These are Mixdown's top picks of the best country albums, from the rockier cuts to honky tonk, of the 2010s.
The 2010s saw an explosion of traditionally oriented country artists making independent records of an exceptionally high quality; some of the best country albums the world had seen in years. In a rush of talent and rebellion the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the outlaw country movement of the 1970s, these artists defied the CMA’s popified stranglehold on the genre and did things their own way.
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Now, with Country and Americana developing a strong foothold on Australian shores in recent times, let’s take a look back at the albums that inspired a whole new generation of artists across the world to pick up where Willie, Waylon and the boys left off.
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music – Sturgill Simpson (2014)
Potentially the most influential country album of the decade, this is the record that earned Sturgill Simpson the title of ‘The Saviour of Country Music’ (much to his annoyance). From its ironically awful artwork to its playful titular reference to Ray Charles, it was clear from the start that Simpson never took himself as seriously as everyone else seemed to. But boy did he take the music seriously. Melding traditional country songwriting with a psychedelic 60s production style, Simpson and his red hot band recorded these expertly crafted tracks live to tape over the course of just a few days, all under the masterful guidance of producer extraordinaire Dave Cobb.
Southeastern – Jason Isbell (2013)
After cutting his teeth with alt-country legends The Drive-By Truckers, a freshly sober Jason Isbell was ready to utilise his new found clarity to create something truly special. With the help of producer Dave Cobb, he achieved much more than that. Southeastern is a devastatingly emotive record featuring some of the most poignant and timeless lyrics ever written, and has become a modern classic. Isbell is widely considered to be one of the finest songwriters of his generation and when one listens to breathtaking cuts such as ‘Cover Me Up’ and ‘Elephant’, one cannot help but wholeheartedly agree.
Purgatory – Tyler Childers (2017)
Kentucky’s golden boy Tyler Childers knocked it out of the park with his powerfully distinctive sophomore effort ‘Purgatory’. Expertly paying tribute to his Appalachian roots whilst energetically pushing the genre firmly into the future, this album bounces along at an irresistible tempo that brings Childers’ evocative and witty songwriting to life. Produced by none other than Sturgill Simpson himself, Purgatory deservedly launched Childers into the superstardom that Simspon seems so eager to leave behind.
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter – Margo Price (2016)
No contemporary artist has more outlaw country credentials than Margo Price. After a lifetime of hard luck and trouble, including the legal kind, Price managed to pull together the cash to self-fund this emotionally charged, wide ranging exploration of cosmic American music. After being turned down by more labels she could count and being outwardly rejected by the Nashville establishment, Price found a friend in Jack White who enthusiastically agreed to put out Midwest Farmer’s Daughter on his label Third Man Records. Good move Jack.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson (2016)
The reigning king of country music achieved his magnum opus with this musical love letter to his newborn son. Drawing inspiration from sensitively constructed song-cycle records such as ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘Astral Weeks’, Simpson’s ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’ wraps lush strings, funky horns and searing guitars around a pitch perfect nautical theme. Featuring stunning vocal performances and heartbreakingly sincere songwriting, this self-produced record earned Simpson a Grammy and remains a timeless genre-defying masterpiece.
Traveller – Chris Stapleton (2015)
Inspired by the outlaw stylings of the budding East Nashville scene and the back-to-basics production work of Dave Cobb, Chris Stapleton defied his perception as a company man writing songs for a major label to make something he truly believed in with his debut record ‘Traveller’ An enormous commercial and critical success, Traveller is seen by many to be a bridge between the popularity of the mainstream and the authentic attitude of the underground. With help from Dave Cobb, Stapleton pulled together a raw and powerful selection of material that benefits greatly from an old school production style and beautifully showcases his soulful, earth-rattling voice.
The Tree of Forgiveness – John Prine (2018)
An elder statesman of the genre and one of the most respected songwriters in the world, John Prine’s praises have been sung by the likes of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristoffeson and just about everybody in this list. ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ was Prine’s final swansong before tragically dying of Covid in 2020, and includes a beautiful collection of songs. Featuring his incomparably inspired lyricism in top form, Prine’s final work was made all the more charming by his ageing voice and tasteful use of guest appearances.
Highway Queen – Nikki Lane (2017)
Nikki Lane burst onto the East Nashville scene in the early 2010s dripping with outlaw charisma. In Highway Queen, Lane showcases her natural vocal talent and cheeky songwriting with a lush, contemporary take on the Americana sound. Featuring a rock and roll attitude and a unique, modern production style, Highway Queen contains a plethora of incredibly fun tracks including the irresistible ‘Jackpot’, which perfectly melds Americana stylings with a hooky pop sensibility.
The Nashville Sound – Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (2017)
Jason Isbell once again proved his undeniable prowess as a songwriter with 2017’s ‘The Nashville Sound.’ Showcasing Isbell’s soulful, literary lyricism and exceptional taste as a composer, ‘The Nashville Sound’ features a heartfelt collection of songs made all the better by their stripped back instrumentation and traditional sound. Featuring breathtaking songs such as ‘If We Were Vampires’ and ‘Last of My Kind’, The Nashville Sound contains lyrics that stack up quite comfortably against some of the greatest poetry and fiction ever written.
Last Man Standing – Willie Nelson (2018)
What country music list would be complete without mentioning the legendary Willie Nelson? Having released nearly 100 studio albums since 1962, Willie Nelson proved he still had the unique talent that earned him fame in spades with 2018’s Last Man Standing. Showcasing Nelson’s famously tender songwriting, utterly singular fingerstyle guitar playing and signature behind-the-beat vocals, Last Man Standing proved exactly why even after all these years, Nelson continues to inspire country artists around the world to follow in his footsteps.
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