Welcome ladies and gentlemen to Saving Country Music’s most comprehensive guide to music in a given year, known as the Essential Albums List. Starting with the first 20 albums that are deemed the “Most Essential”—meaning they were right on the bubble of being Album of the Year nominees—and including most all of the 100+ albums reviewed positively in 2022, this list is meant to be a resource not just for this year, but for future generations who may want to reflect back on this year in country music.
This year a few albums have also been included that have been heavily listened to, but for whatever reason, have not been reviewed just yet.
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 2022 albums will be reviewed in the comings days into the first few weeks of January before 2023 releases start in earnest. Saving Country Music reviewed over 100 albums in 2022, so please no whining about was overlooked. Be thankful this free resource to music listeners continues to be offered every 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 please no “Hey, this list is entirely bunk because so and so wasn’t included!” or “so and so WAS included.”
2022 Saving Country Music Album of the Year Nominees:
• The Broken Spokes – Where I Went Wrong (review) • Kaitlin Butts – What Else Can She Do (review) • Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway – Crooked Tree (review) • Joshua Hedley – Neon Blue (review) • Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville (review) • Ian Noe – River Fools and Mountain Saints (review) • Drake Milligan – Dallas/Fort Worth (review) • Arlo McKinley – This Mess We’re In (review) • Gabe Lee – The Hometown Kid (read review) • Willie Nelson – A Beautiful Time (review) • Rattlesnake Milk – Chicken Fried Snake (review) • Zach Bryan – American Heartbreak (review)
Most Essential Albums
MOST ESSENTIAL – Kelsey Waldon – No Regular Dog
The music of Kelsey Waldon will never sell out arenas. It’s too resolute for that. Perhaps that’s an injustice, or a bitter pill to swallow. But the value is still significant, and the commitment she has made to her approach is a valiant one.
Assuming an intelligent and intent audience, her mission and goal is more noble, and erudite. It’s to prove that you can do things your way. And even if you don’t succeed to the level of some others, sometimes it’s simply an accomplishment to endure. Because when you’re from rural Kentucky, many of the alternatives are much more dire. Just listen to No Regular Dog, and you will agree. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – 49 Winchester – Fortune Favors The Bold
Fortune Favors The Bold is very much an album about the struggles and triumphs of an up-and-coming band, sacrificing to see their dreams realized, bouncing back and forth between the exhilaration of being on the road, then missing the comforts and loved ones of back home, only to be rendered restless once again when they’re home for a week or two.
Whatever itch is acting up in your Southern American music diet, 49 Winchester is here to scratch it. And though perhaps nothing will ever replace the energy of their live shows, that sweaty, gritty feel certainly stuck to the masters of the 10 recordings on Fortune Favors The Bold. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Kimberly Kelly – I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen
From the songs selected, to the players brought in to bring them to life, I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen makes for a valiant introduction for a woman in country music who has been around for a while, but has finally arrived.
I’ll Tell You What’s Gonna Happen concludes with a cover of Billy Joe’s “Black Rose,” as well as a voicemail Shaver left for Kimberly Kelly before his passing in 2020. But don’t consider this an “Outlaw” album necessarily. Instead, it’s a well-written, mostly traditional country record steep in 90s and early 2000s authentic country sounds, full of fiddle and steel guitar, but with just enough contemporary pizazz to perhaps tickle the fancy of more modern country fans as well. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – American Aquarium – Chicamacomico
Maintaining a blue collar edge to the music, and a firm grasp on the perspectives and struggles of common people is how BJ Barham has kept American Aquarium credible and current for going on 17 years now. The content and style of the songs may shift slightly, and that’s the case for their latest record Chicamacomico. But that everyman, hard working approach never wavers.
But right now, loss is all around, and like all great artists who become reflections of their time, BJ Barham senses this pain among the greater populous, combines it with his own experience losing his own mother on New Year’s Eve, and speaks to the moment on Chicamacomico. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Adam Hood – Bad Days Better
Adam Hood is a songwriter’s songwriter, doing it for the love of the craft as opposed to the commercial application of whatever he comes up with. Similar accusations can be made of his buddy Brent Cobb who came on as a producer for this new album that is full of the kind of Southern country soul these two cats are known for. Add Blackberry Smoke to the cast as the album’s backing band, and you’re quickly running out of excuses why not to pay attention to it.
