8. Sheryl Crow Threads
It’s not that Sheryl Crow is retiring, but she says that Threads will be her last album. I guess that doesn’t preclude EPs, singles, and other download formats. Here, she calls on a variety of different friends and performs across a range of genres. Not everything here is to my taste, but once I’ve weeded out the unlistenable from the original 17 tracks, there’s still a core of decent stuff to make up a 10-12 track album. It’s too eclectic to hang together, but there are still highlights, including “Prove You Wrong” (performed with Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris) and “Everything is Broken” (performed with Jason Isbell).
7. J.S. Ondara Tales of America
Born in Kenya, J.S. Ondara won a Green Card lottery and relocated to America, which is the place where all the music he listened to growing up comes from. He taught himself guitar; obsessed with folk music, he says he “Dove deep and fell hard.” Ondara sings poignant songs about the American experience, the promise and betrayal of the American Dream, with a hefty dose of Dylan influence. Songs of America is full of pretty melodies accompanied by his plaint vocal, sounding completely like American folk music but with a Kenyan accent. Highlights include the beautiful “Torch Song”, “Give Me a Moment” and “Days of Insanity”.
6. Trisha Yearwood Every Girl
Hearing Ms. Yearwood’s voice again after such a long hiatus was to rediscover an old friend. When I first heard her music (I can picture the scene) it was in the form of a single track on a sampler CD that came with a Country Music magazine. This was in the 90s, and I was pottering around tidying up in the first house I shared with my girlfriend (now wife). The clarity and power of her voice was immediate, and with the right material, she’s unbeatable. Highlights here include Lucie Silvas’ “Find a Way”, the title track “Every Girl in This Town”, and “What Gave Me Away” (performed with her husband Garth Brooks.
5. Maren Morris GIRL
While Maren Morris had a huge impact with her first album (notwithstanding her inability to get airplay on so-called Country radio), it was nothing like the high profile she maintained throughout 2019. It all starts with this, her second album, which swaggered onto the stage daring radio programmers not to play its super-catchy and soulful title track and then sailed to #1 on the Country album chart (and #4 on the mainstream album chart) and finished the year by winning the CMA Album of the Year Award. Whatever you think “country” sounds like, this isn’t it. This is dance, electronic, rock, soul, pop, all the genres, and behind it an artist of confidence and integrity who is in complete control. Highlights include the title track, (capital letters “GIRL”), “All My Favourite People” (performed with the Brothers Osborne), “A Song for Everything”, “Common” (with Brandi Carlile) and “The Bones”. But really, you only get the full sense of her broad talent by listening to the whole album.
4. Miranda Lambert Wildcard
Another artist in control of her own narrative is Miranda Lambert, who has come a long way since winning third place in the Nashville Star reality show back in 2003. Her first major label release, Kerosene, hit #1 on the Country album chart and sold over a million copies, and her every album since then has also hit the top spot. She also tends to hit #1 in her “off” years with her group The Pistol Annies. While sales in the streaming era are not what they used to be for anyone, Ms Lambert continues to achieve her status “backwards, in heels”, largely without the support of country radio. Highlights of this strong set include “Mess with my Head”, “It All Comes out in the Wash”, “Pretty Bitchin’”, and “Way too Pretty for Prison” (with Maren Morris). True stories told with a punch to the solar plexus.
3. Midland Let it Roll
I recently mentioned this August release, but here is its place on the list. It’s a great sounding record, with smooth production and that 70s country rock vibe. Highlights include the title track, “Cheatin’ Songs”, “Fast Hearts and Slow Towns”, “Mr Lonely”, and “Roll Away”
2. Hiss Golden Messenger Terms of Surrender
This intense set from the prolific MC Taylor and Hiss Golden Messenger is warm, good-hearted and uplifting. Hard to place on the genre spectrum, this is Americana, folk-rock, singer-songwriter. Highlights include “I Need a Teacher”, “Katy (You Don’t Have to be Good Yet”, “My Wing”, and “Cat’s Eye Blue.” As a bonus, check out the non-album single, “Watching the Wires”.
1. The Highwomen The Highwomen
While Let it Roll may be a better all-round album, and both Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris have a claim to this spot, the larger project represented by The Highwomen places it highest for me. While their singles didn’t penetrate the cloth ears of country radio programmers, the album deservedly hit #1, and the group of collaborators gathered here represents the best in country songwriting and performing at the moment. While the challenge to country radio was rejected, I do think a number of the songs here have staying power, and we’ll be listening for years to come. Highlights include the title track, “Redesigning Women”, “If She Ever Leaves Me”, and “My Only Child”. As a bonus, check out their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” on the soundtrack to the movie The Kitchen.