The Best Mainstream Country Albums of 2023

Saving Country Music spends the vast majority of the time focusing on artists and bands that get overlooked and under-appreciated in popular country music. But that doesn’t mean that mainstream country is entirely terrible. Even if 90% of mainstream country is bad, it stands to reason that 10% of it must be alright. And since it’s important to remain objective and attempt to save country music in the mainstream as well, it’s worth highlighting some of the best mainstream stuff in 2023.

Similar to what we’ve seen over the last few years, mainstream country continues to improve with better songs, better albums, and more country-sounding material. There are most certainly exceptions. But the farther we get from the Bro-Country era, the more country sounds country again.

It’s also getting more difficult to know what to label “mainstream,” and what to label “independent.” Now that you have major labels signing otherwise independent artists left and right, and artists like Zach Bryan and Oliver Anthony dominating the charts, the lines are blurring like never before. This is a good dilemma to face, but overall, independent vs. mainstream is still very much defined on who receives corporate radio play, and who doesn’t.

13. Riley Green – Ain’t My Last Rodeo

To Riley Green fans, he’s the real deal in country music, and nowhere near those mainstream pop country lightweights like Dan + Shay or Parmalee. Riley Green is an actual country music star singing actual By God country music songs. And when bringing an honest assessment to the musical accompaniment and lyrical content of his songs, that judgement is generally fair. There’s ample steel guitar, some fiddle too, and the tracks definitely touch on rural themes.

But just because something is real country doesn’t always mean that it’s real good. Riley Green might be more country than most of what you hear in the mainstream. But when listening through his second full-length album Ain’t My Last Rodeo, you also most definitely hear the mainstream in his country. (read review)

12. Elle King – Come Get Your Wife

Well now. Comedian Rob Schneider’s daughter has hauled off and made herself a country record. And just like Elle King herself, it’s a little much and all over the place. That’s not to say there isn’t any entertainment value to be had. On the contrary. Elle King turns in some real quality songs at times. And even when the album train wrecks, a train wreck can be entertaining all unto itself, especially when that train wreck is conducted by Elle King.

Getting your hands around this album is like chasing down a wet bar of soap. If you’re a mainstream country fan, this may be one of the better albums you’ll hear all year, but perhaps too twangy and rootsy for you. If you’re an independent country music fan, this thing is like walking through a mine field to find the good stuff, but the good stuff is still there and worth seeking out. (read review)

11. Luke Combs – Gettin’ Old

Luke Combs could be edgier or more traditional country, but that’s not him. He’s not the troubled soul waking up in a pool of his own filth, and then pouring his soul into heart-wrenching songs. He’s not some throwback hipster evoking 60s country styles in a vintage tweed suit, or a redneck twanger in black leather slinging a hot Telecaster, or an Appalachian hilljack braying about coal and cocaine. The appeal of Luke Combs is that he’s just a Joe up there singing easily relatable and likable songs about his life that also mirror the lives of many in his audience.

It was Luke Combs himself that after he won the CMA Entertainer of the Year award last November, stood at the podium and said, “This is my 5th or 6th year being at this awards show, and country sounded more country than it has in a long time, and I think we all wanted that.”

There is no doubt that with Luke Combs at the apex of the country genre, mainstream country music is “more country” than it’s been in a decade. It still may not be your ideal, or what you think country should be. But it’s honest, grounded, and at times, pretty good. (read review)

10. Dierks Bentley – Gravel & Gold

As good as Dierks Bentley can be, and as better as he is compared to some of his peers in the mainstream, you always seem to want a bit more from him. Though he can have the freedom to noodle around and stretch the boundaries a bit more than some or most, he’s always mindful that the coliseum on the edge of Tupelo still needs to be filled, and that home in Telluride needs a kitchen remodel.

It’s a push and pull with Dierks Bentley, and you see that play out in the songs of Gravel & Gold. He gets moments to do what he wants to do, but also does what he needs to sustain Dierks Inc. But since he’s such a universally-beloved guy, he’s in a position where when he dabbles with bluegrass and a little bit of traditional country, it actually makes a difference to the flavor profile of country, because people are actually listening, and many of those people are in the mainstream. (read review)

9. Chase Rice – I Hate Cowboys and All Dogs Go To Hell

Is country music truly experiencing a transformational moment? Is this moment really touching most every sector of country, including some of the most corrupted corners of the mainstream? If this new selection from Chase Rice is any sort of bellwether, then the answer would be in the affirmative. Is it “good”? Of course, that question is subjective. Is it an improvement from what we’ve come to expect from this specific artist? Absolutely. Does this symbolize a broadening and entrenching of positive trends in country music including better quality and more country-sounding songs? Yes it does.

“Cruise” was released over 10 years ago. Chase Rice has grown up, so has his fans, and so has popular country music. It’s the folks trying to act perpetually 22 that are the problem. Chase Rice and this album are far from that. It’s a maturing, and a testament to the truth that you can always grow and challenge yourself, not matter where you started from. (read review)

8. Ernest – Flower Shops (The Album): Two Dozen Roses

In 2022, Ernest released Flower Shops (The Album) after stunning a lot of folks with the fiercely traditional song “Flower Shops” featuring Morgan Wallen. It was one of the most traditional country-sounding songs released to mainstream country radio in years. However, Flower Shops (The Album) was very much hit and miss, consisting for a mix of a few traditional leaning tracks, along with a lot of mainstream -facing pop country that many traditional country fans wouldn’t be caught dead listening to.

This deluxe edition includes those disappointing songs as well, but what Ernest bolsters the revised version with is more songs in the vein of “Flower Shops.” It appears that Ernest’s hip-hop and pop-infused versions of country are fading into the past for more country-sounding country songs. There is still a long way to go, but similar to the trends affecting mainstream country music overall, Ernest is definitely headed in the right direction.

