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The 50 Best Alt-Country Albums of All Time

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The 50 Best Alt-Country Albums of All Time

Alt-country is such a hard genre to define that the wonderful music magazine devoted to it proclaimed itself the “alternative-country (whatever that is) bi-monthly.” For our best alt-country albums list, we’ve chosen to focus on albums with significant country elements operating outside of the mainstream country music industry. So country stars we love like Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton didn’t make the cut. Neither did folky Americana acts like Josh Ritter, The Civil Wars or First Aid Kit, though we’re huge fans of all three.

The alt-country movement had plenty of pre-cursors in the folk-rock of Gram Parsons and the renegade country of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. But 1985 was really a watershed moment for the genre with Green on Red, Jason & The Scorchers and Mekons all exploring traditional country through the lens of punk rock. The ’90s kicked off with the first album from Uncle Tupelo, No Depression, which became synonymous with “alt-country” thanks to the magazine of the same name.

The following 50 albums span 30 years of alt-country and stretch the limits of “whatever that is.” We easily could have picked 100, and we’d love to hear your favorites that we missed. We’ve limited our selections to two per band, otherwise the entire Uncle Tupelo catalog would be here.

Here are the 50 Best Alt-Country Albums of All Time:

green-on-red-gas.jpg 50. Green On Red – Gas Food Lodging (1985)
After getting their start in Tuscon, Arizona’s punk scene, Green On Red moved to Los Angeles and expanded their sound to incorporate country and psych-pop influences. The move inched them closer to the Paisley Underground with the likes of Dream Syndicate, The Three O’Clock, as well as Thin White Rope up in Davis, California. By the time Green On Red released Gas Food Lodging in 1985, they’d begun sneaking more elements of country music—a la The Byrds—into their music, while still retaining their jangly pop prowess. There’s nary a dud on this one, each song a gem and strong enough to satiate country fans with a sense of adventure.—Mark Lore

ryan-adams-jacksonville.jpg 49. Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Jacksonville City Nights
If Cold Roses, his double-disc gatefold set, was Adams’ Exile on Main St., Jacksonville City Nights finds the singer back in his tear-stained Gram Parsons duds. As always, Adams does a smashing job recreating Parsons’ heartrending lyrical and tonal nuances—the strained crack in the voice, the sobbing plea, the sweet, melancholic sigh. He doesn’t so much return to his Whiskeytown roots here as he canters straight past them into sad-eyed, Bakersfield barroom shuffles. Add a touch of post-acid-test Grateful Dead acousticism plus Adams’ breathtaking lyrics and you got a modern C&W classic.—Paste Staff

shelby-lynne-identity.jpg 48. Shelby Lynne – Identity Crisis
The appropriately titled Identity Crisis is by far the most eclectic record Lynne’s ever made. It moves from the jazzy pop of opener “Telephone” straight into the boogie-woogie gospel of “10 Rocks.” There’s also the noisy scrawl of “Gotta Be Better,” the electric blues of “Evil Man” and the shimmering acoustic pop of “One With the Sun.” Lynn also taps into her country roots with the folky “Baby” and the Owen Bradley-esque Nashvegas sound of “Lonesome”—a remarkable song featuring the slip-note piano of Little Feat’s Billy Payne.—Stuart Munro

rsz_davealvin-romeosescape.jpg 47. Dave Alvin – Romeo’s Escape
Raised at the junction of Big Joe Turner, ‘50s rock and tavern country (slightly sleeker, ice clinking division), Dave Alvin left the Blasters on two bald tires with the hammer down. “Romeo’s Escape” thrashed and churned, Stratocaster stinging and drums hard-pounding down as Alvin’s oaken crag of a voice shook with fury. The lean, but unrepentant Hank Williams’ homage “Long White Cadillac,” all wristy downstroke, fulk-throttled moan and high hat slam, would eventually hit #1 for Dwight Yoakam, as the driving grind of accusation and betrayal “New Tattoo” would become a low end stripper with brio anthem with its lacerating guitar and swollen bass. Somewhere between Steinbeck and Bukowski, Alvin mined have-nots’ seediness without making them cheap: “Jubilee Train” worked jackhammer-rhythmed salvation, “Border Radio” was Mexican-tinged Haggard and “Fourth of July” swept yearning across an evaporated love trying to find a spark.—Holly Gleason

rsz_lucreo.jpg 46. Lucero – 1372 Overton Park (2009)
Lucero  is perfectly alt-country—half rock bombast, half country swagger. The Memphis band is a touring machine, amassing devoted fans wherever they go, and 2009’s 1372 Overton Park helped capture that excitement in the studio thanks in large part to its horn section. Like that brassy homage to the band’s hometown of Memphis, Lucero also named 1372 Overton Park after the address of its Memphis loft space.—Hilary Saunders

