Hard to believe we’re already wrapping up another year of (mostly) great country music.
Looking back on this year, it’s hard not to be encouraged by the way country music is going. From killer debut albums to incredible new releases from some of our old favorites, there was plenty to be excited about in 2021.
Every year, we’ve always try to make our “Albums of the Year” list mirror our own personal tastes. After all, music is a subjective experience, and we’re all entitled to our own tastes and opinions, right?
And this year, with the team here at Whiskey Riff growing so much, there’s an even broader range of taste and opinions that went into picking the best albums of the year from all over the country music spectrum.
We also polled the loyal Whiskey Riffers for a single fan-voted album of the year, which is a new addition to the list this year.
But from Nashville to Texas, Appalachia to California, bluegrass, southern rock, old school to new school, and everything in between… I’m sure a few of your favorite records will be featured on this list, but we’re hopeful that you’ll find something new as well.
At the end of the day, country music is always going to be about the album. Even in the age of streaming, where singles reign supreme, the ability to craft a story over the course of an entire album is what separates the good artists from the truly great artists. It’s the reason that artists like Adele pushed Spotify to remove the “shuffle” button when listening to albums – because an album is supposed to be one complete story.
And telling that story is no small task. It takes creative vision, introspective soul-seeking, unapologetic honesty, sheer talent, raw passion, and guts. And when it’s all said and done, and the blood, sweat and tears have been poured into the process, you emerge with a truly great piece of work.
There were so many great albums to choose from that there are plenty that we had to leave off. And we’re also not even mentioning some of the great EP’s that artists dropped this year, like Midland’s The Last Resort, Riley Green’s Behind The Bar, or Hannah Dasher’s The Half Record. Hailey Whitter’s deluxe album easily deserves a place on here as well, but we opted to leave deluxe albums out of the conversation as well.
And finally, cover albums like American Aquarium’s Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers were left of the list as well, even though it’s probably my most played album this year. Rules are rules…
So without further ado, let’s get to it…
Dangerous: The Double Album – Morgan Wallen
Polling fans on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, there was a very clear favorite… Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album. Not all that surprising considering it was named the best-selling album of 2021, besting the likes of Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo.
And now… Whiskey Riff’s Top 40 Country Albums of 2021.
40. Welcome to Prairieville – Logan Mize
“This is the proudest I’ve ever been of a project. It’s been a long time in the making, the concept has been there, and it’s morphed and changed throughout the years, but this was the first time I finished recording a project, and I felt like we did everything we wanted to do, so this is something I couldn’t be more excited about.”
39. Travelin’ Kind – Ashland Craft
“’Travelin’ Kind’ feels like the start of a whole new adventure. It’s a heartfelt, wide open track list (written with some of my very best friends), that takes you through all the ups and downs that come along with life’s journey.
I wanted it to be rooted but carefree, and a little imperfect, which I feel like Jonathan Singleton captured perfectly while producing my debut record. My dreams are becoming a reality and I can’t wait to hear what songs fans resonate with.”
38. Our Country – Miko Marks
“This album is overall a heartfelt prayer for honesty and reflection. I hope it evokes a sense of urgency around systemic racism, injustice and economic disparity that plagues the underprivileged in our country.
I hope the message of compassion and unity rings true and encourages listeners to identify, digest the fullness of the music in a transformative way.”
37. Straight Outta The Country – Justin Moore
36. Bad Romantic – Summer Dean
“When I released my first EP, I was feeling a little sorry for myself… but now, it’s more of a pride thing. This is who I am, and I like it.”
35. Set In Stone – Travis Tritt
34. Calumet Queen – Kiely Connell
33. Gold Chain Cowboy – Parker McCollum
“When I’m writing, I tell people, ‘Put your map away… Put your handbook down. Close your eyes. Tell me what do you see?’ That’s where the best songs come from, the ones that are pure and inspired.
I’ve lived every one of these songs… on every album… so I can’t lose ‘that guy.’ If I never did anything else, I’d have plenty to write about, and I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”
32. To The Passage Of Time – Jason Eady
31. Son Of A – Dillon Carmichael
“I felt like my catalog could use a little more fun in it. After putting out a record as heavy as ‘Hell On An Angel,’ I wanted to make something faster, something looser, something that’d leave you with a smile on your face.
Whether I’m singing a tear jerker or a party tune, the only thing that really matters to me is that it’s a great song. And great songs are honest songs.”
30. Javelina – Red Shahan
29. Outside Child – Allison Russell
28. Triston Marez – Triston Marez
“Writing for this album was an experience in itself and really a first to me. I finally had the chance to become fully a songwriter with no distractions. I woke up every day with the efforts of writing the best song I can possibly write.
