If 90% of mainstream country music is bad, then it stands to reason that 10% of it must be good, or at least decent. So under the philosophy of celebrating what stands out in hopes it sustains, the idea that mainstream country fans deserve good music too, and to not be independent music music snobs and act like non-radio country stars are the only ones creating quality country music, it’s imperative each year we also pay attention to the best releases in the mainstream as well.
Mainstream albums and songs are also considered for end-of-year accolades such as Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Single of the Year. But since they are commonly underrepresented, let’s take a moment to highlight the best stuff here.
Truth is, as time has gone on since the height of the Bro-Country era, mainstream country music seems to continue to trend in a more positive direction. That is reflected in many of of the artists and albums you see below. Please feel free to leave your own list of favorite mainstream albums below in the comments if you wish.
13. Midland – The Sonic Ranch
There is a reason this material has remained buried for six years, and stuff like this is rarely released widely by any band or artist trying to figure out their sound. Still, there can be a charm to crude work tape recordings, and The Sonic Ranch has its moments, especially if you’re a diehard Midland fan. “Fourteen Gears” has always been one of the band’s best songs, and there’s nothing bad about the more raw version of it here. “Cowgirl Blues” probably isn’t a bad song either, and hearing both Mark Wystrach and Jess Carson take their swings at it may be a fun exercise for hardcore Midland fans. “Champagne for the Pain” is a good song idea as well.
Ultimately, this feels like yet another COVID-19 pandemic release by bored musicians looking to keep their name in the media. But hell, they were sitting on the stuff, and decided now is as good of a time as any to let loose of it. It’s a snapshot in time whose greatest value may be as an archival work instead of a vehicle for great entertainment. But devout fans of the band will probably love it, and that’s ultimately who it’s for. (read full review)
12. Riley Green – Behind The Bar
Starting with his hit “I Wish Grandpas Never Died,” Riley Green has delivered one song after another that labors and often achieves to touch something deeper in the listener than just their vapid, passive-listening pleasure zone placed in the bullseye of the likes of 101.1 FM, while still staying very much within the mainstream fold of making lists of countryistic buzz words and delivering them rapid fire. Riley Green also avoids the pitfalls of electronic beats, hip-hop cadences in the lyrical phrasing, while favoring fiddle and steel guitar in songs when it fits.
If it wasn’t for the Bro-Country era wearing out list songs, perhaps Riley Green would be regarded even more favorably. Even with the striking emotional moments, his music just lacks the spontaneity and originality you want to hear in the best of country music. But it is country, no matter the protestations of traditionalists. And it is better than most in the mainstream. It’s just if Riley would work beyond the list-style of lyricism, even for just a few songs, he would find an even more appreciative audience beyond the gaggle of mainstream listeners hungry for the “something more” that Riley Green nonetheless delivers. (read full review)
11. Parker McCollum – Gold Chain Cowboy
Parker McCollum will probably never be for the deeper, darker, more twangy, and more Americana crowd, and this album likely won’t help his prospects with them either. But for a strong legion of disenfranchised country fans who find little to no favor with the ultra-polished and pop/hip-hop-influenced stylings of the country mainstream, and want music that speaks to them a bit more deeper—yet don’t necessarily want a dictionary to to be able to digest it—Parker McCollum sits right down in their wheelhouse, or may even marks the pinnacle of their musical pyramid.
In the end, the naysayers and the supporters are probably both right, and both wrong to some extent. For the package Parker McCollum comes in, he delivers more than you expect, but for some, less than they desire. And that’s where Gold Chain Cowboy rests—in a margin that’s better than most in the mainstream, but still mild compared to many others. But ultimately, it might be the bridge Parker McCollum presents between the two that makes his career and sound so paramount. (read full review)
10. Eric Church – Heart & Soul
The music of Eric Church is all about American nostalgia and restlessness. It’s Mellencamp, with a dash of Springsteen. Don’t take this assessment as a slight. This style of rock has taken just as much of a precipitous slide in recent years as mainstream country, and needs saving all its own since its earnestness is an important part of American music. And it happens to be that Eric Church is pretty superb at it when he gets a hold of the right song and lights into it, as is evident on numerous occasions during Heart & Soul.
