Dec 04, 2023, 06:28AM

Top 10 Country Albums, 2023

What if I said that 2023 is the best year for country music in the last 30?

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—The post-bro sound of triple-album dude Morgan Wallen, which represented a move halfway toward 1990s traditional (often incorporating electronic drum tracks and the like, but also perhaps a fiddle), gave way this year to more interesting developments. Wallen's One Thing at a Time, which came out in March, is good, with lots of clever writing, and I thought of it and HARDY's The Mockingbird and the Crow as a single 53-cut album. But 53 is a lot. I'm getting tired of the sound and maybe less interested after Wallen's de-cancellation. His previous sprawl, Dangerous, which outsold Beyoncé, was a bit better and felt fresher. 

—Hip-hop and country have been merging here and there for 20 years, and definitely since "Old Town Road." But as heard on several items here, especially #1, #8, and #9, the intersectional vocabulary has finally become completely natural, as musical identity politics is becoming impossible and all sounds are multiracial.

—But more and more black artists are emerging in country and in various other roots genres. Rhiannon Giddens, whose eclectic album You're the One appeared in August, deserves a lot of credit. But the black invasion of or return to roots music—country, Americana, and blues, among others, seen here in #7, #8, and #9—is revivifying all these forms and bringing them back to some of their sources.

—Christian spirituality is more conspicuous all over country music, as shown here by #1, and even #2 and #9, which are otherwise pretty much party albums. The whole style of #7 is gospel. I take this to be part of our "crisis." We're connecting with God as a measure of desperation and a source of healing. Relatedly, people are singing and rapping much more explicitly about their mental illness or addiction or desperation or loss, which is a trend, and not only in country music.

But country music is dealing with the crises in particularly effective and moving ways that have moved it to the center of the culture this year.

Top Ten:

(1) Jelly Roll, Whitsitt Chapel: The production style is basically Wallen: many traditional signs and touches, processed with contemporary software. And Jelly Roll, who spent most of his career as a rapper, is still developing as a singer. But this album shows us what country is now. It was a cultural phenomenon in epidemic America, where we've been trying to survive opioids, mass incarceration, covid, obesity, terrible political division. Jelly Roll’s so vulnerable and decent on this album, as though Wallen was a Significant Cultural Figure instead a Fun Party Boy. People go to Jelly Roll's concerts to mourn and celebrate people they've lost to addiction and violence. He's a preacher and a redeemer. Or is he a sinner and a criminal? He performed "Save Me" this year with Lainey Wilson and his career song Need a Favor with Wynonna Judd, who looked as though she were in crisis herself at that moment.
(2) Chris Stapleton, Higher: Really, Chris should be #1 every year he puts out an album, because of the transcendent excellence of his singing. But maybe now we're spoiled. This is a wonderful album, comparable to Traveller (2015) and Starting Over (2020), but by now that's no surprise. A couple of times he does my not-favorite Stapleton thing: really hit hard on every single note ("South Dakota" here) as though he were Carrie Underwood. And he occasionally draws implausibly general conclusions, as on "Trust." But there are many great songs and varied moods on this album's 14 cuts, and I need to stop being picky, because there is Crosswind.

(3) Elle King, Come Get Your Wife: "You can bet your ass I'm crazy, bona fide," sings King on one of the rocking good songs on this rocking good album, and though she's constantly portraying herself as out an out-of-control bad girl, this is a very sane album of excellent material well-suited to King's voice and proclivities. She's fun. But she's a very fine country singer too, and a very fine singer of anything anywhere near rock music, soul, blues: a potential female Stapleton. Docking her one spot for "Drunk (And I Don't Wanna Go Home)," which wastes an appearance by the Queen, Miranda Lambert.

(4) Grey DeLisle, She's an Angel: Pretty cool name, I say, and a very cool album. It's not quite fully commercially produced like the rest of these, and the videos are sitting there with only dozens of views. But the loose, traditional sound is alive. There are some very funny songs, such as The Dog (53 views), a duet with the legendary Ray Benson, as well as some very touching ones. Some of the songs that didn't strike me immediately caught on as time went on. In a relatively unassuming way, Grey’s a great country singer, and can give you little touches of Loretta and Patsy. If Dolly isn't available to sing the Dolly biopic, they might call Grey. Also, Dolly's album Rockstar is extremely unfortunate, the opposite of She's an Angel. Quit Pickin' On Me.

(5) Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, Altitude: These days, there needs to be a slot in your Top 10 for a veteran artist on a comeback, like Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker last year. This year we might’ve plucked out Jessi Colter's Edge of Forever made with Margo Price, or Willie Nelson's uber-pleasant "Bluegrass" album. Neither of those is as good as this, a surreal space cowboy gospel concept album that might be Stuart's best. Marty sounds as good as in 1990, but now he knows more. Perhaps he's experimenting with psychedelics, like everyone seems to be. At 65, Stuart has hit a new creative phase, a higher plane.

