Saving Country Music’s 2023 Essential Albums List

Welcome to Saving Country Music’s most comprehensive guide to music in a given year: The Essential Albums List. It starts with the first 17 albums that are deemed the “Most Essential.” These were albums right on the bubble of being named Album of the Year nominees. Then there is an additional list of albums that were reviewed in 2023, and deemed worthy of recognizing. This list is meant to be a resource not just for 2023, but for future generations who may want to reflect back on this year in country music.

A few ground rules:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. More albums will eventually end up on the Essential Albums List. More 2023 albums will be reviewed in the coming days into the first few weeks of January before 2024 releases start in earnest. Saving Country Music reviewed over 100 albums in 2023, so please no whining about was overlooked. Be thankful this free resource to music listeners continues to be offered every year.
  4. 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 because “so and so WAS included.”

2023 Saving Country Music Album of the Year Nominees

Amanda Fields – What, When and Without (review) • Gabe Lee – Drink The River (review) • Vince Gill and Paul Franklin – Sweet Memories (review) • Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Weathervanes (review) • Brent Cobb – Southern Star (review) • Lori McKenna – 1988 (review) • Charles Wesley Godwin – Family Ties (review) • Joe Stamm Band – Wild Man (review) • Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – Altitude (review) • The Malpass Brothers – Lonely Street (review)

Most Essential Albums

MOST ESSENTIAL – Brennen Leigh – Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet

We often like to say when listening to a great classic country song released in the modern day, “If it had been recorded back in the 60s or 70s, it would have been a #1 hit.” When it comes to Brennen Leigh’s new album Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet, it would be like a Greatest Hits compilation of #1’s from a Golden Era country star if it was released 50 years ago. One song after another dazzles you with it’s classic country authenticity that speaks to the heart so much better than the country genre’s more modern modes.

In Brennen’s 2020 album Prairie Love Letter, she paid homage to her home in the Upper Midwest. With 2022’s Obsessed With The West, she toasted Western Swing and the time she spent in Texas earlier in her career. With this new album, Leigh centers her attention on the very kernel of what country music is supposed to be that’s informed by her recent era in Nashville, and serves it up with a honky tonk kick. If Brennen Leigh wants to honky tonk, you better damn well let her. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Colter Wall – Little Songs

Of all the improbable achievements and benchmarks set by independent country in the last few years, none has been as astounding as the ascension of Colter Wall and his specific version of authentic Western songs. There was no economy for this music for him to enter into, no sizable audience to inherit, no immediate forebearers to piggyback on.

Colter Wall’s new album Little Songs is a continuation of the second phase of his career, which has been centered around reinterpreting classics from the Western music canon for a new and enthusiastic audience, while sliding in his original works in hopes they will eventually land alongside the old classics in the Western songbooks and recordings of the future. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Jake Worthington – Self-Titled

If you want to hear true traditional country in its most pure form in 2023, listen to Jake Worthington. We’re talking Mark Chesnutt, Daryle Singletary country, where you can’t fit an index card between the true definition of “country music,” and what Worthington turns in here. It’s so country, it’s almost as shocking as it is welcome, especially when you consider the circumstances of how it came together.

The time for traditional country is right now. Big mainstream Music Row record labels like Big Loud, producers such as Joey Moi, and performers like Ernest all getting in on the game tells you all you need to know. It also tells you they think this is where the future of country music is headed. Jake Worthington wasn’t ready for the big time in country music when he won The Voice, and country music wasn’t ready for him either. Now, the stars have aligned, and the timing is perfect. (read full review)

Channing Wilson – Dead Man

Not for the weak or defibrillated, Channing Wilson doesn’t deliver songs, he pounds them into your chest like a battering ram. The power and punch of what he is serving up here should come with a warning label and require a stress test of the audience. Waylon gets all manner of credit for being the hard-edged country “Outlaw,” but anyone who actually knows his catalog can attest he sung all kinds of love ballads and such too. The closest thing you get to a love song here is the one where Channing talks about being crazy.

What’s always been strange about Channing Wilson being so under-the-radar is not just how good he is with words, which is something fellow artists like Luke Combs, Sunny Sweeney, Travis Tritt, and Jason Eady have all recognized by putting his songs on their albums. It’s also the heartbreaking soul and sheer earth-shattering power with which Channing delivers them. That’s why it’s always felt scandalous that he wasn’t better known outside of Nashville songwriting rounds. And it’s what makes this Dead Man album so potent. Channing Wilson is a songwriter, and a performer. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Pony Bradshaw – North Georgia Rounder

There is a discipline of Southern heritage deeply interested in the art of language, and not just for the stories and truths it may help tell, but writing and talking just for the sake of it, and finding beauty and wisdom in the words themselves, and how they relate to the Southern American experience. We’re talking about the realm of William Faulkner and other masters that the modern world has so unfortunately moved on from for the frenetic priority of now.

