Full disclosure: this feels like the weirdest albums list I’ve ever put together. I alluded to this when I discussed my overall favorite songs of the year, but 2022 was an oddly scattered year. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, given that the genre is currently undergoing something of a transitional phase as a whole, with a lot of potentially positive ramifications of that on the horizon.
Basically, then, it means that this year has felt even more lacking in consensus than past years over the “best” projects to be released within it. And that’s fine by me, given that I’ve always gone down my own road with these sorts of endeavors anyway. But still, I just keep coming back to that opening idea of this year lacking any sort of general direction.
Good thing the music was overall pretty great, though, as while I wound up covering less music than past years this year, I still found more than enough projects worth highlighting in the 90+ albums reviewed here – and this is, ironically enough, the easiest it’s ever been to fill this list out. Finalizing placements is another discussion altogether, hence why I did consider forgoing the ranking system (they’re not that important anyway). But I’m too stubborn to shy away from tradition and know it might have annoyed readers; I’m choosing to embrace the weirdness. But it also means I had to make painful cuts, including, among others, Noah Guthrie’s Blue Wall, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers’ Nightroamer, Emily Scott Robinson’s Built on Bones, Mary Gauthier’s Dark Enough to See the Stars, and Joseph Huber’s The Downtowner.
As always, the only ground rule with our final list is that I had to review an album for it to be featured here. If you’d like to read the original reviews, they can be found both here and in a more organized fashion here. Otherwise, let’s get started.
You’d think, given my previous list, that this first project would have clicked even further with me. Truthfully, however, it’s probably my least favorite project by this band. So the fact that it’s still here is kind of an insane testament to their skills:
No. 25 – American Aquarium, Chicamacomico
Favorite tracks: “All I Needed,” “Chicamacomico,” “Just Close Enough”
Chicamacomico feels like what every previous American Aquarium album was leading up to, a more settled, quaint affair that’s finally ready to shut the door on a dark past. Well, not completely – BJ Barham isn’t going to shy away from reality in sketching out very heartbreaking pictures of lived-in characters, be they folks pushing through the tragedy of a miscarriage, someone experiencing their first holidays after a parent’s death, or just people pushing back against old demons. But it’s an album that nevertheless feels like it finds closure and some semblance of peace despite the odds, where despite being an overall softer and more tasteful project from them, it was enough to call it a another winner.
And speaking of settled singer-songwriter affairs looking to find closure:
No. 24 – Courtney Patton, Electrostatic
Favorite tracks: “Electrostatic,” “Do You Feel Love,” “Casualty”
Courtney Patton has always been one of the most underrated writers and talents working in country music today, and by finally nailing a more consistent production balance, she may have just made her best project to date. Electrostatic is an album that’s as mature and thoughtful as anything she’s recorded before, and while it is still a slow burn that will no doubt click most with an older audience, by imbuing a soulful blues swagger into her melodic compositions and hooks, she made sure her already rough-around-the-edges songwriting punched even harder. She’s always been the sort of writer to bring a direct edge to her work in painting very mature and realistic pictures, and this is the sort of songwriter-driven, mature, tempered country music I can always appreciate.
Of course, on the topic of projects that nail the basics and are easy to revisit because of that:
No. 23 – Wade Bowen, Somewhere Between the Secret and the Truth
Favorite tracks: “Burnin’ Both Ends of the Bar,” “Say Goodbye,” “Knowing Me Like I Do”
Wade Bowen returned after four years since his previous solo project with an album seeped in heartache, and it’s as simultaneously raw as it is accessible. I’ve always described his work as comfort food that one can feel good about consuming, as while this doesn’t carry the rougher Texas-flavored edges of his previous work, in turning his sights specifically toward Nashville, he crafts something that’s just so warm and easy to revisit. And, of course, his writing has held up well, meaning that you get some excellent collaborations with community veterans like Lori McKenna and Vince Gill along the way, and a more mature outlook on life that’s nuanced without being heady. Truthfully, it’s another project here I’d slot on the lower end of my personal favorites from the artist in question, but considering this is no-frills modern country and southern-rock that nails the basics and carries plenty of deeper moments to appreciate, it’s still just as great as ever.