rsz_jim_lauderdale.jpg 45. Jim Lauderdale – Pretty Close To The Truth (1994)
Following his Rodney Crowell/John Leventhal-produced Planet of Love – which yielded cuts for George Strait, Lee Ann Womack, Patty Loveless, Mandy Barnett and George Jones, the North Carolina-born Lauderdale seemed more in control of his progressive California-forged traditional country. With songs that were existential (“When The Devil Starts Crying,” “Three Way Conversation” “Run Like You”), Lauderdale—like Gram Parsons before him—created a Cosmic American hybrid that blurred bluegrass, Haggard, Jones, Lefty Frizzell and Ray Price with ethereal metaphors for a new kind of classicism. Producer Dusty Wakeman drew on Lauderdale’s scrappy Palomino Club band—Buddy Miller on guitars and vocals, Dr John Ciambotti on bass, Donald Lindley on drums, Greg Leisz on dobro, electric and steel guitar, Gurf Morlix on 6-string bass, mandolin, electric/acoustic/12-string/steel guitars, Skip Edwards on organ and Tammy Rodgers on mandolin and vocals—to return Truth to the lean sound Lauderdale’d developed playing South California’s post-cowpunk outposts. That the band members would become Americana forces in their own right speaks to the scene around the man who coined the phrase, “Now that’s Americana!”—Holly Gleason

rsz_freakwater.jpg 44. Freakwater – Old Paint (1995)
Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean are some of the most foundational women in alt-country. Their band Freakwater, which started as a side project, eventually grew into this reputation, thanks to breakthrough albums like Old Paint. Released in 1996, Old Paint musically looks backwards. It has the jauntiness of barn dances, complete with fiddles, dobros, and tambourines. Yet, Irwin and Bean’s voices, content in their different ranges, somehow meld to tell country tales that still sound ahead of their time.—Hilary Saunders

sturgill-simpson-metamodern.jpg 43. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
With the exception of a few artists, modern country has taken a hard left turn for the worse over the past two decades. Ask some people, and they might even say country’s become a shell of its former self. Sturgill Simpson is not one of those people—mostly because he doesn’t seem to care what is happening within the confines of the country music world. Instead the Kentucky-born singer looks to more far-out places on his second full-length, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. One of the first things you’ll notice is Simpson’s voice, which conjures the ghost of Waylon Jennings. Producer Dave Cobb’s warm production can’t be overstated—it holds the entire thing together and also makes Metamodern Sounds a shelf-worthy addition next to the greats. If you don’t like country music, don’t bother. But if you do have an ear for Waylon and Willie and the boys, then you’ll find plenty to love. Simpson may reside in Nashville these days, but he’s operating on a completely different plane. Here’s hoping his own mind-expanding experiments will expand the minds of listeners as well.—Mark Lore

lyle-lovett-joshua.jpg 42. Lyle Lovett – Joshua Judges Ruth
Drawing at the well alongside Randy Newman and Townes Van Zandt, the laconic, demure Lovett is a hard-luck romantic unopposed to good humor or the occasional murder ballad. Rarely eliciting emotional extremes, he’s a superb magician nonetheless; with a quick turn of phrase listeners are transported into new skin. When Lovett sings, “put down that flyswatter, and pour me some ice water” on the five-star Joshua Judges Ruth, I’m rising early for carpenter’s work on a hot July morning in southeast Texas. If alt-country takes traditional country songs and adds new elements, Lovett pulls the genre in a more soulful direction with his wry wit always on full display.—Jeff Elbel

vol-audible-sigh.jpg 41. Vigilantes of Love – Audible Sigh (1999)
Singer/songwriter Bill Mallonee changed lineups to his Athens, Ga., outfit like some frontmen change hairstyles, and with the personnel moves came a variety of styles from alt-folk to indie rock and even Americanized Brit-pop. But one of the band’s best album’s was a straight-up alt-country gem. Audible Sigh benefitted from Kenny Hutson’s versatility on mandolin, guitar, pedal steel and dobro, production from Buddy Miller and backing vocals from Emmylou Harris on standout track “Resplendent.” It’s Mallonee’s vivid songwriting that elevates the album to “overlooked classic” status, though. Audible Sigh trades in Dustbowl imagery more than most of his catalog, but he can’t stay completely away from the personal demons he’s spent a career turning into confessional songs, like on “She Walks on Roses”: “They say that pride, well it’s the chief of sins/Well I know all of his deputies, I’m well acquainted with them.” Song titles like “Hard Luck and Heart Attack” and “Black Cloud O’er Me” fit well on the twangiest album of his impressive catalog.—Josh Jackson

rsz_kd_lang.jpg 40. k.d. Lang – Ingénue (1992)
With her Grammy-adorned breakout solo LP, Ingénue, k.d. lang transformed from a country traditionalist to an impressionistic pop crooner, draping her dazzling mezzo-soprano over samba rhythms ("Miss Chatelaine"), oceanic cabaret-jazz ("Save Me") and breezy orchestrations from collaborator Ben Mink ("The Mind of Love"). No longer chasing the ghost of Patsy Cline, she pursued unique stylistic combinations—imbuing her formative "torch and twang" with a tapestry of colors: accordion, viola, marimba, the tropical-flavored pedal-steel of session master Greg Leisz. The album is best remembered, and summarized, by the lonesome yearning of hit single "Constant Craving." "Always someone marches brave / Here beneath my skin," Lang sings. Two decades later, she's still marching bravely—still shifting her sound with each song cycle. But Ingénue remains her signature statement.—Ryan Reed

