For country music, the past decade has arguably seen the most change since the genre’s inception. The 2010s marked the evolution of the country sound to embody elements of pop, rock, EDM and hip-hop as well as bluegrass, Americana and more traditional-leaning country instrumentation.
The decade included the return of Garth Brooks with the release of 2014’s Man Against Machine — Brooks’ first album in 13 years — as well as the genre departure of Taylor Swift, who’d go on to reach pop superstardom shortly after the release of 2010’s Speak Now.
Amidst the Nashville turnover, the decade did finally introduce Music City’s best kept secret, Chris Stapleton, to the larger world. It also found Sam Hunt leading the pack of countless newcomers, who embraced hip-hop and pop production alongside a rapid-paced singing/rapping style — while still maintaining distinct country storytelling.
Despite the ongoing struggle for female artists at country radio throughout the decade, women still released many of the genre’s most memorable albums. Carrie Underwood, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert and The Highwomen are a handful of acts that continued to blaze a trail for aspiring female singers.
Here are the Billboard staff’s 25 favorite country albums of the decade.
25. Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give (2010)
Zac Brown Band’s most successful album this decade, the hit-laden You Get What You Give showcases the group’s ability at penning sing-along anthems, as well as their impeccable musicianship. From the endearing, Alan Jackson-featuring “As She’s Walking Away” and the heartbreaking ballad “Colder Weather,” to the feel-good, Jimmy Buffet-cameoing “Knee Deep” and uplifting “Keep Me in Mind” — all No. 1 hits on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart — ZBB stun with breathtaking harmonies and standout musical accompaniment. Songs like the genre-spanning “Who Knows” also boast several standout musical interludes, which serve as a hint of what was to come from the expansive outfit and exemplifying why Zac Brown Band remain one of the most successful touring acts within the genre.
24. Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story (2013)
Shelton continued his Country Airplay No. 1 streak with five consecutive chart toppers from Based on a True Story, including the seductive “Sure Be Cool If You Did,” down-home anthem “Boys ‘Round Here,” heartfelt “Mine Would Be You,” sexy “Doin’ What She Likes” and romantic “My Eyes,” featuring Gwen Sebastian. While every single was a radio smash, album cuts like the nostalgic “Granddaddy’s Gun” and aching “I Found Someone” also impress, showing Shelton’s knack for selecting songs that leave a lasting mark long after the record is played.
23. The Highwomen, The Highwomen (2019)
The Highwomen started a movement when they joined forces earlier this year. Comprised of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, the quartet aims to give a voice to women within the country genre, as well as those who are underrepresented in music, with stories about real life: mortality (“Cocktail and a Song”), parenthood (“My Only Child,” “Crowded Table”), domestic duties (“Redesigning Women”) and heartbreak (“Loose Change”). Alternating lead vocalists and songwriters on each track, The Highwomen prove to be much greater than the sum of their parts.
22. Garth Brooks, Man Against Machine (2014)
Brooks’ first album in 13 years — and his only through RCA Records Nashville — got caught up in label changes that drastically cut short its lifespan. The only singles, “People Loving People” and “Mom,” were statements Brooks wanted to make, but they didn’t connect well at radio. Better choices like “Midnight Train,” “Tacoma” and “Cold Like That” – which comprise some of the strongest songs Brooks ever recorded — remain undiscovered gems that will hopefully still get their due. — MELINDA NEWMAN
21. Tanya Tucker, While I’m Livin’ (2019)
Tucker proves that the best things in life are well worth the wait with While I’m Livin’, her first album of new music in 17 years. The Brandi Carlile- and Shooter Jennings-produced project has the country singer belting deeply personal songs that detail the importance of living in the moment (“Bring My Flowers Now”) and loss (“The Day My Heart Goes Still”), as well as delivering a unique reinterpretation of Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” from a parent’s perspective. Having recently garnered four Grammy nominations for the project and its single “Bring My Flowers Now,” Tucker proves there is no age limit on recording good music.
20. Brothers Osborne, Pawn Shop (2016)
Brothers Osborne launched onto the country scene in 2016 with its eclectic debut album Pawn Shop. Built on TJ’s striking baritone and his brother John’s jaw-dropping guitar slinging, tracks like fiery single “Stay a Little Longer” and the nostalgic “21 Summer” set the duo apart from the other male acts at country radio. Additional highlights include the stirring “Loving Me Back” featuring Lee Ann Womack, thumping “It Ain’t My Fault” and memorable ode to one particular kind of alcohol, “Rum.” The success of the project led the duo to be named vocal duo of the year at both the CMA and ACM Awards for the next two years.
19. Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party (2010)
Aldean’s My Kinda Party set the bar for the Georgia native as he continued to push the genre forward with the bold “Dirt Road Anthem,” a track that combined the singer’s rapid paced singing style alongside soaring guitar riffs. On My Kinda Party, Aldean segued effortlessly from rapping on “Dirt Road Anthem” to belting a power ballad with Kelly Clarkson on “Don’t You Wanna Stay.” Additional highlights on the 15-track project include the ode to small towns in the Midwest with “Fly Over States” and nostalgic album opener “Tattoos On This Town.” With his feet firmly planted in country music, Aldean’s My Kinda Party opened the doors for more genre-blending and continued to advance his sound and status as an arena headliner.
18. Carrie Underwood, Blown Away (2012)
Underwood’s powerhouse vocals are showcased throughout the entirety of Blown Away. From the high-energy album opener (and Country Airplay No. 1 single) “Good Girl” to its chart topping follow-up and title track, Underwood grabs the listener immediately. The Oklahoma native’s knack at recording excellent story songs is further evidenced on the haunting “Two Black Cadillacs,” a song she co-wrote, where she sings of two women who join forces and get revenge after been cheated on. Blown Away was justifiably named favorite country album at the 2012 American Music Awards.
17. Luke Bryan, Crash My Party (2013)
By 2013, Luke Bryan hardly had anything to prove. The singer was coming off of his fifth No. 1 Country Airplay hit (“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”), the last single from his first Country Albums chart-topper, Tailgates & Tanlines. If he hadn’t already been certified a superstar, his fourth LP Crash My Party did the trick: Not only did it produce another five No. 1 Country Airplay hits, it became his first No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200. But it wasn’t just his star power that made Crash My Party special, as most of the album’s singles — like the poignant “Drink a Beer” and nostalgic “Roller Coaster” — were more focused on Bryan’s heartfelt croon as opposed to the party anthems that “bro country” made popular at that time. Though, “That’s My Kinda Night” is definitely still an undeniable party starter. — TAYLOR WEATHERBY
16. Thomas Rhett, Tangled Up (2015)
Thomas Rhett’s debut set, It Goes Like This, introduced the singer as a country hitmaker, notching him three No. 1s on the Country Airplay chart. But his sophomore LP, Tangled Up, opened Rhett up to a worldwide audience, particularly thanks to the romantic ballad “Die A Happy Man,” which earned Rhett his first Grammy nomination and became his first crossover success, landing at No. 25 on the Adult Top 40 chart. Still his biggest song to date with nearly 300 million streams alone, “Die” was one of several tracks on Tangled Up that showcased Rhett’s pop tendencies, with other tracks like “South Side” and “Vacation” also incorporating hip-hop-inspired sounds. His genre-bending approach continued on 2017’s Life Changes, which became his first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — but Tangled Up was the set to establish both the singer’s credibility in the pop mainstream and his superstardom in the country world.
15. Ashley McBryde, Girl Going Nowhere (2018)
McBryde’s 2018 debut album Girl Going Nowhere brings the Arkansas native’s adept songwriting to the forefront. The moving 11-track project embodies songs of addiction (“Livin’ Next to Leroy”), tried and true friendship (“Andy (I Can’t Live Without You)”) and proving the naysayers wrong (“Girl Goin’ Nowhere”). All the while, McBryde’s descriptive songwriting puts the listener in each tune as the singer paints a vivid landscape that enthralls.
14. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (2016)
Price famously pawned her wedding ring to have enough money to record her excellent debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. While shopping the project around, she got the attention of Jack White’s Third Man Records and eventually signed with the rocker’s label. The resulting 11-track album features striking story songs that embody remarkably honest lyrics. On six-minute opener “Hands of Time,” Price sings about the struggles of a musician while the graphic “This Town Gets Around” tells the often dark tale of the music industry, each with a driving beat and traditional country instrumentation. A critical darling, Price never let the attention get to her, as evidenced on “Since You Put Me Down” where she sings, “I’m an outcast and I’m a stray/ And I plan to stay that way.”
13. Pistol Annies, Hell On Heels (2011)
Made up of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, Pistol Annies’ memorable supergroup project includes well-written songs that embody strong female characters, as portrayed in songs about life on the road (“Takin’ Pills”), at home (“Housewife’s Prayer”) and being unexpectantly pregnant (“Beige”). Lead single “Hell on Heels” and the endearing “Boys From the South” stun, while “Family Feud” paints the all too real battles between families after a loved one dies. With unique storylines about sometimes taboo topics, Hell On Heels is a bold project that gave females everywhere a voice and led the way for future women-led groups like The Highwomen to emerge.
