1. JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON
Is there any album in any genre that has ascended to a higher level of myth than Johnny Cash’s 1968 comeback LP, immortalized in 2005 biopic Walk the Line? When the Man in Black stood in solidarity with the inmates, wearing prison grays, he cemented his appeal to the rock counterculture. But even if you take away the jailhouse milieu and pretend he’s at Carnegie Hall, the music holds its own, with the Tennessee Three bringing a minimalist rockabilly vigor to tunes ranging from the felonious ”Cocaine Blues” to the ridiculous ”Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart.” (Here’s a secret: At San Quentin, released a year later, is the rare sequel that’s as great as the original.)
The Chicks started out as a frothy, good-time country trio and ended up as a fairly serious-minded rock band. Looking back, it’s easy to see this 2002 smash as a transitional album, even though they considered it neither country nor rock but rather their ”bluegrass album,” due to its acoustic orientation. What it really is is the Chicks suddenly blossoming into real artists — from the opening ”Long Time Gone,” which laments the end of a rural way of life, to the shattering family drama of the closing ”Top of the World.” The album and its Vietnam-themed ”Travelin’ Soldier” single both stood at No. 1 when Natalie Maines made her famous remarks about President Bush, and the rest is history — but Home would be a classic even if it’d never attracted any renown outside of the grooves.
3. GUITARS, CADILLACS, ETC., ETC.
Dwight Yoakam emerged out of the L.A. ”cowpunk” scene in the mid-1980s, but he really couldn’t have been any truer to his Kentucky roots — a purism that, weirdly, held equal appeal for authenticity-starved country fans and rockers alike. His first album helped kick-start the whole ”neotraditionalist” movement that brought country back to life in the late ’80s after the slickness of the Urban Cowboy fad had just about killed it. And with Yoakam’s high, lonesome yodel and Pete Anderson’s loud, twangy guitar putting across both his great original songwriting and some choice covers, this feels more like a greatest-hits album than a debut.
4. VAN LEAR ROSE
This one reset the standard for career reclamations. Rick Rubin made a terrific series of albums with Johnny Cash in the final years of the Man in Black’s life, certainly, but they had a deliberately stark, gothic feel that didn’t quite capture everything that was fun about the man. Producing Lynn as she approached 70, Jack White, of the White Stripes, made ”elegiac” just one of the colors in their collaboration’s palette. The songs on Van Lear Rose capture a way of life gone by, to be sure, but also the enormous sense of humor of country’s all-time feminist heroine. And, against all odds, it rocks — enough so that when Lynn and White duet, you don’t even think that the May/December age difference between ’em is a little more like February/December.
5. RED HEADED STRANGER
In the mid-’70s, when the Who had triumphed with Tommy and Quadrophenia and every prog-rock band worth their salt was coming out with a narrative song cycle, the last place most music fans looked for a concept album was country music. (Johnny Cash and Bobby Braddock had done some great ones in the ’60s, but to little fanfare.) So Willie’s 1975 breakthrough album was a particular surprise, as it told the story of a traveling preacher in the Old West through a series of songs that stood fine on their own. The album single-handedly moved the nexus of country music just a few inches away from Nashville, toward Austin, Texas — and besides cementing Nelson’s transition from Music Row tunesmith to laconic, long-haired counterculture hero, it also gave him one of his first pop crossover hits, in ”Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
6. CARNEGIE HALL CONCERT
Buck Owens and His Buckaroos
”How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer used to be ”Practice, practice, practice,” but this giddy 1966 live album offered a different answer: ”Via Bakersfield.” Owens was never one of country’s more artistically ambitious practitioners; all he aimed to do was offer pure fun, or, better yet, pure heartache converted into pure fun. And he and his famous band deliver here with ”I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” ”Act Naturally” (which had recently been turned into a rock hit by the Beatles), and even a Bakersfield-fried ”Twist and Shout.”
7. MODERN DAY DRIFTER
For contemporary country fans who revere what was great about the past but don’t want to live in it, Bentley is like an answered prayer. He hangs out with bluegrass dudes and knows his classic country 45s like nobody’s business, but he can also play a college gig and make a crowd of young ‘uns feel like they’ve just seen a rock & roll show. He got things seriously right on his sophomore album, the one he’ll probably forever be trying to live up to. The opening ”I’ve Still Got a Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do” is as good a rogue’s anthem as anything Waylon Jennings ever recorded. But Bentley is willing to play the loser in love, too, as he does in ”Settle for a Slowdown,” which we suspect has been the haunting theme to about a hundred thousand recent breakups.
8. CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND
Crazy like a foxy lady, we say! Dierks Bentley (see No. 7 on this list) has a female counterpart here; Miranda Lambert can totally nail traditional country but is even more renowned for her ability to rock the house. Like Bentley, as well, Lambert followed an excellent debut album in 2007 with this even better sophomore barnburner, where the Texas firebrand (an alumnus of TV’s Nashville Star, of all the unlikely starting points) mixed nutso-female vengeance barnburners with sensitive balladry that could truly leave your heart in pieces. If you don’t like her hilarious honky-tonk cover of Gillian Welch’s ”Dry Town,” friend, you just truly and irrevocably hate country music.
9. THE COMPLETE REPRISE SESSIONS
As a founding member of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons is the all-time spiritual hero to the alt-country crowd. And even if the conservative arbiters of the Country Music Hall of Fame probably will never consider him for inclusion, his place in country history is set — for having helped the Rolling Stones find their country side; for having paved the way for the Eagles and their progeny; for introducing the world to his duet partner, Emmylou Harris; and for some transcendent songs. Parsons recorded two solo albums before his death in 1973 (GP and Grievous Angel), and they’re collected, along with some outtakes, in this essential three-disc set of dusty desert country-rock.
10. TIME WELL WASTED
Whenever some would-be snob tries to convince us that modern country music is just a slick soundtrack for suburbia, and no one’s carrying the old torches of the classic years, we redirect them to Paisley. His sense of humor and frequent borderline-novelty tunes aren’t for everybody; there’s a reason why one of the songs on his fourth and best album is called ”Cornography.” But we’ve never found a soul who isn’t impressed by his electric guitar prowess; good luck ever finding a better country guitar solo than the short and sweet one on this album’s opener, the Dire Straits-influenced ”The World.” And the laughs and licks nicely offset the gentlemanly sweetness that shows up in his ballads. You can say country’s good old days are gone, and maybe they are, but country has never had a more well-rounded star than Paisley.
11. COAT OF MANY COLORS
It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when Dolly Parton wasn’t Mae West with a theme park, but when her legend was due to her singing and songwriting chops. It’s kind of a tossup whether 1971’s Coat of Many Colors or 1974’s Jolene is her best album. The latter includes a little ditty called ”I Will Always Love You.” But in the end we have to go with Coat, even if it doesn’t include as many quickly recognized classics. The title song is a beautiful rendering of a true story from her impoverished childhood, but don’t let that or the portrait of her as a girl on the cover fool you into thinking that the whole album is suitable for family listening. Not when Parton also includes the self-explanatory ”She Never Met a Man (She Didn’t Like),” which offers a new take on Will Rogers’ old maxim, or ”If I Lose My Mind,” which, with its nightmarish scenario of a husband forcing a woman into a threesome, is just about the most sordid song ever included on a mainstream country album.
12. ELITE HOTEL
After the death of her duet partner, Gram Parsons, Harris almost single-handedly kept the torch of true country-rock alive with a string of still-revered 1970s Warner Bros. records. This 1975 effort may be the best example of why she was the rock crowd’s favorite sweetheart of the rodeo, as the song selection veers from Buck to the Beatles, from the Louvin Brothers to the Everly Brothers, as well as new material from young bucks like Rodney Crowell. It must have been right around this time that the word ”crystalline” was invented just for her, but this Hotel is a little rough around the edges, too.
13. GEORGIA HARD
This is almost certainly the weakest seller on our list, but really, there’s no better singer/songwriter/guitarist working in any subcurrent of country today than Robbie Fulks. He’s considered ”alt-country,” but honestly, the only thing alternative about him is his fierce intelligence, humor, and embarrassing abundance of talent. On this gravely underrated 2005 effort, he offers a stylistic tour de force of country styles, from somber murder ballads to hilarious hillbilly-flavored novelty songs to sensitive country-rock sobriety. Check out the riotously irreverent ”Countrier Than Thou,” where Fulks bites the very alt-country hand that feeds him, and you may just have yourself a new hero.
Dolly Parton/Linda Ronstadt/Emmylou Harris
Parton and Harris have their own albums on this list, and Ronstadt could just as easily have been on it with her Heart Like a Wheel. But their very successful 1986 teaming proved that there really is strength in numbers, with all three participants getting a chance to shine individually as well as show off their harmony chops. Dolly probably had the most to gain here, since she’d been written off at the time as a pop sellout, and the acoustic format of the album helped reestablish what made her great. ”Wildflowers” still holds up as one of her finest tunes.
We tried to keep this list geared toward original studio albums that hold up as albums — but what are you gonna do in the case of Hank Sr., who died in 1953, just around the time the LP was introduced, forever cementing him in amber as a ”singles artist”? Why, try to pick from any of the seemingly 10,000 best-ofs and boxed sets that have been thrown into the market with varying degrees of thoughtful curation over the years. You can’t go wrong with this two-CD set, which includes all the songs you’ll know from the dozens of hit cover versions over the years, even if you didn’t know they were Williams’ tunes.
16. HAG — THE BEST OF MERLE HAGGARD
Merle Haggard has made plenty of great albums over the years, but it takes a collection to really even start to get at the appeal of the man who may be country’s greatest living singer/songwriter — and, after Hank Williams, the second-best the genre has ever had. If you only know the tongue-in-cheek ”Okie from Muskogee,” you need to discover more enduring classics like ”Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and ”If We Make It Through December,” which are like John Steinbeck set to music.
