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10 Best Country Albums to Own on Vinyl

If you’re a country music fan, these are the records to spin.

Years ago, the word “country” would be followed with “western,” but today, it’s more like “new country” and “old country.” Somewhere around the mid-1990s, when Shania Twain became popular with the help of Def Leppard producer (and husband) Mutt Lange, country started sounding a lot less like twang and more like 1980s rock. In a Lynyrd Skynyrd kind of way, country records suddenly featured big, rallying choruses and lots of electric guitars.

Here’s my list of the top 10 country albums — of both the “old” and “new” varieties — best enjoyed on vinyl.

1. Greatest Hits, Vol.1 – Johnny Cash

With almost a hundred albums to his credit, this is the best place to dive into Cash, whether you’re a first-time explorer or a lifelong fan. Featuring his signature song “Jackson” (performed with wife June Carter), along with other staples such as “Ring of Fire,” you’ll get the ethos of the Man in Black quickly. Compilations often mine whatever versions of a particular track are readily available, but care has been taken here to retrieve the original sonic gems, and Cash’s resonant voice really shines through on vinyl because most of his records were recorded in analog to begin with.

2. Wichita Lineman – Glen Campbell

If Johnny Cash is the most outlaw of the group presented here, Glen Campbell is the most approachable, but no less a creative genius. Put the stylus down on the title track and prepare to be blown away by the sonic equivalent of an IMAX movie. (Not to mention that killer bass solo!) Campbell’s playing and singing will floor you, no matter how many times you’ve heard these songs, including great covers of “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay,” “Reason To Believe” and “Words.”

3. Greatest Hits – Waylon Jennings

Right on Johnny Cash’s heels in terms of “outlaw” status, Waylon Jennings has released many great recordings. This 1979 compilation features signature tunes like “Luckenback, Texas,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys” (a terrific duet with Willie Nelson) and “I’m a Ramblin’ Man” — songs that beg to be listened to on vinyl because they tend to lose some of their character and feel via digital downloads. There’s a lot more Waylon before and after this album, but it’s a great stepping-off point.

4. Behind Closed Doors – Charlie Rich

While modern country borrows heavily from the world of rock, Charlie Rich was a pioneer in making country more accessible by crossing over into the world of pop. Old-school country fans may frown upon this record, but if you listen closely to this 1973 release, you’ll hear how the almost Burt Bacharach-like arrangements planted the seed for a lot of the “popular country” that became famous in the years to follow. And again, there’s something special about the way country twang feels more real when rendered via a slab of vinyl.

5. The Woman in Me – Shania Twain

As mentioned earlier, this was one of the most influential albums in the history of country. Much like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Twain’s second release became ubiquitous, enjoying multi-platinum sales and spawning eight singles. The way she blends country together with rock sensibilities on this album is unlike any other record before or since. Every contemporary female country star owes her a major debt.

6. Golden Road – Keith Urban

It might be hard to believe that an Aussie from Down Under can sound so authentically country, but Urban delivers the goods. Put the needle down on “You Look Good in My Shirt” and you’ll see what we mean. The record rocks — actually scoots — from start to finish with a nonstop collection of songs that are as upbeat as country gets. Urban is every bit as polished and accessible as Twain, drawing on rock roots to convey the message, presented in a beautifully complementary wall of sound production style.

7. Lyle Lovett – Lyle Lovett

Lovett’s later records would always be country-tinged, often heavily infused with a fair share of folk, gospel and blues. However, his first album puts twang front and center, with a delicacy that continues to punctuate Lovett’s work to this day. The songs are clever, and the playing even more so. The sheer approachability of this record might even make it the best place to begin your exploration of country music if previously uninitiated. While recorded on Curb/MCA, if you can find the JVC Japanese vinyl pressing, your ears will thank you.

8. Joe Ely – Joe Ely

Texas upstart Joe Ely began his long career with this eclectic collection of tunes that at times feel as much rockabilly as honky tonk (don’t let the slide guitars fool you). Regardless, Ely has a wry sense of humor in his songwriting that will pull you in. Tip: Skip the “2022 Remaster.” This record was made in 1977, well before digital recording was a studio thing. “She Never Spoke Spanish To Me” and “Treat Me Like A Saturday Night” will pour out of your speakers like liquid gold if you listen to the original vinyl release.

9. Stardust – Willie Nelson

Stardust is the wackiest record in this list. One of country’s favorite sons, Shotgun Willie went way off the radar back in 1978, releasing this collection of pop standards with a solid side order of country classics re-interpreted in an American Songbook way … decades before Rod Stewart and others got on the bandwagon. This may be the only Willie Nelson album with no original songs on it, but it works brilliantly, and it’s exquisitely recorded too. On vinyl, it’s an epic that will show off your turntable’s ability.

10. American Recordings – Johnny Cash

Yes, we know that this is the second time Johnny Cash appears on this list, but no other country star morphed with the times like he did. Partnering with mega-producer Rick Rubin, Cash released four albums in his final days, later known as “The American Series.” All are excellent, but none as chilling as this one (the first), featuring just Johnny and his guitar. Country or not, this is one of the most raw records ever made, and there’s nothing like the realism of vinyl to bring out The Man in Black at his most haunting.


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