From the chart-climbers to the underground gems, the modern world of country music is vast and even country haters are pretty much guaranteed to find something new to like if you look hard enough. 2023 was full of great country records, and we picked 13 to highlight that we especially loved, ranging from comebacks to breakthroughs to those lifers who just can’t quit putting out good stuff. We didn’t include countrified indie rock records like Wednesday and Ratboys (both of which are on BrooklynVegan’s Top 55 Albums of 2023), because they ultimately feel more like indie rock than country, but there are a handful of albums on here that veer in an indie direction. Some lean rock, others lean folk, but more important than stylistic choices, every person on this list knows how to write an impactful song.
Read on for the list, in alphabetical order, and also check out our list of 10 great folk albums from this year.
Bella White – Among Other Things
Bella White’s Rounder Records debut was made with help from producer Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Angel Olsen), guitarist Buck Meek (of Big Thief), backing vocalist Erin Rae, and multi-instrumentalist/string arranger Drew Erickson (Lana Del Rey, Weyes Blood, Angel Olsen), and as you might expect from a country album with a team like that, Among Other Things bridges the gap between ’70s folk-pop and modern-day indie rock. It’s got a warm, appealing country/folk exterior with a hint of bluegrass, and the driving force is the raw, intimate, extremely genuine songwriting of Bella White.
Chris Stapleton – Higher
One of the most widely-beloved breakout stars of the past decade returned this year with one of his best albums yet. Dipping its toes into fiery Southern rock (“White Horse”), gentle folk (“Trust”), gritty blues (“South Dakota”), melancholic country balladry (“Weight of Your World”), and more, Higher treks through all various hills and valleys of Americana, and Chris is an expert at all of it.
Drayton Farley – Twenty On High
Hargrove Records/Thirty Tigers
Especially with 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden producing and Drayton Farley calling Jason Isbell’s Southeastern his “introduction into the world of songwriting,” it’s hard not to point out that Drayton sounds a little bit like Jason, but he’s also a great songwriter in his own right and he puts his own fresh spin on indie/alternative-friendly country music. From the attention-grabbing lead single “Norfolk Blues” to the Katie Crutchfield (of Waxahatchee)-featuring “The Alabama Moon,” Twenty On High stops you in your tracks on multiple occasions.
Esther Rose – Safe to Run
New West Records
Alt-country singer Esther Rose made this album after moving to a new hometown (Santa Fe), signing to a new label (New West), and recording with a new backing band (Silver Synthetic). What hasn’t changed, though, is Ester’s ability to write warm, gorgeous country and folk songs. As on her earlier material, Esther’s voice has a timeless quality to it on these songs, and the arrangements are lush, earthy, and welcoming like a warm summer day. Safe to Run is one of those albums you can just put on and drift away with.
Florry – The Holey Bible
In the growing world of countrified indie rock (Wednesday, Ratboys, Big Thief, etc), Florry stand out as more like indie rock-ified country. Their rustic, ramshackle new album The Holey Bible was made with a 10-piece band–including fiddle, pedal steel, lap steel, mandolin, and more–and it sounds like they recorded it around a campfire in the middle of the woods, away from technology and modern life. Obviously that’s not exactly true, but The Holey Bible just sounds like such an authentic, organic portrayal of exactly the thing it’s trying to be, and the songs really hit.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Weathervanes
A decade and four masterful albums removed from his breakthrough as a solo artist, Jason Isbell has earned the right to stretch his wings a little. Weatherwaves, the followup to 2020’s tightly-focused Reunions, is his longest album yet at an hour in length, and it’s looser, freer, and requires a little more patience than its predecessor. It’s got songs that knock you out instantly like “Death Wish” and “Save the World”–the former a spine-tingling anthem about a person in love with a partner who’s suffering, and the latter a lament for the rise of school shootings–but most of Weathervanes creeps up on you more gradually. It’s a full-band album that often leans into Jason’s quiet, folky side, though the 400 Unit gets to rock out on “When We Were Close” and “This Ain’t It,” and it marks another clear evolution for Jason as a storyteller. His knack for turning vivid realism into tuneful singalongs has made him one of the most consistently rewarding songwriters of his generation, and his most resonant work is often his latest work because he’s constantly moving forward. He’s truly an artist that grows alongside his fanbase, and Weathervanes exhibits some of his most remarkable growth to date.
