In some ways, my opening for this year’s mid-year report echoes a lot of what I said in last year’s report: it’d be fair to say that 2022 has been a slow year for country and its adjacent musical counterparts thus far this year.
And unlike last year, where the uncertainty of the pandemic understandably forced artists to delay releases until touring could resume, I’m struggling to really pinpoint why this year has felt a bit slow on the draw as well for top-notch releases. Maybe it’s the burnout from constantly being inundated by new releases that’s made us numb to the discovery process, maybe it’s because everything seems so fragmented nowadays, where thanks to streaming and algorithms, whoever is “hot” right now could very well just depend on personal preference – and fail to meet in the middle with everything else. Aside from one very notable recent release, there hasn’t been a lot to take the entire genre by storm – commercially, critically, or otherwise.
And yet, like with last year, I feel distanced and unbothered by it all, if only because I’ve still managed to find a ton of great music in 2022. In a lot of ways I’m actually thankful for the slowness, because while I’ve covered less music at this point than I usually do, prioritizing what I want to review has allowed me an immense amount of freedom and time to revisit old and current favorites that I just haven’t had in past years. I will say the year has been a bit slow to deliver truly top-notch releases – my roster of favorites includes a lot of great releases just teetering on the edges of good to excellent, meaning that ranking this list was harder than it’s been in past years. But I feel more connected to what I love this year, and I count that as a positive.
So, without further ado, here is my list of my 12 favorite releases either within or adjacent to country music this year. As per tradition, I’m only counting releases that I’ve reviewed in some form, and since there are, admittedly, a lot of releases I’ve heard but haven’t reviewed yet (one reason this list comes early this year is because June is a surprisingly packed month and I don’t want to rush any reviews), let me list the releases that won’t be here, because I’m still processing them:
- Joshua Hedley, Neon Blue
- David Quinn, Country Fresh
- Brennen Leigh, Obsessed With the West
- Old Crow Medicine Show, Paint This Town
- Aaron McDonnell, Too Many Days Like Saturday Night
- And the latest projects from American Aquarium and Michaela Anne today, both of which are great but will require more time for me to fully process them – and that’s before even counting acts like Brett Eldredge and Aaron Watson releasing projects next week that could also compete in the running; again, June is surprisingly packed.
Also note that just because an album isn’t listed here doesn’t mean it won’t have a shot at my eventual year-end list, or represented in some form otherwise. This is one of those years where I’m flying down a very different path from loving the same critical darlings as everyone else, so without further ado, let’s get to it.
The opening slot to this list is always the toughest one to place, and while this particular one could have easily went to Caitlyn Smith, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Jenny Tolman, or Dusty Rust, I decided to go with a veteran artist who just makes it look easy:
No. 12 – Mary Gauthier, Dark Enough to See the Stars
Favorite tracks: “Amsterdam,” “Truckers & Troubadours,” “How Could You Be Gone”
Dark Enough to See the Stars is exactly the sort of well-written and mature singer-songwriter album that’s just so easy for me to appreciate, even despite how much it can feel like a weighty slow-burn at points. But if there’s any album to take stock of the last few years in a way that feels lived-in and relatable, it is this album, where amidst the crushing edges of despair, loss of loved ones, and general loss of place and time, Mary Gauthier found a way to cut through, just like we all had to. It’s one of those albums that can feel comforting without being languid – sharp-eyed and observational while always revealing a nugget of wisdom within its simplicity. And it’s one of Gauthier’s best in years.
And in further introspective territory, we have this:
No. 11 – Joseph Huber, The Downtowner
Favorite tracks: “When I Was You and You Were Me,” “In Liberty’s Mourning,” “The Spirit of Tennessee”
Compared to Joseph Huber’s past work, I will say that The Downtowner feels a bit like a step down. But that it’s still one of the most well-written albums I’ve heard all year just speaks volume to the bar he’s set thus far in his solo career. Granted, between the Mary Gauthier album and this one, I guess it does say a lot about my year in what I’ve chosen to represent – another album to feel sepia-toned in its presentation in how it sifts through old, nostalgic memories with more than its fair share of bittersweet feelings. And even despite boasting its more tunefully accessible moments – including a mid-album highlight in “When I Was You and You Were Me” – it’s an album one is meant to sit with, a project that views its nostalgia as an asset rather than a hindrance, where the emphasis is not on what never will be again, but on what once was and what still is worth appreciating, even if only in one’s own individual mind. And in its own way, it all adds to the consistent excellence of Huber’s discography.
