Where does your favorite work in the Lambert-verse land on our list?
The release of Miranda Lambert’s Palomino marks the 20th combined by her and her Pistol Annies cohorts Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, three of the sharpest working artists in contemporary country.
High time to rank their achievements, especially Lambert’s Olympic run of solo albums over the last couple decades. Without further adieu, enjoy every one of them ranked from worst to best below.
20. Pistol Annies, Hell of a Holiday (2021)
Listen, you’re a talented group of country singers if you resist overwhelming loads of sap and corn syrup until your Christmas album. But considering how good the title is, not to mention said resistance, it was pretty disappointing to discover how schmaltzy they can really get. Their Jesus freak side isn’t freaky enough, and Jenna Maroney has more restraint than, say, “Snow Globe.” Only the swamp-rock exception “Harlan County Coal” imports the irreverence, sisterly humor, and pithy phrasing from their secular catalog. Nothing else on this list will give your favorite country-hater a single round of ammo.
VIDEO: Pistol Annies “Hell of a Holiday”
19. Ashley Monroe, Satisfied (2009)
Before she was recruited as a Pistol Annie, the Dolly-voiced Monroe proffered this respectable debut. The sexiest offering opines “When I grow up I want a cowboy with dust all over his jeans,” the terse title track riffs on the age-old question “Does it have to be wrong to make it feel right?” The honky-tonkiest (and strongest) original is “Hank’s Cadillac” (of course). And the best tune is Lucinda Williams’ “Can’t Let Go.”
18. Ashley Monroe, Sparrow (2018)
“Staying forever is a promise that nobody can keep” from a song called “Mother’s Daughter” is exactly the kind of tearjerker line drive a major-label radio outcast was made to hit out of the park. Elsewhere, except on maybe the “MacArthur Park” descendent “Rita,” the fluttery, Dusty Springfield-friendly orchestration renders Sparrow craftier, more soulful, and less slushy than you recall. But why is it so hard to recall?
17. Miranda Lambert, Kerosene (2005)
Nashville’s own version of Fiona Apple’s Tidal: a precocious barnburner makes a big splash with her debut hit — in this case, the Stones-fried title tune — but most people don’t remember how many conventional tunes and corny ballads sog it up. Occasionally there’s a potent rocker like “New Strings,” and “Me and Charlie Talking” is a good time that adds Jew’s harp to the “Tangled Up in Blue” strum. But this is a dry run for the real goods if ever one was.
16. Ashley Monroe, Rosegold (2021)
Kudos; the Annie with the least distinct and assured style bowed last year with the most experimental — that is, least country — album that any of the three hath wrought, possibly for that very reason, or maybe because a cancer diagnosis will make any traditionalist say fuck it. But that doesn’t mean she’s suddenly Dawn Richard, just a purveyor of echoey, downbeat pop that lays her voice over plenty of drum machine and strings. In fact, she still doesn’t sound terribly distinct and assured (does Lana Del Rey much of the time?). But negative space-fests like “Gold” or “Siren” aren’t without their hooks, and “See” and “Groove” layer their narcotic vocals like stark Aaliyah even if “Drive” half-asses its conceit like reheated Lana Del Rey. “’Til It Breaks” has the strengths and weaknesses in one: The gorgeous melody recalls her perfect Annies showstopper “Beige,” and the clueless mixing allows the vocals to overwhelm the sinuous backing groove to the point where the ear loses the beat entirely, as big a pop sin as one can imagine.
15. Jack Ingram, Jon Randall, and Miranda Lambert, The Marfa Tapes (2021)
Ugh, men. This has more pretty moments than it deserves considering it reprises Lambert’s worst-ever song, “Tin Man,” because her two co-billed co-eds helped write it. But they also wrote Wildcard’s miraculous “Tequila Does,” so split the difference. The lo-fi recording is unusually low-tech for a CMT powerhouse, and a would-be EP has its share of intimate extractables even if she already has a trio that works perfectly fucking fine. “Am I Right or Amarillo” “I Don’t Like It,” “Homegrown Tomatoes,” and “Waxahachie” could all be beefed-up by the not-terribly-hi-fi Waxahatchee herself.