And now, our second album to turn from Texas to Tennessee:
No. 22 – Drake Milligan, Dallas/Fort Worth
Favorite tracks: “Sounds Like Something I’d Do,” “Long Haul” (feat. James Burton), “Over Drinkin’, Under Thinkin'”
Dallas/Fort Worth is a meat-and-potatoes neotraditional country project that’s rarely going to surprise you in any way, right down to the era and influences invoked. And that’s in no way a bad thing, given that not only is Drake Milligan an infectiously magnetic presence behind the microphone, the production has both the muscle and charm to fit within a familiar template and make it work to his advantage. And that’s before mentioning how the melodies and hooks are so damn solid across the board on this album! It’s just the project here that hit my pure joy receptors this year for neotraditional country music, and while Milligan is definitely the sort of act looking to call back to the past, I’m looking more forward to his future.
Of course, sometimes there’s plenty to be gained by calling back to the past. Sometimes the personal reflection is needed in order to escape a rut or find the path forward. Regardless of what the case was here, it helped to give Hailey Whitters her best album to date:
No. 21 – Hailey Whitters, Raised
Favorite tracks: “College Town,” “Everybody Oughta,” “Middle of America” (feat. American Aquarium)
Given the past few years, it’s easy to see why an album like this exists. Weirdly enough, it’s one of several albums here to lean on personal nostalgia to find comfort and peace … and also one of several here that clicked with me because of that. But with Hailey Whitters and Raised, it’s just so thrilling to hear some of the more obvious surface-level improvements. The trade-up in production and push toward a more organic neotraditional-meets-pop-country sound by way of early Chicks is a natural selling point – especially with Whitters’ voice – but the detailed writing and heartfelt performances are what have mostly kept me further engaged in the long run all year. 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. It’s why there’s an adventurous spirit to this project that’s hard to deny in general, as restless as it is likable.
So, this album … I don’t want to say it had to grow on me a ton; I always very much liked it. But there were a lot of albums released this year focused around growing up and reflecting on small towns (the previous entry being just one example here). And eventually I kept coming back to this as a comparison point for how to make that framing more unique and charming. Call it me finally giving proper recognition I should have a long time ago, then:
No. 20 – Jenny Tolman, Married in a Honky Tonk
Favorite tracks: “Married in a Honky Tonk,” “Same Train As You,” “Borrowing Sugar”
If you’ve never been to Jennyville, this is as good of a place to start as any in Jenny Tolman’s discography thus far, especially when this is highly enjoyable and delivers more of the same brand of witty fictional small town anecdotes presented with their fair bit of theatricality one usually expects of her. The immediate comparison point most people make is to early Kacey Musgraves, but if there’s one thing I came to appreciate more and more with this album as the year went on, it’s how Tolman can deliver either very real or comical critiques of small town culture by always effectively playing coy with her audience, always with a wink and a smile but with definite fire behind her eyes as well. Though either way it’s another album to carry a rich warmth in its neotraditional textures, enough to where it’s definitely easy to enjoy on the surface … but even more worth it to really listen and get the fuller picture and insight into the characters that shape this fictional small town with very real-world implications. Creative and unique – even a bit nutty – and in the best possible way.
Continuing on with the themes surrounding our previous two entries, there are some artists that need to return home – physically, metaphorically, or both – to find something they lost or regain perspective, and then there are artists where their heritage can’t help but shape them from the start. Not to say that one can’t also find a way to grapple with that sentiment – we’ll get to those sorts of projects as well – but Kelsey Waldon? She did Kentucky proud once again:
No. 19 – Kelsey Waldon, No Regular Dog
Favorite tracks: “Season’s Ending,” “Progress Again,” “Sweet Little Girl”
Kelsey Waldon has just had such a consistently great run of projects thus far, that it’s hard to say there’s one definitive standout over the rest. But I don’t know, between some of her best writing to date and Shooter Jennings’ well-balanced production contributing toward what might be her most fully formed sound to date to complement her ragged drawl, No Regular Dog just may be her ace in the hole thus far. And while her smoky delivery does tend to draw a lot of easy comparison to past eras and influences – Loretta Lynn’s spirit rings all the louder here now – she’s never relied heavily on hard-charged swagger as a performer, even if her naturally weary, unassuming delivery does have a way of making these songs feel bigger than what they might seem in the text. Which in this case is a lot of hard living on the road, difficult self-reflection and even more difficult forgiveness for one’s own self, burn out, and relapses, if not for her then certainly for her characters. But hey, when you’ve got characters and a lead singer who all aren’t exactly regular dogs, it explains why it’s the desperate urgency to fight on through despite the weightier stakes that give this album its lived-in charm. It’s as ragged as it is lush, but in striking a beautiful balance overall, it’s in a category all its own.
