It is the time of year when we try our best to go through all the titles released in country music in this year, and attempt to asses what we think will withstand the test of time and define 2022. This is never an easy task, and is not as much about turning art into competition as it is an exercise to allow us all to share what we believe is the “best” for the benefit of everyone.
2022 is a very unique year when it comes to albums to consider, since there are no clear front runners as we’re used to. No specific album or albums feel like undeniable masterpieces, but the albums at or near the top of the heap are so numerous, it’s painstakingly hard to delineate them from each other.
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. Also, please understand that there will be an upcoming Essential Albums list that will be much broader, and might include your favorites, including the “Most Essential Albums” that were right on the bubble of being considered here (see bottom). With how tight things were in 2022, the differences between these albums and the Album of the Year nominees is razor thin.
Also understand this is just the very start of the end-of-year assessments at Saving Country Music. The Song of the Year nominees for the first time have no overlap with the Album of the Year nominees. There will also be Single of the Year, and many other end-of-year considerations, as well as more albums reviewed from 2022 going into the early portions of 2023.
But right now, it’s time to highlight the 11 albums Saving Country Music feels cannot go overlooked in 2022.
The Broken Spokes – Where I Went Wrong
Congratulations, you have just stumbled upon your next favorite country band, and your next favorite country album. From Houston, TX, The Broken Spokes are a beloved local and regional traditional country outfit with a name synonymous with country due to the famous honky tonk in Austin. But having focused solely on live shows henceforth as opposed to aspiring for some sort of national attention, The Broken Spokes are also the best band you’ve never heard of. They’re looking to change that with their debut album Where I Went Wrong.
This thing is so damn good. If you needed to select a country music album to shoot into outer space to represent country music to other civilizations, or bury in a vault so when humans blow themselves to smithereens there’s something to repopulate country music with, Where I Went Wrong would not be a bad candidate. It’s that virtuous, that country, and truly flawless in its execution where there’s not one sour note, one bad turn of phrase, one weak song, or flat solo. Everything here is *chef kiss* excellent cover to cover. (read review)
Kaitlin Butts – What Else Can She Do
Fans of Kaitlin Butts have been waiting like patience on a monument for a new album, with a full seven years since the release of her debut record Same Hell, Different Devil ticking by. That was unlikely Kaitlin’s plan either. One of the scandalously few women somewhat successfully making it in the Texas/Red Dirt scene, you’ll see her name on festival posters, and perhaps on the stage with her husband Cleto Cordero of Flatland Cavalry, or hear her voice on some recordings from others. But maybe the release of What Else Can She Do? will finally be her moment. Taking a critical assessment of the record, it’s hard to argue why it shouldn’t be.
Fundamentally country, but imaginative in scope through some of the sonic landscapes brought to bear by producer Oran Thornton to bring the moodiness of the album to life, it’s fair to question if What Else Can She Do? ends too soon. But this album for isn’t an ending for Kaitlin Butts. It’s just a beginning. And hopefully, just like the characters of this album, Kaitlin Butts is commencing a period in her career where a new leaf is turned, and she finally receives the attention and recognition attentive country fans have known she’s deserved for years. (read review)
Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway – Crooked Tree
Molly Tuttle is one of the greatest guitar players of this current generation from any genre, and has the IBMA Awards to back it up. She’s also one of the fundamental reasons for the resurgence in interest in bluegrass we’re currently experiencing, spirited off the back of young performers like Molly invigorating the music with new life, and new blood.
Crooked Tree is Molly Tuttle going, “Oh, you want a bluegrass album? We’ll then here you go …” and then melting faces in 13 straight original tracks that embrace many bluegrass traditions, while still offering a uniqueness of perspective, and a personal connection to Molly. There’s also some really great bluegrass instrumentation, and some tantalizing collaborations.
Still, don’t get stuck on the idea that all of Molly Tuttle’s albums henceforth will be bluegrass too. As she tells us in Crooked Tree, she’s not fit for the mill machine. She will follow her heart, not the herd. But for right now, Molly Tuttle is at home in bluegrass with her band Golden Highway, and we’re all 100% here for it. (read review)
Joshua Hedley – Neon Blue
Simply put, Neon Blue is a blast of a listen. It’s not just the nostalgic joy you get from songs like “Neon Blue” and “Broke Again” that come straight out of the Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn era, it’s the type of simple, almost innocent sentimentality found in the writing of songs like “Free” and “Found in a Bar” that bring an immediate fondness to this music touched by memory and just a hint of melancholy.
