It’s that time of year to once again commence a discussion about the best stuff released in country music. Excruciating work went into whittling the selections for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year to 11 nominees, and even then it feels scandalous that still more weren’t selected. But you have to stop somewhere.
Sitting right on the bubble were albums such as The Light Saw Me by Jason Boland and the Stragglers, Kiely Connell‘s Calumet Queen, and Margo Cilker‘s Pohorylle. Understand that some of the artists you might want to see here may show up in the Song of the Year nominations such as Emily Scott Robinson, Jesse Daniel, and Jason Eady. Also understand there will be a much more expansive “Most Essential Albums List” posted near the end of the year.
But these were the albums that not just yours truly believed were up to snuff, but readers commented on as Album of the Year contenders in their minds. And admittedly, this year’s crop sees a lot of stuff that hits to the side of country music instead of a bulls-eye. There’s two Southern rock albums, a handful of singer-songwriter selections, some Americana stuff, and a bluegrass record. But it all still fits under the big tent of country music.
As always, your feedback isn’t just requested, it will be considered in the final calculations. So if you have an opinion, please leave it below in the comments, including your list of top records if you wish. However, this is not a straight up and down vote. Your opinion will count, but it will count even more if you put the effort out to convince us all why one album deserves to be considered above the others. And please, no “You Forgot!” comments. If you think something has been unfairly omitted, utilize the comments section to inform us of the oversight, and please understand the upcoming Essential Albums list might include your favorites.
Ultimately, this isn’t an effort to make music into a competition, and Saving Country Music is not an autocracy. The purpose of this annual exercise is to expand the knowledge base of great music that we all think is the year’s best for the benefit of everyone.
Without further ado, here are your 2021 nominees for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year.
Garrett T. Capps – I Love San Antone
Of all the 2021 releases, this is the one that got the most spin time at Saving Country Music headquarters. Just a fun record to listen to, over and over.
Garrett T. Capps is the city of San Antonio’s resident cosmic country gonzo honky tonk weirdo freak, and if you’re looking to unwind from all the bullshit of, well, pretty much everything these days, cue this thing up and you’ll immediately be letting loose and losing your long face. Take a vintage 70’s Austin attitude, and add a healthy dash of authentic Texican culture, and I Love San Antone is like the perfect plate of enchiladas.
With I Love San Antone, Garrett T. Capps looks to instill that sense of local pride back into country music with a passion that you can’t help but root for, regardless of what you think about San Antonio. Garrett T. Capps is one of the closest things we have these days to peak era Doug Sahm, or Gonzo era Jerry Jeff Walker. Marching to the beat of his own drum, a little wild and offbeat, his love for San Antonio is the love we all have for where we’re from or where we ended up. It’s that sense of “home” that’s at the heart of all great country music. (read full review)
Melissa Carper – Daddy’s Country Gold
Daddy’s Country Gold is not just the blossoming of a songwriter, singer, and entertainer, it’s one of those few and fleeting moments where everything comes together to present music in its perfect, most ideal form. Unlike most all of the other music you interface with, it all snaps in place smartly here. And even if perhaps the speed or flavor just isn’t your style, you can’t help but to slow clap at what has been accomplished.
Make no mistake about it, Daddy’s Country Gold isn’t just an ambitious solo album. It’s a brilliant revelation of what some have known for years, and what many others are about to find out: Melissa Carper is one of the greatest classic golden era country singers and composers of this generation. (read full review)
Mike and the Moonpies – One To Grow On
The single greatest band in country music at the moment released one of the single greatest records you will hear in country music in the last few years. And as much as you may assess this opinion as fandom overriding objectivity, or outright overwrought hyperbole, wait until you give this thing a spin for yourself. You’re so used to your favorite artists beginning to trail off whenever they reach what feels like a peak, whether it happens slowly or precipitously. With Mike and the Moonpies, they found what we all believed was a high water mark both live and in the studio a few years ago, and yet somehow they still figure out ways to outdo themselves.
