The Best Albums of 2021, Part Two: #10-#1

The Best of 2021

The Preamble

Albums:

#20-#11 | #10-#1

Singles: 

#20-#16  | #15-#11 | #10-#6 | #5-#1

Our look back at 2021 concludes with the ten best albums of the year.

 

#10

Chapel Hart

The Girls are Back in Town

It would stand as mainstream country’s finest album of the year had the mainstream actually responded the way it should have. Instead, Chapel Hart’s The Girls Are Back in Town stands as a shining example of the quality of music that the genre loses to its entrenched biases. Because, make no mistake, Chapel Hart can really and truly sing in a way that so few artists who routinely get played on country radio can, and they sing a version of country music that is steeped in tradition while offering a unique, contemporary perspective.

Take the blistering “You Can Have Him, Jolene,” which fully earns the invocation of the titular other woman, or the self-confident “Grown Ass Woman,” both of which sound ready-made for radio; these are balanced by the far more nuanced “Just Say I Love You” and the spectacular (and not a Sarah McLachlan cover) “Angel.” Chapel Hart simply get modern country music right, and few acts deserve massive commercial success to the extent that they do. Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks: “Angel,” “Jesus & Alcohol,” “You Can Have Him Jolene,” “Jacqui’s Song”

 

#9

Carrie Underwood

My Savior

Where I would’ve expected Carrie Underwood to zig, she zagged.

Underwood’s previous projects had been leaning harder than ever into the power vocals, spilling over to sounding strained for the first time in her recording career.  So I expected a gospel project would’ve tapped into that performance instinct more than ever.

Instead, My Savior is a collection of prayers that are closer to whispers, with the best tracks featuring sparse instrumentation and the most delicate readings of Underwood’s career.  She’s never sounded better on record than she does here, and it provides a blueprint for her future country records that she will hopefully follow.  I’ve gotten a taste of Carrie Underwood approaching material like Emmylou Harris and I want so much more of it. – Kevin John Coyne

Recommended Tracks: “Blessed Assurance,” “I Surrender All,” “The Old Rugged Cross”

 

#8

James McMurtry

The Horses and the Hounds

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 has 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, no, may not always result in the happiest of endings at points, but is what always gives this album its heart and muscle. 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 in, 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. It’s another classic from one of the best of the craft.  – Zackary Kephart

Recommended Tracks: “Jackie,” “Blackberry Winter,” “If It Don’t Bleed”

 

#7

Emily Scott Robinson

American Siren

American Siren is 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. It’s not quite as overly religious as some have claimed; it’s just … human, showcased through hard-bitten maturity and characters tested beyond their limits. It’s an album that not only challenges the audience to consider their 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. Above all, it’s an album that dares listeners to believe in something, be it spiritual or otherwise. We’ll all follow our own siren songs on our paths, and we have to trust our paths, too. There wasn’t an album this year that presented itself quite as beautifully as this one did. – ZK

Recommended Tracks:  “Let ‘Em Burn,” “Hometown Hero,” “If Trouble Comes a Lookin'”

 

#6

Carly Pearce

29: Written in Stone

In 2021, Carly Pearce barely scrapped the top 15 with her explosive lead single to this project, while Michael Ray enjoyed yet another top five hit with a song no one will care about or remember a month from now. And I just want to scream into the void that is Music Row. Anyway, and on a less controversial note, 29: Written in Stone is a true artistic rebirth for Pearce, matching production that can suit her rougher edges with some of the most hardbitten and mature songwriting of the year. It’s as much a divorce album as it is a story about growing older and the misspent expectations that come with it, which allows a humanity to shine through that’s never been evident in Pearce’s work until now. Where she goes next is a marvel to behold, but let’s also appreciate that this is the only album on this list to feature Patty freakin’ Loveless, y’all. – ZK

Recommended Tracks:  “29,” “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” (feat. Ashley McBryde), “Dear Miss Loretta” (feat. Patty Loveless)

 

#5

Taylor Swift

RED (Taylor’s Version)

Setting aside the quality of the re-recordings of the original RED, the album’s worth of bonus material featured on RED (Taylor’s Version) is, taken entirely on its own merits and as its own animal, the best country album of Taylor Swift’s career. The narratives focus on loves gone wrong– and, as ever, Swift captures the nuances and details of those stories better than anyone– and the production foregrounds country instrumentation in ways that enhance each song’s structure. Consider how she improves upon both “Babe” and “Better Man,” turned into hits by Sugarland and Little Big Town, respectively, based upon the maturity in her vocal phrasing, or the devastating tale of a mother’s grief on “Ronan.” These are, to a one, songs that country music should be thrilled to embrace, and it’s handily one of the year’s finest country albums. – JK

Recommended Tracks: “Treacherous,” “Holy Ground,” both versions of “All Too Well,” “Ronan,” “Forever Winter”

 

#4

Miko Marks & the Resurrectors

Our Country

Our Country is everything that country music could’ve been, has been, and should be.  With stunning instrumentation and fiery vocal performances from the long underappreciated Miko Marks, the material across the project is as ambitious in scope as it is firmly connected to roots.

