As the decade closes out, it’s fitting that a plethora of new artists entered the country music format this year (or, to be honest, close cousins in Americana, folk, southern-rock and whatever else you’d like to include under this umbrella). While historians sit down to ponder what exactly country music was in the 2010s, 2019 scans as a familiar tale for the genre: fads came and went, some underground talent broke through without country radio, some underground talent continued to be ignored, and “country” seemed to continue to be just a simple catch-all term.
This list, however, is meant to recap the albums that resonated with me most this year. As always, these picks are only my personal picks and preferences and have already received in-depth reviews, so if you’re looking for a deeper analysis, I’d advise checking them out. Also, there might some common overlap between mine and other critics’ choices, but it would be disingenuous to choose albums for “cultural importance” rather than what really got to me or met some objective standard of quality that I can’t pretend to measure anyway.
Also, I’d be remiss not to mention the banner year country and Americana (and anything adjacent) had. Even with a top 25 in place, it stings not being able to put Aaron Watson’s Red Bandana, Emily Scott Robinson’s Traveling Mercies, Gabe Lee’s farmland, Kelsey Waldon’s White Noise/White Lines or John Paul White’s The Hurting Kind here, but all are fantastic projects worth seeking out.
Now, without further ado, here are my picks for the top 25 albums of 2019.
No. 25 – Dalton Domino, Songs From the Exile
Favorite songs: “Hush Puppy,” “Daddy’s Mud,” “Happy Alone”
Let’s be honest – this isn’t Dalton Domino’s first album centered around personal redemption. But there’s a noticeable difference between Songs From The Exile and 2017’s Corners. If the latter was him exercising his rage and battling his demons head-on, Songs From The Exile is him admitting he’s been beat. The production is much simpler and the songwriting is more reflective, showcasing a more mature version of Domino. Even if the songs were written before his destruction, they capture someone trying their best to hold on in spite of breakups, substance abuse and deaths of loved ones. If anything, Songs From The Exile lets listeners know that pain is part of the healing process, and to steal an earlier line from him, people like him sometimes have to live in Hell to see if Heaven is worth it.
No. 24 – Yola, Walk Through Fire
Favorite songs: “Ride Out In The Country,” “Lonely The Night,” “Faraway Look”
If the goal here is to re-summarize why Walk Through Fire is a great album, I’d just say “Yola” and have a satisfying answer. With a voice that’s rich in technical power and emotional vulnerability, Yola combined her natural talents with a knack for strong melodies and hooks to create one of the most enjoyable albums of the year. Beyond that, there’s always been a cool, natural confidence to Walk Through Fire, which is likely why Yola spent 2019 going from underground critical success to a 2020 Grammy nominee. It’s the first of many debut albums on this list, but perhaps the best in raw form.
No. 23 – Michaela Anne, Desert Dove
Favorite songs: “Desert Dove,” “Somebody New,” “One Heart”
It took a complete change in record labels and location plus a financial risk, but Michaela Anne created her best album yet with Desert Dove. The production is warm and organic, reliant on huge swells of atmosphere to capture that California influence. And the attention to detail in that regard is incredible, running parallel to a thematic core where Anne tries to find the right emotional balance for love – the right give and take, in other words. It’s easy to simultaneously get sucked into the album’s lush elegance while also having certain songs hit with high emotional intensity. Truthfully, past projects felt inconsistent, but Desert Dove truly captures Anne at her best and lays a solid foundation for the future.
No. 22 – Alice Wallace, Into the Blue
Favorite songs: “Echo Canyon,” “Elephants,” “Santa Ana Winds”
As both a tribute to Alice Wallace’s home of California and an exercise in versatility, Into the Blue is a full display of talent in every way. Not only is Wallace an incredible singer with an equally incredible range, but she has a keen ear for nuance and hooks to back it up. Into the Blue was Wallace’s way of stepping out of her comfort zone, stylistically, and from muted country-folk to soul and smoky southern-rock, it all came together thanks to a strong natural talent behind it all. Albums released early in the year always run the risk of fading when considering the best music of the year, but if there’s any album to root for in 2019, it’s Into the Blue.