Every song off this record has a story or a piece of my life written into it. It’s from the heart and nowhere else. I hope these songs impact you in a way that music should, the way they hit me.”
27. Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ – Lainey Wilson
“I feel strongly about saying what you think, saying what’s on your heart, but also thinking before you speak. Sometimes it’s hard to be honest, but at the end of the day it ain’t doing anybody any good to not be.
Every song we put on the record we basically asked, ‘Is this song saying what I’m thinking?’ If it’s not, it didn’t make the list.”
26. The Light Saw Me – Jason Boland & The Stragglers
“’The Light Saw Me’ aims to highlight our lack of ultimate control over our narratives. So much of what happens in our lives seems to choose us in spite of our grand plans.
The deeper meaning of the material is ‘meaning’ itself. When faced with the stoic realities of our collective fate, love is the source of the power that can keep us going.”
25. Stack Of Records – Larry Fleet
24. You Hear Georgia – Blackberry Smoke
23. In These Silent Days – Brandi Carlile
“Never before have the twins and I written an album during a time of such uncertainty and quiet solitude. I never imagined that I’d feel so exposed and weird as an artist without the armor of a costume, the thrill of an applause and the platform of the sacred stage.
Despite all this, the songs flowed through—pure and unperformed, loud and proud, joyful and mournful. Written in my barn during a time of deep and personal reckoning.
There’s plenty reflection…but mostly it’s a celebration. This album is what drama mixed with joy sounds like. It’s resistance and gratitude, righteous anger and radical forgiveness. It’s the sound of thesesilentdays.”
22. All Of Your Stones – The Steel Woods
“Rowdy really wanted to fly a flag for healing… ‘All of Your Stones’ is meant to be inspirational by using negativity to build something positive.
The majority of the songs seem to make a whole lot of sense with Rowdy’s story. And this happened to be his record with the exception of a few songs. I’ve got a few on there [that I wrote] that didn’t make a whole lot of sense until his passing.”
21. See You Next Time – Joshua Ray Walker
“The whole idea with the trilogy was to use the honky-tonk as a setting where all these different characters could interact with each other.
In my mind, this album’s taking place on the night before the bar closes forever—the songs are just me taking snapshots of that world, and all the moments that happen in it.”
20. Beyond These Walls – Jesse Daniel
19. Vincent Neil Emerson – Vincent Neil Emerson
“I sat down over quarantine trying to make a compilation of old folk and traditional songs, and I set out to make a traditional album. But as I was learning these old songs, it just crept inside of my songwriting, and I started writing more in that vein of traditional folk music. Just, my version of it I guess, you know?
And with a lot of these tunes, they’re based around the songs more so than the production. Not to take away from the production, but this is very much a songwriter record.”
18. American Siren – Emily Scott Robinson
“I think that the thread running through the album is those things that call to us, and how we can’t resist that call. It’s about the siren songs that come up through our lives. It is bigger and riskier and more expansive than my last collection.
It feels like I wrote some songs that I’m going to grow into as I continue to perform them. They’re excavating some deeper stuff than I’ve touched on before, I think they will have a healing quality for people who listen.”
17. Where Have You Gone – Alan Jackson
“It’s a little harder country than even I’ve done in the past. And it’s funny, I was driving and listening to the final mixes Keith sent me, and I started to tear up. I was surprised to get so overly emotional, but I just love this kind of music.
Real country songs are life and love and heartache, drinking and Mama and having a good time… but it’s the sounds of the instruments, too. The steel and acoustic guitar, the fiddle – those things have a sound and a tone… and getting that right, the way those things make you feel, that’s country, too.”
16. Long Time Coming – Sierra Ferrell
“I want my music to be like my mind is—all over the place. I listen to everything from bluegrass to techno to goth metal, and it all inspires me in different ways that I try to incorporate into my songs and make people really feel something.”
15. Music City USA – Charley Crockett
“I like to think of my sound as ‘Gulf & Western’ and this number here is all gulf coast music. Something you’d hear out of southeast Texas recording studios or southern Louisiana. I’d been foolin’ around with this song for a while, and when we went to record it, we decided at the last minute to double the length of the chorus.
I felt right then that we had something. I’d wanted to bring the horns back for a couple tunes on this album. Soul and Country R&B from the deep south is a whole lot of who I am. I hope it shows though on ‘I Need Your Love’”.
