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.
18. 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
17. 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.
16. 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
15. 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.
10. Midland, On The Rocks
Sure the pun in the album title is bad, but lead single “Drinkin’ Problem” is a tour-de-force, a three-and-a-half minute, harmony-swaddled nod to seven decades of boozy country laments. There are several more neo-traditional songs on this album that are nearly as strong as “Drinkin’ Problem,” and almost everything on the record could have come out in 1975 or 1985 or 1995. On The Rocks is like a dare to country’s retro purist wing: Do you want to sit in the corner and pout about the current sonic direction of the genre or write a No. 1 radio hit?–E.L.
9. LeeAnn Womack, The Lonely, The Lonesome, And The Gone
At this point in her life, LeeAnn Womack is a country legend. Instead of resting on her laurels, Womack decided to double down on her status, using her signature songbird voice to croon fourteen somber, solemn, and downright mournful tracks on a brand new record called The Lonely, The Lonesome, And The Gone. With an album title like that, the dark cloud was to be expected, but no one does downtrodden like Womack. Through all the gloom, Womack’s apparent devotion to the genre she’s committed her life to never wavers–C.W.
8. John Moreland, Big Bad Luv
When a storied indie label like 4AD opts to put out a country/Americana record, it’s best to sit up and take notice. Turns out the long-time curators were right on the money, even when working a bit outside of their comfort zone, and John Moreland’s Big Bad Luv is a luscious bit of Americana folk that should not fly under any country lover’s radar. Between his sandpaper vocals, and intricate guitar playing, it’s still Moreland’s lyrics that take the cake, depicting life in an America that doesn’t stretch beyond the backroads and small towns, but somehow still feels like every place you’ve ever been–C.W.
7. Kelsea Ballerini, Unapologetically
Kelsea Ballerini’s stormy sophomore album may have flown a bit under the radar, but this feisty country with tons of crossover potential is too brilliant to get swept under the rug. Unapologetically opens with a suite of heartbreakers that are at turns angry, mournful, and jaded, before the back half cracks wide open into the kind of starry-eyed love songs that put country music on the map in the first place. Instead of feeling like whiplash, the resulting album unfolds like a bildungsroman; beginning with a character whose smashed heart can’t take the heat, and ending with a loved up, luminous woman who can’t stop pouring her heart out in thanks.
Before things turn doe-eyed, standouts like the prickly, exaggerated album opener “Graveyard” and the self-loving kiss-off “I Miss Me More” are full of unmissable fire. Long considered a follow-up artist to Taylor Swift, who has inherited the diva-sized role in country music, it’s no surprise that while Swift herself released a dark and defiant record this year, so did Ballerini. But make no mistake, Kelsea is very much her own artist — even unapologetically so.–C.W.
6. RaeLynn, Wild Horse
On songs like “Lonely Call,” RaeLynn shows off her skill at sneaking country into pop — see the cascading mandolin riff — and vice versa: Check the big step up before the final kiss-off hook. You’ll find these tricks throughout Wild Horse, a polished but frugal album, often paired with songs that are highly attuned to the way people wreck their own romances. In “Lonely Call,” RaeLynn has a layabout in her sights; when she tells him not to pick up the phone, it functions as a welcome response to the male post-breakup tracks that were popular on the radio this year. In “Love Triangle,” RaeLynn looks even closer to home, dissecting her own parents’ relationship. Both songs are quietly wrenching.–E.L.
5. Kip Moore, Slowheart
“Right hand on the Bible / The other on the bottle,” Kip Moore solemnly swears on the tongue-in-cheek opener “Plead The Fifth” off his latest album, Slowheart. It’s the perfect summation of his party and scripture ethos, a dichotomy he struggles with again and again on this new record, which is steeped in heartland rock as much as it is traditional country. With his grizzled voice, and the hint of humor lurking behind every roiling guitar solo, Moore was a shoo-in to dominate the sweet spot between radio hits and diehard old school fans. As great as his record is, seeing Kip live still tops it — get out to one of his shows in 2018 to catch him covering classic rock anthems like his life depends on it.–C.W.
4. Colter Wall, Colter Wall
Like a warm, comforting quilt, Colter Wall’s voice will blanket you in the sounds of the past, when cowboys yodeled and winter was a warrior of destruction. For a throwback record, this self-titled slow burner is surprisingly fresh, full of existential dread and gorgeous, meandering melodies that occasionally whip themselves up into frenzies. For all your friends who declare pop has cannibalized country, play Colter Wall for them, and watch them slip back into the outlaw past with glee.–C.W.
3. Nikki Lane, Highway Queen
Rattling, rose-colored country that pulls no punches and never drifts into the pop lane, Nikki Lane kicks off her album with a mountain of rednecks, then declares that even that kind of backwoods force could never bring her down. Armed with a yippee-ki-yay, a sense of humor wider than a country mile, and her signature drawling alto, Lane’s albums only continue to get more fiery, more tender, and more country. That’s how a queen does it.–C.W.
2. David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere
In an interview this year, Ramirez announced his intention to push back against the codification of Americana. “Americana is great because it’s about the people and the stories, and I love that, but I think musically, we can just fall into the same things,” he said. “I want to take risks, and I want to be weird sometimes.” So on We’re Not Going Anywhere, strange shards of synthesizer often tumble into songs or form a track’s melodic core. Ramirez knows that Americana only has to respond to tradition, not to mimic it.–E.L.
1. Angaleena Presley, Wrangled
Angaleena Presley is a piece of work. Have you noticed how people like to use that phrase as an insult? Well, I’m reclaiming it for good, because it’s hard to name a single person in country music who has worked longer or harder for recognition than Angaleena Presley. Literally a coal miner’s daughter, Presley hung around in the wings of country music for several years trying to find a way in, which she eventually found in the form of Miranda Lambert’s blazing country girl-group, The Pistol Annies. After that trio took off, Presley finally released her own debut, American Middle Class in 2014, and Wrangled is the long-awaited follow-up.
Once again, Presley pretty much had to do everything herself — the Nashville label system doesn’t take well to upstart women who paint the desolation of life in the south in such stark colors, and who offer so much defiance to the status quo. But Presley’s honest depictions of the disappointments and tribulations that women in the south face come as a much-needed answer to all the beer and booty songs that have dominated “bro-country” airwaves for far too long. This one isn’t a fairytale, it’s more of a fable, and the lessons it contains are some of the toughest and the most delicate delivered this year. The more women talk about the bonds that hold them back, the quicker they’ll finally be loosed.–C.W.