Campfire Tales: Albums of the year 2019
As usual, the caveat to the list you'll find below is that these are our favourite albums of the year. We don't like to call them the best as that's such a subjective thing, but they most definitely are the country and Americana albums that we've enjoyed the most in 2019. After whittling our 2018 list down to 17 we've jumped back up to 20 this year. It's been a bumper year and albums from TDF faves like Beth Bombara, Cassadee Pope, Drew Holcombe, Dori Freeman, Shovels & Rope, Sturgill Simpson, and Hiss Golden Messenger didn't even make our longlist! First up are our top twenty, we'll summarise the narrow misses at the end.
Jenny Tolman - There Goes The Neighborhood
If you were going to compare Jenny to anyone it'd likely be Angaleena Presley. The bitingly funny lyrics, the stories in the songs, and the southern accent all add to the realism of the world that's been created for Jennyville. Whether it's the self-deprecating humour of lead single 'High Class White Trash', the wonderful wordplay of 'My Welcome Mat', the 'Girl Crush' of 2019, 'So Pretty', the rambunctious title track, or the viciously clever takedown of a relationship in 'Love You Too', this is world class country music.
Kalie Shorr - Open Book
While Kalie's probably fed up of hearing it, the sheer brutal honesty of Open Book is its secret weapon. The rawness and vividly accurate portrayal of loss on 'The World Keep Spinning' is a stunning gut punch. Elsewhere 'Messy' encapsulates a deteriorating relationship, 'Escape' tells the tale of Kalie's youth, while 'F U Forever' does what it says on the tin with a country-rock sheen. A touch rough around the edges, and sounding like a cross between mid-90s indie and mid-10s country, there's been nothing else like this released in 2019.
Lauren Jenkins - No Saint
When the song 'Maker's Mark And You' inspired this writer to try that particular brand of bourbon, there's no way Lauren's debut full lengther couldn't make this list. From the rocking opener 'Give Up The Ghost', through 'Payday', 'Running Out Of Road', and 'My Bar', it's boys that are on the receiving end. Defiant and independent, this record mirrors its creator. Possibly our favourite track? 'All Good Things', a song with a groove so good you'll still be swaying a week after hearing it.
Tyler Childers - Country Squire
Following on from his exceptionally well-received debut in 2018 (in the UK), could have been tough, but honestly, Tyler knocked it out of the state. You know everything's going to be great from the first chorus of the nine songs. The highlights are abundant; 'Bus Stop' is a spellbinding tale of a school yard crush, 'House Fire' is a foot-stomper, 'Ever Lovin' Hand' the finest ode to a loved one ever recorded (yes, it's about that), and 'All Your'n' a quite beautiful love song. This is proper country music, from a proper country superstar in waiting.
Maren Morris - Girl
Now not everyone thinks that Maren should be included in a country music list, but we disagree. In fact, we don't really care. Take a listen to 'The Bones' and tell me that's not a country song at its core. Yeah, there are plenty of pop trappings here, 'Flavor' for example, but the title track 'GIRL', 'All My Favourite People', 'To Hell & Back', and the Brandi Carlile duet 'Common' are dripping with country guts. Alongside her work in The Highwomen, and becoming an expectant mother for the first time, Maren's 2019 was a knockout year.
The Highwomen - The Highwomen
And speaking of the quartet who've taken country music by storm, their debut is terrific. Not only does the star wattage of Brandi and Maren shine brightly on Amanda Shires (darling of the Americana world and TDF fave) and Natalie Hemby (songwriter extraordinaire and TDF fave), but the four of them have created a moment. A real shift, something that feels special and different. With their calling card 'Redesigning Women' leading the way, the gang delivered some cracking country songs, 'Loose Change', their ode to inclusivity 'Crowded Table', 'Heaven Is A Honky Tonk', the list goes on. As well as giving voice to guest stars Yola and Sheryl Crow, each Highwomen got their turn in the limelight, 'Don't Call Me', 'Wheels Of Laredo', 'My Oly Child', 'Old Soul'. Quite frankly, this is an astonishing achievement. Let's not let this moment pass.
Yola - Walk Through Fire
And speaking of Yola... The Brit with the booming voice finally got her "proper" debut out in the world, and it was worth the wait. The throwback sound matches silky smooth vocals like ice and Maker's Mark. There's a real hint of Glen Campbell's most famous work in songs like opener 'Faraway Look', while 'Shady Grove' is paints wonderful pictures and 'Ride Out In The Country' has a laidback style all Yola's own. And they're just the first three tracks. With producer Dan Auerbach taking a backseat for once, it's left to the songs (co-written by Yola) and the voice to leave the last impression, as it should be.
