Best of 2022:
“It’s a burning, hurting thing, this world.”
In what I’d argue is the finest film of 2022, Goran Stolevski’s horror-fairytale You Won’t Be Alone, a young woman raised in isolation learns about the world by taking the form of whatever she kills. When her curiosity about the local villagers overcomes the admonishments of the shapeshifter who serves as her surrogate mother, she experiences both the ecstasies and traumas of all the world has to offer when we seek human connection. It burns, and it hurts, but it is ultimately worth the cost.
The best art reflects where we are at a specific moment, considers how we arrived here, and contemplates where we might go next. And the best country music of 2022 is, indeed, a burning, hurting thing. On the heels of several years that crystallized around the toxic practices of gatekeeping, 2022 found country’s most vital artists staking claims without regard for convention or historical precedent. “I’ll stop begging for what’s already mine,” Tami Neilson wailed at the climax to “Kingmaker,” the title track, cast purposefully as a James Bond theme, to her magnum opus. The past year made it abundantly clear that country music, as an industry, has chosen to profit from a base form of brutality, which left artists like Neilson, Miko Marks, Kane Brown, Zach Bryan, and Ashley McBryde with one of two choices: to embrace the prevailing grift for opportunities to connect, or to refuse to debase themselves.
Mercifully, the genre still has plenty of artists who refuse to beg for what’s rightfully theirs.
In 2022, those artists leaned hard into their rejection of norms. Bryan released dozens upon dozens of songs without regard for traditional promotion and still outsold and outstreamed damn near everyone based upon his ability to engage directly with his fanbase. McBryde delivered a third studio record that was a collaboration with a slew of other Nashville misfits on a concept album that pays tribute to an idiosyncratic songwriter, while Brown courted radio hits at the same time he was writing an album that, in its most provocative moment, appropriated the exact rhetoric used against the Black Lives Matter movement. Oh, and they both did those things on Music Row’s dime.
Sunny Sweeney, Charley Crockett, Joshua Hedley, The Vandoliers, and Brennen Leigh were among a litany of artists who all embraced honky-tonk aesthetics that appealed to genre traditionalists while subverting expectations with the content of their neon- and beer-soaked songs. Billy Strings, Jake Blount, Punch Brothers, and the Grammy-endorsed Molly Tuttle all helped to make this one of the strongest years in recent memory for progressive Bluegrass, too. Under the wide umbrella of the country universe, it was a strong year, even if it lacked across-the-board consensus picks beyond a bunch of rote endorsements of Miranda Lambert’s sixth-best album. So it goes.
It’s fair to note that Lambert’s Palomino, though it didn’t make our year-end round-up and is certainly quite good, is of a piece, thematically, with the year’s best country music. The conclusion so many artists came to in 2022 is that deep human connection is only ever ephemeral, even in the best of times… And these are not the best of times. Albums as diverse as Plains’ I Walked With You A Ways, kelsea ballerini’s SUBJECT TO CHANGE, Will Payne Harrison’s Tioga Titan, and Marks’ Feel Like Going Home recognize a fundamental transience in our shared experiences, and they buck against the idea that we should sit comfortably in our divisions in favor of making connections.
It’s no wonder, then, that the powers that be within the industry have kept so many of these artists and their music at arm’s length. Instead, the genre’s gatekeepers spent the year finding new ways to print that good Morgan Wallen money, from doubling-down on soundalike artists (HARDY, ERNEST, Bailey Zimmerman) to assembling a full star-making apparatus around Wallen’s rumored girlfriend, Megan Moroney. While right-wing grifters like John Rich spent the year Tweeting about their own invented persecution, it was Maren Morris who saw the catchiest and countriest single of her entire career take more than three months to scrape its way onto the bottom of the country airplay charts after she called out– accurately– Brittany Aldean for perpetuating the kind of transphobic rhetoric that resulted in widespread disruptions to healthcare functions at Nashville’s own Vanderbilt Medical Center.
In that regard, we’re twenty years removed from The Chicks, and very, very little has changed. Just imagine Toby Keith screaming about being a victim of cancel culture while his songs continue to score major airplay and he continues to get good seats at all of the major industry events, and that would be the key difference.
So what are Lunatic Country Music Persons to do? Again, there’s no shortage of compelling country music to engage with and to celebrate, as our lists here lay plain. I think there continues to be value in identifying when artists choose to align themselves with political figures who work to dehumanize others and strip them of their rights and dignity– Luke Bryan’s decision, for instance, to bring Florida Governor Ron DeSantis onto his concert stage just days before an election, or Lambert’s decision to take the stage with Jason Aldean on a night that he got nearly his entire audience to boo Morris in unison– but I also believe “cancel culture” is largely a fiction outside of the unique cases of Sinéad O’Connor and Janet Jackson. I wasn’t listening to Jason Aldean or Morgan Wallen or their ilk in the first place, independent of their political leanings, because their music– except for HARDY’s underwritten-but-weird “Wait in the Truck” collab with Lainey Wilson– is terrible and always has been.
There’s no sense of loss here, in other words, only a renewed skepticism. I won’t speak for the rest of the crew, but the events of 2021 and 2022 fully cured me of any lingering optimism that the country music industry might be capable of being better than it has been. I can weaponize sarcasm as well as anyone, but it’s important to draw the distinction that I’m not a cynic, so when I say that Music Row is going to do what it’s always done, it’s really about finding ways to elevate what’s different and disruptive.
That’s why, in 2022, we spent a lot less time talking about things like the ACM and CMA awards than we ever have and, instead, reviewed more current music that we loved than we have in years. In addition to our commitment to historically-focused features that our readers and commenters clearly still love, you can expect those trends to continue in 2023 and beyond. We’re also exploring new ways of building community within the country music space– there’s some behind-the-scenes stuff going on that we’re truly excited to be a part of– as the social media landscape continues to destabilize, and we’re looking for new ways to share the country music that burns and hurts across new platforms.
And if that sounds good to you, then you can rest assured that you won’t be alone, either.