Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. So, despite the rap-specific list — where ranking is still next to godliness — we’ve opted to leave the albums that appeared on the overall best list off the genre-specific lists. But even for rap, some albums made the cut for their impact on the that sphere without cracking the best of list. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it is meant to highlight the best work in this genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.
While country music has made its way into the mainstream press in a new way over the last couple of years, it’s still difficult to find a comprehensive look at all the best country music that comes out in a year. Hopefully, this list of twenty albums will help alleviate that, drawing from selections from mainstream and underground alike to construct a representation of what happened in country music this year, and which artists were at the forefront of the movement.
20. Sunny Sweeney, Trophy
Sunny Sweeney has said in interviews that she was worried songs on Trophy would suffer because she was happy while writing them. She had nothing to fear; her album is unflinching — filled with songs like “Pass The Pain” and “Bottle My Bed,” a cutting song about the stigma around childlessness — and it contains none of the pointed-but-highly-amusing tracks that added levity to her previous record, Provoked. Sweeney knows what she wants in country, and she makes it clear on “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight,” a celebration of the genre on par with Alan Jackson’s “Don’t Rock The Jukebox:” “I play classical music when it rains / Country when I am in pain / I won’t play Beethoven if the mood’s just not right/ I feel like Hank Williams tonight.”–Elias Leight
19. Alison Krauss, Windy City
The songs, collaborators, and producers may change on an Alison Krauss album, but the overall effect does not: They always serve as impeccably plotted arguments for the value of various out-of-fashion strains of popular music, whether it’s bluegrass, New Orleans soul, English invasion rock, or swoon-y themes from old movies. This time Krauss connected with Willie Nelson compatriot Buddy Cannon, and the two selected songs to record by Vern Gosdin, Glen Campbell, Brenda Lee, and Roger Miller. To nobody’s surprise, the results of their efforts are frequently beautiful.–E.L.
17. Lady Antebellum, Heart Break
Lady Antebellum have been commercially successful but creatively stagnant for the last five years; it’s no coincidence that Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott both took time away to make solo albums before Heart Break. The more important decision for the trio, however, might have been recruiting the songwriter and producer busbee, who has one of the hottest hands in Nashville right now, to oversee the group’s latest effort. The resulting album faltered commercially, without a top five country single, but was better for it, with the blasting brass from lead single “You Look Good” signaling a willingness to remake their old formula.–E.L.t
16. Willie Nelson, God’s Problem Child
Nelson has nothing left to prove, but his decision to start writing original songs again for 2014’s Band Of Brothers after an extended hiatus — during which he recorded frequently but spent his time re-making swathes of the American songbook as his own — was a welcome return for one of the greatest writers in the history of popular music. That being said, the ringer on God’s Problem Child is the title track, which was penned instead by Tony Joe White, who has been singing and writing almost as long as Nelson, and Jamey Johnson, who can be one of country’s great modern songwriters when he chooses to be. When all three men trade lines over a bluesy groove, it’s immensely satisfying to hear the sound of a music legend who’s still just happy to be involved.–E.L.
15. Whitney Rose, Rule 62
Whitney Rose is a force unto herself on Rule 62, the full-length follow-up to this past January’s South Texas Suite EP. Working within traditional swing and honky-tonk, Rose employs vibrato like she’s the sole proprietor of the technique, bringing and old world sound to songs that come off as country fair chic. It’s not an insult to say that absolutely no one else put out an album that sounds like Rose this year, she’s taken up a section of the country tradition that has been left to seed, and turned it into a cash crop.–Caitlin White
13. Luke Combs, This One’s For You
Luke Combs’ “Hurricane” sounded like it could have been a Lee Brice hit in 2011, but the way it became popular marked this singer as a part of country’s new generation: The single was a major success on streaming services like Spotify. This was especially impressive since Combs originally released “Hurricane” independently, and This One’s For You functions as a shot of hope for the little guy. Scan the album’s credits and the usual cadre of country songwriters are nowhere to be found, but the record still spawned a pair of No. 1s at radio. Stay until the end, when Combs flashes previously undisplayed versatility on the hard-driving “Honky Tonk Highway.”–E.L.
14. Becca Mancari, Good Woman
Becca Mancari is fluent in breezy indie pop and received a Twitter shout-out from the emo pop group Paramore. But she also loves pedal steel guitar, shambling, post-Neil-Young country rock, trad-country basslines, and fingerpicked folk. The combination makes for an enjoyably slippery album, bounding at one moment and musing the next, and everything is buffed to gleam from all angles.–E.L
13. Chris Stapleton, From A Room: Volume 1
While I’m personally of the mind that Chris Stapleton’s latter 2017 offering From A Room Vol. 2 is the superior release, the country superstar’s initial offering this year is no slouch. Opening with the raspy elegy “Broken Halos,” a song that pays homage to those who passed on from this mortal coil, From A Room Vol. 1 is a tightly-packed collection of superbly written and emotionally expressive songs. While most of the material deals in subjects like loss and heartbreak — “The Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” being the most profound among them — Stapleton delivers them all with just enough glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel so that you don’t drown inside of that half-filled glass of whisky. The sonic homages to soul and blues, along with shades of Waylon Jennings-style guitar phasing lend this entire project an admirable sense of timelessness as well.–Corbin Reiff
12. Natalie Hemby, Puxico
After helping to write some of the best songs in country music over the last decade, Natalie Hemby finally stepped out as a solo artist with Puxico. It’s unfortunate that this album didn’t get the country-outsider attention that was showered on previous songwriter-turned-soloists like Kacey Musgraves: Puxico is immaculate from start to finish, with plenty to offer fans of folk and indie. It’s not surprising that Hemby thrives in an acoustic-guitar-first, stripped-down sonic environment — most of these songs sound as if they might be demos to pitch to another artist, except they are more or less perfect already. It makes you want to hear some of Hemby’s other co-writes — Miranda Lambert’s “Smokin’ And Drinkin’,” Lee Ann Womack’s “The Bees” — in their original form.–E.L.
11. Chris Janson, Everybody
It’s been a while since country music has had a good guy to root for. Sure, we’ve got the upstart outlaws like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, but when it comes to mainstream, larger-than-life country guys, the spots left by fading giants like Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw have been left conspicuously absent. Try as they might to make Blake Shelton happen, he just doesn’t have that goodhearted nature that a star this big needs. Enter Chris Janson, a sweetheart singer who proudly boasts about being “your farmer,” taking a drunk girl home and leaving his number by the phone, and queuing up a handmade playlist for his date. This is only his second album, but if he keeps it up, he might just be the Prince Charming country music needs right now.–C.W.