I feel like I can get away with what I said at the beginning of my mid-year review – it’d be fair to suggest that 2021 was not a good year for music. Between way too many albums that felt bloated in mining the double album concept for streaming benefits, big-name releases that underwhelmed despite their respective lengths, and just a general feeling that not a lot of albums actually were released and yet way too much came out to keep track of, it’s been a strange year.
I felt uneasy saying it then, though, and I feel even uneasier saying it now, because 2021 was a great year for new music, if you knew where to look. Yes, I understand that sales are down and that supply chain issues have led to delayed releases (at least physically), thus issuing a feeling that we’re not as connected to the music we’re listening to – a feeling that will only worsen in the early months of 2022, sadly. But deep-diving around the Internet is where I came to discover many of my favorite releases this year, and I think dubbing it as a year of discovery is actually pretty fitting. No, it’s not quite as overly stuffed as these last few years have been – I’d describe this year as mostly scattershot in overall quality and volume – and yes, I did cover a lot less than I did last year. But the second half of this year really rallied around to deliver some stellar projects, and while I did consider 2020 to feel a bit lackluster for truly top-shelf projects, that’s not so much the case this year. There are projects within my top five that could have topped a list in a weaker year.
In the lower half, though … well, I won’t deny that filling out the list was a bit tougher than usual, but even with that said, I do want to highlight a few honorable mentions. Albums from The Barlow, Jason Boland & the Stragglers, The Royal Hounds, Morgan Wade, and even EPs from Erin Enderlin and LoneHollow just missed the cut, and I highly recommend you check out all of those releases. But you’re here for the top 25, so let me stress that the only albums included here are ones that I reviewed in some form this year – check here if you want the deeper discussions behind them. Which is to say that, yes, I know I’m likely missing something; I only have so much time to listen to music and refine these lists. Enough rambling, then. Let’s get this started!
I admit, I wasn’t sure this album would make the cut. It’s not quite this band’s best release, but it’s got their best song to date. And after listening to it a few more times in preparation for this list, I kept getting sucked back in again and again:
No. 25 – Flatland Cavalry, Welcome to Countryland
Favorite tracks: “Off Broadway,” “Country Is…,” “Daydreamer”
At this point, Flatland Cavalry’s warm approach to neotraditional country embedded with a distinctly Texas flavor is enough to elevate them on pure presentation alone. It’s just an added bonus that the melodies are inviting, the hooks stick, and that Cleto Cordero is a talented songwriter who’s starting to pick up weight as a storyteller as the years roll on and both he and his band have to confront growing older – easy on the ears and heavy on the heart for a reason, folks. Even then, there’s such a youthful exuberance and joyous outlook on everything, that it became a treat to revisit time and time again. It’s rare that an album can be this catchy yet profound. Yes, it runs long, but it’s always worth the ride, and they’ll be sure to welcome you in with open arms every time you come on back
It kind of bums me out that some people interpreted my review of this next album way more negatively than I had intended, especially when it was still good and was made by my favorite country artist. Which is to say that, yes, I now consider it to be great, and here’s why:
No. 24 – Alan Jackson, Where Have You Gone
Favorite tracks: “The Older I Get,” “The Boot,” “Where the Cottonwoods Grow”
Let’s address the common criticisms folks have had for this project: it runs way too long, and there’s the occasional misstep that can be somewhat hard to overlook. But for an artist who returned with his first album in six years and entered his fourth decade as a performer, at least for me, those criticisms became easy to overlook as the year went on, especially given the reveal of his diagnosis with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. I’m likely going to cherish anything and everything we get from him from here on out. Besides, the album sports some legitimately excellent high-points that are among the best of his career. And like with Flatland Cavalry before, I’m a sucker for neotraditional country music performed with such warmth and grace behind it, especially when the lead singer in question has always sported a rich timbre to his delivery that’s only gotten better with time. In other words, it’s another consistently great effort from a master of the craft.