And though the 90s had a distinct sound that was born off the picking of guys like guitar player Brent Mason and steel player Paul Franklin, it was also the last era when you’d hear a country song that sounded like it could have been written many years previous. So when it comes to songwriting, “90s country” really encapsulates a much broader era of influence.
Deeply studied and truly gifted to express the host of styles that comprise the broad and omnivorous 90s country era, Joshua Hedley has made himself into a modern country marvel, capable of taking up any piece of music from any country music era, and making it sing. (read review)
Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville
The album came together over a week long songwriting retreat at a cabin just outside of Nashville. It was composed around the characters of a fictional town named after the influential songwriter Dennis Linde, who penned such gems as “Bubba Shot The Jukebox” by Mark Chesnutt and “Goodbye Earl” by the [Dixie] Chicks. For the male characters, songwriters Aaron Raiterie, Benjy Davis, and T.J. Osborne step up to sing lead, just as Brandy Clark, Caylee Hammack, and Pillbox Patti do as well. John Osborne of Brothers Osborne was the producer of the album.
Lindeville is one of those albums that will go on to define a more compelling and atypical career from an artist that is helping to break the mold of what we can expect from major label country. Incidentally, it also helps highlight some important songwriters. But perhaps most importantly, Ashley McBryde’s Lindeville symbolizes that we may be entering an era when artists are allowed opportunities to do things that disrupt the regular rhythms of music production instead of only adhering to them. And that is exciting. (read review)
Ian Noe – River Fools and Mountain Saints
Who knows what motivates the musical gluttons for punishment who like to push the envelope of emotional roiling and upheaval so far that it nearly veers into the realm of outright masochism? But in American roots music, the need to satisfy ever-increasing appetites for more gut punching and ventricle-tugging moments will lead you right to the well of Kentucky’s Ian Noe as one of the few if only sources to quench that insatiable thirst.
Ian Noe is a master craftsman of character and setting, manifesting men and women that feel as real as rain in the mind’s eye, and casting them in scenarios that make you materially and emotionally invested in them, all within a three minute interval. No, Ian Noe is not part of the Kentucky country music resurgence alongside Tyler Childers, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and others trying to challenge the mainstream and re-instill it with some meaningful substance. He’s too pure for all that nonsense. He’s for those who want to dig even deeper, and get down to the kernel of sincere emotions that the best of songwriters mine. (read review)
Drake Milligan – Dallas/Fort Worth
Drake Milligan did not win America’s Got Talent. He came in third. Apparently he was good enough to compete and make it to the final, but was too good to win. That’s how you know he’s real. The consolation prize is an excellent new 14 song album called Dallas/Fort Worth, and it’s way better and more meaningful then any silly talent competition trophy. Super country and twangy, with good songwriting and that little dash of swagger from Drake’s Elvis influence, it’s everything you were hoping Drake Milligan’s full-length debut album would be.
Completely co-written by Milligan, sung exquisitely in a voice that is both classic and unique, and named after his hometown region, Dallas/Fort Worth gives you lots of reasons to be hopeful for the present and the future of country music, as long as Drake Milligan is involved in it. (read review)
Arlo McKinley – This Mess We’re In
Unflinchingly offering brutal dispatches from the most downtrodden and desperate moments of life, Arlo McKinley delivers one body blow after another in songs that are brutally articulate about the level of depression and despondency suffered, yet are poetic in how they’re expressed as to foster empathy, camaraderie, and hopefully, understanding. The underlying philosophy is that being honest and unburdening about his own issues with loss and pain will help construct an avenue for healing in those suffering a similar fate. It’s the “sad songs make me happy” mantra, taken to its ultimate apex.
Written after a period when McKinley lost his mother and best friend, and witnessed some other close friends succumb to addiction, Arlo isn’t participating in cosplay when he writes and sings about such weighty and emotional matters. We’re living amid a Renaissance of songwriters sharing their deeply troubling and distinctly American experiences. Arlo McKinley isn’t just one of many, he’s one of the few elite. This Mess We’re In validates this assessment. (read review)
Gabe Lee – The Hometown Kid
Born and raised in Nashville, Gabe Lee has a greater birthright to making music in Nashville than most, and an authenticity others fail to muster. Most importantly though, Gabe Lee doesn’t just have a penchant for wanting to make music for a living, he has that poet’s heart, a keen sense of observation, an incredible voice for conveying emotion with an enviable level of expressionism and control, and the capability to put it all together in a way that has some professing him as a premier talent of our time. Those people might not be entirely wrong.
