The year 2019 will go down in history as an era defined by solid country gold from country music’s women. Kacey Musgraves led a Grammy sweep winning all four categories she was nominated for, including the all-genre album of the year category for Golden Hour. Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Marren Morris and Natalie Hemby formed The Highwomen as a movement of inclusion and collaboration. The group made its performance debut during Carlile’s headlining set the 2019 Newport Folk Festival with Dolly Parton, Candi Carpenter and Jason Isbell. Tanya Tucker returned with her first album in 17 years, While I’m Livin’ and received four new Grammy nominations. Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus joined forces for the inescapable hit, “Old Town Road,” and Blake Shelton dominated the airwaves with “God’s Country.”
Here are the albums that defined 2019.
10. Can’t Say I Ain’t Country by Florida Georgia Line
Florida Georgia Line’s unprecedented success is the result of hard work and unmitigated fan loyalty. Coming off 2018’s hit collaborations, Morgan Wallen’s “Up Down” and “Meant to Be” with Bebe Rexha, country fans were mega-ready for the duo’s fourth studio album. The No. 1, “Simple,” has the duo dipping into Mumford & Sons territory with the use of acoustic instrumentation. Jason Aldean guests on “Can’t Hide Red” and Jason Derulo appears on “Women.” The gold-selling, 19-song collection also served as a solid endorsement of rising artist HARDY, who co-wrote eight tracks and appears on “Y’all Boys.”
9. Ain’t Nothin’ To It by Cody Johnson
Johnson epitomizes the belief that country music is what country people will buy. By the time he released his major-label debut, he developed a massive following that led to sold-out tours, a record-breaking draw at RodeoHouston, a CMA Award nomination for best new artist and a performance supporting George Strait at Gillette Stadium. While most of the songwriters who contributed to the album are Nashville-based, Ain’t Nothin’ To It is a prime example of Texas storytelling at its finest with its moments of country metaphor, hardcore honky-tonk and southern soul. The opening title song makes an impact with its anthemic builds and solid wisdom expressing that there are life-affirming rewards to keeping it simple. He aligns himself with his legendary predecessors Charlie Daniels and Roger Miller by covering their respective songs, “Long Haired Country Boy” and “Husbands and Wives.” Hit-maker Dan Couch and Johnson co-wrote “Dear Rodeo,” a confessional to Johnson’s life competing on the professional rodeo circuit. Johnson’s faith-inspired original, “His Name Is Jesus,” closes the 15-song album.
8. GIRL by Maren Morris
A vital element of a true artist is when they go into the studio, fans can expect that artist to record something innovative every time. Morris exemplifies this idea with her sophomore album, GIRL. The 14-track collection not only builds on the work of Hero, it also evolves her signature country-pop into unparalleled realms while staying true to her Texas storyteller roots. Co-writing all the songs and working with producer Greg Kurstin, Morris explores themes of self-acceptance, unconditional love and sensuality over a progressive soundtrack that blends soul, Americana, rock and dance. The album’s distinctiveness transitioned her to a main-stage favorite at several festivals, including Brandi Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend and the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. The opening title song, co-written with Kurstin and “The Middle” co-writer Sarah Aarons, and “The Bones” are platinum-selling singles. Morris and Carlile share a Grammy nomination for their collaboration, “Common.”
7. What You See Is What You Get by Luke Combs
Combs continued to build on the sensation of his triple-platinum debut, This One’s For You, with the release of his sophomore album. The success of the lead single “Beer Never Broke My Heart” made Combs unavoidable by the time 17-song collection arrived in November, days before Combs took home CMA Awards for male vocalist and song of the year for “Beautiful Crazy.” Abundant in drinking songs, the moments where Combs aggrandizes self-acceptance, love and leaving life better than he found it stand out powerfully. Eric Church guests on “Does to Me,” while Brooks & Dunn appear on “1, 2 Many.” Combs’ year in What You See Is What You Get wrapped with two nights at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena with surprise guests Thomas Rhett, Keith Urban and Old Crow Medicine Show.
