As a commercial entity, country music has been around for nearly a century after the 1927 Bristol Sessions with the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers. That means it’s older than rock & roll, older than soul, and still going strong in 2022 with branches that have spread far and wide.
But when it comes to recording albums, country has often lagged behind its popular peers in adopting the format. There are exceptions, but the genre’s album era didn’t really kick off until the late ’60s, then began to flourish in the ’70s with a slew of classic releases. Even today, there remains a lingering idea that Nashville doesn’t really make albums, just filler-wrapped singles.
This list aims to correct that idea by finding the best full-length plays in history. Although Rodgers and the Carters only released sides in their prime, any country list seems incomplete without them. A handful other artists are also represented by anthology packages, but we’ve done our best to avoid them and choose appropriate studio albums.
We also tried not to include too many elements from one artist (Dolly, Willie and Merle have tons of albums, many of which are excellent). Instead, we’ve put together a more diverse list that represents the development of country album making over the decades. You’ll find honky-tonk, western swing, neo-traditionalism, country pop, countrypolitan, and more, from Tom T. Hall to Taylor Swift, Bob Wills to Brandy Clark.
What you won’t find much of is alternative country, country rock, and Americana, as we’ve tried to keep this list focused on music produced by the Nashville system (or in direct response to it). ) and marketed to country audiences. That means no Uncle Tupelo or Eagles, although Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch make appearances for some notable work that exists comfortably in both worlds. Maybe we’ll get to that country-rock list some other time.
The question “what is a country” has been asked over and over again, and definitions can become frayed, contested and deeply personal. But whether you’re a relatively new country fan or know every George Strait song by heart, we know you’ll find records here that can both reaffirm and redefine what you think country music can be. We did it.