So, here’s the caveat I always make with these lists. These are my favorite albums, yes, but that never necessarily means they’re the albums I returned to the most over the year. Some albums are easy to revisit and all the more likable for it, and others … well, they may require me to be in a certain mood in order to enjoy them fully, but I always know that when I do go back to them I’ll be blown away. As such:
No. 18 – Zach Bryan, American Heartbreak
Favorite tracks: “Tishomingo,” “Heavy Eyes,” “She’s Alright”
Yes, it’s a sprawling behemoth that runs way too long to likely integrate any new fans into the fold, even despite Zach Bryan’s monstrous breakthrough otherwise this year. But as someone who always found this guy to be a curious fascination ever since 2019’s DeAnn, American Heartbreak feels like the project where he refined his reflective writing, just now with a more robust presentation that can really bring these songs to their fullest potential and further diversify his range. Even despite its absurd length, it’s remarkably well-paced and diverse as a whole; there’s still not a lot here I’d outright cut. So yeah, it’s all overly ambitious and messy in its concept, but I think that’s part of the point in pointing to Bryan as an artist, the sort of act who has always relied on instinct and wants to, at least through song, deal with his own messy issues one song at a time, no matter how long it takes or whether it’s to his benefit or detriment. But if you’re willing to take that journey with him, intentionally imperfect as it may be, it’s one that feels fully realized from start to finish – and one I like to reserve for special listens anyway, rather than just whenever I want.
Of course, on the flip side, sometimes you just need those projects that are easy to throw on, blast along to, and kick ass from start to finish with nary a hiccup. Like this:
No. 17 – Vandoliers, Vandoliers
Favorite tracks: “I Hope Your Heartache’s a Hit,” “Every Saturday Night,” “Before the Fall”
You know, on the surface, Vandoliers should really be the sort of act to rub someone the wrong way, what with their callbacks to early ’90s alt-country and lead singer Joshua Fleming’s brash and abrasive delivery – not to mention the sort of self-inflicted personal disasters they’ll stumble into along the way. But here’s the thing: They’re also insanely riotous in the most charming way possible, so by crafting what is their most immediate album filled with their most stacked hooks and melodies to date – even amidst a messy stumbling block that impeded this album’s release in the first place – they crossed a finish line that could have read as a glorious swan song but instead feels like a new beginning. And it’s just so endlessly fun throughout! Still, while that sense of rejuvenation is the key here in every regard, it’s also the desperate adrenaline fueling this album’s deceptively weighty stakes that makes it also feel like a triumph. It’s a blast of an album brimming with hope, and it’s evident in every note.
Of course, there are long-awaited returns here, and then there are just the sort of unexpected career pivots that either succeed or flame out. So by returning to her roots and striking a bluegrass heart, Molly Tuttle’s album this year is one that also feels like a triumph:
No. 16 – Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, Crooked Tree
Favorite tracks: “Over the Line” (feat. Sierra Hull), “Grass Valley,” “Castilleja”
Given her pedigree, it makes sense that we finally got a bluegrass album from Molly Tuttle this year. And it also makes sense that, to little surprise, it’s downright excellent, fairly traditional in composition and approach overall, but stacked to the brim with great guest performers, stellar songwriting, and a genre virtuoso at the forefront of it all. I said it at the mid-year and I’ll say it again: Crooked Tree 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 here as a crooked tree eager to strike her own path on future projects, with this project she stands tall and mighty – another treat of an album I’m always happy to revisit.
