The 10 Best Country Albums Of 2023
This year’s best country albums list is presented in partnership with Don’t Rock The Inbox, the amazing country music newsletter run by Stereogum contributors Marissa R. Moss and Natalie Weiner on Substack. Check it out and consider buying a subscription.
2023 was undoubtedly a good year for country music – and we’re not talking about the massive success of Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen and Zach Bryan. Those were the stories that grabbed the headlines (well, that and some awful Jason Aldean-related shenanigans we’d rather not mention here), but it was also a spectacular run for albums that either didn’t fit into the country radio mold or any genre mold at all.
The national appetite for music called country is surging, and that appetite spans all different kinds of sounds and styles — from the poppiest Dan + Shay tune (yes, we are D + S apologists) to Molly Tuttle’s bluegrass renaissance to honky-tonk tracks perfect for the line-dancing revival. Streaming has destabilized radio’s former stranglehold on the genre (for better as far as inclusivity and aesthetic diversity, and considerably worse vis à vis royalties), and opened up the country floodgates. No matter your taste, there was a country album (or several) released this year that suits it.
Some familiar faces returned with characteristic aplomb. Jason Isbell was back with an album that feels and lives like a rock album, but doesn’t all rock music have roots in it? Marissa found Weathervanes transcendent, calling it “a masterpiece people are afraid to call as such because it’s just so predictable to say that Jason Isbell is so good at songs. Sometimes the obvious answer is the right answer.” (Read Marissa’s full review here.)
Tyler Childers expanded his reach with Rustin’ In The Rain, offering one of the true love songs for the ages (“In Your Love”), and an album that contained existential meditations and modern-day technology laments, a perfect balance of everything he does so well. It’s a beautiful thing that he can sell out arenas while some dude you’ve never heard of who happens to have a #1 country song is struggling just to get tickets sold. Amanda Shires helped Bobbie Nelson (yes, Willie’s sister and longtime collaborator) get some long overdue shine with their pristine collaboration Loving You. Margo Price offered a gem of psychedelic country with Strays (and the companion, Strays II), that included an absolute banger of a rock song (“Change Of Heart”) and a ballad or two that will break your heart (“Lydia” and “Country Roads”).
Kelsea Ballerini had a transformational year with Rolling Up The Welcome Mat (For Good). She appeared on Saturday Night Live and the cover of Time and brought drag queens on stage to perform at the CMT Awards as anti-drag and anti-trans legislation threatened basic human rights in Tennessee. All that while releasing one of the best country songs of the year, “Leave Me Again,” a somber, acoustic solo write. And Brandy Clark floored everyone with her self-titled, Brandi Carlile-produced LP, easily cementing her place as one of Nashville’s all-time greats. Clearly there was plenty to listen to without even turning on the country radio dial – or even a man named Luke.
At Don’t Rock The Inbox, the country music Substack newsletter we run, we listened to and loved all of those – we have just as big a soft spot for a gem of a mainstream record than we do a word-of-mouth gem. But this year, for our best country records list, we decided to hone in on 10 excellent releases that may not have quite gotten the shine they deserved (well, nine, plus one indie record we’re convinced is actually a country record), from tribute albums to perfect pop-country, with plenty of songs that will make you cry. –Marissa R. Moss & Natalie Weiner, Don’t Rock The Inbox
NATALIE’S ALBUM PICKS
Your and my favorite antifascist Austinites returned this year with another collection of candid, plain-spoken, good-timing tracks, and there are none better when it comes to capturing what it feels like to be a person in 2023. Rebuking nostalgia on “Did It Happen That Way,” singing party songs about being poor on “I Get By” and “I Know About No Money,” singing sad songs about being poor on “Damn The Working Man” and “What I Had To Do” — Croy covers them all, with unvarnished feeling and a well-honed honky-tonk swing. “Throw ‘Em Out” indeed!
Commercial country radio is in its arena-rock era, which makes it even more frustrating that Roberts’ swaggering singles aren’t getting any traction in that still deeply homogenous format. Her pop-country anthems are bright and fun, and rarely lapse into cliché: Take, for example, a murder ballad called “Miranda” that riffs on both Lambert and Miranda rights(?!). Rock and hip-hop notes embellish Roberts’ twangy country core; “Louisiana” wears its “Daddy Lessons” influences on its sleeve, while “Country Club” is a flawless tune for twerking in a honky-tonk (you know it happens). “Dollars stack higher in low places” — yes, a thousand times yes.
