This article is part of Wide Open Country's Best of 2023 roundup, celebrating the best music, moments and personalities of the year.
Country music took center stage in 2023, with artists such as Zach Bryan topping the Billboard Artist 100, Hot 100 & Billboard 200 with his self-titled LP. Luke Combs also had a winning streak with his stellar cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car," featured on his 2023 album Gettin' Old, the counterpart to 2022's Growin' Up. Beyond those and other headline-grabbing country music stories (including Oliver Anthony's meteoric rise), a slew of country artists from Dierks Bentley to Kip Moore released impactful works that spoke to where they are in both their lives and careers.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma favorites Turnpike Troubadours made a long-awaited return with A Cat in the Rain, the band's first release in six years; and Stephen Wilson Jr. shared a stirring exploration of grief with søn of dad.
Husband-and-wife duo The War and Treaty showcased raw emotion through powerhouse vocals and vivd lyricism on the Dave Cobb-produced tour de force Lover's Game. And Brennen Leigh tipped her hat to country gold with heart, humor and genre-defining storytelling on Ain't Through Honky Tonkin' Yet.
Read on for Wide Open Country's picks for the 15 best country albums of 2023.
Gettin' Old, Luke Combs
In all likelihood, the main talking point about Luke Combs' eventful 2023 — much less his album Gettin' Old — will forever be his cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car." The song's crossover success, which placed Chapman's timeless work back in the spotlight and made her the trivia answer for multiple firsts in country music history, became one of the most compelling pop culture stories of the year. Yet it's far from the only great recording on Combs' fourth major-label studio album. A 33-year-old husband and father of two, the verified superstar wowed listeners by reflecting on more than listening to "Fast Car" as a kid in his dad's pickup truck. With opening track "Growin' Up and Gettin' Old," Combs owns up to being a rowdy friend who's settled down, Toby Keith-style. On neo-traditional country heart song "5 Leaf Clover," he counts all the blessings he's picked up and sustained on the way to his current phase of adulthood. Overall, it's some of the finest work by a songwriter whose everyday people appeal comes in large part from him being such an open book.
— Addie Moore
Simple Things, The Band of Heathens
Already a well established and formidable duo, Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist — better known as The Band of Heathens — further cemented their legacy as one of the most successful independent bands of the century with the March release of Simple Things. Inspired by the isolation and reflection afforded by the pandemic, the album takes on a humble and hopeful tone courtesy of tracks such as "Heartless Year," "Don't Let The Darkness," "Simple Things" and "All That Remains," which take note of the people and moments in our everyday lives we long took for granted before the world shut down in 2020.
— Matt Wickstrom
Ain't Through Honky Tonkin' Yet, Brennen Leigh
There wasn't a new album in 2023 more emblematic of the classic country and western swing spirit than Brennen Leigh's Ain't Through Honky Tonkin' Yet. The latest effort by the two-time Ameripolitan Award nominee for Western Swing Female of the Year conjures up a variety of characters — a gas station clerk contemplating skipping town ("Running Out Of Hope, Arkansas"), "a long haulin', diesel burnin', road doggin'" highway queen ("Carole With An E"), and a belligerent drunk stubbornly refusing accountability for their actions ("The Bar Should Say Thanks") to name a few — that collectively aim to empower, enlighten and ensure that the honky-tonk traditions of old don't die out anytime soon.
Kentucky Blue, Brit Taylor
It continues to blow my mind how Brit Taylor isn't all over country radio. The Eastern Kentucky-born, Nashville-based singer teamed up with David Ferguson and Sturgill Simpson to produce Kentucky Blue, an elegant and foot-stomping ode to country music's golden age. Throughout its 10 tracks, Taylor's Southern sass and down-home hospitality collide on songs such as "Anything But You," "Rich Little Girls," "Cabin in the Woods" and "Ain't A Hard Livin'" as she gives off Loretta Lynn vibes one moment and Patty Loveless the next. However, its highlight undoubtedly comes on the title track, a somber ballad about love lost that draws many comparisons to Lynn's iconic "Blue Kentucky Girl."
