As we near the halfway pole in the musical year, it’s time to suss out the best albums that have been released in 2021 so far. There’s already some very strong contenders for Album of the Year, and the first albums highlighted should be considered early candidates for Album of the Year at Saving Country Music. Everything else highlighted should be considered coming highly recommended. But of course over time, estimations can change. Some albums may rise or fall in the next six months.
PLEASE NOTE: This only includes albums that have been reviewed by Saving Country Music so far. Just because an album is not included here doesn’t mean it’s not good, or won’t be reviewed in the future.
Recommendations and opinions on albums is encouraged, including leaving your own list of favorite albums in the comments sections below. But nothing has been “forgotten,” and no list is illegitimate just because one particular album is left off, or a certain album is included. The point of this exercise is to expand the awareness of great music. Saving Country Music reviews a very large amount of material, but no critic or outlet can review every single project released.
The albums are presented in no particular order.
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.
One of the reasons it was such a tragedy when we lost Patsy Cline in 1963 is we never got to experience what Cline could have continued to blossom into and contribute later in life. Though it would never be fair to either Patsy or Charlie Marie to compare the two directly beyond the similar virtues of their respective voices and the style of which they’ve chosen to express it, Charlie Marie’s new album Ramble On certainly helps to answer what Patsy Cline could have sounded like if her career and life had continued. (read review)
Blackberry Smoke – You Hear Georgia
Damn if there’s not much better than cracking open a new Blackberry Smoke record and losing yourself in waves of Southern-fried rock guitar to make you feel like you’re 17 again. This isn’t music to sit back and stroke your chin to. This is music to hyperextend your elbow to while banging on the air drums.
On their new album You Hear Georgia, Blackberry Smoke embrace their role as Southern music revivalists and preservationists with now over 20 years of service to the subgenre, and they take that responsibility more serious than ever, expanding their sound, adding a chorus of soul backup singers, and making sure all influences and subsets of Southern music are represented.
20 years in, Blackberry Smoke isn’t showing their rust. They’re hitting their stride, understanding their species is slowly becoming endangered, taking that prognosis personally, and doing what they can to keep the torch burning, and the memories of the sounds of the South alive. (read full review)
Cole Chaney – Mercy
Where many have dipped their toes into the Kentucky experience with their music, Cole Chaney wades in up to the neck, hollering and wailing about coal mines, flooding catastrophes, dreams cauterized in their infancy due to fleeting opportunities, and other conflagrations that the captivating and hearty characters of the region regularly experience, and that makes such compelling art and stories in the form of country music.
With a poetic disposition and an acoustic guitar, the 20-year-old former welder stirs a lot of emotion and has drawn a sizable crowd with an economy of instrumentation on his debut album Mercy, often only accompanied by fiddle, a bit of bass, and some mandolin, and sometimes by nothing but the natural acoustics of the room. It’s the nakedness of the effort that exposes the sincerity of the writing, and the brilliance of the composition, even if it requires an intent audience dedicated to listening for story as opposed to simple commuters scanning the commercial airwaves for a fetching melody. (read full review)
Melissa Carper – Daddy’s Country Gold
Finding perfection in music is such a formidable task with the endless menu of options and choices songwriters, performers, musicians, and producers are asked to select from when trying to take a nascent idea for a musical expression, and present it to the public fully formed. You start with blank pages and clean slates, and then have to craft words, melody, and musical accompaniment to somehow do the inspiration, and the raw emotion or story behind a song idea justice. Often that effort fails, and even when you do end up with something favorable, it still falls short of the aspirational ideal.
But this new album, entitled Daddy’s Country Gold, is not just the blossoming of a songwriter, singer, and entertainer, it’s one of those few and fleeting moments where everything comes together to present music in its perfect, most ideal form. Unlike most all of the other music you interface with—and with only a few exceptions—it all comes together and snaps in place smartly here. And even if perhaps the speed or flavor just isn’t your style, you can’t help but to slow clap at what has been accomplished. (read full review)
Mac Leaphart – Music City Joke
Like a more countrified version of John Prine, or a more compositionally-minded version of Jerry Jeff Walker during his gonzo era, Mac Leaphart immediately earns your ear and devotion with this handful of incredibly well-written songwriter songs and rousing boot scooters that are just about perfectly produced and ripe for repeat listening. It’s rare these days you run into one of those albums that immediately gives you that tingly feeling like you know you’ll still be listening to it years from now, but this is one of them. Music City Joke ain’t no laughing matter.
This isn’t a debut album from this South Carolina-native, but it sure feels like one. He’s been around for years, but you’ve probably never heard of him. That’s not entirely your fault though. First moving to Nashville in 2012, Mac Leaphart fell into the hustle of trying to write songs for others, and found only marginal success in that pursuit, especially on the commercial side. So instead of continuing to attempt to push that stone up the hill, he decided to center his focus on his own songs, and the results speak for themselves. (read full review)
The Steel Woods – All of Your Stones
Now that The Steel Woods had our rapt attention, were renown in the industry, and had proven their musical concept to be resonant, it was time for the ultimate vision for The Steel Woods that Jason “Rowdy” Cope had dreamed of to be fully realized in their third album, and what they consider to be their opus. Then after putting the finishing touches on the record—and only weeks away from revealing it to the public—the unthinkable news came down. Jason “Rowdy” Cope had been found unresponsive in his home in Nashville.
