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50 Rock Albums Every Country Fan Should Own

From the ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ to the Kings of Leon, 50 LPs that rock the jukebox

Rock Albums

The Eagles and Elvis Presley

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Getty; Michael Ochs/Getty

Country music’s love affair with rock music has been an open secret for a long time, but now that lyrics sport influences like concert T-shirts, the honky-tonk has gone heavy. Lady Antebellum sings about a Def Leppard song (“Damn You Seventeen”), Kenny Chesney sneaks in a reference to John Cougar Mellencamp (“American Kids”) and distortion-pedal-blazing outlaw Eric Church wrote a whole song around Bruce Springsteen (“Springsteen”) — not to mention the genre opened its arms to rock ex-pats like Bon Jovi and Darius Rucker. Here are 50 rock albums that should be rattling around inside a pick-up’s glove compartment or blasting from the pocket of a blue jean.

Cinderella, 'Long Cold Winter' (1988)

Cinderella, 'Long Cold Winter' (1988)

Cinderella, ‘Long Cold Winter’ (1988)

They still look totally poofed out on the back cover, so at the time nobody much noticed under all that Aqua Net and Max Factor, but here's where hair-metal found its roots — which, oddly enough for suburban Philly boys, turned out mainly to be in Seventies Southern rock. On the inner sleeve, one guy's wearing a cowboy hat, and live they'd taken to covering "Sweet Home Alabama." Tom Keifer, who 14 years later would sing on a Top 10 country album by Andy Griggs, plays some acoustic guitar, some National Steel, some harmonica. And all the hits — "Coming Home," "The Last Mile," "Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone")," the perfectly propulsive "Gypsy Road" — are somehow about trying to get back home again, one of country's eternal themes. Which might explain why you can still hear echoes of "Gypsy Road" in songs by guys like Randy Montana and Toby Keith. C.E.

Social Distortion, 'Social Distortion' (1990)

Social Distortion, 'Social Distortion' (1990)

Social Distortion, ‘Social Distortion’ (1990)

Long before the modern neo-folk revival made its way to the quaint burgs of Brooklyn and London, these safety-pinned Brit-punk acolytes from southern California realized they had more in common with country's outlaws than a penchant for brown liquors. Social Distortion's third album, and major-label debut, made their devotion to an evolving "cowpunk" scene evident by covering Johnny Cash's classic "Ring of Fire"; but there's a swing on songs like "Ball and Chain" and "Story of My Life" that suggested what Cash could've become if he'd grown up in the L.A. punk scene, power chord-crunching that rockabilly romp. Even frontman Mike Ness' lyrics — "I'm lonely/And I'm tired/And I can't take any more pain" — moaned like a forlorn country lament. M.M.

The Jayhawks, 'Hollywood Town Hall' (1992)

The Jayhawks, 'Hollywood Town Hall' (1992)

The Jayhawks, ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ (1992)

When you get right down to it, country music wants to be sad. And there's no more forlorn sound in modern twang-rock than the vocal harmonies of Jayhawks main men Gary Louris and Mark Olson, which could only sound more grief-stricken if Emmylou Harris herself were to sing along. The Jayhawks' big-league debut is a stately affair, evoking shades of Gram Parsons' Flying Burrito Brothers. It suggests how Tom Petty might have turned out if he'd come up playing country music in Minnesota rather than rock in Florida, with a loose country-soul sound conjured by Black Crowes producer George Drakoulias. Petty sideman Benmont Tench contributes his distinctive keyboards to leadoff track "Waiting for the Sun," which should have been a hit — and it kind of was a year later for Petty, whose "Mary Jane's Last Dance" kicks off with the same stuttering riff. D.M.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, 'Murder Ballads' (1996)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, 'Murder Ballads' (1996)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Murder Ballads’ (1996)

From the Louvin Brothers resuscitating a British tale of woe for "Knoxville Girl" to Johnny Cash wanting to grab a "submachine" to kill his wife in "Delia's Gone," the murder ballad has long been one of the strongest vertebrae in country's backbone. Perennially morbid singer-songwriter Nick Cave and his band of Bad Seeds tried their hands at the form in the mid-Nineties, assassinating more than 60 men, women and children in ways both comic and tragic over the course of an hour on their ninth studio record. Most impressive is the fact that the majority of the songs were originals, save two beefed-up traditional numbers ("Henry Lee" and his extra-profane take on "Stagger Lee") and a Dylan cover ("Death Is Not the End"). By the time he was done with the record, he told Rolling Stone in 1996, "I'd exhausted my interest in murder as a metaphor for things." K.G.