No. 21 – Jack Ingram, Ridin’ High … again
Favorite songs: “Sailor & The Sea,” “Shooting Stars,” “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train”
Ironically, by setting out to be anything but perfect and display its flaws, Jack Ingram created one of the most brilliantly fun albums of 2019. A tribute to Ingram’s musical heroes, Ridin’ High … again is essentially a live album made to be a studio album – the songs are drawn out, they meander into conversations between Ingram and the band, the cover songs are abound, and certain songs are just plain stupid. But leave it to Ingram to carry it all anyway. Ridin’ High … again is, most of all, a test of Ingram’s performance skills and charisma, and on that end, he succeeds with flying colors.
No. 20 – Joseph Huber, Moondog
Favorite songs: “Pale, Lonesome Rider,” “The Wild Swans At Coole,” “After You”
The key to a great Joseph Huber record is consistency. I’m not sure what necessarily separates Moondog from past Huber projects, but when the songwriting is this strong, I’m also not sure that matters. Perhaps it’s not the best starting point in his discography, but Moondog is an incredible exercise in versatility. Huber will pull off a raucous fiddle tune in one track only to slow things down and blow your mind with not just well-written songs, but true epics that have a unique air of sophistication to them. It’s certainly his longest album, but at this point, longtime Huber fans won’t mind coming along for the ride, especially when it’s this excellent.
No. 19 – Jade Bird, Jade Bird
Favorite songs: “17,” “Uh Huh,” “Love Has All Been Done Before”
Again, the theme of 2019 is a slew of incredible debut albums, and while Yola before benefited from a naturally powerful presence, Jade Bird’s self-titled record benefits from a raw, kinetic energy. It’s wildly scattershot, but in a good way – capturing the pressures of growing up, understanding how to love someone and understanding ourselves. Bird is mostly explosive – even scary – behind the microphone, but she’s also able to handle emotional ballads with relative ease, showcasing a wisdom beyond her years. This album is certainly a head rush, but in one of the most brazenly bold (and at times, fun) listens of the year.
No. 18 – Flatland Cavalry, Homeland Insecurity
Favorite songs: “Come Back Down,” “Ashes,” “Pretty Women”
Homeland Insecurity is the sort of great album that’s subtle in its approach. And for a band that makes music “easy on the ears and heavy on the heart,” Flatland Cavalry were able to blend substance and style with this album. The songs are more layered, lyrically, than what initially meets the eye and the melodies and tones are gorgeous, fitting a warm Texas sound. Even if the album mostly centers around the fears and anxieties of growing older, Flatland Cavalry is still a young band with plenty more to offer audiences.
No. 17 – Ben Jarrell, Troubled Times
Favorite songs: “Daddy’s Prison Radio,” “Big Iron Train,” “Troubled Times In A Tribal Town”
Every year it seems like there’s one kickass, hard-charged country album that presents itself without any qualifications needed. This year, that album was Ben Jarrell’s Troubled Times, a debut album with the heart of a landmark release. What separates Troubled Times from other outlaw-inspired, honky tonk records, however, is the variety – murder ballads, conspiracy theories, heartfelt tributes to friends and even a final track split between getting high and rolling out the album credits, because why not? And the instrumentation and production has a snarl and crunch to it that makes for one hell of a fun listen.
No. 16 – Lauren Jenkins, No Saint
Favorite songs: “No Saint,” “Blood,” “Give Up The Ghost”
I’m certainly not the first writer to make this point, but if we’re looking for reasons why mainstream country music felt so bland in the 2010s, it’s not because of pop-country (or even bro-country) – it’s because of a lack of ideas, poorly constructed production and utterly bad songwriting. Lauren Jenkins’ No Saint is the kind of album that should receive play on mainstream country radio – a well-written album with a forward-thinking approach. And for as striking as the melodies and hooks are, it’s a surprisingly bleak album, finding Jenkins mostly fed up with herself for not always having the right answers for those around her looking for help. It’s not the most obvious approach to take with a debut album, but it does cement Jenkins as a strong talent.
