Best of 2023: The Preamble

The family tree was already on fire.

Whenever I hear a country star say that country music is one big “family,” I immediately think of a value that my grandparents instilled in me from a very young age: “Don’t embarrass the family name.” The years that I always find it most difficult to encapsulate are those in which the country music family writ large has gone out of its way to do just that. Country music made national headlines many times in 2023, drawing attention and ire for embracing stereotypes and cultural hostility and just generally showing its entire ass in public.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been writing about popular music now for a full two decades, or perhaps it’s because a level of meanness I find exhausting seems to have coated every facet of the country music discourse this year, but I just don’t have it in me to write 1500 words about Jason Aldean, Morgan Wallen, or Oliver Anthony and what they mean. The prima facie case is that they all variously represent country music as a vehicle for invented white grievance, and they– and the industry that continues to invest in their successes and in the successes of countless acts who are just like them– are happy to reap the spoils of their grift.

The rot at the roots is the root of the problem, indeed. The people who deny that truth the loudest are those who stand to benefit most from fertilizing those roots with their own shit. As Drayton Farley sings in a single we’ll cover here, “It’s all the way it’s always been,” and another think piece isn’t going to change that any more than another panel discussion at CRS or Americana Fest ever will. 

Ultimately, what the problem children of the family did was to overshadow one of the strongest years for country music in recent memory. What should have been the story is that artists from communities who are almost never found on the country airplay charts are making some of the most compelling music of anyone in the genre… and that there continues to be a handful of major-label acts who are still pushing the genre forward with their understanding of how to follow unique muses while working within traditional forms.


Look past the sensationalist headlines, and country music is as healthy and vital as it’s ever been. To recognize that health, though, requires setting aside the impulses to gatekeep who is allowed to make country music and a belief in the supremacy of misguided notions of authenticity that have never truly applied to genre anyway. 

Instead, what has always mattered when it comes to the best country music is empathy: The ability of an artist to communicate experiences that honor the lives of the characters they’re singing about by approaching them with respect and dignity. That’s why Jason Isbell can adopt the persona of an Oklahoma roughneck, Roberta Lea can sing about a small-town boy, and Gabe Lee can envision that Jesus might have felt depressed every now and then, just as much as Chris Stapleton can record a whole album about how much he loves his wife, Jessye DeSilva can recall feeling like “a guest in God almighty’s house,” and Cody Johnson can deliver what might be the best-ever pro-Texas anthem.

The best country music of 2023 skillfully walked that fine line between first-person detail and radical empathy, while the headline-grabbing grifters and authenticity fetishists spent their time punching down. It’s an important– and, frankly, not all that difficult to make– distinction, and as we head into 2024 with the intention of balancing our “retro” content with more current coverage, it is a distinction that should clarify the Country Universe ethos.

Here, then, are our picks for the 30 best country albums of 2023, along with a whopping 60 singles that confused the hell out of our Spotify algorithms. Thanks, as ever, for hanging with us in our corner of the internet and, as we head into our 20th year (!), we hope to continue to expand the definition of who is considered part of the country music family.

Best of 2023

The Preamble:

The family tree was already on fire

The Thirty Best Albums of 2023:

Album of the Year: Jason Hawk Harris, Thin Places

Ten Best | Next Ten Best | Rest of the Best

The Sixty Best Singles of 2023:

Single of the Year: Maren Morris, “The Tree”

Cover Bosses | Friends in High and Low Places | The Lord’s Work

(Occasionally) On the Radio | The Politics of Identity | I Want Your Love

Optimist Prime | Love Done Gone

Uptempo Hard Shit | Life Lessons & Cautionary Tales


  1. Congratulations on CU’s 20th anniversary! As near as I can tell, I’ve been commenting on posts since early 2009. Although those comments have decreased over the years (I lack your ability to say new things in new ways about the music I love.), CU is still (almost) daily reading for me.