This is the sort of project I had been wanting to hear for years now from this artist but never thought we’d actually get. So in delivering on all of her potential, I’m going to give Kelsea Ballerini her due:
No. 15 – Kelsea Ballerini, Subject to Change
Favorite tracks: “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too), “The Little Things,” “You’re Drunk, Go Home” (feat. Carly Pearce and Kelly Clarkson)
Subject to Change is just the sort of measurably strong improvement I’ve been hoping to see from Kelsea Ballerini for years now in nearly every regard, doubling down on all of her strengths and expanding her pop-country scope in ways that feel genuinely fun, loose, and full of immediate likeability. And while I’m tempted to point toward the above album highlights as the reasons why – which veer more toward defiantly country textures – the closest comparison point really is to Shania Twain, because even the poppier moments here have an organic edge in the production and writing to really stick the landing. And with her knack for sticky melodic compositions and great hooks, this is an album that can play toward decidedly sillier territory while still being a bit more overall mature – a true artistic progression in so many ways. If you’ve been quick to discount her in the past, don’t. Because while she may be subject to change, I’m happy to hear her in this form for the time being.
I know by saying it out loud that I’m likely going to jinx it someday, but seeing more mainstream country artists pivot toward their own individual passion projects – regardless of the commercial prospects – has just been a thrill to witness in recent years. And with Brett Eldredge … well, what can I say? He did it again:
No. 14 – Brett Eldredge, Songs About You
Favorite tracks: “Get Out Of My House,” “Where the Light Meets the Sea,” “What Else Ya Got”
Look, Sunday Drive boasts a high bar to clear, and I won’t say Songs About You necessarily vaults over said bar. But whereas the former project felt like an ironic wild pivot into naturally comfortable territory for who Brett Eldredge is as a vocalist and artist, the latter project feels like the more self-assured leap into even more refined territory. There are a lot of albums I’ve described here as likable and charming – it’s just a general theme for this year (or for my mood this year) – but Eldredge just boasts so much immediate charisma as a vocalist and performer, that this still remains the one album I likely went back to the most this year. It’s just another terrific country-soul project from him, and with a sly upgrade in the writing and framing to lend more of these tracks some teeth over others here reliant on flighty charm, it just may be his most wonderfully diverse set of songs to date as well. But even without the deeper analysis, it’s just a ton of fun regardless – even when he’s being the bad guy on a track like “Get Out of My House.”
We already heard from Kelsey Waldon earlier on this list, but the rampant uptick in Kentucky-based singer-songwriters in recent years is hard to ignore. Sometimes the results sound like a pale imitation of obvious influences; it happens. But every now and then you’ll come across an artist who can both meet and surpass expectations:
No. 13 – Tony Logue, Jericho
Favorite tracks: “Calloway County,” “Pilot Oak,” “Welder”
Tony Logue intrigued me well enough with “Calloway County” when I first heard it, but he also managed to craft the first album of the year I really loved through the remainder of Jericho, too. I’ve always described this as the natural extension to some of Chris Knight’s grizzliest work, but that feels unfair to what Logue accomplishes on his own here: a simultaneous love letter to and complicated untangling of Appalachian culture, 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 either, even if there’s always a silent understanding of what had to be done. Bleak as hell but profoundly heartbreaking and human throughout, which is why despite the heftier stakes here, it’s also an album brimming with empathy for characters caught in impossibly difficult situations. Where even though we shouldn’t empathize with these characters, they sort through their own personal situations on their own terms – and anyone who stands in the way is bound to pay. Another mostly uneasy listen, but like with any dance with darkness, it’s always worth it to see it through to the end.