The songs that impact us the most are the ones that seem to eerily dictate our life experiences in the verses and chorus, set to the sounds that feel as familiar to us as the rhythms and landmarks of our hometown. We all have a hometown that remains static in our history no matter where life takes us, and how far flung we go, or how we feel about it. Gabe Lee’s happens to be Nashville, and we may have never heard about him, and he may have never pursued music if it wasn’t. But it’s how all of our hometowns are so elemental to who we are that Gabe Lee explores so eloquently in The Hometown Kid. (read review)
Willie Nelson – A Beautiful Time
What a gorgeous record this is, fleshed out with new original songs from Willie himself and others, and a few obvious covers released for posterity. A Beautiful Time was constructed like all country albums should be: start with whatever worthy original new songs the performer can muster, and then canvas country music’s rich population of career songwriters to find other stuff that’s worthy of wide attention, and fits the style and voice of the singer.
We’re so used to the law of diminishing returns being the rule when it comes to our favorite artists in music. But Willie Nelson is the exception. With now a host of his late career records—and A Beautiful Time being perhaps the best example of all—Willie Nelson proves his unparalleled longevity as an artist, and why his music has earned immortality. (read review)
Rattlesnake Milk – Chicken Fried Snake
Rattlesnake Milk from the southern plains of Texas is the musical truth. There is every single other artist and band in American music, and then there is Rattlesnake Milk. They are more country than all the other shit kicking bands out there darkening the stoops of the honky tonks. They are more punk than all the pungent-smelling tour vans full of spiked hair and mescaline criss-crossing the fruited plain. They are more surf, mod, and psyc than all the hipster bands strewn between Echo Park and Brooklyn. They are Rattlesnake Milk.
Everything that all the other bands in music frustratingly whiff on, Rattlesnake Milk hits dead center. With a simplified four-piece lineup, and no desire to elicit help from guest performers or overdubs, Rattlesnake Milk accomplishes with so little what so many other bands fail to accomplish with so much more. Burrowing down to the very kernel of soul and feeling, and leaving everything else to the side, they are an underground version of musical mastery. (read review)
Zach Bryan – American Heartbreak
Welcome ladies and gentlemen to an entirely new era in the effort to upstage the powers that be in country music, and return the control back to the artists and fans, while simultaneously returning the soul and heart back to the songs. It was a charge first taken up by the Outlaws in the 70s, reignited by Hank Williams III and independent labels like Bloodshot Records in the 90’s, championed later by Sturgill Simpson, then brought to an entirely new level by artists like Cody Jinks, Tyler Childers, and others.
But now it’s a “viral songwriter”—a new designation we’ve had to add to the lexicon—that has gone from messing around in an AirBNB recording amateur songs with his friends, to a guy that has become one of the hottest names in popular music with American Heartbreak.
We can’t judge any of this in the present tense. It’s too fresh, too unusual, there are too many songs to ingest, and the moments are too emotional. Unquestionably though, discounting or casting off Zach Bryan and the phenomenon surrounding him as some some sort of illusion, something insincere, or something not destined to stick in the long-term has already proven to be folly. It is very much real and reverberative, and all that any of us can do is wait to see how this all evolves. What we do know is that it’s going to be big. And probably, very big.
UPDATE: It was.
MOST Essential Albums
(These were albums right on the bubble of being considered for Album of the Year that will be the top picks on the upcoming Essential Albums List.)
- Adam Hood – Bad Days Better
- Kelsey Waldon – No Regular Dog
- Kimberly Kelly – I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen
- Matt Daniel – All I Ever Needed
- Brennen Leigh – Obsessed with the West
- Teague Brothers Band – Love & War
- Stacy Antonel – Always The Outsider
- Alex Williams – Waging Peace
- Tony Logue – Jericho
- 49 Winchester – Fortune Favors The Bold
- Benjamin Tod – Songs I Swore I’d Never Sing
- The Wilder Blue – Self-Titled