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Guide to Modern Country Vol. I

A list of albums that have played a role in sparking my new love affair with the genre. Anyone looking to get into country can start here. Not everything on this list is 100% purebred country, but if it contains enough folk/Americana to sound the part, then I included it. Each selection contains the year of its release and a subjective importance rating (high, medium, low) based on how essential I believe it is for you to investigate. Enjoy!
1Sturgill Simpson
A Sailor's Guide To Earth

(2016) - This is a modern day classic that injects elements of rock, jazz, and psychedelia into country to form an experience that has totally rejuvenated the genre. Sturgill Simpson is a leading country music trailblazer, and I'd recommend that anyone looking for a gateway into the genre begin here. IMPORTANCE RANK: HIGH
2Honey Harper

(2020) - Coined as "cosmic dream country", Honey Harper's debut fuses folk, dream-pop, and country to form one of the prettiest, most accessible, and simultaneously experimental releases in recent memory. Some are hailing him as the future of the genre and I do not disagree. IMPORTANCE: HIGH
3Katie Pruitt

(2020) - Pruitt is openly gay, and sings about the struggles of trying to make it in a genre (and section of the world where she grew up) that shuns people like her. She's at least equal parts country and pop, but she has the powerful vocals to back it up. Her lyrics will also keep you coming back for more. IMPORTANCE: MEDIUM
Saint Cloud

(2020) - Katie Crutchfield pivoted from indie-rock to Americana/folk/country this year, and the sound suits her. Her inflections are Dylan-esque, and in pairing quaint songwriting with intelligent and introspective lyrics, Saint Cloud becomes the perfect distillation of middle American rural simplicity. IMPORTANCE: MEDIUM
5Zach Bryan

(2020) - Zach Bryan is intentionally lo-fi when it comes to production - dodging offers left and right from major labels and reputable producers. Both of his albums have been turned in by the same rag-tag group of close friends that he relies on, and he wouldn't have it any other way. The scratchy production, in time, becomes endearing. Bryan is reminiscent of a country Elliott Smith; crafting lyrics others could only dream of and saying more about life and love with an acoustic guitar/harmonica than most could with an entire orchestra. IMPORTANCE: HIGH
6Jess Williamson

(2020) - Dreamy and laid back, Sorceress is another excellent addition to folk/Americana's 2020 resurgence. Williamson sings about everything from losing a baby to friend's funerals to the American border crisis - and she delivers it all with grace and aplomb. IMPORTANCE: MEDIUM
7Ruston Kelly

(2017) - Ruston Kelly's 2017 debut was an overlooked gem at the time. It's straightforward in its country-rock approach, but the emotional delivery and lyrics make it a standout record. This year, he divorced from Kacey Musgraves and has a new album coming up in August. This would make for a good appetizer and excellent starting point if you plan on checking out his upcoming work. IMPORTANCE: MEDIUM
8Willie Nelson
First Rose of Spring

(2020) - Most music stars count themselves lucky if they're alive at 87, let alone churning out effortlessly gorgeous albums such as this one. Nelson is a country legend who has not slowed down with age (his voice still sounds so smooth). First Rose of Spring is a breezy and simple listen, but one that any country fan should add to their "to-do" list. IMPORTANCE: MEDIUM
Songs of Sonoma Mountain

(2020) - Simple and elegant, but very well-produced at the same time. This is a record about relating to one's natural surroundings, and it has implications beyond that. The lyrics are beautiful once you get to know them. It's a primarily acoustic release with some gorgeous string flourishes and accents. IMPORTANCE: MEDIUM
10Jason Isbell

(2013) - If you want to talk about modern day country, this is probably even moreso the consensus starting point than my personal preference of Sturgill Simpson. Isbell is a household name, and he crafts some of the most genuine and heartfelt songs you will ever hear. Balancing softer folk with guitar-heavy rock, he manages to keep things sounding fresh at all times while you ache and bleed along with him to his gut-wrenching and beautiful tales. Place this at or near the top of your list of country albums to check out, if you haven't already. IMPORTANCE: HIGH
11Aubrie Sellers
Far From Home

(2020) - Who said that country chicks can't rock? Sellers injects electricity into the air here, and while the overall vibe still leans towards pop, she is perfectly capable (and willing) to detour into a classic rock/country groove that is highly addicting. This seems like a launching pad for her more than a masterpiece, but it's worth checking out if the aforementioned description sounds like your thing. IMPORTANCE: LOW
12Margo Price
Midwest Farmer's Daughter

(2016) - Margo Price is a small town girl, and Midwest Farmer's Daughter is a small town album. It shows flashes of a brighter future in mainstream country-pop, but this remains meek, pleasant, and highly personal -- to its undeniable benefit. This is one of those albums you can listen to and then say "I knew her when..." IMPORTANCE: LOW
13Kacey Musgraves
Golden Hour