North Georgia native Pony Bradshaw is uninterested and your priorities though. Instead, he’s allured by the idea of resurrecting this proud art form in the musical realm with snapshot stories full of Southern vernacular and worthy aphorisms. It is mostly Americana in sound, but most importantly, it’s strongly literary, aided in this pursuit by a compelling voice reminiscent in some respects to the elusive Willis Alan Ramsey. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Margo Cilker – Valley of Heart’s Delight

Sorry to those anticipating a sophomore slump from ol’ Cilker after her well-received debut Pohorylle. Now seasoned as a songwriter and performer, and with many more miles on her Michelins, she’s got even more skill and material with which to send hearts reeling and stir souls. Valley of Hearts Delight is the ideal mix of fun reels and killer heartbreakers all rendered in a country a style by Margo and producer/ drummer/songwriter Sera Cahoone.

Margo Cilker songs are always taking you somewhere, with the rich language evoking the places, landscapes, and characters in your mind in stark relief. The song “Lowland Trail” is about much more than finding your way through rugged terrain. But the visions it evokes in the mind’s eye primes the imagination to accept the song’s true meaning. (read full review)

The Steel Woods – On Your Time

The Steel Woods stand on stage as modern-day Southern rock Gods. On what’s now their fourth full-length album, there’s no reason to measure them against any other, no need to attempt to draw comparisons with the bands that came before them, or to ask where their place is in the music world. Their mix of country, rock, and metal is all their own. They’ve carved out a growing legacy, and now it’s the scrappy young newcomers looking up to them.

You don’t listen to an album by The Steel Woods for mere escapism or entertainment. It can be both of these things as well for sure. But this is a band who knows how to immerse you in an entirely other universe, and knows how to impart life wisdom through stories, often not saying anything especially revelatory or prophetic, but figuring out how to positively reinforce important lessons that we all already know, yet always seem to need to hear again. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Willy Tea Taylor – The Great Western Hangover

A strongly collaborative album, The Great Western Hangover is not sparse and understated like some of Willy’s previous work. It’s purposefully full and electric. Tom Petty is cited as a similarity and influence for the album, but you also hear a lot of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse in songs like “Devil’s Taxidermy” and “Dangerously Beautiful.”

The Great Western Hangover is Willy Tea Taylor’s alt-country album, and hopefully, his breakout from a cult following to more widespread critical acclaim, and a bridge back to his back catalog for those that discover him through it. Willy Tea Taylor’s music is about healing. It’s about refusing to pass judgement, and willing to give forgiveness and understanding to all. It’s medicine as music. (read full review)

Daniel Donato – Reflector

Prepare yourself for one of the most interesting, omnivorous, and immersive experiences that you can discover in music that still claims an allegiance to “country.” It’s Daniel Donato’s Reflector, and it’s the realization of his “cosmic country” dream first envisioned years ago, but finally coming to fruition in its full form now.

Giving you warm recollections of some of the best cuts from the catalogs of greats like The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead, yet steeped fiercely in the traditions of take off Telecaster country, it’s all rendered with imagination and originality through Daniel Donato’s striking instrumental talent, surprising ear for melody, and enhanced aptitude for composition. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Summer Dean – The Biggest Life

To sing and write it well, you first have to live it. By society’s cruel and arbitrary assessments—and Summer Dean’s own stock taking as articulated on this album—an unmarried child-less 40-something retired school teacher turned honky tonk singer isn’t exactly the resumé of someone setting the world on fire. But man, it sure does result in some excellent country music, and ultimately flies in the face of the idea that someone like Summer doesn’t have something of value to share with the world.

The Biggest Life is a unique album in the Summer Dean catalog in how it includes some of those hard country honky tonk songs that she’s become known for, but they’re interspersed with stripped-down and more songwriter-based songs that range from strikingly candid to delightfully corn pone. Summer challenges the listener a little bit by starting off with two slow songs. But she ultimately turns in an album that says a lot, is musically diverse while staying distinctly country, and touches the entire range of human emotions. She keeps you on your toes for sure. (read full review)

The Wilder Blue – Super Natural

The Wilder Blue is a collective of souls with uncanny chemistry that reminds you why you’re a music fan in the first place. They cast a wide net of appeal that crosses genres, eras, and sensibilities, without feeling unoriginal or recycled. With an uncommonly good understanding of what people find so appealing in music and the capability to articulate it, they rekindle the ability for music to mean something more to an audience than mere distraction or escapism.

