Stunning debuts, career-defining albums, cosmic country, folk ballads, honkytonkers, heartbreakers...there's something for everyone on the Wide Open Country staff's roundup of the best albums of 2021.
Read on to see our picks for the best releases of the year.
Sitting Pretty on Top of the World, Lauren Alaina
Lauren Alaina's third mainstream album spotlights her well-established range as a songwriter and singer, with high points ranging from the introspective, acoustic-driven "It Was Me" to a couple of shots fired at lousy men: "Good Ole Boy" and "You Ain't a Cowboy." She also further established herself as one of modern country music's best duet singers through collaborations with Jon Pardi ("Getting Over Him") and Trisha Yearwood ("Getting Good").
-- Bobby Moore
Travelin' Kind, Ashland Craft
Ashland Craft's Travelin' Kind tells the story of an up-and-coming artist amped to bring her soaring, rock-inspired anthems ("That's the Kinda Place") and countrified confessionals ("Day By Day") to an amphitheater near you. She's positioned herself through hard work and sacrifice ("Last 20 Dollars") for more career-affirming tours in line with her string of dates this year with the Zac Brown Band. Getting this far took precedence at times over romantic interests ("Make It Past Georgia") and society's white picket fence expectations (the title track).
Music City USA, Charley Crockett
Prolific is an understatement when describing Charley Crockett's career. He's released 10 albums since 2015 and two in 2021, with the other being a tribute to James Hand. Consistent suits him better, with quantity not equaling a lack of quality on 16-song collection Music City USA. "The World Just Broke My Heart," "Only Game in Town" and other standouts add a fresh perspective to the types of story-songs at the roots of American music, as heard in the catalogs of Jimmie Rodgers, Lightnin' Hopkins and other foundational performers.
How the Mighty Fall, Charles Wesley Godwin
Few rising artists labeled as country, folk or Americana tell more rewarding stories than Charles Wesley Godwin. His character studies set in Appalachia deal with harsh realities while allowing a glimmer of hope. Fresh examples of his lyrical and musical brilliance include the homesick "Temporary Town" and what's got to be the only song from 2021 namedropping US Olympic great Steve Prefontaine, "Strong."
Ramble On, Charlie Marie
Nashville-via-New England singer-songwriter Charlie Marie loaded this year's sleeper pick with richly-told character studies ("Bad Seed"), clever plays on words ("Tequila & Lime") and venomous kiss offs ("Tough Kitty"). All 12 album tracks fit even the strictest definition of country music without sounding like the musical equivalent of cosplay. Indeed, Marie proves true a line in opening track "Soul Train": "classic country will always have a home."
29: Written in Stone, Carly Pearce
The expanded edition of Carly Pearce's 29 EP represented more in 2021 than a confessional (and cathartic, in all likelihood) divorce album defined by "What He Didn't Do" and other autobiographical statements. A musical fan letter to a home state hero (Patty Loveless collaboration "Dear Miss Loretta"), a duet with fellow creative powerhouse Ashley McBryde ("Never Wanted to Be That Girl") and a faith-based tribute to the late producer busbee ("Show Me Around") back up CMA voters' decision to name Pearce the organization's Female Vocalist of the Year.
Texas to Tennessee, Clay Walker
Clay Walker updated his sound on Texas to Tennessee by working with co-producers and Jason Aldean collaborators Jaron Boyer and Michael Knox. Through charting single "Need a Bar Sometimes" and a title track that retraces Walker's career, the trio proves that '90s country storytelling and modern production elements aren't like oil and water.
Star-Crossed, Kacey Musgraves
Star-crossed, Kacey Musgraves' fifth major label studio album, is one of the singer-songwriter's most experimental albums to date and includes elements of dance, folk, pop, country and rock. The singer co-wrote and co-produced the album with musicians Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who also joined her for her acclaimed 2018 album Golden Hour.
Musgraves found inspiration for most of her album after her divorce from singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. She described the album as a modern tragedy and included several references from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The singer first released the title track "star-crossed," followed by "Justified" and "Simple Times." A companion film was later released on Paramount + alongside the album's release. "Camera Roll" received two Grammy nominations this year for Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song.
-- Silke Jasso
Good Things, Dan + Shay
Dan + Shay's fourth studio album, Good Things, has been one of my go-to albums this year. Catchy country-pop songs, such as "I Should Go To Bed," "Glad You Exist," "Steal My Love," and "10,000" featuring Justin Bieber, continued to position the duo as one of the hottest acts in the genre.
"10,000" peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the Canadian Hot 100. It was quickly certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. Let's face it, the song is a catchy love ballad that will be played at weddings forever. The song actually landed the duo (Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney) their third straight Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group performance, which makes them the first act to win the award for three consecutive years.
"After the past year and a half that we've all had, I feel like that's kind of where our hearts were and what we thought our fans wanted to hear," Smyers told Billboard. "We wanted to put out there into the world this hopeful, optimistic, positive piece of work."
The Last Resort, Midland
For Midland's second EP The Last Resort, the trio (Mark Wystrach, Cam Duddy and Jess Carson) worked on their latest release during a low place -- both personally and professionally. The pandemic cost them the opportunity to go on tour with Tim McGraw and, when they were forced to stay home and really become introspective, The Last Resort was born. The EP helped the trio value simply loving music over the thrill of performing in front of a live crowd. "Sunrise Tells the Story" and "And Then Some" are a couple of standouts, but really, every song on the Shane McAnally-produced album is a winner.
"The Last Resort is a place where you can go and find yourself," Wystrach told People. "It's the place you can go and find yourself after the road you've been traveling has taken a couple of unexpected detours, if you will. I'd say it's not a place where people are on their way up, but they're kind of coming to peace with where they are."