You can’t listen to All of Your Stones without considering Jason Cope’s passing at the age of 42. It may sound like a cliche to say contextualizing the songs within this tragic news results in an entirely different experience that eerily speaks to a prescient awareness of Rowdy’s impending passing, but that’s exactly what happens in one turn after another on this album, and in a way that will shake you to your very core. (read full review)
Pony Bradshaw – Calico Jim
Calico Jim is not a record to tap your toe and hum along to, though you very well may find yourself doing so at certain times. Instead, this is a record with messages to unravel, secrets to decode, and stories to tell. Pony Bradshaw’s voice and approach remind you much of the enigmatic Texas songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey, who only took one album to mint his legacy, and left you shivering, almost haunted after songs like “Ballad of Spider John.” Calico Jim does that too, delivering you into an altered mood after being in its audience.
But Pony Bradshaw gets what many others miss about the American “hillbilly,” which is the vividness of character that expresses itself in the people of the hills and hollers, and depressed landscapes of America’s rural regions that have been forlorn and forgotten, and how these characters possess their own value and wisdom, and speak to something deeper about human nature and meaning, with lessons that can’t be discovered elsewhere but in the richness of this human resource. (read full review)
Brock Gonyea – Where My Heart Is EP
From the unlikely enclave of small town New York State, and the even more unlikely origination point of Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records, here comes this surprise EP from upstart country artist Brock Gonyea that will deliver you and your country-loving heart smack dab into 1950’s country music bliss, warming your cockles about the prospects for the future of the country genre.
Push all of your presuppositions aside, this dude’s got it, and in spades, from the natural warble to his voice, to knowing how to write to his style and strengths, to the unflappable resolve to make country music his way no matter who is in his ear. Sure, it’s a small sample size at this point, but it’s surely enough to get you to stop down and pay attention.
It’s still early into this thing and much is still to be determined. But Brock Gonyea definitely has it, and classic country fans have another young performer to follow and root for. (read full review)
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.
You can talk about how it’s the simplicity of country music that lends to its beauty, or you can illustrate it like Bobby Dove has done with Hopeless Romantic. (read review)
Bo DePeña – It’s About to Get Western
Exploring the Western side of country music is what the now third record from Texas native and current Colorado resident Bo DePeña is all about. His previous, self-titled record found this young man originally from Laredo looking for himself both sonically and personally in the expanses of country music and North America. On It’s About To Get Western, he’s found where he wants to be, at least for now. And that’s in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, making music inspired by the rugged landscapes and people found there.
It’s About To Get Western gets better with each listen, and features really excellent instrumentation and arrangement that’s fit smartly to the songs and vision Bo DePeña had for this work. Like Colter Wall, Corb Lund and others, Bo DePeña’s looking to keep the traditions of Western music alive, not just by singing them, but by living them out, so he can sing them with truth and authenticity. (read full review)
Alan Jackson – Where Have You Gone
Releasing his new album thirty years to the day of releasing his landmark album Don’t Rock the Jukebox, and after the longest pause between studio albums of his career allowing the heart to only grow fonder, and after having his name officially enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, let’s face it, Alan Jackson has reached that topmost stratosphere in a musical legacy where it doesn’t really matter what he releases.
Just the sound of his voice, just the image he displays, just the shadow that he casts is enough to stir something deep inside of us that’s warm and favorable from all the memories made that Alan Jackson has been a part of. He has reached that level reserved for only a select few artists of any genre—Willie, Dolly, Loretta, Strait. A legend.
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)
Other Highly Recommended Albums
Shannon McNally – The Waylon Sessions (read review)
Hailey Whitters – Living The Dream (Deluxe) (read review)
Rob Leines – Blood, Sweat, and Beers (read review)
Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, Jon Randall – The Marfa Tapes (read review)
Charley Crockett – 10 For Slim (read review)
Loretta Lynn – Still Woman Enough (read review)
Nick Shoulders – Home On the Rage (read review)
The Divorcees – Drop of Blood (read review)
The Shootouts – Bullseye (read review)
Morgan Wade – Reckless (read review)
Triston Marez – Self-Titled (read review)
The Barlow – Horseshoe Lounge (read review)
Katie Jo – Pawn Shop Queen (read review)
Lucero – When You Found Me (read review)
Red Shahan – Javelina (read review)
Conrad Fisher – Homemade (read review)
John Schneider – Truck On (read review)
Hope Dunbar – Sweetheartland (read review)
Travis Tritt – Set In Stone (read review)
American Aquarium – Slappers, Bangers, and Certified Twangers (read review)
Uncle Ben’s Remedy – Easy Ways to Here (read review)
Carly Pearce – 29 (read review)
Casey Chesnutt – Down Mexico Way EP (read review)
Carrie Underwood – My Savior (read review)
Lainey Wilson – Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ (read review)
Jeremy Parsons – Things To Come (read review)
Eric Church – Heart & Soul (read review)
Addison Johnson – Dark Side of the Mountain (read review)
Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno – Self-Titled (read review)
Silas J. Dirge – The Poor Devil (read review)
Canaan Smith – High Country Sound (read review)
Michigan Rattlers – That Kind of Life (read review)
Other Albums Receiving Positive Reviews
Midland – The Sonic Ranch (read review)
Aaron Watson – American Soul (read review)