14. The Marfa Tapes – Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, Jon Randall
“A project by Jack Ingram, Jon Randall and me. Recorded in Marfa, TX. They’re raw. You can hear the wind blowing, the cows mooing. We wanted you to feel like you were right there with us, sitting around the campfire, escaping the world, disappearing into the music.
Once everything that’s in your life that bogs you down leaves for a second, and you’re a songwriter, then you finally go ‘Oh I might hearing some melodies, I might be hearing some words.’ But it’s rare that we slow down enough to give it space and time.”
13. Heart & Soul – Eric Church
“We wrote and recorded 28 songs in 28 days… and I would get up in the morning and write a song and we would record the song that night.
And the thinking was we would remove all the barriers of what people think, or a publisher thinks, or a label thinks… and it was really letting creativity be creativity… and it is unequivocally my favorite music we’ve done.”
12. Human: The Double Album – Cody Johnson
“There was too much good out there to let go of, so I just said, ‘We’re going to cut all of them.’ There are ones I wrote on, there are ones I didn’t write on, and there are ones that I wish I’d written.
I addressed things personally with this music and when people listen to ‘Human,’ they are going to hear a lot more of me being me. I am finally comfortable with myself and able to share that with my fans.”
11. Mercy – Cole Chaney
10. Ramble On – Charlie Marie
“I wanted the record to sound like if Patsy Cline and Dwight Yoakam had a child. It doesn’t just symbolize everything I’m working toward; it symbolizes where I come from, too.
Pursuing music has been an adventure for me, and I recognize that in other artists’ pursuits, as well. Sometimes you’re tired and unsure of what lies ahead, but you’ve come too far to quit. The only thing you can do is continue chasing the dream.”
9. Mercy – Cody Jinks
“The actual art of writing was the only thing I really had to focus on to keep myself sane…the song comes first. If I’m not writing a great song, then I’m dead in the water. I really, really focused on being a better wordsmith.”
8. 29: Written In Stone – Carly Pearce
“So much has happened to me in the last year. The more my life unraveled, the more the songs lifted me up. As the smoke cleared, and some unbelievable things started happening, I was writing even more truth and getting lifted up even higher – and I realized, as much as 29 captured a moment, I wasn’t done with the story.
The songs just kept on coming, and I realized to truly understand how you come out the other side, not just a quick snapshot, this full project needed to happen. Now people can see how you thrive and shine even in the lowest moments.”
7. Depreciated – John R. Miller
“Heavy touring life took a toll on my health and I used drinking to soften the blows, which eventually spiraled to a bottom point.
I decided I had to take control of my life so I sobered up and moved from West Virginia to Nashville in 2017 to start over, and began making music and touring under my own name.”
6.Welcome To Countryland – Flatland Cavalry
“The support from our fans, friends and family gave us hope to ‘go for broke’ and pour our hearts and souls into the writing and creating of this new batch of songs.
I think it is our favorite record that we’ve created to date because it was made during such a critical time in our journey, which, I think, brought a whole new sense of wonder and significance to the project.”
5. The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita – Sturgill Simpson
“I just wanted to write a story—not a collection of songs that tell a story, but an actual story, front to back… rollercoaster ride through all the styles of traditional country and bluegrass and mountain music that I love, including gospel and a cappella. A simple tale of either redemption or revenge.”
4. Reckless – Morgan Wade
“I feel like the last couple of years have been me trying to figure out where I fit in, who I fit in with, and what’s going on. When I wrote these songs, I was going through a lot, just trying to figure out who I am. This is different than anything I’ve ever done before. It’s opened up a bunch of different lanes… and I’m proud of it. Maybe record number two will be a little bit more about knowing who I am.”
3. Renewal – Billy Strings
“I called my last record ‘Home,’ and then a few months later that’s where we all got stuck. Right now, we’re heading back into opening back up, and doing some more touring with real concerts and real shows.
Hopefully we can renew everything. I think it’s an interesting word. It reminds me of how every morning is a renewed day and another chance. I listen to this album now and it’s emotional.”
2. One To Grow On – Mike and the Moonpies
“This is a working man and woman’s record – the story of the American dream. It’s about a character searching for balance. Like myself, he is at the age where he’s losing family, close friends and mentors.
He’s realizing nothing lasts forever and grapples with how to appreciate the moment he’s in while still working tirelessly towards a future for his family. He’s nostalgic for the carefree days of his youth but knows what has to be done and does it.”
1. How The Mighty Fall – Charles Wesley Godwin
“I try to write with a sense of place… up until now, that setting has always been my home, but I don’t think this new album is as locally-focused as my previous release. I hope these songs will connect with people wherever they live.”