Of course, on the topic of long-running acts still releasing greatness:
No. 23 – Lucero, When You Found Me
Favorite tracks: “Coffin Nails,” “Good As Gone,” “A City on Fire”
Granted, I know I’m one of (what seems to be) very few people who think that, because while a lot of other core Lucero fans were not onboard with this long-running alternative country band’s pivot into ‘80s-inspired synth-driven rock, I gravitated toward it in a big way. Maybe it was because most critics wrote it off as a campy nostalgia project instead of diving into the unsung strength of a thematic arc exploring lingering abuse and neglect that gave the album its tension and stakes. Or maybe it was because this album had the grooves and hooks to match its darker atmosphere without the melodic swell to carry it to accessible territory. Or maybe it was because – and this criticism is fair – it’s nightmare fuel … but in the best way possible. It’s definitely not the album I expected Lucero to make at this point in their careers, but in a way I think even despite its wonkiness, it’s still got the heart and soul to ring loudly into the night for whatever creatures await it and its characters.
And … back to traditional country music!
No. 22 – Charlie Marie, Ramble On
Favorite tracks: “Ramble On Man,” “Lauren,” “Cowboys & Indians”
To be honest, Charlie Marie could have carried Ramble On to quality simply based on her beautifully commanding tone alone. That’s still an obvious asset, and she is definitely a presence that can approach retro textures without making them feel gimmicky; the Patsy Cline comparisons have always been inescapable yet well-earned. But, I think to just leave it at that would do a huge disservice to her as an artist, because with Ramble On, she pulls from multiple time periods and influences in country music and makes them her own, helped even further from writing that’s consistently sharply focused, witty, and heartbreaking throughout – no rambling to be found here. Anyone who heard her previous two EPs knew the potential was there for something more, and with this album, Marie delivered one hell of a debut effort. As for where the wind takes her next, I can’t wait to find out.
It’s funny – I feel like I’ve defaulted to liking a lot of these selections thus far simply based on what they do on the surface. For a wannabe music critic, that feels like cheating, but sometimes simplicity is an unsung strength behind a project:
No. 21 – Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno, Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno
Favorite tracks: “Love & Chains,” “Will You,” “Leaving On Our Minds”
When it comes to Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno’s self-titled project, the gentle country-folk palette has provided one of the most beautiful soundtracks to my 2021, particularly in the fiddle work. It’s pleasant and goes down easy, and while I’ve always wished both artists played off each better to further support the content, it is those lyrics and themes that have provided a hidden strength for this project all year long. The stakes of a young couple trying to make things work only for everything to crumble away in the end is sketched with compelling conviction – possibly from experience for either of them – and that it can show its weary edges throughout on cuts like “Red Hen” or “Love and Chains” while still ending on an optimistic note of hope, makes for an album where the simplicity of it all is just the entry point – because there’s plenty going on elsewhere to suck listeners in for the ride.
This will be a recurring theme throughout this list, but to repeat what I said in my introduction, 2021 was a year of surprises and discoveries for me. Not just in delving into established acts I may have missed earlier, but also from plenty of debut efforts made by acts I don’t want to miss for future endeavors. This is the first example:
No. 20 – Luke Burkhardt, Postcard
Favorite tracks: “The Ones I Have Left,” “Baptism,” “This Ain’t My Home”
Luke Burkhardt’s debut project only has seven songs to its name, and that it still carries the heart of a full-length project in its dark, character-driven narratives and textured production balance is a testament to why it’s on this list. Yes, it is another independent country project that will likely be too harrowing for some listeners, but that would ignore how optimistic this project actually is, featuring characters at their breaking points, but never quite down and out all the way. It’s an album about the regrets and the unlikely second chances that will come to anyone – sinner or saint – where the main question becomes, how do you use them? And considering there’s not a minute or word wasted here, I don’t think Burkhardt needs his own second chance to prove why this album is a winner.
