Some of my favorite pieces I’ve written have come while working with fellow country enthusiasts. There’s something about knowing we’re all going to have different ideas and interpretations that get the creative juices really flowing. For this piece here, I recruited long-time Country Music Twitter peer and fellow writer Zack from The Musical Divide to help count down the ten most influential country albums of the 2010s. It’s been a long time coming.
Influental can mean many things. And remember, something viewed as “influential” doesn’t always spawn a positive or intended effect. The following albums are what Zack and I view as having the largest impact on the country genre as a whole over the past decade. We have different favorites and albums we may consider better. But in terms of impact, the albums included here are the pièce de résistance of the country music world since 2010.
And a note from Zack:
As a caveat to this list, let me make it clear that this is all in good fun. While my picks are based more on influence rather than personal favorites, I do feel slightly uncomfortable trying to assign ranks of “cultural importance” to any of these albums. I based my picks around three qualities, and in no particular order: individual artistic impact, commercial impact, and general external impact — as long as the album met one of those qualities, I included it as a candidate. In actuality, if I were to truly crack down and be a true “critic” for this kind of list, I’m not sure I could come up with a top ten list of influential albums of all time, as it’s simply a metric that’s just too hard to judge. Again, though, this is all in good fun, but I am disappointed I couldn’t find room for albums like “In Time” by the Mavericks or “El Santo Grial: La Pistola Piadosa” by Slackeye Slim.
10.) Whitey Morgan and the 78s- Whitey Morgan (2010)
Before Cody Jinks and Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, there was an artist who existed and linked the pioneering Hank III era for independent artists and the aforementioned men. Whitey Morgan. Whitey didn’t just record lo-fi Americana records. No, he wanted outlaw honky tonk. Whitey’s self-titled album opened doors for others and seriously began to prove the thirst existed for an authentic, throwback sound.
10.) Southern Family- Dave Cobb and various artists (2016)
Given that this list focuses on influence, don’t be surprised to see many Dave Cobb projects on this list. Truthfully, though, his greatest project (at least in this writer’s opinion) didn’t make much of an impact beyond the year it was released, hence its lower slot. Still, this is an album that brought together some of the biggest and best names in the independent country and Americana world for one perfect project. Given, too, that album this does boast a high amount of guests, the secret to its success is making sure it finds a consistent thematic core and finds every artist at the top of their game — Anderson East gets to rock out with some funk-inspired soul, Brandy Clark is allowed to get raw and intimate to show why she’s an excellent songwriter, and Zac Brown even delivered one of his finest country songs since his Uncaged days with his own band.
9.) The Guitar Song- Jamey Johnson (2010)
That Lonesome Song announced Jamey Johnson had arrived. The Guitar Song showed Jamey wasn’t going to compromise and under no circumstances would change even with a small taste of success. And yet, to me, The Guitar Song is such an influential album simply because of what happened to Jamey afterwards- nothing. He basically went radio silent apart from a couple of broadsides levied against Nashville and Music Row. It’s been almost a decade, and people are still craving a new album and hoping he reappears. Sure, country music has come a long way, but The Guitar Song set the standard for modern outlaw country that has yet to be met.
9.) Chief- Eric Church (2011)
This will be the first of many picks that will scream as outright obvious, but it’s not wrong. Honestly, I’m not sure what I can say about Chief that hasn’t already been said; Eric Church had never truly been “traditional,” by any sense of the word, but it was on this album that he embraced his inner rock star and truly developed his own artistic identity (which does extend toward the marketing, also, but that’s neither here nor there). It was his first album to notch a number one hit, though it’s also the album that showed why Church didn’t (and still doesn’t) need radio airplay to cultivate a loyal fan base. I can’t say this that often for this decade in mainstream country music, but Church chose to be an artist with Chief, and the results payed off.
8.) Diamonds & Gasoline- Turnpike Troubadours (2010)
Here’s the dirty little secret about Texas Country and Red Dirt. Too much of it is just Nashville Country with a few more cowboy hats and belt buckles. The difference comes with the best of the best. And Turnpike Troubadours firmly established themselves as the best Red Dirt band around with their debut album and quite possibily the best band in all of music over the past decade. Those boys from Oklahoma set the bar high for not only their own career but became the standard for which all bands coming out of the Texas scene stived (and often failed) to chase.
