The 20 Best Country & Americana Albums of 2019

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The 20 Best Country & Americana Albums of 2019

Following a year of monumental releases from artists like Kacey Musgraves and Eric Church, 2019 brought lots of shifts to country music. Like other genres—including popular music as a whole—it was a year of transition in which experienced stars often stepped back to make way for new blood to take the stage. Musicians like Runaway June, Kelsey Waldon, Orville Peck and Jade Bird burst onto the Americana scene in 2019 with nothing but energy and great music to share. It felt like country music’s feathers were rustled just a little bit. Even if country radio remains a sexist operation where it seems women can’t get airplay no matter how hard they try, there’s hope that the genre’s biggest acts will continue to fight for equality. The Highwomen were sick of the glaring disparity and decided to do something about it—or at least make a statement, and encourage others in the industry to do the same. At the same time, seasoned stars like Tanya Tucker and Miranda Lambert released what could be career-best records, and Americana lifers like Buddy and Julie Miller, Justin Townes Earle and Son Volt’s Jay Farrar proved they still have lots of music left in them. Artists like Sturgill Simpson and new face Yola continue to push the limits of what country can be and sound like. Country music has never been just one thing—but this year in particular, it felt like an ever-stretching rainbow. Here are our favorite country and Americana releases of 2019.

sonvoltunion.jpg 20. Son Volt: Union
Jay Farrar’s penchant for standing firm and holding his ground was well established in the aftermath of the deepening divide between him and Jeff Tweedy, a decision that ultimately led to the demise of Uncle Tupelo, the formative outfit they helmed in common. It’s not unusual then to find Farrar still maintaining a demonstrative stance, given the determination that powers Union, the ninth album in Son Volt’s sometimes unsteady trajectory. Indeed, Farrar appears more intent than ever to get his points across. Billed as a reaction to the travails and turmoil brought on by today’s political climate, Union makes no attempt to deny the irony of its title. With his ragged vocals front and center, Farrar and his band’s latest line-up purvey a somber sound that’s occasionally mournful yet still assured and certain. The sentiments are unmistakable; “99 percent, it’s a trickle down world… stuck in cement,” Farrar declares on the sullen and sobering “The 99.” Eight of its songs were recorded at places associated with two individuals that Farrar particularly reveres: community organizer Mary Harris (otherwise known as “Mother Jones”) and the immortal godfather of protest Woody Guthrie. Three were recorded at the Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Illinois, and four others at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla. Indeed, the final offerings on the album, “The Symbol,” was apparently inspired by Guthrie’s own anthem, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” a song that resonates more than ever now. With the majority of the songs maintaining a steady stride, Farrar shares his conviction with authority and insistence. Those are the qualities that allow Union to remain true to its common core. —Lee Zimmerman

saintsaintcover.jpg 19. Justin Townes Earle: The Saint Of Lost Causes
Justin Townes Earle  has never been one for fetishized country songs about trucks and the gal who did ‘im wrong. But even by his own rubric, The Saint of Lost Causes is his darkest, moodiest album yet, stretching beyond the implied limits of his chosen genre and deeper into the roots of Americana. Opening with a smoky blues crawl, the title track has a slow-swinging Asylum-era Tom Waits feel to the keyboards and a tangy guitar solo that hangs on long after the strings have stopped humming. It’s not the darkest tune on the album, but it’s a more elaborate sound for a long-time fan and lets a new listener know that this is not your pretend-country barbeque music. The album is more introspective than 2017’s Kids in the Street, heavy on strings and light on the rock-and-ramble. Even the easy sway of “Flint City Shake It” is a little laid back, with a low set of call-and-response backing vocalists set back in the mix, like they’re singing like they’re in a tin can recording booth. It’s a deliberate and delightful touch to give the album a distinctively retro feel without dipping into cowboy-shirt-style pastiche. Like a prayer, The Saint of Lost Causes is best listened to alone and deliberately. It’s too close and intimate to put on when there are others present unless they also plan on listening in silence. It’s a lot to ask the modern, harried soul to lay low and meditate on a record, but listen any other way and it’s all, well, a lost cause. —Libby Cudmore