Let’s turn away from heavy listens and let loose a bit, eh?:
No. 10 – Noah Guthrie, Blue Wall
Favorite tracks: “Wishing I Was Wrong,” “Hell or High Water,” “Only Light I Need”
To me, this is the sleeper project of the year that I haven’t seen many others discuss, an out-of-nowhere surprise from a singer with a crazy amount of charisma and firepower to match tunes with some of the sharpest melodic hooks I’ve heard all year thus far. Sure, the writing plays to broad strokes pretty consistently throughout, but that only heightens the album’s anthemic firepower and knack for dramatic flair excellently. And when it’s as well-performed and mature as this, it’s got the heart to soar to astounding heights. It’s just the sort of tightly crafted project that’s brimming with personality, hooks, and excellent production and doesn’t wear out its welcome. There’s a lot of potential here that may even have room to grow, and I can’t wait to hear what’s next from Noah Guthrie.
Before we move on, let’s stick to tradition and highlight a few excellent songs from albums not on this list, in order of when I reviewed them, starting with:
From Through the Madness: Vol. 1 and featuring Lori McKenna, “The Other Side” by Maddie & Tae – I wish their material headed more in this direction than the faceless pop-country they’ve latched onto, because this is a mature, well-written cut that shows them at their best.
From Welcome to the Block Party, “Heels in Hand,” by Priscilla Block – The hype has already seemed to fade with her, but this is a pop-country shot of euphoria that I think somewhat justified it to begin with.
From Nightroamer, “It Doesn’t Change Anything,” by Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – I would not call their latest album their best, but this is the type of cut-to-the-bone, no frills introspection they’ve always handled best. The album highlight, for sure.
From How the River Flows, “No Easy Way To You,” by Matt Castillo – This gives me Gary Allan Alright Guy vibes and that’s a very good thing.
From Married in a Honky Tonk, “Same Train As You,” by Jenny Tolman – I don’t have much to say other than that this is a very sweet and heartfelt love song … and that I just may have underrated this album in my initial review.
From Buckskin, “Open Road,” by Ned LeDoux – I love me a good road-centered song with a blast of harmonica to carry it; it’s my driving song and it’s awesome.
From Shot Glass, “Shot Glass,” by Randall King – I must admit that its parent album was a bit of a disappointment, but this is the type of smooth neotraditional country that made me fall in love with Randall King’s style in the first place.
And finally, from Run, Rose, Run and featuring Ben Haggard, “Demons,” by Dolly Parton – … I mean, it’s a slow country duet by Dolly Parton and Ben Haggard that’s about as excellent as you’d think; I don’t really need to add much else … other than I desperately hope we get that Ben Haggard album someday soon.
And now, back to the list:
I had been on the fence about this next release, but I’m glad I erred on the positive in the initial review, because if we’re looking for the most likable album here and the easiest one to root for, Hailey Whitters delivered:
No. 9 – Hailey Whitters, Raised
Favorite tracks: “College Town,” “Big Family,” “Middle of America” (feat. American Aquarium)
It’s about time Hailey Whitters received proper recognition, even if I still think Raised is just another step toward greatness rather than a showcase of what she can deliver at her best. At any rate, if I had to pick the album that grew the most on me this year, it’s this album, where the trade-up in production is the biggest sell but the detailed writing and heartfelt performances are what have mostly kept me engaged in the long run. By centering her small town narratives as ones that feel lived-in and personally motivated to fit in tune with her own experiences, she eschews the common trappings that have made songs about small towns feel like an overdone, tired topic in mainstream country music. And that’s before mentioning the balance she strikes between growing maturity and the young spirit who wants to live life and make her own mistakes. When it’s all so buoyant and consistently charming to boot, too, it’s another plus for an album that’s so easy to revisit.
