19. Robert Ellis, 'The Lights From the Chemical Plant'
Ellis is a Nashville songwriter with a poet's heart who doesn't sweat mainstream conventions, and his third LP is a fully realized masterpiece. See "A Bottle of Wine," which sets a scene with the title beverage and "a bag of cocaine" before spiraling into a black hole of damaged love over solo piano and sax. If you're wondering if it's even "country music," per se, look towards its soulful twang and fearless storytelling. And who'd have guessed Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" would sound so good with pedal steel? W.H.