There’s two albums on this list framed around confronting the past, opening doors to demons long thought slayed, only for everything to come rushing back again. This is the first example, and considering it’s one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year within country music, it’s an album I’m happy to highlight:
No. 19 – Allison Russell, Outside Child
Favorite tracks: “Persephone,” “Montreal,” “Hy-Brasil”
I’m not sure I’ve heard an artist tap into a dark, internal place within themselves this well in years. And make no mistake, on concept alone I’ve been sold on Allison Russell’s Outside Child all year, framed as her revistation of the abuse she suffered and endured from her stepfather, and one of the most uncomfortably bleak and unsettling listens of the year. And yet, every listen through reminds me that it’s not the darkness that defines this album; to paraphrase another album to be discussed here, she can forgive, but never forget. Indeed, part of why I’ve loved this album all year is its courage and optimism in exploring it from the modern perspective as a way of closing the door on the past, but also confronting it head-on one last time in order to sketch out her story … and, like on “All of the Women,” similar ones she knows all too well. But it’s an overall triumph for her, and while it’s dangerous to assume that suffering should be a necessary component to craft great art, considering it is handily one of the best of the year, I think that triumph is, ultimately, two-pronged.
And hey, let’s stay in uneasy territory, shall we?
No. 18 – Vincent Neil Emerson, Vincent Neil Emerson
Favorite tracks: ““The Ballad of Choctaw-Apache,” “Learnin’ to Drown,” “High on Gettin’ By”
Compared to a debut that could feel scattershot in tone and execution, Vincent Neil Emerson’s self-titled sophomore album produced by Rodney Crowell is a triumph. And yet, despite the simple, time-honored formula, I get why this hasn’t been celebrated even more widely; it’s not easy music. The detail is rich and personal, Emerson’s delivery is restrained but still potent, and the production and sound takes a familiar Texas template and refines it down to its purest form, where the only bells and whistles are subtle and meant to enhance moments that don’t necessarily need them but are better for it. It’s complicated to confront something so straightforward yet nuanced and human, and yet, pound for pound, Emerson made one of the most sobering and rewarding listens of the year.
This next artist was bound to make my year-end lists at some point. And considering this next entry is meant to be the end of a trilogy … man, way to end strongly:
No. 17 – Joshua Ray Walker, See You Next Time
Favorite tracks: “Flash Paper,” “Cowboy,” “Dallas Lights”
See You Next Time is easily Joshua Ray Walker’s best project yet, a closing ode to the seedy bar-band territory that’s characterized his earlier work, but with equally strong melodic hooks to match the writing this time around. And yet, it’s here where the long-running story unravels, with Walker finding a sense of self-acceptance and an acceptance of others still finding their way, painted through a very empathetic viewpoint and familiar setting that finds him, ultimately, vulnerable enough to be himself. The offbeat, quirkier moments are still there, but they feel grounded in realer stakes this time around. Of course, where he goes from here is yet to be determined, but I think for once I want to be along for the ride. See you next time, indeed.
There’s a part of me annoyed that part of this next project still isn’t available to the general public yet, especially when it could reignite interest for a project that was horribly mismanaged and then somewhat forgotten … and also when it could unlock the entire puzzle:
No. 16 – Eric Church, Heart & Soul
Favorite tracks: “Crazyland,” “Heart on Fire,” “Hell of a View”
Granted, I’m more partial to Heart, but I do think those that have only heard Heart and then Soul are missing the bigger picture without that added & EP. I will not try to argue that any of it is Eric Church at his best, but there came a point in the year where the big, sprawling zaniness of the project became more of a charm and feature for me than a flaw. Simply put, this is Church’s way of falling back into love with music, and despite its missteps, it shows. Let’s just hope that he can bottle that momentum in something more cohesive in the years ahead, because while not every part of this triple project works, the moments that do are something special.
