Saving Country Music’s 2023 Album of the Year Nominees

The Preamble:

‘Tis the season to go through all the albums released in country music this year, and attempt to asses what we think will withstand the test of time and ultimately define 2023. This isn’t about turning art into competition, it’s an exercise to allow us all to share what we believe is the “best” album so that a healthy discussion ensues, exposing everyone to many of the titles that much of the mainstream will ignore.

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.

If you think an album has been unfairly omitted, utilize the comments section to inform us. 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 2023, the differences between these albums and the Album of the Year nominees is razor thin.

This is just the very beginning of the end-of-year assessments at Saving Country Music. Song of the Year, Single of the Year, Artist of the Year, and many other end-of-year considerations are forthcoming, as will more album reviews from 2023 albums as we close out the year.

But right now, it’s time to highlight the 10 albums Saving Country Music feels cannot go overlooked in 2023.

Amanda Fields – What, When and Without

Devastating you with slow waltz-timed songs exquisitely produced and written, carried forward on conscientious and deliberate instrumentation, and delicately but confidently delivered by the immediately mesmerizing voice of Amanda Fields, all of this conspires to make What, When and Without feel immediately essential.

What can you expect from this album? Think of the most heartbreaking, most emotionally roiling standards from the classic country era sung by Tammy Wynette and similar artists, only rendered in new original compositions. This is the promise that is delivered upon on What, When and Without.

It leaves little or nothing to scrutinize. Every note feels so carefully and correctly placed, and intentional. Even if it may not appeal to your sensibilities, it’s hard to not appreciate what has been accomplished here. What, When and Without is also one of those releases that runs the risk of getting lost in the shuffle of the crush of new music these days. But for those that happen upon it and open their hearts to it, they’ll be more than happy with what they have found. (read review)

Gabe Lee – Drink The River

It’s a rare feeling you get when you stumble upon a songwriter that makes you feel things from music that you thought had long since gone dormant after your days of adolescence and young adulthood—a songwriter that is singular in their perspective during an era when it feels like everything sounds the same and it’s all been said, and that tries to forge new territory as opposed to taking to nostalgia to draw appeal.

Gabe Lee is one of those rare songwriting specimens, certified by the enthusiasm of the few but vehement fans he’s accrued over his short career. It’s even more rare when one of these exceptional songwriters exceeds your expectations to the degree that Gabe Lee does with Drink The River. A shiver-inducing, spectacularly sung and written tour de force, it substantiates all your suspicions that this young man is a signature songwriter of this generation.

For sure, Drink The River is flattered by the production and arrangement brought to bear with it, and it might be Gabe’s best musical accompaniment yet. But that’s burying the lede. Little did we know that Lee still had more headroom to grow as a songwriter, and more soul to uncover through his arresting voice. The refinement evidenced in these compositions, the further exploration and application of melody, along with singing the bloody hell out of these songs results in something of a stature that not even many Gabe Lee advocates were anticipating. (read review)

Vince Gill and Paul Franklin – Sweet Memories

Cast aside the calamitous nature of all the troublesome current events and the caustic thoughts they lend to, and cue up this fine specimen of authentic country music that will steal you away to a sublime place where all is right in the world like only the best of country music can do. Because this, ladies and gentlemen, is the best of country music.

It’s been said before, but the release of this tribute record to Ray Price is a great occasion to underscore it once again: Making great country music is not rocket science. Just follow the lead of all the old greats, and the music will do the rest. Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill, and 30-time CMA Musician of the Year nominee Paul Franklin prove that so demonstrably with this album, it renders all counter arguments as moot, and with cover material no less.

Sweet Memories: The Music of Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys is a master class and defining work of classic country music. But what it isn’t is a reenactment. There’s a strong case to be made that Vince and Paul sound even better here and turn in something that will withstand the test of time even more than some of the original songs they’ve collaborated on together, or the original songs others have released in 2023. (read review)

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Weathervanes

Don’t call it a comeback. Jason Isbell has been the King of Americana ever since he released his album Southeastern. But the problem with minting your magum opus is that you spend the rest of your career chasing that high water mark, and being compared to it over and over by ever-present naysayers. Nothing will ever be good enough when it’s measured against perfection. But with his new album Weathervanes, Jason Isbell finally comes close to fulfilling the expectation he set after Southeastern. That is because Weathervanes nears perfection as well.

Producing the album himself, Weathervanes not only sees a return to top form for Jason Isbell’s songwriting, it also sees a well-needed freshening of the approach to how those songs are rendered in recorded form. Isbell deserves accolades for his efforts in his capacity of producer just as much as he does singer, songwriter, and guitar player.

Weathervanes really impresses you at virtually every turn. The instrumentation and arrangement is imaginative and diverse—fitting perfectly in the always-nebulous “Americana” field. But the folk and country elements are there too. With Weathervanes, Jason Isbell has bought himself another 10 years of being considered a top shelf songwriter, if nothing else. (read review)

Brent Cobb – Southern Star

Brent Cobb’s new album Southern Star is about absolutely nothing at all, and about everything all at once. It is both a simple work that doesn’t say much, and perhaps the most prophetic and deeply philosophical album that will be released all year. It’s message is both seriously profound, and yet so understated that you might miss it if you’re not paying attention.

How can this album be nothing and everything at once? It’s because it’s Brent Cobb doing his his level best to convey the laid back attitude that is at the heart of Southern living. This album is like a lazy afternoon on a back porch with a jar of tea, just watching life pass you by and loving every minute of it. It’s not that there aren’t things to do, or there isn’t a work ethic behind this laconic way of life. But it’s about making sure to slow down so the most important aspects of living don’t pass you by without being savored.

