The 50 Best Alt-Country Albums of All Time

Music Lists Alt-Country
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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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