If we were reminded of anything in 2019, it was that the participation of Brandi Carlile or Rhiannon Giddens in a project means it’s going to be great. Here are our picks for the ten best albums of 2019.
Best of 2019
Emily Scott Robinson
Comparisons to songwriters like Lori McKenna and Jason Isbell don’t come lightly, but Emily Scott Robinson fully earns them on Traveling Mercies. The greatest impression that the album leaves is that Robinson is a songwriter who truly loves and recognizes the power of language. It isn’t just a matter of her eye for detail: The way she chooses to express those details gives Robinson’s songs a literary depth. – Jonathan Keefe
Her excitement to be sharing new music permeates every moment of Every Girl, Trisha Yearwood’s first country studio album in twelve years. There’s an eclecticism of style here unlike any album she’s recorded before, which makes Every Girl a more adventurous listen than her earlier work. But some things remain the same as always, most significantly that if you give Trisha Yearwood a great song, like the stunning centerpiece “The Matador” or the anthemic title track – she’s going to knock it out of the park. A welcome return of the genre’s finest female vocalist. – Kevin John Coyne
As many stories go, Randy Houser admits that he has made many concessions to chase the dream of being a mainstream pop country music star, which was evident in the transformation of his music. However, he eventually realized that what he was chasing was sucking his soul, not to mention that it wasn’t necessarily paying off anyway. Magnolia is the result of Houser pulling back on everything and making an album that he can be proud of again. It is an album that is quieter and simpler, yet still accessible and fun. – Leeann Ward
For a 20 year-old newcomer to catch the attention of a well-known artist to such an extent that no less than Dan Auerbach ends up producing their debut album, that upstart must be doing a lot of things right. Listening to Southern Gentleman, it’s easy to hear why Auerbach was so impressed by Dee White. With a soulful, lithe tenor and a sharp songwriting voice that shows a real knack for country conventions, White is one of the most compelling young men to launch a country music career in several years. – JK
There are so many supergroups and star collaborations these days that they make up almost half of this year’s top ten albums list. The Highwomen have been the most commercially successful of the bunch, aided by the presence of the revered Brandi Carlile and the celebrated Maren Morris, the latter of whom is one of the only women who gets played on country radio with any regularity. But what gives this album its potency is how those two ladies, together with Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires, combine to form a whole greater than its individual parts. The opening title track establishes it mission statement: the lives of women are to be witnessed and not forgotten. The rest of the album delivers on it, with powerful stories about women from all walks of life experiencing a wide range of human emotions. If you can immediately recover after “Cocktail and a Song,” a gorgeous rumination on grief, you’re stronger than I am. – KJC
Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi
There is No Other
Rhiannon Giddens is known well for her engagement with the past, best exemplified by her reclaiming the banjo of her ancestors and reviving their stories in song so the forgotten can live again. Her understanding of the disconnect between the present and the past also allows her to see a future without the same restrictive boundaries placed upon music today by both race and geography. On There is No Other, her stunning collaboration with Italian musician Francesco Turrisi, Appalachian ballads are seamlessly interwoven with traditional Italian sounds, and opera and bluegrass share space as if their similarities are self-evident and require no justification for their co-existence. One of the great paradoxes of modern times is how our increasingly global interconnectivity has seen different people and places driven further away from each other, as if we retreat into our own enclaves to preserve the illusion of “the other.” Rhiannon Giddens is using music as the connective tissue that can unite us all, if we’d all be willing to listen. – KJC
Our Native Daughters
Songs of Our Native Daughters
Our Native Daughters is a collaboration between Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla. Giddens was compelled to invite the other three banjo playing women of color to work with her to write and arrange Songs of Our Native Daughters after reading slave accounts in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and watching the film The Birth of a Nation, which helps to provide context for the provocative and devastating content of this collection.