No. 15 – Steel Blossoms, Steel Blossoms
Favorite songs: “Revenge,” “Kentucky’s Never Been This Far From Tennessee,” “Killed A Man”
The Steel Blossoms constantly keep listeners guessing on their self-titled release, a smart and creatively fun listen. Sara Zebley and Hayley Prosser have near-perfect chemistry with one another as they sing about small town residents’ various coping mechanisms, from blowing off steam with recreational substances to getting their needed revenge on seedier characters. It’s quirky, but even if some themes present aren’t necessarily groundbreaking, it’s how far the Steel Blossoms stretch out those topics that always keeps them interesting. And when they balance serious and lighthearted subject material seamlessly and display fantastic instrumental abilities, it’s fair to say the Steel Blossoms crafted some of the most genuinely compelling country music of the year.
No. 14 – Leslie Stevens, Sinner
Favorite songs: “The Tillman Song,” “Falling,” “Depression, Descent”
As a critic, it’s tough to know where to draw the line between knowing when a project is objectively good and when it just … gets to you. Leslie Stevens’ Sinner certainly isn’t for everyone; it’s bleak, low-key and goes farther with its theme of depression than what might otherwise be deemed as “comfortable.” Yet it’s that blunt honesty that keeps Sinner such a genuinely moving listen, showing Stevens as the one caught in the throes of that situation and having to comfort others going through the same ordeal. Not an easy listen, but certainly one of the most cathartic albums of the year.
No. 13 – Reba McEntire, Stronger Than The Truth
Favorite songs: “The Clown,” “The Bar’s Getting Lower,” “Cactus In A Coffee Can”
It’s easy to engage in hyperbole with lists like these, but calling Stronger Than The Truth Reba McEntire’s strongest album in decades is no exaggeration. Of course, the core of what’s made McEntire such a compelling performer is still grounded and never left – a flair for dramatic stakes and the ability to give a rare vibrancy to her characters. But by focusing less on the polish and flash of the presentation in favor of a warmer, organic country sound, her stories hit much harder this time around. McEntire may not have been the only ‘90s (or ‘80s) country darling to return to the spotlight this year, but she certainly left the biggest impact.
No. 12 – Mike and the Moonpies, Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold
Favorite songs: “Danger,” “If You Want A Fool Around,” “Cheap Silver”
If you told anyone – hardcore Mike and the Moonpies fan or someone who’d never heard of them – that a hardcore honky tonk band was teaming up with the London Symphony Orchestra, having some skepticism wouldn’t exactly be unfair. Perhaps that’s why Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold worked better as a surprise release. Not only is the London Symphony Orchestra a great inclusion here, they manage to flesh out the band’s sound and bring a set of great songs to bear. Not an abandonment of what’s made Mike and the Moonpies so appealing, but rather a surprisingly natural pivot toward a sound that’s more melodically intricate. And I’d be remiss not to mention that the songwriting improves leaps and bounds here. It’s a brisk listen, but if anything, it just means no one has an excuse to not set aside the time to hear it.
No. 11 – Austin Meade, Waves
Favorite songs: “Waves,” “Pay Phone,” “Mountain Past”
It’s always interesting to wonder what these albums, taken in aggregate, say about a certain year. There’s an air of finality to many records this year – themes of understanding ourselves in order to move ahead with a clear conscience. And if there’s any project that captured the pure frustration of the process, it’s Austin Meade’s Waves. At times loud and abrasive and others moody and reflective, Waves reads as a stream of consciousness – an invitation into Meade’s mind as he unfurls those growing pains. It’s a project on the edges of burnout with no promises of a happy ending, but a promise that Meade will survive whatever wave crashes down on him.
No. 10 – Erin Enderlin, Faulkner County
Favorite songs: “Broken,” “Tonight I Don’t Give A Damn,” “Hell Comin’ Down”
Erin Enderlin’s Faulkner County is pure country music – no, not neotraditional, outlaw or any other subset – an album representative of why I love the genre. And Enderlin’s brand of it is both modern and incredibly real, drenched in heartache, regret and the line we all walk between good and evil. Earnest but painfully self-aware, if Faulkner County isn’t showing Enderlin grappling with those struggles, it’s showing her characters dealing with them in painful detail. Faulkner County doesn’t outright jump out at listeners so much as pulls them in for a sobering ride.
