40 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2019 - Rolling Stone
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40 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2019

The genres delivered bold new sounds this year, thanks to LPs from Miranda Lambert, Orville Peck, and Tanya Tucker

The country and Americana genres were responsible for some fantastic albums in 2019, with many of them defined by a left-field approach that resulted in bold new sounds.

Miranda Lambert mixed alt-rock with her country twang by teaming up with producer Jay Joyce. Texas band Mike and the Moonpies decamped to London to record with a symphony. Buzzy masked singer Orville Peck brought an air of mystery and gothic grandeur to the genre. Sturgill Simpson made his skronk-country record. And Dan Auerbach cemented his old-meets-new production style with three knockouts albums from Yola, Kendell Marvel, and Dee White.

And then there was Brandi Carlile, who not only formed one of the most vital and versatile supergroups in recent memory with the Highwomen, but also revealed a whole new side of country veteran Tanya Tucker by co-producing her marvelous comeback LP While I’m Livin‘.

An undercurrent of solidarity was also detectable this year, as artists rallied behind both musical and cultural causes. See the Highwomen, yes, but also Our Native Daughters, Maren Morris, Michaela Anne, and Emily Scott Robinson, who all put out albums with a message.

And some albums, from Jon Pardi’s good clean fun to Paul Cauthen’s don’t-tell-your-mama-about-it, just wanted to further the party.

Here’s the 40 best country and Americana LPs of the year.

emily robinson
21

Emily Scott Robinson, ‘Traveling Mercies’

“Mama has all kinds of dreams/Where she goes looking for hidden things,” sang Emily Scott Robinson in “Delta Line,” a track from her second album Traveling Mercies. That restless spirit coursed through the entire project, a vibrant, mostly acoustic batch of songs from a writer who could evoke the empathy of Patty Griffin (“Ghosts in Every Town”), the narrative concision of Richard Thompson (“Overalls”), and the sly wit of Brandy Clark (“Pie Song”) with her keen observations. The stories weren’t always hers, as with the riveting “Shoshone Rose,” but Robinson’s own experiences informed her writing as well. In “The Dress,” she recalled the horror of her sexual assault and asked questions for which there were no satisfactory answers (“Was it the dress I wore? Was it the wine he poured?”), dragging her anger and fear out into the light. She still somehow ended the album on a hopeful note, offering a prayer and “Traveling Mercies” to anyone who — like pretty much all of us — feels uncertain about where the whole thing is ultimately headed. J.F.

Luke Combs
20

Luke Combs, ‘What You See Is What You Get’

One way to handle a second album bound to anoint a fast-rising superstar as the biggest phenomenon in country music is to take no chances and ensure the transition of power goes as smoothly as possible. Luke Combs did just that, and to great effect, on What You See Is What You Get, his 17-song country-radio-playlist-disguised-as-album that’s crammed with Hallmark-worthy reflection (“Refrigerator Door”), hard-won pick-me-ups (“Every Little Bit Helps”), and crushed Miller Lite cans (most songs). Despite its size, Combs’ second album was shockingly devoid of filler, leaving no hook unsung, no country song archetype not accounted for (A song about Mexico? Check). It was a testament only to Comb’s larger-than-life charisma and vocal delivery that he somehow managed to pull it off. J.B.

Ian Noe
19

Ian Noe, ‘Between the Country’

This Kentucky singer-songwriter’s debut was one of the startling shocks of 2019: a fully-formed tour-de-force that chronicled the dead-end depression (“Dead on the River”) and gentle grace (“If Today Doesn’t Do Me In”) of 21st-century small-town claustrophobia. But the John Prine-channeling Between the County ultimately triumphed not for treating Appalachia as anthropology (it didn’t), but for its moments of literary left-field country, like the profound portraiture of “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb’),” and “Barbara’s Song,” in which Noe assumed the first-person narration of an early 20th-century coal-powered train. “It’s the way family would talk and how they’d tell old stories,” Noe said of his the plainspoken idioms that litter his record. “It always appealed to me.” J.B.

jon pardi
18

Jon Pardi, ‘Heartache Medication’

Pardi got tagged as old school, and it’s not wrong. The opening “Old Hat,” for example, stanned explicitly for old-fashioned values with foreground twin guitars. As the album moved along, the hard and heavy sound he terms “turbo tonk” took center stage. A left-behind-and-balling ballad called “Ain’t Always the Cowboy” built to an arena-destroying guitar solo. “Me and Jack” tag-teamed the booze to a draw while what sounded like a battle of the bands — Hank Jr. v. Hank III — went at it behind him. “I Tied One On” sounded like a great lost Jason & the Nashville Scorchers track. “They used to call me country,” he shouted after listing genre signifiers like freight trains and prisons, Waylon and Willie. Tellingly, he did it backed by power chords and drums cranked to 11 and having a blast. Pardi hearty! D.C.