We’re sticking with mainstream country music for this next selection, and if Kacey Musgraves let you down for a good divorce album this year, man, do I have good news for you:
No. 15 – Carly Pearce, 29: Written in Stone
Favorite tracks: “29,” “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” (w/ Ashley McBryde), “Dear Miss Loretta” (w/ Patty Loveless)
One of the least controversial statements I can make this year is that 29: Written in Stone is Carly Pearce’s best project, even if it may be controversial to say it’s her best by a pretty significant margin. That’s the beauty of it, though – by finally finding production that suits her rougher edges, she made one of the most hardbitten and mature listens of the year, mainstream or otherwise. And yet, there’s a part of me that almost wants to hesitate calling it just a divorce album, because the other part of the story is about growing older and the misspent expectations that come with it. And that Pearce can sketch out that arc by framing it around her own personal experience excellently is a testament to how much she’s grown as an artist. I know it’s a common cliché for writers to note how excited they are to follow wherever an artist goes next – it’s often a fitting one, what can I say? – but, with Pearce, I truly mean it this time.
… I swear, they just keep getting better, don’t they?
No. 14 – Mike and the Moonpies, One to Grow On
Favorite tracks: ““Social Drinkers,” “Hour on the Hour,” “Whose Side You’re On”
With Mike and the Moonpies, I think the band’s return to their seedy honky-tonk roots isn’t so much a regression back to familiar territory as it is an extension of the strengths they’ve accumulated elsewhere on other projects over the years. Which is mostly to say that, for me, Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold always felt like a way of strengthening the core formula, and One to Grow On is the proof of concept. Lead singer Mike Hermier pushes himself to new extremes as a vocalist – especially on “Hour on the Hour” – the hooks and especially the grooves are more layered and interesting than ever before, and for an album aiming for blue-collar sensibilities in spirit, it’s got the anthemic swell to soar like never before. Yes, it’s a return to what works best for them in comparison with their last few projects, but it’s also an evolution in scope, too. And considering they’ve kept a consistent momentum with their projects since 2018, you might want to get onboard now if you haven’t already; these guys are at the top of their game and just keep on trucking.
You’re not going to hear an album quite like this one in country music this year. Hopefully that changes in the coming years, because in terms of an artist reclaiming their name and breaking through with one of the wittiest collections of the year, it rarely got better than what Adeem the Artist did on this next entry:
No. 13 – Adeem the Artist, Cast Iron Pansexual
Favorite tracks: “Reclaim My Name,” “I Wish You Would Have Been a Cowboy,” “Fervent For the Hunger”
It’s barely half an hour long, but I’m not sure there was an album this year that simultaneously made me laugh and cry all at once and more than once than this one. It’s a reclamation of Adeem the Artist’s 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, the end point lends a quiet and universal potency, all the same – in that, while you can’t build that time machine to confront your past, you can move forward knowing that who you are is good enough for anyone else, and even just understanding that is a triumph in and of itself. Needless to say, it’s an album that needed to be within country music this year, and considering they’re already funding the next project, what happens next is a joy and celebration that remains to be seen.
I’d label this next project as something of a comeback effort, and considering I, like many others, just found out about this artist this year, you might call it a comeback that hit at the right place and at the right time:
No. 12 – Mac Leaphart, Music City Joke
Favorite tracks: “The Same Thing,” “Ballad of Bob Yamaha or a Simple Plea in C Major,” “That Train”
How ironic that on an album where he intended to go down swinging, Mac Leaphart found his breakthrough and made his best project yet because of it. It’s witty, charming, warm in its overall presentation, and tips its hat more than once to icons like Guy Clark or John Prine. But there’s so much distinctly rich detail behind Leaphart’s writing that’s equal parts wry and humorous as it is heartbreaking. Not an easy listen, mind you, but never one that’s too depressing to find the silver lining either. It’s as hopeless as it is hopeful. 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, and when you can find a way to laugh at it all and find the next step forward, that’s a triumph that speaks for itself.
