It’d be fair to say that 2021 has not been a good year for music – country music, in particular.
And to some extent, I get why this has been a slower year than 2020. Most acts are only now stepping out of the shadows to announce new projects now that touring can safely happen again, and the acts that did decide to press on in 2020 just now seem to want to move on and forget it ever happened – recent projects be damned. That doesn’t mean great projects aren’t out there. With how much the genre has fragmented over the past decade or so, I’d argue discovery is even more important now than it’s ever been before in finding them.
Which is to say that, for me, despite hearing and covering less music than I usually do at this point in the year – mostly because I was working on this – 2021 has been mostly solid, if a little weaker than previous years I’ve examined at the midway point. Part of that also has to do with us as music fans, though. With how high the bar seems to get raised each year with every new arrival and act, we take the age of endless consumption for granted, and I include myself within that category. Still, I’d argue that quality hasn’t been so much lacking as it’s been … scattershot, with a lot of good projects not quite taking the next step and a lot of great projects just barely on the cusp of excellence. And because I’ve reviewed less music this year, I will admit I’ve likely overrated and underrated some projects along the way.
Now, I think things will greatly pick up in the second half, but when I actually sat down to compile this list, I didn’t find it difficult to pick my favorites. In fact, this was likely the easiest list I’ve assembled yet, and this year has to be doing something right when albums from Tracy Lawrence, Morgan Wade, LoneHollow, and Lucero just barely miss the cut for me. Plus, the order is likely to change before December. I dubbed 2019 as the “year of the debut,” and 2021 is more like a year of a personal discovery. Nearly half of the artists included within the following list were names I wasn’t familiar with before the start of the year, proving that the good stuff is out there … we just have to get to digging.
Of course, this is only my personal list of favorites of the midway point, and as tradition goes, I’ll be counting down my 12 favorite albums of the year so far, with plenty of favorite singles from albums not included here featured along the way. The only rule is that I had to cover the project in some capacity at some point in the year, so if you want the deeper discussions, I’d suggest checking back through the reviews here, or, alternatively, here. Also, just because something hasn’t been covered yet doesn’t mean it won’t be eventually.
Enough rambling, then. Let’s get this show on the road.
No. 12 – Of course, speaking of rambling, we’ve been waiting for a proper debut for this first artist for quite some time, and it did not disappoint:
Charlie Marie, Ramble On
Favorite tracks: “Ramble On Man,” “Lauren,” “Cowboys & Indians”
For as much as the Patsy Cline and overall Nashville Sound comparisons get thrown around when approaching Charlie Marie’s style, with Ramble On, she proves she’s in a league of her own. And beyond production that’s elegant and beautiful in capturing the windswept detail of her stories, what I love about this album is the thematic duality of moving on from a troubled past while also finding the courage to move forward, all while framing the deeper complexities that come with actually doing so. Of course, the general appeal is Marie’s soaring tone with real firepower behind it as well as her emotive ability to complement her stories. It’s easy to fall in a love with a throwback album simply for its style and presentation alone – enough to where it overshadows the actual quality, if there’s any to begin with – but Ramble On has a technical precision on all fronts to blow past expectations. A ride on a soul train, indeed.
No. 11 – And on the note of trains, let’s discuss an album or two or three that have been described as train wrecks, and for all of the wrong reasons:
Eric Church, Heart & Soul
Favorite tracks: “Heart on Fire,” “Crazyland,” “Hell of a View”
For the record, I’m lumping Eric Church’s three projects as one whole entity for this list, mostly because that’s the way his albums are supposed to go, but also because they kind of need each other to work as a cohesive unit. Yes, the marketing for this project was a complete disaster, but looking past that and examining just the music … well, OK, Heart and Soul carry on Church’s exploration of the inner music nerd in him from both external and internal perspectives, respectively. But add & to the mix and you have an artist willing to open his arms to fans and others who want to embark on that musical journey with him. If not for certain moments on Soul, I’d likely have this a little higher. Plus, as someone who loved Church’s musical passion on display on 2015’s Mr. Misunderstood, I love hearing him feel like he’s fallen back in love with music again. Call it overly ambitious, if anything, but the heart beats and the soul is on display, and it all continues Church’s hot streak.