Songs of Our Native Daughters is devastating, yet it is also a triumphant collection of accounts that explore difficult issues such as slavery, rape and suppression. One of the thrills of recent years for music is the rise of supergroups comprised of incomparably competent and talented women who delight in supporting each other and who do not shy away from collaborating to create music that will have a lasting impact on our perspectives and intellect. With this group of important songs, this group of women have left an indelible impression on this year’s and even this decade’s music. – LW
Stronger Than the Truth
Reba McEntire has made some great albums scattered throughout her career, but she hasn’t been this consistently great since her early days with Tony Brown, which produced the classic LPs Rumor Has It and For My Broken Heart. After a successful detour into gospel, Reba has produced her most traditionally country album since Have I Got a Deal For You back in 1985. This serves her well because the unique characteristics of her voice are best when framed by simple and clean country production that accentuates her strengths without getting in the way of her delivery. Stronger Than the Truth is her best album in more than twenty years because she kept it simple: great songs sung well by a living legend. – KJC
I’ve never bought into the idea– a dangerous one, frankly– that profound suffering is a prerequisite for great art. But Allison Moorer’s Blood challenges that stance. The tragedy that Moorer endured as a teenager has often informed a song or two on her extraordinary albums, but she uses the murder-suicide of her parents as the focus of the complete song cycle of Blood, and it’s the highest praise to say that it’s career-best work. Over the course of these songs, Moorer adopts different perspectives in order to gain a deeper understanding of her parents and sister and of her own relationships to them. What emerges is a sobering portrait of how the effects of abuse ripple outward over time and across generations and of how grief can turn into grace. – JK
While I’m Livin’
It had been 10 years since Tanya Tucker had released an album, which was a collection of covers where even she admits that the vocals that they used were a disaster, and it had been 17 years since she had made an album of original music. Along with personal setbacks, the experiences from those unappreciated attempts caused her to lose her confidence, which all but made her give up on making music.
After Shooter Jennings offered to produce an album for Tucker, he asked Brandi Carlile if she would write a song for the project, since she has been previously vocal about being an avid Tucker super fan. A request for one song turned into Jennings enlisting Carlile to co-produce the album with him, which, in turn, led to Carlile and her long time collaborators, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, taking a deep dive into learning about Tucker’s life and writing almost a full album of songs based on that research. Not only did Carlile write these songs especially for Tucker to sing, including helping her write a song that she had been wanting to write for years (“Bring My Flowers Now”), she spent every second in the vocal booth with her to serve as her vocal coach throughout the recording process, which resulted in this remarkable album where Tucker’s voice sounds as strong and nuanced as ever.
While Tanya Tucker’s While I’m Livin’ is not the result of a supergroup of women coming together, it’s a triumphant story of one woman who joined with another woman to make one of the best albums of an almost 50 year career. In this case, Brandi Carlile decided it was time for the world to remember why Tanya Tucker is rightfully a country music icon. Despite Tucker’s misgivings and resistance to trying something new, Carlile saw Tucker’s great potential for continued relevancy. As Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash, Carlile helped breathe new life into Tucker’s musicality and helped her find her voice as a woman with 61 fascinating years of experiences who still has a remarkable voice and stories to tell. Furthermore, it is worthwhile and moving to note that Carlile has put as much effort and love into promoting Tucker and this album as she has any of her own albums. – LW
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that there was no love for Crystal Gayle’s new album since none of you even bothered reviewing it. But it was an amazing collection of classic country songs that she sang to perfection.
caj, I can’t say I would have put Crystal’s new album in the top 10 but I agree that it was amazing and she is probably the most underrated of all of the “so called icons”. Her new album was not as good as Tanya’s but I do believe it would be an equal to Reba’s. All in all, a good year for some singers we have not heard from in a while.
To be fair, we didn’t “bother to review” most of the albums on this list. We have full time jobs, families and other responsibilities that don’t allow us to treat Country Universe like a complete guide. In fact, I was so busy with personal situations (mainely being a new foster parent) in2018 that I hardly even had time to listen to new music let alone write anything about it. Also, a covers album would have to be really spectacular to get a spot on our top ten list.
I should clarify that I specifically noted 2018, because after not participating in 2018’s Country Universe lists, I committed to myself that I would make a good effort to listen to new music in 2019 so that I could participate in the lists again. I’m glad I did, because good music does make my life feel richer!
Nice to see Trisha get her name and album up there among the best of 2019, not only because of the aforementioned Gretchen Peters song “The Matador” (with its hint of Mexicana), but also her homage to California via the 1975 Karla Bonoff song “Home”. And of course a heartfelt thanks is in order for her appearance at the Kennedy Center Honors on December 8th to salute her spiritual role model Linda Ronstadt.