erin enderlin
17

Erin Enderlin, ‘Faulkner County’

With cuts for heavy hitters like Luke Bryan, Lee Ann Womack, Alan Jackson, and Randy Travis, Arkansas native Erin Enderlin was always an accomplished writer. But it was her solo work that was truly compelling, and it was on full display on her second studio album Faulkner County. The LP actually comprised four EPs Enderlin released throughout 2019, but, despite its composition, was a remarkably cohesive listen, stitching together thoughtfully detailed songs with strong narrative bents. A highlight was “Broken,” on which Enderlin turned her empathic eye to teenage pregnancy. Co-producers Jamey Johnson and Jim “Moose” Brown — along with a laundry list of guests that included Cody Jinks and Alison Krauss — gave Enderlin’s characters and their stories plenty of room to breathe, making for an album as satisfying as your favorite short story collection. B.M.

todd snider
16

Todd Snider, ‘Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3’

An alt-country wordsmith of the first order, Snider came back from a battle with opiate addiction, sense of humor and fighting spirit intact. The Dylan-esque “Talking Reality Television Blues” traced a narcotizing line from Milton Berle to The Apprentice, and “Working on a Song” was the well-observed life story of a Nashville songwriter. As a whole, the album was like Johnny Cash’s rebel spirit mixed with the mordant wit of Randy Newman, and it made for one of the year’s best heartland statements, even if Nashville wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. J.D.
maren morris
15

Maren Morris, ‘Girl’

What a year it’s been for Maren Morris. The solo artist and Highwoman kicked off 2019 with the release of “Girl,” a soulful slice of empowering country pop (with an equally affecting video) that frankly chronicled the ups and downs of womanhood. The album Girl was equally kaleidoscopic, with Morris’ rich vocal tying together influences of pop, rock, R&B, and soul. Standout tracks included the Brandi Carlile collaboration “Common,” which called for love in the face of hatred, and single “The Bones,” which cleverly likened a successful relationship to a well-built house. Girl won Album of the Year at this year’s CMA Awards, a special moment for Morris who used the occasion to mourn the passing of the album’s late producer, Busbee, who died at the age of 43 in September. B.M.

runaway june
14

Runaway June, ‘Blue Roses’

The wonder of “Buy My Own Drinks” isn’t just that it managed to be a significant radio hit in an era programmed to include just one woman’s voice an hour. It’s that it managed the feat both by beating the gents at their own stack-the-rhymes-high country-pop game with an anthem about just how unnecessary some bros are: Naomi Cooke, Hannah Mulholland, and Jennifer Wayne can also take themselves to bed — and be their own boyfriend once they get there, too. Elsewhere, it was the shocks of singer-songwriter recognition that had you leaning in: the “Reynolds Wrap on rabbit ears” that opens “We Were Rich” or the “makeup still painted on my pillow case” in “Good, Bad & Ugly.” And was that really Dwight Yoakam’s vengeful and randy “Fast As You” they’re killing? Blue Roses promised that the Junes can do whatever they wish. D.C.

midland
13

Midland, ‘Let It Roll’

After their debut LP On the Rocks, Midland — the Texas trio of Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson, and Cameron Duddy — could have gone any number of ways with their steel-guitar-heavy Nineties country grooves and hearty mustaches. In less capable hands, all that goodness could have become pastiche or parody, or they could have polished up those melodic chops and made something more serious, less rowdy, less (gasp) fun. Lucky us, Midland did no such thing on Let It Roll, which found them both having a blast and producing delicious, traditionally-built tunes that showed paying tribute to the past doesn’t always have to be done with somber fiddle. The songs were meant for long drives (in a pink Cadillac, if you have one), long hours of debauchery (in a pink leisure suit, if you got one), and long nights of line dancing (in pink cowboy boots, if you please). Everything here was done in the key of Midland: a drinkin’ song with a sense of humor, as many cheating songs as love songs, and some gorgeously sentimental moments, too, like “Lost in the Night,” where Duddy took lead vocals. M.M.

Jeremy Ivey
12

Jeremy Ivey, ‘The Dream and the Dreamer’

Along with friend and fellow Nashvillian Darrin Bradbury, Jeremy Ivey was one of two very exciting new signings to Anti- Records in 2019. Ivey made his Anti- debut with The Dream and the Dreamer, an expansive, immersive collection of cerebral country-rock songs. Lead single “Story of a Fish” bordered on psychedelic, with its allegorical lyrics and off-kilter, Beatlesque arrangement. Opener “Diamonds Back to Coal” pulled no punches about American history, with lyrics like, “Is this the land we borrowed? Is this the land we stole?” The album also featured contributions from Ivey’s wife Margo Price, who produced the LP and provided harmony vocals to another album standout, the laid-back rocker “Greyhound.” Ivey was an integral part of Price’s own solo projects — it’s great to see him getting his due. B.M.