rsz_robbie_fulks.jpg 39. Robbie Fulks – Country Love Songs (1996)
Robbie Fulks  is an unlikely candidate for country insurgentista. Born in Pennsylvania and cutting his teeth at Gerde’s Folk City, he landed in Chicago where he taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Along the way, the songwriting multi-instrumentalist fell under the sway of ‘50s country—and sought to distill the sounds coming from WSM-AM during the day—right down to the talk/jingle-evoking “The Scrapple Song.” Working with the unlikely team of engineer Steve Albini, Buck Owens’ Buckaroo Tom Bromley on steel guitar and Lou Whitney and the Skeletons, Country Love Songs moved from punk fatal (“She Took A Lot of Pills and Died”) to the fiddle-reelin’ (“Every Kind of Music (But Country)”), grief-immersed, steel-drenched and classic country-invoked salve (“The Buck Starts Here”) to unrepentant sin-embracing (“We’ll Burn Together”). Stately, clear and willing to cornpone without schticking it up, Fulks’ rubber cement voices stretches like half truth three hours after curfew.—Holly Gleason

rsz_kathleen_edwards-failer.jpg 38. Kathleen Edwards – Failer (2003)
On her first record, the throaty Kathleen Edwards sounded like Lucinda Williams with far fewer miles on the odometer, mining similar veins of hard living and love gone wrong for her lyrics. But Edwards doesn’t sound like an acolyte. She’s got moxie, but a refreshingly fragile honesty in her writing tones down the bravado. On “Hockey Skates,” when Edwards asks “if the ‘boys’ club’ will “crumble just because of a loud-mouthed girl,” the swagger and self-effacement form a neat balance. She’s aware of the cost, but not afraid to confront it. That symmetry pervades Failer. Edwards slips comfortably between song styles—from straight-ahead rockers (“One More Song the Radio Won’t Like,” “12 Bellevue”) to country and folk-tinged tunes (“Mercury,” “National Steel”)—without suggesting that she’s trying on any of them. Right from the beginning, she sounded like she’d been at it for decades. The arrangements help. The 10 songs include a nice range of instrumentation (organs, alto/baritone/soprano saxophones, vibes, banjo and pedal steel) all expertly done. But ultimately Edwards’ voice and lyrics stand out.—John Schact

rsz_rodney_crowell.jpg 37. Rodney Crowell – Houston Kid (2001)
After years as the crown prince of hip Nashville—Emmylou Harris’ wingman, Rosanne Cash’s producer, proud owner of five No. 1s off the gold Diamonds & Dirt—Crowell eschewed the mainstream for a song cycle devoted to his hardscrabble youth on the wrong side of Houston. With mirth and wonder, he captured the thrills of being young (“Telephone Road”), hearing Johnny Cash for the first time (“I Walk The Line ReVisited”) and romantic misdirection (“U Don’t Know How Much I Hate U”). But there was also brutality, the acoustic-framed “The Rock of My Soul” captured domestic violence as a cycle of generational abuse and the lurching “Topsy Turvy” mirrors the chaos, while the spoken “Highway 17” is an O. Henry-esque small crime confection—and “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Wandering Boy” are reckoning bookend songs for twins as the one who left turns tricks and contracts AIDS in West Hollywood then has to come home to die. In the end, “I Know Love Is All I Need” offers a universal blessing and benediction, accepting the inevitable flaws of his dead parents with tenderness and recognition of their best intentions.—Holly Gleason

rsz_rosanen-cash-the-river-the-thread.jpg 36. Rosanne Cash – The River & the Thread (2014)
With a voice like good claret or damp moss, Rosanne Cash’s singing is something to sink into. Surrender to the tones, mostly dark, but marked by the occasional glimmer of light, and let the emotions they contain seep inside. For Cash, the emotions on The River & The Thread are complex and tangled, especially the Grammy-winner’s own difficult relationship with the South, her roots and her own musical journey. What emerges, beyond a woman grappling with a legacy as much in the rich bottom land as her father Johnny’s iconic presence as the voice of America, is a knowing embrace of the conflicts in the things we love. The 11-song cycle is mostly a meditation on the textures and musical forms that emerged South of the Mason Dixon. Finding not just resolve, but acceptance is a gift. Cash, who’s sidestepped her heritage, and eschewed a career as a country star with 11 No. 1s, a marriage to a country writer/producer/artist Rodney Crowell and the city/industry where she found prominence, savored her wandering and the Manhattan life she built. With The River & The Thread, she comes home with the warmth reserved for knowing where we’re from. As powerful a witness for the region—Memphis, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas—as it is a lovely quilt of musicality, braiding blues, folk, Appalachia, rock and old-timey country, this is balm for lost souls, alienated creatures seeking their core truths and intellectuals who love the cool mist of vespers in the hearts of people they may never encounter.—Holly Gleason

rsz_bonnie_billy.jpg 35. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – I See a Darkness (1999)
If Johnny Cash covered one of your songs on his final albums, it automatically meant it embodied some sort of country spirit however musically disguised. Cash, of course, interpreted the title track from this 1999 record the following year on American III: Solitary Man. I See a Darkness is dark, yes. It is gothic without being goth. Yet, its confessional cries and distant, discordant layering (especially on tracks like “Nomadic Revery (All Around)”) are also subversive in a way that honors the subgenre.—Hilary Saunders

rsz_jason_and_the_scorchers.jpg 34. Jason & the Scorchers – Lost & Found (1985)
Years before the term “alt-country” was conceived, something a little uglier and grimier was festering in Nashville. Jason & The Scorchers—led by explosive frontman Jason Ringenberg—released a couple of EPs before dropping their best record Lost & Found in 1985. It’s a punk rock album at heart, but guitarist Warner Hodges has plenty of twangy licks up his sleeve. Songs like “Lost Highway” and “I Really Don’t Want To Know” showed off Ringenberg’s wry sense of humor, while also confounding audiences for being too country for some and too punk rock for others. The band never found any major success early on, however, three decades later Lost & Found proves that Jason & The Scorchers were light years ahead of their time.—Mark Lore