… well, let’s get this one out of the way:
No. 8 – Zach Bryan, American Heartbreak
Favorite tracks: “Heavy Eyes,” “Tishomingo,” “She’s Alright”
Zach Bryan is at a weird point in his career, where the two most vocal groups discussing him are the ones lapping on mountains of praise, and the ones failing to understand what all of the hype is about. As I said in my initial review, it probably doesn’t help that he dropped a 34-song album and drove that wedge in to further divide the discourse.
But speaking as someone who took an interest in him going all the way back to DeAnn … yeah, American Heartbreak really does feel like a triumph, even in spite of – or because of – its messy imperfections. It’s an album where Bryan grapples with newfound stardom and isn’t sure how far or where he can take it next, given that his songs essentially started out as dark, self-anxious anthems that probably shouldn’t have reached as many ears as they did; but that’s the thing – they did. And in refining his reflective writing and bringing in a more robust production team to deliver these songs at their fullest potential, the messiness is sort of the point. He’s a songwriter who is desperate to connect with those he loves and deals with his personal demons on his own, often to his own detriment. But in finally letting some of the light in and finding clarity and, hopefully, peace by its end, it becomes an experience where the runtime feels forgivable, especially when the high points make it all worth it.
Whew, that was a lot. Let’s exhale and … oh, hell, looks like we’re back in the mire:
No. 7 – Tony Logue, Jericho
Favorite tracks: “Calloway County,” “Pilot Oak,” “Welder”
The first album of the year I heard, the first one I loved, and one that still holds up remarkably well today, pulling from a (now increasingly) familiar Kentucky-centered template to deliver a simultaneous love-letter to and complicated untangling of Appalachian culture. But what elevates Jericho and Tony Logue as an artist in general is his writing, able to confront some very dark and uncomfortable topics within that push his characters to their furthest extremes and doesn’t necessarily exonerate them for their decisions made, even if there’s always a silent understanding of what had to be done to survive. There’s a very Chris Knight-esque feel to this material, where even though we shouldn’t empathize with these characters, they blaze through their personal situations on their own terms – and anyone who stands in the way is bound to pay. Another dark listen that may be tough to swallow at first, but give it time to sink in – it’s worth it.
And now, here are eight more song from albums not featured on this list:
From Greenbroke, “Greenbroke,” by Jackson Dean – I hear a lot of potential in this guy, and I’m glad to root for a newcomer’s song rising up the country charts right now, even if I think this showcases his strengths even better.
From High, “High,” by Caitlyn Smith – I seem to be one of the few who really dug Caitlyn Smith’s starter EP for her next project, and if songs like the title track are indicative of where she’s taking her sound next, I’m very much onboard.
From Bronco, “Outta Time,” by Orville Peck – OK, I’ll admit that I was harsh on Bronco and that it has grown on me some since the initial review. At any rate, “Outta Time” is the shimmering highlight for me, especially when it comes to that last minute or so that just lets this song blaze into the night.
From One Day, “Hey Baby,” by the Cactus Blossoms – This has done a very good job at getting stuck in my head at least once a day. Maybe one day I’ll start complaining about that, but certainly not today.
From A Beautiful Time, “Leave You With a Smile,” by Willie Nelson – The surprising album closer highlight for me. I truly think this is absolutely beautiful and absolutely among Willie Nelson’s best – not even just in terms of late-career highlights, but, like, his “best” best; yeah, I really just said that.
From Palomino, “Carousel,” by Miranda Lambert – You know, if all that restlessness and soul-searching from her past albums is what she needed to craft one of her best-ever story songs … heck, I think it just have all been worth it.
From Secret Desert, “Rose Without a Home,” by Dusty Rust – As close of a cousin to one of Marty Robbins’ western-inspired cuts as I’ve ever heard. Excellent start to a great album.