runawayjuneblueroses.jpg 18. Runaway June: Blue Roses
2019 marks the end of a decade dominated by a sometimes-cringey, always-catchy subgenre known as “bro-country.” These dirt-road, chugged-up, often trap-infused bangers are about the only thing you’ll hear on country radio these days—even in 2019 when female country superstars like Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and her supergroup The Highwomen all have blockbuster records out. But one feisty little feminist tune masquerading as a bro-country hit snuck onto the airwaves this year: Runaway June’s infectious, souped-up “Buy My Own Drinks.” Naomi Cooke, Hannah Mulholland, and Jennifer Wayne—the three musicians who comprise the spirited trio Runaway June—don’t need leering eyes on them or someone to call their Uber at night’s end, thank you very much. This is a break-up anthem that doesn’t bemoan loneliness. Like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Party For One,” it flies a flag of independence, and it sneakily charmed mainstream country radio listeners. “I said sweet of you to ask if you could fill my glass,” the women sing in unison. “But I’m gonna have to pass this time. Me and myself, well we’re doing just fine.” They should tape this song’s lyrics to the door of every dive bar in America. But the beauty of this group’s album doesn’t begin and end with their hit. Throughout Blue Roses, Runaway June reminisce about the innocence of childhood on “We Were Rich,” weather a suffocating small town on “Trouble With This Town” and chase after Pistol Annies’ harmony-slingin’ sound on the smoky “Fast As You.” It’s about time we rolled out the red carpet for a new all-girl country trio, and you can feel good about cheering on Runaway June, who are some of the smartest, strongest singers and songwriters I’ve heard in country this side of Golden Hour. —Ellen Johnson

budyandjullie.jpg 17. Buddy & Julie Miller: Breakdown On 20th Ave South
Nearing the four-decade mark of their marriage, Buddy & Julie Miller remain devoted life partners. But they’ve walked an often rocky road when it comes to their working relationship, which in the ’90s was sort of a precursor to couples like Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires—a country/roots husband/wife duo who most always appear on each other’s albums—but has been stalled for the last decade. Julie’s health problems and Buddy’s busy work schedule prevented the couple—she, a Christian-country soloist turned songwriter and one of Americana’s most singular voices, and he, an in-demand producer, guitar legend and perpetual studio rat—from making music together. Until now: Breakdown on 20th Ave South, their first record since 2009’s Written in Chalk, arrived this year on New West. And it’s something of a miracle album. Julie wasn’t exaggerating when she said they’ve weathered their share of struggles. She lost her brother to a freakish lightning accident, and a friend to suicide not long after. Just before Written in Chalk, Buddy had triple bypass surgery. And around the same time, Julie finally put a name to her long-persisting symptoms of pain and fatigue when she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disorder that often prevents her from performing and working. But thanks to Buddy, it wasn’t as much of an issue this time around. Buddy did all the production and most of the instrumentation himself, and they recorded the songs Julie wrote whenever she felt up to it. Julie had written upwards of 30 or 40 songs—tunes like the humorous take on marital discourse “Everything is Your Fault,” the empathetic ache for child soldiers on “War Child” and the feisty longing for love on “Spittin’ on Fire”—some of which spoke directly to Julie’s life, pain and her relationship with Buddy, others of which follow no discernible path. —Ellen Johnson