rsz_16_horsepower.jpg 33. 16 Horsepower – Folklore (2002)
Few albums truly exhibit the inscrutable mystery and inescapable desperation of the world as Folklore. Somehow, David Eugene Edwards and his band explored the edges of those vanished territories of the American folk music tradition, channeling the fear of now lost pastorals.The most meditative, haunting release of 16 Horsepower’s Holy Ghost-haunted catalog, Folklore takes further the shiver-inducing despondency of past releases, here relying on droning cellos, wheezy accordions, spindly banjos and Edward’s eerily double-tracked vocals to create an atmosphere of despair and impending doom. Stripping away most of the electric guitars and rhythmic drive of their previous work, the album rarely breaks from the dirge-like ruminations on God, judgment, love and murder. That only four of the 10 tracks are original doesn’t inhibit the authenticity with which they’re presented. Folklore speaks with the earthward metaphors of those who lived in the shadow of unseen pursuers and confronted their worst suspicions with music as their weapon.—Matt Fink

rsz_julie_miller.jpg 32. Julie Miller – Broken Things (1999)
A little girl voice that held ages, “Broken Things” offered redemption as well as deep love for those damaged by life. For Julie Miller, whose second album for Hightone following a Christian career, there was always salvation peeking through the cracks of her songs. Beyond the divine, there was the charismatic “I Need You,” the Appalachian dirge “Orphan Train” and the percussively minor-keyed creeper “Strange Lover,” an homage to – of all things — cocaine. Emmylou Harris would record the shimmering “All My Tears” and Lee Ann Womack would embrace “Orphan Train” and “I Know Why The River Runs” further broadening Miller’s reach. But the songwriter with a dexterous voice that does many things – howl, coo, caress and throttle – remains her own best interpreter. “I Still Cry,” a straightforward elegy, suggests the way some people linger in unlikely ways long after they’re gone with the sorrow profoundly transparent in her tone, bringing both naked vulnerability and intuitive playing that exemplifies the best of Americana.—Holly Gleason

rsz_mekons.jpg 31. Mekons – Fear and Whiskey (1985)
These Brits played weirdo punk rock for years before releasing this weirdo record whose country influences are subtle to say the least. The dystopian feel of Fear and Whiskey is definitely more “alt” than “country,” but songs like “Abernant 1984/5” and the aptly titled “Country” are boozy strolls across wind-swept plains on far way planets. Guitarist Jon Langford’s love of country music continued to grow, and he went on to form The Waco Brothers and also appeared on alt-country stalwarts Old 97’s classic Wreck Your Life album.—Mark Lore

ccd_genuine.jpg 30. Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig
There’s a long tradition of African-Americans playing old-time music, from blues legends Blind Blake, the Reverend Gary Davis and Josh White to artists such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, whose early ragtime outfit, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, has provided a lasting influence—and this modern-day act with its name. The Carolina Chocolate Dropsformed in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., and since then the young trio has been determined to prove that “black folk were a huge part of the stringband tradition.” What they’ve also done is dust off a musical form seen today as either a novelty or the exclusive provenance of ethnomusicologists. To paraphrase Rakim’s immortal words, these Drops ain’t no joke: Their enthusiasm for the tradition is obvious even as the trio spans from traditional arrangements (the rollicking fiddle rave-ups “Trouble in Your Mind” and “Cindy Gal”) to self-penned works (the particularly terrific “Kissin’ and Cussin’”) and stringband makeovers of modern-day works (a hip-hop influenced cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ’em Up Style (Oops!)” and Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose”). Several generations removed from the origins of their chosen idiom, the  Carolina Chocolate Drops are nonetheless the genuine article.—Corey DuBrowa

mmj-it-still-moves.jpg 29. My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves (2003)
The Kentucky band’s sprawling major-label debut did nothing to alter the independent spirit of singer-songwriter Jim James and his cohorts. The country-rock base retained elements of Memphis soul, classic ’70s rock and neo-psychedelic sounds, all drenched in salubrious washes of reverb. Besides, nothing says complete artistic freedom like 12 songs that average six minutes in length, many of which were recorded in a grain silo to give the reverb more reverb. Styles mix wantonly, songs meander but never go quite where you expect them to. What begins as an acoustic-driven folk song (“Magheeta”) morphs into a hard-rocking power ballad; a funkified homage to R&B clubs (“Dance Floors”) becomes an Exile on Main Street-era block party, powered by a propulsive horn section straight out of “Tumbling Dice”; and the minor-key melancholia of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse epics (think “Cortez the Killer”) forms the backbone of “Run Through” until it mutates at the chorus into the early ’80s Manchester sound reminiscent of New Order. Is it alt-country? That’s as good a descriptor as anything else.—John Schact