There is a joy and gratefulness for life embedded in everything The Wilder Blue does that lasts well beyond the last note, because their music reminds you of the things that are truly the most important, and centers your attention back on them. (read full review)

Turnpike Troubadours – A Cat in the Rain

The Turnpike Troubadours are one of the premier country music acts of our time. It may take some time for everyone to realize that, but the world is slowly waking up to it. They’ve been playing the long game since the beginning, and a Cat In The Rain falls right in line with the rest of their albums that will be enjoyed fondly in the present tense, and probably even more in the future.

One of the most impressive and uncanny attributes of Turnpike Troubadours music is how it tends to grow even better over time. This is a mark of craftsmanship and quality, and one that has graced their music from the very beginning. It’s one of the reasons they entered their hiatus in 2019 as a popular, but regional Red Dirt band, and exited headlining major festivals coast to coast. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Tony Logue – The Crumbs

This is the sound of tattooed scars, cauterized wounds, and calloused hands. This is the sound of folks with sinewy muscles and bulging veins earned not from pumping iron, but from forging steel and beating back rust while punching a time clock. This is the sound of working men thrashing around in bed at night, tortured with the fear of not being able to feed their families.

Unlike some of his compatriots from the bluegrass state, Tony’s from the part of Kentucky that butts up against parts of the Rust Belt and the Midwest. That comes through in his music with a blue collar attitude and big influence from Springsteen and Heartland rock. Yet the way the steel guitar cuts through the mix and Logue’s Southern accent is so inescapable, it gives these songs a country music heart. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Ward Davis – Sunday Morning EP

Generally speaking, EPs are the also-rans of recorded music, and for good reason. Ward Davis though, he understands that a short form album can present an opportunity to deliver a cohesive thought better than an individual song can, but stretching that thought out into a full album can dilute it and lessen the impact as well.

Sunday Morning is an involved and formidable stroke of songwriting mastery that once again establishes Ward Davis as a serious stalwart in the field, and decidedly underrated in this respect. Just like he did with his Saving Country Music Album of the Year-winning album Black Cats and Crows from 2020, he distinguishes himself here with his use of words to deliver meaningful moments, and the strong voice he uses to deliver them with. (read full review)

The War and Treaty – Lover’s Game

Country music has always been, and will always be a push and pull of both yearning for purity in the genre, while also wanting to be inviting to a wide sphere of influences and perspectives. The War and Treaty is just the kind of diversity country music needs—one with roots in the genre from the Gospel and blues influences in their sound, respect for country’s origins and institutions, while also instilling a level of talent that is frankly unparalleled by peers, and perfect for proving why being too rigid with genre borders can result in the loss of valuable voices.

No matter what you call them, The War & Treaty belong. And if the rest of the musical world is too busy to invite them into the fold, country music should be more than happy to have them. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Nick Shoulders – All Bad

Nick Shoulders is the singing, yodeling, whistling, mulleted and mustachioed country music weirdo freak of our time. It’s a requisite that you instigate any discussion about him or his music with that introduction because it’s the best summation for what you’re in store for when you press play. Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but for those that want a dash of the surreal and silly in their country music topped with some deadly serious talent, Nick Shoulders is a hoot and a half.

There was no real niche or appetite for Nick Shoulders music before he crawled out from under a rock in Arkansas and started stunning listeners. But since his talent is so innate, and his approach is so unique, he’s created an appetite for otherwise arcane and forgotten modes of country music. There is no competition, comparable, or peer to Nick Shoulders. He’s a subgenre all unto himself. (read full review)

MOST ESSENTIAL – Ray Scott – Billboards & Brake Lights

For many other artists, Billboards & Brake Lights would be like a Greatest Hits compilation of all of their quality songs. You hear a song like “Superman” and wonder how someone else hadn’t written this song before. But for Ray Scott, it’s just his latest studio record. He’s always had this in him. It just took a poignant moment to get it out of him.

Ray Scott is one of those country artists who feels super popular and completely unknown all at the same time. Those who know him swear by his music. For those just discovering him, Billboards & Brake Lights will be all you need to hear to believe he’s one of this generation’s greatest singers and songwriters who deserves significantly more attention. (read full review)

Essential Albums List

Jason Hawk Harris – Thin Places – (read review)

Cameron Wrinkle – In My Heaven – (read review)

• Vincent Neil Emerson – The Golden Crystal Kingdom – (read review)

Mamma Coal – Dance Hall Crush – (read review)

Mike and the Moonpies – Live from the Devil’s Backbone – (read review)

Molly Tuttle – City of Gold – (read review)

Lucero – Should’ve Learned By Now – (read review)

Wyatt Flores – Life Lessons – (read review)

Drayton Farley – Twenty On High – (read review)