kendall marvel
11

Kendell Marvel, ‘Solid Gold Sounds’

Singer-songwriter Kendell Marvel found an approach that suited his sensibilities for his second album Solid Gold Sounds, which was produced by the in-demand team of Dan Auerbach and Dave Ferguson. Marvel’s outlaw persona — a big presence on his previous album — was able to sneak in and out of songs without wearing out its welcome, riding away one minute in the ominous “Hard Time With the Truth” and worrying about a hell-on-wheels woman in “Blood in the Water.” But the real revelations were in the softer, more delicate numbers like “When It’s Good,” in which he rhapsodized about a complicated love against a pillowy backdrop of harmonies and steel. And in his cover of the Bee Gees’ “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” Marvel displayed a smooth, buttery croon that echoed Charlie Rich’s heyday — a mighty flex that didn’t require him to puff out his chest. J.F.

Michaela Anne
10

Michaela Anne, ‘Desert Dove’

The Nashville songwriter dismantled any notions of being a mere honky-tonk stylist on her fourth album Desert Dove, a textured portrayal of turmoil and restlessness set to a mix of West Coast-country, atmospheric indie-rock indebted reverb, and plaintive folk-pop. “The goal,” she said of her artistic breakthrough, “was to create a vibe.” On highlights like “One Heart,” “Child of the Wind,” and “Somebody New,” Michaela Anne proved that mood-creation didn’t have to come at the expense of old-fashioned song-craft, and should there be any purists with qualms about her newly confident sonic direction, she has a song for that: “If I wanted your opinion,” she sang, “you would know.” J.B.

Tyler Childers
9

Tyler Childers, ‘Country Squire’

With a bigger budget, audience, and profile, Tyler Childers could have gone in any number of directions for his follow-up to 2017’s Purgatory. Instead, the Kentucky singer-songwriter simply doubled-down on the type of hardscrabble country on which he made his name, mixing his winking humor on “Gemini” and “Ever’ Lovin Hand” with the sweet-hearted romanticism of “All Your’n” and the tough rural realism of “Creeker” and “House Fire.” Childers’ songwriting was at its best, having reached a new level of plainspoken sparseness. On Country Squire, he emerged as a honky-tonk prophet. “Back when I was younger, didn’t have a clue,” he sang on “Gemini.” “Come to think of it, I still doubt I do.” J.B.

our native daughters
8

Our Native Daughters, ‘Songs of Our Native Daughters’

When Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell announced their new project Our Native Daughters, the foursome’s debut album quickly became one of the most anticipated releases of the year. Songs of Our Native Daughters more than lived up to that hype and was one of the rare “supergroup” projects that was far more than the sum of its (incredibly talented) parts. Through 11 original songs and two covers, the band shared black women’s stories with grace, frankness, and virtuosic musicianship, and notably did so in a genre — old-time string band music — that has historically prized white, male artists. On “Quasheba, Quasheba,” Russell communed with an ancestor who was sold into slavery. Giddens reimagined a minstrel song on “Better Git Your Learnin’,” subverting the genre by singing of agency and empowerment. And the group’s cover of Bob Marley’s 1973 song “Slave Driver” was particularly potent in this context, tying them to a larger legacy of black artists confronting slavery through song. B.M.

Kelsey Waldon
7

Kelsey Waldon, ‘White Noise/White Lines’

With her earlier two albums (2014’s The Goldmine and 2016’s I’ve Got a Way), Kentucky native Kelsey Waldon quietly announced herself as one of the most exciting young voices in country songwriting. To wit, her third album White Noise / White Lines was her first release as a signee to John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, which made her the first new addition to the label’s roster in over 15 years. While it’s undeniable that the Oh Boy seal of approval added a level of clout to the release, the LP spoke firmly for itself. Waldon fashioned White Noise / White Lines as a loose autobiography, taking listeners on a tour of the people and places that informed her Kentucky upbringing and, accordingly, how she understands the world. Standout track “Kentucky 1988” summed this up beautifully, serving as an origin story for Waldon and a thesis statement for a richly rendered album that shares more with each repeated listen. B.M.

randy houser
6

Randy Houser, ‘Magnolia’

After a few years of successful but vacuous radio hits, many of them written by outside songwriters, Randy Houser stepped away from the mainstream country game to write what would become his fifth album, Magnolia. It was a brilliant decision. Stripped clean of any glossy production and emphasizing Houser’s marvelous voice, the LP drove home the fact that the Mississippi native is a traditional country artist — not a homogenized trend-chaser. “When I turned 40 my middle finger started going up,” he told Rolling Stone, “and kept getting stiffer and stiffer.” “No Stone Unturned” and “What Whiskey Does” had hints of that defiance (as well as their share of chemical vices), while “Evangeline” proved not all road trip songs have to be cheesy. But it’s “No Good Place to Cry” that glued the album together, with Houser singing the most tortured, and convincing, country vocal of 2019. J.H.

