2023 is one of those years when the competition for Album of the Year is so fierce, the only fair way to adjudicate the matter is to count down the top contenders, all of whom could have won it outright on another year.
4. Amanda Fields – What, When and Without
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.
It leaves little or nothing 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 with what they have found. (read review)
3. Charles Wesley Godwin – Family Ties
Charles Wesley Godwin already won the Saving Country Music Album of the Year for his 2021 release How The Might Fall. Coming in 3rd here is less a commentary on Family Ties, and more a commentary on the competition he faced this year. No doubt, the album remains a landmark release, and it’s likely Godwin will be besting most or all competition every time he releases an album for years to come barring some unforeseen stumble. He’s one of the top singers and songwriters of our time.
Brilliantly written, lovingly produced, and passionately performed, Family Ties is a testament to the ties that bind one to this world. This overarching theme is established in the title track where Godwin conveys both a weight of obligation, and a devout sense of purpose to be right by his family in his words and his deeds every day.
In a time when it seems like everyone wants to tear at the fabric of society and bulldoze everything established in favor of some new version of life, Godwin makes a simple plea for stability and family, which in this moment might be one of the most radical proclamations one can forward. (read review)
2. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Weathervanes
Weathervanes is unquestionably the Americana Album of the Year, and perhaps the Rock Album of the Year as well. It will also go down as not only one of the best albums of 2023 irrespective of genre, but one of the best albums of the decade. It has reestablished Jason Isbell as a dominant force in American songwriting.
But this is the Saving COUNTRY Music Album of the Year, not the Americana one. And though Song of the Year that Jason Isbell won for “King of Oklahoma” takes genre into consideration secondary to the writing, Album of the Year does not. That doesn’t mean an Americana album couldn’t win. But in a year when you have another incredible entry to contend with, the push goes to the country title. (read review)
Saving Country Music’s 2023 Album of the Year
Gabe Lee – Drink The River
For the Gabe Lee initiates who climbed on board after the release of his 2019 debut album farmland or shortly thereafter, deserved recognition commensurate with his incredible talent has been a long time coming.
There may not be a more glaring example of the inequities prevalent in the country music industry than the overlooking of Gabe Lee. Why this guy wasn’t getting gobbled up by the talent buyers of every independent festival around the country, and on the tip of everyone’s tongue as one of the best and most talented of our era feels like a borderline scandal. In fairness though, quite a few critics have been caterwauling about him for quite some time.
For Gabe Lee to finally break out, he’d have to do the impossible. He’d have to stand on his head, or drink the river. And so that’s what he did, releasing an album that is so undeniably spectacular and resonant, no force of nature could hold it back. Now even Barack Obama is touting Gabe on his yearly playlist.
Drink The River is a shiver-inducing, spectacularly sung and written tour de force that substantiates all your suspicions that this Nashville native is a signature songwriter of this generation. It’s a rare feeling you get when you stumble upon a songwriter that makes you feel things from music that you thought had long since gone dormant after your days of adolescence and young adulthood—a songwriter that is singular in their perspective during an era when it feels like everything sounds the same and it’s all been said.
Drink The River is flattered by the production and arrangement brought to bear with it, and it might be Gabe’s best musical accompaniment yet. It is distinctly a country and acoustic album, inspired by bluegrass for sure, but also with appearances by steel guitar, and more refined where the song is always the center of attention.
Little did we know that Lee still had more headroom to grow as a songwriter, and more soul to uncover through his arresting voice. The refinement evidenced in these compositions, the further exploration and application of melody, along with singing the bloody hell out of these songs results in something of a stature that not even many Gabe Lee advocates were anticipating.
Gabe Lee is one of those songwriters, and Drink The River is one of those albums where you want to shout to the rooftops and tell the world about it because of the richness to be found, and the value to be gained. You know damn well that only some will listen to you, no matter how emphatic you are, because that’s the way life and art work.
But when you find something magnificent, you want to share it, because listening to Gabe Lee makes you appreciate all of life more. It makes you want to be a better person, to yourself and others. That is what the music of Gabe Lee brings out in you, transcending the mere value of art and entertainment. And today, that is too rare to take lightly.