And finally, from The Last Resort: Greetings From, “Life Ain’t Fair,” by Midland – Jess Carson has always been the secret weapon behind this band’s songwriting, and it turns out he just may be their best vocalist, at that.
Back to the list again:
I really should have covered more bluegrass music than I have at this point in the year, but at least I found this gem along the way:
No. 6 – Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, Crooked Tree
Favorite tracks: “Castilleja,” “Over the Line” (feat. Sierra Hull), “Grass Valley”
Crooked Tree is the album that I think many longtime fans wanted Molly Tuttle to make – an unabashedly bluegrass album that, though fairly traditional in composition and approach, nevertheless consistently rises to new heights, thanks to a murderer’s row of guest performers, surprisingly stellar songwriting, and a genre virtuoso at the forefront of it all. It may just stand more as a showcase of obvious talent than a sign of where Tuttle is headed next with her sound, but sometimes one needs a detour back to their roots to remember who they are and what they do best. And even if she describes herself as a crooked tree eager to strike her own path down that golden highway on future projects, with this project she stands tall and mighty.
It’s probably a good thing that I don’t have as many slow-rolling singer-songwriter projects as I have in past years, but sometimes you just need those albums that really challenge you to take them in, because the reward is often worth it:
No. 5 – Caroline Spence, True North
Favorite tracks: “Clean Getaway,” “Mary Oliver,” “True North”
While I do miss the stylistic diversity showcased on Mint Condition in comparison to the more restrained atmosphere of True North, this is still an excellent slow-burn from an artist who’s quickly becoming a master of the craft. In a nutshell, this is another one of those albums that’s offered comfort in the darkest moments, all delivered by an artist forced to sift through personal strife and cope with her own fluctuating mental health. And yet, it’s also one of those albums that always seems to fly back toward the light before giving in completely, where just knowing there’s a kindred spirit out there who understands the feel of that crushing weight makes it all worth it. Oh, and it just so happens to be one of the most gorgeous-sounding releases I’ve heard all year, pushing farther into the atmospheric side of folk and country and mining absolute gold out of it – really, what she does on “Clean Getaway” is phenomenal. Again, it’s certainly not the easiest album here to take in, but put in the effort and Spence will more than meet you halfway with another shimmering effort worth the praise.
Of course, there’s a time to reflect and sit back, and then there’s a time to just run wild:
No. 4 – The Wilder Blue, The Wilder Blue
Favorite tracks: “The Kingsnake & the Rattler,” “Feelin’ the Miles,” “Shadows & Moonlight”
I’m not sure I’ve had more fun with an album this year like I’ve had with the Wilder Blue’s self-titled effort, which shifts between country, rock, and bluegrass – among maybe one or two other genres – and makes it all sound so seamless and effortless. Zane Williams has always been a warm, charismatic presence behind the microphone, but by finally adding the right amount of punch to his compositions, he lets some of these songs run as wild as can be and truly makes The Wilder Blue feel like the true band experience it was meant to be. Of course, there’s also the part of me that can’t help but lean toward those darker moments or note that this is, at its core, a very road-weary album from a band that sometimes sounds like they really have been feeling the miles – and I’m not sure I trust myself to listen to “The Kingsnake & the Rattler” at night anymore. But for as wildly scattershot as it may sound in concept, it more than delivers in rock-solid consistency and genuinely excellent tunes; no sophomore slump to be found here.
Once more, let’s run through more songs from albums not featured here, and maybe throw in a wildcard pick from my Boom-or-Bust Jukebox series:
From 12th of June, “12th of June,” by Lyle Lovett – That album was a strange little disappointment, but the title track made his long-awaited return worth it; one of his absolute best.
From Fortune Favors the Bold, “Russell County Line,” by 49 Winchester – I wasn’t quite sold all the way on this band’s latest album, but with a song like this and that impeccable solo, they got very damn close. It’s the album centerpiece, and an excellent one, at that.
From Faded Memories, “In the Dark,” by William Beckmann – There’s a lot of potential to this kid, and if he continues on this path with strikingly mature and well-realized material like this, he’ll break through.
