Thirty Best Albums of 2023: The Rest of the Best

Country Universe continues its look back at 2023 with our thirty best albums of the year.  We’ll be posting these in three batches, each of which represent a tier: Ten Best, Next Ten Best, and Rest of the Best.  A Spotify playlist of all of the albums can be found at the bottom of this post.

Here are the rest of the best.

Malpass Brothers

Lonely Street

Typically, we’re skeptical of music that could be characterized as catnip for genre purists. But when the caliber of the music is on the level of Lonely Street, we’ll gladly champion some trad country. It’s technically not their debut, but Lonely Street made for a winning (re-)introduction to the Malpass Brothers.


Ashley McBryde

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 of them to choose from.


Willie Nelson


Hard to believe he’s never released a proper Bluegrass album, but better late than never. Rather than a de facto greatest hits comp, this serves as a purposefully curated reimagining of the songs from his miles-deep catalogue that truly work in this style.


Queen Esther


Drawing from jazz, blues, folk, and country, Queen Esther is a captivating talent who truly pushes the boundaries of country music while having a great ear for genre forms. And it takes a certain type of genius to cover “Bohemian Rhapsody” in a way that makes sense on an album inspired by a global pandemic.


Slackeye Slim

Scorched Earth, Black Heart

The year’s most savage country album, with Slackeye Slim turning his razor-wire lyrics on himself as much as he lashes out at the broader culture. A lifetime ago, this would’ve found a solid following with the more punk-leaning fringes of the alt-country scene, and that’s a great vibe to rediscover in 2023.


Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives


Stuart always runs the risk of his music turning into a museum exhibit, but he keeps his songs out of the curio cabinet on what might be his best overall album since his landmark set, The Pilgrim


Brit Taylor

Kentucky Blue 

Armed with a sultry alto that elevates her hardscrabble narratives, Taylor is yet another major talent to emerge from the hollers of eastern Kentucky. Sturgill Simpson’s undiluted twang and fiddle production choices are perfectly matched to Taylor’s vibe, helping to make her sophomore effort a huge leap forward.


Tanya Tucker

Sweet Western Sound

Pity this hasn’t gotten the same promotional push as her official comeback album, because Sweet Western Sound bests the very-very-good While I’m Livin’ in most every way. Tucker sounds far more settled into this phase of her career on this effort, and the songs are a better showcase for the range of her talents.


Turnpike Troubadours

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.


Various Artists

A Tribute to The Judds

Fantastic more often than not, but the three tracks that fail (Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton, Megan Moroney, Jelly Roll and K Michelle) are absolute horrors. Skip those, and you’ve got a set of some all-time and current greats who get why the Judds’ music endures and who rise to the occasion.

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

Open in Spotify


  1. Re. Sweet Western Sound: I think another reason why this album wasn’t quite the success that it was is that it seems that many people wanted the same Tanya Tucker that existed in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, and that simply wasn’t going to happen. It’s unfortunate, because this album contained so much to appeal to not only mainstream country fans, but also those on the Americana side of the fence, including her dedicatory song to Linda Ronstadt (“Letter To Linda”).

    • Certainly, there was a faction of long-time Tucker fans who were thrown by While I’m Livin’. Hell, even Tucker herself said that she didn’t really get the project at first, because she’s accustomed to recording hits. And, despite the warm reception by critics and on the awards circuit, there wasn’t much of an attempt to center the album within the country mainstream.

      Without the “Comeback!” narrative, the press simply didn’t rally around this album and the promo didn’t materialize in the same way, and that’s a shame.

  2. …this “best of the rest” selection just confirms one more time how good an album output there was in 2023 overall. depending on one’s personal taste, quite a few of the above could easily being ranked higher based on their quality.

    willie nelson had an absolutely outstanding year from start to finish – two grammys, 90th birthday party (april) plus blu-ray package of the music and the event in l.a. (december), harlan howard tribute album and his first bluegrass album. absolutely awesome energy.

    slackeye slim and queen esther i have never heard of before (another two of the 2023 albums that need to be checked out in 2024 – that to-do list just does not seem to get any shorter these days).

    • Like I mentioned in the Preamble, 2023 was an exceptional year; in some other recent years, this batch could’ve made for a stellar top 10. And there were still plenty of albums we heard last year that missed the cut for this round-up. The depth of talent and quality work was just astounding.

      Nelson’s Grammy wins rankled a lot of folks on the grounds of his “relevance” in a contemporary landscape. I’d argue he’s the only artist who’s actually keeping pace with Zach Bryan… And that the high points in his output are a whole lot higher than Bryan’s and come at a greater frequency.

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