14. Miranda Lambert, Palomino (2022)
The single “Strange” drops the accursed buzzphrase “times like these” so maybe it’s time to face that Lambert’s reached her Foo Fighters phase, struggling to imagine fun new ideas having conquered everything in her path already. Being a virtuoso many floors higher in the tower of song than Dave Grohl she gets better results, such as the minor-key rave-up-versed opener that left-turns into sad, major-key choruses, or the deadass “Geraldene” that proves she’s still got it: “You’re trailer-park pretty / But you’re never gonna be Jolene.” But like Dave Grohl she gets most of her creative juice from celebrity pals, like a collab with the retiring B-52’s that isn’t wacky enough, and Mick Jagger’s sexier-than-ever “Wandering Spirit,” which she now owns. The waltz-time honky tonk “I’ll Be Lovin’ You” isn’t a new idea but she’s got plenty of old ones up her sleeve as well. One such old one is a sterile studio production of “Waxahachie” that epitomizes the overarching plainness of Palomino because it’ll send you back to The Marfa Tapes version.
13. Ashley Monroe, The Blade (2015)
Probably the most conventionally CMT-ready record on this entire list, which ain’t a bad thing; the title song has one of those atom-bomb choruses that reinforces any country fan’s belief in the conventional in the first place. Many of the remaining dozen try for the same, starting with the blithe opener, or the piano-plinking charmer that goes “if losing’s a game / I’m on a winning streak.” But leaving it to the pros only gets you so far in a genre where rules are made to be broken.
12. Miranda Lambert, Four the Record (2011)
You’ve gotta have quite the oeuvre for an album as good as this to be overshadowed by both Hell on Heels and “Mama’s Broken Heart.” The openers honor crossdressers (“All Kinds of Kinds”) and Weezer (“Fine Tune” slyly corrals the “El Scorcho” beat as “Stupid Girl” did “Train in Vain”), and for assembly line rockers and ballads, “Fastest Girl in Town” and “Safe” are fresh, muscular readymades. But the righteous fury of “Mama’s Broken Heart” wears down fast into the mush of “Dear Diamond” and “Baggage Claim” never transcends its corny “wordplay,” which is also present in the album title. Maybe it’s the freewheeling juxtaposition of Pistol Annies’ union the very same year but there’s just a tired, boxed-in feeling Four the Record can’t shake even as the songs triumph over pablum at least two-thirds of the time. Still, dig that skronking guitar solo on “Nobody’s Fool.”
11. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings (2016)
While it’s poetic that Lambert’s the first woman to ever release a double album in country(!), that fact mostly just serves to remind us how much further she is ahead of anyone else in a genre where many more could do it if they only had the quality control, wit, ambition, empathy, and inexhaustible artistry. From the title you know there’s heartbreak on her mind, not exactly the subject that sustains a whole record much less a double, and it’s not helped when the second disc leads with her worst song (at least she got a hit out of it, though). Most of these are good songs even if they’re rarely fun and even more rarely “Vice,” an all-time heartbreaker. In lieu of more where that came from, “Tomboy,” “Pink Sunglasses,” and “We Should Be Friends” are more than just consolation prizes. But they’re not all-time heartbreakers.
10. Pistol Annies, Annie Up (2013)
In which the thrill of chutzpah helps patch over the weaker stuff. “Hush Hush” is a proper single in a way nothing on Hell on Heels approaches, and that’s the least saucy gambit in an opening triptych between “I Feel a Sin Comin’ On” and “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” which Lambert would expertly extrapolate further into “Bathroom Sink” the following year. But there are duds (“Blues, You’re a Buzzkill” doesn’t even read well on the page) and the overall studio-shined, backing-band-ed veneer deemphasizes the three stars’ camaraderie in such a way that you feel stupid for wishing the original rocked a little more.
9. Miranda Lambert, Revolution (2009)
Where Professional Miranda (Kerosene) and Off-Script Miranda (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) duke it out for supremacy and both kind of win. Only “Only Prettier” and “Sin for a Sin” conjure up the folding-chair-throwing energy of the latter, but it’s from a considerable distance, in that arena-star way. Most of these lyrics bite harder than anything on the former, however, starting with one of her best-ever songs: “Me and Your Cigarettes,” the two things you’re addicted to. And speaking of arena stars, her “Dead Flowers” can take on the Stones’.
8. Angaleena Presley, Wrangled (2017)
For all its narrative audacity and emotional analysis, American Middle Class wasn’t exactly “fun” like most other Pistol Annies peaks. So you may well prefer the easier and more varied offerings here, which is not to say that there’s anything simple about “Only Blood,” in which an abusive preacher is gunned down by his wife. But that song’s sandwiched between the 1950s-ish “High School” and a Yelawolf-abetted tribute to “Country” that’s frankly, mostly rock and rap. Completely distinct from her equally great debut with the bonus that no one’ll ever tag this one “boring.”
AUDIO: Angaleena Presley “Wrangled”
7. Ashley Monroe, Like a Rose (2013)
The woman who sang “if losing’s a game / I’m on a winning streak” is prolific with acceptable-to-decent albums but has only touched excellence mostly within the confines of her bulletproof supergroup. Her lone great solo album is the exception, and you can tell that Hell on Heels lit a fire under such royalty as “Weed Instead of Roses” and the astonishing “Two Weeks Late.” Her Jack White ensemble pedigree beats Margo Price to the punch by a few years with the giggly character sketch “Monroe Suede” and the surprisingly spicy “You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter)” duet with then-Lambert husband Blake Shelton, who definitely ain’t Porter. But for a brief moment in time, Monroe was definitely making like Dolly.
6. Angaleena Presley, American Middle Class (2014)
“Quick as the tongue on a Johnny-come-lately,” to use her turn of phrase on head-spinning opener “Ain’t No Man,” Presley is probably the best pure lyricist of the gang, exemplified best on fellow head-spinning titles like “Dry County Blues,” “American Middle Class,” and “Better Off Red,” wherein a West Virginia beer run involves meth heads lying to an old deputy, complex blue-collar sympathies you’d expect from a coal miner’s daughter, and a football hero in the ground from “Pain Pills.” You could say this of all Pistol Annies fare and most country to some extent, but it’s dark, gritty stuff performed and narrated with sprightly aplomb, some of the stories so dense you can’t catch them from tracing the catchy tunes alone. The big one’s a cinch, though: Keeping your baby and dishes clean and buying a sexy nightgown aren’t enough to keep you from staying “Drunk.”
5. Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel (2018)
Possibly even more sophisticated than American Middle Class by the sole virtue of tangling up the regrets and hard feelings of three different women instead of just one, the third and most accomplished Pistol Annies album will not suit your craving for “intellectual emptiness” as they put it on the mournfully sarcastic “Best Years of My Life,” a title more earnestly suited to the rousing divorcee’s prayer “Got My Named Changed Back.” These are fleshed-out narratives far more autobiographical than the character sketches of Hell on Heels, so tunes like “Commissary” and “Cheyenne” are considerably grimmer, more moved-on, scorched-earth in a way that plucky mischief-makers don’t really know. Unless they’re also sad-song purveyors of course, reflecting on both “When I Was His Wife” and “5 Acres of Turnips.” Not much of it will hit you at first the way it will on multiple immersions, but most everything here earns its keep as they grow in wisdom. The one called “Masterpiece” asks “who’s brave enough to take it down?” A gauntlet.