Another album I would add to this list is Into The Blue by California-based alt-country/Americana singer/songwriter Alice Wallace. It is an album in both the modern Americana and the old-school Linda/Emmylou tradition, with such stand-out tracks as “Desert Rose”, the Western-themed “Echo Canyon”, and “Santa Ana Winds” (referring to those hot, dry winds that blow across Southern California in the fall and aid in the explosion of firestorms).
Congratuations Leeann, on becoming a foster parent
Loved Tanya’s new album it’s about time she gets recognised as the legend that she is. Reba McEntire’s album is terrific & I’m disappointed that neither of those albums were nominated for the CMA Awards. George Strait new album was great also.
The only one of these albums I’ve heard is The Highwomen album, and while it’s not necessarily the revolutionary world-beating stuff some in the music press portrayed it as, I thought it was very good. Which is partly why I was so dismayed to see Jason Isbell talk about “country purists online” not wanting to give the album (and women on country radio in general) a chance. I mean, I am absolutely one of those people, and I really liked it. I do not think I am alone in that regard.
Haven’t yet heard any of the albums in CU’s top ten here – too busy moving in 2019. Only bought 1 album released last year, Georgia Middleman’s “Requests”. Just bought Trisha’s “Every Girl” and Delbert McClinton, “Tall, Dark & Handsome”. Will be buying Kree Harrison’s “Chosen Family Tree” (to be released 1/24 per “That Nashville Sound”)
and Brandy Clark’s “Your Life Is a Record” (release date 3/6).
congrats again Leeann. I believe you said she’s 8.
To Jason Isbell’s point, I definitely think there are plenty of men who have been happy to give the Highwomen a chance, but I’ve seen many negative comments on articles of multiple entertainment outlets regarding them and most were by men.
As Leeann said, it’s not a matter of “bothering” to review something so much as the full team of writers all having a host of different commitments this past year.
But it’s Crystal Gayle’s birthday, so, briefly: I enjoyed Gayle’s album. When I ran out my long-list of albums to make my ballot this year, I had it in ranked in the 30s; in a year when I heard fewer great albums, it could have ranked higher with me. It’s a project I enjoyed, and I can fully understand its appeal, particularly among her established fanbase. I don’t think Gayle took as many risks as her fellow veterans Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker, so it was a less interesting album to me than theirs were, but it’s still a very strong record!
I think that says more about your being a good egg than it does about the album’s media coverage! For instance, there are a couple of country-music sites that post whenever a non-mainstream album has a significant debut on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart that did not extend that same courtesy to the #1 debut for The Highwomen. That’s a purposeful choice, and one that’s socially and politically loaded in ways that support Isbell’s stance.
Glad to see someone else excited for Keefe Harrison’s album! I had both of her singles (“I Love the Lie” and “Get Away With Anything”) on my long-list for our year-end countdown.
I’m sorry to hear that. They’re only depriving themselves of some great music.
Thanks. I do try to judge music on its own merits. That’s a real shame about the Highwomen debut not getting the press it deserved, especially when we’re all up in arms about the lack of women on country radio, and when we’re all talking about so much of mainstream country is vapid, rootless crap when the Highwomen album was the exact opposite of that.
It puts a smile on my face to see Allison, Reba, Tanya, and Trisha still going strong to this day by putting out amazing albums. I knew Trisha’s Every Girl and Reba Stronger Than The Truth albums was going to deliver after I heard the singles. Tanya’s While I’m Livin was the album that shocked me the most. I knew the album would be good, but when I heard Brandi Carlile was going to be involved with the album, it would add more motivation for Tanya to make a great album which she did. I just recently got into listening to Emily Scott Robinson’s Traveling Mercies and she’s incredible. She has a bright future. Rhiannon Giddens is continuing to be one of best talents currently in country music by dropping two amazing albums in the same year. The Highwomen’s album was amazing. It felt like I traveled back to the 90’s with all the amazing music that women made country music during that time period. 2019 was the year for women in country music and I enjoyed every bit of it.