12. Keith Urban, Ripcord (2016)
Urban pushed genre lines on the versatile Ripcord, which includes a varied number of producers like Jeff Bhasker, busbee, Greg Wells and Nile Rogers as well as frequent collaborators Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman, Dann Huff and Nathan Chapman. The project produced several chart toppers including the yearning “Break on Me,” EDM-influenced “Wasted Time” and country mainstay “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” which remained at No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart for an impressive 12 consecutive weeks, as well as top 5 bass-led “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” and soaring Carrie Underwood duet “The Fighter.” An album that also had Urban embrace unexpected collaborations with Nile Rodgers and Pitbull (“Sun Don’t Let Me Down”), on Ripcord Urban proved that his music transcends genre lines.
11. Dierks Bentley, Home (2012)
Bentley’s sixth studio album Home excelled with three consecutive Country Airplay No. 1 hits out of the gate with the tongue-in-cheek “Am I the Only One,” heartfelt “Home” and blazing “5-1-5-0.” Bentley’s unique brand of country music, which includes elements of bluegrass and modern country production, allowed him to stand out from the pack of male artists on country radio. With a versatile roster of party anthems and emotional ballads, the singer’s headliner status was apparent within the timeless project.
10. Maren Morris, GIRL (2019)
In the two years since Maren Morris released her anthemic debut single “My Church,” she won a Grammy, landed a Country Airplay No. 1 (heartbroken ballad “I Could Use a Love Song”) toured with Niall Horan, and teamed up with Zedd for one of the biggest dance-pop songs of the decade, “The Middle.” Morris’ crossover success created plenty of anticipation for her sophomore set, and she delivered in a major way: GIRL has all the confidence she displayed on her debut, Hero, but the prowess of a bonafide superstar. She pushed the boundaries of her soulful tone — and what country would expect from her — with more risqué songs like “RSVP,” while also exploring love, not just the heartbreak of her first album, on tracks like “The Bones.” But risk saw reward, as the album’s empowering title track and lead single led Morris to her second No. 1 on Country Airplay, and earned her the coveted album of the year honor at the 2019 Country Music Association Awards. – T.W.
9. Lady Antebellum, Need You Now (2010)
Lady Antebellum became a household name thanks to the trio’s excellent sophomore album Need You Now. The set featured stirring stories of love and loss, as heard on the sentimental “When You Got a Good Thing” and Grammy-winning, pop-crossing title track, now certified 9x Platinum by the RIAA. Additional highlights include No. 1 Country Airplay hits “American Honey” and “Our Kind of Love” as well as the poignant “Hello World.” Thanks to the success of Need You Now, Lady A remained a mainstay on country radio and a beloved band that continued to deliver impassioned singles and a mesmerizing live show — one that would extend into a Las Vegas residency.
8. Little Big Town, Pain Killer (2014)
Little Big Town’s harmonies soar on the band’s sixth studio album Pain Killer. The LP featured Grammy Award-winning best country song “Girl Crush,” which set the standard for modern day country songs. Throughout the project, the quartet alternated lead vocalists for a dynamic release. “Faster Gun” featured Jimi Westbrook’s memorable croon while the triumphant horn-fueled “Stay All Night” saw Westbrook sharing lead with Phillip Sweet. Meanwhile, the uplifting “Good People” highlighted the airy vocals of Kimberly Schlapman, who also teamed up with Karen Fairchild on the mesmerizing “Save Your Sin,” before the quartet shared harmonies on the alluring “Live Forever.” With harmonies this good, Pain Killer survives the test of time.
7. Luke Combs, This One’s For You (2017)
Eight months after Luke Combs stormed onto the country scene with the impassioned heartbreak song “Hurricane,” the North Carolina native delivered his debut set, This One’s For You, which impressively debuted atop the Top Country Albums chart and at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. His chart achievements were one thing, but what happened after was almost unthinkable: In October 2019, Combs tied Shania Twain’s Come on Over for the longest reign in Top Country Albums history. The feat was proof of the beloved superstar he had become, thanks to clever breakup hits “When It Rains It Pours” and “One Number Away,” as well as heartfelt love songs “She Got the Best of Me” and “Beautiful Crazy” on the album’s deluxe version that Combs issued in June 2018. Along with kicking off an already illustrious career, This One’s For You also set Combs up for an even bigger sophomore set, as its follow-up What You See Is What You Get garnered a record-breaking 74 million streams in its first week. – T.W.