8.) Write You a Song- Jon Pardi (2014)
Yes, California Sunrise is the more iconic album for Jon Pardi, at least at this point. But it can’t be overstated how important an album like Write You A Song was when it was released in January 2014. Sure, the album itself was little more than a fun nostalgia trip to the ’90s, and this was not Pardi’s breakthrough record; but considering every male artist was singing a sleazy rendition of the latest bro-country hit to break out, Pardi didn’t excuse himself from that with “Up All Night,” but he was able to transcend that. Truthfully, there’s a bit of a ragged edge to this album that I wish Pardi had carried over to his work today over some of his more placid, safer material. But while this album didn’t do Pardi any favors with radio, it did plant the seeds for something more to come and showed an artist sticking to his artistic instincts, consequences be damned.
7.) I’m Not the Devil- Cody Jinks (2016)
Cody Jinks has taken his brand of traditional country right to the people. Extensive touring and an outlaw attitude cultivated his success for years before I’m Not the Devil really catapulted Jinks to the upper echeleon of independent artists. Much like Jason Isbell, Sturgill, and now Tyler Childers, Cody Jinks is a poster-child for those select few underground artists that are known even by most mainstream country fans. His shows are now guaranteed sellouts at venues across the United States, and his success has allowed him to prepare the release of two new albums within a week of each other this coming October.
7.) 100 Proof- Kellie Pickler (2012)
Sadly, I can’t say 100 Proof is here for its cultural influence, but it is one of the greatest examples of individual artistic influence on this list. While Kellie Pickler had proved to be a natural talent from her American Idol days, her first two studio projects did her no favors, setting her up as a generic pop star with a country-oriented voice. Even she herself would later admit to making music that made everyone else happy, making her miserable. And then 100 Proof came along, an album that showed Pickler’s strong honky tonk influences and a deeper love for country music than anyone could have imagined at that point. Instead of being rewarded for that effort, though, Pickler was dropped from her record label … on her birthday. Still, despite 100 Proof “failing” as a commercial effort, it was Pickler’s best effort to date and truly painted her as an artist by standing up for the integrity of country music; it’s also her favorite album she’s done, which is what’s most important.
6.) Chief- Eric Church (2011)
Chief is the album in which it all came together for Eric Church, the greatest artist of this generation in this writer’s opinion. The album contained the smash singles (“Drink In My Hand” and “Springsteen”), brilliant deep-cuts (“Over When It’s Over” and “Hungover & Hard Up”), and reflective moments (“Like Jesus Does”). Basically Chief has everything that his fans had come to expect from the days in which he couldn’t even get booked on a country tour. The album not only made Eric Church a superstar, it launched him into the collective conscience of *music* fans in general. Without the success of Chief, I doubt we get two massive arena tours with 40 song setlists or albums like Mr. Misunderstood and Desperate Man. Church went for it with Chief. And succeeded beyond a shadow of a doubt.
6.) Purgatory- Tyler Childers (2017)
Truthfully, it’s hard to place any albums from the last few years here, if only because I think we’ll need more time to assess where they truly stand in a historical sense. But it’s a pretty safe bet that Purgatory will go down as where it really all began for Tyler Childers. Sure, part of the appeal comes from fans wondering if Childers represents what might have been with Sturgill Simpson, but no one can deny Childers is enjoying a momentum all his own. Purgatory wasn’t Childers’s debut album, but it feels like it, or, if nothing else, his true breakout project — the album that spotlighted his natural talent and catapulted him into a greater stardom than certain B-list mainstream country artists even receive. Now, Childers is on a major record label making music on his own terms, and if nothing else, that’s the greatest mark of a true country artist — one who isn’t afraid of the big spotlight, but rather have a strong desire to spread their stories to a wider audience, and do it in their own way.
