “Mama, Don’t Forget to Pray For Me,” “Mirror Mirror,” “This State of Mind”
#3 – LMW | #6 – SG | #17 – KJC | #18 – JK
Tempted is certainly not one of the most commercially successful albums of the nineties, or even just 1991. In fact, it only reached gold status and only the title track reached the top five, which is still enough to make it the highest charting solo song of his career.
With those moderate stats aside, Tempted was a fresh, modern country album for its time, one that also gave nods to old Rock and Roll sounds. It may not have sold as much as the biggest albums of 1991, but it is still one of the year’s best. – LMW
Recommended Tracks: “‘Til I Found You,” “Tempted,” “Blue Train”
Put Yourself in My Place
#3 – KJC | #9 – SG | #11 – JK | #14 – LMW
Pam Tillis recorded Put Yourself in My Place as if it was going to be the only country album she ever had a chance to do, and the result is an ambitious collection of styles and themes, from the sultry southern rock of “Maybe it Was Memphis” to the Celtic sound of the stark, autobiographical “Melancholy Child.” Tillis showcased her talent as a writer on this album more than on any she has recorded since, and her unique phrasing is all over this set, giving it a different flavor than her later albums that were dominated by outside writers. Put Yourself in My Place makes a powerful case both for Tillis as an artist, and for giving artists enough years in the field to hone their craft before having them record an album in the first place. – KJC
Recommended Tracks: “Maybe it Was Memphis,” “Melancholy Child,” “I’ve Seen Enough to Know”
Past the Point of Rescue
#3 – SG | #5 – JK | #12 – KJC, LMW
He’d released an album on a Texas label prior to this, but Past the Point of Rescue was a great way to introduce Hal Ketchum to a nationwide audience. An instantly recognizable voice and a knack for vivid characters made Ketchum one of country music’s most interesting singer/songwriters. “Small Town Saturday Night” was a justifiably massive hit and one of the few songs that Ketchum didn’t write. The protagonist of “I Miss My Mary” has more depth in a three-minute song than the heroes of many novels. “I Know Where Love Lives” is a pretty love song that also showed off Ketchum’s vocal skills – just try to hold that last note as long as he does. The addition of “Five O’Clock World,” a 1960s pop hit written by co-producer Allen Reynolds, was an inspired cover choice. – SG
Recommended Tracks: “Small Town Saturday Night,” “Past the Point of Rescue,” “I Miss My Mary”
Ropin’ the Wind
#1 – LMW | #6 – KJC | #8 – SG | #12 – JK
Garth Brooks’ third album did not suffer from any sort of slump. In fact, it broke sales records, not to mention that some of his best loved singles, including “The River,” “Papa Loved Mama,” “Shameless,” “Rodeo,” and “What She’s Doing Now,” come from this impressive, 17x platinum album. Moreover, some of his best album tracks, such as “Burning Bridges,” “Which One of Them,” and “In Lonesome Dove” help round out the collection.
While Ropin’ the Wind is big and progressive in sound and themes, it does a good job of maintaining strong traditional elements while still sounding fresh. – LMW
Recommended Tracks: “What She’s Doing Now,” “Burning Bridges,” “In Lonesome Dove”
Time Passes By
#1 – JK | #2 – KJC | #13 – SG | #16 – LMW
If not Kathy Mattea’s absolute finest album—2008’s Coal is hard to beat—Time Passes By is easily her most ambitious project. Mattea’s folk influences and her interests in Celtic music were foregrounded throughout the album, resulting in a collection that took a creative and truly progressive approach the New Traditionalism of her earlier chart-topping hits. On standout cuts like the title track, “A Few Good Things Remain,” and the flat-out gorgeous “Asking Us to Dance,” the exceptional warmth of Mattea’s performances makes Time Passes By an album that is timeless for its fundamental empathy and its fearless approach to the deepest of emotional topics. – JK
Recommended Tracks: “Asking Us to Dance,” “A Few Good Things Remain,” “Whole Lotta Holes”
#3 – JK | #4 – KJC, SG, LMW
It’s about 25 years after the fact, but it’s high time more people appreciate the fact that Suzy Bogguss spent the 1990s putting together an enviable string of excellent albums and hit songs. Take Aces, for example. Leaning on the songwriting talents of an all-star cast of writers (Ian Tyson, Nancy Griffith, Cheryl Wheeler, etc. etc.) Bogguss delivers one knockout performance after another. “Someday Soon” brought a welcome Western flair back to country music, while “Letting Go,” about an evolving mother-daughter relationship, delivered the sentiment without ever becoming overly saccharine. The singles were well-deserved hits, but the quality of the album cuts (“Yellow River Road” and “Music on the Wind” are standouts) make this an easy pick for the one of the year’s best. – SG
Recommended Tracks: “Outbound Plane,” “Someday Soon,” “Music on the Wind”
Wow! Suzy 1, Kathy 2 and Hal 4. I like that. Some songs not mentioned:
Re Suzy B, always liked “Part of Me”, written by Tony “The Dance” Arata.
Hal K – “Old Soldiers”, written by HK & Dave Mallett, with Kathy Mattea on background vocals.
Kathy M – “Summer of My Dreams”, written by Dave Mallet
What I find so telling about your list is just how mainstream the vast majority of the albums were. It was no effort at the time ( I realize I am showing my hand)to populate your cd racks with the best albums because that is what was airing on CMT, playing on the radio, and being covered by publications like “Country Music” magazine. Any music retailer stocked those artists. I have often argued with a good friend that the years from the late 80’s through the early 90’s were as important to Nashville and country music as the late 40’s through the 60’s. Your list is evidence of that.
I don’t necessarily agree with the order (I would have PLANET OF LOVE at #1) , but these were all good albums, and the list could have expanded to fifty albums without any diminution of quality.
I have circled back to two albums from 1991 that are so worthy of being remembered and shared with younger listeners. Aaron Tippin’s “You’ve Got to Stand for Something” out-twanged even Marty Brown for the most hard-core sounding album of the year. I remember being stunned by how urgent and raw his vocals were. Hearing Tippin for the first time reminded me of the first time I listened to my mom’s Hank Williams album. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. So plaintive and feral. His photo on the album cover was equally as jarring. In this era of young studs in cowboy hats and western wear, Tippin posed, albeit with HUGE forearms, in high-collared button up sweater tucked into jeans belted with a non-WWF sized buckle. He didn’t wear a hat but did sport a mustache. Who else other than Joe Diffie debuted with a mustache? Everything was so wonderfully unexpected about that album. It stands out as the most memorable and wonderfully surprising listening experience of 1991 for me. “I Wonder How Far it is Over You” will forever be seared into my brain.
Mark Collie’s “Born and Raised in Black and White” was similarly stunning. Again, there was Collie looking like a 1950’s greaser in the early 90’s. The music was just as refreshingly influenced by rawer and rougher sounds from the past; Collie was drawing from a different well than his fellow New Traditional peers. He was a traditionalist by his own measures and standards in a similar vein to Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle. His balladry was tender without pandering while his up-temp material rumbled and roared more than rocked. Collie was obviously listening to Johnny Cash before Rick Rubin reminded the rest of us that Cash still had currency. “Country Music” magazine’s critic Rich Kienzle said, “Collie has created a major work and one of 1991’s genuine masterpieces. It will endure long after the work of many of his peers is forgotten.” Collie, in appearance and sound, was cool and charismatic as hell. As evidence, The Highwaymen, would include a cover of the title track on their second album.