No. 10 – Well, I’m still on defense for this next selection, but this time, it’s because I don’t have it higher:
Cole Chaney, Mercy
Favorite tracks: “Humble Enough to Hear,” “Coalshooter,” “Silver Run”
Add Cole Chaney’s name to the list of growing artists out of Kentucky helping to fuel the independent resurgence within country music over the past decade. Of course, doing so immediately means that unfair comparisons to two certain other Kentucky artists arise, and while Mercy does shoot a little lower for me – mostly because of a reserved approach that I think is simply the mark of a debut – those specific comparisons don’t do his style or writing justice. This is country music with a body count, where the heritage examined of life in rural Kentucky is respected but not always liked and where Chaney isn’t afraid to sketch stories of characters just barely keeping their heads above water. Couple that with a simple yet stunning production palette, and you have one of the darkest releases of the year from a newcomer that can stand toe-to-toe with the best of them.
And now that we’re in the top ten, let’s examine a few excellent singles from albums that didn’t make the cut here, starting with:
From Magic Mirror, “Slipping Away,” by Pearl Charles – A dark, groove-heavy track that reminds me of a Dolly Parton and Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac fusion that just works.
From Drop of Blood, the title track, by the Divorcees – The first song of the year I really loved and one that continues to get under my skin for its progressively hopeless and sad examination of a character headed for despair.
From When You Found Me, “Coffin Nails,” by Lucero – For as much as the album has left fans cold for being a weird experimental stab at classic rock – that I actually loved, by the way – I don’t think many will debate this song is one of the band’s best.
From Fall Like Rain, “Between the Lightning and the Thunder,” by Justin Moses featuring Dan Tyminski – I mean, I haven’t heard much new bluegrass music this year, but come on, it’s an excellent, dark story song featuring Dan Tyminski. What’s not to love?
From Time Well Spent, “California,” by Lilly Winwood – A song that captivates me on its stunning atmosphere and tone alone; Lilly Winwood’s ethereal tone just amplifies an already great experience.
From Lonesome High, “8 Tracks in My Daddy’s Cadillac,” by John Driskell Hopkins – If I had a running playlist, this would be on it, if only for its excellent progression and sunny disposition buoyed by John Driskell Hopkins’ booming tone.
From 29, the title track, by Carly Pearce – It’s likely her best song, and though there’s a steep cost behind its creation, I don’t think anyone is complaining about the direction she’s taking her music in now. Excellent stuff.
Finally, from Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’, “Things A Man Oughta Know,” by Lainey Wilson – The album it stems from is messy, but this is easily the highlight. I’m so happy it’s taking off at radio.
And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming …
No. 9 – This is the kind of album we need in country music right now, and what a fitting time to discuss it:
Adeem the Artist, Cast Iron Pansexual
Favorite tracks: “I Wish You Would Have Been a Cowboy,” “Reclaim My Name,” “Fervent For the Hunger”
For as much as their bleak past characterizes this album’s main thematic arc – including a gutting final track that only finds hope at the very last second – Cast Iron Pansexual is Adeem the Artist’s embrace of their identity and sexuality in a way that feels like a needed way forward for them. Equal parts rebellious and angry as it is flat out humorous and witty in its poetry, this is an album that’s a pleasure to listen to one moment and an absolute gut-punch the next. Still, there’s work to do in making sure the experiences shared here don’t come at such a harrowing cost for the next generation of queer kids – both in country music and society in general. But like that aforementioned final song explains, while you can’t change the past or calm your past self, you can move forward knowing that you’re happy with who you are and that the person you are now matters, and that’s a quiet triumph that speaks volumes.
