NASHVILLE SKYLINE: What Are the Greatest Albums Ever?

Building a Country Music Collection for the Ages

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

They are called record albums because in the early days of recorded music, a collection of 78 rpm discs by one artist was sold in a heavy cardboard folder holding individual sleeves, usually with cover art and artist information. Since they looked like the photo albums of the time, they were called record albums. And they still are, at least as far as I’m concerned. There are single releases and there are album releases, period.

Albums went out of fashion in pop music, especially, with the advent of iTunes and other such digital outlets. But some genres, particularly country and bluegrass, persevere with the format.

You may well ask why I have not included any mainstream country albums from the past few years. It’s plain and simple. Aside from Jamey Johnson and a few others, country artists have by and large quit trying to create albums and are instead concentrating on recording redneck party singles for country radio. The resulting collection of singles cannot be legitimately termed an album. Cutting a few redneck party radio hits doesn’t make you a Country Music Hall of Famer.

Some ground rules here. No greatest hits albums or “best of” albums are eligible for this, nor are boxed sets. The criteria are originality, influence and quality. This represents the Top 10 of my essential country music library. Someday we’ll visit the others.

Red Headed Stranger, Willie Nelson Willie has many albums that are worthy candidates. Yesterday’s Wine was an early concept album, as were Shotgun Willie and especially Phases and Stages. Stardust, a very unlikely album of pop standards for Willie to record, stayed on the country chart for more than 10 years. But it was Red Headed Stranger that was his artistic peak as well as his enormous breakthrough to superstar musical success. Stranger is a bleak and lonely but ultimately loving and forgiving album that will stay with you after every listening. When I originally reviewed this for Texas Monthly magazine, I headlined the review “Matthew, Mark, Luke and Willie,” and I still don’t think I was off target.

Dreaming My Dreams, Waylon Jennings Waylon was not nearly as prolific as his running buddy Willie Nelson, but he was a perfectionist when it came to his own solo albums. Many people consider his Honky Tonk Heroes to be his best work. I don’t, necessarily. It is a very close second.

Lullabys, Legends and Lies, Bobby Bare One of the most underestimated artists in country music — primarily because of his modest nature and his unwillingness to blow his own horn. For this album, Bare commissioned the artist and writer Shel Silverstein to write him an album of songs. It turned into a two-album set. Bare was at the forefront of progressive country for years. If you’ve never heard “Quaaludes Again,” look it up. And “Rough on the Living” remains a classic, as in, “Nashville’s rough on the living but she really speaks well of the dead.”

At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash What more can be said? This remains one of the greatest live albums in any music genre.

Carnegie Hall Concert, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos
Buck’s live concert at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall set the standard for country performances. He had one of the two or three best bands around. On this night, they were crisp and sharp on a set of top-flight songs.

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Ray Charles This is one of the most influential recordings of the 20th century. And no one expected it from Ray Charles. It sounds just as fresh today as it did when released.

Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn She’s probably the greatest female country artist ever. She has proved it many times. Her albums have been up and down, but her originality and influence remain unparalleled.

I Am What I Am, George Jones Frank Sinatra once said George Jones was the second greatest singer in the world. There are those who would disagree with him. This was the album that unleashed upon the world the epic “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Big City, Merle Haggard The title track alone is worth the price of admission, but there’s much more, such as “Stop the World and Let Me Off.” The argument could be made that virtually any Hag studio album is Top 10 material.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band This collaboration between the young Californians and some of country’s elders was completely unexpected in the early 1970s, but for decades now, it has remained as influential as any project in modern music.