lilliemaeeee.jpg 16. Lillie Mae: Other Girls
Everything about Lillie Mae is unexpected. A sought-after fiddler and Nashvillian for nearly 20 years, she’s undoubtedly a country singer. But if you turn on her new album, Other Girls (released on Jack White’s Third Man Records) expecting only twang and heartbreak, you’re in for a real surprise—and treat. Other Girls blends the dark and suspicious with the hopeful and assured. A mix of glassy Americana, charcoal country and majestic indie-folk, Other Girls tingles with traditional elements like mandolin and, of course, Lillie Mae’s rockstar fiddle. But it also fits right in on a label roster that leans indie-rock. A vivid storyteller with enigmatic qualities, sometimes she’s more Sheryl Crow (like on the fiercely independent yet tender “Some Gamble”), and other times she’s as dark as Sylvia Plath (“Crisp & Cold” is a forlorn poem come to life in the Wild West). Other Girls is unlike any other country record you’ll hear this year. —Ellen Johnson

tx3p_image1620--4.png 15. Joy Williams: Front Porch
So much of country music is just about being from somewhere. Maybe you’re a small town lifer, or maybe returning to your Kentucky (or Virginia, or Tennessee, or Michigan) hometown is complicated. Sometimes going home is hard. Joy Williams knows it too—she “took the long way, looking for the shortcut” before discovering home “was made of the best stuff.” On the title track from her 2019 album Front Porch, the singer/songwriter positions home as a place of safety. “You take it all for granted, then you leave,” she sings. “And then it takes a while to realize what you need.” The Nashville-based, California-born musician’s latest solo LP is deeply rooted in the idea of comfort and where it comes from. It’s stripped-down, maybe even more so than some of her folk ventures as one half of the now-defunct duo The Civil Wars, and it’s undeniably country in its tropes if not always its sound. Following the birth of her second child, Williams took a slow trip back home on Front Porch. Its prevailing idea is a familiar one, but it’s worth hearing again and again: “I may not have everything I want,” Williams sings. “But I got all I need.” —Ellen Johnson

jadebirdgirliesquirrel.jpg 14. Jade Bird: Jade Bird
Singles are often overpowering albums in the streaming age, which means we’re going to see a lot more of artists like Billie Eilish, Maggie Rogers and Jade Bird, the powerhouse British vocalist and songwriter who nabbed the opening slot on that mystical Jason Isbell/Father John Misty tour earlier this year. The 22-year-old musician has more than 1.4 million monthly Spotify listeners thanks to early hits like “What Am I Here For” and “Lottery” both of which preceded a full-length release of any kind. Five of the 12 songs on her dynamite self-titled debut are singles—catchy, exorbitant rockers that have helped her gain acclaim at South By Southwest, on late night television and in the music media over the past few years. Let it be known far and wide that Bird, who sings with a vigorously charged rasp comparable only to that of Amy Winehouse, Adele and/or Janis Joplin, has one of the most distinct voices of any singer/songwriter to emerge from any genre recently. She sounds like the adopted child of Joplin and Leslie Feist, or Cat Power and Grace Potter. Jade Bird is the vision of a young woman confidently strutting into her career. A charismatic performer, unforgettable vocalist and wise-beyond-her-years storyteller, Jade Bird is posed to become Americana’s answer to Lorde, a pop singer making guitar music for a generation of romantically anxious listeners. Jade Bird is surely the beginning of a wild ride to star status. —Ellen Johnson

whatitis_cover.jpeg 13. Hayes Carll: What It Is
“In times like these, everybody could use a hand,” Hayes Carll sings on “Times Like These.” Ain’t that the truth. Carll, a writer of smart, funny, no-frills country songs, followed his commercial breakthrough KMAG YOYO and 2016’s Lovers and Leavers with this year’s excellent What It Is, a plainly stated take on the tomfoolery of today viewed through the eyes of one regular joe. There’s a surveying of stakes on What It Is, as well as a whole lot of heart. He continues, “I just wanna do my labor, love my girl, and help my neighbor / While I keep a little hope for my dreams / But it’s sure getting hard, brother, in times like these.” There’s also no shortage of side eye: Carll gets told off in the wry “None’ya” and gives “a damn” (or several) in “If I May be So Bold.” Then there’s the roadside benevolence of “Jesus and Elvis” and the “American Dream’s” tendency to swallow us all. It is “What It Is,” but Carll would have us believe the worst modern maladies aren’t permanent. “There’s a whole world out there waitin’,” he sings. “Full of stories to be told / And I’ll heed the call and tell ‘em all / if I may be so bold.” —Ellen Johnson

