The annual Essential Albums list is Saving Country Music’s most comprehensive guide to the music of a given year. Drawing from the over 100 album reviews published during the year, this is where you come to find what you might have missed in a very busy year for album releases.
Even more so than previous years, the sheer amount of albums released due to the pandemic made it even more difficult to navigate and keep up. Cooped up artists recorded new albums and side projects in 2020, and released them in 2021. Because of this, it is just impossible for any single individual or outlet to cover everything. So please understand nothing was overlooked or purposely excluded. Every effort is expended to cover as much music as possible, and with an emphasis on the artists who regularly go overlooked, or who are not covered elsewhere.
A few ground rules:
- This does NOT include the Album of the Year Nominees since they’ve already had a spotlight shined on them through the nomination process. In the spirit of highlighting what was overlooked, they are not included here.
- There is no specific order to the list, aside from the first albums being considered the “Most Essential,” or albums that just missed the bubble to be considered Album of the Year nominees.
- More albums will eventually end up on the Essential Albums List. More 2021 albums will be reviewed in the comings days into the first few weeks of January before 2022 releases start in earnest. Saving Country Music reviewed over 100 albums in 2021, so please no whining about what was overlooked. Be thankful this free resource to music listeners continues to be offered year after year.
- As always, suggestions of additional albums, lists of your essential albums, and opinions about this list are encouraged, and can be shared in the comments section below. Just no “Hey, this list is entirely bunk because so and so wasn’t included!” or “so and so WAS included.”
2021 Saving Country Music Album of the Year Nominees:
• Garrett T. Capps – I Love San Antone (review) • Melissa Carper – Daddy’s Country Gold (review) • Mike and the Moonpies – One To Grow On (review) • Charles Wesley Godwin – How The Mighty Fall (review) • Brandi Carlile – In These Silent Days (review) • Billy Strings – Renewal (review) • The Steel Woods – All of Your Stones (review) • Mac Leaphart – Music City Joke (review) • James McMurtry – The Horses and the Hounds (review) • Blackberry Smoke – You Hear Georgia (review) • Vincent Neil Emerson – Self-Titled (review)
Most Essential Albums
MOST ESSENTIAL – Charlie Marie – Ramble On
Be still your heart, bend your ears, open your mind, but no need to temper your expectations for this highly-anticipated debut album from one of today’s preeminent country singers, the one and only Charlie Marie. Let the waves of classic country goodness wash over you, and extol their virtues upon your very soul, and put you at ease about the future of country music.
Ramble On is nothing less than an assured pronouncement that Charlie Marie from the unlikely port of Providence, Rhode Island should be considered one of our premier recording artists in independent country music at the moment, and at or near the top of the pecking order when it comes to inspiring and confident women. The only question as always is if people will listen. But Charlie Marie has given them little to no excuse not to. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Hayes Carll – You Get It All
Hayes Carll came out promising that his seventh record would lean more heavily on the country influences of the native Texan compared to his previous releases. And sure, You Get It All probably is a bit more country-sounding. But more importantly, it’s a good record. In fact it’s a pretty great one. And country or not, it’s a Hayes Carll record. It’s the kind of record you hope Hayes Carll delivers nearly 20 years into his career.
Don’t go in expecting a hard country record from Hayes Carll here, because you’ll be disappointed. But do expect You Get It All to be one good song after another, with a few great ones too, and most everything you want a Hayes Carll album to be, country or not. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Carly Pearce – 29: Written In Stone
29: Written In Stone, the album includes the seven songs from the earlier EP, as well as eight new ones, giving you almost an entire new album of material, cooling most any criticism of rehashing the same stuff twice. And if anything, the new additions to the project are even more cutting, and more country than the initial songs. Carly Pearce isn’t soft pedaling her move toward becoming a country traditionalist, she mashing the accelerator, and doing so unapologetically.
Now a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and once a prodigy singing traditional country and bluegrass at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Carly Pearce has successfully wedged a broom handle between the cogs of the Music Row machine, escaped the sausage factory assembly line, and successfully done what many of the young women who move to Nashville fully intend to do before they’re gobbled up by the system: become a country star. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Kiely Connell – Camulet Queen
It is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to Hammond, Indiana-native Kiely Connell and her debut record Calumet Queen that will send shivers down your spine and prick the very deepest regions of your soul with its sincere and distinct expressions of an unburdening heart. Exquisitely sung and written, delightfully sparse in aspect, it yearns to leave you with an unsettled feeling, and succeeds in a way that is peculiarly comforting.