    Mostly a fan of the retro content, I have shared this site’s love of many artists (Dolly, the Chicks, Reba) and been a little (lot?) less enthusiastic about some of CU’s other favorites (Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain, Kane Brown and Taylor Swift… though, over time, I have certainly grown to appreciate that last artist much more), but I have always found your writeups interesting.

    Thank you for helping me discover new music, learn more about the music I already loved and, in general, providing so much enjoyment over the years. Looking forward to another year of CU… and hopefully many more after that!

    • Thanks for this, Michael! I love that we have a balance of readers who are drawn to the historic content– which I will say Kevin does better than literally anyone writing about country music– versus the contemporary. And as her fanbase will surely attest, I’m really only a fan of Underwood’s gospel album and a handful of other scattered album tracks. And I certainly came to appreciate Swift much later in her career, too. So I do get that!

  2. …it may or may not interest you that the annual cu “best album list” has been a most welcome and respected contributor/source to the annual “album of the year” summary of the swiss country music magazine “country style”, which reflects the opinions of a variety of much respected specialists in the field, or years. of course, your contribution has always been duly pointed out.

    since i have not received all 2023 rankings yet, the swiss list isn’t fully complete. however, without any major surprises in the last few outstanding entries, it looks as if megan moroney’s “lucky” and kelsea ballerini’s “rolling up the welcome mat” are in a tight race for the top spot.

    kinda surprising, given that all of country’s current male big hitters, plus jason isbell, came out with new albums in 2023 that lived up to the expectations – even mostly managed to surpassed them amply. not to mention some of the (not so anymore) “left fielders” like jelly roll, zach bryan, tyler childers, ashley mcbryde, margo price, molly tuttle or allison russell.

    congrats on 20 years and counting in business from a more or less serious commenter (since no. 75, or so, of the first “100 greatest women” list) and veteran of the swift vs underwood fan clashes of days already long gone by.

  3. Congratulations on 20 years!

    I will just say this in re: Jason Aldean:

    I thought it was pretty, shall we say, questionable for him to talk about trying stuff in small towns considering he hails from Macon, Ga., pop. 157,346. I mean, it’s not my own city of San Antonio (pop. 1,472,909), but it’s hardly a ”small town.” I realize that level of authenticity may be a bit much to ask, but come on. And that’s not even getting into the song being just another cliched lionization of small-town life. I have lived in smaller towns, and suffice to say I much much prefer the city. And as one who’s lived in the city for going on 14 years, I can absolutely say that at least a few of the things that the writers of the song say wouldn’t fly in the small town, wouldn’t fly in the city either.

    Also, one of my Facebook friends was talking about that song, and one of their friends commented, ”I might have to start listening to country music now.”

    I replied, ”Why don’t you listen to country music anyway?”

    What I wanted to say, though, was, ”Yeah, you can -redacted- right off with that, right off to the edge of the universe, and you can keep -redacted- off with that when you get there.” It makes me sick unto death that there are people out there who will promote artists to listen to just because of their politics that they otherwise would not give the time of day.

    • Absolutely. I posted a similar thread on our now-defunct Twitter about how Aldean has never lived in an actual small town, and that the song is all part of his and his wife’s embrace of a right-wing grift, since he’s quickly approaching the age cutoff for being put out to pasture as an A-lister, and she’s never had anything else of value to contribute culturally. It’s a just awful song that was going to die in the 20s on the airplay charts until his team realized that they could lean into literal lynch-mob iconography to stoke outrage and capitalize on a the attention economy. Same thing with Oliver Anthony, frankly. And we were on record as thinking Morgan Wallen’s music is terrible long before he outed himself for being who he is.

      Anyway. We’re open about our political stripes around here, so it’s always worth saying that I never find myself an “owned” lib whenever people choose to listen to whatever deeply shitty music the likes of Aldean or John Rich or RaeLynn are peddling, in the same way they’re free to waste two hours watching whatever incompetent film Kirk Cameron or Gina Carano or whoever have thrown onto a screen. And we also ripped Will Hoge’s “Whose God Is This?” and The Watson Twins’ “Holler” to shreds in our Single Review Round-Ups for being outright bad art.

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