Of course, there are dances with darkness, and then there are just straight-up tangoes with Hell that provide the rarest sort of adrenaline rush:
No. 12 – The Wilder Blue, The Wilder Blue
Favorite tracks: “The Kingsnake and the Rattler,” “Shadows and Moonlight,” “Feelin’ the Miles”
I’ve already noted the general levity of certain projects this year, and if you only heard of this band from my previous list, you may be surprised that this statement could apply to them. But there have been projects I’ve had fun with this year, and then there’s The Wilder Blue’s sophomore effort, which I’ve always likened to a grand adventure. It shifts between country, rock, and bluegrass – along with maybe one or two other genres – and makes it all sound so seamless and effortless, with plenty of shifting tempos, stellar harmonies, and lyrical plot twists to always keep the experience as high on pure momentum as it could possibly get. 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 always meant to be. Sure, it’s scattershot as hell at points, but never in a way that doesn’t feel self-contained or in control of its scope, even despite this being, at its heart, a very road-weary album with enough weightier moments to balance out the moments of pure musical bliss. And either way, it delivers in rock-solid consistency and genuinely excellent tunes.
And sometimes it’s fun to get lost in an experience distanced from your own. And sometimes it’s worth slowing things down for a different sense of comfort:
No. 11 – Caroline Spence, True North
Favorite tracks: “Clean Getaway,” “Mary Oliver,” “True North”
To be frankly honest, I’m not sure I leaned harder on an album this year like I did with Caroline Spence’s True North. Another excellent slow burn here from an artist who’s quickly becoming a master of the craft, which despite feeling even more demanding than her previous work, may have just become my favorite album of hers regardless. It’s just one of those albums where Spence’s struggles … don’t necessarily become ours, so much as become easier to relate to as the album progresses. And it’s 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 that crushing weight makes it all worth it. Oh, and it just so happens to be one of the most gorgeous-sounding releases I heard all year, pushing further into the atmospheric side of folk and country and mining absolute gold out of it. Again, it’s certainly not the easiest album here to take in (these last few entries have really denoted a change in tone, huh?), but put in the effort and Spence will more than meet you halfway with another shimmering effort worth the praise.
Oh, this next one is strange. Given the circumstances, I’m not sure I’d call it my absolute favorite of hers (provided I could even call it just her album to begin with), but in terms of wild artistic pivots, there’s nothing quite like this Dennis Linde-inspired trip:
No. 10 – Ashley McBryde, Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville
Favorite tracks: “Bonfire at Tina’s,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “The Girl in the Picture”
Strange, though, is still the key word there, given that while this is Ashley McBryde’s idea come to fruition, I also love that the inclusions from artists like Brandy Clark, Brothers Osborne, Caylee Hammack, and more help ensure both that this drummed-up fictional small town feels lived-in and brimming with personality, and that nearly every effort here is of a consistently high quality. After all, if country radio remains lukewarm on them (at best), they all might as well get weirder, bolder, and more experimental … and light it up. And while this album does mostly focus on the sort of small town drama that trades between esoteric humor and social commentary, at its heart is just a beautifully empathetic set of songs, where by actually witnessing the town come to life through the struggles of its characters, it feels more real than fictional. There’s plenty of passion projects floating around right now, but we don’t get these sort of weird experimental projects in mainstream country music … pretty much ever. An important project, for sure, but also one that’s way too lively to dislike anyway.
So, I don’t want to say it took me a while to really click with this artist. I was a half step away from really loving his last project, sure, but I always knew the spare, intimate country-folk would click with me further someday if the stakes were just a bit higher. And as such:
No. 9 – Arlo McKinley, This Mess We’re In
Favorite tracks: “Rushintherug,” “Back Home” feat. Logan Halstead, “I Don’t Mind”
I’m always immediately tempted to draw comparisons to Ruston Kelly or Jason Isbell’s 2010s work when describing Arlo McKinley’s albums, which often force some hard confrontations with one’s own self and aim to find forgiveness and peace along the way, even if it doesn’t always come and old demons inevitably come roaring back now and then. But that usually also comes with the notion that something has been sacrificed along the way, or that to achieve that peace means scaling the stakes back, which isn’t quite accurate for this project. No, if anything, McKinley’s choice to roar through the darkness – stealing dark from the night sky, as he puts it – through some excellently well-paced, emotionally driven and intense moments of urgency is what lends this album so much immediate potency and heft. But leaving it at just that would also discount how his quieter moments of reflection have only grown sharper, as well – a fragile balance of country and folk where hope is found in earnest, even if actual clarity is still a journey away. It’s an overall expansion in sound and ideas that truly sees McKinley come into his own artistically, and while I have loved how easy certain projects have been to revisit this year, this is one I can’t help but appreciate for its booming, stunning intensity.
