It would be easy for anyone reading this to wonder if our Top 21 Albums of 2019 is little more than a tribute to Brandi Carlile. And let’s be honest, such an article would be more than well deserved, thanks to a masterful performance at the Grammys, her work as one of The Highwomen, and her acting as both songwriter and producer for Tanya Tucker’s stunning new album (she also performed a duet on Sheryl Crow’s album contained on this list).
As hard is it might be to believe, there’s much more to the past year in country music than Carlile’s artistic dominance. Established stars and surging young guns brought their best while a handful of fellas are hellbent on reliving the neon-lit glory days of Garth, Alan, Clint, and Strait. And speaking of King George; he’s on here too.
The Highwomen’s The Highwomen
It’s not a stretch to think a decade from now, hell, two decades from now, country and Americana music fans will be able to easily decipher 2019 as the year of Brandi Carlile. Along with another 2019 queen, Maren Morris, as well as Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby, Carlile helps make up the coolest country supergroup we’ve seen in perhaps decades. Sure, Carlile and Morris rightfully grabbed headlines for their own producing and recording (as noted on this same list), but together, the quartet injected undeniable firepower into the notion that 2019 was the year of the woman in country music.
Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard
Do you know why you’ve never heard someone tell a story that revolves around a less-than-excellent Miranda Lambert record? Because such a notion seems to be unbelievably far-fetched. With a tour bus full of awards from every association imaginable, and her star burning brighter than perhaps ever before, it’s more than encouraging to know Lambert didn’t take the making of her latest record anything less than deadly serious. With the help of her usual all-star cast of co-writers including Liz Rose and Jack Ingram, Lambert reestablished her greatness, ensuring the artistic highs of her excellent 2016 Weight of These Wings was anything but the bottom of the tank. Produced by noted country and rock combiner Jay Joyce, Lambert’s signature forcefulness feels even more empowered, yet her sentimentality even more graceful.
Luke Combs’ What You See is What You Get
As hard as Luke Combs may try to come off as just your everyday, average country lovin’ fella, such an idea is now laughably off base. With the chart-busting release of his sophomore full-length album, the deceptively titled, What You See is What You Get, the North Carolina native has become arguably the biggest new generation male country star of the past few years. There are crowd-pleasing song collabs with Brooks & Dunn and Eric Church, but the stars of this album are the ones where Combs is on his own. The best artists can take seemingly simplistic ideas and infuse them with life in order to make something magical, as is the case with the album’s lead single “Beer Never Broke My Heart.” Combs is that type of magician. Combs isn’t any ordinary dude; red Solo cup be damned.
Maren Morris’ GIRL
If there had been any doubts as to whether or not Maren Morris was an A-list star, that small amount of concern was sledgehammered into oblivion with the release of GIRL. Not only was it a massive streaming success immediately upon its March release, but it was rightfully universally acclaimed by music critics. Many noted the album was a big leap forward in almost every way from her debut record and signaled the arrival of a bolder artist, perhaps strengthened by her 2017 pop crossover success with “The Middle.” That confidence came through even more when Morris joined up with the Highwomen, lending her voice to another one of the year’s greatest albums.
Thomas Rhett’s Center Point Road
Thomas Rhett was reportedly “shocked” to learn his latest album, Center Point Road had been nominated for the 2020 Best Country Album Grammy, though we’ll argue he shouldn’t have been. The album broke all sorts of streaming records for country albums upon its release, after all. Named for a road in Hendersonville, TN where he grew up, Rhett made his fourth album, and second consecutive Billboard 200 topper, his most personal one yet. Acting as co-producer, Rhett also co-wrote every one of the album’s 16 tracks, including the addictive hit single “Look What God Gave Her.”
Lady Antebellum’s Ocean
It’s hard to believe that pop-country giants Lady Antebellum and glossy super producer Dann Huff hadn’t worked together until they met to record the Grammy-winning group’s latest album Ocean. Billed by some reviewers as a sort of return to form following the band’s 2015 hiatus and subsequent records failing to land the commercial punch of their earlier days. The sweet, yet powerful harmonies that powered the group to crossover smash status a decade ago are beautifully heard on Ocean, and proves the trio has plenty left in the tank.