-- Courtney Fox
Red (Taylor's Version), Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift has been an incredible storyteller since she was a teenager. She's written songs that will stand the test of time and is beloved by an incredibly diverse fan base. Is she the busiest person in the music industry? It sure seems like it.
As the second album that Swift re-recorded this year (following the big fiasco with losing the rights to her masters), the superstar delivered even more than she did with her re-recording of Fearless (Taylor's Version). Multiple amazing songs from the vault are included, as well as a 10-min version of "All Too Well" that we never knew we needed and a fresh take on a couple of songs she wrote that were recorded by other country stars ("Babe" and "Better Man"). Yes, the world went into a frenzy over Jake Gyllenhaal and the lost red scarf, but the focus should be on the long-buried Swift songs that were finally released from the vault: "Message in a Bottle" and "Nothing New." I'll be listening to this album on repeat long into next year.
Glasshouse Children, Sam Williams
As the grandson of the legendary Hank Williams and son of Hank Williams Jr, Sam Williams set some high expectations with fans of the Williams clan when he released his debut album. Glasshouse Children lived up to the hype and then some.
Williams makes his own mark on the country music scene, bringing in big-name collaborators Keith Urban and Dolly Parton. He's not a carbon copy of his dad or grandfather; he showcases his own sound. Sam Williams is one to watch moving forward and Glasshouse Children will be an album I'll continually turn to. I'm particularly fond of "Kids" (Feat. Keith Urban) and "Can't Fool Your Own Blood."
Outside Child, Allison Russell
"'These are the best years of your life,' if I'd believed it I'd have died," Allison Russell sings on "4th Day Prayer." "Something told me that they lied. Oh I, oh I survived." It's just one of the many stirring lyrics on Russell's Grammy-nominated Outside Child, which reflects on the trauma of her abusive childhood and chronicles her triumphant journey to make it to better days. Stories of finding respite in the open arms of love ("Persephone") and reclaiming her own power ("Nightflyer") round out one of the most beautiful albums of the year.
-- Bobbie Jean Sawyer
Pins and Needles, Natalie Hemby
Singer-songwriter and The Highwomen member Natalie Hemby drew on her love of '90s alt-rock for her second solo album Pins & Needles, a tour de force that draws on the the country and folk side of Lilith Fair and serves as a reminder that many modern Americana artists were raised on the words and music of Tracy Chapman, Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan. But make no mistake -- this is no throwback tribute album. As evidenced by the slick groove of the title track and brilliant lyricism of "New Madrid" and "Radio Silence," Hemby is a singular artist who's only just begun to hit her stride.
Reckless, Morgan Wade
Morgan Wade came out swinging with "Wilder Days," a country-rock jam that became part of countless country fans early 2021 playlists. But "Wilder Days," while a perfect introduction to Wade, was only the beginning. The rest of Reckless, Wade's incredible debut album, is an unflinching look at the hard-won lessons of your early 20s. Through explorations of vices ("Last Cigarette"), coming to terms with a bad relationship ("Reckless") and vulnerability ("Other Side," "Take Me Away"), Wade finds beauty in the broken pieces.
American Siren, Emily Scott Robinson
Emily Scott Robinson 's "Cheap Seats," one of the best anthems for working musicians in recent memory, was written after Robinson watched John Prine and Bonnie Raitt sing "Angel From Montgomery" at the Ryman Auditorium. In a full circle moment, Robinson's breathtaking album American Siren was released via John Prine's Oh Boy Records. It's fitting, not only because Robinson was inspired by the late godfather of Americana, but also because the singer-songwriter has the storytelling prowess of Prine and his contemporaries, such as Nanci Griffith and Guy Clark. One need only listen to "Let 'Em Burn," the quiet and powerful yearning of a housewife on "the edge of something wild" to know that Prine's legacy is in good hands.
The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, Valerie June
Tennessee native Valerie June has a gift for transporting listeners to journeys among the stardust. On The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers, which June co-produced with Jack Splash, June takes us farther into the cosmos. But in addition to its transportive power, The Moon and Stars is also grounded; it serves as a reminder of the beauty all around us on earth. In a year where we were too often stuck inside our own four walls, the album was, as its title suggests, medicine for the soul.
Sayin' What I'm Thinkin', Lainey Wilson
With equal parts humor and tender honesty, Lainey Wilson crafted one hell of a debut album. Sayin' What I'm Thinkin' finds the Louisiana native exalting the roots of her raisin' ("LA"), praising her heroes ("WWDD") and sharing one of the best breakup songs of the year ("Things a Man Oughta Know").
The Marfa Tapes, Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall, Jack Ingram
Miranda Lambert never turned her back on her Texas roots. The independent spirit that runs throughout the Lone Star State has been evident in her music since day one. But you get the sense that Lambert, along with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram, could've only recorded the songs on The Marfa Tapes in the expansive West Texas desert. The album is raw, putting an emphasis on the process of songwriting -- so much so that you feel like you're on that Texas ranch with them. The joy that the trio derives from writing and singing together shines throughout the 15-track album, from the heartwrenching "Ghost" to the Texas swing of "Am I Right of Amarillo."
Remember Her Name, Mickey Guyton
In 2015, Mickey Guyton released "Better Than You Left Me," a powerhouse ballad that had No. 1 hit written all over it. Though the song peaked at No. 34 on the Billboard US Country Airplay chart, it's fittingly revisited on Guyton's triumphant album Remember Her Name, described by the singer-songwriter herself as "a culmination of the last 10 years of my life in Nashville."
Guyton sings of hard truths on "Black Like Me" and "What Are You Gonna Tell Her," shows what truly inclusive patriotism sounds like on "All American" and delivers a smoldering takedown of a cheating partner on "Smoke."