From its single release, “Greener Pasture,” by Carter Faith – An out-of-nowhere find I loved from the second I heard it. I hope there’s more on the way, but if not, this will absolutely do for now.
And finally, another single release, “We Did,” by Sacha – I’m not sure a day has gone by yet without me playing this at least once. It’s a sugary pop-country rush that manages to hit all of my joy receptors without feeling like empty calories. Incredible melody and hook on this one.
And now, let’s finish this list:
Look, I just wanted a return to form. I’m thrilled we got even more than that:
No. 3 – William Clark Green, Baker Hotel
Favorite tracks: “Give a Damn,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Feel Alive”
With his first studio album in four years, William Clark Green made an album that manages to toe the line between his more uniquely fun and bizarrely creative musings and an approach that feels a bit more lived-in and mature than previous offerings. And the fact that it’s stacked to the brim with hooks and a vivacious energy soaring throughout all makes for the album I’ve likely replayed the most this year. Granted, that hard-charged recklessness that’s characterized his past work is still there, but it’s slightly tempered with the realization of what all of that running can do to a person and carried by the self-awareness to take that next step forward. Hilarious and insightful all in one, and a real winner in Green’s discography as a whole.
Of course, there’s return to forms, and then there’s expectations set for an artist who you hope can deliver off the strengths of an incredible debut album. Suffice it to say, Ian Noe delivered in spades:
No. 2 – Ian Noe, River Fools & Mountain Saints
Favorite tracks: “Ballad of a Retired Man,” “Lonesome As It Gets,” “Appalachia Haze”
I can see some folks being surprised that this isn’t the album topping my list for now; I did say I missed the rougher edges and darker storytelling of his debut in my review, though. Still, in terms of a natural progression from that debut, River Fools & Mountain Saints delivers all I could have wanted and more. It’s a much more quaint and lighter experience, where Noe’s eastern Kentucky-raised characters will inevitably be forgotten by the waste of middle America, but also have their moment or two to appreciate the beauty of the land around them this time around.
And that’s the thing – with his debut, the beauty was much subtler. With River Fools & Mountain Saints, Noe goes beyond the stark, hopeless desperation of before, crafting something more mature, hopeful and beautiful along the way. It still may not be the easiest album to grapple with at points, and some of these songs will challenge listeners to question their own ideals and outlooks on life, but when it’s this well-composed and magnetic in its charm, fools and saints alike are welcome to listen and enjoy, wherever they may hail from or roam today.
But when it came down to choosing the album I’ve loved most thus far this year, I admit I was conflicted on this one. I mean, it’s barely an “album” to begin with, and though there is a commitment to a well-realized concept, it also begs the question of whether it does enough to truly feel complete. And yet, with every listen I just struggle to find any true flaws with this project – in colloquial terms “all killer, no filler,” but so much more than that in what it truly achieves. In other words:
No. 1 – Kaitlin Butts, what else can she do?
Favorite tracks: “blood,” “it won’t always be this way,” “bored if I don’t”
For as short and accessible in its sound as this album is, it’s also a tough one to take in all at once, an album framed around everyday women and issues relating directly to them, from abusive relationships, small town gossip, and addiction … you know, among other things. Hell, on some level I know it wasn’t an album made for someone like me. But what Kaitlin Butts does here in capturing these stories is nothing short of excellent. After all, it’s not so much issues that could only be specific to women as it is their response to their issues, as well as how others respond to them in noting the difference between how much they even be vilified for circumstances well beyond their control … unlike, say, their male counterparts.
But the album isn’t mining for sympathy so much as sketching unfortunate realities, and I love that it’s always centered more around the hands dealt to these characters more than their own actions taken. And it’s rarely pretty, ranging from burned-out smolder in its presentation to exhaustion and drastic measures taken by otherwise good people. Honestly, it’s all just so tightly crafted in its precision and blazing in its production that it’s become the easy standout for me in 2022. As of right now, it’s my favorite album of the year, so to answer the titular album question … I’m not sure what else Butts can do, but I certainly won’t challenge her either, because what she did here is really beyond compare.