11. Brandi Carlile—In These Silent Days
10. Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall—The Marfa Tapes
Perhaps it is only because of these songwriters’ stellar reputations that we are compelled to pay attention to a release like The Marfa Tapes. But the other side of this is that only special artists like these three could actually write and perform an entire album acoustically, with sounds of wind and fire and cows and planes echoing in the background, and manage to hold our attention simply because of the strength of the songs and the raw emotion and boundless charisma present in the delivery. It’s fair to say that anyone else who tried this would likely be ignored, but not many others could accomplish this with the same beauty and grace that Ingram, Lambert, and Randall have, keeping us listening long after the novelty of the approach has worn off and only the songs and performances remain.
9. Cole Chaney—Mercy
8. Carly Pearce—29: Written in Stone
What a joy to see an album like this emerging from Music Row and to watch Carly Pearce’s deserved success. To call Pearce’s divorce record the best mainstream country album of 2021 would be true but would also be selling the project short; it is simply one of the best country records of the year, no qualifiers. The fact that it came to us from mainstream Nashville only serves to prove that hope still lingers on Sixteenth Avenue.
7. James McMurtry—The Horses and the Hounds
James McMurtry’s songwriting is like that of no other. His prose is vividly rich in detail but composed in such a plainspoken manner that it remains accessible and relatable to us all. There is something uniquely charming about his frankness, something inherently poetic and refreshing in reflecting on all of the world’s hardships and then expressing a problem so mundane as constantly losing one’s glasses. These ruminations constitute some of the best songs of the year, and McMurtry remains one of the most interesting songwriters of his generation.
6. Shane Smith & the Saints—Live from the Desert
5. Margo Cilker—Pohorylle
Margo Cilker’s debut album is a classic case of the sum being better than its parts. There are no lyrical masterpieces and nothing to reinvent the wheel from a musical standpoint. Nevertheless, the simple yet lush arrangements, the production which carefully and thoughtfully enhances each song, Cilker’s excellent capacity for writing melodies and hooks, and the sense of place and general mood surrounding this whole record all come together to make one of the year’s standout albums.
4. Amythyst Kiah—Wary + Strange
3. The Steel Woods—All of Your Stones
2. Charles Wesley Godwin—How the Mighty Fall
Charles Wesley Godwin, through the poetry of his songs and the haunting qualities of his voice, has managed to set Appalachia to music. If Seneca was a perfect encapsulation of the place, then How the Mighty Fall can be called a perfect encapsulation of the region’s people. More than that, it is a commentary on desperation itself, both the circumstances which lead to it and the various lengths to which one will go when faced with it. Artists are often plagued by the idea of the sophomore slump, but Godwin second album is just as exceptional as his first.
Album of the Year: Jason Boland & the Stragglers—The Light Saw Me
The very audacity of the idea, the concept of making a country record about alien abduction and time travel, is proof enough of the innovation of Jason Boland & the Stragglers and should be applauded. But to pull it off so expertly and to somehow craft a story so universal and compelling is another thing entirely. Somehow, this eccentric album is one of the most accessible, engaging records of Boland’s career and demonstrates that country music can still cover new ground in 2021. Boland & the Stragglers prove that even within the confines of traditional country music, artists can still be creative, original, introspective, and forward-thinking.