Here at the halfway pole of the musical year, it’s time to run down the best albums that have been released in 2022 so far. There have already been some excellent releases, and the first albums highlighted should be considered early candidates for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year, with many other albums coming highly recommended. 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 section 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.
Kaitlin Butts – What Else Can She Do?
The stagnation of dreams and the stalling of forward momentum in life that so many of us face is what composes the inspiration for this cutting and deeply affecting work from Oklahoma singer and songwriter Kaitlin Butts. But undergirding the stories of these sometimes hapless, and sometimes hopeless women is a deep sense of promise.
There’s just a confidence behind the voice of Kaitlin Butts that puts her in her own elite league, paired up with an emotional expressiveness that takes it far beyond some sort of athletic display. So many singers shy away from the sweetest, and most challenging notes of their register, worried they will falter. But Kaitlin Butts is fearless, charging forward, full volume in the mix so her words penetrate far past the rib cage and leave the internal organs and mortal soul stirred well past the expiration of the music itself.
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)
49 Winchester – Fortune Favors The Bold
This 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. It’s about looking forward while simultaneously reflecting on the past. It’s about imbibing in sin while yearning for redemption. It’s about staying young, hungry, and free, while trying to mature and adapt.
These dichotomies and contradictions make up the lyrical content of the record, but it’s an amalgam of Southern sounds that comprise the 49 Winchester sonic recipe, deftly sliding from Southern rock to straight up country, then into blues and maybe even some bluegrass influences. 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 these 10 recordings.
But really, it’s the effortlessly soulful voice of frontman and guitarist Isaac Gibson that makes 49 Winchester so much more than just another cool country band. (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)
Tony Logue – Jericho
Make your way off the main roads, and down the two tracks of rural Western Kentucky where the promises of modern society are left unfulfilled, and the souls haven’t been lifted up by the march of progress, they’ve been abandoned by it, and become refugees of it. It’s a place where earning your daily bread is a dog fight, yet you can’t fathom fleeing due to the familial ties binding you to the land. It’s a place where no matter how far away you run from it, you can never escape it. This is the world of Tony Logue and Jericho.
Following in the footsteps of fellow Kentuckians Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers, Tony Logue released a “Live on Red Barn Radio” session in 2019, and brought engineer Sean Sullivan on board for this album who’s worked with Tyler and Sturgill in the past. Jericho also features Russ Pahl on steel guitar, Tammy Rogers of the SteelDrivers on fiddle, drummer Jason Munday, and Sturgill drummer Miles Miller singing harmonies. In other words, all effort was expended to make this a breakout record.
None of this is of consequence though if the songs of Jericho aren’t washed in the blood of the authentic rural American experience, and lucky for Tony Logue and the audience, they most certainly are. It’s no coincidence that Kentucky continues to feed our appetites for authentic country and roots. It’s where the music originally emerged from, and it’s where the right ingredients (for better or worse) still linger where its natives don’t have to engage in cosplay to convince you of their authenticity. They just have to tell the stories of themselves, their family, their neighbors, and their life. (read review)
Molly Tuttle – 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.
What Molly Tuttle proves to hopefully herself and everyone else with Crooked Tree is that doing bluegrass does not mean compromising the expressiveness of your music. Sure, maybe folk and singer/songwriter material tends to facilitate lyrical expressiveness easier, but Molly Tuttle is one to tackle things because they’re hard, not in spite of it. 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. 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)
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.
The intensity of the writing and delivery of an Ian Noe song is virtually unparalleled—scowling as he sings. Part Dylan and Prine, part hillbilly from the dark holler, River Fools and Mountain Saints underscores this virile brew of influences.
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 more)
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, 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.
On Neon Blue, Josh Hedley proves he’s not just “Mr. Jukebox,” or a perennial Lower Broadway entertainer. As he sings on the second track on this record, “I’m a singing professor, of Country and Western.” 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)
Brennen Leigh – Obsessed with the West
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. On this album, Brennen Leigh puts this into service in large measure by singing about ungrateful and hapless men, but you won’t be sobbing along as much as simply entertained.
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.
Brennen Leigh has written songs for the likes of Lee Ann Womack and Sunny Sweeny, and been covered by Rodney Crowell and Charley Crockett. She probably could have gone in more bankable and commercial directions in her career. But keeping her integrity and following her heart has resulted in rewards more lucrative than money, and prestige more important than widespread popularity. (read review)
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.
Not even a name change can knock what these dudes have going for them off its axis. Initially known as Hill Country, their first self-titled record from 2020 had us all singing their praises for the laid back country rock bluegrass-infused sound they discovered which was so easy to warm to. Their second eponymous release (strange but true) is a bit more expansive and adventurous, but still includes all those good vibes, quality songs, and killer harmonies that made Hill Country, and now The Wilder Blue, your new favorite band.
Their sound reminds you of the best of The Eagles and Alabama, figuring out how to borrow just enough from timeless sounds and melodies to be immediately appealing, while putting enough of their own spin on each song to be original and fresh. On this album, the instrumentation is brought forward even another notch. Some of the guitar solos and banjo rolls will blow your mind on this one, and are featured even more prominently via a few expanded compositions. You wouldn’t want to characterize The Wilder Blue a jam band or anything, but they near that level of immersion and imagination. (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.
Despite what Zach Bryan’s critics will implore you to believe, this is not all smoke and mirrors. The way Zach Bryan has connected with his audience of mostly younger adults estranged from today’s conventional country music is by giving words to their most infernal fears, anxieties, and euphoric exhalations. Zach Bryan just knows how to express what he’s feeling in a lossless manner, and what we all feel (or have felt) in ways even the most illustrative of songwriters generally struggle to.
Even on some of Zach Bryan’s more average tracks, there is still almost always a line or two that feels damn near like parable, or perhaps Shakespearean in it’s poetic potency, making the entire song seem that much more vital. It’s these kinds of incisive lines that some songwriters take years to discover, and that Zach seems to pick out of the air as easy as breath that has resulted in his inexplicable “viral” appeal. His fans pick up on all of these such lines. His critics miss them entirely. (read review)
Other Highly Recommended Albums
*David Quinn – Country Fresh (read review)
*Alma Russ – Fool’s Gold (read review)
*Jenny Tolman – Married in a Honky Tonk (read review)
* = Also received top rating.
Lyle Lovett – 12th of June (read review)
Caroline Spence – True North (read review)
Ned LeDoux – Buckskin (read review)
Aaron Lewis – Frayed at Both Ends (read review)
Brent Cobb – And Now, Let’s Turn To Page… (read review)
The Whitmore Sisters – Ghost Stories (read review)
Alex Miller – Miller Time (read review)
Randall King – Shot Glass (read review)
Aaron McDonnell – Too Many Days Like Saturday Night (read review)
Ellis Bullard – Piss-Hot Freightlining Country Music (read review)
Matt Castillo – How The River Flows (read review)
Charlie Sutton – Trout Takes (read review)
Aaron Raitiere – Single Wide Dreamer (read review)
Ray Wylie Hubbard – Co-Starring Too (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)
William Beckmann – Faded Memories (read review)
Matt Maverick – American Dream (read review)
Miranda Lambert – Palomino (read review)
Charley Crockett – Jukebox Charley (read review)
The Kernal – Listen to the Blood (read review)
Muscadine Bloodline – Dispatch to 16th Ave. (read review)
Dolly Parton – Run, Rose, Run (read review)
Family Shiloh – At The Cold Copper Ranch (read review)