Depending on how deeply entrenched you are within the independent country scene, this is either the album of the year for you or possible next favorite discovery:
No. 11 – Cole Chaney, Mercy
Favorite tracks: “The Flood,” “Coalshooter,” “Humble Enough to Hear”
And while I’m not quite within that former category, I can’t deny that Cole Chaney’s Mercy isn’t one hell of a debut, or that it isn’t an album that only grew on me even more throughout 2021. And if you immediately think of a certain artist when I tell you that this is well-textured and balanced Appalachian-bred country music at its finest, well … don’t, because Chaney might have just proved on Mercy that he’s in a league of his own on writing alone. It’s an album that digs into the true heart of darkness surrounding rural life in Kentucky through gritty, expansive stories – songs like “The Flood” and “Coalshooter” are damn-near cinematic in what they capture. It may provide a distinctly regional outlook that’s starting to become a little played out for other acts within the scene, but with this debut, Chaney proves why he’s an exception to that rule.
It feels weird that this album ended up as high on my list as it did, mostly because it’s a side project that nearly every artist has seemingly moved on from – enough to where I even started to question myself. I mean, this isn’t that good, right? Right?
No. 10 – Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes
Favorite tracks: “Breaking a Heart,” “Ghost,” “The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow”
Well, actually, yes. In fact, while each artist may have an album or two I like even more than this, you could argue that this live, lo-fi collection is just as strong as anything else in their discographies, all while still sporting some of their best-ever songs. Sure, maybe it is gimmicky in concept, but between the banter shared between all involved, writing that’s among some of the best of this year, and Miranda Lambert herself arguably delivering the best performances of her career, this is a slam-dunk experience, where the spontaneity is part of the charm. Even then, while I would argue the individual songs are the true highlights, this was an actual album experience that kept on delivering with every listen – especially as the fall rolled in and I could really sink my teeth into its barren atmosphere even further. Again, every artist involved has pretty much moved on from this already, but considering it’s easily the album I likely engaged most with this year, it’s an experience that shall not be forgotten.
You ever have those times where you discover a long-running but still relatively unknown act, only to find that what they’re delivering is exactly what you need at that point in time?
No. 9 – Jeremy Parsons, Things to Come
Favorite tracks: “Lillian,” “Masquerade,” “Things to Come”
I’m not sure there was an album designed for me to love more in 2021 than Jeremy Parsons’ Things to Come, a warm and inviting slice of well-balanced country-folk that’s so naturally charming just through its concept and presentation. Of course, getting me to like it is one thing, but if there was an element that put this album on permanent rotation for me this year, it came in the way Parsons displayed honest vulnerability in his culpability with his past and his alcoholism, and how he wouldn’t – and still won’t – let it define who he is now. Yes, in a broader sense, this isn’t the first album on this list to explore a similar arc – it’s my list for a reason, folks – but it’s just so thoughtful in its isolated poetry that turns the personal into the relatable, where Parsons largely tries to to sift through his own messy past to build up to a better tomorrow. It’s like watching a friend beat back an old demon that’s been haunting them and having them finally find a bit of grace, even if they will always exercise caution in their approach going forward. And considering it was just one of the most thoughtful and likable listens of the year, I’d say I’m excited for even more things to come from Parsons.