Jess Williamson – Time Ain’t Accidental
Jess Williamson and Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield leaned into their love of country music on last year’s collaborative album as Plains, and Jess picks right up where that album left off on her latest solo album, time Ain’t Accidental. It’s her most overtly country album yet, and it’s also her biggest, cleanest, most confident-sounding album, taking cues from some of the same popular country acts that inspired Plains, like Emmylou Harris and The Chicks. “My voice feels different now — it’s been liberated,” Jess said in press materials for the album. It really does sound that way.
Margo Cilker – Valley of Heart’s Delight
Fluff & Gravy Records
Margo Cilker has an equal knack for time-tested country music traditions and the humble modernity of indie folk, coupled with an envious ability to write songs that you feel like you’ve known your whole life yet still sound new and fresh. Like its predecessor Pohorylle, the Oregon singer/songwriter made this album with producer Sera Cahoone (ex-Carissa’s Wierd), The Decemberists‘ Jenny Conlee on keys, Beirut‘s Kelly Pratt on horns, and more, and it’s easy to see why indie veterans like these have chosen to work with her for two albums in a row. If you’re into indie/country crossover albums like Angel Olsen’s Big Time and Plains’ I Walked With You A Ways, you need Valley of Heart’s Delight in your life too.
Morgan Wade – Psychopath
There’s always a lot of pressure to follow a breakthrough album like Morgan Wade’s 2021 LP Reckless, and she was feeling it. “I was nervous (still am) about following such a ‘critically-acclaimed’ album,” she said in a statement, but Psychopath avoids feeling like a sophomore slump. (And not just because it’s technically her third album.) Like Reckless, it was produced by Isbell guitarist Sadler Vaden, and Morgan and Sadler continue to really gel. Morgan has a way of blurring the lines between country traditions, punk grit, and pop appeal, but more important than any of her stylistic choices is just how strong her songwriting is. Regardless of your genre preference, the way she turns a phrase and delivers a melody will catch you off guard on first listen.
Turnpike Troubadours – A Cat In The Rain
Bossier City/Thirty Tigers
I don’t think there was a more anticipated comeback in (non-pop) country this year than Turnpike Troubadours’ first album in six years, and they delivered on every level. This band broke up amidst a serious of unfortunate events, and A Cat In The Rain feels like exactly the new beginning they needed. It has the wise, mature, reflective tone of a band who’s seen the many ups and downs that Turnpike have, and it also has the urgency that Turnpike had on their breakthrough album Diamonds & Gasoline 13 years ago. If Turnpike were, as a recent Rolling Stone feature on the band suggested, “elbowing for a place in [Americana’s] pantheon alongside artists like Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile,” A Cat In The Rain should be the album that makes it happen, if it hasn’t already.
Tyler Childers – Rustin’ In The Rain
Tyler Childers followed last year’s ambitious triple album Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven? with a mini-LP featuring five new songs and two covers, and even a minor release like Rustin’ In The Rain feels monumental coming from an artist like Tyler Childers. He’s a songwriting roll right now, and he also makes both covers sound completely like his own. Tyler has switched up his sound a handful of times over the years, and Rustin’ In The Rain has some of his most straight-up, traditional-sounding country music yet. But, as he makes clear with the queer love story in lead single/video “In Your Love,” Tyler knows tradition and evolution aren’t mutually exclusive.
Vincent Neil Emerson – The Golden Crystal Kingdom
Vincent Neil Emerson follows in the footsteps of greats like John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, and his new Shooter Jennings-produced album The Golden Crystal Kingdom is a lovely collection of songs that stands tall next to Vincent’s heroes. It often finds him in tender singer/songwriter territory–a road he navigates so well–propped up by warm acoustic guitars, soaring pedal steels, and gently brushed drums; but he also Goes Electric on a few songs, and those bluesy, fuzzed-out moments suit Vincent just as well as the quiet ones.
Zach Bryan – Zach Bryan + Boys Of Faith EP
Zach Bryan is just unstoppable. Last year he released an album, EP, and two-song single that made for a total of 45 songs in one year, and this year he put out an album and EP totaling in another 21. It would feel overwhelming if his songs weren’t so addictive every time. He’s an arena headliner who still favors lo-fi recordings. Guest appearances on his new records range from Kacey Musgraves to Bon Iver to fast-rising star Noah Kahan and Zach fits perfectly next to all of them. When the songwriting is this considered, the versatility is inevitable.
Top photo of Morgan Wade by Sachyn Mital in Copenhagen in August. More here.