By pulling out all the stops, pooling together some of the best songs of his career, and calling in favors from his musician buddies, Adam Hood hoped to turn in a career effort, and he very well may have. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Courtney Patton – Electrostatic
Electrostatic is a full-bodied musical experience that in many ways is reminiscent of some of those peak Rosanne Cash records from the 80s that were produced by Rodney Crowell—Seven Year Ache and the like. Everything is centered around the songs themselves, and the music isn’t as concerned about being country as it is about being emblematic and respectful to the sentiments found in the writing.
Ultimately when it comes to Courtney Patton, it’s the song that is the center of attention, because that’s what takes you somewhere, teaches you something, and sticks with you well after the music ends. (read full review)
***REMEMBER: Album of the Year Nominees are not included here***
MOST ESSENTIAL – Stacy Antonel – Always The Outsider
How to communicate all of the joys and virtues of country music while remaining connected to the roots of the genre, but also offering something unexpected and enriching is the challenge that every country artist faces. It’s one Stacy Antonel rises to and meets with her debut album that blends country and jazz with it all coming together to make quite an exquisite collection of songs that gives Antonel a unique role in the country landscape.
Stacy Antonel may not fit in easily anywhere. But Always The Outsider definitely fits alongside the other top-tier releases for 2022. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – The Wilder Blue – Self-Titled
Whatever chemistry this quasi supergroup has concocted, whatever contraband or rare earth/conflict minerals might be necessary for the recipe, someone should bottle it up for human consumption, use it to lace the drinks of the poseurs making popular music these days, aerosolize it and fumigate the offices on Music Row, and inject it straight into the veins of all new applicants who want to become performers to help save American music. Because it’s the real shit.
Comprised of solo artist and songwriter Zane Williams, songwriter and performer Paul Eason, drummer Lyndon Hughes, multi-instrumentalist Andy Rogers, and bassist Sean Rodriguez, The Wilder Blue is one of the most balanced, forward-thinking, and collaborative projects you will ever hear in country and roots music. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Alex Williams – Waging Peace
There’s a reason Williams waited five years before releasing his second record. Now a seasoned journeyman who’s paid his dues on the road and tacked some skins on the wall, Williams was ready to write, sing, and perform with the kind of conviction you need to sell your songs to the audience.
Art illustrating life is always better than the other way around. You hear the voice of Alex Williams, and you immediately recognize that he was born to sing country music. But to sing it right, you first have to live it. Not only does Waging Peace accomplish this, Williams also has the presence to man up to that realization, and impart that wisdom through this album as well. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Tony Logue – Jericho
Tony Logue isn’t new to singing about the rigors of Western Kentucky life, and how they intertwine with the raw geography of the land, and the graphic history of bloodlines. His 2018 acoustic album Serpents and Saviors is a fine showcase of his sharp storytelling mixed with cutting observation. But Jericho ups the ante by pulling out all the stops and assembling the right pieces to help tell his stories in this time and place in music.
Following in the footsteps of fellow Kentuckians Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers, Tony Logue brought engineer Sean Sullivan on board for this album who’s worked with Tyler and Sturgill in the past. It also features Russ Pahl on steel guitar, Tammy Rogers of the SteelDrivers on fiddle, drummer Jason Munday, and Sturgill drummer Miles Miller on harmonies. In other words, all effort was expended to make this a breakout record. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Brennen Leigh – Obsessed with the West
If music is a language, and genres are its dialects, Brennen Leigh is like a Rosetta Stone of country music’s most arcane and endangered tongues.And if one wants to release a definitive work of Western Swing music, getting the preeminent purveyors of this subgenre in the modern era to back you up—that being Ray Benson and Asleep At The Wheel—seems like a pretty smart plan. The result is the 12 songs of Obsessed With The West, which will steer your mindset straight to the 1940s with its savory Cindy Walker-style songs, spirited singing, and savvy instrumentation.