Her voice is what strikes you first, confident and expressive, yet burdened with emotion and full of character like the contours of an elder’s face. For some it might be too rich or distinct upon initial exposure, but after warming to it, Kiely Connell’s voice will call to you with appeal. Though you want to pin her voice down as similar to some of your other favorite singers, it’s more accurate to describe it as an amalgam of some of the best voices to grace country and roots music all integrated into one. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Sierra Ferrell – A Long Time Coming
Years of hopping trains, busking and bruising around the United States, being homeless with plenty of harrowing stories to tell has resulted in that real world authenticity baked into Sierra Ferrell’s West Virginia roots. Capturing the creative spirit of these dynamos in a recorded context is often difficult. But as the aptly-titled Long Time Coming illustrates, it’s not impossible.
Sierra Ferrell is one of those one in a million artists born to do this, and bred to excel at it, and forged through real life experience. There is no affectation here. This is all Sierra Ferrell. Like Todd Snider who spied her potential some seven years ago, Tyler Childers who perhaps crossed paths with her in West Virginia, and Sturgill Simpson who wanted to throw his weight behind her, Sierra Ferrell is worthy to be regarded as a generational force in country and roots music. (read review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – John R. Miller – Depreciated
John R. Miller’s music, used cars, and auto repair is officially open for business coast to coast, specializing in swapping out starters and alternators, rebuilding carburetors, selling used tour vans, and peddling songs about hard-hearted women, hand-to-mouth subsistence, and the slow sunsetting of Appalachia.
Once simply a jewel of rural West Virginia beloved by locals, the signal of this singing troubadour and musician-for-hire has now been boosted by Rounder Records through his new album Depreciated, marking John R. Miller as the latest worthy inductee into the swelling regimen of authentic Appalachian singers and songwriters, backed by his band The Engine Lights. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Alan Jackson – Where Have You Gone
You could say Alan Jackson is past his prime, but on Where Have You Gone he’s actually right where he should be, reminiscing on life, enjoying his semi-retirement, and showing fair concern about the direction country music is taking as a country legend with a conscience and an important voice. If Alan Jackson was out there trying to run down a late career radio hit, or trying not to show his age, that’s where he would run into trouble like so many aging country performers do.
Instead, Alan Jackson is being Alan Jackson—a constant, a rock, someone you can count on. It’s the legacies guys and gals like Alan Jackson have contributed to country music that have created the foundation from which everything else is built from. And on Where Have You Gone, Alan Jackson has added a few more stones to that foundation, while also trying to repair some of the cracks that have formed from the neglect and misuse in recent years. (read full review)
***REMEMBER: Album of the Year Nominees are not included on this list***
MOST ESSENTIAL – Emily Scott Robinson – American Siren
Emily Scott Robinson is just composing on such elevated wavelengths of articulative insight and poetic delivery, her music is incapable of comparing to contemporaries or falling into platitude, forcing you to draw correlations with vaunted songwriting legends of the past as peers. She is undoubtedly one of the premier musical scribes of our time, turning what might be stereotypical country themes into emotionally stirring moments.
There’s a lot happening on this record, and it may be one of those that we’re unable to fully grasp or measure until weeks or months have past. Just like all great songwriters, Emily Scott Robinson has enveloped the sentiments she wants to convey, and the lessons she wants to teach in layering and nuance. It takes time to peel back the layers of an onion, and often, many tears. Same goes for the elaborate American Siren. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Bobby Dove – Hopeless Romantic
Get ready to rearrange the hierarchy of your Canadian country music depth charts. Hell, get ready shake it up in the lower 48 and everywhere else as well, because Bobby Dove has just released a record that will have you crying and moaning along with some of the best classic country music composed in new original songs that’s come down the pike in quite a while.