6. Let It Roll by Midland
Coming off the Grammy-nominated debut, On the Rocks, Midland’s Jess Carson, Cameron Duddy and Mark Wystrach expanded on their vintage country sound with their sophomore album. The 14-song collection is a freewheeling body of work that gleans metaphorical ideas from life on the open road over a soundtrack that effortlessly incorporates SoCal country with honky-tonk music. Standouts include “Mr. Lonely,” the trucker song, “Fourteen Gears,” and “Gettin’ the Feel,” the latter of which details coming to terms with neglected relationships.
5. Heartache Medication by Jon Pardi
Heartache Medication continues to show that no one can weave compelling melodies around stone-cold country music like Pardi. He doesn’t deviate from his roots throughout the 14-song album, which offers plenty of hardcore drinking songs and nostalgic moments that salute salt-of-the-earth, country folks. He co-wrote seven songs, including the title track, the eulogy to his grandmother, “Starlight,” and “Just Like Old Times,” the latter of which plays out like an answer to Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.” Lauren Alaina guests on “Don’t Blame It on the Whiskey,” an original by Eric Church, Michael Heeney, Luke Laird and Miranda Lambert. Originally, Church demoed the sweeping, heart-wrenching ballad for 2011’s Chief.
4. Blue Roses by Runaway June
The intricate harmonies of Runaway June’s Naomi Cooke, Hannah Mulholland and Jennifer Wayne make them appear as if they were destined for their musical sisterhood. The way their vocals bleed into one another is hypnotic. Their 10-song debut is a solid introduction to their skills as songwriters and arrangers while tackling themes of breakups, unconditional love and family. Standouts include the irresistible “Buy My Own Drinks,” the plaintive “Blue Roses,” their take on Dwight Yoakam’s “Fast As You” and the passionate “Good, Bad & Ugly.”
3. Wildcard by Miranda Lambert
With every release, Lambert establishes new and innovative chapters in her career. Wildcard is no different. With irresistible hooks over dynamic blends of rock, soul and blues, the 14-song album plays out like a nonstop party while addressing themes of owning mistakes, self-acceptance and love. The riotous opener “White Trash” sets the tone for the collection and offers a refreshing take on being a redneck with money. She trusts that time will clean all her sins away in “It All Comes out in the Wash” and channels her inner Mavis Staples in the bluesy “Holy Water.” Maren Morris helps Lambert pour on the sass in “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” while the incendiary “Locomotive” dips into punk rock territory. Western-themed whistles set the pace for the uplifting “Bluebird,” which sings of keeping a light on in the soul and alludes to the album’s title in the chorus. Wildcard is Lambert’s first album with producer Jay Joyce.
2. While I’m Livin’ by Tanya Tucker
The era of Tucker’s While I’m Livin’, an album helmed by Brandi Carlile and Tucker’s longtime friend Shooter Jennings, is a prime example of a comeback done right. Comprising of material mostly written by Carlile and her longtime collaborators, twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, the 10-song album is plentiful in classic western themes and explores her colorful history of half a century in country music. Full of grit and candor, Tucker gives new life to Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” and the David Lynn Jones and Waylon Jennings duet “High Ridin’ Heroes.” Tucker co-wrote the finale “Bring My Flowers Now,” which encourages appreciating loved ones in the present before it’s too late. The song is nominated for song of the year, best country solo performance, best country song and best country album at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards. And yes, that’s really Tucker riding a bucking Friesian horse on the album cover.
1. The Highwomen by The Highwomen
A project like The Highwomen is mega-rare given the unprecedented talent and star-power members Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires bring. All are arguably the most in-demand artists of the modern age. Yet, it was imperative to them to dedicate 2019 to reviving classic country sounds from a woman’s perspective. Shires came up with the idea for the band and presented her idea to Carlile, who invited Morris and Hemby to join the band. The title track is a new arrangement of “The Highwaymen,” the signature song of The Highwaymen’s Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. “Redesigning Women” salutes all the hardworking women who won’t compromise their view of a life well-lived. They offer heavenly inclusivity in “Crowded Table,” and climb into Dolly Parton, songbird registers in the lesbian-inspired waltz, “If She Ever Leaves Me.” Also featured on Tucker’s While I’m Livin’, the cowboy ballad “The Wheels of Laredo,” an original by Carlile, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, closes the collection. Sheryl Crow and Yola appear as backing vocalists.