The Best Mainstream Country Albums of 2022

Every year to make sure the best titles in mainstream country don’t get overlooked, and to encourage the quality in the mainstream to rise to the top, we run down the best mainstream country albums to compliment the Album of the Year nominees. Some years there is overlap with the Album of the Year nominees, including this year.

Also in 2022, what is “mainstream” and what is “independent” continues to get more and more blurry as major label opportunities open up for more independently-minded artists, and the mainstream continues to sound more country, as is illustrated in the below titles. If an album was a released by a major Music Row-based label, and saw attention from mainstream radio, it’s being considered “mainstream.”

Country music continues to improve across the board, including, if not especially in the mainstream. These albums tell that story. Happy listening.

(11) – Hailey Whitters – Raised

For her latest effort Hailey Whitters returns home to Shueyville, Iowa (pop. 731) to find inspiration for the 17 tracks of her album Raised. Barring the “Ad Astra Per Alas Porci” intro and outtro, Whitters co-wrote all but one of the tracks, and true to her word, the album takes you right to small town middle America, and like so many of the souls birthed and raised there, it never leaves.

Hailey Whitters proves on Raised that eulogizing small town middle America doesn’t have to be so trite. Whitters and her co-writers like Lori McKenna, Brandy Clark, and Nicolle Galyon know how to take the yearning we all feel for a sense of home, awaken the warm memories of our earlier years, and call to mind the charm of rural life without resorting to the same tired modes, or ignoring some of the hypocrisy and constriction that needs to be referenced to paint the full picture of this life. (read review)

(10) – Miranda Lambert – Palomino

It’s called Palomino, and it’s a Miranda Lambert record. That means it includes some up-tempo sassy songs, and some slow and meaningful singer/songwriter songs. It means it’s more country than most of the mainstream, but not country enough for the independent country snobs. It means Shefani stans hate it no matter what it is, as will a contingent of fans of a band from Oklahoma. But ultimately, what you need to know about Palomino is it’s very much a Miranda Lambert record.

Palomino was recorded and produced more organically, and that comes across in the finished product. Instead of working with some big-named producer, it was produced by long-time Miranda songwriting buddies Jon Randall and Luke Dick, along with Miranda herself. Starting with the song and songwriters has always been what has separated Miranda from the rest of the mainstream. Natalie Hemby and Jack Ingram also make big contributions to this record. (read review)

(9) – Randy Houser – Note To Self

Whether you’re an adventurous traditional country music fan willing to cross enemy lines to seek out some of the best of the mainstream, or the mainstream country fan who insists on seeking out the country music of substance that the radio and awards tend to ignore, both paths will lead you to Randy Houser’s new album Note To Self. Picking up where his 2019 album Magnolia left off by affording more quality in the songwriting, more soul in the vocals, and more country in the sounds, Note To Self is one of mainstream country’s better releases of 2022.

Note To Self just proves why you shouldn’t put that old pair of blue jeans or that printed pearl snap shirt in the pile for Goodwill. In country music, all your favorite styles come back around, and when they do, you’re always cooler when you’re sporting stuff from the original era instead of the retro imitation. Randy Houser did his time chasing trends, and later shirking them with his last album Magnolia. But now his original soulful country sound and the appetite of the mainstream are aligning to make an album like this one that can live in both the mainstream and the more traditional world of country music. (read review)

(8) – Midland – The Last Resort: Greetings From

Midland is most certainly a mainstream country music bright spot, and has been ever since the band’s inception. This new album is no exception, once again taking Midland’s throwback 90s-era style complimented by the savvy writing of Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, and making something not entirely unique or exceptional for those whose country music diet doesn’t consist of corporate country radio, but something world-beating compared to Midland’s peers, and less of a guilty pleasure for indie country and Americana fans.

The new Midland album is anchored by the song “Sunrise Tells The Story,” which is one of the few songs not written by the band and the McAnally/Osborne duo, but by Midland guitarist Jess Carson, along with Jessi Alexander and Aaron Raitiere. You can tell how good this song is by how much it’s struggled at country radio. Even though we consider Midland “mainstream,” they haven’t exactly benefited from the perks of that world. They’re in-betweeners, built top down by Big Machine Records, and supported ground up by more distinguishing grassroots fans. (read review)

(7) – Aaron Lewis – Frayed at Both Ends

It’s too bad that Aaron Lewis has made himself such a polarizing guy in country music—one of those dudes that when you mention his name, many people immediately start making faces like they just swallowed something rude. Because he has released an album here with some really excellent songs that would resonate with people from the underground all the way to the mainstream, and even into Americana with the level of cunning songcraft and sincere emotion. But only Aaron’s fervent fans will hear it. Yet lucky for them, they will hear exactly what they’re hoping for.

For the duration of Aaron Lewis’s now decade-long country music career, it has been punctuated by two primary things: bellicose, politically-charged, and unapologetic patriotic anthems, and chain smoking solo acoustic shows full of earnestness that make them preferable for many fans over seeing a performance with a full band. His latest album Frayed At Both Ends offers the maximal Aaron Lewis experience by combining these two things, and leaning into them unrepentantly. (read review)

(6) – Ronnie Dunn – 100 Proof Neon

Everybody wants to be 90s country these days, but nobody wants to live through an era without the wide proliferation of the internet, and when cell phones looked like carry-on luggage. But if you want the real stuff, you’re always best going directly to the source, and perhaps no country music act personified 90s country more than Brooks & Dunn, and their monster hits like “My Maria,” “Brand New Man,” and “Neon Moon.”