5.) High Top Mountain- Sturgill Simpson (2013)
The influence and success of High Top Mountain is a double edged sword. On one hand, the album was like a bomb going off in country music; it was as traditional as someone could ask for with lyrics about down-on-their-luck characters, struggling artists, and love gone wrong. In a time in which bro-country was just starting to explode, High Top Mountain was a breath of fresh air to those starving for something real. Yet on the other hand, the success of High Top Mountain pushed Sturgill away from that kind of sound. He was wary of being seen as some sort of savior and intentionally made it clear that his sound would evolve with each album. Sturgill may now look back unfavorably on High Top Mountain, but he’d be blind if he didn’t acknowledge the impact the album had on his own career. There simply would be no Sturgill without High Top Mountain.
5.) High Top Mountain- Sturgill Simpson (2013)
What began as a simple tribute to Sturgill Simpson’s grandfather turned into his grand breakout project, a true country album in every sense of the word. Perhaps it’s a bit disingenuous putting this album on a list like this, especially when Simpson’s music couldn’t be farther removed from the music he made here, but you don’t have any later Simpson projects without High Top Mountain, nor should that discredit the individual album. The quality is the bigger conversation piece of this album, but this list isn’t meant for that discussion; again, though, there’s no way one couldn’t put this album here.
4.) Traveller- Chris Stapleton (2015)
Stapleton is to mainstream country what Sturgill is to the independent crowd. Both are pioneers in their respective musical scenes without necessarily being the first to do what they so well accomplished. But Stapleton, unlike Sturgill, influenced the mainstream genre from inside the industry. A Music Row songwriter for years, Stapleton set out to record a mature, adult album during the heyday of bro-country. Traveller caused Nashville to at least *think* about what was going wrong, and though real change was still some time away, Traveller planted the seed.
4.) Southeastern- Jason Isbell (2013)
2013 was a huge year for breakout albums in the country music landscape, and while Jason Isbell may not consider his music country, there’s no denying Southeastern belongs in this conversation. Like with High Top Mountain above or albums discussed later in this list, Southeastern proved there was an entire sea of excellent music beyond the mainstream country radio dial, which was quickly becoming littered with the worst examples of bro-country. But that’s a statement I could have said for High Top Mountain; what makes Southeastern an impressive, influential work is that it came from Isbell’s darkest throes of addiction and depression, providing a work that’s tough to listen to, yet resonates for being real in its framing of an all too common problem.
3.) This One’s For You (and reissue)- Luke Combs (2017)
A year and a half ago, I’m not sure this would’ve even made the list. Sure, This One’s For You proved to be a highly impactful moment in the young, epic career of Luke Combs. But its influence in other places was not yet seen. And then came the reissue. And two more number one singles. And Riley Green’s rise. And a number of mainstream artists (Luke Bryan chief among them) who had strayed from the genre’s roots suddenly promising more traditional music. My feelings on Combs’ true potential are well-known, and I’m much more of a Jon Pardi guy myself. But I can’t deny that only Luke Combs could have had *this* impact in *this* moment.
3.) Same Trailer, Different Park- Kacey Musgraves (2013)
To conclude my discussion of influential albums from 2013, Same Trailer, Different Park stands as the highest point for both its quality and its impact. Whereas Jon Pardi could easily sneak his way into the format with some ’90s country tunes, given that he’s a male artist who broke through with a forgettable song of its time, Kacey Musgraves faced a steeper challenge. For one, she’s a female artist who tried to break through at arguably the worst time, and two, she tried to break through with “Merry ‘Go Round,” a song that stripped away the bubbly veneer of a conventional radio hit by painting a much bleaker picture. Her major label debut album, Same Trailer, Different Park, only went further in its exploration of Americana tropes and portraits of a bleaker small town life. Not only was it the most exciting album released in mainstream country that year, but it was a breath of fresh air compared to other albums that sucked by artists who knew better. Sadly, while Musgraves was on good terms with radio with “Merry ‘Go Round,” that’s pretty much where that relationship ended. Still, Musgraves has proved she hasn’t needed radio airplay since, cultivating a fan base that cares more about artists who actually say something with their material.