Continuing on with our discussion of beating back old demons, we have another mighty contender, especially when it’s easily Amythyst Kiah’s best project to date:
No. 8 – Amythyst Kiah, Wary + Strange
Favorite tracks: “Wild Turkey,” “Sleeping Queen,” “Ballad of Lost”
If you needed both an excellent introduction to Amythyst Kiah’s work and an album that sets the groundwork for where she could take her sound and ideas next, look no further than Wary + Strange. It’s a personal and artistic rebirth teeming with loneliness and despair yet never defined by it, leading to an album looking to move away from the mire and nearly there by its end. I find new nuggets to appreciate with every revisit. Really, too, on sheer creativity in sound and production alone, this is one of the most unique albums I’ve heard in a long time, a project that simultaneously tries to sift through its murky atmosphere to find peace and clarity, and yet also uses that atmosphere to push past and soar on choruses and hooks that are damn-near anthemtic and pulse-pounding, even if they’re meant for her first and foremost. Oh, and it goes without saying that, if you want a few examples of what I mean, check out my favorite songs of 2021 list. It’s one of those cases where “wary + strange is as much a title and something work through as it is a badge of honor, and it’s one of those cases where I just hope this confrontation of the past gives Kiah the peace she deserves.
I hate to say it, but most works that tried to address the pandemic really fell short for me, mostly because they were either overly saccharine and preachy, or, conversely, far too pig-headed to convey any sense of nuance or depth. Leave it to a master, then, to craft not only one of the only projects that addressed it well, but also added another near-masterpiece to her discography:
No. 7 – Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, They’re Calling Me Home
Favorite tracks: “Avalon,” “Black As Crow,” “I Shall Not Be Moved”
On some level, I get why the second collaborative effort between Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi hasn’t received the same attention as the former artist usually receives for her solo projects; it’s densely complicated and all too subtle in what it’s trying to capture – an album to appreciate from afar, if you will. Not for me, though. If anything, the duo’s way of indirectly addressing the unease of isolation from loved ones was not only fitting for our past and current climate, but also generally inspiring in how they once again pull from older material to get that point across and still create a unified experience. Which is to say that, for one, Giddens continues to make some of the most important music of the modern day by calling upon old traditions, but also revives songs that have been forgotten to time or just haven’t received the proper care and attention they’ve richly deserved for far too long – what she does on the title track is a marvel to behold. If the first album was about fostering connections through music, this is about fostering them through a more human experience. And between Giddens’ riveting, thunderous presence and Turrisi’s gentle accompaniment, this an album that awed me from the minute I heard it, and will continue to, considering that the best music will live on forever in the right and careful hands.
As I said in my introduction, half of the albums left on this list still feel new to me, so it’s hard to say where I’d truly rank them or that I have new things to add beyond what I said in the reviews. All I do know now is that, for one, they only have more room to grow on me beyond this year, and two, that this next selection was easily my greatest surprise of 2021:
No. 6 – Margo Cilker, Pohoyrlle
Favorite tracks: “Broken Arm in Oregon,” “Barbed Wire (Belly Crawl),” “All the Wine in the World”
Margo Cilker’s Pohoyrlle carries the sort of weathered maturity in its songwriting and presentation that other artists don’t find within their work until years or even decades into their careers. And while it’s not quite her debut project, it’s the first album of hers available to the general public. And what a start to her career, a collection of memories from her time touring out on the road, which shows in a lot of the ways these stories are sketched as loose snapshots or ideas with even looser framing devices. Her songwriting feels lived-in, made all the more powerful by little details that don’t shy away from a dark and melancholic reality. Granted, there’s a level of maturity and understated poise to this project that’s a bit of a slow burn, so while I can’t say it will necessarily be for everyone, it’s an album that only revealed more with every listen. So while I am, naturally, excited to see where she goes from here, I know I’m also going to enjoy diving further into this project as the cold, frigid temperatures set in and this album delivers the most appropriate soundtrack for the winter.
Of course, if there’s another release that surprised me this year, it’s this next entry. And since I actually have had the time to let this album sink in with me all year, here’s my case for why it’s one of the best of 2021:
No. 5 – Pony Bradshaw, Calico Jim
Favorite tracks: “Calico Jim,” “Hillbilly Possessed,” “Bodark”
I’m not sure anyone delivered a more well-written album this year than Pony Bradshaw did with Calico Jim, a simultaneous love-letter to and complicated untangling of Appalachian culture and what it means to be a Southerner in the United States in the modern age. It provides 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. It’s also a way of embracing the history behind it at its darkest points and learning from that history while forging something new, erasing old stereotypes along the way. It’s also about making these characters feel human and painted with a level of complexity that defies easy moralism; celebratory and hopeful yet cautious and anxious, if you will. Of course, of all the albums on here that I know are tough sells, this may be the toughest, mostly because the writing is detailed but dense and the overall listening experience could best be described as quaint. 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. It may speak for a very distinct audience, but it’s got the heart and muscle to reach those who need to hear it, too.