Jon Pardi’s Heartache Medication
California native Jon Pardi is every bit as vital to the ‘90s neo-traditional resurgence as anyone. Over the course of his trio of records, Pardi has laid a believable foundation as the sort of artist who can appreciate shredding electric guitars just as much as he can sawing fiddles and crying pedal steel. The title track and lead-single hit near the top of the singles charts in the US and Canada, thanks as to both its stylistic opposition to much of what is on pop-dominated radio and its highly relatable tale of treating sadness with sipping something strong.
In the weeks prior to the release of Tanya Tucker’s first album in 17 years, the famed “Delta Dawn” singer often bristled at the idea her new record represented a “comeback.” She has been steadily touring, but there’s no denying this record, at the very least, reminded hordes of folks who might’ve forgotten about her that she’s still a force. Primarily featuring songs written by Brandi Carlile, produced by Shooter Jennings and Carlile, Tucker turns in an acoustic-powered effort, stunning in its beauty and embrace of the here and now.
Jason Aldean’s 9
It’s now been well over a decade since Jason Aldean wasn’t arguably the biggest act in country music. Simply put, the Georgia native is nothing short of a dominant stadium-filler and a radio titan with few rivals. For 9, his ninth record for Broken Bow Records, the always high-energy Aldean keeps things high energy. For better or worse, Aldean’s become the master of not tinkering with something that’s clearly been working the way he wants it to for so long. There are shifts in tempo to keep things moving, and the tales of heartbreaks and slices of small-town life are indeed present and accounted for in the sort of way his millions of fans are surely thankful for.
Kelleigh Bannen’s Favorite Colors
Everything you need to know about this exciting young artist can pretty much be found in one of the year’s most gut-punching songs “Happy Birthday.” Kelleigh Bannen’s soulfully smoky voice lays itself bare over a modern folk-pop beat while the singer wishfully attempts to relive, and perhaps regain, her lover and a time in her life she can now admit she let go of all too soon. Bannen had a hand in writing every song on her debut record, a fine example of an artist signaling to the country world her time isn’t coming, but that its already here.
Old Dominion’s Old Dominion
There’s something refreshing about a country band that isn’t interested in positioning itself as anything but what it truly is. Old Dominion has established itself as a commercially viable hit-making machine since 2015’s Meat and Candy, and with the arrival of this year’s sleek, self-titled record, the guys have embraced their role with admirable honesty. The album’s second single, breezy, groove-filled “One Man Band” isn’t a beer-chugging two-stepper, but it’s not supposed to be. With most songs written by groups of writers including a few of the band members, the slick, radio-ready sonics fit Old Dominion like a smooth, supple leather glove.
Since their 2014 breakout single “Girl in a Country Song” Maddie & Tae have continued to hammer out a respectable place at the music industry table. In 2019 the duo, consisting of Maddie Marlow and Taylor Dye, released a pair of fine EPs to mark their entry into the major label realm after years in the indie world. In our reviews of One Heart to Another and Everywhere I’m Goin’, Maddie & Tae’s maturity, insight and vulnerability fueled the collection to excellence. Add to that, the pair spent a sizable chunk of the year touring with Carrie Underwood on her acclaimed Cry Pretty 360 tour.
Midland’s Let It Roll
All too often the term “formulaic” is applied in a pejorative sense. If any art form sticks too closely to any formula then it must not be quality, some purists will argue. For fashionable trio Midland, the ‘80s Urban Cowboy vibe developed with 2017’s On the Rocks blossomed rather than stagnated on this year’s rollicking, sawdust shuffling Let It Roll. Any space for enigmatic stylistic left turns and progressions beyond their signature sound was instead given to giving its growing legion of fans the sort of neon-lit throwback drinkin’ songs which won over so many ears to begin with.
Reba McEntire’s Stronger than the Truth
There aren’t many artists, regardless of gender, more enduring than Reba McEntire. In fact, the flame-haired icon is in that rarified realm of one-name stars who need no introduction, let alone the mention of her last name. Produced by legendary studio man Buddy Cannon, Reba delivered a trusty set of songs that quickly feel like lifelong favorites, due simply to the fact that anything she sings will sound not only remarkable, but will sound so very unmistakably Reba.