Thumbnail image for sturgillsimpson_SOUNDFURY_main.jpg 12. Sturgill Simpson: Sound & Fury
Sound & Fury is a brute strength record, full of needle-in-the-red guitars and vocals pushed to the edge of distortion, and sometimes past it. There has already been a lot of buzz about how this is Sturgill Simpson’s “rock” album, which is true enough, but it also misses the point: Though his 2014 breakthrough Metamodern Sounds in Country Music pegged him as a latter-day country traditionalist, Simpson was neck-deep in blues and soul on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. It’s more accurate to say that while ’70s-style outlaw country music was a starting point for Simpson, he’s not willing to let it box him in for the sake of other people’s expectations. In fact, he seems to enjoy upending expectations. In that regard, Sound & Fury succeeds. If there’s an overarching theme, it’s that these 10 songs are loud to the point of blaring, and Simpson loads them up with musical touches from other styles and eras that are so prominent that he might as well be pouring them over your head from a bucket. The thunderous guitar riff powering “Best Clockmaker on Mars” makes room in the bridge section for a keening synthesizer part right out of Dr. Dre’s early-’90s toolkit, while the fast, twitchy beat on “A Good Look” would have gotten club crowds moving in the late disco era. There’s enough of that kind of borrowing on Sound & Fury that you can almost play spot-the-homage: a Keith Emerson keyboard vamp here, maybe, or a Prince drum fill over there. —Eric R. Danton

kelseywalll.jpg 11. Kelsey Waldon: White Noise, White Lines
In May, Kelsey Waldon became the first new artist to sign to John Prine’s Oh Boy Records in 15 years. The label released her third studio album, White Noise, White Lines, on Oct. 4. But the story began decades ago, when a 16-year-old Waldon copped a vinyl copy of John Prine for her record collection. Then, last year, she met Prine and his wife Fiona. They played some shows together and struck up a friendship, which led to the label’s “completely organic” decision to release the album. Waldon has had a slow-burning career, playing opening gigs for fellow Kentuckians like Tyler Childers and touring across the country, and it seems like her hustling paid off with the arrival of White Noise, White Lines. On the record, Waldon stuns with classic country arrangements and blue-collar tales. It’s easily the best songwriting of her career. Waldon wrote the album’s title track circa 2017 when she was home at her dad’s hunting lodge in Ballard County, Ky. (aka Monkeys Eyebrow). It begins like a classic country rocker, with Waldon using her characteristically vivid lyrics to paint a picture of some hot Kentucky summer: “Took a little run on a red trail getaway / Let it take me where it wants to let me go / Black snake crawling through the soybean summertime / It’s hotter than a child should ever know.” But it transforms into something decidedly more questioning, with Waldon repeating the line “Only here for a moment then we’re gone” before it concludes with recordings of a chant delivered by friends in the Chickasaw Nation, who were performing a ceremony and songs at the nearby Wickliffe Mounds that same weekend. —Ellen Johnson