Brent Cobb is perfectly content being semi-famous, picking up opportunities when they present themselves like opening for big names such as Luke Combs and Chris Stapleton, and not allowing the important things in life to pass him by. What’s really great about Southern Star is it’s an extension of Brent Cobb’s own laid back personality, and a perfect album to decompress to. (read review)

Lori McKenna – 1988

There are the songs of Lori McKenna, and then there are the songs of everyone else in country music. Lori McKenna songs should constitute their own subgenre in the way she’s so deftly captures feelings and sentiments we all experience, but often fail to find the words to express, along with how she says the things we all need to hear, but don’t know where else to turn to hear them.

Lori McKenna is singular in her capability to encapsulate life lessons and communicate them in three-minute intervals in a way that entire volumes of self-help material can’t achieve. The sage nature of her songs is something that artists from the most grassroots of non-commercial Americana, to some of the highest grossing acts in the mainstream of country have come to partake in, and to the benefit of the entirety of the country and roots world.

Once again, Lori McKenna displays this magnanimous mastery of American songwriting in 10 new tracks compiled under the heading 1988. With an ease that must make her fellow songwriters both enraged with jealousy and supremely inspired, this mother of five from Massachusetts makes quick work of sowing profundities that make life’s challenges more digestible, and the entirety of living more enjoyable to experience. (read review)

Charles Wesley Godwin – Family Ties

Brilliantly written, lovingly produced, and passionately performed, Family Ties is a testament to the ties that bind one to this world. This overarching theme is established in the title track where Godwin conveys both a weight of obligation, and a devout sense of purpose to be right by his family in his words and his deeds every day.

In a time when it seems like everyone wants to tear at the fabric of society and bulldoze everything established in favor of some new version of life, Godwin makes a simple plea for stability and family, which in this moment might be one of the most radical proclamations one can forward.

Family Ties really is like two separate works, and is made easier to contemplate as such with a track shy of 20. The 1 hour, 10 minute run time makes it all immersive if you want to take it in via one sitting. As so many men and women deal with both abject fear and swelling pride contemplating their place in life, family, and the continuum of experience, Godwin gives voice in a work that feels as epic as it does expansive and complete. (read review)

Joe Stamm Band – Wild Man

With uncommonly great songwriting, and a serious rock n’ roll attitude only tempered by sincere and welcomed country music interludes, The Joe Stamm Band from central Illinois casts a wide net of appeal that captures most anyone with any sense of taste who falls within earshot. It’s Midwest country rock that already enjoys incredible buy-in from their current fans, and is ripe for striking a national chord.

They call it Black Dirt Country Rock, making reference to their brethren in the Red Dirt regions south of their home that have been naming their music after the hue of the soil for years. The Joe Stamm Band don’t really fit into any scene distinctly. But instead of grousing about it, they’ve decided to get good enough to start their own. If they keep releasing albums like Wild Man, they very well just might. (read review)

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – Altitude

You can’t think of Marty Stuart as a relic of country music, even if he came up playing with Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash, and had his commercial peak over 30 years ago. He may be only a few months away from qualifying for Social Security checks, but there’s nobody out there pushing the creativity of country music to the edges of human consciousness like Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives are doing here, even among the gaggle of young bucks fresh and hungry to make their mark.

This isn’t a songwriter album. It is a vibe album. You push play, ease the chair back, roll the windows down, and lose yourself in the experience. Though the time and place that Altitude attempts to summon is static, Stuart and the Superlatives find a rather tremendous amount of variety within that period to entertain and enlighten. Altitude not only makes for a good travelogue back in time or a road trip soundtrack, it also traces the intertwined nature of American music influences in illuminating ways.

Marty Stuart remains always country music’s most “radical preservationist” as he likes to put it. But he holds no prejudice when it comes to that preservation work. California, the Bakersfield Sound, and the cosmic cowboys born out of the 60’s and the psychedelic age deserve radical preservation too, and to have their influences revived in the modern era. And who better to do this than Marty Stuart. (read review)

The Malpass Brothers – Lonely Street

As a true country music fan, you’re used to dealing in close approximations when seeking out modern musical choices. Since finding the real deal like the artists of old is difficult to impossible in the digital age, you get as close as you can, suspend disbelief if necessary, and do your best to enjoy the experience. Generally speaking, it suffices.

With The Malpass Brothers though, none of these exercises are necessary. As if a rip in the space/time continuum appeared in North Carolina, and Chris and Taylor Malpass stumbled straight out of 1968, they actualize the most unvarnished version of country music one can consume from anyone under the age of 40.

It’s how they were born and raised on the music from an early age. It’s how they’ve recused themselves from rubbing elbows with the throwback hipster country crowds lest some of those affectations and put-ons rub off on them. It’s how they run in traditional country circles populated with the oldtimers that directly inspire their music. It all makes The Malpass Brothers one of the purist examples of classic country one can find. (read review)

Honorable Mention / Most Essential Album Nominees

You have to cut off the Album of the Year nominees somewhere, but with the amount of top-caliber albums released in 2023, this isn’t where . The below albums were right on the bubble of being considered Album of the Year nominees, and they will compete to be highlighted at the very top of Saving Country Music’s Essential Albums List that will come near the end of December.

Ward Davis – Sunday Morning EP

Brennen Leigh – Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet

Channing Wilson – Dead Man

The Steel Woods – On Your Time

Willy Tea Taylor – The Great Western Hangover

Daniel Donato – Reflector

The Wilder Blue – Super Natural

Turnpike Troubadours – A Cat in the Rain

Summer Dean – The Biggest Life

Pony Bradshaw – North Georgia Rounder

The War and Treaty – Lover’s Game

Lucero – Should’ve Learned By Now

© 2023 Saving Country Music