No. 8 – This next album cooled on me over the course of the year, I admit. But in terms of purely simple, beautifully produced country and folk music, it’s still hard to beat:
Vivian Riley and Riley Calcagno, Vivian Riley and Riley Calcagno
Favorite tracks: “Love & Chains,” “Leaving On Our Minds,” “Will You”
Honestly, outside of a stunningly beautiful yet simple instrumental palette and production balance, I’m at a loss for what to say about this album. It’s warm, inviting, and goes down easy, especially when our two artists in question blend well together vocally. I’m not just referring to harmonies when I say that, either. The subtle loneliness and distance captured by our two singers underscores the actual content and presentation itself, where the general exploration of fading love starts chipper and bright in hopes of making it work, only to sound weary and exhausted by its end and find escape in that final track. It’s an album that can bypass listeners not quite listening for a deeper experience, but for those willing to dig in, it’s one of the most rewarding listens of the year thus far.
No. 7 – Hey, I just covered this. You should hear it!
Amythyst Kiah, Wary + Strange
Favorite tracks: “Wild Turkey,” “Ballad of Lost,” “Hangover Blues”
Wary + Strange is a personal and artistic rebirth for Amythyst Kiah, a sprawling, ambitious album teeming with loneliness and despair yet never defined by it. Wary and strange in approach and the sonic pivot that works excellently for Kiah, for sure, and intentionally messy in a way that untangles scattered memories and the darkness lingering over her past … but normal in establishing her deserved self-respect and reclaiming her individual identity by moving on and finding forgiveness and empathy for herself and others along the way, at that. Which is to say that it’s more of a way forward for what’s next over anything else, but given the precision and tenacity with which she pulled off this album, I can’t wait to hear what’s next.
No. 6 – Of course, speaking of artistic rebirths:
Mac Leaphart, Music City Joke
Favorite tracks: “That Train,” “Ballad of Bob Yahama or a Simple Plea in C Major,” “The Same Thing”
Over a decade in, Mac Leaphart’s exploration of struggling to make it in Nashville makes for his best album yet, and I will admit to it being my own introduction to his catalog. It’s another album succeeding on a generally simplistic presentation – even if the wry edges within this palette of stripped-back honky-tonk add to the weathered cracks and loneliness explored here – but also one elevated by characters here that hit rock bottom only to plow on through. Of course, there’s no reckless abandonment on display here; that’s the easy way out for country songs. Instead, there’s nuance in confronting the deeper lingering issues of unhappiness, whether it’s from the perspective of a former drinker or a dejected partner watching their ex-significant other move on and find her own happiness, or, hell, a guitar that’s been traded around one too many times and has seen and heard way too much. In other words, it’s as hopeless as it is hopeful.
We’re at the halfway point of the list, so let’s explore another great batch of singles:
From Hopeless Romantic, “A Chance in Hell,” by Bobby Dove featuring Jim Cuddy – OK, look, it’s cliché to just go with “classic country gold” as the descriptor here, but if the shoe fits, well, yeah!
From The Moon & Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, “Why the Bright Stars Glow,” by Valerie June – It’s as equally soaring and booming as it is hopeful and stunning, and proves why Valerie June’s musical pivot on her most recent album was a good change, indeed.
From Blood, Sweat, and Beers, “Southern Breeze,” by Rob Leines – A modern southern-rock stomper that’s wonderfully breezy, especially with that fantastic guitar riff interplay off of the piano, all supported by an eccentric, quirky lead singer … in a good way!
From Inner Coasts, “Weightless Feathers,” by SUNDAYS – Irony: This is likely my favorite single I’ve discussed yet, and I’m at a loss for what to say other than “stunning, breathtaking, sweeping,” and literally any other generic adjective you can think of. For me, it’s the band’s best next to “Shade of the Pines.”