City of Gold, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway
Much like on its predecessor Crooked Tree, Molly Tuttle dazzles with her virtuosic picking and vibrant lyricism on City of Gold. Her first studio recordings to feature her backing band Golden Highway (fiddler Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, bassist Shelby Means, mandolinist Dominick Leslie and banjoist Kyle Tuttle), the 13-song project explores everything from self-acceptance ("The First Time I Fell in Love") to never giving up ("Next Rodeo"), marijuana legalization ("Down Home Dispensary") and more. Its varying themes culminate in her best work to date as she fuses together the world of traditional bluegrass and the jamgrass that evolved from it in a way that few others can.
søn of dad, Stephen Wilson Jr.
A coming-of-age story that also serves as a tribute to his late father, there's not an album this year that can match the spectrum of emotions and visuals captured within Stephen Wilson Jr.'s 22-song epic søn of dad. From the grief-fueled aftermath of his father's 2018 death ("patches," "Cuckoo" and "Mighty Beast") to recounting his childhood ("Calico Creek" and "Year To Be Young 1994") and coming to appreciate he and his father are more alike than he first thought ("Father's Son"), the double album takes listeners on a journey of love and loss that makes for not just one of the year's best albums but also one of the most refreshing full-length debuts in quite some time.
Primrose, Jordyn Shellhart
There's a way Jordyn Shellhart sings that burrows into the heart. Her long-awaited debut album, coming years after being diagnosed with an incurable disease, finds the singer-songwriter fluttering through the storybook of her life. She climbs into tangled weeds about unimaginable pain ("Maybe Someday You'll Have a Daughter") to abortion ("Near-Death Experience") and forgetting the past ("Irrelevant"). Each song is a stitch in the veins, as though the record is a direct life force through which she can breathe and move about the world. You'd never think she once lost her literal voice; at the tender age of 15, she realized she could no longer sing like she used to. Here, she decorates her melodies with a plush softness, yet each syllable is like a 2-ton anvil. Primrose bulldozes the senses in a way that leaves you just as shattered as she was when writing the record.
— Bee Delores
The Weakness, Ruston Kelly
A genre melder, The Weakness sits somewhere between indie and Americana. It's Ruston Kelly's ambitious fusion that marks The Weakness as a firebrand of a record, sliding between the pulpy vessels in the bloodstream. Self-described "dirt emo," his latest foray into the fringes of the genre sees him weaving together a record that speaks to the sorrow embedded within human nature. Kelly tinkers with genre plenty on the record, namely on such songs as "St. Jupiter," "Let Only Love Remain" and "Mending Song." Each seems weighted to tradition while zipping off into a flushed landscape of indie spirit. As unconventional as it might seem, The Weakness makes a bid for the genre's best of 2023.
The Girl I Was, Jenna Paulette
Jenna Paulette is as country as they come. Across The Girl I Was, the singer rides around traditional country and the pop-country of the '90s. Her roots run deep, stretching through various flavors of genre fare. Sometimes, a little Terri Clark ("Anywhere the Wind Blows") is guiding her hand; other times, there's a Faith Hill ("Slow Drawl") gum stuck to her lyrics. Make no mistake, however — she barrels through her version of the classics, emerging as one of the most promising voices in country music. She fixes up the past with an unforgettable imprint, glued together by her signature vocal tricks and sharp-toothed lyrics.
Weathervanes, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
It's hard to imagine a record reaching the same highs as Jason Isbell's solo effort, 2013's Southeastern. But Weathervanes comes pretty close. It's a return to greatness, seeing the musician mangling the senses of pain and desperation as a way to make sense of a forever collapsing world. It's a salve in a lot of ways, a cathartic exercise in hardship and finding a way out. The consequences one endures as a byproduct of senseless habits crush the listener and leave them wanting more to soothe their troubled mind. Weathervanes bellows and cries into the universe, asking life-altering questions and coming up with few answers. More than anything, the journey is far more vital to one's sense of self than the destination. It's nothing but a blip on the radar.