Tyler Childers’ Country Squire
Upon the release of Tyler Childers’ breakthrough Purgatory LP in 2017, many fans and critics were quick to apply the low hanging “Next Sturgill Simpson” label onto the native Kentucky songwriter. After all, Simpson, a fellow Kentuckian who achieved surprising success as an independent artist playing traditionally-minded honky-tonk tunes, produced the 2017 record. But for his major label debut Country Squire, also produced by Simpson, rather than diverging from his country path a la Simpson in recent years, Childers doubled-down on the folk-flavored storytelling and bluegrass-infused instrumentation for an effort that fully set him apart from all others.
Sheryl Crow’s Threads
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: an artist years past her days dominating the pop charts goes country. If you dismissed Sheryl Crow’s Threads as some sort of aging-star stunt, then you’ve missed out. Featuring collaborations with stars from the rock and country worlds, the record doesn’t shoot for the sort of FM pop heights as much as it does dig deep into offering great songs with grit, character and heart.
Cody Johnson’s Ain’t Nothin’ To It
Much like fellow his Texan on this list, Aaron Watson, Cody Johnson’s name might be a new one to country fans outside of Texas, yet he’s been releasing one solid album after another for far too many years to be considered a new artist now. Ain’t Nothin’ To It, similar to this year’s records from Luke Combs and Jon Pardi, proudly mines the Alan Jackson-sounding and Clint Black-loving days of the neon moon ‘90s, but does so in a way that’s honest and current more than rehashed or retro.
Runaway June’s Blue Roses
It seems as though Runaway June has been topping all sorts of “Artists To Watch” type of lists for years now. Formed in Nashville in 2015, the group made up of Naomi Cooke, Hannah Mulholland and Jennifer Wayne, the ladies have been productive members of the Music City songwriting community as well, lending a pen to songs from Eric Paslay and Tyler Farr, among others. When working with uptempo material, the group bursts with infectious energy, as evidenced in their hit single “Buy My Own Drinks,” and their cover of Dwight Yoakam’s “Fast As You.” With Blue Roses, it’s their voices on their own songs that have cemented their unique place amongst the brightest names of country music’s future.
Aaron Watson’s Red Bandana
Over the course of a dozen albums in 20 years, native Texan Aaron Watson has built an independent career based on, well, independence. In an era flooded with streaming-ready singles and EPs, the 20-song Red Bandana is a bit of a throwback to when artists were perhaps too secure in the knowledge their audience had to expend effort in order to skip or cherry pick their favorite singles and songs rather than simply let the whole album roll uninterrupted. With so many songs ranging in pace, tone, style and subject matter, Red Bandana manages to offer the sort of combo platter playlist feel typically requiring a dozen different artists, yet the collection as a whole is unmistakably Aaron Watson.
Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars
Bruce Springsteen isn’t a stranger to rootsy, countrified sounds. Even if you disregard past solo acoustic-oriented efforts such as his Nebraska and Devils and Dust LPs as rock records filtered through a lone troubadour lens, the Boss got all kinds of barn-bustingly twangy with banjos, fiddles and more on 2006’s Seeger Sessions. For Western Stars, his latest record apart from his storied E Street Band, the famed New Jersey icon recorded a gorgeous, cinematically sprawling record that successfully fulfills a country storytelling philosophy more than he has with any previous record in his Hall of Fame career.
George Strait’s Honky Tonk Time Machine
The legendary Texan’s catalog is so illustrious any explanation as to why this album belongs on a year-end Best Of list is as anticlimactic as it is likely unnecessary. But there’s something to be said for not merely Strait’s dependable longevity, but reliable excellence. There isn’t any reason this record doesn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with any of the impeccably recorded albums he’s offered at least in the past two decades. And, for what it’s worth (hint: this is worth a lot), “Sing One With Willie” marks the first time Strait and fellow Lone Star icon Willie Nelson have sung together on record.