5 Mike & the Moonpies—One to Grow On [Prairie Rose]
Austin-based country real deals Mike & the Moonpies keep up their hot streak on One to Grow On, turning even further back into the kind of traditional country that Alan Jackson thinks has disappeared. Mike Harmeier and the boys are doing their damnedest to keep it kicking, following up 2019’s excellent Cheap Silver and last year’s Gary Stewart tribute album with a new set of original country killers full of train beats, fingerpicked Telecasters, crying steel guitars, and Harmeier’s assured agile tenor twang.
These are blue-collar songs that take the working man from rooster-crow coffee to quittin’-time whiskey shots, threaded with the paycheck-to-paycheck urge to get away from it all. All along, Harmeier and the Moonpies unfailingly sound like well-polished pros, both in composition and tricky musical execution, tapping into rich emotional realism the gives voice to characters wrestling with feelings of being used up (“Burn Out”) or with neon nostalgia (“Social Drinker”). However, with One to Grow On, these ol’ boys are keeping up the good fight anyway.
4 Mickey Guyton—Remember Her Name [Capitol Nashville]
Mickey Guyton delivered a powerful statement album full of mile-high anthems and monumental heart for the most-anticipated country debut of the year. After toiling away in a white-monopolized industry for a decade, Guyton built up a treasure of tunes that tap into her struggles battling racism, personal insecurity, making a marriage and motherhood work, and finding empowerment in self-acceptance. Combining the personal with the political, the title track was inspired by the Breonna Taylor murder, while “All American” celebrates diversity. “Lay It on Me” testifies to unconditional marital love. Standouts “Black Like Me” and “I Love My Hair” meditate on systemic racism and self love.
However, Guyton also knows when to pull back; sometimes, she just wants to break out the “Rosé” and start “Dancing in the Living Room”. It’s an intoxicating musical ride, and the credits for the album are a mile long, so you know it’s a glossy affair. Still, Guyton can belt with anybody, so her voice, her songs, her messages all pack a crucial punch. Remember her name.
3 Eric Church—Heart & Soul [EMI Nashville]
For his ninth studio album, Eric Church holed up Covid-style in a North Carolina cabin for a month and wrote a song a day. He emerged with a pile of tracks too good to cut down to a single album, so he released all 24 tracks across three separate records, collectively called Heart & Soul. Some of his fans (the “Church Choir”) quickly aligned into Team Heart and Team Soul, but most of them, in the spirit of Church’s changeable, marathon concerts, mixed and matched the three albums’ bounty of songs.
Playing like a Best of Church survey, we hear him lend his inimitable tenor to super-hooky songs about American blight (“Put That in Your Country Song”), gentle stories of heartache (“People Break”), libidinous soul-inspired groove-country (“Look Good and You Know It”), solo-acoustic rootsiness (“Jenny”), low-register shitckickers (“Bad Mother Trucker”), and, as always, falling in love with music on the radio as a kid (“Russian Roulette”, “Rock and Roll Music Found Me”). Roll on, Chief.
2 Sierra Ferrell—Long Time Coming [Rounder]
“The Sea”, the opening track of Sierra Ferrell‘s terrific debut album, Long Time Coming, features a musical saw, which, later, Ferrell mimics with her voice, which also captures the undulating rhythms of the sea itself. Such is the eclecticism on the buzziest indie-country debut of the year. Ferrell, who wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s 12 songs, takes a fleet-footed tour through country styles demonstrating remarkable range and musicality. The music cycles through Western swing, honky tonk, Appalachian jazz, dobro-laced waltzes, bluegrass do-si-dos, mariachi serenatas, Romani laments, and folky ballads.
The album is, as a result, filled with dobros, accordions, trombones, frailing banjos, oboes, all complementing Ferrell’s sweet, pliant voice—equal parts Dolly and Loretta. For icing on the cake, the album brings in all-star guests like Billy Strings, Jerry Douglas, Sarah Jarosz, and Tim O’Brien, an impressive roster for a debut album, and another reflection that we are seeing the arrival of a major new voice on the country landscape.
1 Miko Marks & the Resurrectors—Our Country [Redtone]
Miko Marks spent years trying to break into mainstream Nashville radio, even though, despite her formidable talent as a singer and writer, Music City kept closing its doors to her. This year, Marks decided to stop trying to fit in and make the music that moved her. The result is Our Country, a title that helps sum up the year in country music and the overdue changes within the genre. The album is a shapeshifter of a record, incorporating gospel glory, Stax punch, slide-guitar country blues, soul-funk, fingerpicked folk, and vaudeville piano jazz.
Marks doesn’t shy away from her assessment of where things stand. “Goodnight America” quotes both “America the Beautiful” and the “New Colossus” poem on the Statue of Liberty and yet flips it into today’s damned old dying-Democracy blues in the refrain: “America, your dream is dead.” Later, she sings with sorrow over the poisoned water in her hometown of Flint, Michigan in “We Are Here”. Yet Marks finds light where she can, insisting that “With patience in our hearts / We can make a brand new start” in “Hold It Together”. Bolstered by Marks’ stunning vocal tone and delivery, Our Country makes for a melting pot of an album and a perfect musical and messaging record for the current American scene.