10 Essential George Strait Albums

Like clockwork, George Strait has released a new album every year since 1981. Including holiday and hits packages, he’s up to No. 31 with Honkytonkville, released June 10. Through the years, Strait, 50, hasn’t altered his formula much (if at all). Aside from the obviously essential Strait Out of the Box, here are 10 albums — in chronological order — that still hold their own.

Strait From the Heart (1982)
The first track (“Fool Hearted Memory”) and the last (“A Fire I Can’t Put Out”) topped the charts and “Marina Del Ray” beautifully conveys the romance and regret of long-distance love. But it’s the perfect “Amarillo by Morning” that evolved into a modern classic. Only 30 years old when this album was popular, Strait made it sound so easy.

Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind (1984)
This album captured the CMA album of the year in 1985, the first year Strait won in any category. (He’s up to 15 trophies now.) Strait’s sweaty vocals on “The Fireman” can still make women swoon and “The Cowboy Rides Away” remains a perfect concert finale. It’s hard to believe an album from two decades ago continues to sound this contemporary.

#7 (1986)
Perhaps his most Western-flavored album, this album is book-ended by the swinging “Deep Water” and Texas-friendly “Cow Town.” It also features two wonderfully sad Dean Dillon tunes, “Nobody in His Right Mind Would Have Left Her” and “It Ain’t Cool to Be Crazy About You.” Not a bad track on here. Lucky #7, indeed.

Ocean Front Property (1987)
Play “Am I Blue.” Listen to the tinkling piano, the steady drums, the fiddles echoing the guitars — this is country. Plus, two Strait classics are here: the perennial favorite “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” and the clever title track. Making history by debuting at No. 1 on the country charts, this very appealing album makes wallowing in pity seem all right.

If You Ain’t Lovin’, You Ain’t Livin’ (1988)
The hot streak continued with lost-love hits like “Baby Blue” and “Famous Last Words of a Fool.” However, this sturdy album features plenty more good stuff. The lounge-ish “Don’t Mind If I Do” sounds like a Mel Torme standard, and the weeper “Is It That Time Again” is on par with his best barroom laments.

Livin’ It Up (1990)
Strait first won the CMA entertainer of the year in 1989, and two huge singles from this album — “I’ve Come to Expect It From You” and “Love Without End, Amen” — earned him another trophy in 1990. “Lonesome Rodeo Cowboy” finds a man at the end of his rope while Harlan Howard’s breezy “Someone Had to Teach You” could have been a hit.

Chill of An Early Fall (1991)
As fans fell for Alan, Clint, Garth and Vince, somehow King George snagged two of the best sad songs ever: the title track and “If I Know Me.” Toss in an ode to San Antonio, “Lovesick Blues,” “Milk Cow Blues” and “You Know Me Better Than That,” and you’ve got a winner. “Is It Already Time,” a clear-eyed look at losing a loved one, is beautiful.

Pure Country (1992)
Some might consider this soundtrack an artistic departure, considering how he swings for the rafters with “Heartland” and “Overnight Male.” Don’t forget, he was merely acting. Can you imagine if Strait had kept the ponytail? The wedding smash “I Cross My Heart” propelled Pure Country to five-times platinum, his best-selling studio album to date.

Blue Clear Sky (1996)
The title track remains the bubbliest hit of Strait’s career — and it’s so fun to sing along. On the slower side, the rodeo cowboy of “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” picks up right where “Amarillo by Morning” left off. Will these rodeo guys ever learn? The album’s closer, “Need I Say More,” showcases Strait’s love for crooning, a la Sinatra.

Honkytonkville (2003)
More than two decades into his career, the man’s still got it. His voice sounds richer than ever, whether it’s the silly “Jesus on the Jailhouse Floor” or the romantic “Desperately.” “Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa” sparkles, and this album stands among his best work. All in all, it’s nearly impossible to say anything bad about Strait.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.