This post will be updated throughout the month.
9/25 UPDATE: Margo Cilker, Charles Wesley Godwin, Brent Cobb, Emily Ann Roberts, Devandra Banhart, Lydia Loveless, Karen & the Sorrows, and Dalton Dover.
9/17 UPDATE: Brothers Osborne, Zach Bryan, Larry Fleet, Posey Hill, and Allison Russell.
Valley of Heart’s Delight
Rare for an album in this exact vein not to have that slathered-in-Vaseline-by-Dave-Cobb sound, and the ramshackle production suits Cilker’s singing and narrative voices just fine. Masterful economy of language, and unafraid of humor. Just brilliant.
Charles Wesley Godwin
Continues his ascent as a songwriter in league w current genre greats (“Miner Imperfections,” y’all), w skill to match his scope and ambition. Vocals remain a liability, though: A better singer (Bentley, CoJo, McBryde) could get a radio hit off “Two Weeks Gone.”
More Than a Whisper
Griffith deserves far better than this wildly uneven tribute album. Some highlights (Strings & Tuttle, Snider, Earle, DeMent), to be sure, but far more comatose arrangements and veterans (Emmylou, sadly, and especially Colvin) who, frankly, sound just awful.
His inspired gospel set suggested he’d finally gotten over his fear of his capacity for greatness; here’s he’s regressed to his very-very-good mean. The danger of making a record like this about embracing a low-key persona is that the subtext becomes the text.
Emily Ann Roberts
Can’t Hide Country
I expected more Music Row pap. 30 seconds in, I was blown away by the voice, clever POV, and twangy-AF production. Niche comparison: The vibe here is a reincarnated Dawn Sears, just with a higher-pitched voice. A tremendous trad-country debut.
A lifetime removed from the freak-folk aesthetic of his early-aughts output, though his economic use of language remains a bit of a throughline. This continues his evolution in an EDM direction, which is fine, though I’m more partial to FLUME’s soundscapes.
nothing’s gonna stand in my way again
Her best, and she’s always been fantastic. Bonus for not actually including a Wilco cover. Her self-assessments transcend the mere vulnerable and are, instead, savage and withering, and she’s grown into the power in her voice. Peak form “alt-country.”
Karen & the Sorrows
Why Do We Want What We Want
Heady, dense, macabre in all the best ways, and I mean it as the highest of praise that this favorably recalls Gretchen Peters’ Blackbirds album in terms of the caliber of the songwriting and the overall sustained tone. This is a wonder of mood, observation.
Never Giving Up On That
Utterly anonymous mainstream country, albeit with better vocals than the Wallen – Zimmerman axis. But if you’d told me this was, say, Thomas Rhett or Sam Hunt trying to sound on-trend? I’d have believed you, including the horrific, adenoidal Alicia Keys cover.
Once again, they struggle to capture the energy and fearlessness of their live shows on record, but this is still a mainstream country album that’s forward-thinking in both style and POV. And it sounds like there are actually some viable hits, too, and that’s a win.
On-trend in the sense that it’s a 90s country throwback and is a billion years long, the vibe here is very specifically an updated, less nasal Aaron Tippin. Which, sure, that’s a niche that’s gone unfilled, but for 21 songs?
No Clear Place to Fall
A very pretty record that’s otherwise pretty ordinary catnip for genre purists. The track about keeping the Tyler Childers vinyls in a breakup is the obvious standout; the rest is rarely more distinctive.
Feels like a well-earned reprieve and victory lap after the marrow-deep Outside Child, but it’s still her second straight Album of the Year contender. Easy to wish she’d stay country-adjacent because she’s so good at it, but this is a joyous modern soul record.
I remain in the, “He’s very good, but not great,” camp, but this shows some much-needed quality control and editing. The writing and band are tighter, while the vocals make a “pro” case for ProTools,” especially w War & Treaty, Musgraves.
Rustin’ in the Rain
Continues to follow his own muse, rather than cater to a Stanbase that demands he re-record Purgatory ad infinitum, and that’s to his credit. Here, only the limitations of his band, especially J. Wells, hold him back.
The Devil I Know
Fair to say now she’s staked a claim as a generational talent, but wish she and Joyce had hipper taste in rock influences because she for sure has the chops for it. As is, this is her most uneven set to date, but the peaks are the highest, and there are many.
Standing Room Only
He seems lost in attempting to navigate transition to legacy act status: No longer getting first-dibs on the best of Music Row’s pro songwriters’ latest, he leans on bombast and gimmickry that foreground the technical limitations he’s spent decades masking.
A Song For Leon: A Tribute to Leon Russell
A mixed bag, even by the standards of this kind of thing. It’s the most country-centered acts (Margo Price, Orville Peck) who fare the best, while the rest of it scans as competent, rote. Fine for what it is, but inessential.
“They told me all of my cages were mental / So I got wasted like all my potential,” wasn’t meant to be career advice. It’s unclear what Wade’s POV is supposed to be. The few sparse country signifiers never point the way, and the lyrics and tone scan as therapy-speak.
A Cat in the Rain
Not a full-on return to peak form, but not terribly far removed from it. Not a full-on bid for mainstream attention, but not terribly far removed from that, either. The insufferable Stanbase will grumble about both, but it’s still one of the year’s best.
Bad Girl Bible Vol. 1
Still fully behind Roberts as a should-be megastar: The voice and the genre-spanning style are formidable. But the songwriting here is regrettably one-note, taking its strident bad girl posturing and (stompin’ four-four) beating it to death.
Joshua Ray Walker
What is it Even?
A response to bigoted internet trolls, What Is It Even? explodes country music’s obsession with performative, toxic masculinity. JRW sings the absolute fire out of Whitney, LeAnn, Lizzo, Sinead, and Regina, and turns Cher’s “Believe” into a country two-step. Essential.