“THE IMPERIAL” The Delines
When I previewed this band’s marvelous country-soul collection in the early days of 2019, I had a notion that the January release might turn out to be the album of the year. It has held serve for 12 months, although one contender turned out to be its equal (see immediately below).
“WALK THROUGH FIRE” Yola
Add the soaring power of this Englishwoman’s voice to songs slathered with steel guitar, horns, and strings (and harpsichord!) that weave together classic countrypolitan, vintage soul, and Bacharachian pop, and what do you get? An album that came out of nowhere with explosive force.
“OKIE" Vince Gill
Whether he’s offering a powerful commentary on sexual abuse, singing a first-person tale of justifiable homicide, or paying tribute to Guy Clark and to fellow Okie Merle Haggard, Vince Gill continues to make stone-cold country music of deep substance.
“ALMOST DAYLIGHT” Chris Knight
“Everywhere I go, there’s trouble up ahead,” “Keep your head up and go on,” “Are there any answers, I’d sure like to hear one”. . . Chris Knight hadn’t released an album in seven years, but “Almost Daylight” takes up right where he left off, delivering songs rife with pain and desperation that, occasionally, show a glimmer of hope.
“THE UNSEEN IN BETWEEN” Steve Gunn
Gunn’s marvelous, sinuous guitar-playing always provides reason enough to listen to his music, but as this sometimes folky, sometimes rocking, sometimes psychedelic tour de force shows, his singing and songwriting are powerful allies of his playing.
“LET IT ROLL” Midland
We’ve reached the point where country bands can be “retro” by playing their version of ’80s traditionalism. On their sophomore effort, Midland continues to do exactly that (think George Strait after a bong session), offering up classic wordplay and unalloyed country sounds with the likes of “Every Song’s a Drinkin’ Song.”
“AN OBELISK” Titus Andronicus
This time, there are no slow songs; on “An Obelisk,” Titus Andronicus unleashes 38 minutes of blistering punk fury that paints a more complicated picture than simply excoriating the usual suspects: “I blame society, society’s to blame,” sings the album’s protagonist, before admitting that “inside my diary, I hide my private shame.”
“FOREVER TURNED AROUND” Whitney
Singer-drummer Julien Ehrlich applies his fragile falsetto to sad songs about hanging on and getting by, and he and Whitney partner Max Kakacek come up with another hooky album of country-flecked, horn-fueled soul music.
“SOLID GOLD SOUNDS” Kendell Marvel
There are a lot of better-known names out there doing outlaw-style country, but if Kendell Marvel keeps making records like “Solid Gold Sounds,” he’ll be one of them before too long. His countrified version of the Bee Gees’ “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” is worth the price of admission by itself.
“BETWEEN THE COUNTRY” Ian Noe
Ian Noe writes rolling folk songs full of desperation and violence that run across juice head relatives, meth heads on the prowl, train wrecks, and gunshot retributions, and he sings them as if his life depended on it.
ARTIST OF THE YEAR
The Mavericks reached their 30th year as a band in 2019. They celebrated that milestone with a tour that found them consciously representing the entirety of that tenure onstage and giving the Mavericks’ treatment to songs that influenced their musical development as well, and they’ve just released an album, “Play the Hits,” that collects some of those same covers. Since they returned to action from a hiatus in 2012, they’ve been at the peak of their powers, honing their singular mix of country, Latin, lounge, classic pop, and whatever else they see fit to throw in, a well-oiled juggernaut on record and a seemingly inexhaustible party machine onstage.