mike and the moonpies
5

Mike and the Moonpies, ‘Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold’

One of Texas’s quintessential working bands heads to London to make a surprise album with a symphony? This ain’t your daddy’s European vacation, y’all. When Mike and the Moonpies set out to record the follow-up to 2018’s Steak Night at the Prairie Rose, they left the bluebonnets in the rearview in favor of Ol’ Blue eyes, tapping the London Symphony Orchestra to record Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold at Abbey Road Studios with a heavy Rat Pack spirit. Yeah, there are dramatic strings and some production gloss on tunes like “Cheap Silver” and “Miss Fortune,” and the lyrical references are more cosmopolitan. But only Mike Harmeier and his Lone Star brood could get so out of their element to make something so deeply true to who they are. M.M.

highwomen
4

The Highwomen, ‘The Highwomen’

With songs like “Redesigning Women,” “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” and the ballsy title track, the Highwomen’s self-titled album appeared to court a certain audience. But this was a record for everyone, with a message of solidarity that transcended age, race, and, yes, gender. Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris sang about topics affecting us all, from the grand (the persecution of the historical characters in “Highwomen”) to the minute (the glorious kiss-off “Don’t Call Me”). And the tracks that do zero in with a fine point — like the Carlile-sung “If She Ever Leaves Me” — are still wildly relatable. “I love that we have songs on this album about shattering female stereotypes to a gay country love song, and songs about losing loved ones,” Morris said to Rolling Stone. “It’s all real and it’s all country.” J.H.

yola
3

Yola, ‘Walk Through Fire’

Prior to launching her solo career, British singer-songwriter Yola worked as a top-line songwriter, sang with Massive Attack, and performed in bands including Bugz in the Attic and Phantom Limb. There was scant little evidence of Bristol-born Yolanda Quartey’s pop and electronic pedigree on her proper debut Walk Through Fire, however — instead, it was a smooth-sipping master class in country-soul, produced by Dan Auerbach and played with knowing expertise by the Easy Eye Sound house band. There were shades of Dusty in Memphis (“Faraway Look”) and even Carole King’s sturdy singer-songwriter pop (“Still Gone”), but Yola sounded equally confident with more down-home traditions, as heard on the fiddle-laced title track and the lush, gentle ballad “Shady Grove.” Above it all, her deft sense of melody and commanding voice shined through, rising from a low purr to an explosive, cathartic cry on “Lonely the Night” and caressing an easygoing, windows-down groove in “Ride Out in the Country.” J.F.

Miranda Lambert
2

Miranda Lambert, ‘Wildcard’

Working with innovative producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Brothers Osborne) for the first time, Miranda Lambert reinvigorated her sound with rock & roll energy on Wildcard. On these 14 new songs, the country star shrugged off life’s little mishaps (and men) in the lead single “It All Comes Out in the Wash” and then knowingly chuckled about seeing her face adorning the tabloids in “Pretty Bitchin’.” In “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” Lambert and Maren Morris traded wicked fantasies about knocking off an unfaithful partner. But there were also hints of Lambert’s new love, as with the smoldering “Fire Escape” and the vulnerable “How Dare You Love.” She experimented with her sound on the sleek “Mess With My Head” and the punk-tinged “Locomotive,” but easily switched gears to bedrock country in “Tequila Does” and the stark closing track “Dark Bars.” Through it all she held fast to hope. “If the whole world just stops singing and all the stars go dark/I’ll keep a light on in my soul and a bluebird in my heart,” she sang in “Bluebird,” a perfectly uplifting message for these (or any other) dark times. J.F.

tanya tucker
1

Tanya Tucker, ‘While I’m Livin”

Although Tucker hates to refer to it as such, her “comeback” album couldn’t have turned out any better — While I’m Livin’ featured 10 expertly chosen songs, two Grammy-winning producers, and one unmistakable voice. (It also netted her four Grammy nominations of her own.) A concise 35 minutes, the LP captured the outlaw essence of the one-time teenage star without resting on past laurels — there’s no “Delta Dawn” remake here. Instead, co-producers Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings challenged Tucker, throwing a cover of Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” at her, along with a wealth of brand-new songs written especially for the 61-year-old by Carlile and Phil and Tim Hanseroth. “Mustang Ridge” and “The Wheels of Laredo” nodded to her Texas raising, and “I Don’t Owe You Anything” found her playing the badass to the hilt. But it’s “Bring My Flowers Now,” about gathering those rosebuds while ye may, that was the album’s apex. “Good music is good, no matter what year, what generation. ‘Delta Dawn’ is always going to be a great song,” Tucker told Rolling Stone. “And that’s why you keep striving to find songs like that.” J.H.

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