Another incredible year of country music is all but wrapped up.
In the nearly 10 years that Whiskey Riff has been up and running (hard to believe it’s even been that long), the country music landscape has changed dramatically. As much as we like to rant and rave about country music radio, and non-mainstream artists not getting the attention they undoubtedly deserve, we’re in a WAY better place than we were even five years ago.
2023 gave us so much great music, it’s almost too much to cover, but it was really a breakout year for the genre as a whole. Country music garnered national attention with artists like Zach Bryan, Morgan Wallen, Oliver Anthony, Jason Aldean and Luke Combs all pushing their way to the tops of all-genre music charts. The Appalachian music scene has become an absolute powerhouse, bluegrass has seen a modern revival due to the likes of Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle and more, southern rock is alive and well with bands like Whiskey Myers, Blackberry Smoke and The Steel Woods… old school to new school, and everything in between… it’s truly a great time to be a country music fan.
I’m sure a few of your favorite records will be featured on this list, but I know that most of the comments will go a little something like “what about…” or “you forgot…” But at the end of the day, my hope is that you find something new in here as well. These year-end lists are always a fun exercise and an opportunity for reflection, but it’s not really meant for your own personal fan validation… it’s about discovery.
As we continue to run full speed into the world of streaming, where big hits reign supreme and artists can somehow make a career out of pushing nothing but singles to their TikTok audience, country music is always going to be about the album for me. The full body of work. It’s not easy tell a complete story over the course of an entire album, and it’s what separates the good artists from the truly great artists. Mastering the art of storytelling to produce something compelling, something that moves the listener, requires vision, introspection, honesty, authenticity, talent, passion, and guts.
There were so many great albums to choose from this year, which means there were so many that we painfully had to leave off. When the team here sat down and put together our shortlist of albums worthy of consideration… we had over 80 albums on the list. And then began the daunting task of stripping it down to our favorite 40. It’s almost not even fun because there is just so much good music this year.
And just for some quick ground rules… we’re also not even mentioning some of the great EPs that artists dropped this year, cover albums, live albums, and other various side projects, as well as any deluxe editions. Even though it was quite long, I considered Ernest’s Flower Shops (The Album): Two Dozen Roses a deluxe edition and ultimately had to leave it off on a technicality. It’s definitely a fantastic record that would’ve otherwise made the list, though. The first one also made the list last year…
So without further ado, let’s get to it…
Honorable mentions are always tough. Like I said earlier, we had over 80 albums on contention to make the list and it was nearly impossible to narrow them down to even just 40 albums. And a number of factors can go into it… maybe we just didn’t get enough listens, maybe it came out in a jam-packed window and took a backseat to other albums, maybe it just needs to grow on me more… ask me again in a few years when each album has a chance to stand the test of time and this list could look wildly different.
Nevertheless, here’s a handful of great albums that you should definitely check out this year:
Solid Gold – Miles Miller
Super Natural – The Wilder Blue
West On I-10 – Evan Honer
Where the Flowers Meet the Dew – Zach Russell
Won’t Die This Way – Erin Viancourt
Never Enough – Parker McCollum
The Crumbs – Tony Logue
Valley of Heart’s Delight – Margo Cilker
Border Radio – John Baumann
Can’t Hide Country – Emily Ann Roberts
I Hate Cowboys and All Dogs Go To Hell – Chase Rice
Lover’s Game – The War & Treaty
Feel Good Country – Sundy Best
One Of These Days – Chancey Williams
And the moment of truth…
Country Albums Of The Year
40. Damn Love – Kip Moore
39. Peace Mountain – Nicholas Jamerson
2023 has been a big year for Jamerson, who not only released his solo record Peace Mountain, but also as half of the legendary Kentucky duo, Sundy Best, Feel Good Country.
With his songwriting aptitude and Appalachian sound in full effect on both records, Jamerson has his fingerprints all over the best music of the year, and deservingly so.
38. Crossing Lines – Tanner Usrey
Sonically, the album weaves seamlessly through sad country love songs and hard charging red dirt rock and roll, drawing influence from an array genres and creating a sound that is uniquely Usrey’s. While the record dives into a number of topics content-wise, one common theme throughout, whether latently or at times blatantly, seems to be the difficulty of managing the rock and roll touring lifestyle of late nights and neon lights while still maintaining important relationships, and frankly, keeping your head on straight and not getting the rough lifestyle get to you.
As a road dog himself, one has to imagine that this album is semi-autobiographical for Usrey, as he draws on his experiences from several years on the road to tell these stories. Usrey’s songwriting is seemingly introspective at times, and frequently manifests its meaning in a self-deprecating manner, narrated by a musician who has given their all to the music and doesn’t know for sure whether this thing they have been chasing will ever actually come to fruition.
