Lots of great debut albums, lots of great songwriting, lots of great women: we’ve really recovered from the bro era (so ignore the conceptually impossible #11 in this Top 10).
1: Miranda Lambert, Palomino: The first cut, "Actin' Up," may well include references to the most reprehensible moments of the 1980s, Velvet Chains and Midnight Rodeo. But this coherent album also has great range. I think Miranda is at this point at the height of her powers and a legend whose name is a powerful talisman like "Dolly" or "Loretta." Fifteen beautiful cuts that could serve as a fine introduction to Miranda's masterful oeuvre, including a couple of the great numbers from The Marfa Tapes, now finished for the studio: “Waxahachie,” “Geraldene,” an “In His Arms.” She's ready for anything, such as Music City Queen, the life story of a Nashville floating bar, featuring the B-52s. If I was a cowboy, I'd be the queen, she sings. But whatever her gender identity at the moment, Miranda Lambert rules.
2: Zach Bryan, American Heartbreak: Hick hipster gods Zach Bryan and Tyler Childers both put out triple albums this year. They’re folkie American traditionalists, favoring simple stripped-down melodies and instrumentation. They remind me in various ways of Steve Earle circa the 1990s. Maybe their neo-folk-rock sound rings differently now than 30 years ago: I speculate young people now hear their records as the opposite of the internet. Their popularity seems to betray a yearning for directness, a return to the aesthetic of authenticity. But they’re experimenters too; they might issue personal confessions or engage in surrealist storytelling, and Bryan moves both toward poetry and cowpunk. Childers' Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven is a bit too experimental for my taste (it runs through eight songs three times each, in different arrangements), or at least I don't think it quite works. I like the triple helping of Bryan (34 highly finished though rough-edged songs), better. Either way, both are artistically ambitious and of this moment, despite the throwback sound.
3: Jenny Tolman, Married in a Honky Tonk: I strongly feel that Ashley McBryde's very good collaborative album Lindeville swiped this album's concept from earlier in the year. Each is presented as a playlist from a small-town radio station, complete with deejays and advertisements. Jenny calls her town "Jennyville," which is more fun, in a way, making you think the whole gossipy metropolis is in her head, the album a psycho-autobiography. Plus Jenny's album is better. And also, why isn't this stunner a big star? She can be rowdy as hell (I Know Some Cowboys) or so gentle and beautiful (“Afraid”).
4: Nicolle Galyon, firstborn: She was on the Voice in 2012, and then launched an amazing songwriting career that includes nine #1 hits, many collaborations with my goddesses Miranda and RaeLynn, and work for... Thomas Rhett, Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Walker Hayes, etc. The fact that everyone else has been singing her songs helped conceal the fact that she's a lovely vocalist. The album is a gentle and beautiful piece of autobiography, and the cleverness or unexpected reversals in the lyrics are put to the service of some devastating or quotidian emotional insights. For examplesunflower might be the only song I've heard about what it's like to be the tallest girl in school. Nicolle's moneymaker is her words and here she crystallizes 2022 as well as anyone, as on self-care. She ain't an alcoholic, but she's got tendencies.
5: Ernest, Flower Shops: It seems bizarre, but “albums” still have “covers,” although they've started to go animated, as though we're all living the nightmare at Hogwarts. Album covers, whatever and wherever they are in the streaming world, are still square, a shape common to covers from vinyl to CD to, for some reason, now. Good thing that the square shit hung on into 2022, because Ernest's is a classy classic that doesn't move at all. It's a little bit hard to recommend an artist named Ernest-and-that's-it with a straight face, but also the writing and singing are such that they demand a serious response focusing on serious enjoyment. It's obvious that we're in a new-new post-neo traditionalist phase self-consciously reviving country circa 1990, and this album is a beautiful example. Plus, mentioning "Flower Shops (feat. Morgan Wallen)" allows me to say: Morgan Wallen. PS: "I took some pills, and she took the dogs." This is What It's Come To.
