2021 was quite the year for country music. First came *that* scandal with Morgan Wallen, which left him suspended by his label for his use of a racist slur, but also saw him controversially top the Billboard 200 chart for 10 consecutive weeks. The Grammys then moved Kacey Musgraves’ latest record, star-crossed, from country to the pop category, sparking her outrage, and a wider debate about where the lines dividing country and pop ought to be. In November, the gender disparity problem boiled over yet again at the CMA Awards, with Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert both snubbed for top prize Entertainer of the Year, this time in favour of Luke Combs.
Among the controversies, however, there were plenty of heart-warming moments. After an awful 2020 and a sensational post-divorce album 29: Written in Stone, Carly Pearce deservedly won her first CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award. Country superstar Chris Stapleton also landed spots on singles by Adele and Taylor Swift, and underground alt-country artist Morgan Wade was signed to a major label, following the surprise success of her debut Reckless.
And, on that note, these are my top 10 country and Americana releases of the year.
10. Triage – Rodney Crowell
Living legend Rodney Crowell has released a series of excellent albums over the last decade, reminding us that even as he moves into his 70s, he still has it. His introspection takes a darker turn here on his 18th album, Triage, which features such telling titles as “Something Has to Change” and “Transient Global Amnesia Blues”. Musically, it veers away from classic country and folk to incorporate more straightforward elements of classic rock, and, it proves he ought not to be stepping away from the studio any time soon.
9. American Siren – Emily Scott Robinson
Emily Scott Robinson has perhaps the purest and most beautiful voice of anybody working in Americana at the moment, and she uses it to the full across this charming collection of folk-inspired tunes. It’s not perfect, but it contains a handful of the best songs of the year in classic folk tune “Old Gods” and countrified single “Cheap Seats” and is well worth a listen.
8. Living the Dream (Deluxe) – Hailey Whitters
The repackaged version of 2020s The Dream, is a rare example of a ‘deluxe’ version that improves upon the original rather than just cashing in on its success. She combines sharp lyricism with elements of classic country to detail small-town life in America, and Living the Dream winds up being an intriguing glimpse at a – hopefully long – solo career to come for Hailey Whitters.
7. 29: Written in Stone – Carly Pearce
2021 was Carly Pearce’s year: in February she dropped 29, an EP documenting her divorce, to immediate critical acclaim, and the expanded edition followed in September. She bagged a prestigious win for CMA Female Vocalist of the Year as a result and was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, an honour for any artist. 29 has something for everyone. Relying on traditionalist sounds, Pearce makes use of her pop sensibilities and capitalises on some excellent guest appearances to create 15 tracks which appeal to both mainstream and alt-country fans, a rarity in modern country music.
6. Renewal – Billy Strings
Possibly the greatest flatpicker of this generation, Billy Strings doesn’t disappoint on his latest album Renewal. It’s a bluegrass album with a twist, as Strings & co. explore psychedelia, metal, and classic rock, reflecting and building upon his varied musical influences to create something excellent and truly haunting. Single “In the Morning Light” has rapidly become one of my favourite songs of 2021, if not of all time.
5. Breaking Point – Jackson+Sellers
Indie rock meets Americana meets a whole lot of attitude as solo artists Jade Jackson and Aubrie Sellers combine forces on this rock-inspired record. Filled with originals and reimagined covers of deep cuts from their favourite female singers’ back catalogues, Jackson+Sellers’ ethereal harmonies and love for the distortion pedal sets this fantastic album far apart from anything else released in Americana in 2021: one for fans of any genre.
4. Reckless – Morgan Wade
Morgan Wade’s debut, Reckless, not only attracted enough attention to gain her a major label record deal, but even topped Rolling Stone’s 25 Best Country & Americana Albums of 2021, and it’s easy to see why. Single “Wilder Days” and album cut “Last Cigarette” are as catchy as Americana can get without veering into pop entirely, and the songwriting prowess which has gained Wade such a passionate underground following lights up standout tracks “Other Side” and “Matches and Metaphors”. It seems the best is yet to come for Morgan Wade, though, and it will be interesting to follow her progress as an artist in the years to come.
3. In These Silent Days – Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile has long been regarded as one of the greatest vocal talents in roots and Americana, but she remained on the fringes of mainstream success until 2018’s By the Way, I Forgive You, for which she bagged 6 Grammy nominations and broke into wider public consciousness. She expands upon the drama of that album here, creating a tight and reflective collection which shows off her once-in-a-lifetime voice to the fullest, especially on highlights “Broken Horses” and “Right on Time”.
2. Long Time Coming – Sierra Ferrell
Sierra Ferrell’s voice harks back to days long past, and when combined with her penchant for blurring genre boundaries and her inborn instinct for great songwriting, it makes for a classic album that will be remembered for years to come. Eclecticism is the key word here, as Ferrell skips freely across the lines between country, folk, and jazz throughout. She and her excellent band slip into waltz-time on several occasions, incorporate elements of tango and calypso along the way, and even employ a musical saw on album opener “The Sea”. You’d only be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t give this sensational record a spin.
1. The Marfa Tapes – Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall
At the top of the pile sits The Marfa Tapes, a rootsy, raw collection written sporadically over five years and recorded in the desert on the Texas-Mexico border in the depths of the pandemic. Superstar Miranda Lambert and singer-songwriter friends Jack Ingram and Jon Randall first wrote together in Marfa, TX in the aftermath of Lambert’s high-profile divorce from Blake Shelton in 2015, and those sessions yielded “Tin Man”, a heartbreaking ballad that won 2018 Song of the Year at the ACMs. Only in 2020 did they finally consider collecting the tracks they had written together into an album, and they did so right there and then. With nothing but the wind, the cows, two mics, and an acoustic guitar as accompaniment, they recorded The Marfa Tapes, which on first listen sounds like an assortment of long-lost country classics, and which, with closer attention, reveals some of the finest songwriting of the century to date. It’s a veritable career highlight for all three, and that’s no mean feat for a star like Miranda Lambert, who has already won more ACM Awards than any other artist in history and sold almost 10 million records in the US. It seems it’s only up from here.
I can’t wait to see what 2022 has in store for country & Americana, but in the meantime I’ve collected some of the highlights from these 10 albums into a Spotify playlist here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4OqGjdUngDvohCnsEaQ1JY?si=913bae9d71dd4886.