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.
20. Keith Urban, Ripcord
Australia’s foremost country musician has become an international powerhouse over the course of ten albums. Aside from his gorgeous, golden tenor — and badass superstar wife Nicole Kidman, natch — Urban’s ability to blend pop, country, and electronic production has been unsurpassed, and Ripcord is another fantastic example of that. Turns out the synthesizers on “Wasted Time” blend right in when there’s a banjo riff laid over the top. I was aghast when I saw that Nile Rodgers and Pitbull both appeared on a single song, but incredibly this optimistic trifecta is actually enjoyable — complete with whistle-laden hook. But Urban has always shined brightest on rainy day ballads (check out “Think Of Me” if you never have), and “Blue Ain’t Your Color” is a slow-waltz barroom flirt that is definitely worth your time, as is the car-window fogged “Getting’ In The Way.” When Urban sings “I said 30 more minutes 30 minutes ago” to talk about how hard it is to stop hooking up, it is more romantic than any flowery declaration that comes elsewhere. Sometimes the simplest description is the best one. God bless country music.
19. Ronnie Dunn, Tattooed Heart
As one half of the iconic country duo Brooks and Dunn, Ronnie Dunn probably never needs to record another song in his life. Seriously, those guys had 20 No. 1 hits and sold over 30 million records when they disbanded in 2010. But something drove Dunn to keep working, and he released his debut solo self-titled in 2011. After that, he put out Peace, Love and Country Music in 2014, and followed that up this year with his third record Tattooed Heart. No complaints here, Dunn has a voice that sounds like honeyed rawhide, or a rope made of brown sugar, or a wheat field gently swaying while you walk through it holding hands with your lover. I realized while writing our best rock albums list, that Ronnie Dunn’s indie rock equivalent is Hamilton Leithauser, if that means anything to newer country fans who might be reading this list. The best part about Ronnie Dunn’s third album though? It was named after an Ariana Grande song! And he covers that track on here, too! It seriously touches my heart when rich old guys with their own cultural cachet and power honor the craft of young women. Plus, the cover is like a doo-wop country fantasy. I want to slow dance with someone in a shitty bar so badly. It’s good to have goals.