Now it’s not about Ronnie Dunn reaching out of his comfort zone to chase the current trends, it’s the current trends coming back around to embrace Ronnie Dunn, which means all he has to do is be himself and lean into the sound that got him here. That’s what you get a big snootful on 100 Proof Neon. If you like songs about country, heartbreak, booze and neon, that’s what this album is all about. (read review)

(5) – Lainey Wilson – Bell Bottom Country

Not since the emergence of Miranda Lambert have we seen a woman surface in mainstream country music with such promise and passion that carries a wide appeal through an infectious personality, and at an advantageous time when everything is aligning to allow her to be utterly successful, if not dominant for years to come. Lainey Wilson is going to be big, and it’s going to be big for country music, because unlike so many of her mainstream contemporaries, Lainey Wilson is actually country.

Her latest album Bell Bottom Country is an overt and unapologetic establishment of the Louisiana native’s sound and influences. What is Bell Bottom Country? It includes a little bit of classic rock, just a dash of pop sensibility, and a whole lot of unrepentant country. Bell Bottom Country is frisky and cool, while still remaining honest to Lainey Wilson. You cue up the opening song “Hillbilly Hippie” with its “Mama Tried”-style guitar riff, and it immediately sucks you right in. (read review)

(4) – Randall King – Shot Glass

Of all the talk of the traditional country resurgence in the mainstream, of all the praise earned by Luke Combs for being better than his mainstream predecessors, of performers like Jon Pardi, Lainey Wilson, and Carly Pearce instilling more twang and roots into the music, of Cody Johnson dominating the airwaves at the moment with his single “Til You Can’t,” of even songwriters like Ernest putting out surprisingly country-sounding records, still nobody, nobody, is more traditional when it comes to new mainstream country than Randall King.

If you want to hear the continuation of country music that sounds like the stuff George Strait and Alan Jackson released in the late 80’s into the 90’s, Randall King takes the crown. This isn’t “90’s INSPIRED” country. This isn’t some retro gimmick or hipster put-on. Randall King was born and raised on this stuff, and lives and breathes it every day. He knows no different than to perform country music that actually sounds like country music, and is willing to die on that hill if that’s what it takes. But so far, it’s taken him across Texas and to a deal with Warner Music Nashville, and hopefully, now to the masses. (read review)

(3) – Jon Pardi – Mr. Saturday Night

Jon Pardi started his career as the slightly more twangy mainstream guy who would still make you wince with his radio singles. Now, he’s more country then many of your favorite Texas and Red Dirt guys, and is having great success with it. Jon Pardi leans on the fiddle in a way we haven’t heard since the Western swing era. And most importantly, radio is playing it. He also shamelessly leans into the country music tradition of the double entendre, uncaring if some consider it hokey.

Some will say, “You’ve gone soft, Trig! You would have ripped this six years ago.” Maybe so. Or maybe Jon Pardi has gone hard, and is dragging mainstream country with him. This isn’t 2016 Jon Pardi either, and this isn’t 2016 mainstream country music. Country is now more country, and we have Jon Pardi in large part to thank for it. (read review)

(2) – Drake Milligan – Dallas/Fort Worth

Drake Milligan did not win America’s Got Talent. He came in third. Apparently he was good enough to compete and make it to the final, but was too good to win. That’s how you know he’s real. The consolation prize is an excellent new 14 song album called Dallas/Fort Worth, and it’s way better and more meaningful then any silly talent competition trophy. Super country and twangy, with good songwriting and that little dash of swagger from Drake’s Elvis influence, it’s everything you were hoping Drake Milligan’s full-length debut album would be.

Completely co-written by Milligan, sung exquisitely in a voice that is both classic and unique, and named after his hometown region, Dallas/Fort Worth gives you lots of reasons to be hopeful for the present and the future of country music, as long as Drake Milligan is involved in it. (read review)

(1) – Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville

The album came together over a week long songwriting retreat at a cabin just outside of Nashville. It was composed around the characters of a fictional town named after the influential songwriter Dennis Linde, who penned such gems as “Bubba Shot The Jukebox” by Mark Chesnutt and “Goodbye Earl” by the [Dixie] Chicks. For the male characters, songwriters Aaron Raiterie, Benjy Davis, and T.J. Osborne step up to sing lead, just as Brandy Clark, Caylee Hammack, and Pillbox Patti do as well. John Osborne of Brothers Osborne was the producer of the album.

Lindeville is one of those albums that will go on to define a more compelling and atypical career from an artist that is helping to break the mold of what we can expect from major label country. Incidentally, it also helps highlight some important songwriters. But perhaps most importantly, Ashley McBryde’s Lindeville symbolizes that we may be entering an era when artists are allowed opportunities to do things that disrupt the regular rhythms of music production instead of only adhering to them. And that is exciting. (read review)

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