gillian-welch-time.jpg 28. Gillian Welch – Time (the Revelator) (2001)
More convincingly than anyone in the last decade, Welch and her partner David Rawlings dipped their ladle into the pot of old-timey American music. On the reflective Time (the Revelator), as their striking vocals wrap tautly around each other, a hushed epic unfolds. The spirited “Red Clay Halo”—a gorgeously simple rumination on poverty, sin and redemption—captures the essence of the duo’s timeless songs: “And it’s under my nails and it’s under my collar / And it shows on my Sunday clothes / Though I do my best with the soap and the water / but the damned old dirt won’t go.” Welch and Rawlings can’t seem to get the dirt out of their music, either. And thank goodness for that.—Kate Kiefer

joe-henry-kindness.jpg 27. Joe Henry – Kindness of the World (1992)
The Jayhawks returned as backing band for Joe Henry’s Kindness of the World in 1992, just as the band was hitting its own stride. Together, the two acts perfected what they’d begun the year before on Short Man’s Room. The banjos, mandolins, violins, pianos, pedal steel, occasional harmonies and prevalent jangly guitars provided a rich, engaging aural landscape for Henry’s earnest voice and poetic wresting with the human condition. Kindness evidenced Henry as one of the most skillful and honest lyricists in popular music. His next release, Trampoline, commenced a string of sonic experiments that—combined with lyrical prowess that has only grown—have established him as one of most interesting and vital singer-songwriters working today. Though he would refuse to be constrained by the genre, Henry’s collaboration with the Jayhawks serves as an exemplar of the then-nascent genre.

steve-earle-corazon.jpg 26. Steve Earle – El Corazon (1997)
From the opening song, which finds Steve doing his best Dylan impersonation in calling for the spirits of Woody Guthrie and Jesus to return and scour the land free of crooked politicians, to the last song, “Fort Worth Blues,” which finds Steve spinning a heartbreaking tale of wanderlust and an unnameable malaise, El Corazon shot like a bullet to my heart. Earle slides effortlessly between folk, Neil Young-like guitar anthems, country weepers, bluegrass workouts and bone-crunching rock ‘n’ roll. And throughout he writes brilliantly, offering up story songs with remarkable economy, using not a single wasted word.—Andy Whitman

magnolia-electric-co.jpg 25. Songs: Ohia – The Magnolia Electric Co. (2003)
From the first swooping notes of “Farewell Transmission,” Jason Molina’s masterpiece of an album was confirmed. Hailing from the Rust Belt, Molina expertly blended the aggression of industry with the pastoral calm. On 2003’s The Magnolia Electric Co., Jeff Panall’s precise drumming and Steve Albini’s perfectly balanced engineering reflect the trends of alternative rock so prevalent in the late ‘90s and early aughts. Yet, it’s the eerie pedal steel and warbling organ and Wurlitzer that linger, making sure that country-esque feeling remains.—Hilary Saunders

avett-i-and.jpg 24. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You (2009)
It’s hard to let go. Of a girlfriend. Of an old hound dog. Of a tattered pair of jeans. And maybe most gut-wrenchingly of all, it’s hard to let go of your favorite heretofore unheralded band. Watching them grow from dingy clubs to cavernous ballrooms. The Avett Brothers(Scott and Seth, plus bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon) no longer belong solely to the indie cult. But to concentrate on the names and dollar signs and intentional pining for mass appeal is to ignore the far more important point—for  the Avett Brothers to make this record took ginormous, pendulous testicles. Having conquered every Saturday night music hall and holler between Asheville and Portland, they have made a record that is not just a stab at the mainstream—it’s a harpoon through its sternum. The Avetts could’ve made some kind of caterwauling record full of flaming banjoes, hootenannies, and throaty hollers that encapsulates their reputation-making live show. Instead they’ve constructed something beautiful. An album that’s not merely loaded with ballads, it’s almost wall-to-wall epic ballads. Pianos trickle before the storm, strings ball up their fists, swells and waves of sound wash over the Avetts’ sorghum-sweet harmonies. It’s like Rubin took everything the band does so well and pumped it full of human-growth hormone.—Bart Blasingame

justin_townes_earle_harlem_river_blues_album_cover.jpg 23. Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues
The fourth album from 28-eight-year-old Justin Townes Earle—son of the legendary Steve, namesake of the legendary Van Zandt—blows through its half-hour runtime, and new listeners will be unsurprised to hear that Earle is influenced by both The Replacements (he covered “Can’t Hardly Wait” on 2009’s Midnight at the Movies) and Bruce Springsteen (and covered “Atlantic City” for The A.V. Club). The self-deprecating smirk of the former and the everyman spirit of the latter have imbued Earle’s songwriting since his earliest recordings, but here they see their finest representation to date—sans pretension and with a pile of hooks to boot. If he can keep his demons at bay, we’ll one day see his his three names cozied up against those of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, George Jones and the other denizens of country music’s pantheon. —Austin L. Ray

patti-griffin-living.jpg 22. Patty Griffin – Living with Ghosts (1996)
Stark and haunted, Patty Griffin’s impossibly strong soprano shook like a rag doll on the opening “Moses.” Philosophically, the New England songwriter imbued the working poor and broken people with the same Dust Bowl compassion Haggard steeped “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” with on her debut album. A theoretically tiny affair—one woman, one guitar—the wide open emotions and dead-end lives suggested alt-country was a state of being more than something plied in Texas icehouses, Bakersfield honky tonks or Deep South bars. Eventually the Dixie Chicks hit No. 1 with the soaring “Let Him Fly,” and old-school soul mistress Bettye LaVette sauced the knowing “Time Will Do The Talking,” but the sweetness of “Mad Mission” and hollowed-out tenderness of “Poor Man’s House” demonstrated Griffin’s vocal dynamics and ability to go from tart pluck to feathery softness without pause. You knew listening passively or raptly: this was a writer, a singer, a player of cracked American lives to pay attention to.—Holly Gleason