Through her effortless weaving of the sounds of other genres – R&B, gospel, pop, folk – into what is fundamentally a country record, Marks reveals the artificiality of genre divisions themselves, cooked up by record executives long ago to pigeon hole artists and consumer bases into what has currently devolved into the tired identity markers of mainstream country music, where it’s what you look like – and not what you sound like – that grants you admission into the Nashville club.

In truth, they have to keep music like this at bay to keep their house of cards from collapsing.  Like so many of the other albums on this list, the quality gap between what’s being made outside the gates and what’s being produced within has never been wider.  Our Country is better at being country than most albums this year, but more importantly, it’s just better music.  You couldn’t put it on the radio without fatally exposing the mediocrity that currently dominates the dial.

Hey, radio.  Play it anyway. – KJC

Recommended Tracks: “Goodnight America,” “Not Be Moved,” “Hard Times,” “Water to Wine”

 

#3

Amythyst Kiah

Wary + Strange

Having just contributed some of the standout tracks to the Songs of Our Native Daughters project, Amythyst Kiah set lofty expectations for her first solo album in nearly a decade. What’s most striking about Wary + Strange, then, is how strongly Kiah separates herself from her recent supergroup by digging deep into matters of identity. This is an album steeped in experiences that are unapologetically black, female, and queer, and Kiah rejects any ad hoc dismissals of that perspective as being performative “identity politics” because she knows that her identity– as is everyone’s in some way– is inherently political. To that end, Kiah’s body politic is deeply personal: We’ve already covered the extraordinary “Wild Turkey” as our top single of the last year, but the intimate “Tender Organs” and pensive “Firewater” cut nearly as close to the bone. – JK

Recommended Tracks: “Black Myself,” “Tender Organs,” “Fancy Drones (Fracture Me)”

 

#2

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi

They’re Calling Me Home

The second collaborative effort between Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi is just as stunning as the first, and while 2019’s there is no other was about fostering connections through music, this is about fostering them through a more human experience. Inspired by the pandemic, for sure, but far more wide-reaching in its song selection culled from times long ago that frames a very relatable present day. It’s a journey home, both in the traditional sense where the meaning friends and family have on our daily lives is amplified, but also in a metaphysical sense, where “home” is whatever awaits us after death. Until then, though, best find something to make that journey meaningful or keep it going as long as possible. And it’s all echoed by Giddens’ riveting, thunderous presence and Turrisi’s gentle accompaniment, showcasing why both performers are yet again making some of the most important music of the past decade. – ZK

Recommended Tracks: “Avalon,” “Black as Crow,” “I Shall Not Be Moved”

 

#1

Allison Russell

Outside Child

In a year when so many black women asked how their exceptional art fit into country music, it’s fitting that the finest album is one that finds a black woman reflecting on the sources of her own alienation and her journey toward accepting herself as worthy of love and grace. 

Allison Russell’s Outside Child doesn’t shy away from matters of abuse and trauma– there’s a candor to Russell’s narratives that is both disarming and deeply empathetic– but the album isn’t an exercise in self-pity or navel-gazing. Outside Child isn’t a therapy session set to meter and melody: Russell names her trauma, yes, but she comes to the table with a degree of confidence that she has the skills and support to claim her rightful space in the world. She’s as comfortable in her status as “The Runner” as she is as one of the “Joyful Motherfuckers.” However heady and difficult this material might be– and it’s as deserving of academic analysis as any album in the genre’s history– what lingers about Outside Child is its fundamental hopefulness. Russell knows she’s deserving; with an album as vital as Outside Child, she’s certainly garnered considerable praise and adoration. She’s the finest of country music’s present and points the way to its vibrant future. – JK

Recommended Tracks: “Nightflyer,” “Persephone,” “All of the Women”

 

The Best of 2021

The Preamble

Albums:

#20-#11 | #10-#1

Singles: 

#20-#16  | #15-#11 | #10-#6 | #5-#1

5 Comments

  1. Great, varied, interesting lists! Some of the artists highlighted here and in your other best-of-2021 roundups are brand-new to me, and I look forward to checking them out.

    • This was an interesting year! Jonathan is going to post the individual lists in the comments. Not a lot of consensus this year, but that’s more of a statement on how much great stuff there was. I’m happy to read that readers are discovering new artists from these lists. That happens to me every year, too!

  2. I will say this – my one regret with the singles list is only considering songs from proper album releases this year and not so much the individual gems that cropped up here and there in 2021. Had I remembered, I would have absolutely included, say, “Dirt Around the Tree” and “Sober & Skinny” on my own list!