carolinespenceminttyfresh.jpg 10. Caroline Spence: Mint Condition
Caroline Spence isn’t asking for much on Mint Condition. She’s just hanging in there, never making any demands too lofty. “I’m alright, my dear,” she sings on “Sit Here And Love Me.” “I don’t need you to solve any problem at all / I just need you to sit here and love me.” Since the release of her debut album Spades & Roses in 2017, the Virginia via Nashville singer/songwriter signed to Rounder and took a turn for the country. Spence has always had an ear for stories, but on Mint Condition she’s even more inclined to tell the tales of the everyman (read: woman) and embrace Americana’s twangier side. On “Song About A City,” she takes an autumnal road trip to evade the ghost of an old relationship; on the title track, she’d rather preserve it, acknowledging, “This life that we see ain’t no apparition.” She later wonders “Who’s gonna make my mistakes if I don’t?” and saddles in for a “Long Haul,” bracing for a physical and emotional journey. Mint Condition isn’t perfect. It doesn’t glide—it moseys. And the brief blunders along the way are just reflective of Spence’s own, the “mistakes” made by a human woman just trying to figure some sh*t out. As it happens, that soul-searching sounds like one of the best country releases of the year. —Ellen Johnson

bloodcover.jpg 9. Allison Moorer: Blood
Allison Moorer’s album Blood is a dark deep-dive into a traumatic and very often unsettling past. Moorer was 14 when her father killed her mother and then himself in a murder-suicide, leaving Moorer and her sister to live with extended family. Now, nearly 30 years and nine albums later, the Alabama-raised singer/songwriter is approaching the incident in a bold way, both on the album and throughout its companion memoir of the same name. On the song “Cold Cold Earth,” which originally and secretly appeared on her 2000 album The Hardest Part, Moorer describes the night when it happened. But instead of projecting the gory details or berating her abusive, alcoholic father, she molds a simple folk story. It’s not simple at all, of course, but when she opens the soft tune with the line, “The night was hot and steamy / And crickets played their tune / Everyone was sleeping / Under an August moon,” you’d never know you’re about to hear the story of a family falling apart. It’s one of the most brave and fascinating songs released this year, or in any year, for that matter. Elsewhere on Blood, Moorer stitches memories together using natural details. A churning, stormy sky is the backdrop in a song about the struggle to communicate (“Bad Weather”). She likens mental and emotional exhaustion to a heavy slab of stone on the rootsy country number “The Rock and the Hill.” She’s dragging a weight around again on “The Ties That Bind,” a beautiful, twangy ballad in which Moorer ponders a universal question, especially for those who’ve experienced trauma: “Why do I carry what isn’t mine? / Can I take the good and leave the rest behind?” She closes the record with a piano prayer, the very appropriately titled “Heal.” “Help me lay my weapons down / Help me give the love I feel,” she sings. “Help me hold myself with kindness / And help me heal.” It’s a simple but effective plea. Blood is ultimately a story of loss, healing and redemption, but Moorer casts the trauma in such a way that the music sounds soft and welcoming. —Ellen Johnson

8. Tyler Childers: Country Squire
On Country Squire, Childers takes some of life’s grittiest moments—the stuff that’s defined country music for ages—and punches them up with humor and honky-tonk. The Kentucky native doesn’t change the formula he established on Purgatory, or even really freshen it up. He just applies those same sonic building blocks—scorching fiddle, relaxed mandolin, and lots of wheeze and funny little springy noises—to an even more realized story, one that stretches from Childers’ schooldays crushing on the “Bus Route” to hesitantly facing the big city on “Creeker” to writing love songs with a “Days Inn pen” in “All Your’n” (its amusing music video sees all those album art creatures come to life). Country Squire is Purgatory’s splashier sequel. And within itself, it makes for a very cohesive listen. Childers ropes you in and shares tales from a rocking chair, cracking jokes, romanticizing the good ol’ days, bemoaning the lonely life of a touring musician and holding your attention for a round, just short-enough 35 minutes. Childers is a different kind of bro-country. On Country Squire, his best release yet, he grapples with masculinity, family and the South in ways that feel entirely new, despite sounding really traditional. I’ll listen to his rocking chair tales any time. —Ellen Johnson