bottle-rockest-brooklyn.jpg 21. The Bottle Rockets – Brooklyn Side (1994)
Producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel helped Brian Henneman, Mark Ortmann, Tom Parr and Tom Ray craft one of the finest albums of the ’90s. The Brooklyn Side is the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in its full-tableau portrait of a small American town (in The Bottle Rockets’ case: Festus, Missouri). Residents of Middle America could recognize themselves in Henneman’s songwriting, which drew as much on Woody Guthrie as The Replacements.—Geoffrey Himes

old-97s-too-far.jpg 20. Old 97’s – Too Far To Care (1997)
After the release of the Old 97’s second record Wreck Your Life on the independent Bloodshot Records in 1996, the Dallas, Texas, four-piece found themselves in a bidding-war as major labels looked to clean up on the short-lived alt-country movement. Elektra nabbed the 97’s, and the band went on to record Too Far To Care, an album with a bigger budget, shinier production, and also better songs. In fact, it remains the Old 97’s best collection, with plenty of sneer and smarts steering frontman Rhett Miller’s tales of heartbreak and liver abuse. Songs like “Barrier Reef,” “Timebomb” and “Four Leaf Clover” remain concert staples, but deep cuts like “Melt Show” and “Niteclub” are true punk rock numbers that, to this day, separate the Old 97’s from their play-it- straight contemporaries like Whiskeytown and Son Volt.—Mark Lore

bright-eyes-wide-awake.jpg 19. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005)
With Wide Awake, the one-time prince of emo finally grew up, and—as much as any one artist could during a decade of such cultural fragmentation—became the inadvertent spokesman for his aimless generation. The poetry of Conor Oberst’s lyrics captured the hearts of fellow twentysomethings with their urgent, exhausted, lovesick and thought-lost wonder. It felt like he was collectively singing our own minds—asking the big questions, confronting a culture of fear, searching for new beginnings, wrestling with God and truth and innocence lost.—Steve LaBate

loretta-lynn-van-lear.jpg 18. Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose (2004)
In 2004, 69-year-old Loretta Lynn released her 37th solo studio album. It could have been a sad affair, the desperate yawp of a legendary Nashville madam teetering into an aged cliché of herself, but with the help of rock ‘n’ roll upstart Jack White, Lynn made the greatest record of her career. Like a bunch of rowdy grandkids, White and a crew of friends (most of whom would converge a year later as The Raconteurs) lent a sly, gritty feel to Lynn’s 13 mostly-autobiographical tracks—Van Lear Rose was her 70th release overall, but it was only the second time she’d written or co-written all of her songs. Her seasoned, tremulous voice paired perfectly with White’s electric guitar warble, pulling off mournful country crooners and all-out rock numbers with equal grit and spunk. She hasn’t released anything since, but it almost doesn’t matter.—Rachael Maddux

jason-isbell-southeastern.jpg 17. Jason Isbell – Southeastern (2013)
The first few years of Jason Isbell’s solo career were beset with personal problems, including a well-publicized struggle with alcohol abuse, and his first three solo outings often played like too much of the same thing. But with Southeastern, Isbell broke this hard-luck streak, crafting an album worthy of his considerable talents. Each of the songs is a stunner. “Cover Me Up” is on the one hand a gentle, insistent love song, and on the other a moving testament to personal redemption that never once turns a blind eye to past indiscretions. It sets the tone for the remainder of the album, which is given equally to the promise of romance and the ever-looming possibility of suffering, both self-induced and arbitrary. As good as the songs are, Isbell’s singing may be even better. It’s certainly some of the best vocal work he’s yet committed to tape. His baritone, always rich, is deepened here by a grittiness that lends Southeastern a real soulful quality. By any reasonable aesthetic criteria, Southeastern is a triumph.—Jerrick Adams

lone-justice.jpg 16. Lone Justice – Lone Justice (1985)
The only thing louder than the buzz on vocalist Maria McKee—reputedly blessed with Linda Ronstadt’s power, Emmylou Harris’ aggression and Dolly Parton’s pure tone—was the ignited moonshine soprano that burst out on the exhortative “Soap, Soup & Salvation,” the fist to the jaw “Working Late” and the taunting undulative “Wait ‘Til We Get Home.” On the back end of X, the Blasters and the Plugz, Lone Justice took acoustic instruments, brought punk aggression and gave Bakersfield a jolt of neon lightning. Even the ballads—the love/Lord blurring “You Are The Light” and pleading “Don’t Toss Us Away”—had a shred-your-dress, tear-your-hair desperation that was the unfiltered emotion that made Hank Williams, the Louvins and Patsy Cline so heady.—Holly Gleason

uncle-tupelo-march.jpg 15. Uncle Tupelo – March 16-20, 1992 (1992)
When Uncle Tupelo went into the studio to record their third album, the No Depression movement was only just beginning to gel, as more and more musicians realized they could approach country music with a DIY punk attitude. Surprisingly, the trio ditched their electric guitars for this album of mostly acoustic numbers, but lost none of the urgency and grit. Comprised of originals and covers of traditional tunes that would have been doubly obscure in the pre-iTunes era, March 16-20, 1992 opens up new possibilities of American folk music in general and alt-country in particular, and 24 years later, Uncle Tupelo’s explicitly leftist, pro-union, anti-corporate stance lends the album extra weight and relevance.—Stephen M. Deusner