7. Parker McCollum – Never Enough

Parker roped in a lot of the right people to help make the new album Never Enough something that was more than enough for his fans. Co-writers include fellow Texas country headliners Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen, critically-acclaimed stalwarts Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, and Hillary Lindsey even joins in on a song for an official appearance of the famous “Love Junkies” songwriter troika. Jon Randall also shares a few co-writes to go along with his producer credit for the album.

Parker McCollum at his best knows how to create momentum in a song like few others, and conjoin it with an enveloping melody. This is what his early hits like “I Can’t Breathe” and “Hell of a Year” did perfectly. It’s also what was lacking to an extent from his last album Gold Chain Cowboy. Here Parker McCollum finds that magic again on numerous occasions. “Stoned” isn’t especially well-written or novel, but it’s what McCollum does with it that makes it moving and anthemic by the end. He does this again on the song “Wheel.” (read review)

6. Chris Stapleton – Higher

Chris Stapleton will be a Country Music Hall of Famer someday. And with the release of his latest album Higher, he ensures that he will help define at least a decade of the country music genre, even if his music isn’t especially “country.” As one of the most ubiquitous, well-recognized, and universally-beloved (or tolerable) performers and songwriters of our time, Stapleton’s legacy is secured and cemented.

It’s not exactly country, but it’s not really more at home in any other genre either. It may not be the music that most defines your life, but it’s music you don’t mind moving in and out of it. It’s Chris Stapleton, which means always on brand, always enjoyable, even if rarely exceptional. This is what you can expect from Higher. (read review)

5. Caitlyn Smith – High & Low

If you’ve gotta listen to country pop, make it Caitlyn Smith. Even before her debut album Starfire was nominated for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year in 2018, she was one of the few bright spots in the pop country space where you didn’t give a damn that she didn’t sound like traditional country given the strength of her songwriting, and the power, range, and sweetness behind her voice.

Caitlyn Smith just can do things with her voice others can’t. It’s not just the range, but the textures, volumes, dynamics, and moods she’s able to utilize. She even knows how to use breath and pauses to her advantage. And most importantly, Caitlyn has the boldness and confidence to go where some other singers could go, but are too scared to.

Perhaps Caitlyn Smith is just too damn good to be a superstar. She also might be too centered and grounded to be one either. She’s not the kind of narcissist you need to be in the mainstream country business to succeed at the highest reaches. She just wants to write songs and sing them. (read review)

4. Megan Moroney – Lucky

It’s official, ladies and gentlemen. Country music has entered a new neotraditional age. Not dissimilar to when George Strait and Randy Travis showed up on the scene in the 80s and swayed everything in the direction of more country-sounding tunes, we’re seeing large swaths of mainstream country re-adopt country sounds and country sentiments in popular music.

There may be no better evidence for this than the debut album Lucky from Savannah, Georgia-native Megan Moroney. No, it’s not because Moroney is making straight-down-the-middle traditional country. The reason it’s significant is because she’s a major label-signed 25-year-old pop country starlet fresh into Nashville whose music happens to be slathered with steel guitar, steeping in classic country lore, and dare we say superbly written when it comes to a good handful of songs. (read more)

3. Emily Ann Roberts – Can’t Hide Country

The younger, more blonde, and more bombshell that a woman is in country music, the more pop their country music leans. This is the unfortunate stereotype that country music fans have been conditioned to believe over the last 15 years or so. But Emily Ann Roberts is here to dispel that misconception with her debut album Can’t Hide Country.

No, this is not a super traditional record. It’s not full of Western Swing reels or sad bastard drinking songs. It’s representative and autobiographical of a young woman in the Southern United States (Knoxville, specifically) telling stories of the hopes, joys, and tribulations of her life. But it’s undoubtedly country, heartfelt, and delightfully simple and true. In an ideal world, this would be what popular country sounds like. (read review)

2. Ashley McBryde – The Devil I Know

How blessed we are to have a woman at the top of mainstream country who is so discriminating when it comes to songwriting. When Ashley McBryde looks up the food chain, she doesn’t see arena stars like Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean, she sees songwriters like Lori McKenna and Hank Cochran. Her goal may still be to play to arenas full of adoring fans and to entertain them. But she wants to do so with songs that actually mean something.

There may not be any $700 words or riddles to unwind, but Ashley McBryde’s “Learned To Lie” co-written with Nicolette Hayford and Sean McConnell is a killer testament to the kind of songs McBryde writes and champions. They’re songs that make you realize things about yourself you may have never reflected on before, including sometimes things that are scary and dark, but are worth bringing out of the shadows to expose and reflect upon. (read review)

1. Cody Johnson – Leather

On his third album for Warner Music Nashville, Cody doubles down on his country roots, strengthens his commitment to quality songs, and even refines his sound with surprising sparsity and depth to the point where you’re nearly stunned at some of the results. Yes this is a big mainstream country release, but many of these songs cut you like the songs of your favorite singer/songwriters.

Leather is a great mix of boisterous tracks to seed his live shows with energetic moments such as the super country “That’s Texas” and the arena pleaser “People in the Back,” interspersed with cutting heartbreak songs like the well-written “Watching My Old Flame,” or the introspective “Whiskey Bent.” “The Painter,” “Leather,” “Make Me a Mop” all show surprising depth even for Cody, and incredible restraint in how they’re rendered.

Cody doesn’t get enough credit for being on the cutting edge of helping to push the mainstream in a positive direction. But it is due to his success with country-sounding songs that other major label stars have been allowed to cut them as well. Now that everyone’s leaning more country, Cody Johnson has to lean country even more. That’s not a bad thing. (read review)

© 2023 Saving Country Music