2.) Southeastern- Jason Isbell (2013)
Ironically, this is probably my least-favorite Jason Isbell album. It’s overdone with melodrama for topics that don’t really need to be exaggerated and features typical modern Americana production. And that same, typical modern Americana production is now found all over the scene. It seems like any artist that can write a decent song wants that Cobb-Isbell sound. And that’s not a good thing for the sake of variety. But there’s no doubting Southeastern’s influence. The album brought Americana to universal recognition as a genre across the music world. Where Americana once was a catch-all for fifteen different styles of music, it can be argued that Americana now has a defined sort of sound and style. The problem is that not everyone can write like Isbell. And too often the emphasized self-loathing and melodrama is just too widespread. Singing about something real doesn’t need to be dressed up. Human emotion is human emotion.
2.) Traveller- Chris Stapleton (2015)
Not to spoil anything, but without my number one pick, we don’t have Traveller by Chris Stapleton, and without Traveller, mainstream country music might be a much bleaker environment today (not that isn’t anyway, but … ). Yes, it’s the album that most people are sick of hearing about today, especially it still sells a crazy amount of copies each week; but no one will forget that one fateful night that proved what can happen when people are aware of their musical options beyond country radio. Stapleton’s performance with Justin Timberlake at the 49th annual CMA Awards didn’t just give him a “bump,” it catapulted him into instant stardom, with a 6,400% boost in Stapleton’s sales following the performance. All of a sudden, Stapleton went from being the humble songwriter working behind the scenes to being thrust into a spotlight he never had dreamed of, with Grammy awards and the like all coming his way. If anything, Traveller came in a year when artists like Aaron Watson and Blackberry Smoke already proved why country radio was irrelevant, at least as far as music recommendations go; Traveller, though, was the album that really made sure everyone still sleeping in the back woke up and realized where country music was headed.
1.) My Kinda Party- Jason Aldean (2010)
Tailgates & Tanlines- Luke Bryan (2011)
Here’s to the Good Times- Florida Georgia Line (2012)
The unholy trinity of country albums released in the 2010s. It brings me no great joy to include all three here, but I can’t logically make an argument for any other album to be included above these three. Each album greatly contributed to the creation of bro-country- a firmly recognized sub-genre of country music at this point. Careers of those who weren’t able to record in the style of bro-country were completely derailed (Gary Allan, Josh Turner). A woman’s voice was drowned out. Subject matter became stale and over-saturated. And perhaps most worryingly, the genre found itself drifting further and further from its roots.
But as we all know, country music comes in cycles. The albums released by Aldean, Bryan, and FGL revitalized an independent scene that was growing stale and forced many to turn to Texas and Red Dirt Country as an alternative. Nashville also saw a change, with several artists on this very list releasing albums or starting careers with the sole purpose of recording music they saw as having the ability to return country music to its roots.
1.) Metamodern Sounds in Country Music- Sturgill Simpson (2014)
Come on, did you really expect anything else?
As mentioned before, High Top Mountain was the album to satiate further interest in Sturgill Simpson, but Metamodern Sounds In Country Music was the album to burst those doors wide open. Prior to its release, Simpson already had the attention of outlets like NPR and The New York Times, and along with touring, accolades and further critical acclaim he was receiving, Simpson’s sophomore effort had enough momentum to debut at number 11 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, an unprecedented achievement for an artist without a radio hit. Admittedly, I’ve always thought the album could have went a little further in its experimentation from a quality standpoint, but the weird mixture of country and psychedelia won fans over anyway, earning Simpson higher touring opportunities opening for the Zac Brown Band, playing on David Letterman, and earning him higher accolades than ever before. Metamodern Sounds In Country Music is by no means the first country music album to transcend commercial boundaries and become something special in its own right, but it does carry on a tradition in country music to be honest with yourself and make the music you want to make. On those terms, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music isn’t even the first album from this decade to achieve that, but it’s the album that made the biggest impact; inspiring Chris Stapleton to record Traveller on his own terms, offering higher exposure to independent country music, and just being a tour de force for Simpson, personally.