neko-case-fox-confessor.jpg 14. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006)
In the same way Liam Neeson used to function in the film world as gravitas-for-hire, the guest list for Neko Case’s fourth proper studio outing reads like a receipt from the tumbleweed-skiffle department of a Tucson-area Rent-A-Cred; gracing this project are locals Howe Gelb, and Calexico, plus out-of-towners Kelly Hogan, Dexter Romweber and Garth Hudson, to name a few. Case, of course, still approximates a Northwestern Patsy Cline with a graduate degree, and while the stories she tells are mournful, her delivery remains buoyant. If an old spiritual (“John Saw That Number”) didn’t reveal her hand, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking Case was working to establish a new kind of magical-realist gospel, or Optimism Gothic. She delivers a country-noir set that draws on mythic folk archetypes, providing strange details and raising intriguing questions with each listen.—William Bowers

ryan-adams-heartbreaker.jpg 13. Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker (2000)
Ryan Adams’ debut solo album post-Whiskeytown is a modern classic. Its 15 tracks never feel bloated. Rather, Heartbreaker traces a journey of nostalgia and love—with songs of sentimentality, selfishness, sullenness, desperation, and reflection all bundled into one rollicking set. Yet, unlike his work in Whiskeytown, Adams explores a range of looser styles on Heartbreaker—from the swinging opener, “To Be Young (It’s To Be Sad, It’s To Be High) to the Elliott Smith-esque “Amy” to the sparseness of “Oh My Sweet Caroline.” —Hilary Saunders

steve-earle-train.jpg 12. Steve Earle – Train A-Comin’ (1995)
Fresh from jail, Train marked a return to Earle’s Houston roots. Using bluegrass legends Norman Blake, Peter Rowan and Roy Huskey, Jr., he created a porous acoustic record where the instruments were forward and aggressive and the songs suggested Opry Saturday nights and Lone Star coffeehouses. Beyond a heartbreaking cover Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley,” a yearning take on the Melodians “Rivers of Babylon” and a grassy turn on the Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You,” the playing was sparse and hot. If many songs pre-dated Guitar Town’s blue collar thrust, “Good-Bye,” written in rehab, had the raw ache of realizing what’s lost – and remains one of Earle’s most enduring ballads. Ditto the striding “Ben McCulloch,” outlaw tale “Tom Ames Prayer” and hard truth “Mercenary Song,” which remain in concert rotation.—Holly Gleason

johnny-cash-american.jpg 11. Johnny Cash – American Recordings (1994)
April of 1994 saw the beginning of a prolific collaboration between producer Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash. American Recordings, recorded in Cash’s living room with the singular accompaniment of his guitar, delivered a minimalist-stripped down-babershop-quartet style. Track “Delia’s Gone” was put into rotation on MTV and appeared on Beavis and Butt-head, and Cash won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album of the Year. It was a deserved recognition for his finest album since the late ’60s and definitely was an alternative to his straight-country roots.—Kristen Blanton

jayhawks-hollywood.jpg 10. The Jayhawks – Hollywood Town Hall (1992)
Breakups and reunions aside, Mark Olson and Gary Louris were born to sing together. Their harmonies sound tight but laidback, well-rehearsed but perfectly intuitive, and on their career-maker Hollywood Town Hall, they sound like an old-time country act (think The Louvin Brothers) backed by a heartland rock band (think The Heartbreakers if they were Hoosiers). The band formed long before anyone coined the term “alt-country,” but the Jayhawks set the bar for that movement’s songwriting and harmonies, directly influencing the likes of Ryan Adams, Robbie Fulks, and Freakwater. About the best thing that can be said about Hollywood Town Hall, however, is that 20 years later it still doesn’t sound like part of any trend. The Jayhawks sound like a band following their own muse, which made them beloved cult artists but not rock stars.—Stephen M. Deusner

emmylou-wrecking.jpg 9. Emmylou Harris – Wrecking Ball (1995)
The combination of country-folk queen Emmylou Harris’ unmatched vocals, Daniel Lanois’ atmospheric soundscapes and songs by some of the best writers on earth—including Steve Earle, Julie Miller, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch—resulted in the best album of Harris’ career. And Lanois brought many of those songwriters by to add their own voices or instruments to the mix.—Josh Jackson

buddy-miller-your-love.jpg 8. Buddy Miller – Your Love & Other Lies (1995)
Starting with the hard hillbilly “You Wrecked Up My Heart,” featuring good buddy Lucinda Williams, and seesawing “Don’t Mean Maybe,” all elbows and fiddle, Miller’s debut defined the once glorious North Hollywood’s Palomino Club post-punk remains. The Louvins’ raw “You’re Runnin’ Wild,” rendered as acid in a papercut burn’n’pain, with wife Julie, suggested unbridled agony, while the Emmylou Harris’ twin harmony “Hold On My Love” offered echoes of the Everly Brothers’ best work. Superlative upon superlative, guest after guest, yet the star remains the dust’n’high plains songwriter/guitarist. Sculpting the cascading “My Love Will Follow You” a slight shuffle that pledges commitment beyond reason, he creates a sense the wildest boys—the rubbery backbeated “Hole In My Head” not withstanding—are the ones most devastated by broken hearts.—Holly Gleason