I’m not sure if Hank Williams or Hank Snow kept a mistress in Montreal or Manitoba maybe we didn’t hear about and passed some genes down, or what has possessed Bobby Dove to become like a vessel or channeler for all the great classic country music influences we so sorely miss. But this is some of the most authentically-rendered and true-to-inspiration country music you can root out, while still holding onto enough originality to hit your ears with a welcomed freshness. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Béla Fleck – My Bluegrass Heart
Béla Fleck has journeyed back to his original compass point in his latest album, My Bluegrass Heart. No, there’s no reels about how pretty Jenny broke his poor heart or how Uncle Pen could sure cut a rug. This is still Béla bluegrass, entirely instrumental, fearless in scope, and compositionally astounding. Béla Fleck didn’t just rope in names like Billy Strings, Chris Thile, Brian Sutton, Sierra Hull, Michael Cleveland, Molly Tuttle, and Edgar Meyer to perform on this project to impress you by the depth of his Rolodex. They just happen to be the only players alive out there that can actualize this kind of crazy stuff.
If you want to hear the absolute pinnacle of bluegrass in 2021 when it comes to just sheer blazing imagination and artistry, then accept no substitutes. Béla Fleck and My Bluegrass Heart are it, period. My Bluegrass Heart is a masterwork, and a brilliant love letter to the bluegrass art form articulated by some of its greatest living artisans, led by one of the most creative minds of any musical art form. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Margo Cilker – Pohorylle
South Carolina, a dairy farm in Petaluma, California, Margo Cilker’s been out there working with her hands, carving out a hardscrabble existence in faraway and unforgiving places, accruing a lifetime’s worth of stories, and the ones she didn’t share already on a slew of cobbled together Bandcamp releases comprise this cover to cover debut gem from Fluff and Gravy Records.
Crushing your poor little soul in one song after another, emulating the sounds of a distressed heart, Margo Cilker still somehow also makes it all sound so sweet. Heartbreaking but enduring, sparse but abundantly enjoyable, Pohorylle is a songwriter record that’s country enough, with the attention centered squarely on the songs and Margo’s voice, and backed a hot shot band specifically assembled to make sure these songs are respected. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Jesse Daniel – Beyond These Walls
In country music, one way to consider the quality of a song or album is to ask yourself what a country legend might feel about it. In the case of Jesse Daniel’s Beyond The Walls, I feel confident Tom T. Hall and Don Williams would approve of the way it helps reset your perspective on the simpler things in life. I believe George Strait and Alan Jackson would appreciate the way Jesse takes a straight-laced, straightforward approach to country. When it comes to what the legendary Raul Malo of The Mavericks, we don’t have to assume what he thinks of Jesse Daniel veering into Tejano on this record. By appearing on it himself, we know Raul approves.
Well-produced by Tommy Detamore and performed by a crack team of professional guys, Beyond These Walls establishes that Jesse Daniel should no longer be considered the future of country music. He should be considered the present. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Hope Dunbar – Sweetheartland
Leave behind all of that defanged country, moldy folk, reconstituted indie rock, derivative roots pop, and pallid white boy soul they try to peddle these days as “Americana,” and pin your ears to what this virtually unknown mother from middle America is doing, because it’s leagues better than most, and the ideal of what post alt-country roots music should sound like. You’ve probably never heard of Hope Dunbar before. But my goodness, pipe up a few of her songs, and you’ll be made plenty aware.
How much does a preacher’s wife with teenage boys from nowhere Nebraska have to lend to the Americana conversation? Apparently, quite a bit. Sometimes the emptiness of landscape is more inspiring than the mountains and the oceans by offering a clean palette for the imagination, and the isolation from the creative epicenters insulates you from the adverse influence of trends and the the disruptions of inner conversations that the greatest artists have within themselves. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Flatland Cavalry – Welcome to Countryland
Welcome to Countryland is a worthy introduction and a resounding pronouncement for an important band coming into their own. It’s a step up, a stepping out, and an effort worthy of the buzz and adulation Flatland has been garnering for five years now. Well-written and executed, heartfelt, touching, and honest, it’s an album that doesn’t attempt to barrel you over with emotions, but works to reset your priorities and perspective in a roiled time. And perhaps most expressively, it is country.
Flatland Cavalry sunk their heart into this record, and even if they’re not your thing, you still feel and respect their effort and earnestness by the end. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to declare Welcome to Countryland an arrival for a band that’s already been beloved by many for years now. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Rob Leines – Blood Sweat and Beers
Lock your doors and hide your daughters ladies and gentlemen, because this booze hounding, womanizing, honky-tonking and hard rocking country music son-of-a-bitch is blowing through your municipality like a long track tornado, and if he doesn’t charm you with his silver tongue, he just might slay you with his Telecaster.
