The Best of 2021
Our look back at 2021 concludes with the ten best albums of the year.
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”
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”
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”
Emily Scott Robinson
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'”
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)
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”
Miko Marks & the Resurrectors
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”
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)”
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”
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