With Eric Church, you take the good with the bad, and the bluster with the sincerity. He’s way more rock than country, but way better than the rest of the mainstream. He’s Eric Church. (read full review)
9. Canaan Smith – High Country Sound
Don’t even bother listening to Canaan Smith’s previous music. It’s like the songs of his good friends Florida Georgia Line, only not as good, if you can believe that. Canaan Smith was like the derivative, generic version of FGL. Only now that Canaan Smith is free from the Music Row system can his true career commence in earnest, and an honest assessment of his music be made. Co-writing all twelve songs, and producing many of them as well, Canaan Smith has emerged looking like a guy you’d buy a rebuilt carburetor from on Craigslist.
The transformation of this guy from pandering for radio play to a dude writing and singing good ol’ country songs is quite remarkable. There’s no drum machines on this record, and surprising amounts of fiddle and steel guitar fill the tracks. It’s not a traditional country record. But it’s not exactly pop country either. It’s Canaan country, meaning a mixture of traditional and contemporary influences, underpinned with decent writing, and something a world apart from most Music Row output, or Canaan Smith previously. (read full review)
8. Lainey Wilson – Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’
Move aside all you pop country prima donnas of both the the male and female persuasion, because a bona fide redneck warrior princess has just shown up looking to shake up the mainstream scene with unapologetic and boisterous modern country songs served with unabashed attitude and honesty.
This is supposed to be a fun record—young and brash in a way that brings the personality of Lainey Wilson to the surface. Sure, you wish it was more country in stretches, but it avoids snap tracks and drum loops, and still distinguishes itself from most of what we hear in the mainstream today. Lainey Wilson delivers a number of songs in “Things A Man Oughta Know,” “Rolling Stone,” and the final song, “Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’” that make the effort worthy of your attention, even if you cherry pick your way through it. The album also reveals a newcomer in the mainstream who is willing and able to make waves in a more positive direction, which is always welcome. (read full review)
7. Cody Johnson – Human: The Double Album
Cody Johnson is what mainstream country music in 2021 should be: country, but widely appealing and pragmatic, while being unafraid to make you think and feel a little too. Perhaps more than any other Cody Johnson record, Human: The Double Album feels organic. Compared to his first record after partnering with a major label, you can tell Cody is just recording what he wants. Sure, he’s no John Moreland or Hayes Carll. But he’s also not trying to smooth the edges off, or fit into a mold to appeal to an industry or to listeners that probably won’t ever find favor with his more traditional style of country in the first place.
Cody Johnson knows his fans, and knows his place. He’s a contemporary traditionalist who sings simple poetry set to appealing music for fans who don’t necessarily want to unravel the mysteries of life or grapple with existential questions. They simply want to listen to good music that reminds them of the gifts of life, and imparts simple lessons and rural wisdom. Oh, and they actually want it to sound country. And that’s why Cody Johnson is their guy. (read full review)
6. Travis Tritt – Set In Stone
Editor’s Note: Travis Tritt might be a bit past his “mainstream” prime and is no longer signed to a major label. But as a member of the “Class of ’89” and a mainstream player from the past, out of respect, he’s being included here.
Working with Brent Cobb and Adam Hood on multiple tracks, as well as Channing Wilson, Dillon Carmichael and others injects Set In Stone with a fresh and relevant perspective, along with bestowing an opportunity to these deserving songwriters. The early tracks had you worried this album may be monochromatic in theme and message, but it shows surprising depth by the end.
Undoubtedly though, this is a Boomer record, and in more ways than one. Even the cover feels a bit drab and outdated. But that is Travis Tritt’s clientele, both from those that first heard him in the 90’s, to those just now discovering that era in country for the first time. Yes, Travis Tritt’s legacy is already “set in stone” as he says in the title track. But this new album chisels in a few more details. (read full review)
5. Carrie Underwood- My Savior
God touched this particular soul with an incredible dollop of singing talent; that’s for sure. But where Carrie Underwood’s voice can sometimes come across as a bit much in country—almost too powerful when brought to what is supposed to be understated material—the soaring heights she is able to achieve is just about perfect for giving praise through timeless compositions that can act like launching pads.