What makes Obsessed With The West not just another Western Swing record is how Brennen Leigh is able to emphasize the playfulness that this approach to country music allows through its bouncy rhythm, and the boundless possibilities of chords and lyricism. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Teague Brothers Band – Love & War
If you can’t get enough of the country rock sound of bands like the Turnpike Troubadours, and also want your country music served up with a strong songwriting element, the new album from the Teague Brothers Band called Love and War will be right up your alley.
With the Teague Brothers Band, the stories are real and resonant, the music is reverberative, and on Love and War, they make a more than compelling case of why they should be included in national narratives about some of the best country bands out there. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Benjamin Tod – Songs I Swore I’d Never Sing
Recorded completely acoustically and alone, with just a little natural room reverb to embellish the signals, Songs I Swore I’d Never Sing is a merciless unburdening, a scathing piece of self-assessment and bloodletting, imparted with an incredibly poetic conveyance that makes the words resonate far beyond what any instrumental accompaniment could achieve.
These are the recitations of a man standing on the brink of precipices, peering over the edge of a cliff, or down the barrel of a gun, or at the bottom of a bottle of pills, and choosing to exorcise his pain in words as opposed to more catastrophic alternatives. No wonder this stuff was too painful to share before. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Alma Russ – Fool’s Gold
Stirring your very soul, sending flutters through your heart and shivers down your spine, the voice of Alma Russ makes an immediate and lasting impact upon exposure as it passes over you, prickling your pores like the first warm breeze of spring carrying naturally therapeutic aromas pleasing of the senses and evocative of fond memories, and leaving one viciously yearning for its presence once again after it passes.
A touring musician who’s also collaborated in the studio and on stage with the works of others, Alma Russ has the stuff to be considered a serious contributor to the country music roots resurgence sweeping the independent side of the music emanating from Appalachia and elsewhere. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Matt Daniel – All I Ever Needed
Matt Daniel immediately appeals to your country bone with a great country voice. And like the Turnpike Troubadours, it’s a traditional country sound with fiddle and steel, but with just a dash of rock and roll energy and swagger to give it a bit more immediacy and infectiousness.
Some great country songwriters try to fake it as country singers, including some who’ve gotten pretty far. But when you have a great singer that can also write songs, this is what results in great country music like you get on All I’ll Ever Need. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Sunny Sweeney – Married Alone
It’s country. The stories cut to the bone. From one night stands, to waning love, to loveless marriages that have lost all hope, it’s country music for adults, but adults that are still trying to get the hang of adulting. It’s also for people who just love kickass songs that are actually country.
Top-flight songwriters like Lori McKenna, Brennen Leigh, Josh Morningstar, and others come in to help refine and focus Sunny’s stories resulting in some really excellent tracks. But let’s face it, Sunny Sweeney is her own woman. It’s her approach and songs that make this album the standout that it is. It’s her honesty, and the way the sentiments marry perfectly with the music that make Married Alone a pretty excellent example of everything country music is supposed to be.
MOST ESSENTIAL – Willi Carlisle – Pecular, Missouri
Peculiar for sure, but at times this album is so cunning and expressive, it cuts to the bone tears the eye. “Tulsa’s Last Magician” is worth the effort to acquire a copy of this album if nothing else, arresting you with it’s amazing songcraft in a style one must trace some 60 or more years back to find a peer or a rival to. “Vanlife” is a hot traditional country lick, hilarious but also harrowing in how it accurately portrays the rapidly swelling problem of the semi-homeless.
Most importantly, Peculiar, Missouri establishes Willi Carlisle as one of the premier songwriters, storytellers, and performers in roots music, even if those lucky enough to have been in one of his audiences previously have already known this for a while. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Hellbound Glory – Nobody Knows You
Nobody Knows You finds Leroy Virgil embracing his sad bastard situation as he’s transitions from a young scrapper from the greasy streets of Reno looking to set stages ablaze, to a country-based veteran singer/songwriter living in the mountains outside of town with a bit more wisdom on his brow, and hard-worn gravel in his voice.