(2018) - Perhaps the new standard-bearer by which all country-pop is now compared, Golden Hour is a gorgeous, spacious, melodic masterpiece. Musgraves has the perfect voice for what she does, and every song she writes is catchy while possessing an immaculately produced atmosphere. She's at the top of the country food chain right now, and this album is one of the most successful, unabashed country-pop records in recent memory. IMPORTANCE: HIGH
14Hailey Whitters
The Dream

(2020) - Whitters combines a beautiful voice with earworm melodies to form an easy-to-enjoy country pop album. It's an aesthetic slam dunk, toeing the line between dreaded "pop country" and quainter folk/Americana. This is a gorgeous listen, even if Whitters isn't planting her flag in any new soil. IMPORTANCE: LOW
15Drive-By Truckers
American Band

(2016) - One could make the argument that this isn't really country (and I wouldn't refute it), but it certainly has traces of folk/Americana mixed with their straightforward rock that places it in the general wheelhouse. This remains my favorite Drive-By Truckers album for its political honesty, but lifelong fans of the band might instead point you to The Dirty South. Either way, be sure to check this band out in some capacity. IMPORTANCE: MEDIUM

(2016) - A deft fusion of indie-rock and folk/country, Pinegrove have become known for all the wrong reasons (research the sex scandal of their frontman). Putting that discomfort aside (and only if you're willing to), Pinegrove is immensely talented and Cardinal is their greatest offering. IMPORTANCE: MEDIUM
17Orville Peck

(2019) - Gothic outlaw country might best describe Peck, whose debut LP Pony caught many listeners off guard with its queer themes and musical dexterity that ranges from Elvis-like balladry to 80s rock. At its heart, Pony is a diverse country album written for a diverse crowd - something country music needs now more than ever. IMPORTANCE: HIGH
Among The Ghosts

(2018) - Lucero is a rough, gritty experience that feels like the perfect complement to an honest day's work at a blue-collar job. Among The Ghosts is a no-frills country rocker that keeps the tempo upbeat. The vocals are raw and about as inviting as sandpaper, but it fits the band's style perfectly and makes the slower, romantic ballads all the more impressive. IMPORTANCE: MEDIUM
19Taylor Swift

(2008) - Scoff if you want, but Swift once played an important role in elevating modern country to the masses. Speak Now did it even better, but this was where the magic began. With storytelling lyrics and excellent songwriting, Fearless is an undeniable country-pop classic that converted many people to country at the time. IMPORTANCE: LOW
20Brandy Clark
Your Life Is A Record

(2020) - A fun collection of well-constructed, memorable country-pop songs that avoids being too overtly accessible/mainstream. This isn't an album to convert country haters, but it's a good record nonetheless from a year that won't stop churning out quality country releases. IMPORTANCE: LOW
21Carrie Underwood
Blown Away

(2012) - Underwood falls into the same camp as Swift. She's everywhere, impossible to miss, and you have most likely already heard her material on the radio. While that might make her inclusion on a list like this less critical, her sway in the genre is still evident. Few can belt out notes like Underwood, and some of the songs on Blown Away illustrate the power behind her voice better than anywhere else. Don't write her off just because she's popular; this is a good pop/country LP. IMPORTANCE: LOW
22Miranda Lambert
The Weight of These Wings

(2016) - Yet another artist that falls into the Swift/Underwood wheelhouse, but another good one too. The Weight of These Wings is especially alluring because it takes Lambert's typically made-for-pop-radio approach and turns it completely inward. It's a double album of heart-on-sleeve lyrics and dusty country-pop melodies. Worth a glance if you enjoy it when pop artists subvert their own mission statement. IMPORTANCE: LOW
23Caitlyn Smith

(2020) - Smith has a huge voice capable of joining the same company as Miranda Lambert or Carrie Underwood, but her songwriting is a bit more nuanced/interesting. This is a pop/country record at its core, but it doesn't pander to the lowest common denominator. A worthwhile listen for country fans who also enjoy pop (or pop fans who also enjoy country; whatever!). IMPORTANCE: LOW
24Lucinda Williams
The Ghosts of Highway 20

(2016) - A legend in her own right, Williams' name alone elevates this release as worth hearing. This is a moody reflection on life, family, memories, and regrets that has all the marks of becoming a modern day classic. Lucinda's unique vocals also make this an easy standout. IMPORTANCE: MEDIUM
25Bonny Light Horseman
Bonny Light Horseman

(2020) - I dismissed this as too simple/boring at first, but the melodies have really grown on me. It's more folk than it is country, but the choruses and verses here have all the rural twang you could want. With both male and female vocals, Bonny Light Horseman brings forth a wide array of styles and is a very pleasant - if mild-mannered - offering. IMPORTANCE: LOW
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