My Morning Jacket, 'The Tennessee Fire' (1999)

My Morning Jacket, 'The Tennessee Fire' (1999)

My Morning Jacket, ‘The Tennessee Fire’ (1999)

While Louisville, Kentucky's My Morning Jacket is now more likely to fill arenas with spiraling psychedelia, their 1999 debut album was a dreamy, restless take on the foundations of country life without any pretense of embodying them literally. This is a record of the in-between and the sideways, with Jim James' "cocaine smile" ballads emanating from a cavern of reverb (evoking legendary Nashville studio the Quonset Hut). There's the bare-bones harmony of "Old Sept Blues" and the haunting, ethereal twang of "Nashville to Kentucky" that fans of Sturgill Simpson would sidle up to. MMJ masterfully exploited the volatile, diverse capabilities of country instrumentation, taking pedal steel to distant, inspired places. M.M.

Drive-By Truckers, 'Southern Rock Opera' (2001)

Drive-By Truckers, 'Southern Rock Opera' (2001)

Drive-By Truckers, ‘Southern Rock Opera’ (2001)

Southern Rock Opera wasn't Drive-By Truckers' first great record, but it was the first to make clear just how massively ambitious these guys from Sweet Home Alabama really were. The story centers on the rise and untimely fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose Seventies Southern rock pretty much created the template for 21st-Century arena country, with the Truckers providing a sonic demonstration via one triple-guitar epic after another. "Southern Rock Opera" forges a Yellowhammer State version of Mount Rushmore, placing Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant alongside Crimson Tide football coach Bear Bryant and the patron saint of segregation, Gov. George Wallace. Guitarist Patterson Hood sings the closing "Angels and Fuselage" as the doomed Van Zant, howling that he's "scared shitless of what's coming next." Just immortality, and enshrinement as one of "The Three Alabama Icons." D.M.

Kings of Leon, 'Because of the Times' (2007)

Kings of Leon, 'Because of the Times' (2007)

Kings of Leon, ‘Because of the Times’ (2007)

Shiny leather jackets aside, there's no doubt that the Followills are true country folk — brothers Caleb, Jared and Nathan grew up the poor sons of an itinerant preacher (later joining cousin Matthew in Nashville to pursue their rock dreams) — and even put their rural origins on full display in the documentary Talihina Sky. It's here on the band's third LP that the Kings' southern roots formed a perfect crest with their newfound slickness. The songs explode like a shaken can of soda, no longer confined by the constraints of religion or small-town life, especially on the drunken waltz of "The Runner" and the booming "Knocked Up," which was driven by Caleb's sing-scatting about a talk-of-the-town pregnancy. M.M.

Various Artists, 'Country Funk 1969-1975' (2012)

Various Artists, 'Country Funk 1969-1975' (2012)

Various Artists, ‘Country Funk 1969-1975’ (2012)

This shockingly great comp from boutique crate-digger imprint Light in the Attic delivered on the simple majesty of its title, crisscrossing America geographically (the first three songs were about viewing big bad Los Angeles through the prism of Memphis, Texas, Birmingham and/or Georgia) and stylistically, with room for Louisiana legend Bobby Charles' phenomenally laid-back "Street People" and Kentucky-born wild man Jim Ford's frenzied shouts of "I'm gonna make her love me till the cows come home!" Bobbie Gentry sang "He Made a Woman Out of Me"; Gray Fox sang "Hawg Frog." Most country music nowadays valorizes small-town life in an Anytown, U.S.A. sense; the very best imbues it with this level of spunk and regional specificity. Don’t sleep on the 2014 sequel, either. R.H.