Well … he did it again!
No. 4 – Charles Wesley Godwin, How the Mighty Fall
Favorite tracks: “Gas Well,” “Blood Feud,” “How the Mighty Fall”
If the first album stands as a tribute to West Virginia, How the Mighty Fall opens the doors wide open to deliver something much more universal, darker, and even more desperate – a project that somehow feels even more frantic in its pacing and framing yet no less grander in capturing the windswept beauty of finding a sense of place, both physically and mentally. Which, of course, is all meant to say that Charles Wesley Godwin once again knocked it out of the park with the ease of a veteran on his sophomore project. And while I do still miss some of the tranquility of Seneca, I must say that How the Mighty Fall is a more cohesive listen that never once lets the tension falter, with plenty of moments that are either legitimately anthemic or will tear you down. It’s all delivered by a lead singer whose full-throated howl has a lived-in richness that can speak truth to power, and in a year that’s been filled with some excellent Appalachian-influenced albums, this is absolutely one of the best. The mighty may fall in time, but they still have their time to make their mark, and as long as Godwin keeps delivering excellence, I don’t think he’ll even have to worry.
Well, this band found the breakthrough this year I always wanted them to have … they just did it in the worst way possible, and I’m going to have to address it, especially if you remember my mid-year report:
No. 3 – The Steel Woods, All of Your Stones
Favorite tracks: “You’re Cold,” “Ole Pal,” “Run On Ahead”
What I always loved about the Steel Woods on their past projects was how they brought a white-hot core of incredibly powerful, potent southern-rock to the table – songs that could feel legitimately powerful and righteous, thanks to their exploration of dark, southern-Gothic territory. This is not a band that ever needed to rely on easy, cliché southern-rock pandering to find their potency.
So, it’s a shame that, during this summer, they decided to go on an ill-conceived rant about personal freedoms and exploited Johnny Cash iconography in order to make that point – which Rosanne Cash rightfully called them out on, I should add, even if they decided to double-down on their statements anyway. It disappointed me, as a fan, to see a band I love and have championed before on this blog come across as misinformed, especially when their actual music has always eschewed tropes associated with the sub-genre in favor of writing that’s emphatic and nuanced. Their newest album was my favorite at the mid-year … and yet, I didn’t revisit it for the longest time afterward, if I’m being honest. I thought it would fall even farther down the list than it had. And then I took another listen in preparation for this list, and realized I had to include it, mostly because all of the elements I like about this band are still there. And as what may be as well a tribute to Jason “Rowdy” Cope – who passed 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 carry harrowing stakes and dramatic intensity behind them. At their best, they approach real themes with a hardbitten maturity and poise, and though this is likely their most accessible listen to date, it’s no less emblematic of the heart of darkness that shrouds over every one of their albums. In a way, it’s their best work to date, and while I have clue what will come next or if I’ll be onboard, this house of stones managed to withstand the storm all year. I’m going to hang on to that.
