I love music. I’ve written about some of my favorite music here, particularly at the end of each year when I pick my “Album of the Year.” During the Covid lockdown days, I began developing a list of winners working back to when I first started developing my own musical tastes as a child. Growing up in our house, country was the only kind of music I heard; and even then, it was usually “old” country.
I’ve decided to work my AOTY list back to 1985. I would’ve been nine years old that year and I’d say it was really the last year of my childhood: the next year my sister would get married and move out of our house; that was also the year my father was diagnosed with cancer. But when I think back to 1985, I think of sitting on the floor beside my Dad listening to The Highwayman. It seems like that’s an appropriate place to begin the catalog of my favorite albums and the songs that have been a big part of my life over the years.
1985: Highwayman, The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson)
I have this memory of filling out a worksheet in Sunday school. We were getting a new teacher and she wanted to get to know us, so she asked us to fill out a form. Amid the questions about our favorite colors and Bible verses was one asking, “What is your favorite song?” The answer I put down was “Big River” by The Highwaymen, which confused the rest of my classmates. That’s when I realized that not everyone grew up listening to Johnny Cash. Their loss, I reasoned.
This was my Dad’s favorite record at the end of his life. It’s not a flawless album; even my Dad skipped over “Jim, I Wore a Tie Today” and “The Twentieth Century is Almost Over.” But the highlights are epic. The title track was an instant classic, a then-unheard-of collaboration of some of the biggest names in country music. “The Last Cowboy Song” and “Big River” still bring me joy, more than 35 years later. “Desperados Waiting for a Train” laments the loss of a hero in a young man’s life, which became especially poignant for me in the wake of Dad’s death. That lone would be enough to place this record in my personal pantheon of great music. This one’s for you, Dad.
1986: Guitars, Cadillacs, etc. etc., Dwight Yoakam
I knew we loved Johnny Cash because he was a rebel, the Man in Black who stood up for the underdog, the little man. And as much as I loved Cash, that was also “Dad’s music.” But when I heard Dwight Yoakam, something similar sparked in me. Here was a rebel country artist for my times. Though Yoakam released some of this material as an EP in 1984, it wasn’t until his deal with Reprise Records became official in 1986 that he burst onto the mainstream country airwaves. But even then, there was a throwback sound that I found fresh and appealing, twang and drawl wrapped in swirling electric guitars. As evidenced by his ubiquitous presence on this list, Yoakam’s music and ethos was a big part of my impressionable years, so much so that his Just Lookin’ for a Hit greatest hits collection was the first album I purchased with my own money. And right out of the gates, he released his signature hit, “Guitars, Cadillacs.” Even today, that opening riff grabs me and takes me back.
My Dad and I had Cash, but Dwight Yoakam was my guy. And he still is. This is where it all began.
1987: The Joshua Tree, U2
As I stated above, we only listened to country music around our house. But The Joshua Tree sound redefined rock music for me in more accessible ways. Plenty of people have written about the impact of this album (including myself, here) but this one was a gamechanger for me. This music was spiritual and personal, just like the best music I’d ever heard from Cash or Yoakam. If my musical tastes would eventually shift more toward rock — and all it’s varied forms (indie, alternative, etc.) — that’s largely due to the influence of this record.
1988: Buenas Noches from a Dark and Lonely Room, Dwight Yoakam
The hits are plentiful, including “I Sang Dixie” and the all-timer “Streets of Bakersfield,” but deep cuts like “What I Don’t Know” and “One More Name” are just as good.
1989: The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses
No, I wasn’t listening to The Stone Roses in 1989. But I’m retroactively recognizing the impact of this album as a precursor to the kind of 90s alt/rock that would soundtrack my teen years. It would’ve been cool to see what would’ve happened if these guys had stayed together.
1990: If There Was a Way, Dwight Yoakam
This is peak-Yoakam for me. “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose” and “You’re the One” are two of my favorite songs EVER. Even though his next record, This Time, marked his commercial zenith, I contend that this is his strongest batch of songs top to bottom.
1991: Achtung Baby, U2
Not every U2 reinvention would land (remember Pop?) but this one sure did. Having already perfected their sound on The Joshua Tree, U2 would pivot to create Achtung Baby, a record that was simultaneously reflective of the evolving rock landscape and yet still ahead of its time.