17. COME ON OVER
Touting Twain as a great country artist tends to result in a lot of eye-rolling and cuckoo finger-spinning responses. Never mind that Come On Over is the biggest-selling album of the SoundScan era, with 15 million certified scans, or that the RIAA also rates it as one of the half-dozen biggest sellers of all time, certified as 20-time platinum; in some purists’ minds, those stats are just further strikes against her. But nobody did bubblegum like Shania and her at-the-time producer-husband, Robert ”Mutt” Lange (now ex on both fronts) — whether you’re buying the original country mix of the album or the pop remix. And it’s not just ear candy: There’s a real, underlying feminism in these exclamation point-riddled anthems that’s squarely in the tradition of Loretta Lynn.
18. GUITAR TOWN
With a series of musical and political left turns, Earle exiled himself from mainstream country quite a while ago, so it’s sometimes hard to remember what an effect his 1986 debut had on Nashville. He was Music Row’s smart and impassioned answer to Bruce Springsteen, and songs like ”Fearless Heart” still sound like best-case-scenarios for if the Boss went twangy. Nowadays, Nashville-based artists cover songs by Springsteen, Mellencamp, and Petty at a moment’s notice, without any sense of what made those rockers great. But Earle got it, and has earned his way into their ranks as a contemporary.
19. THESE DAYS
Who says Nashville is perennially behind the curve? With this 2006 release, Gill became the first major-label artist from any genre, of any consequence, to release a four-CD set of all-new material. The conceit was that each of the four discs was in a slightly different country subgenre — one geared toward bluesy rock, another toward bluegrass, one leaning toward gospel, and one just in-the-pocket honky-tonk fare — resulting in a set that truly had something for everybody except possibly hard-core rap buffs. With great quantity comes the potential for great suckage, of course, but all four albums, or sub-albums, are superior fare.
20. ALMOST BLUE
For a lot of us who were around in the early ’80s and listened to more rock than anything Nashville was doing at the time, Costello’s album of classic country covers was our entrée into that world. At the time, he took a lot of crap for it, because most of the album was an homage to a brand of country from the 1960s that was dubbed ”countrypolitan,” which featured strings and female backing chorales. If Costello was gonna go country, the thinking went, why couldn’t he do the rough, hick version of country and not the slick stuff? But he was more interested in saluting great songwriting than playing up some kind of cowpunk schtick, and the fact that he made a George Jones song like ”A Good Year for the Roses” into a huge hit in England was nothing short of a miracle. You could still hardly ask for a better country sampler than an album that revives Hank, Haggard, and Gram Parsons.
21. HERE FOR THE PARTY
When Gretchen Wilson broke out with ”Redneck Woman” in 2003, people were worried about the Faith Hills of the world making country too friendly to pop crossover. Gretchen so rewrote that whole map that now, if anything, the equation is reversed; every other song on country radio plays up the hick angle, and the artists who have a smoother or less regionally distinct approach to the music are at a disadvantage. But forget trends and game-changing: Party lives up to its promisingly celebrative name, running the gamut between ballsy Southern rockers and neo-trad Loretta Lynn tributes. And unlike all the ”attitude”-fueled records that have followed in its wake, every song is a keeper.
22. THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION
The Flying Burrito Brothers
After Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman left the Byrds, they went even country-er…not a move designed to court the Woodstock generation. The two albums they made before Parsons split to go solo are bundled together in their entirety on this essential 2007 reissue, in which amazing originals like ”Hot Burrito #2” (covered by Elvis Costello on Almost Blue) sit comfortably alongside country covers like Dave Dudley’s ”Six Days on the Road” — juxtapositions that surely bewildered hippies and rednecks alike at the time but will delight generations to come.
Gillian Welch grew up in California, the daughter of a writer for the Carol Burnett Show, but from her 1996 debut, you might have thought she’d been transported directly out of the Great Depression in her gingham dress. Questions about ”authenticity” inevitably ensued, but ultimately didn’t seem to matter much in the face of such starkly beautiful songwriting. Her subsequent appearance on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack allowed many new fans to rediscover the brilliance of her T Bone Burnett-produced debut.
24. HORSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR
Big & Rich
As with the Shania album, this will be another controversial choice for purists, some of whom revile this duo in nearly Antichrist-like levels. But it’s hard to think of another album that changed the game for Nashville quite so drastically; its buzzsaw fiddles and hard-rock guitar licks — which seemed radical in 2003 — are now staples of country radio. Part of that has to do with the fact that John Rich cowrites or produces half the songs on the format now, and part of it is sheer influence. But whatever you think of rappers and dwarves suddenly becoming part of country music’s newfangled ”freak parade,” there’s stuff here that would’ve or should’ve been a hit in any country era, like the Buck Owens-influenced ”Big Time.”
25. RAISING SAND
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
Is this improbable pairing — one of the surprise success stories of 2007 — even ”country”? CMT thought so; country radio didn’t. T Bone Burnett’s production certainly straddled rootsy genres, veering more toward an ambient bluesiness than traditional twang. But Alison Krauss has a way of making anything she’s involved with sound pure and ancient; in her company, even Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant sounds like he was to the Southern manor born. It’s an album that seems to be taking place both in Mississippi and in some netherworld, both of them irresistible travel destinations.