How do you keep things fresh and moving forward? Well in the case of One To Grow On, it’s heading back to their roots, which for Mike and the Moonpies still means moving forward, and doubling down on their strengths. They know how to not take themselves too seriously, how to embrace the cliché nature of country music with a keen sense of self-awareness, and be a true blue honky tonk band for the everyman. (read full review)
Charles Wesley Godwin – How The Mighty Fall
How The Mighty Fall is a treatise in storytelling through song. Taking a simple piece of rural graffiti and turning it into a love saga is the magic sowed into “Jesse.” Expressing the palpable struggle of a man trying hold onto his family’s land and legacy in “Gas Well” gives way to imagined landscapes usually resigned to cinema. Filling you in on a century’s worth of history in under 4 1/2 minutes is the wonder behind the murder ballad “Cranes of Potter.”
And the whole time, the music refuses to be confined by conventional ideas of regional genre, bounding to whatever influence best fits the mood of the tale to be told. That may be back porch Appalachia simplicity, starting with a fingerpicked melody, and then finding room for a little fiddle and steel guitar in the opening song “Over Yonder.” Or it could be the unadulterated Blue Ridge rock of “Blood Feud” and “Strong.” When the sentiments turn sharp and the moments tense, so does the music. When it’s time for soft reflection, the music follows suit.
Charles Wesley Godwin may not find the type of overwhelming reception that Tyler Childers or Chris Stapleton have, which is turning country music upside down and rewriting its conventions. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to. How The Mighty Fall proves that he does. (read full review)
Brandi Carlile – In These Silent Days
We almost forgot what a stellar, generational talent Brandi Carlile is. Almost. Having to wait nearly four years since her last original studio record, and with her staying so busy with The Highwomen and stamping her name on projects for others as a producer, we were due for a reminder of just how spectacular her solo stuff can be, and just how powerful of a singer she is.
It takes seconds, not minutes into this new album for the brilliance of writing and the power of performance that Brandi Carlile boasts to be self-evident. Immediately an internal dialog commences in the listener on if Carlile is one of the best singers in the roots realm, for this generation or any other. Repeatedly the music delivers “moments” where your soul is stirred, and it reminds you why she has ascended to the summit in the roots discipline, and has stayed there now for some 15 years.
In These Silent Days is a strong, inspired, challenging, propulsive, and ultimately, convincing argument for Brandi Carlile continuing her role as the premier performer in modern Americana. (read full review)
Billy Strings – Renewal
Words fail when comes to describing the virtues Billy Strings displays in the live context. Elegant flourishes of flowery prose still comes across like platitudes failing to contextualize his creativity and contributions, and hyperbole is impossible since he can rise to meet or surpass any expectation. Billy Strings is such a creative dynamo, you have to worry that at some point he will just simply vaporize into the ether and become more musical apparition than man.
Country music is so often misunderstood by the outside world as a simple and limiting form of expression. What’s great about the bluegrass discipline—and what Billy Strings is illustrating for the masses—is that bluegrass can be the springboard to explore the very highest reaches of what is humanly possible in music. But it is also a way to speak straight to the heart of the common people. On Renewal, Billy Strings does both, and in a way that doesn’t just flatter bluegrass in a way that keeps it relevant to the modern ear, but in a way that defines the very essence of the genre in the modern era. (read full review)
The Steel Woods – All of Your Stones
After The Steel Woods had proven their musical concept to be resonant with their first two albums, it was time for the ultimate vision for the band that guitarist Jason “Rowdy” Cope had dreamed up to be fully realized in their third album, and what they consider to be their opus. Then after putting the finishing touches on the record—and only weeks away from revealing it to the public—the unthinkable news came down. Jason “Rowdy” Cope had been found unresponsive in his home in Nashville due to diabetes complications.
You can’t listen to All of Your Stones without considering Jason Cope’s passing at the age of 42. It may sound like a cliche to say contextualizing the songs within this tragic news results in an entirely different experience that eerily speaks to a prescient awareness of Rowdy’s impending passing, but that’s exactly what happens in one turn after another on this album, and in a way that will shake you to your very core.
