As a commercial entity, country music has existed for nearly a century following the 1927 Bristol Sessions with the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. That means it’s older than rock & roll, older than soul, and still going strong in 2022 with branches that have spread far and wide.
But where the recording of albums was concerned, country often lagged behind its popular peers in adopting the format. There are exceptions, but the genre’s album era didn’t get fully into swing until the late Sixties and then began to flourish in the Seventies with a host of classic releases. Even today, there remains a persistent idea that Nashville doesn’t really make albums, just singles surrounded by filler.
This list aims to correct that idea by looking for the finest full-length listens in history. Though Rodgers and the Carters only released sides in their heyday, any country list feels incomplete without them. A handful of other performers are also represented by anthology packages, but we’ve done our best to steer clear of those and choose proper studio albums.
We also tried not to include too many items from any one artist (Dolly, Willie, and Merle have tons of albums, many of which are excellent). Instead we assembled a more varied list that represents the development of country album-making over the decades. You’ll find honky-tonk, western swing, neo-traditionalism, pop country, countrypolitan, and more, from Tom T. Hall to Taylor Swift, from Bob Wills to Brandy Clark.
What you won’t find much of is alt-country, country rock, and Americana, as we tried to keep this list focused on music produced by the Nashville system (or in direct response to it) and marketed to the country audience. That means no Uncle Tupelo or Eagles, though Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch make appearances for sterling work that exists comfortably in both worlds. Maybe we’ll get to that country-rock list another time.
The question “what is country” has been asked endlessly, and definitions can become frayed, contested, and deeply personal. But whether you’re a relatively new country fan or know every George Strait song by heart, we know you’ll find records here that can both reaffirm and redefine what you think this music can be. We sure did.