Leroy knows himself, and where he is at in his career, embracing his role as an overlooked soul who may have never “made it,” but is beloved by those who are fortunate enough to be in-the-know. He’s the embodiment of the great unknown country music legend. But as we’ve seen in the past, sometimes those unknowns don’t stay that way forever. They are the ones to ultimately be revealed as the true icons of an era. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – Jenny Tolman – Married in a Honky Tonk
It’s funny. It’s fun. It’s sentimental right when it needs to be without getting too syrupy, and it’s oh so country. This isn’t rocket science, folks. Take your cues from all those country heroes and influences, infuse them with a little individualistic personality, put out a record that is the right mix of familiar and original, and don’t forget to just be entertaining about it. Apparently, that’s actually harder than it sounds, but Jenny Tolman makes it sound so easy.
All the appetites of your country music palette are satiated by the end, with your funny bone tickled, you brain stimulated, and your spirit raised. Jennyville is a fulfilling place to spend a few hours, and return to often. (read full review)
MOST ESSENTIAL – David Quinn – Country Fresh
Hopefully the third time’s the charm for David Quinn, who’s quietly put together one of the best runs of releases over the last few years in independent country music, but since he’s not some scenester in east Nashville or a douche bucket in Texas trying to be Koe Wetzel, not enough noise has been made about him, at least not yet. With his new album Country Fresh though, all excuses for ignoring his guy are exhausted.
You queue up this record and the opening title track, and you immediately know you’ve made a smart decision with your country music time and attention. The second song “Low Down” starts with a blazing fiddle, but you just know how the song develops that at some point you’re gonna get some rippin’ Telecaster, and it doesn’t disappoint. “Down Home” is one of many songs from Country Fresh that finds that 70’s Outlaw country groove that’s hard to not fall for. (read full review)
Essential Albums List
• Randy Houser – Note To Self – (read review)
• Melissa Carper – Ramblin’ Soul – (read review)
• Kendell Marvel – Come On Sunshine – (read review)
• Bri Bagwell – Corazón y Cabeza – (read review)
• Garrett T. Capps & NASA Country – People Are Beautiful – (read review)
• Emily Nenni – On The Ranch – (read review)
• Wylie & The Wild West – Bunchgrass – (read review)
• Nikki Lane – Denim & Diamonds – (read review)
• Zachariah Malachi – Local Bar Opry Star – (read review)
• Plains – I Walked With You A Ways – (read review)
• Ryan Culwell – Run Like a Bull
• The Local Honeys – Self-Titled – (read review)
• Zach Bryan – Summertime Blues – (read review)
• Wesley Hanna – Brand New Love Potion – (read review)
• Ray Wylie Hubbard – Co-Starring Too (read review)
• Tami Neilson – Kingmaker
• Charley Crockett – The Man From Waco – (read review)
• Midland – The Last Resort: Greetings From (read review)
• The Wooks – Flyin’ High (read review)
• Sarah Shook and the Disarmers – Nightroamer (read review)
• Mike Kuster – Better Late Than Never (read review)
• King Margo – Water’s Rise – (read review)
• Lainey Wilson – Bell Bottom Country – (read review)
• Wade Bowen – Somewhere Between The Secret and the Truth – (read review)
• Alex Key – Neon Signs and Stained Glass – (read review)
• Cody Christian – Canary in a Coal Mine
• Cahalen Morrison – Wealth of Sorrow (reissue) – (read review)
• Something Borrowed, Something New: A Tribute to John Anderson – (read review)
• Anna Tivel – Outsiders – (read review)
• Red Clay Strays – Moment of Truth – (read review)
• Memphis Kee – Wimberley – (read review)
• Billy Strings – Me / And / Dad – (read review)
• Jon Pardi – Mr. Saturday Night – (read review)
• Hank Williams Jr. – Rich White Honky Blues – (read review)
• Dailey & Vincent – Let’s Sing Some Country – (read review)
• Aaron Watson – Unwanted Man – (read review)
• IV and The Strange Band – Southern Circus – (read review)
• Adeem The Artist – White Trash Revelry – (read review)
• Ronnie Dunn – 100 Proof Neon – (read review)
• Randy Rogers Band – Homecoming – (read review)
• The Williams Brothers – Memories To Burn – (read review)
• Laura Benitez – California Centuries – (read review)
• John Fullbright – The Liar – (read review)
• The White Buffalo – Year of the Dark Horse – (read review)
Other Reviewed Albums:
John Moreland – Birds in the Ceiling – (read review)
Tyler Childers – Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven – (read review)