Tyler Childers – Rustin’ in the Rain – (read review)

Brit Taylor – Kentucky Blue – (read review)

Rodney Crowell – The Chicago Sessions – (read review)

Myron Elkins – Factories, Farms & Amphetamines – (read review)

Kyle Keller – The Great American Highway – (read review)

Bobbie Nelson and Amanda Shires – Loving You – (read review)

Kyle Nix & the 38’s – After The Flood Vol. 1 – (read review)

William Prince – Stand in the Joy – (read review)

Robert Henry and the Repeaters – The Way It Usually Goes – (read review)

Ashley McBryde – The Devil I Know – (read review)

Country Side of Harmonica Sam – Back to the Blue Side – (read review)

Theo Lawrence – Chérie – (read review)

Charley Crockett – Live from the Ryman – (read review)

• John R. Miller – Heat Comes Down – (read review)

Emily Ann Roberts – Can’t Hide Country – (read review)

Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley – Living In A Song – (read review)

Terry Klein – Leave The Light On – (read review)

Jaime Wyatt – Feel Good – (read review)

Sean Burns – Lost Country – (read review)

Zach Bryan – Self-Titled – (read review)

• Cody Johnson – Leather – (read review)

Josie Toney – Extra – (read review)

Willie Nelson – Bluegrass – (read review)

Willie Nelson – I Don’t Know a Thing About Love – (read review)

John Baumann – Border Radio – (read review)

Whitney Rose – Rosie – (read review)

Low Water Bridge Band – Back to the Valley – (read review)

Posey Hill – No Clear Place to Fall – (read review)

William Beckmann – Here’s To You. Here’s To Me – (read review)

Miles Miller – Solid Gold – (read review)

Slackeye Slim – Scorched Earth, Black Heart – (read review)

The Watson Twins – Holler – (read review)

Flatland Cavalry – Wandering Star – (read review)

Brian Setzer – The Devil Always Collects – (read review)

The Hunger Games: The Ballads of Songbirds and Snakes soundtrack – (read review)

Tanya Tucker – Sweet Western Sound – (read review)

• Tim Goodin – True Stories and Flat Out Lies – (read review)

Dale Watson – Starvation Box – (read review)

Scott Southworth – Comin’ Round to Honky Tonk Again – (read review)

Megan Moroney – Lucky – (read review)

Sundy Best – Feel Good Country – (read review)

Dallas Moore – No God in Juarez – (read feature)

Slaid Cleaves – Together Through The Dark – (read review)

Sam Munsick – Johnny Faraway – (read review)

Luke Combs – Gettin’ Old – (read review)

Colby Acuff – Western White Pines – (read review)

Chancey Williams – One of These Days – (read review)

Waylon Hanel – New Old Outlaws – (read review)

Bella White – Among Other Things – (read review)

Bloody Jug Band – How To Train a Spooky Horse – (read review)

Hank Williams IV – Honky Tonk Habit – (read review)

Jason Eady – Mississippi – (read review)

Caitlyn Smith – High & Low – (read review)

Tommy Prine – This Far South – (read review)

Whitehorse – I’m Not Crying You’re Crying – (read review)

Joshua Ray WalkerI Opened for the Killers… – (read review)

Matt Hillyer – Glorieta – (read review)

Them Dirty Roses – Lost in the Valley of Hate and Love – (read review)

Chris Stapleton – Higher – (read review)

Dillon Massengale – Buckleshines – (read review)

Old Crow Medicine Show – Jubilee – (read review)

Parker McCollum – Never Enough – (read review)

El Dorado – Unincorporated – (read review)

Robbie Fulks – Bluegrass Vacation – (read review)

Laid Back Country Picker – Go West – (read review)

Lance Roark – Better Man EP – (read review)

Jon Pardi – Merry Christmas from Jon Pardi – (read review)

Royce Johns – Thank Ya Kindly (read review)

Billy Don Burns – I’ve Seen a Lot of Highway

Other Albums Receiving Positive Reviews:

Riley Green – Ain’t My Last Rodeo – (read review)

Dierks Bentley – Gravel & Gold – (read review)

Chase Rice – I Hate Cowboys… – (read review)

Stephen Wilson Jr. – bon aqua – (read review)

Stephen Wilson Jr. – søn of dad – (read review)

Elle King – Come Get Your Wife – (read review)

HARDY – The mockingbird and THE CROW – (read review)

The Rolling Stones – Hackney Diamonds – (read review)

Taylor Swift – Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) – (read review)

Other Reviewed Albums:

Morgan Wallen – One Thing at a Time – (read review)

Ryan Bingham – Watch Out For The Wolf – (read review)

Shania Twain – Queen of Me – (read review)

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