6: Kimberly Kelly, I'll Tell You What's Going to Happen: As I listened back to everything this weekend, this album just kept rising; give it a few days and it’d probably float to number 1 and then off-planet. An amazingly accomplished debut by someone who, like Galyon, has been around Nashville awhile, arriving when her sister Kristen signed a recording contract in 2012 and singing back-up on some of the biggest hits of the last decade. Also, this album is another, even more perfect symptom of the fad right now for "90's country," the golden decade. This is just what it sounded like, and this is just what country music should sound like: Forget the Alamo.
7: Ben Burgess, Tears the Size of Texas: I guess this is getting familiar: veteran hitmaker as a songwriter issues excellent debut album. Burgess wrote the catchiest country song of the last decade and one of the biggest hits: “Wallen's Whiskey Glasses.” He portrays this project as an attempt to cut some songs he couldn't or wouldn't sell to other artists, but he sings them well, and some of them are would-be classics. "Don't build a white picket fence around a house of cards," he recommends, which shows again that playing with clichés or juxtaposing them in surprising ways is a good songwriting strategy. He also manages to express the sort of eccentric spirituality associated with Childers on such songs as “Way of the Triune God” and with Sturgill Simpson: where do we go, Burgess asks, When We Die? But he can also go amusing: Started a Band.
8: Lainey Wilson, Bell Bottom Country: Wilson was probably the breakout country star of 2022 (building on her 2019 career song “Things a Man Oughta Know”). I suddenly realized that as she seemed to be everywhere at this year's CMA awards. Now she's cooking with Grease. That the breakout artist of 2022 is female is itself progress. I hope Miranda doesn't feel too much rivalry with this younger studette, because you don't get to Lainey—a clever rowdy redneck traditionalist—except through Miranda, whom I'd guess was Lainey's heroine as she grew up in a tiny town in Louisiana. You couldn't escape Lainey this year, and the next few are liable to be the same. This song's hard to avoid or resist, for example: Heart Like a Truck.
9: Sunny Sweeney, Married Alone: One of the best and most underappreciated country singers of her time (the last 15 years), Sweeney just keeps plugging along, and this is her best album overall. Reviewing the album, I compared Sweeney to Loretta Lynn, who had just passed away. Neither’s a volcanic or operatic singer; more like, highly distinctive and particularly moving. She does a lot of trad country, but also favors bluesy rockers. If people like Childers surprise by exploring alternative spiritualities, Sunny surprises by exploring alternative sexualities.
10: Drake Milligan, Dallas/Fort Worth: George Strait is the hero of now, his name invoked in many songs and his sound helping drive the new-new traditionalism. Milligan, who finished third this year on America's Got Talent, is a beautiful new Strait, occupying the Texas troubadour spot with completely convincing ease on this, his debut. (Another excellent example of an album mining this vein this year is Randall King's Shot Glass.) I can't imagine a better version of all this than songs like Tipping Point. Once again, it's a Bad Day to Be a Beer.
11: Walker Hayes, Country Stuff the Album: Can a Top 10 have 11 entries? Certainly not, and so this one is a secret, just between us. I’d never listen to pop country this raw and rank and so super-amusing and catchy that one will never be able to forget it again ever and thus become a worse person. This album brings together Hayes' radio-busters from the last couple of years, specifically the awesome confections Fancy-Like and AA. Features from Jake Owen, Carly Pearce, Lori McKenna. Bro I spent 15 years addicted to Nicorette too. It's a mixed bag, but the highlights induce ecstatic secret pleasure concomitant to the guilt.
Some excellent bluegrass albums that came out this year:
—Seth Mulder and Midnight Run, In Dreams I Go Back
—Tennessee Bluegrass Band, Future of the Past
—Tammy Rogers and Thomm Jutz, Surely Will Be Singing
—Del McCoury, Almost Proud
—Junior Sisk, Lost and Alone
—Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway, Crooked Tree
—Magnolia Drive, Timeless
Some EPs displaying great promise or accomplishment:
—Kaitlin Butts, what else can she do and Sad Yeehaw Sessions (two EPs: incredible promise)
—War and Treaty, Blank Page EP (accomplishment)
—Morgan Wade Acoustic Sessions EP (accomplishment)
—Megan Moroney, Pistol Made of Roses EP (promise)
—Mario Flores, What Took You So Long EP (accomplishment)
—Sarah Buxton, Moonriser EP (promise)
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell