Dolly Parton attends Dolly Parton's Rockstar VIP Album Release Party with American Greetings on November 16, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. Chris Stapleton attends the 57th Annual CMA Awards at Bridgestone Arena on November 08, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. Lainey Wilson attends the 2024 CMT Music Awards at Moody Center on April 07, 2024 in Austin, Texas.

By now, you’ve heard about Apple’s “100 Best Albums” list. And you may have noticed that it almost completely ignored country music. Apple says that its so-called “definitive” list was “assembled with the help of artists and experts.” They add, “It’s a modern love letter to the records that have shaped the world we live and listen in today.”

With all due respect to the albums on the list, their list of artists probably didn’t include many (or any) country artists, and it’s safe to say that their “experts” did not include many country fans. The closest that they got to country music was including Taylor Swift’s 1989 (Taylor’s Version) at #18 and Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour at #85. Country-rockers, the Eagles, squeaked in at #99 with Hotel California.

Obviously, we don’t need to tell you that country music is a huge part of American pop culture today. But whoever selected the “experts” and artists for Apple may have missed a report from March 2024 that noted that country music is one of the fastest growing genres in America, along with world music and Latin music. There’s a reason that Beyonce (whose Lemonade is at #10 and Beyonce is at #36) and Lana Del Rey (whose Norman F—ing Rockwell is at #79) are now interested in making country music.  

Country music fans aren’t just massive consumers of recorded music: they also go to lots of concerts. Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Luke Bryan, the late great Toby Keith, Shania Twain, the Zac Brown Band, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Garth Brooks, Jason Aldean, Alan Jackson, and Eric Church are among the most successful touring artists of all time.

Taste is subjective, and we’ve made our share of lists – by their nature, you can’t make everyone happy. You don’t even want to: people getting angry about lists is what gets people talking about them, and that brings awareness. But even putting our concerns about country music aside, a few other things stick out. Are millennial rockers the Strokes (their Is This It is at #68) really better than the Who (who aren’t on the list at all)? The Arctic Monkeys are fun, sure. But is their AM (#59) really better than any album by Aerosmith, Van Halen, the Ramones, Queen and Pearl Jam (none of whom appear on the list)? When Rolling Stone left Celine Dion off of their list of the 200 best singers of all time, her fans protested, loudly. That got more publicity for the list.

Here are some country albums from different artists and different eras that should have made their list. Note: this is not a ranking! We put them in chronological order. But we’re sure you’ll tell us what we missed.

  • Johnny Cash - ‘At Folsom Prison’ (1968)

    A truly surprising omission: Johnny Cash’s popularity always transcended country music. He started out his recording career at Sun Records alongside Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, and his incredible ‘90s comeback came courtesy of Rick Rubin and his American Recordings label. But if we’re going to pick one album, it’s got to be this one: recorded live in early 1968 and released later that year, it’s a pretty unique recording. Cash is literally playing to a captive audience. He wasn’t judging them, he was giving them a bit of dignity back, and they obviously appreciated it. Hearing him sing “Folsom Prison Blues” to Folsom Prison inmates: it doesn’t get heavier or more powerful than that. A lot of the songs were heavy, and they surely hit differently given the location: “Dark As The Dungeon,” “I Still Miss Someone,” and “The Long Black Veil,” and “25 Minutes To Go.”

  • Willie Nelson - ‘Shotgun Willie’ (1973)

    Of course, Willie Nelson deserves a place on a list of the best artists of all time. But when it comes to picking just one Willie album, well, that’s tough. Including all of his collaborative albums, the man has released over one hundred albums since debuting with the excellent …And Then I Wrote, back in 1962. And by the way, we considered some of his latest albums for this: if you’re not familiar with 1993’s Across The Borderline or 2004’s It Always Will Be, you need to check them out. And we almost went with Stardust, his most popular album: but it’s an album of pop standards, and we’re talking about country music here. So we’re going with 1973’s Shotgun Willie. The album saw him leaving Nashville for Austin, Texas, and signing for Atlantic Records (he was their first country artist!). The album has some of his greatest songs, including a few covers – “Whiskey River,” “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)” and some of his most enduring originals, including “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” “She’s Not For You,” and, of course, the title track.