Guess who’s back? Sunny’s back:
No. 8 – Sunny Sweeney, Married Alone
Favorite tracks: “Easy As Hello,” “Married Alone” (feat. Vince Gill), “Wasting One On You”
After five years away, Married Alone … basically sounds exactly what you’d expect a Sunny Sweeney return to sound like, and I say that in the best possible way. It does it all by being another excellently hardscrabbled journey of heartbreak and even finding love again by its end, and just by being a damn great, hardbitten country project, to boot. And considering Sweeney is capable of cutting even deeper with her rougher portraits of reality than others might be comfortable with or prefer and can follow it all through right until the very end – especially given how real life circumstances shaped the overall arc of this album – she’s still at the top of her game. Even if we have to wait a while again for the next project, chances are it’s going to be excellent regardless.
The natural reaction to these sorts of lists is always to feel some sort of secondhand bitterness for an artist over not seeing a particular project of theirs listed. And for wannabe writers like me who try to cover a wide variety, well, I experience the same thing when examining other lists (highly annoying and unnecessary as it is for the people who actually compile said lists). A roundabout way of saying this great comeback got slept on this year, and I’m still mad about it, and I’m sorry if you’re mad your favorite isn’t listed here too:
No. 7 – William Clark Green, Baker Hotel
Favorite tracks: “Give a Damn,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Feel Alive”
William Clark Green albums always tend to toe a tricky line between being bitter affairs and genuinely heartfelt and heartbreaking collections of clarity, where the relationship tracks tend to burn everything to the ground but also carry enough overshared details to feel lived-in and genuine. And with his first album in four years … well, yeah, Green delivered some excellent tracks in that vein once again, but this is also a project that saw him mature, still fostering the same uniquely fun and bizarrely creative pivots you’d come to expect from him, just with more emotionally roiling songwriting to match that growth. And it’s still fun as hell and stacked to the brim with some of his best-ever melodic hooks and a vivacious energy brimming throughout, the sort of album carried by a performer who’s felt the miles creep up but still has plenty left to offer. Genuinely hilarious and insightful with every revisit, it deserved so much more love in 2022.
Granted, I could also argue this project didn’t receive the attention it deserved. But in a way, I get it. It’s low-key, it tackles some very difficult topics … but I don’t know, I only ever heard something beautiful behind the chaos:
No. 6 – Michaela Anne, Oh to Be That Free
Favorite tracks: “It’s Just a Feeling,” “Does It Ever Break Your Heart,” “Trees”
If Desert Dove was the point where Michaela Anne established a new path for her atmospheric folk-meets-pop-meets-country sound but also offered points where it could improve or expand, Oh to Be That Free is the moment of refinement that made for an even more textured, developed, and lusher project in 2022. And it’s just so shimmering in texture and quality throughout, that it became nothing short of breathtaking with every revisit. But leaving it at just a beautiful listen in sound or scope would discount the improvements made in the overall writing, which is equally as wide open in its scope this time around, turning inward for deeper self-reflection, but also outward in its various examinations of mental health and self-worth that’s beautifully empathetic in its framing. It really is just an amazingly burnished, warm project, and I just can’t help but love and appreciate Anne’s willingness to take bigger chances with her compositions and refrain from bogging down her work in its atmosphere; it’s pretty, but it’s not sleepy. In other words, despite an overall darker focus in spite of its sound, it’s another album that tries to always look beyond and find the light, and it always soars to new heights because of it.