Whether Jason “Rowdy” Cope knew in some cosmic way that his time was limited, or the words and real-life circumstances intersected in some instances solely due to coincidence, he made this record like it could be his last, pouring every once of his soul into it, while being aided and assisted exceptionally by singer Wes Bayliss, bassist Johnny Stanton, and drummer Isaac Senty, assuring Rowdy’s musical legacy will resonate on planet Earth for many years beyond his physical presence. (read full review)
Mac Leaphart – Music City Joke
Like a more countrified version of John Prine, or a more compositionally-minded version of Jerry Jeff Walker during his gonzo era, Mac Leaphart immediately earns your ear and devotion with this handful of incredibly well-written songwriter songs and rousing boot scooters that are just about perfectly produced and ripe for repeat listening. It’s rare these days you run into one of those albums that immediately gives you that tingly feeling like you know you’ll still be listening to it years from now, but this is one of them. Music City Joke ain’t no laughing matter.
This isn’t a debut album from this South Carolina-native, but it sure feels like one. He’s been around for years, but you’ve probably never heard of him. That’s not entirely your fault though. First moving to Nashville in 2012, Mac Leaphart fell into the hustle of trying to write songs for others, and found only marginal success in that pursuit, especially on the commercial side. So instead of continuing to attempt to push that stone up the hill, he decided to center his focus on his own songs, and the results speak for themselves. (read full review)
James McMurtry – The Horses and the Hounds
James McMurtry is old school. He knows how character and nuance is worth so much more than namby pamby bromides. He can evoke the dimension of location in a song like few others, rattling off meticulous observational details of specific towns and cities as good as Google. McMurtry is a genius of keen insight, sponging up the mannerisms of people and the contours of culture in every town he travels to, and utilizing it in sculpting his songs into masterworks like Rodin.
James McMurtry’s last album Complicated Game from 2015 ended up being considered the Album of the Year around here. Not sure if a similar fate awaits The Horses and the Hounds. But it makes a good argument for being one of the most enjoyable, and thus, maybe one of the most accessible albums of James McMurtry’s career. If McMurtry was looking to mash the accelerator and not let the old man in as he soldiers past the three decade mark in the songwriting trenches, he certainly accomplishes this on The Horses and the Hounds. (read full review)
Blackberry Smoke – You Hear Georgia
On their new album You Hear Georgia, Blackberry Smoke embrace their role as Southern music revivalists and preservationists with now over 20 years of service to the subgenre, and they take that responsibility more serious than ever, expanding their sound, adding a chorus of soul backup singers, and making sure all influences and subsets of Southern music are represented.
Part of the Southern rock identity has always been sliding into the country side of music as well, and Blackberry Smoke does so most excellently on this album with “Lonesome for a Livin’” featuring Jamey Johnson. This might be the best country songs Blackberry Smoke’s ever cut, with steel guitar and all.
20 years in, Blackberry Smoke isn’t showing their rust. They’re hitting their stride, understanding their species is slowly becoming endangered, taking that prognosis personally, and doing what they can to keep the torch burning, and the memories of the sounds of the South alive. (read full review)
Vincent Neil Emerson – Self-Titled
Don’t worry your pretty little heads country fans, the proud tradition of poet laureates from the great state of Texas has been conferred to yet another generation in the form of Vincent Neil Emerson. If you remember watching that iconic scene from Heartworn Highways with Texans Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle sitting at Guy Clark’s kitchen table swapping songs, and wondered if a similar magic would ever be captured again, you should watch this guy with Colter Wall and others, or hear what Rodney Crowell has to say himself.
“If he grows on the public the way he’s grown on me, it’s possible young Vincent will plant the flag of his [songwriting] forebears firmly in the consciousness of a whole new generation,” Rodney says. Of course Crowell might be a little bias at this point, since he produced this self-titled record. But not before he saw something in Vincent Neil that was similar to the chemistry found in his contemporaries back in the 70’s.
This new album is a combination of simple compositions that convey sweet little vignettes from Texas life, and deep reverberative works and leave one shaken to the core from the impact of their stories. This combination makes Vincent Neil Emerson easy to warm to, but lasting in effect—suitable to soundtrack to your Saturday evening soiree under the stars, or to sift through for Song of the Year consideration. (read full review)