girlgirlgirlcover.jpg 7. Maren Morris: GIRL
For as long as women have walked Music Row they’ve been told to sit down, shut up and sing—so long as it’s nothin’ too controversial. Taylor Swift didn’t so much as utter a “Go vote” until she was safely riding the success of her sixth studio album, long after she’d fled Nashville and ascended to pop immunity. Back in 2013, country disc jockeys boycotted Kacey Musgraves’ unofficial pride anthem “Follow Your Arrow” for lyrics about gay love and rolling joints, and women artists still fight hard for airplay on the 90% male country radio waves. And I needn’t remind you of what happened to the Dixie Chicks. Maren Morris just won’t stand for any of that bullshit. On the delicious country-pop/rock smoothie that is “Flavors”—Morris’ own personal “Follow Your Arrow”—the Texas-born singer/songwriter is loud and clear about what we can expect from her: “I speak my peace, don’t do what I’m told / Shut up and sing, well hell no I won’t.” An outlaw in the making, Morris lays down that kind of hard-edged honesty all over her sophomore album, GIRL, a savvy, fiery portrait of an imperfect woman chasing attainable pop glory in a post-Golden Hour world. —Ellen Johnson

6. Robert Ellis: Texas Piano Man
It’s funny that Robert Ellis’ album Texas Piano Man was released on Valentine’s Day. While there are a good number of love songs on the record, it’s alarmingly disillusioned, not the idealized stuff of greeting cards and romantic comedies. There’s a cheeky examination of bickering in “Aren’t We Supposed To Be In Love,” acts of longing and desperation on “When You’re Away” and a seemingly funny tune about a “Passive Aggressive” partner that’s actually kind of sad. “That’s one way to communicate,” Ellis sings. “I wish you would just give it to me straight”—not exactly the doe-eyed love song you’re after on Feb. 14. The relationships on this dazzling album are far from perfect, but they’re honest, and the multi-talented Ellis, coming off a string of breakup records, sounds more comfortable in his skin than ever before. Texas Piano Man is exactly what it sounds like: a cross between country-blues and piano-pop. Ellis surely knows his way around the keys, and his fifth studio album is funny, frank and alive. It’s a storyful, self-realized album that also happens to be a hell-of-a good time to listen to. —Ellen Johnson

whileimlivingart.jpg 5. Tanya Tucker: While I’m Livin’
What do you get when you take Brandi Carlile, a Miranda Lambert cover and one of the most talented and underrated country singers ever and make an album? You get Tanya Tucker’s While I’m Livin’, the Texas-born teen-star-turned-outlaw’s first new album since 2009’s My Turn, which was her first bit of new music since 2003. While Tanya albums are few and far between, they’re wroth the wait. While I’m Livin’ is a stunning songwriting project in which Tucker dances across the mystical Wild West on “Wheels Of Laredo” (which The Highwomen also covered on their 2019 debut album), plays the wizened divorcee on “I Don’t Owe You Anything” and makes a case for living in the moment on the gorgeous “Bring My Flowers Now,” one of the year’s best country songs. Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings produced the record, and the trio’s combined sensibilities in songwriting and Americana served this project well. They even slotted a cover of Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me,” which Tucker sings from the aging parent’s perspective as opposed to the child’s. Spoiler alert: it’ll still make you cry. While I’m Livin’ is a record about life and its many challenging lessons, but more than anything, it’s a 10-song gem proving Tanya Tucker is one of the best ones we’ve got. —Ellen Johnson

ridethatpony_cover.jpg 4. Orville Peck: Pony
Masked country crooner Orville Peck is forging a path all his own. Hot on the heels of his illustrious and mysterious debut album Pony, Peck first caught our attention thanks to his look, act and secret identity (we still don’t know who he is, exactly), but his music secured the hold. Pony is a weirdly satisfying musical milkshake, an at-times spooky blend of classic country, shoegaze ambience and vintage rock ‘n’ roll that goes down more like a smooth slurp of whiskey. At its core is an emotional journey, at times told through the lens of outlandish characters who’d feel right at home in a spaghetti western (two canyon-traversing cowboys caught up in a doomed romance on “Dead of Night”), and, at others, through more personal anecdotes (“Turn to Hate” tracks a series of internal struggles, told from a male, gay perspective we may not otherwise hear in country). The voice of Merle Haggard and the heart of an earnest indie-rocker make for a singular combination, one that should solidify Orville Peck as a country innovator, not an outsider. —Ellen Johnson