(6) Jenni Muldaur and Teddy Thompson, Once Morem The Mizes, Logan Mize and Jill Martin, The Mizes: I reviewed these two great tributes to the classic country duet in October. Maria Muldaur's daughter Jenni is such a beautiful country singer! And the Mizes' EP has some of the best straightforward country duets since the golden age of Loretta and Conway, Porter and Dolly, whose songs Muldaur and Thompson revivify beautifully (523 views). That's my justification for doubling up: one of these is covers, and the other's a six-song EP. They're great on the same playlist.

(7) The War and Treaty, Lover's Game: This married couple from DC, both of whom are astonishing gospel, soul, and country singers, are still coming into their own. Not in the artistic sense: there, they've definitely arrived. But they should start a run of chart domination and a climb toward the hall of fame as well. Michael Trotter Jr.'s singing reminds me of Stapleton. I guess Tammy and George were married for some of their duet work, but also got a lot of mileage out of the breakups. I hope Michael and Tanya don't have to struggle down that road, but if they do, I bet they'll make country records out of it. Up Yonder.

(8) O.N.E. the Duo, Blood Harmony: Speaking of duets, "Tekitha, the seasoned soulful mom, and Prana Supreme, the insightful, poetic daughter of hip-hop legend RZA, anchor this musical powerhouse," says the website. (Tekitha is Prana's mother, not RZA's, as it turns out). That's a pretty unusual bio for a country act (black Judds!), but these two know what they're doing, and constitute one of many indications that the hip-hop/country nexus has taken on the status of the natural American music of now. They’re both extremely good country singers, and the album has some of the funnest songs of the year, but also some of the loveliest.

(9) Tanner Adell, Buckle Bunny and Buckle Bunny Stripped: We've gone all the way to a country Cardi B: Utah State's own Tanner Adell! Buckle Bunny is very puzzling and reprehensible, and no one can possibly be this hip-hop and this country and this LA and this Miss Utah all at once. And yet of everything I listened to all year, this made me happiest. Tanner should’ve sold a million copies of "Trailer Park Barbie" this summer. But did she? Here's her wet dream about running into Britney Spears at the grocery store:

Fantasy, Britney, circa 2005
Tattoos on her hips, yeah, two butterflies
Brunette in her roots, bubblegum glitter gloss
Like an orange creamsicle, melt you down to your socks
Swear she saw me starin' at the sway in her hips
Through the produce section, what was she gonna get?
Those bright red nails picked up that little green basket
Man, if that's how she gets it
Then I gotta have it
Strawberry wonder, strawberry lover
Bet she tastes like strawberries under the covers.

(10) Duane Betts, Wild & Precious Life: Descriptions of albums by people like Jason Aldean and Eric Church often describe them as working in a "southern rock" vein. Not, really; the bludgeoning instrumental tracks sound more like Springsteen than like Marshall Tucker. The name "Duane Betts"—which belongs to Dickey Betts's son, who's named after Duane Allman—effortlessly conjures swathes of southern rock. This sweet album, if it had appeared in 1973, would’ve been a good follow-up to the Allmans' Brothers and Sisters. Duane can definitely play guitar exactly like Dickey, whom he strikingly resembles, and I like his singing too and the nice riffology. It makes you realize there could still be rock bands.

Next Five:

Kimberly Perry, Superbloom

Ol' Moose, No Forever Road

Larry Fleet, Earned It

Margo Price, Strays II

JD Clayton, Long Way From Home

10 Excellent Bluegrass Albums:

Gibson Brothers, Darkest Hour: Half country half bluegrass (i.e. acoustic) by the great veterans. Heart's Desire.

Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway: Lovely and rollicking. Down Home Dispensary.

Tim O'Brien, Cup of Sugar: sweet item by a true American master. Bear.

Starlett and Big John, Living in the South: Speaking of duos, great traditionalists Big John Talley and Starlett Boswell Austin: straight outta Courtland, VA (540 views).

Michael Cleveland, Lovin' of the Game: The vision and hearing-impaired fiddle virtuoso has to be experienced live to be understood. But this is a fine record.

Willie Nelson, Bluegrass: Greatest hits, acoustically, with harmony vocals. Exceedingly pleasant.

Leftover Salmon, Grass Roots: Jam band turns out to be an unexpectedly tight bluegrass outfit, still working on Jerry Garcia's legacy. Crazy mando player.

Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, Let Time Ride: Solid outing by one of the top acts in trad bluegrass over the last 20 years.

Goodwin Brothers, If You Hadn't Noticed:  Hyper-steady traditionalism by seemingly youngish people from eastern Kentucky.

Jackson Hollow, Roses (413 views): Canadian Americana, which is itself a tradition.

Promising Eps:

Karley Scott Collins, Hands on the Wheel (demanding stardom for this one).

Hannah Dasher, The Other Damn Half.

Belles, The Way You Break a Heart.

Mackenzie Carpenter.

Nate Fredrick and the Wholesome Boys.







2017: "This hasn’t been a particularly good year for country music."

Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell


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