It’s a good list—and further evidence that Pitchfork has tweaked its critical sensibilities, as has most serious music criticism this century, toward better appreciating pop in all its complexities and varieties. When the site put together a similar effort back in 2002, its top selection was Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. This time out, #1 went to Purple Rain.
But despite developing bigger ears this century, Pitchfork continues to be resistant to the charms of one genre in particular: country music. For its Best Albums of the ’80s, Pitchfork listened closely across ten years, allowed itself a generous 200 picks, and selected… zero country albums. Or rather if, like me, you figure Lucinda Williams’ self-titled 1988 Rough Trade album is at least country enough for accounting purposes then, OK, Pitchfork identified exactly one country album it deemed “best” enough. Back in the actual 1980s, this kind of anti-country bigotry was hardly uncommon among critics. In 2018, though, to basically whiff on the entire country genre, just feels very old-fashioned.
Here are ten nominations for country albums that should be considered among the best albums of the 1980s, regardless of genre. And, because fantastic ’80s country albums are not hard to find, here are twenty alternate picks as well. These aren’t even necessarily the best country albums of the 1980s, and they’re not ranked, but each of them is at least as great as dozens of the selections on that Pitchfork list.
Hazel Dickens – Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People (1981)
In which the West Virginia bluegrass and folk music legend hollers how hard it is to be “Busted” again with a family to feed, tells a cheating lover she’s sick and tired of the “Scraps from Your Table,” and blasts out the union anthem “They’ll Never Keep Us Down.” Best of all, her “Out Among the Stars” has got your sneering takes on the white working class right here.
Ricky Skaggs – Highways & Heartaches (1982)
Ralph Stanley – I’ll Answer the Call (1987)
Merle Haggard – Kern River (1985)
The dead-best-friend title track is Merle Haggard at his most terrifying, The sexy “Natural High” finds him at his most Quiet Stormy. Merle has at least a half dozen albums that could make a best of the ’80s countdown, but this one is probably the least known and, therefore, the most deserving of a fresh listen.
Merle Haggard – Back to the Barrooms (1980)
Clint Black – Killin’ Time (1989)
The Judds – Why Not Me (1984)
Driven fiercely by not much more than acoustic rhythm guitar and brushes on drumhead, the Judds’ debut almost feels as if the Everly Brothers had been magically reincarnated as a daughter and her mama and then time traveled to Reagan’s America. Except: Naomi and Wynonna are grown-ass, real women, thank you—carrying on, talking back and demanding to know why not them.
The O’Kanes – The O’Kanes (1986)
Foster & Lloyd – Foster & Lloyd (1987)
Lyle Lovett – Pontiac (1987)
Coming out of the genre’s mid-decade credibility scare, when country labels signed a pack of alternately roots-rocking and/or singer-songwriting stylists, Lyle Lovett comes off here earnest and ironic both, traditional and modern, arch and fanciful, and hard-swinging AF. “The lights of L. A. County,” Lovett hums, “look like diamonds in the sky.” But then the sun comes up.
kd lang – Shadowland (1988)
Rosie Flores – Rosie Flores (1987)
Hank Williams, Jr. – Habits Old and New (1980)
Jr. is best known these days for his big mouth and stupid politics, but before that, he was simply the most influential figure in country music since Elvis—hell, maybe even since his old man. Here he tempers the blowhard self-aggrandizement with southern-rock introspection and outright tenderness, plus makes sure to funk up a couple of his old man’s gems.
Steve Earle – Guitar Town (1986)
Kentucky Headhunters – Pickin’ on Nashville (1989)
Patty Loveless – Honky Tonk Angel (1988)
This one’s where the best country singer alive first threw down her claim to the title, blending the bluegrass wail she was born to with the clenched-jaw note-bending of George Jones and the countrypolitan punch of Patsy Cline. On “Chains,” she predicts she’ll one day transform her misery into dance moves. On a cover of Lone Justice’s “Don’t Toss Us Away,” she begs those chains to never break.
Dwight Yoakam – Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986)
John Anderson – Wild & Blue (1982)
Desert Rose Band – Desert Rose Band (1987)
People like to talk about how influential country rocker Gram Parsons was, but it’s GP’s Byrds collaborator, Chris Hillman, who finally managed to take Sweetheart of the Rodeo sounds onto country radio. Nearly every successful country band since, from Diamond Rio to the Mavericks to Little Big Town, owes a major debt to DRB’s debut.
Highway 101 – Highway 101² (1988)
Alabama 40 – Hour Week (1985)
Suzy Bogguss – Somewhere Between (1989)
The honky-tonk ballad title track is maybe the best Hag cover ever, the version of Patsy Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” is definitely the best cover of that one ever, and Bogguss’ reading of Suzanna Clark’s and Rodney Crowell’s “Guilty As They Come” is hopeful and harrowing at once. Simply put, Bogguss is one of the most underrated interpreters in all of country music.
George Strait – Beyond the Blue Neon (1989)
Reb McEntire – Whoever’s in New England (1986)
Merle Haggard & George Jones – A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine (1982)
Two of country’s greatest vocalists team up for some of the darkest, grimmest cornpone going. Merle and George swear up and down that just had to have been drunk when they promised to stop drinking. Merle figures the way to live without the woman who’s dumped him is simply to, you know, die. Funny shit.
George Jones – I Am What I Am (1980)
Keith Whitley – Don’t Close Your Eyes (1988)
Rosanne Cash – King’s Record Shop (1987)
Vaguely synthy and new wave bouncy, “Rosie Strike Back” and “Runaway Train” abut shimmering crazy-catchy slow ballads like “The Way We Make a Broken Heart” and a spare, trad version of her dad’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” It adds up to Cash’s country masterpiece, but it also stands as a pretty good first summation of the quality and variety available on country radio in the ’80s.
Rosanne Cash – Seven Year Ache (1981)
Rodney Crowell – Diamonds & Dirt (1988)
David Cantwell is the author of Merle Haggard: The Running Kind and co-author of Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles.