Country’s increasingly broad church continued to blur the genre’s traditional boundaries in 2021 as The Best Country Albums of 2021 list proved.
Simon Rushworth sought to provide some clarity as he rounded up the very best of country, Americana and bluegrass.
10. American Young — AYII (Curb Records)
Devilishly divine duo Kristy Osmunson (ex-Bomshel) and Jon Stone (best known for his Lee Brice collabs) kicked the country opposition up the ass with AYII.
There was more than a hint of Kacey Musgraves (see below) as Osmunson soared on the surreal Falling Star.
But AYII offered further evidence that this pitch-perfect partnership can do it all.
Gonna Be You emerged as a future festival favourite while Whiskey Don’t Work sounded like Midland riffing on Chic. Seriously.
9. Kacey Musgraves – Star-Crossed (MCA Nashville)
Kacey Musgraves dug deep and bared her soul on the frank and occasionally uncomfortable Star-Crossed.
A blatant post-divorce narrative (inspired by her split with Ruston Kelly) was never bitter but frequently biting.
And Musgraves reminded allcomers that she’s much, much more than another pretty face fighting for airtime with Taylor Swift, Maren Morris et al.
Good Wife and Justified paced a memorable record bristling with brave words and heartbreak melodies.
8. Robert Plant And Alison Krauss — Raise The Roof (Warner Music)
Americana’s golden couple made a welcome return as the follow-up to 2007’s Raising Sand changed the musical landscape towards the end of 2021.
Led Zep’s frontman and one of the finest country and roots singers in a generation reprised a partnership that oozes authenticity and ambition.
And it’s safe to say Raise The Roof raised the bar where reinventing the blues/country/Americana wheel is concerned.
Plant and Krauss’s exceptional take on Lucinda Williams’ Can’t Let Go was an obvious highlight.
But Raise The Roof proved to be another towering creative success.
7. Summer Dean — Bad Romantic (Summer Dean Music)
Can you be country music’s next big thing once you hit your 40s?
Summer Dean suggested the answer was ‘yes’ as Bad Romantic announced the late bloomer as the bell-bottomed saviour of honky tonk heroics.
Tear-jerking ballad You’re Lucky She’s Lonely pitched the former schoolteacher alongside Colter Wall and the result was spellbinding.
Blue Jean Country Queen summed it up best where Dean was concerned.
Nashville and New York City heard her knocking…and so did the rest of us.
6. Midland — The Sonic Ranch (Big Machine Records)
If the world could hardly wait for the next full-length album from country music’s hottest vocal group then The Sonic Ranch helped fill a gap.
This revealing set of early recordings complemented the film of the same name.
And aside from Fourteen Gears it featured all new material — albeit from seven years ago and a time when Midland were still making their way.
The bluegrass and trad country underpinning Worn Out Boots offered a wonderful snapshot of this talented trio’s true potential.
5. Lauren Alaina — Sitting Pretty On Top Of The World (Snakefarm)
Another shallow, honey-tongued pop country clone? Think again.
Lauren Alaina forced the critics to jettison any lazy preconceptions as she sizzled on the stuinning Sitting Pretty On Top Of The World.
The remixed Getting Good — featuring Trisha Yearwood — was one of the country anthems of 2021.
And Alaina drove home her obvious potential on the retro-fuelled Change My Mind.
Award-winning songwriters Liz Rose, Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, Emily Weisband, David Garcia, Ben Johnson and more ensured the quality never waned on SPOTOTW.
4. Tedeschi Trucks Band — Layla Revisited: Live At LOCKN’ (Conbcord/Fantasy Records)
Talented couple Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks dropped one of the surprise treats of 2021 in the shape of this Eric Clapton tribute album.
Mixing broad brush strokes of country with touches of Americana and an earthy blues gloss, Layla Revisited paid homage to one of TTB’s biggest and longest lasting influences.
And the decision to stay true to Clapton’s vision while, at the same time, reinventing the likes of Key To The Highway proved to be a masterstroke.
TTB’s insanely intuitive collective did justice to an album always ripe for reinterpretation.
3. Lainey Wilson — Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ (BMG/BBR Music Group)
Back in February we described Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ as ‘the Cadillac of new country’.
It was super-charged, sleek and seriously aspirational.
Lainey Wilson put the pedal to the metal on her major label debut as Bell Bottom Country revealed genuine flair.
There was more than a hint of Dolly P on Dirty Looks.
And Straight Up Sideways showcased Wilson as a would-be rocker in the mould of her namesakes in Heart.
Excited to hear more of what Wilson has to say in 2022? Us too.
2. Jason Aldean — Macon (BMG)
Jason Aldean used the medium of country music to create a compelling narrative paying homage to his hometown Macon.
And the first part of a much touted double set was so good we spent the end of the year counting down the days until the release of 2022’s companion piece Georgia.
Macon was a country record through and through but its bold foundations owed more to the late 80s chart rock of Def Leppard and U2.
A polished production echoed Tom Petty and Bryan Adams at their commercial peak.
And what about that Billboard-busting duet with Carrie Underwood? If I Didn’t Love You was one of the country songs of the year.
1. Ashley Monroe — Rosegold (Thirty Tigers)
Perhaps this was more pop than country but it would be a pity if Ashley Monroe’s wonderful voice was overlooked as a result.
The sometime Pistol Annie played on her Nashville roots to dizzying effect on the dreamy Drive and she absolutely bossed the beautiful piano ballad Flying.
Rosegold glittered from start to finish as Monroe’s precious talent cut through the noise to underpin a heartfelt career high.
A who’s who of Nashville glitterati added depth, colour and authenticity to a record rich in country tradition and polished pop sensibility.
In 2021 Rosegold was pure gold.
Enjoyed revisiting the Best Country Albums Of 2021? Why not check out 2020’s list here?