No. 9 – Jason Hawk Harris, Love & the Dark
Favorite songs: “Grandfather,” “Giving In,” “The Smoke & the Stars”
Love & the Dark is a paradox – an album with some of the most infectious melodies and hooks of the year that’s also an uncomfortable listen. Here, Jason Hawk Harris invites listeners in to hear about his downward spiral from substance abuse, his mother’s death and putting on the facade of someone who has it all together. At times wild and unhinged, Love & the Dark shows a desperate man with nothing left but a shaky relationship with faith and a fear of the unknown. Of course, the appeal from Love & the Dark isn’t enjoyment from someone else’s pain, but rather a weirdly understandable breakdown that, while likely not fully relatable to anyone else, does capture a core frustration common to anyone recovering from facing the darkest parts of themselves.
No. 8 – Rod Melancon, Pinkville
Favorite songs: “Westgate,” “The Heartbreakers,” “Cobra”
As lazy as it sounds, there are certain albums where, instead of writing a short blurb, I’m tempted to just tell people to listen for themselves. Then again, Rod Melancon albums are strange affairs, and while Pinkville isn’t the easiest starting point, it’s easily Melancon’s best effort yet. From songs about psychological destruction, murder and crime (among other things), Pinkville is an exercise in consistency and sequencing, showcasing a gradual mental decline for Melancon’s characters. There’s a razor-sharp focus to the album, with even a few moments of levity serving as tributes to musical heroes. The tones are dark and as psyched-out as the songs themselves, and even if it’s trippy and nonconformist above all else, there’s no mistaking it for a classic Melancon album.
No. 7 – The Steel Woods, Old News
Favorite songs: “Rock That Says My Name,” “Without You,” “Anna Lee”
The Steel Woods’ Old News is certainly the most intimidating listen here at 15 tracks, but it’s also a southern-rock opus coming from a band only on their second album. And in terms of rough-edged southern-rock, there wasn’t a band who did it better this year, mostly because the Steel Woods refined their strengths into a white-hot core of potent, southern-Gothic-inspired tales of embracing those final moments of life. Granted, for as morbid as that sounds, Old News also serves as a tribute to past musical inspirations, hence why the final four tracks (along with a few others) hit harder than average cover songs. The band might go for broad themes – this is a rock band, after all – but they approach them with a hardbitten maturity and poise. The album may shift between the past and that final ending of death, but for now, the Steel Woods prove that rock mostly certainly isn’t dead.
No. 6 – The Highwomen, The Highwomen
Favorite songs: “Cocktail And A Song,” “Highwomen,” “If She Ever Leaves Me”
The Highwomen’s self-titled debut album is one that was almost too easy to set impossible expectations – both in quality music and formation. Granted, all four artists possessed wildly different backgrounds despite working within the same relative genre umbrella, but the combination managed to work as well as the hype implied. The harmonies hit precisely the right notes to come together and the stories told stand toe-to-toe with the artists’ best individual work. And considering every artist involved has a chance to shine in a solo spotlight, this album feels like a true culmination of their best attributes. In the future, though, I wouldn’t mind having Yola be the honorary fifth member of the group – just sayin’.
No. 5 – Billy Strings, HOME
Favorite songs: “Away From The Mire,” “Taking Water,” “Highway Hypnosis”
HOME is likely the only album here better explained through metaphors over technical analysis. The songs scan as poetic, rather than literal interpretations, and the melodies and grooves are arguably at the forefront of it all. Yet for as much of a stylistic innovation as it is, HOME is largely Billy Strings’ reflection of his artistic journey thus far. Sometimes the focus isn’t on him, but rather on the scene around him; though he certainly faces dark remnants of his past head-on here. Otherwise, HOME is a showcase of fantastic bluegrass picking that blends tradition with a modern-thinking approach, and Strings continues to be a beacon of hope for the future of bluegrass.