  3. For posterity, our individual ballots:

    Kevin:
    Albums
    01. RED (Taylor’s Version), Taylor Swift
    02. Our Country, Miko Marks & The Resurrectors
    03. 29: Written in Stone, Carly Pearce
    04. They’re Calling Me Home, Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi
    05. Stand for Myself, Yola
    06. Outside Child, Allison Russell
    07. In These Silent Days, Brandi Carlile
    08. JT, Steve Earle & The Dukes
    09. Wary + Strange, Amythyst Kiah
    10. My Savior, Carrie Underwood

    Singles
    01. Taylor Swift, “All Too Well (Ten Minute Version)”
    02. Kane Brown, “One Mississippi”
    03. Carly Pearce, “Next Girl”
    04. Kane Brown, “Worship You”
    05. Amythyst Kiah, “Black Myself”
    06. Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted to Be That Girl”
    07. Amythyst Kiah, “Wild Turkey”
    08. Walker Hayes, “Fancy Like”
    09. Chapel Hart, “I Will Follow”
    10. Gary Allan, “Waste of a Whiskey Drink”
    11. Candi Carpenter with Brandi Carlile, “Dirt Around the Tree”
    12. Chris Young and Kane Brown, “Famous Friends”
    13. Willie Jones, “American Dream”
    14. Brit Taylor with Dee White, “At Least There’s No Babies”
    15. Taylor Swift with Chris Stapleton, “I Bet You Think About Me”
    16. Joshua Ray Walker, “Hello”
    17. Brittney Spencer, “Sober & Skinny”
    18. Yola, “Diamond Studded Shoes”
    19. Kip Moore, “Good Life”
    20. Brothers Osborne, “Younger Me”

    Zack:
    Albums
    01. American Siren, Emily Scott Robinson
    02. The Horses and the Hounds, James McMurtry
    03. How the Mighty Fall, Charles Wesley Godwin
    04. Calico Jim, Pony Bradshaw
    05. Pohoyrlle, Margo Cilker
    06. They’re Calling Me Home, Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi,
    07. Wary + Strange, Amythyst Kiah
    08. Things to Come, Jeremy Parsons
    09. The Marfa Tapes, Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert and Jon Randall
    10. Mercy, Cole Chaney
    11. Music City Joke, Mac Leaphart,
    12. Cast Iron Pansexual, Adeem the Artist
    13. One to Grow On, Mike and the Moonpies,
    14. 29: Written in Stone, Carly Pearce
    15. Heart & Soul, Eric Church
    16. See You Next Time, Joshua Ray Walker
    17. Outside Child, Allison Russell
    18. Vincent Neil Emerson, s/t
    19. Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno, s/t
    20. Ramble On, Charlie Marie

    Singles
    01. Amythyst Kiah, “Wild Turkey”
    02. Jason Eady, “French Summer Sun”
    03. Joshua Ray Walker, “Flash Paper”
    04. Emily Scott Robinson, “Let ‘Em Burn”
    05. Pony Bradshaw, “Calico Jim”
    06. Morgan Wade, “Wilder Days”
    07. Allison Russell, “Persephone”
    08. James McMurtry, “If It Don’t Bleed”
    09. Triston Marez and Ronnie Dunn, “Where the Neon Lies”
    10. Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted to Be That Girl”

    Jonathan:
    Albums
    01. Outside Child, Allison Russell
    02. Our Country, Miko Marks & The Resurrectors
    03. The Girls Are Back in Town, Chapel Hart
    04. The Moon & The Stars: Prescription for Dreamers, Valerie June
    05. RED (Taylor’s Version), Taylor Swift
    06. Race Records, Miko Marks & The Resurrectors
    07. Renewal, Billy Strings
    08. A Southern Gothic, Aida Victoria
    09. Wary + Strange, Amythyst Kiah
    10. Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, Aaron Lee Tasjan
    11. They’re Calling Me Home, Rhiannon Giddens & Fransisco Turrisi
    12. Laysongs, Chris Thile
    13. The Servant, Shelby Lynne
    14. 29: Written in Stone, Carly Pearce
    15. The Ballad of Dood & Juanita, Sturgill Simpson
    16. The Cry of the Heart, Connie Smith
    17. Right Now, Willie Jones
    18. My Savior, Carrie Underwood
    19. My Bluegrass Heart, Bela Fleck
    20. Music City USA, Charley Crockett

    Singles
    01. Taylor Swift, “All Too Well (10 Minute Version”
    02. Chapel Hart, “I Will Follow”
    03. Brittany Spencer, “Sober & Skinny”
    04. Miko Marks & The Resurrectors, “Hard Times”
    05. Amythyst Kiah, “Wild Turkey”
    06. Steve Earle & The Dukes, “Harlem River Blues”
    07. Candi Carpenter & Brandi Carlile, “Dirt Around the Tree”
    08. Brit Taylor & Dee White, “At Least There’s No Babies”
    09. Miko Marks & The Resurrectors, “Long Journey Home”
    10. Tyler Childers, “Yes, I Guess They Oughta Name a Song After You”
    11. Willie Jones, “American Dream”
    12. Taylor Swift & Chris Stapleton, “I’ll Bet You Think About Me”
    13. Sarah Shook & The Disarmers, “Talkin’ to Myself”
    14. Carly Pearce & Ashley McBryde, “Never Wanted to Be That Girl”
    15. Kane Brown, “One Mississippi”
    16. Cody Jinks, “All It Cost Me Was Everything”
    17. Sam Williams, “Can’t Fool Your Own Blood”
    18. Kaitlin Butts, “How Lucky Am I”
    19. Brothers Osborne, “Younger Me”
    20. Robert Finley, “Make Me Feel Alright”

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