Lover's Game, The War & Treaty
Lover's Game oscillates between blues and country. Across 10 songs, the duo (Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter) take no prisoners, as they shift between tear-torn balladry ("Blank Page," "Angel") and rootsy rambling ("Lover's Game," "Ain't No Harming Me"). Their voices are always fire-soaked and soul-clawing, finding the duo delivering the year's best vocal performances across all genres. There's nothing better than artists who know how to uncover long-buried relics of the human heart and allow the listener to find their own truth in the rubble. Lover's Game is a tour de force of musicianship, vocal prowess and lyrical incisiveness.
Gravel and Gold, Dierks Bentley
Dierks Bentley has spent his career establishing himself as an artist who, at the heart, has a deep respect for the tradition of country and bluegrass music. Along the way, he has also earned notoriety in mainstream country music. On his 10th album, Gravel and Gold — which was released six months shy of the 20-year anniversary of his debut album — there's no question of his musical identity. The project is full of the raw country and bluegrass sounds that inspired Bentley to move to Nashville. From the opener, "Same Ol' Me," in which he asserts he's still the same guy he was 20 years ago, to the Grammy-nominated final track "High Note" (feat. Billy Strings), Bentley takes listeners on a journey of humorous breakup songs and inspiring messages of life that more than establishes him as a permanent fixture in the fabric of country music.
— Grace Lenehan Vaughn
Zach Bryan, Zach Bryan
Only a little more than a year passed between Zach Bryan's American Heartbreak album — which launched him to fame with breakout song "Something in the Orange" — and his 2023 eponymous album. But that's about all the time his fans could wait for new music from the Oklahoma native.
On Zach Bryan, the newly crowned superstar allows fans to get to know him after his meteoric rise, and they'll find that his new star status hasn't changed his approach to music. The album doesn't sound manufactured in any way; instead, it seems like a glimpse into Bryan's journal of personal writings. He takes listeners through songs about love, heartbreak, regret, nostalgia and even the price of fame. Musically, he sticks to his familiar country/Americana sound with hints of rock and other influences coming through. All-star collaborations with the likes of Kacey Musgraves and more only add to the already-inspiring album and cement him as an artist who isn't going away anytime soon.
Damn Love, Kip Moore
Kip Moore has forged his career as a one-of-a-kind artist not afraid to push genre boundaries and eager to buck mainstream expectations. His fifth album, Damn Love, continues establishing him as this independent-minded artist — and, as always, his fans love him for it.
Damn Love continues the musical trajectory Moore has been on since his 2015 project Wild Ones, and later, with 2017's Slowheart and 2020's Wild World. The album — produced by Moore and The Cadillac Three's Jaren Johnston — mixes a Bruce Springsteen-inspired rock edge with country influences that come straight out of his home state of Georgia. Not only is the project a sonic journey, but it also explores the themes of love, heartbreak, discontent and even a vulnerable look into his life as a touring musician.
Overall, Damn Love expands upon Moore's legacy of being the underdog or "Comeback Kid," and one has a feeling he's completely fine with that.
A Cat in the Rain, Turnpike Troubadours
It would be hard to name a more-anticipated album release this year than A Cat in the Rain - the masterpiece that came from Turnpike Troubadours after their four-year hiatus. The album, produced by Shooter Jennings, is packed with paralleled themes from Ernest Hemingway's short story of the same name and references to the band members' personal lives — failed relationships, regret, forgiveness and love. The album is a testament to the creative prowess of the band both lyrically and instrumentally. From the high-energy tracks such as "Mean Old Sun" that introduce the journey to wrapping it up with an intimate plea with "Won't You Give Me One More Chance," the album skillfully weaves a tale of lost love, reconciliation and humbling life lessons. It stands as an authentic work of art that holds true to Turnpike Troubadours' reputation of craftsmanship that fans have come to worship. It's one of the best compositions to come out of 2023.
— Ariel Garcia
READ MORE: 20 Best Country Songs of 2023
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