Where in the hell has all the twang and attitude in country music gone? Well let me introduce you to Rob Leines—a hard-touring 200 shows-a-year kind of guy who’s played everywhere and opened for the likes of Whiskey Myers and Dwight Yoakam. If the country music power trio wasn’t a thing before, it is now as Leines not only growls out his original songs, but let’s it fly with lead guitar chops that would waylay most. (read full review)
Essential Albums List
• Jon Wolfe – Dos Corazones – (read review)
• Dag Erik Ogsvold – Back Then – (read review)
• Cody Jinks – Mercy – (read review)
• Hannah Juanita – Hardliner – (read review)
• Swamptooth – B-Flat Earth – (read review)
• Joshua Ray Walker – See You Next Time – (read review)
• Chapel Hart – The Girls Are Back in Town – (read review)
• Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood and Juanita – (read review)
• Conrad Fisher – Homemade – (read review)
• Emmylou Harris – Ramble in Music City: The Lost Concert – (read review)
• Tylor and the Train Robbers – Non-Typical Find – (read review)
• Jason Boland and the Stragglers – The Light Saw Me – (read review)
• Shannon McNally – The Waylon Sessions – (read review)
• Morgan Wade – Reckless – (read review)
• The Shootouts – Bullseye – (read review)
• Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno – Self-Titled – (read review)
• Pony Bradshaw – Calico Jim – (read review)
• The Divorcees – Drop of Blood – (read review)
• Triston Marez – Self-Titled – (read review)
• Mose Wilson – Self-Titled – (read review)
• Canaan Smith – High Country Sound – (read review)
• Cole Chaney – Mercy – (read review)
• Lucero – When You Found Me – (read review)
• Charley Crockett – Music City USA – (read review)
• Charley Crockett – 10 For Slim – (read review)
• Summer Dean – Bad Romantic – (read review)
• Elijah Ocean – Born Blue – (read review)
• Silas J. Dirge – The Poor Devil – (read review)
• Loretta Lynn – Still Woman Enough – (read review)
• Red Shahan – Javelina – (read review)
• Bo DePeña – It’s About to Get Western – (read review)
• Katie Jo – Pawn Shop Queen – (read review)
• Ida Red – Harmony Grits – (read review)
• Drake Milligan – Self-Titled EP – (read review)
• Lord Huron – Long Lost – (read review)
• Brock Gonyea – Where My Heart Is – (read review)
• The Burner Band – Signs and Wonders – (read review)
• Yola – Stand For Myself – (read review)
• Nick Sizemore – Where The Lonesome Roam – (read review)
• John Schneider – Truck On – (read review)
• The Royal Hounds – A Whole Lot of Nothin’ – (read review)
• Cody Johnson – Human: The Double Album – (read review)
• Ryan Curtis – Rust Belt Broken Heart – (read review)
• Noel McKay – Blue Blue Blue – (read review)
• H. Self – Broken Live On – (read review)
• Jason Eady – To The Passage of Time – (read review)
• The Barlow – Horseshoe Lounge – (read review)
• Hailey Whitters – Living The Dream (Deluxe) – (read review)
• Nick Shoulders – Home on the Rage – (read review)
• American Aquarium – Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers Vol 1 – (read review)
• Jeremy Parsons – Things To Come – (read review)
• Addison Johnson – Dark Side of the Mountain – (read review)
• Lainey Wilson – Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ – (read review)
• Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall, Jack Ingram – The Marfa Tapes – (read review)
• Bridge City Sinners – Unholy Hymns – (read review)
• Storey Boys – Patterns – (read review)
• Travis Tritt – Set In Stone – (read review)
• Dallas Moore – The Rain – (read review)
• Carrie Underwood – My Savior – (read review)
• Michigan Rattlers – That Kind of Life – (read review)
• Parker McCollum – Gold Chain Cowboy – (read review)
Connie Smith – The Cry of the Heart – (read review)
Other Albums Reviewed with Postive Grades:
Zac Brown Band – The Comeback – (read review)
J.P Harris’s Dreadful Wind & Rain – Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man – (read review)
Eric Church – Heart & Soul – (read review)
Aaron Watson – American Soul – (read review)
Midland – The Sonic Ranch – (read review)