I haven’t been more slack-jawed at a country show than seeing the way people respond to Nick Shoulders, an Arkansan with the most traditional hillbilly bona fides wrapped up in a decidedly online package. Shoulders excels fom the opening of this album, which moves quickly from a pitch-shifted version of Garth Brooks’ first Facebook video to Shoulders’ virtuosic whistling, on through songs that yodel about heartbreak (political and otherwise) through rose-colored glasses and a jazzy, New Orleans-bred country shuffling style. “They built to burn but we will live to maintain, because it ain’t all bad,” he sings on the title track — one of dozens of lines on the album that will help you muster the courage to keep pushing for a better world.
Some (mostly white, straight, male) artists get a ton of credit for being “real.” I haven’t heard a more heartbreakingly true song this year, though, than Summer Dean’s “Lonely Girl’s Lament,” in which she stares being a single woman in the face while crafting a classic country ballad. Produced by Bruce Robison, the entire album is textbook Texas country in a way that’s honky-tonk-ready but never redundant. Dean’s songwriting is endlessly fresh, even when it’s presented in a seductively traditional package.
I love tribute albums, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard one quite this refreshingly genreless — where the quality of the music took clear precedence over assembling a roster of contributors that should participate. That is not to say it’s not star-studded. Dolly Parton appears on the tracklist, after all. But the project as a whole, produced by jazz guitarist Matthew Stevens, floats easily between bluegrass and country and jazz to better mirror Watson’s vast impact. The results are stunning, pretty as can be without sacrificing depth and heft.
MARISSA’S ALBUM PICKS
“Ethereal country-pop” is the best way to describe the debut album from Jordyn Shellhart, who writes with vulnerability and potent detail on Primrose. “Who Are You Mad At” is like a three minute version of three years of therapy: “Am I a trigger? Am I a fuse?” she asks, checking a partner for their tendency to deflect. And “On A Piano Bench Getting Wasted” is a gorgeous ballad about that killer combination of loneliness and nostalgia for experiences we’re not even sure we had. She’s funny and frank too (“You had a thing for laundromats, and skinny girls with bangs,” on “Steal A Man”). A perfect album for those who dreamt of an acoustic, twangier version of Midnights.
4. Margo Cilker - Valley Of Heart's Delight (Fluff And Gravy)
“What do I do with the middle/ Between the coffee and the wine?” asks Oregon’s Margo Cilker on “With The Middle,” a standout track on her sophomore album. Cilker ponders distance here – the distance we put between ourselves and our homes, between us and the ones we love (or loved), between the morning and the night, when we’ve got to face who we’ve become head-on. There’s humor (“Crazy Or Died”), classic wandering odes (“Lowland Trail”), and a fishing song that is not just a fishing song (“Steelhead Trout”), all rooted in Cilker’s perfectly off-kilter voice and lush but rustic instrumentals. It transports you everywhere you want to go, and everywhere you’ve been.
Georgia’s Brent Cobb doesn’t so much write albums about the South as he does albums that simply couldn’t exist anywhere else. They don’t romanticize or coat Southern life with cliches so much as they vibrate on the same frequency as the rural expanses, the pines and the farmland, with plenty of space for the groovier traditions, too. Songs like “Livin’ The Dream” show his funkier side (dude clearly understands the Allman Brothers Band are a state birthright), with ones like “It’s A Start” showing his relaxed sense of acoustic country. It’s both easy listening and richly complex – no easy feat, at all.
2. Jess Williamson - Time Ain’t Accidental (Mexican Summer)
This is a country record in disguise that happens to also contain one of the best rock songs of the year (“Hunter”). After embracing twang as one half of Plains with Katie Crutchfield, Williamson stayed in the Texas state of mind on Time Ain’t Accidental, an album that seeks to make sense of the cards we’re dealt, especially when it comes to love. Anchored in her dusty twang, these songs are written with poetic precision, loading each lyric with subtext and stories. “She looks real young and nice and agreeable,” she sings on “Tobacco Two Step.” “Why am I not surprised?”
There’s a casual bite to the songs of Jobi Riccio’s debut LP, Whiplash. “I curse when I’m angry,” she sings on “Sweet.” “Shit, I curse when I’m not.” This is the kind of album where you leave knowing an artist better than you ever thought you could in less than 40 minutes, and learn a thing or two about yourself in the process. Riccio grew up on country radio, folk, and alternative rock, coming out with what leans more “candid Americana” than anything else. It’s not exactly confessional, but it’s frank as hell, full of self-examination, painful honesty and love songs grounded in reality.