From Reckless, “Wilder Days,” by Morgan Wade – The hook is one of the stickiest of the year, and though the album itself has cooled on me over the year, this is the reason why it starts with an absolute bang.
From his self-titled debut album, “Where the Neon Lies,” by Triston Marez featuring Ronnie Dunn – This is one of those times where I can forgive that it’s not an actual duet, because it’s a country classic heartbreak song that goes down smooth and is pretty much flawlessly constructed on every level. Damn, it’s good.
From their self-titled EP, “Love Her,” by LoneHollow – Don’t sleep on this duo. Their five-song EP came close to making this list, because it’s that good. And this tense track testing a relationship at its breaking point is the easy highlight.
From Where Have You Gone, “The Older I Get,” by Alan Jackson – Well, this is a weird, a four-year-old song that explores age and mortality with a deeper, more profound wisdom than certain other tracks that have received attention on the album. Thirty years on, Alan Jackson still has it, folks.
And now, we return.
No. 5 – And now, the album I didn’t know I needed:
Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes
Favorite tracks: “Breaking a Heart,” “Ghost,” “The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow”
One of my few complaints with this album is that I wish we had recorded versions of (the rest of) these tracks, and that’s kind of it. It’s a “coming home” album for every artist involved, where the banter shared between the artists is as much a highlight as the songs themselves. Which, speaking of, between the highlights mentioned above, not only give real weight to this album beyond any “gimmicky” aspects it could have had, but also are just among the best in their respective discographies. And while it’s usually best to highlight each artist on an equal level to keep things fair, if there’s one artist who shines in rare form here, it’s Miranda Lambert. The album may have been born out of spontaneity, but The Marfa Tapes ended up being a special surprise, indeed.
No. 4 – This is the part of the list where I start to get more personal with why the music connected with me on a deeper level, and … whew, talk about the sleeper project of the year for me:
Jeremy Parsons, Things to Come
Favorite tracks: “Lillian,” “Good Ole Days,” “Things to Come”
This was a real grower for me, a warm, inviting album that’s more tempered and welcoming than anything else I’ve heard this year so far. Honestly, that was enough to win me over on the surface, but what kept me coming back was the honest vulnerability Jeremy Parsons displays in his culpability with his past and his alcoholism and how he won’t let it define who he is now. It’s an album from someone finding the light again for the first time in a while yet still exercising caution in his approach, and that notion of taking things one day at a time is what helps this album turn the personal into the relatable. Yeah, it’s not the only album here to explore that thematic arc – that says more about me than anything else – but when it’s this damn charming and likable, there’s a reason why it rises just slightly above the rest of the pack. I’m excited for more things to come.
We’re almost to the top three, so let’s examine a final batch of songs – ones reviewed as part of my Boom-or-Bust Jukebox feature that don’t belong to any project (yet?), are from projects I don’t see myself covering, or are just fantastic moments on their own:
The Wilder Blue, “Feelin’ the Miles”
It’s certainly a pivot from the band’s debut album, but there’s something so puzzling and alluring about its road-weary burn out that’s kept me coming back time and time again.
Brit Taylor & Dee White, “At Least There’s No Babies”
Hey, I just recently covered this, and nothing quite says “this relationship is utterly dead” more than that hook. Damn.
Samantha Crain, “Bloomsday”
An absolute sonic delight that captivates me more with every listen; I’ll figure out what it means someday.
Vandoliers, “Every Saturday Night”
OK, so it’s likely some of its luster by now compared to its release earlier this year, but if you want to hear full-throated passion and regret for what we lost for a time, this is still well-worth the listen.
Chapel Hart, “I Will Follow”
I like “You Can Have Him Jolene” even better, but this trio has yet to make something I don’t find awesome, so, like, what are you waiting for, Nashville?!?
Now, let’s knock out the rest of this list.
