best country albums of 2023
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The 15 Best Country Albums of 2023

This year’s best country albums spring from hard-country bands to traditional true believers and from alternative country renegades to pop-country superstars.

8. Dougie Poole – The Rainbow Wheel of Death (Wharf Cat)

Dougie Poole’s new record, The Rainbow Wheel of Death, largely abandons the irony of The Freelancer’s Blues for something more traditional, with Poole sounding less like a pastiche of country greats and more like the real thing. Part of that is the production: Poole ditched the drum machine and (most of) his synths for a live band in the studio, allowing songs like “I Lived My Whole Life Last Night” and “Worried Man Blues 2” to sound like the 1970s outlaw records his earlier albums were merely riffing on. But even more than the sound, Poole’s songwriting transcended the winking of Freelancer’s Blues and 2017’s Wideass HighwayThe Rainbow Wheel of Death has the genuine pathos of country’s best songs, with characters searching for love and longing for redemption in townie bars and dusty halls. – Steve Horowitz

7. Iris DeMent – Workin’ on a World (Flariella)

This music on Iris DeMent‘s Workin’ on a World is too good not to be shared. DeMent sings and writes from the heart. The 13 songs are powerful statements of love and indictments of bad behavior. DeMent both names and describes the deeds of whom she considers the heroes and villains from our recent past. For example, she calls ex-President George W. Bush (“Like that president who lied about WMD / Hundreds of thousands of people / Are lying in their graves”) a war criminal and praises Minnesota peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was run over by an Israeli tank during a Palestinian protest. Her views may seem radical on the surface, but DeMent’s commitment to a better world for all consistently comes across. DeMent defiantly sings she is “workin’ on a world I never may see”. She knows that change may be slow to come, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to change the world for the better. – Steve Horowitz

6. Vince Gill and Paul Franklin – Sweet Memories (MCA Nashville)

Vince Gill and Paul Franklin are two legendary country artists who have made great music for several decades. They team up for a tribute to Ray Price and his band, the Cherokee Cowboys. They don’t cover well-known hits. Price’s most famous songs, such as “Night Life”, “For the Good Times”, and “Crazy Arms”, won’t be found here. Instead, Gill and Franklin mined the more obscure but no less-worthy sides from Price’s catalog. Price could take songs written by others and make them his own. His distinctive baritone voice and well-paced performance style made his music stand out from the country fare from the post-World War II era. Sweet Memories contains songs penned by such notables as Mickey Newbury, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, Marty Robbins, and Hank Cochran but still display the strong stamp of Price and his band. – Steve Horowitz

5. Tyler Childers – Rustin’ in the Rain (Hickman Holler / RCA)

At the end of July, Tyler Childers released the single “In Your Love”, a love song emoting steadfast devotion to a partner. Childers’ unique voice conveys sincerity and vulnerability, while his band, the Food Stamps, surround the words with pleading piano and guitar strings working together to craft a vista of fidelity. The single was the first taste of a promised album, Rustin’ in the Rain, that continues his mixture of deeply authentic Appalachian roots music, penchant for surprises and experimentation, and extensive appreciation for the breadth of country music over time.

He’s historically shunned the safe route of repetition while tethering tradition to innovation. Rustin’ in the Rain, with one exception, leaves the church pews behind for a lean but potent seven-song tracklist pitched to the ghost of Elvis Presley that calls to mind the musical prowess and thematics of the “Nashville A-Team” of session musicians who influenced the sound of country music in the 1960s and 1970s. – Rick Quinn

4. Hailey Whitters – I’m in Love (Big Loud)

Hailey Whitters recently won “New Female Artist of the Year” at the 58th Academy of Country Music Awards. Her single, “Everything She Ain’t”, went gold and has been played over 175 million times on TikTok. She’s received numerous accolades (and a Grammy Award nomination) for her musical efforts. This year, she released a six-song EP to capitalize on her newfound success. It includes “Everything She Ain’t”, and YouTube features a video to accompany each new track. I’m in Love is corny—literally. The films all contain Iowa-style backdrops with cornfields, John Deere tractors, and other symbolic Hawkeye state references. Whitters’ greatest forte as a songwriter is her creative ability to capture complex thoughts and feelings in vernacular language. Rather than portray caricatures, she creates characters to whom we all can relate, even if one isn’t from Iowa. – Steve Horowitz

3. Lori McKenna – 1988 (CN / Thirty Tigers)

Lori McKenna is a champion of wholesome blue-collar values. She sings about loving one’s parents, husband, and children, being honest and kind to one’s friends and neighbors, and the ordinary pleasures of life. McKenna is such a talented songwriter and performer that she and her songs sparkle. She’s a maven of aphorisms as well as song-length fables. Her latest album, 1988, is another excellent record by one of the master Americana-style singer-songwriters of our time. The Massachusetts musician has a way with words that bring out the depth in simple homilies. She’s nostalgic but more reflective than regretful. She pens lines about “When the way it was / Wasn’t what it seemed.” McKenna knows one cannot return to one’s youth, yet the pivotal moments in life are sometimes trivial. Who can’t look back and wonder what if? – Steve Horowitz

2. Chris Stapleton – Higher (Mercury Nashville)

The first time I went through Chris Stapleton‘s fifth album, Higher, I was filled with giddy joy. It’s the kind of joy that comes from witnessing a performer do what he does best: make great, accessible music that speaks to its audience. A (rightly) revered figure in modern country music, Stapleton is a versatile and talented artist who possesses an arrestingly wild roar of a voice and the soul of a rural poet. His songs aren’t just radio-ready anthems to be blasted out of your car radio; instead, these songs are mini-plays, stories of ordinary heroes facing adversity. Though a thoroughly modern country singer, he and his collaborators weave rootsier sounds of his native Kentucky like fine, delicate threads through the fabric of these beautiful, soulful ballads and barnstormers. Stapleton distinguishes himself from his country music brethren by his insightful songwriting and because he is gifted with the most gorgeous male voice in contemporary country music. – Peter Piatkowski

1. Margo Price – Strays (Loma Vista)

Margo Price‘s Strays is her most adventurous album yet. This is not surprising, considering how she made it. Price and her husband (Jeremy Ivey) went to the South Carolina beach in the summer and took a six-day mushroom-filled trip looking for insights and inspirations. She also gave up drinking alcohol. The ‘shrooms must have inspired Price’s creativity. Or maybe it was giving up the booze. Or perhaps it was both of them or neither, but what these behaviors indicate about Price is her willingness to try new things and seek new ways of experiencing the world. She takes risks. The songs and instrumentalizations vary in topics and style. There’s no dominant theme as much as a central intellect and a heart. The world will make you crazy if you look at it too long, she sings, but she can’t look away. – Steve Horowitz