10. Jimmie Allen, Bettie James
On Bettie James, which takes its moniker from Allen’s father and grandmother’s first names, Allen proves his two consecutive Country Airplay No. 1s were no fluke. With “Why Things Happen,” he creates country music history, bringing three generations of Black Country hitmakers -- Charley Pride, Darius Rucker and himself -- together for a thoughtful collaboration and claims his rightful spot in an important lineage. His expressive voice beautifully reigns over “When This Is Over,” a song featuring the Oak Ridge Boys that prays these hard times bring some collective kindness and wisdom. He is equally convincing on the set’s two love songs, the sweet “This Is Us” featuring Noah Cyrus and the wistful “Drunk & I Miss You” featuring Mickey Guyton.
9. Ingrid Andress, Lady Like
While Lady Like's Grammy-nominated first single “More Hearts Than Mine,” about breaking the collective heart of your girlfriend’s family, is the obvious show stopper here, the swagger of the title track anchors the set. When Andress sings, “I could bring you to your knees and/get you kicked out the Garden of Eden,” in “Lady Like,” she sets the tone for this confident set and subverts outdated thinking about a woman’s role in, well, everything. Her feathery vocals also lift the breezy, string-laden “Bad Advice” and “The Stranger,” which examines the heady, woozy first days of romance.
8. Mickey Guyton, Bridges
Guyton serves as an important chronicler of this moment in history with such tracks as “Black Like Me” and “What Are You Gonna Tell Her,” but to cite her only for her important messages is to overlook one of the top voices in country music today. She has a powerful, beautiful instrument, whether serving as country music’s conscience or lightheartedly celebrating her favorite beverage on “Rosé” or pleading for some merciful grace from above on “Heaven Down Here.”
7. The Chicks, Gaslighter
On their first studio album of new material in 14 years, The Chicks go full scorched-earth on their ex-husbands. Such honesty can seem bracing at first, as Natalie Maines sings “My husband’s girlfriend's husband just called me up,” on “Sleep at Night” -- but then as the excoriation continues, it becomes refreshing and ultimately liberating. They melodically and harmoniously lay their past to bear and and look ahead to the next generation on “Julianna Calm Down” and a call to arms for those that follow in their footsteps on “March March.” By confessing their pain, and ultimate resurrection, with humor and truth, they deliver an album that is as uplifting as it is cathartic.
6. HARDY, A Rock
Hardy is no stranger to the top of the charts as a songwriter for others, including co-writing Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country” and Morgan Wallen’s “More Than My Hometown.” On his full-length debut, he proves as masterful at penning songs for himself as for others. As the title suggests, the tracks owe as much to AC/DC as to George Jones, but it’s Hardy’s lyrics that separate him from the pack. There’s a cleverness to his insights here, such as on chart topper, “One Beer,” featuring Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson, about one too many drinks leading to a shotgun marriage, or “Boots,” in which he sleeps in his shoes because he knows his girlfriend is kicking him out come morning so he’s ready for a speedy retreat. The subject matter is well-trod, but in Hardy’s hands, he brings fresh ideas that should serve him well for decades.
5. Keith Urban, The Speed of Now, Part 1
Though country happily claims Urban as it own, this alchemist so effortlessly blends disparate musical elements on The Speed of Now, Part 1 that he transcends any attempt to pigeonhole his sound, whether it’s the funk/electronica of “Out the Cage” with Breland and Nile Rodgers or the luminous duet with P!nk on “One Too Many.” He looks outward on “Say Something” (before turning reflective and very personal), while injecting a rock groove into the sexy, driving “Superman” and a plaintive prayer into Top 10 hit, “God Whispered Your Name.” Regardless of the style, two constants remain: Urban’s singular guitar playing and vibrant vocals.
4. Little Big Town, Night Fall
On their ninth studio album, co-ed foursome Little Big Town do their usual liquor songs: the clever post-breakup track, “Over Drinking,” and the mariachi trumpet-filled “Wine, Beer, Whiskey.” But once again, it’s when Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook dig deep, they mine a substantive emotional richness that few groups can touch. Their four-part harmonies bolster hypnotic “Next To You,” a realistic look at a relationship’s ups and downs. “The Daughters” should be required listening for any woman about the ways females are held to an impossibly high standard from a very early age as we “pose like a trophy on a shelf/ a dream for everyone but not myself.” “Sugarcoat,” about the price good girls pay by staying silent, serves as an appropriate companion, while “Problem Child” will make any black sheep feel less alone. The members of LBT never pander to their audience, or go for the low-hanging fruit, and the effort shows.
3, Brothers Osborne, Skeletons
Siblings TJ and John display a fresh boldness and an edginess on their third set as they continue to blend their respect for tradition with looking forward. Skeletons is a muscular joyride that starts with “Lighten Up,” the perfect arena opener for as soon as we’re able to return to live shows, and moves into the ZZ Top-influenced “All Night,” while the title track includes this clever keeper: “You’ve got skeletons in your closet/ And I’ve got bones to pick with them.” T.J.’s low rumbling vocals and John’s electrifying guitar work bolster every song, including “Make It a Good One” and “Hatin’ Somebody,” which address the nation’s divisiveness.
2. Ashley McBryde, Never Will
Whether she’s embracing traditional country or southern rock or something in between, McBryde infuses her songs with authenticity. Her voice slides easily from a growl to a whisper whether she’s singing about a treacherous love affair on “Voodoo Doll,” a possessive daughter on “Martha Divine” or self sabotage on “First Thing I Reach For.” There’s something so visceral about McBryde’s lyrics and delivery that Never Will is an album you feel as much as you hear.
1. Chris Stapleton, Starting Over
Though it would have seemed impossible following the critical and commercial success of 2017’s From A Room: Volume 2, Stapleton continues to improve as a singer and a songwriter. His gruff vocals keep their feral edge under producer Dave Cobb’s steady hand as he looks at life from the other side of 40 with all the experience, joy and heartache it brings on this masterful turn. Most of the songs are intensely personal, but on the searing “Watch You Burn,” he righteously takes on the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival shooter, to blistering effect. That his originals here hold up beside covers of John Fogerty’s “Joy of My Life” and Guy Clark’s “Worry B Gone” and “Old Friends” are a testament to his songwriting prowess.