Yet, at the same time, there is a persisting undertone of optimism that flashes between the stories of substance abuse, break ups, and self doubt that makes this album universally relatable, in some capacity, to anyone listening who acknowledges that it’s okay to not be okay, and there are greener pastures ahead.
37. Stray Dog – Justin Moore
36. Have A Nice Day – Treaty Oak Revival
35. City of Gold – Molly Tuttle
With 13 spectacular tracks City of Gold will take you on a one-of-a-kind sonic adventure fueled by some of the best musicians in the genre and led, of course, by virtuosic guitarist and lead singer Molly Tuttle.
Proving more than capable of maintaining the momentum they built with Crooked Tree and carrying the torch of bluegrass tradition as one of the most prominent bands in the scene, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway is a legendary band in the making, and we just get to sit back and enjoy the ride with City of Gold.
34. Ain’t My Last Rodeo – Riley Green
Ain’t My Last Rodeo is another impressive evolution for the Alabama native that cements him as one of the most authentic, and truly country artists, in the mainstream part of the genre right now.
33. Tough Country – The Panhandlers
32. Earned It – Larry Fleet
31. Psychopath – Morgan Wade
Psychopath as a whole is an evolution in terms of Morgan’s overall sound, and definitely a more dynamic record with a heavier influence of rock and roll and even a little grunge at moments. But a lot of the writing is classic Morgan in terms of the honesty and authenticity.
She doubles down on who she is, what she struggles with, and the pain and beauty of the human experience. It’s an exceptional journey through her inner most thoughts… and that’s exactly what we’ve come to know and expect from Morgan.
30. On Your Time – The Steel Woods
The Nashville band’s fourth full record, and first record recorded since the tragic, unexpected passing of lead guitarist, co-founder, and alt-country legend Jason “Rowdy” Cope at just 42 years old in 2021, On Your Time is a heavy project carried on by co-founder and frontman Wes Bayliss.
Loaded with allegory that will conjure deep thought and imagery that allows the listener to paint their own picture of the scenes and stories in their mind, On Your Time is a fantastic record that showcases Bayliss’ songwriting expertise, as well as that of the other talented musicians who contributed to the record.
All in all, it purely captures The Steel Woods’ iconic sound into 10 potent tracks that will forever occupy an important time within The Steel Woods’ lore, carrying on the band’s tradition at a time when that may have been difficult but likely more important than ever.
29. One Thing At A Time – Morgan Wallen
28. Wandering Star – Flatland Cavalry
27. Excuse the Mess – Ella Langley
26. This Far South – Tommy Prine
His 11 track debut weaves seamlessly through sonically diversifying songs that manage to fit together cohesively in the grand scheme of his redemptive story and coming of age revelations detailed in his lyrics.
Devastated by his father’s April 2020 passing, as apparent in “By the Way,” and motivated by those in his corner, especially his wife Savannah, for whom the album’s last track “I Love You, Always” was written, Tommy Prine’s debut is an emotionally charged masterpiece that carries on the family’s legendary name with dignity yet provides an impressive cornerstone for Tommy to continue blazing his own trail musically.
25. Dark Black Coal – Logan Halstead
Halstead’s Dark Black Coal is one of the most highly anticipated debut records I can remember, largely due to the album’s title track “Dark Black Coal” blowing up on YouTube a couple years back.
Not only did it live up to the hype, but Halstead’s debut blew expectations out of the water, and proved he’s got talent that transcends his young age.
24. Jake Worthington – Jake Worthington
23. The Biggest Life – Summer Dean
22. Son of Dad – Stephen Wilson Jr.
The Indiana native has drawn in listeners with his eclectic southern rock, grunge, and indie sound. He has often been referred to as the Death Cab for Cutie of country music with his emotionally charged lyrics that make listeners feel emotion from deep within.
Each track on the album is laced with meaningful lyrics that highlight parts of Wilson Jr.’s childhood, upbringing, relationships, and healing process. Stephen Wilson Jr.’s father was a boxer and trained Wilson Jr. from the age of five in the ring. His background is wildly diverse, from boxing to obtaining a microbiology degree and now songwriting; you can see his unique perspective on life through his lively lyrics.
While losing any parent is hard, Wilson Jr. can be sure his dad is looking upon him, beaming, listening to each track on Søn Of Dad… this is a masterpiece of an album.
21. Heat Comes Down – John R. Miller
20. Rustin’ In the Rain – Tyler Childers
While relatively short, Rustin In The Rain still feels like a complete body of work, thoughtfully curated, expertly crafted, and the finish product is yet another stellar piece of the Tyler Childers catalog.