No. 4 – Shane Smith & the Saints, Hail Mary
Favorite songs: “Little Bird,” “Parliament Smoke,” “Oklahoma City”
Songs or albums centered around life on the road, touching as they usually are, aren’t exactly uncommon. Hail Mary may approach this concept, but through grander dramatic stakes – where the journey is an odyssey and the fight to make it back home feels like a cinematic movie playing out. There’s a thrill and rush of adventure to this album, helped by Shane Smith & the Saints’ knack for huge, sweeping melodies, fantastic harmonies and sense of atmosphere. The performances – instrumental, vocal or otherwise – are thunderous and come crashing down with the heaviest emotional intensity. This is the album Shane Smith & the Saints always had the potential to make, and by reaching for those bigger stakes, they just may have found that artistic “Hail Mary” moment after all.
No. 3 – Ian Noe, Between the Country
Favorite songs: “Letter To Madeline,” “Barbara’s Song,” “Dead On The River (Rolling Down)”
Songs about dying happily in train accidents and seedy meth heads don’t usually make for the best introductions, but on Between The Country, they helped introduce Ian Noe as an excellent songwriter. But there’s no jokes to be made about Noe’s approach, which went darker and heavier than most projects in 2019; it centers around the wasted decay of middle America, yet does so from multiple perspectives. The moral ambiguity is intentionally questionable, which is why I’d further question the project’s appeal if the melodies weren’t so infectious. But outside of putting a brutal pen to paper, Ian Noe himself deserves heaps of praise. He commands a room with his presence, and the production gives him the necessary space to do so. There might be a higher body count here than on a Chris Knight album, and the scary (but enticing) part about it is that this is only the beginning for Noe.
No. 2 – Allison Moorer, Blood
Favorite songs: “Set My Soul Free,” “The Ties That Bind,” “Bad Weather”
For as haunting of a backstory as Blood carries, it’s not what ultimately drives it forward. Allison Moorer had to reach into the darkest depths of her past to craft this – an album that starts with the retelling of her parents’ murder-suicide and ends with her in the present day looking for the strength to move on, but never forget. And Moorer handily delivers her best performances to date, not just in technical ability but in emotional nuance, too. She tries to reimagine the fear her mother felt running from an abuser while trying to raise her daughters, then flips perspectives trying to understand her father’s warped, broken mindset. The actual incident has been public knowledge for quite some time, but it wasn’t until now that Moorer was ready to fully revisit it. And from it, while she may never find forgiveness, she’s found grace and understanding. The memoir of the same name paints a larger picture, but as for Blood, the album, it’s handily one of the most powerful listens of the year.
No. 1 – Charles Wesley Godwin, Seneca
Favorite songs: “Here In Eden,” “Seneca Creek,” “Windmill (Keep On Turning)”
Since its release in February, Seneca has soared like the work of a seasoned veteran. As a tribute to his native West Virginian land, Charles Wesley Godwin crafts his love letter through 20th century folklore, penning characters trying to make it through tough times knowing fully they might not make it out alive. For as much as either Godwin or his characters feel tethered to uphold ancestral obligations and stay, Seneca is all about finding the beauty in the bleakness. Whether it’s finding the time to forget the world and dance on those hardwood floors or simply appreciate the landscape around them, Godwin imbues a sense of reverence (and, admittedly, a sense of fear) through his material. The production is perfectly crafted to capture the beauty of those old time melodies; restrained, yet delivered with Godwin’s own full gusto when needed. And what’s continued to separate Seneca from other 2019 releases is its sense of atmosphere and ability to capture a moment in time. Godwin invites listeners into his world, but never shies away from detailing the respect needed to survive the harsh landscape. And perhaps that’s the answer right there – for as harsh and brutal as some stories are here, Godwin is able to accomplish his mission and showcase the natural beauty of the Appalachian land in spite of it all. Not only did Godwin give the best possible introduction for his debut album, he also showed listeners why his name will linger on in musical conversations for years to come.