No. 3 – This is an album that frames its present by its exploration of the past … both in recent times and ones long ago:
Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi, They’re Calling Me Home
Favorite tracks: “Avalon,” “Black As Crow,” “I Shall Not Be Moved”
The second collaborative effort between Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi is just as stunning as the first, and while that album was about fostering connections through music, this is about fostering them through a more human experience. Inspired by the pandemic, for sure, but far more wide-reaching in its song selection culled from times long ago that frames a very relatable present. It’s a journey home, both in the traditional sense where the meaning friends and family have on our daily lives is amplified, but also in a metaphysical sense, where “home” is, well, death. And until then, best find something to make that journey meaningful or keep it going as long as possible, echoed by Giddens’ riveting, thunderous presence and Turrisi’s gentle accompaniment. It’s far from the most accessible listen here, but that’s because Giddens is one step above her peers.
No. 2 – Albums released at the beginning of the year tend to get forgotten by this time, which is a shame, given that it puts an expiration date on art. This was the first album of the year I didn’t just think was great, but awe-inspiring in a way that few albums really get for me:
Pony Bradshaw, Calico Jim
Favorite tracks: “Calico Jim,” “Hillbilly Possessed,” “Bodark”
Between recent efforts over these last few years from, among others, Charles Wesley Godwin, Cole Chaney, and Pony Bradshaw, there’s a strong sense of regional pride coming back to country music. Now, unlike past iterations of that which relied on rural pride pandering, this is more balanced – an admiration for the physical setting one inhabits, sometimes out of heritage and obligations toward it, but sometimes because of its quaint, indescribable, man-made beauty. Calico Jim is framed specifically around Georgia in its references, but the overall examination of living in the American South feels distinctly modern in its framing and approach. A choice to embrace a history’s darkest points and learn from them while forging something new and erasing old stereotypes along the way. Celebratory and hopeful yet cautious and anxious, if you will. It’s another album here one could describe as tame, but this is a work that always seemed to ramp up the stakes for me when it needed to most, where the subtleties in the approach were a purposeful asset, above all else. To this day it’s an album where I take away something new from it with every revisit, and is very nearly my favorite album of the year thus far.
No. 1 – I honestly don’t know if this next album would top my list if the circumstances were different. This band is three-for-three for me, no doubt, but there’s something that feels so paradoxically right and wrong with claiming it as my personal favorite of the year thus far. And yet:
The Steel Woods, All of Your Stones
Favorite tracks: “Run on Ahead,” “You’re Cold,” “Ole Pal”
Let’s be clear: this isn’t topping my list out of sympathy, it’s because the Steel Woods refined their strengths from previous releases into a white-hot core of incredibly powerful, potent southern-rock that transcends regardless of its context. Yet, while Jason “Rowdy” Cope’s passing came after its recording, it’s hard not to hear this as an album made after the fact, mostly because this band has always had a knack for crafting stories that pull from dark, southern-Gothic territory with harrowing stakes and dramatic intensity behind them. And while there’s a part of me that loves how something like “You’re Cold” pulls from a familiar running plot line for them across albums and is overblown in a good way, this band isn’t looking to craft stories for shock value this time around. The stakes are real, the victims extend beyond the characters explored, and the presentation is more reserved yet no less powerful, especially on a track like “Ole Pal.” Everything isn’t just as good as the band’s previous albums – it’s better than ever, because The Steel Woods can approach real themes with a hardbitten maturity and poise that doesn’t need to rely on genre tropes. This album puts the Steel Woods on the same level as any front-runner in modern southern-rock you want to name right now, and the ironic part is that they did it all by making their most accessible album yet, as well as their best. Let’s see if this house of stones can withstand the storm over these next six months.
Of course, these are all just my personal picks and preferences. How about you? I’d be happy to know your favorites of the year thus far. Until then, between upcoming releases from Flatland Cavalry, John R. Miller, Yola, Jesse Daniel, Sierra Ferrell, James McMurtry, Summer Dean, and Jason Eady, the rest of 2021 is looking promising so far.