As we reach the halfway pole of the musical year, it’s time to reflect back on the best albums that have been released so far. If we’re being honest, it feels like many of the best albums might be coming in the 2nd half of 2023. But there are still some great projects that you should make sure don’t slip under your radar, including the top nine listed below that should be considered early Album of the Year contenders.
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.
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)
Amanda Fields – What, When and Without
Every once in a while, an album or artist comes along, and it only takes a song or two, or maybe even a minute or two of the first song before you to start asking, “Where have you been all my life?” Amanda Fields is one of those artists, and What, When and Without is one of those albums, even if it’s a bit ironic because so much of this album is about love lost.
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 else 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 what they found. (read review)
Ward Davis – Sunday Morning
First and foremost, 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. He distinguishes himself here with his use of words to deliver meaningful moments, and the strong voice he uses to deliver them with.
Starting with the story of a recovering drug and alcohol addict marking his 70th day of sobriety, Sunday Morning isn’t as much of a Gospel album, a preachy work, or a praise exercise as it is a chronicling of characters, and their yearning for God and the release of guilt. Is there a religious context here? Sure. But the songs go far beyond garnering attention from religious affiliation.
Generally speaking, EPs are the also-rans of recorded music, and for good reason. They’re commonly repositories for the leavings of other projects, or the results of artists wanting to be involved in music, but not committed enough to cut back on weed or work extra shifts to pay the studio time for a full LP. But Ward Davis so much more in four songs than many albums struggle to say in ten. (read review)
Whitney Rose – Rosie
Taking the pain in life and making it into human expressions that have the innate power to heal is what the greatest country music is all about. It’s like chicken soup for the soul, and Rosie‘s recipe here is especially efficacious.
This is a twangy, heartbreaker of a country record, and whatever physical anguish Whitney may be in, she sings through it, finds strength and inspiration from it, and delivers in front of a crack group of Austin musicians that includes guitarist Dave Biller, multi-instrumentalist Rich Brotherton, Warren Hood on fiddle, Brad Fordham on bass, and Lisa Pankratz on drums.
The name of the album is Rosie since that’s the nickname that Whitney Rose’s husband, manager, and producer Michael McKeown uses. The personal relationship continues, but the professional one comes to a conclusion with this album. But not before Rosie marks perhaps Whitney Rose’s top contribution to traditional country music, and one that may go on to be considered one of the top releases in country music in 2023. (read review)
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.
As esoteric and involved as all of this may sound, this album does not fall delinquent on making sure you’re entertained. It labors to find and expose the appeal in the ideas it broaches, and the music that it presents. Such a literary approach to music will never appeal to everyone. But on North Georgia Rounder, Pony Bradshaw draws on his passion for the medium to make it appealing nonetheless. (read review)
The War & Treaty – Lover’s Game
The War and Treaty is one of those duos that could sing the phone book, and blow the crowd out of their seats. But in this day an age of ever-present singing competitions and Chris Stapleton, this isn’t entirely novel. Marrying their voices with songs that can resonate beyond the enchantment of the performances themselves and appeal to broader parts of the country and roots world is what makes Lover’s Game feel like such an important work.
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 review)
Sundy Best – Feel Good Country
It is a spirited competition among country and Americana songwriters right now to pen the most devastating heartbreak songs possible in a race to to see who can rip your heart straight out of your chest like that guy in the Indiana Jones and theTemple of Doom movie and stop on it the hardest. Country fans are clamoring for this type of stuff like masochists, while even the mainstream of country music has gotten in on the game.
Leave it to Kentucky duo Sunday Best to buck this trend and attempt to swim upstream by embracing the positivity of life and the righting of the mind, all while featuring a piece of playable furniture as one of the primary instruments. It’s a daunting task, but one they accomplish on their new album Feel Good Country. (read review)
Drayton Farley – Twenty On High
With a couple of acoustic releases over the last couple of years, Alabama songwriter Drayton Farley rocketed up the depth charts of emerging talent in the Americana realm with the way his songs resonated with audiences irrespective of their stripped-down nature, and tantalized the imagination about his upside potential once a full band was placed behind him.
Twenty on High lives up to both the standard of songwriting he set for himself early on, and the hope of what might happen if more enhanced production was brought to them. The results are such where it’s now appropriate to name Drayton Farley among the top flight of resurgent country-adjacent performers carrying on what artists such as Jason Isbell helped instigate six or seven years ago, ultimately sparking an American roots revolution.
A smart ass might say something along the lines of how Drayton Farley’s full studio debut is the best album Jason Isbell has released since Southeastern. For sure, the similarities between Drayton Farley’s vocal delivery and song structure with his fellow Alabaman are picked up by the ear immediately since it was produced by 400 Unit member Sadler Vaden, and the back line of bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble also contributed to the album. But there are much more terrible things to be compared with or sound similar to than Jason Isbell and Southeastern. (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)
Other Highly Recommended Albums
William Prince – Stand In The Joy (read review)
Chancey Williams – One Of These Days (read review)
Whitehorse – I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying (read review)
Myron Elkins – Factories, Farms & Amphetamines (read review)
Them Dirty Roses – Lost in the Valley of Hate and Love Vol. 1 (read review)
Tim Goodin – True Stories and Flat Out Lies (read review)
Jake Worthington – Self-Titled (read review)
Dillon Massengale – Buckleshines (read review)
Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley – Living in a Song (read review)
Megan Moroney – Lucky (read review)
Matt Hillyer – Glorieta (read review)
Brit Taylor – Kentucky Blue (read review)
Slaid Cleaves – Together Through The Dark (read review)
Caitlyn Smith – High and Low (read review)
Laid Back Country Picker – Go West (read review)
Lance Roark – Better Man EP (read review)
Luke Combs – Growin’ Old (read review)
El Dorodo – Unincorporated (read review)
Tanya Tucker – Sweet Western Sound (read review)
Willie Nelson – I Don’t Know A Thing About Love (read review)
Other Albums Receiving Positive Reviews:
Parker McCollum – Never Enough (read review)
Elle King – Come Get Your Wife (read review)
Dierks Bentley – Gravel & Gold (read review)
Stephen Wilson Jr. – bon aqua (read review)
Chase Rice – I Hate Cowboys and All Dogs Go To Hell (read review)
HARDY – the mockingbird & THE CROW (read review)