6. Sam Hunt, Montevallo (2014)
Hunt helped usher in a new era of country music with his standout 2014 debut album, Montevallo. Blending vivid country storytelling with his rhythmic singing style alongside pop and urban production, Hunt set the bar for new artists in the genre this decade. With the release of Montevallo, the singer-songwriter was a mainstay at radio for most of the 2010s, as he became the first solo male artist to garner four No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart from a debut album with the success of the infectious “Leave the Night On,” alluring “Take Your Time,” arena-anthem “House Party” and seductive “Make You Miss Me.” The project also included “Cop Car,” a song Hunt penned about being arrested in his youth that Keith Urban previously recorded and released as a single, and the fiery “Break Up in a Small Town.” Montevallo allowed Hunt to be a headliner and festival mainstay, where for five years he managed to ride the success of the album, as fans anxiously awaited (and remain waiting) for the follow-up album.
5. Miranda Lambert, Four the Record (2011)
Lambert proved herself a mainstay within the country genre thanks to her powerful fourth studio album, fittingly titled Four the Record. Filled with memorable story songs written by an A-list roster of writers that included Chris Stapleton (“Nobody’s Fool”), Brandi Carlile (“Same Old You”) and both Shane McAnally and a pre-fame Kacey Musgraves (“Mama’s Broken Heart”), among others, Lambert also showcased her songwriting chops with “Over You,” an emotional ballad of loss that she penned with Blake Shelton. While the fiery “Baggage Claim” and foot-stomping “Fastest Girl in Town” highlighted Lambert’s don’t-mess-with-me attitude, it was on the ACM Award-winning single record of the year “Mama’s Broken Heart” that left the greatest mark. Portraying a woman going through a difficult breakup, Lambert goes against the grain as she chooses to ignore her mother’s wishes to bite her lip and move on quietly. It’s this fierceness and honesty that makes Lambert one of the most revered artists in the genre.
4. Eric Church, Chief (2011)
Church’s third studio album Chief cemented his heavyweight status in the genre. Both a Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music Awards album of the year, Chief included the singer-songwriter’s first two No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with the arena-ready anthem “Drink In My Hand” and nostalgic ode to young love “Springsteen,” as well as two further top 10 hits with the rollicking “Creepin’” and heartfelt “Like Jesus Does,” the only song on the 12-track LP he didn’t pen himself. Many of these songs went on to become standards in Church’s live show and only continued to increase his entertainer status as a versatile live act that does things his own way with marathon three-hours sets sans opener.
3. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour (2018)
Though Kacey Musgraves’ first two albums landed higher on the Billboard 200 than her third set, neither could compare to the acclaim that Golden Hour brought the star. For starters, the LP won her album of the year at both the Grammys and the Country Music Association Awards (not to mention, took home three more Grammys, including best country album). But Golden Hour was far more than just a critical success, as the 13-song set soundtracked Musgraves’ romance with husband Ruston Kelly (“Butterflies,” “Love Is a Wild Thing”) and resulted in her most glittering vocal display yet — while also bringing a new light to her witty songwriting style (“Velvet Elvis,” “High Horse”). The album captivated so many people that Musgraves toured it for nearly the entirety of 2019 in the two-part Oh What a World Tour, which closed with a sold-out show at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. — T.W.
2. Taylor Swift, Speak Now (2010)
When Carole King saluted Taylor Swift at November’s American Music Awards as “one of the only modern pop artists whose name appears as the sole songwriter in her song credits,” she was all but admitting that when it comes to choosing Swift’s finest work, she’s Team Speak Now. The singer-songwriter’s third album was the only one she wrote entirely on her own, and it shows through in the songs, as brilliant and as raw as she ever got. Swift settled scores with old critics (“Mean”), old foes (“Better Than Revenge”) and of course, old lovers (“Dear John”), while owning up to fearing adulthood (“Never Grow Up”), to having made mistakes she can’t undo (“Back to December”), and even to kinda-sorta seeing what Kanye was going through (“Innocent”). The latter is still a song a co-writer might have asked her to give second thought to, but we’re grateful to have gotten to hear what it sounds like when Taylor decides not to hold her peace on anything. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
1. Chris Stapleton, Traveller (2015)
After gaining recognition behind the scenes as an adept songwriter and memorable vocalist for various bands, Stapleton launched into the genre as a soloist in 2015 with the release of his Grammy-winning debut album Traveller. The well-known songwriter penned 12 of the album’s 14 tracks — all but his standout covers of George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey” and Charlie Daniels’ “Was It 26” – which included songs of life on the road (“Traveller”), the end of a relationship (“Whiskey and You”) and loss (“Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore”).
Blending elements of country, bluegrass, southern rock and soul throughout the LP, Stapleton’s whiskey-soaked vocals are at the forefront, and transport the listener to another time where traditional country music reigned. Whether he’s mourning a breakup on “Nobody to Blame” or nostalgically looking back on life on the lighthearted “More of You,” Stapleton mesmerizes throughout every song. In a decade dominated by bro country, Stapleton’s Traveller helped to slowly tip the pendulum of country music back to highly regard traditional releases, and highlight the importance of story songs.