wilco-being-there.jpg 7. Wilco – Being There (1996)
After Uncle Tupelo’s split in 1994, fans turned their attention to Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s new groups. And after the success of Son Volt’s debut Trace the following year (along with the lukewarm critical response to Wilco’s AM), it seemed like Farrar had emerged from the break-up the clear victor to those keeping score at home. Enter Being There. Wilco’s 1996 double-LP was everything a sophomore effort should be; it saw the band experimenting beyond their alt-country roots with stellar tracks like “Misunderstood” and “Hotel Arizona” while simultaneously staying true to their aesthetic. In short, it was the beginnings of the Wilco we know and love today.—Bonnie Stiernberg

avett-emotionalism.jpg 6. The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism (2007)
In the late ’60s, The Band’s earnest roots rock helped topple nonsensical hippie credos like, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Similarly, The Avett Brothers do their best to combat modern-day hipster detachment and pseudo-coolness with Emotionalism’s simple, poetic story-songs and bittersweet, introspective laments. The album—down to the title itself—is a celebration of unselfconscious passion. It’s also a huge step forward musically: The relative sonic polish works magically in contrast to the Avetts’ jagged edge; they go beyond their core of acoustic guitar, banjo and upright bass (a change foreshadowed by Four Thieves Gone’s “Colorshow”), adding piano, B3, drums, electric guitar and mandolin; the vocals feel more carefully arranged, relying less on energetic screams and shouts and giving the melodies room to breathe; and the influences peeking through are more varied than ever, the music sporadically reminiscent of everything from Help!-era Beatles to Chopin nocturnes. This was the album where the Avetts, long deemed “promising” by critics, began unflinchingly—unguardedly—delivering on that promise.—Steve LaBate

dbt-decoration-day.jpg 5. Drive-By Truckers – Decoration Day (2003)
On DBT’s 2001 breakthrough double album Southern Rock Opera, the band traded its alt-country “Redneck Underground” approach for a Skynyrd-meets-Crazy-Horse vibe. And on the more concise follow-up, Decoration Day, the Truckers distilled their new sound from 80 to 100 proof. Start to finish, every cut on this gritty, unapologetic, punk-tinged roots-rock record is a classic, as master storytellers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley unravel one tragic, chilling small-town Southern yarn after another. With tunes like “Sink Hole” (based on Ray McKinnon’s Oscar-winning short film, The Accountant), the unflinchingly honest rocker “Marry Me,” “My Sweet Annette” (with its jilted title character), the and heart-crushing divorce ballad “Sounds Better in the Song,” the caliber of songwriting went through the roof like a shotgun blast. And that’s without even mentioning the debut of the Truckers’ secret weapon during this period—then-24-year-old singer/guitarist Jason Isbell, whose blistering leads and slide work gave the band a shot in the arm, as did the epic pair of tracks he contributed to the record: father-to-son ballad “Outfit” and the title song, with its bloody Hatfields and McCoys-style family feud. The Truckers have never been more themselves than they were on Decoration Day, and they’ve never been better.—Steve LaBate

son-volt-trace.jpg 4. Son Volt – Trace (1995)
Long before there was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it looked like Jay Farrar was the genius behind Uncle Tupelo, as Trace was a near-perfect collection of laid-back alt-country ballads like the brilliant windows-rolled-down “Windfall” and guitar-charged college rockers like lead single “Drown.” The album continued everything that was great about Uncle Tupelo. Like Lennon and McCartney, the argument is almost beside the point. We should just be glad a single band could contain two extremely talented songwriters.—Josh Jackson

gillian-welch-revival.jpg 3. Gillian Welch – Revival (1996)
Gillian Welch  and her musical partner may have hailed from Los Angeles and Rhode Island, respectively, but they arrived on the alt-country scene in 1996 as if they’d just melted out of Depression-era Appalachian Mountain ice. The tales of moonshiners and brothel girls matched the old-timey twang of Welch didn’t seem forced in the least. Every subsequent album has contained alt-country gems, but it’s nearly impossible to surpass this perfect debut.—Josh Jackson

lucinda-car-wheels.jpg 2. Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)
Up until this album Lucinda Williams was primarily known for her songwriting, earning a Grammy for Best Country Song with Mary Chapin Carpenter’s crossover hit “Passionate Kisses.” But Car Wheels established Williams as a critically powerful recording artist. In spite of its tumultuous and lengthy history of re-recordings and collaborative changes, every song stands strong. From her steamy, breathy refrain of “Oh, baby” on the opening track “Right In Time” to her emotional tribute to the late Blaze Foley on “Drunken Angel,” the stories in the songs, along with a laconic, southern drawl of rock guitars, serves as the perfect soundtrack to a backroads drive through the South.—Tim Basham

uncle-tupelo-anodyne.jpg 1. Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne (1993)
The last entry in the band’s catalog before Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar parted ways saw the band at its most fully realized. The Appalachian folk and grungy punk roots are both evident on this quintessential alt-country album from a group with more talent than one band could contain. Tweedy and Farrar traded off singing and songwriting duties, giving us such great Son Volt precursors like “Slate” and the title track and Wilco-precursors “Acuff-Rose” and “The Long Cut.” The DNA for so much great music can be found in one glorious LP.—Josh Jackson

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