1992: Del Rio, TX, 1959, Radney Foster
This kind of list is always evolving in a kind of “living document” kind of way. But I tend to give special weight to the music I was listening in any particular year. For a long time, I had R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People here, but that wasn’t really what I was listening to the most in those days. The artist I listened to the most back in 1992 was probably Radney Foster. This album was a commercial success, which is part of the reason I loved it. “Just Call Me Lonesome” and “Nobody Wins” were both huge hits on country radio back then. But I loved Foster’s quieter, less radio-ready moments as well, such as “Went For a Ride” and “Easier Said Than Done” and “Old Silver.” It’s a shame that Foster didn’t find more long term footing on Music Row; he’s a great talent and I really like his work.
1993: August and Everything After, Counting Crows
This one is one the short list of best debut albums of all-time. And you know I must really like it if I ranked it ahead of Yoakam’s This Time!
1994: Cracked Rear View, Hootie and the Blowfish
This was a weird year for me. I was a Junior in high school; I was still listening to a lot of country music, but I was also getting into Billy Joel and classic rock; Kurt Cobain committed suicide and my Mom died. In that strange time came a band with a strange, quintessentially 90s name and a classic sound. Nobody would every say that Hootie and the Blowfish were setting out to make “important” music. But it sure sounded good coming out of the speakers of my little Honda Accord. And back then, that was all I needed.
1995: What’s the Story Morning Glory?, Oasis
This was the year I graduated from high school and fell in love with Sunny. I also fell hard for Oasis, a loud, brutish British rock band who styled themselves after the Beatles, only with more attitude. There’s more style here than substance but I ascribed my own meaning to songs like “Wonderwall,” “Hey Now!” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” That last one has been especially important to me and reminds me of those early days with the girl who would become my wife and the mother of my children. “Don’t look back in anger, at least not today.”
1996: Bringing Down the Horse, The Wallflowers
Sunny and I saw The Wallflowers open for the Counting Crows in 1996 when they played at the old Starwood Amphitheater in Nashville. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Love this album.
1997: OK Computer, Radiohead
I first came across Radiohead in 1995 while I was on a mission trip to Honduras (long story) and I would rank The Bends as one of the best “runner up” albums that didn’t quite win my AOTY. But 90s guitar rock doesn’t get any better than OK Computer.
1998: White Ladder, David Gray
Jackson and I went to see David Gray’s anniversary tour commemorating the release of this record (which was delayed by Covid). I was blown away at how this music still connects with people both older and younger than me. Originally recorded in 1998, “White Ladder” kept hanging around for another year or two before “Please Forgive Me” and “Babylon” finally penetrated the mainstream.
1999: Agaetis Byrjun, Sigur Ros
I have no idea how to pronounce this album’s name. I just know it’s awesome. I had struggled to find a great album I loved from this year until I came across this one during lockdown. These beautiful melodies brought me a lot of comfort during that weird time.
2000: Kid A, Radiohead
I really like Third Day’s Offerings, also released in 2000, but that one is comprised of a lot of live recordings of previously released songs. And Kid A stands as an absolute masterpiece. If you’re interested, Steven Hyden has a great book about this album called This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the beginning of the 21st Century.
2001: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco
The seminal work by “the American Radiohead.”
2002: A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay
I wrestled with this one, too; Home by the Dixie Chicks is such a good record. But in the end, I went with the album that vaulted Coldplay into the stratosphere. Somebody will still be singing “The Scientist” a hundred years from now. (Not sure I could say the same thing for “White Trash Wedding.”) And as deep cuts go, “Warning Sign” is really good.
2003: The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, Explosions in the Sky
Some years, there’s simply no country or rock album that grabs me. In such years, there will inevitably be an instrumental record that stands out. Explosions in the Sky have a rich canon, but I’m guessing this is their most popular release. When you wonder where you’ve heard this music before, think “Friday Night Lights.”
2004: My Mother’s Hymnbook, Johnny Cash
A lot of critics point to Cash’s first collaboration with Rick Rubin as his late-career masterpiece. And I’m eternally thankful for Rubin bringing Cash’s art back to the mainstream in such a meaningful way in the mid-90s. But My Mother’s Hymnbook will always be my favorite Cash record. Sparse, accompanied by only his own guitar playing, Cash plays hymns he first heard on the lips of his mother as a child in Arkansas.
2005: A Collision, David Crowder Band
This was the year I started blogging about my favorite music, crowning Crowder’s genre-spanning worship album as that year’s AOTY.
2006: American V: A Hundred Highways, Johnny Cash
Rubin would release a couple of albums worth of Cash recordings after his death, but A Hundred Highways contains some of my personal favorites spanning the entirety of the American Recordings era. Album opener “Help Me” is so moving; suffering from myriad health issues which impact his speech, Cash never sounded more vulnerable, which provided even more meaning to the prayerful lyrics. This song moves me so much — and gets so directly to the heart of the gospel — that I want it played at my funeral.
2007: Emotionalism, The Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers were my favorite band for a while after the release of this incredible slice of Americana.
2008: The Gabe Dixon Band, The Gabe Dixon Band
It’s a shame that Gabe Dixon isn’t my generation’s Billy Joel.
2009: Sigh No More, Mumford & Sons
I don’t think of myself as a wishy-washy person, but I keep going back and forth on this one. I think U2’s No Line on the Horizon is a criminally underrated record. Songs like “Magnificent” and “Moment of Surrender” weren’t as seismic as previous singles, but they’re every bit as well written and performed. But with each passing year, I wonder if this recording holds up. On the other hand, the Mumford & Sons debut definitely sounds like that moment in time when “folk rock” was bandied about without an ounce of irony to describe (explain?) the impact of bands wearing vintage clothing and playing banjoes. I give the slightest of nods to Sigh No More, but I’ll probably keep puzzling this one out for a while.
2010: The Suburbs, Arcade Fire
While I’m at it, I might give new consideration to The National’s High Violet. But it’ll be pretty hard to dislodge this masterpiece from Arcade Fire.
2011: Bon Iver, Bon Iver
At the time, I really labored over which was the superior album: Bon Iver’s self-titled or the eponymous debut of Seattle’s The Head and the Heart. Seems like a no-brainer now. Bon Iver only makes classics.
2012: Life is People, Bill Fay
I think this guy is awesome, but it gives me pause when I think about how much my son Jackson can’t stand his songs. Mainly because Jackson has really, really good taste in music. But maybe this is just evidence that I’m comfortably settling into my middle years. That’s fine. Bill Fay is awesome. Dude went, like, 40 years in between records for some reason. But that only adds to his mystique. Plus he sings unabashedly about his faith in Jesus.
2013: Southeastern, Jason Isbell
My favorite album of all-time. 2013 marks the beginning of the golden age of my musical tastes, my introduction to Isbell, the War on Drugs, and Stapleton, among others. 2013 also marked the second time The National ended up as a bridesmaid on my AOTY list. They’re probably my favorite band to never win.
2014: Lost in the Dream, The War on Drugs
Listening to this record today, there’s a clear upgrade in production on their more recent releases. But even if you want to call this album more “low fi,” no matter; it’s still an absolute masterpiece. This year’s runner-up, the self-titled Augustines album, is another incredible record.
2015: Traveller, Chris Stapleton
What a voice. What a batch of songs. This qualifies as the first mainstream country AOTY winner for me since Radney Foster in 1992.
2016: A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead
A gorgeous album, highlighted for me by seeing this tour in Madison Square Garden in 2018.
2017: A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs
My favorite rock album ever. Still sounds as fresh to my ears today as it did the first time I heard it. And it’s looking like this will also be the year of the best 400 Unit release, The Nashville Sound.
2018: Con Todo El Mundo, Khruangbin
2018 was a weird year for me musically. I struggled to find a record that really grabbed me the way some of these other songs and albums had in previous years. I really like some of what I heard from artists like Leon Bridges, Lauren Diagle, and CHVRCHES, but the whole of their works left me lacking. But it all clicked when I heard Khruangbin. If you’ve ever watched Netflix’s “Outer Banks,” then you’ve heard Khruangbin. This Texas-based trio makes great — if hard to define — music. Their Wikipedia page lists their genres as “psychedelic rock / surf rock / funk / instrumental rock / dub / rock.” That about covers it.
2019: ii, Bon Iver
Like I said, Bon Iver only cranks out classics. Jackson and I saw them in Atlanta earlier this year and we were amazed at how they replicated their layered album sounds in a live show.
2020: Letter to You, Bruce Springsteen
It still amazes me that Springsteen could put out such a vital sounding record this late into his career. You could make a killer greatest hits album out of his 21st century output alone. “Song for Orphans” is one of my favorite songs he’s ever written — and he waited until nearly 50 years into his recording career to release it! Honorable mention to Taylor Swift’s folklore and Starting Over by Chris Stapleton. I had a hard time deciding my winner in 2020 for sure.
2021: I Don’t Live Here Anymore, The War on Drugs
A trifecta of phenomenal albums from my favorite band. There was really very little drama here once I got my hands on I Don’t Live Here Anymore. And these songs somehow sound even better live. Looking forward to seeing them in Birmingham later this month. In the last 12 months, I’ve also come to really appreciate Long Lost, Lord Huron’s great 2021 release. Another deserving bridesmaid.
That’s my updated AOTY list, which you can also check out here. This naturally causes me to think about my 2022 list and which artist will win. I should have an answer for you in another couple of months.