4. Miranda Lambert, Wildcard (2019)
Not quite her pop album but her most Pro-Tooled, with the shifting sound effects and beats of “White Trash” leading into the microedits and explosive chorus of “Mess With Your Head.” Hardly the whole story, though: “Bluebird” and “Dark Bars” are astonishingly pretty melodies, and “Settling Down” and the Gary Stewart special “Tequila Does” are two of her greatest semi-ballads. Then you’ve got “Locomotive,” her best (and hardest-rocking) rock song, in which She plays guitar while He cooks, and the wah-wah swamp gospel of “Holy Water,” which may be her finest vocal moment, period. Delete just a couple deadweights like the soggy “How Dare You Love” and it could be even greater. Maybe it is her pop album.
3. Miranda Lambert, Platinum (2014)
Another archetype you’re familiar with: The eclectic, overstuffed masterpiece. So forget The Weight of the Wings, which was a bit too sad to throw said weight around, this is her real Sign O’ the Times, a 16-track compendium of everything she can do, done even better. She time-jumps into retro Western swing with, yes, the Time Jumpers, on “All That’s Left,” and recruits fellow car-keyer Carrie Underwood for “Somethin’ Bad,” as loving and fist-pumping an Aerosmith tribute that’s ever been done. And with Little Big Town’s assist, “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” turns out to be an atmospheric ballad of considerable grace. Of course, what she can do is hardly just musical. “Bathroom Sink” is feminism for real, in “Gravity Is a Bitch” it’s for lulz. The title song inverts its “what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder” conceit by dropping as many polysyllabics into three minutes (“irrefutably,” “disposition,” “permeates,” “exceed,” “compensation,” “historically,” “chemically,” “genetically”) as her big brain can compute. And unlike the Prince album it topped the Billboard 200.
2. Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2007)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is simply the one you don’t have to think about. The Daydream Nation or Nevermind or Ready to Die that hits you square in the jaw on very first listen whether you’re a country fan or not. Many people in the “or not” category included the decidedly not-yet-poptimist Pitchfork staff of 2007 that included “Gunpower & Lead” on their year-end list, as well as, hell, me. Her powerhouse new-shitkicker-in-town side that “Kerosene” only hinted at is well-represented in the first half, while clever melodies (“More Like Her”) and lyrics (“Guilty in Here”) take all ten loud, soft, pretty, funny, rocking, heartfelt songs blazing past the finish line. It’s where her streak begins as the greatest country artist of the last quarter-century. If she was an artist you didn’t have to think about, it could’ve well been number one. But.
1. Pistol Annies, Hell on Heels (2011)
At first you’ll find it soft — the packaging is “Gunpowder & Lead” and the country-punk riot grrrl of dreams, so where is the barnburning? But within three listens, this tossed-off half hour reveals itself as the best songwriting of the 2010s. Chemistry and ease you can’t buy turn weightless arrangements into literary anvils as Lambert’s “Trailer for Rent” (“comes with some holes and gents where I got tired of his shit / Honk if you’re interested”) drags two buddies up with her, especially then-unknown Angaleena Presley, who contributes two of the sharpest all by herself: “Lemon Drop” (“I owe four thousand quarters to a washing machine”) and “The Hunter’s Wife” (“Well I’m sick of squirrel gravy and I’m sick of coon stew”). Then-unknown Ashley Monroe sings the heartbreakingly gorgeous “Beige” by herself and gives the star a leg up on the towering, misty-eyed anthem “Boys From the South” and they all inspire her to burn the house down on “Housewife’s Prayer.” That leaves four entirely group efforts, two of which are theme songs. The title track and “Takin’ Pills,” which flirt with the country-punk riot grrrl of dreams, the almost as naughty “Bad Example,” and the closing “Family Feud,” which flirts with Faulkner.
- I Would Call It Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Roots’ Phrenology at 20 - December 8, 2022
- When Cloven Hoofprints Turn Up in the Garden: The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee at 20 - November 21, 2022
- Pictures Are Dead, Man: Miles Davis’ On the Corner Turns 50 - October 23, 2022