3. Miranda Lambert: Wildcard
One of Miranda Lambert’s trademarks is her ability to weave nostalgia with ballsiness in her music, and she nails it again here on her new album Wildcard. The devil-may-care attitude she first showed us on her spicy 2005 debut Kerosene is still in full force (see: “Tequila Does”). But her tender side, which she first revealed in 2009’s Revolution, peeks through on some of Wildcard’s best tracks. On the hopeful “Bluebird,” she sings, “34 was bad / So I just turn to 35.” Butterflies abound on “How Dare You Love,” and she plots her own fairytale escape à la the Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away” on the lustrous “Fire Escape,” one of those rocking country romances that sounds even sweeter when you let go of all cynicism. “Life’s pretty weird, life’s pretty great,” Lambert sings on “Pretty Bitchin’.” She’s been through hell and back and now that she’s on the other side of it, she just might be the realest star in country music—she’s certainly in the running for the biggest. Like Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound, Wildcard feels like Lambert’s rock ‘n’ roll introduction. But, if you’ve been paying attention, Lambert has always been a rockstar. She’s been spittin’ fire since she signed to a label in 2003—probably long before that—and her IDGAF attitude has long sounded strong with screeching guitars and thrashing drums. Lambert is an outlaw, and she’s also an album artist, and Wildcard proves she’s one who will be rebelling, experimenting and rocking the hell out for many years to come. —Ellen Johnson

yolaaaaaa_1000.jpeg 2. Yola: Walk Through Fire
Yola Carter’s mere presence—the rare Black artist amid the otherwise pale skinned world of roots music—would have been enough to at least train one’s ear in her direction. But the British singer/songwriter’s performances are nothing short of revelatory, a conjoining of American musical interests (country, blues, soul, pop) warped by years of personal turmoil and bursting free via her sturdy, resolute vocal performances—a far cry in tone from her artistic heroes (Dolly Parton, Neil Young and The Byrds, among them) but firmly connected to their influences, lyrically and emotionally. Her debut full-length Walk Through Fire only solidifies Yola’s position as a talent of rare vintage. Recorded with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys at his studio in Nashville with a crack team of backing musicians, including former Johnny Cash bassist Dave Roe, legendary session pianist Bobby Wood and a guest spot from Vince Gill, the album is steeped in woozy country (the dusty title track), hip-swinging ’60s R&B à la Dusty Springfield (“Still Gone,” “Ride Out in the Country”) and the peaceful, easy feeling that can arrive when trying to meld those two aesthetics. —Robert Ham

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for The-Highwomen-albumcover-main.png 1. The Highwomen: The Highwomen
On The Highwomen, the group’s debut album and flagship statement in a female-forward country movement that’s stirring up chatter in Nashville and beyond, these four artists dare to imagine every kind of life for themselves. Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile, easily four of the most talented people in the greater Americana sphere, explore every facet of femininity and humanity and how they exist alongside each other, from the beautiful and hard-won to the ugly and downright messy. Work, family, children, straight romance, queer romance, shitty men, imperfect women—it’s all there, made more impactful by the expertly played fiddle, drums, electric guitar and the voices of many. These are songs that scream, “We are here, and we have something to say,” but The Highwomen isn’t just some topical social statement that won’t hold up in a few years—this album was not built uniquely for 2019. While it’s absolutely and unapologetically meant as an addition to the discourse on inequality and lack of diversity that’s been ruling Nashville and country music (country radio in particular) for decades now, it’s also a country classic, no matter which way you spin it. —Ellen Johnson

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