Country music has a long history. It can celebrate the love for a pickup truck, or go into a detailed experience about an awful breakup.
But what are the best country albums? And which ones are the best and most important ones for you to track down on vinyl?
Well, in this article, that’s exactly what we’re going to explore. And really, who best to kick off this list with than Willie Nelson.
When Willie Nelson was living in the same neighborhood as producer Booker T. Jones
he asked Jones to arrange Frank Sinatra’s classic pop croon “Moonlight in Vermont.” Overwhelmingly pleased with the result, Nelson would eventually include nine more of his top ten favorite pop songs from childhood by songwriting legends such as Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Duke Ellington.
Willie Nelson’s version of “Georgia on my Mind,” “November Song,” and “On the Sunny Side of Street” pay tribute to both his nostalgic origins and trademark sound. Running a total of thirty seven minutes, the original 1978 vinyl subtly crackles and echoes like rain on a summer day. Stardust spent a total of 540 weeks on the Billboard Charts, has sold over 5 million copies, and in 2015 was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
A new, unopened Stardust purchased on an online vinyl record store will cost you $100. I found my copy in a thrift store in Austin, Texas.
Released April 1978
Townes Van Zandt is now considered an ingenious folk country hero among the genre’s most prolific songwriters. Van Zant’s self-titled studio album showcases his poetic, vulnerable lyricism and tipsy folk sound.
A recent resurgence and popular appreciation for his music by current artists such as Kings of Leon, Norah Jones, and the Meat Puppets has contibuted to a re-release of every vinyl in his discography. The new, re-press of his self-titled third LP features new versions of four songs, the best and most tender being “I’ll be Here in the Morning.”
Van Zandt has been heralded as one of the best songwriters from Texas. “Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel” is potent and linear in its composition and, unlike some of his other recordings, uses extensive percussion. Van Zandt’s work is essential for the committed country fan because its roots are uniquely tied to both outlaw and folk genres.
Waylon Jennings is best known for his trademark, deep resounding vocals and “ramblin’ man” attitude. Honky Tonk Heroes reaffirms his heralded place in outlaw country and the new repress vinyl elevates his most popular album with sublime sound. Jennings released the album when he was dating fellow popular country artist Jessi Colter.
The majority of the songs were co-written by the couple and contribute to its romantic imagery and realistic lyricism. “We Had it All” is the most touching love song on the album and if you are lucky enough to purchase the original 1973 RCA Victor copy, the slight crackle will make his heartbreaking line “remember how I used to touch your hair” even better.
Released July 1973
This is Patsy Cline’s second album and features her two most celebrated singles “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces.” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy” solidified her legendary popularity in country music and remains her most successful hit on the Billboard charts. Cline wrote “Crazy,” the most touching song on the record, after a near fatal car crash. Her infamous, volatile relationship with her husband and soul mate, Charles Dick, makes its way into the album’s potent songwriting, instrumentation, and vocal style.
Cline’s vocals on “I Fall to Pieces” ebb and flow through winding symphony strings, deep bass, and echoing acoustic guitars. Playing Showcase on vinyl is a romantic journey because its track listing, like her relationship to Charlie, is both tumultuous and beautiful. The most recent re-press copy of Showcase hit markets in 1988. Due to its popularity an unsealed copy is easy to find. I found my treasured copy at a vinyl collector’s convention in Austin.
Released November 1961
Johnny Cash is an outlaw country legend and his live album recording At Folsom Prison is no exception to the rule. Considered controversial at the time, Cash decided to put on two shows at Folsom prison and release the live performance through Columbia Records. His 1961 single “Folsom Prison Blues” solidified his artistic popularity among inmates for its raw accuracy and humane acknowledgment of the United States’ largely ignored prison population.
At Folsom Prison revitalized Cash’s career in the late sixties and has since been re-released on vinyl in a special edition featuring a handwritten letter about the creative inspiration behind Folsom Prison Blues. Plus, the trademark cover photo of Cash’s face with sweat trickling down his face will look iconic on any collector’s shelf.
Released May 1968
As if the infamous picture of Kenny Rogers standing behind a blackjack table as the quintessential “gambler” is not enough for you to find a vinyl copy of his sixth studio album, then the featured song list will. “The Gambler,” which still reigns as Rogers’ most popular single to date sounds perfect on its original vinyl press.
The cover artwork will inspire you to set it out on your coffee table for all to see. You can still find the original press at most record stores, thrift shops, and other second-hand dealers online due to its significant popularity upon release.
Released December 1978
Emmylou Harris is folk and country music’s ethereal queen. Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town is one of the best albums to listen to in a variety of situations whether winding down from a long day, bad break-up, or nostalgic trip down memory lane.
Harris’ potent songwriting perspective is wise, elevates her clear voice, and tugs at your heartstrings. “Two More Bottles of Wine’ and “Easy from Now On” are beautifully produced by Brian Ahern. Finding a vinyl copy of this essential album is now easier than ever since its the release of its much needed 2017 re-press.
Released January 1978
Kris Kristofferson is known for his songwriting and The Silver Tongue Devil and I is no exception. Made famous In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver Robert De Niro’s character Travis Bickle listens to “The Pilgrim Chapter 33” and quotes, “He’s poet, he’s a picker/ He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher.” Kristofferson wrote the songs about his famous Hollywood pals Dennis Hopper, girlfriend Janis Joplin, and Johnny Cash. One of his most covered songs on the album, and probably the most well-known is “Loving Her Was Easier.”
Kristofferson’s tracklist is deep, occasionally temperamental, and, like his lyrics, a “walking contradiction/ partly truth/ partly fiction” through every winding, poetic lyric. Playing the LP from start to finish is soul-centering and philosophically enlightening. The vinyl album is essential to have for any country music fan’s collection, from start to finish it winds around your heart and opens up your mind with its perfect storytelling prose.
Glen Campbell is known for being country music’s golden boy. Recently inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, Witchita Lineman features Campbell’s most important and celebrated singles “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” during the 1960s. One of the more fun, less known songs to listen to is his cover of Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.”
The vinyl is now widely available due to its popularity, but the original 1968 sealed release is still easy to find online or in your local vinyl records store.
Released November 1968
Strait’s “Ocean Front Property” is our list’s most recent and popular among country music’s modern fans. George Strait has had sixty hits over the course of his thirty three year carreer and “Ocean Front Property” is certified two times multi-platinum by the RIAA. If you can find a copy of this vinyl from a second-hand records seller you are incredibly lucky because the LP version still needs to be set for re-press for wide availability. Strait recently retired from touring, but the songs on Ocean Front Property remain his most celebrated. Every song on the album is catchy, witty, and has entertaining singalong potential. “All My Exes Live in Texas” is cleverly followed by “Someone’s Walking Around Upstairs.” Strait’s music is perfect two-stepping material. The final upbeat instrumentation on “Ocean Front Property,” will fill your living room.
Released January 1987
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