You know, it’s funny, but there aren’t really many new surprises that comprise my overall list this year. Plenty of leaps in quality from artists I’ve always at least liked, for sure, as well as welcome returns from consistent favorites. But there are very few out-of-nowhere gems here compared to previous years. I guess I could say she lives up to her album title after all, then, but Stacy Antonel provided a very nice exception to that rule this year:
No. 5 – Stacy Antonel, Always the Outsider
Favorite tracks: “Karmic Cord,” “Not Looking For Love,” “You Can’t Trust Fate”
With her smoky, hazy, jazz-influenced country sound infused with a western-swing spirit, I could introduce Stacy Antonel as an artist stepping into similar territory as, say, Lindi Ortega or Caitlin Rose. But really, I’m tempted to say she enters a league of her own here, even with this being her debut album. I mean, Always the Outsider is the one album here where I could get nerdy on all of you and just highlight the technical elements, like the free-flowing percussion lines, the way Antonel creatively plays with and switches up her compositional progressions in general, or the writing that treads between hopeless and humorous territory with some of the wackiest one-liners and concepts I heard all year; of course I love it. Indeed, if anything, the outsider perspective allows her take on her sound and songwriting to be far quirkier in the details and the framing – more unique, in other words, and just a ton of fun from beginning to end. And yet, between a lead performer with a theatricality to her tone but also enough of a ragged edge to give this album a very genuine core, the textured production to match it, and writing that can be just as cutting as it is playful, it’s just such a wonderfully diverse collection from a newcomer who always sounds very much in control of it all. And to think this is just the start for her.
Strangers it sounds, 2022 was just a year in which I couldn’t properly place expectations – even around artists I’d brand as reliable favorites. Not a bad thing, mind you – stick to the same formula for too long and the magic quickly leaves. But there were some wild pivots I loved hearing this year, and then there were the pivots of a much subtler variety that I’ve only come to appreciate more and more with time:
No. 4 – Ian Noe, River Fools & Mountain Saints
Favorite tracks: “Ballad of a Retired Man,” “Lonesome As It Gets,” “Appalachia Haze”
In a way, I might have come to love this even more than Between the Country. No, it’s not as edgy or visceral, but it is another Ian Noe album centered in the heart of Appalachia to feel brimming with a fool’s hope. It’s an album where despite the dire, bleak circumstances surrounding the everyday lives of Noe’s characters, he’s going to sketch their willingness to cling to both life and any shred of hope they can find with a very frank, lived-in detail, even if they know they will, sadly, be forgotten and cast aside. It’s why I’ve come to love this album’s bigger, wide-angled sense of empathy and greater sense of humanity overall, once again daring listeners to question their own outlooks and perspectives on life through the choices made here out of hopeless desperation. But as I said before, it is those brief, flickering moments of hope that I always come to remember with this project – a veteran sorting through memories as he fades into the afterlife, characters finding their own contentment through even the smallest joys, whether it’s living it up in isolation or burning down a Christmas tree; it happens. Still not the easiest project here to confront, but there’s a greater beauty beneath it all worth cherishing – for all it’s worth.
I had a feeling this next artist would likely disrupt my year-end lists. Not just based on their great lead singles ahead of it, but also an excellent breakout album from last year in general that cemented them as a talent to watch. Little did I know just how much reckoning this revelry would bring:
No. 3 – Adeem the Artist, White Trash Revelry
Favorite tracks: “Books & Records,” “Middle of a Heart,” “Painkillers & Magic”
It’s the most recent addition to this list, and considering the upgrade in nearly every regard, it’s arguably Adeem the Artist’s best record to date, even if their solid foundation still very much remains intact: songwriting with witty storytelling detail that can be both crushing or sardonic, depending on what the mood calls for, carried by a lead singer with the conversational tone and wit to let their dry humor punch more effectively and conversely add weight to the surprisingly plaintive moments of hardship here. And while the same subtle warmth in the production and instrumentation is evident, it’s the refined focus overall that makes it a sound they can call their own to an even greater degree than before. But for as warm and engaging as this album is – yes, yet another album here I’m going to label as easy to revisit – Adeem the Artist isn’t letting listeners off the hook that easily. Not when there’s a reckoning to confront where queer artists like them are looking to reclaim their rightful place at the country music table. Even then, given how warm and empathetic their storytelling-driven poetry always comes across, it’s an album that every country music fan should hear – especially the ones who need to understand a perspective they’ve never been forced to confront. Cast Iron Pansexual was an important album last year and even now, and White Trash Revelry is the next step and proof of concept. And I couldn’t be more thrilled to be along for the ride.