Whew … that was a lot. Let’s take a minute to exhale, breathe, and have a little bit of fun with a master of the craft, eh? It may have taken him six years to release this project, and it may take another six years until the next album is ready. But it was worth the wait to finally hear it this year, and I’d wager a bet that it’ll be worth the time spent in between to hear the next project, too:
No. 2 – James McMurtry, The Horses and the Hounds
Favorite tracks: “Jackie,” “Blackberry Winter,” “If It Don’t Bleed”
Four decades into his career, James McMurtry made one of his tightest and most accessible releases of his career with The Horses and the Hounds, all without sacrificing the deep and poignant storytelling that’s comprised his work thus far. The stories told are sharper than ever, and the characters are teeming with a sense of youthful, reckless abandonment that, sure, may not always result in the happiest of endings at points, but is what always gives this album its heart and muscle. The album releases may be heavily distanced from one another and scarce at this point, but McMurtry’s exploration and confrontation of age and mortality has been a welcome staple of his late-career work. It’s an album yearning for that last dance in the spotlight, but also one that doesn’t see old age as a trapping mechanism so much as … something to work around and fine one’s own place within, be it two lovers cashing in on a 30-year crush, a mother left to find new meaning after facing empty nest syndrome, or a touring musician who keeps losing his damn glasses. At times heartbreaking and at others hilarious, this is a poet still working at his highest level, and that it just so happens to be his most upbeat and groove-heavy project in years? Well, that’s all an added bonus, and one that only fuels the wild energy that runs rampant across this project. It’s the album I revisited most this year, and even speaking as someone who isn’t quite ready to relate to these characters or likely will for a while, I found so much to love with every revisit. It’s arguably one of McMurtry’s best, and that kind of says it all best, doesn’t it?
Again, I wasn’t sure what my top album of this year would be before really settling down to write this postt; my top five shuffled around more than you’ll ever realize. I do, however, remember a solid week in late October and early November that delivered a ton of late-year gems all at once. This was the first album within said bunch that I heard and covered, and even then, I somewhat knew the bar had been set. I guess one could argue it was set two years ago with her last project, but with Emily Scott Robinson, her latest project became the siren song I followed in these last months of 2021 – and will continue to follow into 2022 and beyond, at that.
No. 1 – Emily Scott Robinson, American Siren
Favorite tracks: “Let ‘Em Burn,” “Hometown Hero,” “If Trouble Comes a Lookin’ ”
Emily Scott Robinson has always received proper credit for expanding country music’s sound and scope in terms of the stories that can be told within the genre, and whereas 2019’s Traveling Mercies balanced out its bleak darkness with optimism for its future, American Siren does that as well, albeit in ways that even I’m still trying to grasp. It’s an album that hearkens back to one of country music’s earliest traditions and updates it for the modern time – an indulgence of perceived “sin and shame” on the way to salvation that often reveals more about the societal expectations set around it than the people who actively engage in it. Or, in other words, this is an album that captures more of a human experience than a religious one through hardbitten maturity and characters tested beyond their limits, and one that not only challenges the audience to consider their own preconceived notions of sin and shame and see the possible beauty within them – to reject admonishing what we don’t understand or see as immoral and perhaps see that a freedom of individuality is perhaps better, or acceptable, at the very least. But, it’s also about finding something to believe in, whatever it may be. It’s an album full of hard lessons learned that will resonate no matter where one is at in their life, and one that will find some type of personal or spiritual transcendence regardless of its starkly religious framing; it has the potency in the writing alone.
Of course, in order to carry it even further, it’s got the sort of beautifully bone-deep richness in its production quality and instrumental palette that remains a real improvement compared to Robinson’s earlier work – letting all of its atmosphere simmer and then soar when needed, all without even trying to aim for that type of emotionally transcendent pathos; it just comes naturally. But let’s be honest, I could have just said it’s my favorite album of the year because of songs like “Let ‘Em Burn” or “Hometown Hero.” For as much as the album has been criticized for sporting a second half that can’t quite compare to the first half … yeah, I’ve been inclined to disagree with that all year. For me, nothing quite moved me like American Siren did this year – it’s an album that stands as proof for why I love to write and think about music. And with an exercise as entirely subjective as this, I can’t say we’ll all follow the exact same siren songs on our paths, but for me, this was an album for the year – and one that will resonate with me far beyond it.