3. Eric Church, 'The Outsiders'
Outsiders to whom? Church's previous LP won Album of the Year at both the CMAs and ACMs, and his previous summer was spent cracking cold ones on Kenny Chesney's No Shoes Nation stadium tour. But like the so-called Outlaws before him, this sensitive bruiser knows the power of a good origin story, and here he spins himself into a junkyard dog who turns up the volume and gets in touch with his heavy metal side. Like the Outlaws, he also knows how to write a great song, and this album is full of future classics: On "Talladega," a group of high school buds drive cross-country to watch a group of professionals drive in circles, and "Give Me Back My Hometown" manages to fill even a Pizza Hut visit with pathos. N.M.