  • Dolly Parton - ‘Jolene’ (1974)

    If there’s one country artist we’d think that the “experts” wouldn’t forget, it’s Dolly Parton, who has remained relevant in country, and in pop culture, for decades. Like Willie Nelson, she has an enormous discography. But in her case, it’s a toss-up between 1971’s Coat of Many Colors and 1974’s Jolene. We’re going to go with the latter – it has both the incredible title track, as well as a little song called “I Will Always Love You.” Given that Beyonce covered the former (with an intro by Dolly!) on Cowboy Carter, and Whitney Houston had one of the biggest hits of all time with the latter, it’s truly shocking that this album wasn’t considered. 

  • Eric Church - Chief (2011)

    Critically acclaimed and commercially successful, Eric Church would have been a great pick for this list. He’s contemporary, plays concerts like a rock star (including changing up his sets and sometimes even eschewing his hits) and has been popular for nearly two decades. Chief is both his best album and his most commercially successful (it’s been certified triple platinum). His first two albums showed potential, but this is where he became a star. One of his finest moments is on this album: “Springsteen,” written in tribute to the New Jersey rock and roll legend. And like Bruce, he had party jams but also addressed more serious matters. Things get wild on songs like the Stonesy “Drink In My Hand” and “I’m Gettin’ Stoned.” But he also suffers the consequences on “Jack Daniels” and “Hungover And Hard Up.” Chief is the product of hard-earned stardom: Church didn’t become a star overnight, but he certainly put in the work to get there.

  • Miranda Lambert - ‘Platinum’ (2014)

    Miranda’s albums tend to make mainstream publications’ “year-end” lists, so we’re surprised that she got no love here, either. And her albums really feel like albums: they are always collections of songs that work as a full-length listening experience. Again, it was difficult to decide which Miranda album would best represent her. And we almost feel guilty for choosing an album from a decade ago, when she’s put out so much incredible music in the years since. But Platinum boasts some amazing songs, both among the singles and the album tracks. The album shows how Miranda is able to be very current (“Somethin’ Bad” with Carrie Underwood, “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” with Little Big Town) but also is able to look back fondly on songs like “Automatic,” “All That’s Left” with the Time Jumpers and the NSFW “Old S—.” She looks hilariously at aging in “Gravity’s A B—-,” singing, “Got bags under your eyes, bigger hips and bigger thighs/You got places that you can’t even itch/You can nip it, tuck it, squeeze it/But you’re never gonna beat it/’Cause gravity’s a b—-!” Meanwhile, “Holding On To You” is one of her loveliest songs and should have been a massive hit. 

  • Chris Stapleton - ‘Traveller’ (2015)

    Even before Stapleton’s debut album, astute country fans may have recognized his name. As a songwriter, he’d co-written songs for Kenny Chesney, Patty Loveless, Tim McGraw, Darius Rucker, George Strait, Thomas Rhett, Lee Ann Womack, Alan Jackson, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. But not every great songwriter has a great album in them. But in Stapleton’s case, he also happens to have the most soulful voice in country music, and he can go toe-to-toe with Brad Paisley and Keith Urban when it comes to face-melting guitar. All of that came together on Traveller, which is as close to a perfect album as you’ll find in any genre. Again, this is another instance where we’re really stunned that he wasn’t included. He’s one of the most in-demand collaborators in any genre of music: over the years, he’s worked with Justin Timberlake, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Pink, Santana, Slash and Tom Morello, to name a few. 

  • Lainey Wilson - ‘Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’’ (2021)

    The album heralded the arrival of one of country’s biggest stars. It may have seemed like an overnight success deal, but, as Lainey’s fans know, she was slugging it out in Nashville for a decade before this album hit. This album doesn’t feel like it’s from a “new” artist, even though she wasn’t well-known before 2021. Incidentally, Lainey co-wrote every song on the record. And from the singles to the deeper cuts, the album does not let up. Every song is a classic. She’s one of the most exciting artists in any genre in the 2020s, and it’s shocking that she wasn’t included in Apple’s list. They may not get it, but we do.

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