And in that same vein of projects easy to revisit but brimming with hard truth to confront regardless:
No. 2 – Kaitlin Butts, what else can she do?
Favorite tracks: “jackson,” “bored if I don’t,” “it won’t always be this way”
It’s short but more than full enough to surpass its potential, dark but made accessible through its shorter length, and more than a worthy long-awaited follow-up from Kaitlin Butts, even if I can’t help but want even more. But with the tricky balance this album consistently has to maintain, I’ve actually come to view its length as an even greater asset than before, because it says all it needs to without wasting a word. Plus, it ensures this album framed around everyday women and issues relating specifically to them – where the choices and consequences surrounding them are made harder simply due to who they are – doesn’t go ignored, even if its characters’ plights, sadly, often do. Yet the beauty with this album hasn’t just come in Butts’ willingness to explore the darkest depths of spousal abuse, addiction, or rocky marriages – and how differently the women in those situations are viewed by society in more scandalous situations than their male counterparts in general – it’s also come through in her characters’ responses to how they resolve their own situations. Often it’s bleak as hell, and sometimes it’s mere wishful thinking to escape a bad situation, but it’s always granted this album so much raw urgency and momentum that grants natural empathy for its characters, even if the focus is always centered squarely on darker realities first and foremost. It’s a passionate firestorm that blazes throughout, and while Butts certainly has nothing left to prove, I can’t help but delight in thinking what else she could do next.
I’m not going to say deciding my album of the year wasn’t a close race. Between Adeem the Artist, Kaitlin Butts, and this next artist, this was the first year where I really had to sit and consider it. Good thing this isn’t an actual competition, however, because in a way, the moment I heard this album I knew it would likely become my personal favorite of the year. And I usually decide that by asking which album can speak for both the artist who made it and said artist’s audience best – whether that does or doesn’t include me prior to walking into it – and whether it can strike that uniquely resonant chord especially for me. With this artist, I definitely was already a fan, but in finding true transcendence through music this year, there was nothing quite like this:
No. 1 – Gabe Lee, The Hometown Kid
Favorite tracks: “Wide Open,” “Kinda Man,” “Never Rained Again”
I have to admit it’s been partly humorous watching discussions unfold around this album, mostly because folks seem to end up debating whether this or Honky Tonk Hell is Gabe Lee’s better record. Again, though, it’s not a competition, because I do love the wily rambunctiousness of the former project. And at the end of the day, “best” is always going to boil down to personal preference, whether we like it or not. It’s why I immediately clicked with this album’s sandier, low-key – and, to quote a track here – rusty vibe, which is a little more settled than before but no less brimming with a restlessness and hunger for something greater. Nostalgic, for sure, but in a way that feels more personally rooted in flashes of memory for both Lee and his characters. And I could say that alone is why this album clicks so well with me, especially speaking as a fellow someone who remembers and clings to even the simplest or supposedly mundane still images and frozen snapshots as memories worth cherishing and running back through now and then.
But it’s also an album that shows how one can lean on those memories without being beholden to the past, able to grow and mature because they’re able to reach back in time and chart their progress. It’s why it’s a project where Lee is no less confident or full of swagger than before; it’s just that his fire has shifted, looking to find or reclaim a sense of place and belonging – maybe even parts of himself that got lost along the way navigating the dark crevices of the honky tonk hell we call the real world. In a year where it felt like I needed that as well, I was glad to have a guiding light through an artist just as adept at being a wild rapscallion as he is an observational poet, able to capture those wide-angled shots and speak not only for himself and his characters, but also for us. In other words, this was the project that had the greatest personal resonance for me this year, and while I’ve always appreciated the loose charm of Lee’s work, this is a magnetic force I’m always going to cling to when I need it.
That’s it for me this year, folks. Thanks for reading The Musical Divide this year, and I’ll see you all again in 2023! For now, be sure to let me know your year-end favorites, and which songs and albums connected with you the most in 2022. Until next time!