Our Native Daughters - Songs Of Our Native Daughters
Predating The Highwomen by about six months was 2019's first super-talented supergroup, Our Native Daughters. Made up of Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell, they all took time out from their day jobs (artists in their own right, and Allison as half of Birds Of Chicago) to lead us through a set of folk songs telling the stories of a myriad of characters from the past. Pitch perfect, both for our times, and in their replication of the sound of the precursors to these songs, the mix of original lyrics with traditional music, and traditional lyrics with original music (and vice versa) produce some of the most powerful songs you'll hear.
Steel Blossoms - Steel Blossoms
Coming out of nowhere to be one of our favourite records of the year Steel Blossoms (aka Sara and Hayley) combine witty lyrical acumen, with catchy radio-friendly melodies, and stories of murders and strong women. If that sounds like the perfect mix for a country album, it is. And this is an almost perfect country album, from fun opener 'You're The Reason I Drink' to mournful closer 'Kentucky's Never Been This FGar From Tennessee' everything's covered from topics to twangs.
Bonnie Bishop - The Walk
Bonnie Bishop's finally made the record she always wanted to make, and The Walk is all the better for it. Having decided to move away from "celebrity" producers (Dave Cobb produced her 2016 album, Ain't Who I Was) and the mainstream. In a sign of that freedom, opening track 'Love Revolution' clocks in at 7 minutes and 12 seconds, and not a moment of it is superfluous. Though only seven songs long, the runtime is album-length, and that gives the songs time to breath and grow, to groove and flow. It's a cracking, perfectly formed album.
Miranda Lambert - Wildcard
Genuinely, what more is there to say about Miranda Lambert? Each record she releases mixes genres like no other country artist. Some purists hated the opening triumvirate of 'White Trash', 'Mess With My Head', and 'It All Comes Out In The Wash', but they're great examples of Miranda's love of rock. The beautiful 'Bluebird' and amazing 'Dark Bars' show her tender side, while 'Pretty Bitchin'' and 'Fire Escape' show her love of wit. Written with some of the best songwriters in Nashville right now, Wildcard is the sound of an artist totally at ease with themselves, and at the top of her game.
Bruce Springsteen - Westerns Stars
It was always going to happen, as Springsteen has always had a country songwriters touch, but finally, The Boss made an Americana album. If it's not totally country, there's no denying the sound of 'Tucson Train' or the lyrics of 'Drive Fast (The Stuntman)' are pure country. There's even a campfire song referencing Nashville ('Somewhere North Of Nashville'). It's touching, tender, honest, and top quality. Everything you'd expect of the best of The Boss.
Michaela Anne - Desert Dove
It might have taken a couple of albums, but finally, Michaela Anne has found her place in a crowded field. Desert Dove has been roundly well-reviewed by every outlet going, from Rolling Stone to American Songwriter, and it's totally deserved. It's mix of easy rootsy vibes ('By Our Design'), driving country-pop ('Child Of The Wind') and dismissive country ('If I Wanted Your Opinion') packed with attitude and smarts.
Cody Jinks - After The Fire / The Wanting
Proper country music comes in many forms, but if you want proper then you really need Cody Jinks in your collection. 2019 saw two brilliant albums released, over two weeks. Such is the quality across both records it's impossible to pick one, so here they both are. It's difficult to pick out highlights, though 'Whiskey' and 'It Don't Rain In California' are great. Jinks is on some roll, and having gone his own way - these two records are self-released, self-funded, self-everythinged - you image we'll hear even more from him in 2020.
Maddie & Tae - One Heart To Another/Everywhere I'm Going
Another double selection, but this one is different as these two EPs from Maddie & Tae were conceived as one album, so need to be listened to as such. For fans, it's very much a progression from their first album, significantly so. 'Friends Don't', 'Bathroom Floor', 'Die From A Broken Heart', New Dog' Old Tricks', they're all the mix of country-pop that the duo have perfected. Anyone not familiar, where've you been? Another two artists who're making the music they want to make, and are all the better for it.
Eilen Jewell - Gypsy
Another artist that's most comfortable mixing up genres within her chosen lane. Gypsy blends country-soul ('Crawl') with cutting political songs dressed as upbeat sing-a-longs ('79 Cents (The Meow Song)') and some steel guitar-driven country blues ('These Blues'), and shows Eilen Jewell at her most productive and versatile.
Luke Combs - What You See Is What You Get
So, upfront, let's be honest; we bloody loved Luke's debut album in 2017 and still listen to it weekly now. The fact that What You See Is What You Get is just as good isn't really a surprise; Luke's bottled something unique and the well's got plenty to give. Everyone knows the single (and album opener) 'Beer Never Broke My Heart', but it's the following two songs, 'Refrigerator Door' - which perfectly captures Combs everyman songwriting lightning in a bottle - and 'Even Though I'm Leaving' which is one of the most heartwrenching tracks of the year. It's beautiful. All anchored by Combs voice and spot-on balance of traditional and mainstream country sounds.