This is not a country record. This is a Christian record. However, along with turning in her first volume of exclusively religious material, Carrie Underwood might have also delivered one of her most country records yet, not just from the nature of the material, but the rootsy aspect of some of the music.
It’s been long said that Carrie Underwood should make a straight up traditional country record someday, and would likely kill it if her cover performances of classic country songs live over the years are any indication. But on deck first was her expressing her Christian faith with a carefully selected group of songs she knew she could clobber, backed by surprisingly tasteful and rootsy production that makes My Savior not just another Gospel record running through the standards, but Carrie Underwood leaving her mark on this important portion of America’s cultural imprint. (read full review)
4. Hailey Whitters – Living The Dream (Deluxe Edition)
Editor’s Note: Though Hailey Whitters isn’t the typical “mainstream” artist, meaning one who receives big radio play, she definitely writes songs and rubs elbows with many of the mainstream set, and artists such as Trisha Yearwood and Little Big Town appear on this album. Plus, it’s just a good excuse to highlight a good album.
Deluxe editions of albums are often repositories for whatever might have been left on the cutting house floor after the original track list was finalized, with maybe one or two new songs recorded afterward that you don’t think are good enough to hold back for the next record. But with Hailey’s Living The Dream (Deluxe Edition), it’s so much more. The new songs fulfill the lingering desires we had for The Dream, including specifically more country-sounding material that we knew Whitters was capable of. It takes a really good album and makes it a great one.
All five of the new songs feel like home runs. They’re all songs that in a just world, would get their fair chance on country radio, while they also highlight just how revered Hailey Whitters is with the rest of her fellow performers and songwriters since each one is a collaboration. (read full review)
3. Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall, Jack Ingram – The Marfa Tapes
It would take a pretty cold heart to not recognize there’s a sweetness to this project, some really great songwriting, and a few really excellent performances regardless of the lo-fi and duct taped nature of the effort that renders The Marfa Tapes worthy of the rather strong praise it’s been receiving, regardless of its homespun nature.
If it wasn’t Miranda, would we be making such a big of a fuss about this? Of course not. But here we are. And a big fuss has been deserved to be made about Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in the mainstream for years and never really was, but now here it is. It’s just the latest example of Miranda championing worthy songwriters just like she’s done with her Pistol Annies side project, and like she’s done for years on her albums.
The Marfa Tapes is one of the increasingly-frequent opportunities for mainstream country artists to do something a little bit outside of the box. This wouldn’t work every time, but it works here. (read full review)
2. Carly Pearce – 29: Written in Stone
Apparently, Carly Pearce did not get the memo. Her career is going in the exact opposite direction than it’s supposed to be at this point. The script says that if you’re a mainstream country starlet that shows early promise in maintaining a little bit of country roots in your sound, as soon as you see some initial success, you’re supposed careen straight into full blown pop while denouncing country as limiting to your creativity, and break the hearts of all of your true blue country fans.
Now a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and once a prodigy singing traditional country and bluegrass at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Carly Pearce has successfully wedged a broom handle between the cogs of the Music Row machine, escaped the sausage factory assembly line, and successfully done what many of the young women who move to Nashville fully intend to do before they’re gobbled up by the system: become a country star. (read full review)
1. Alan Jackson – Where Have You Gone
You could say Alan Jackson is past his prime, but on Where Have You Gone he’s actually right where he should be, reminiscing on life, enjoying his semi-retirement, and showing fair concern about the direction country music is taking as a country legend with a conscience and an important voice. If Alan Jackson was out there trying to run down a late career radio hit, or trying not to show his age, that’s where he would run into trouble like so many aging country performers do.
Instead, Alan Jackson is being Alan Jackson—a constant, a rock, someone you can count on. 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)