Emily Scott Robinson - Traveling Mercies
It really all starts with 'The Dress', Emily's devastating song about her own experience of sexual assault. It's vivid, it's powerful, and it's heartbreaking. It's also an insight into the mental legacy of sexual assault. And though that song is the centrepiece, it's by no means the end of the album, the North Carolina native makes simple, effective, acoustic guitar-driven country music. Full of stories and fully drawn characters, songs like 'Ghost In Every Town' and 'Borrowed Rooms And Old Wood Floors' draw you into their world and don't let you go. It's a powerful and perfectly rounded record.
Leyla McCalla - Capitalist Blues
In a year of great records, it'd have been easy to skip over Leyla's second album. A woozy, bluesy stroll through politics, great songwriting, and catchy as hell melodies, it's an under the radar cracker. The title track opens things and sets its blues credentials front and centre, but it mixes influences from calypso ('Money Is King') to country-soul ('Heavy As Lead') by way of brooding, grunge laden Americana ('Aleppo'), in a way that no other album did in 2019.
EmiSunshine & The Rain - Family Wars
After winning attention on her 2017 debut album, mainly due to being 13 years old, EmiSunshine (or Emilie Sunshine Hamilton to use her full name) has proven on her second album that she's got the talent to back up that initial attention. With the focus very much on her fronting her band Family Wars is stuffed full of well-crafted country songs, from the title track to 'Scarecrow', the brilliant 'Crimson Moon', and evocative 'The Ghost Of Hank Williams' Emi has delivered a country album well beyond expectations.
Lady Antebellum - Oceans
Now, we really enjoyed Lady A's previous album here at TDF Towers but there's no denying that over the last few years they've moved further and further away from their roots. Musically. No longer. Oceans is literally bursting with the type of country-rock that made their name. From 'Boots' to the hit single 'What If I Never Get Over You' it's classic Lady A. Add the power of 'Be Patient With My Love' (which Charles Kelley sings as if his wife is listening every time), the epic 'The Thing That Wrecks You', beautiful ode to family 'What I'm Leaving For' and anthemic title track and the band are properly back.
Erin Enderlin - Faulkner County
Another of those artists that you'll know a bunch of songs from, Erin has written for Luke Bryan, Alan Jackson and Randy Travis among others, but it's with Faulkner County, her third album, that she's finally getting the dues owed to her. It's a string-laden, acoustic guitar-driven, lyrically interesting country record. Exactly what they should be. Songs about drinking, truckers, small towns, and story-led tracks like 'The Queen Of Marina Del Rey'. Add to that a beautiful voice, and Erin Enderlin has the whole package.
Kelsey Waldon - White Noise/White Lines
On the title track of Kelsey's third album there's a definite Sturgill Simpson vibe in the woozy lead guitar, the laidback drum beat, and the accented vocals, and the rest of White Noise/White Lines has the same sort of impact, it's unashamedly country in the most outlaw way. 'Sunday's Children' is another on the same lines and leads into the country waltz of 'Very Old Barton'.The Kentucky native has really hit her stride here, and hopefully there won't be such a long wait for album #4.
John Paul White - The Hurting Kind
We were fans of Beulah, John Paul's first post-Civil Wars record, but we really love The Hurting Kind. From the opening bars it's a triumph of songwriting and musicianship. Whether he's ruminating on the past on 'The Good Old Days' or dueting with Lee Ann Womack on the downbeat 'This Isn't Going To End Well', there literally isn't anyone that writes or sings a sad song like JP. Though he shows on the acoustic 'Heart Like A Kite' that he can do whimsy, if a bleak kind of whimsy. But who cares about lightness when the shade is this beguiling and comforting.
McKay & Leigh - McKay & Leigh
After a six-year wait, two more of Nashville's songwriters re-team to bring their collective songwriting gifts together and deliver a tremendously satisfying country album, of the most traditional kind. This is starkly illustrated by the opening one-two of 'Analog' and 'Obsolete', both calling back to simpler times. That theme runs through the 13 tracks, whether it's their choice of songs to cover, or their originals. The duos voice go together perfectly as well, and it's criminal that they haven't had more attention.
Jon Pardi - Heartache Medication
There's no-one that does commercial country quite as, well, country, as Jon Pardi. Despite being born in California you would not have a clue he's not from Georgie unless Wikipedia had told you. And it's not just his sound, it's the lyrics and content of the songs, 'Old Hat', 'Ain't Always The Cowboy', the double whammy of 'Me And Jack' and ' Don't Blame It On Whiskey', it's as traditional as you can get; all wrapped up in a shiny Music Row production. Somehow, through the will of her personality, Jon keeps the heart and soul in his music. This is one of our favourite mainstream releases of 2019.
You can check out our playlist of our favourite songs from the records on Tidal.