19. Little Songs – Colter Wall
18. The Devil I Know – Ashley McBryde
Ashley McBryde’s raw songwriting resonates with fans as she tells stories we can all relate to. But more than just relating to her audience, Ashley goes where few in the mainstream country music world are willing to go. Dripping with unapologetic and unfiltered honesty, she’s as authentic as gets in this business…. and “authentic” is the trendy, buzzword that everybody loves to throw around right now, but when it comes to Ashley McBryde, it couldn’t be more on the nose.
And The Devil I Know might be her most raw project yet.
17. Life Lessons – Wyatt Flores
With his roots in Stillwater, OK, Flores has long been lauded by many as the next big thing in Red Dirt music, but with the release of his first project, it’s apparent he has his sights on being the next big thing in all of country music.
Life Lessons, the seven track EP covers an array of topics, ranging from semi-autobiographical songs of relationships, the struggles of life on the road as a touring musician, and feelings of insecurity and inferiority that fans everywhere will latch onto, as well as couple of extrospective songs that dive headfirst into the throes of substance abuse and how it can affect those around the abuser.
The whole thing is tied together by the humorous “Wildcat” placed right in the middle as a reprieve from the heavy content of Flores’ spectacular lyricism.
16. Gettin’ Old – Luke Combs
15. Among Other Things – Bella White
14. Western White Pines – Colby Acuff
What could very well be a breakthrough record for Acuff, who recently moved from Idaho to Nashville, Western White Pines features 10 tracks that will take you on a sonic adventure through Acuff’s life.
With songs that range from honky tonk heaters that’ll fire you up for a good time, to lyrically thought-provoking ballads that’ll slow things down, Western White Pines has everything you could ever want from a country record and more.
13. North Georgia Rounder – Pony Bradshaw
With a focus on storytelling in his songwriting, Bradshaw seems to take after Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner just as much as he might Bob Dylan or Townes Van Zandt. In each song he utilizes literary devices and techniques to tell short stories of people, places, and events that all somehow manage to convey a message across the entire album.
12. Higher – Chris Stapleton
11. Twenty On High – Drayton Farley
Twenty On High is a breakthrough in Farley’s nascent career, and a sign of what is to come from one of country music’s most promising up and comers. With a raw voice and a knack for honest lyricism, Farley is as real as it gets, and it shows in Twenty on High.
10. Whitsitt Chapel – Jelly Roll
It’s a 13-track journey that takes you from his roots to where he is now, with the grit, heart, and character that it took to get through the hard times sewn into every line. Whitsitt Chapel resonates deeply with anyone who has ears to listen, and each song on this project has one important factor, one common thread among songs that connect deeper and stay around longer… a “why.”
Whether it’s to inspire or to make you think, to make you laugh or make you cry, Jelly Roll writes songs with purpose, offering hope and wisdom from one who’s seen it all and lives to tell the story.
9. Endurance – Josiah & the Bonnevilles
8. Lucky – Megan Moroney
It’s clear from this album that Meg is a superstar in the making, and she definitely brings a unique sound and perspective to the mainstream that feels like we haven’t had since Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert first came onto the scene.
That quick wit and very southern, sassy writing always resonates with me, and I love her twangy, gritty vocals and ability to deliver these songs straight from the heart. Lucky is girly, feminine and fun, but it’s also reflective, deep and sometimes, downright sad… a perfect combination.
7. Leather – Cody Johnson
6. Zach Bryan – Zach Bryan
5. Southern Star – Brent Cobb
Heavily influenced by the soulful, southern sound of legendary Georgia artists before him, like The Allman Brothers and Otis Redding, and inspired by his own experiences as well those of the people around him, the Ellaville, Georgia native’s laid back authenticity shines through in a lyrical masterclass and ode to home.
A songwriter’s songwriter, who is regarded by his peers within the industry as someone who has truly mastered his craft, Southern Star is a cohesive collection of songs inspired by Cobb’s experiences in the South, but with themes relatable to listeners no matter where they reside. Considering a wide array of subject matter ranging from deep thoughts on mortality to backyard barbecues, and just about everything in between, Southern Star will have you cracking a beer for a good time one second, and contemplating life the next.
The songwriting is impeccable, and with an A-list of musicians backing Cobb, it’s just as powerful sonically.
4. Drink the River – Gabe Lee
The Nashville native has an incredible knack for songwriting, paired with an incredible ability to deliver stories with authenticity and honesty, staying true to his country roots in Music City. And Drink The River undoubtedly contains some of Lee’s best work yet.
3. A Cat In the Rain – Turnpike Troubadours
This album has something for everybody in it, but as is with most of Evan Felker’s songwriting and Turnpike music, you’ll get the most out of it if you peel back that first layer. Full of descriptive imagery, metaphors, and allegorical storytelling, each track on this record, even the covers, take on more than one meaning and represent an array of heavy subjects that have drawn heavy on the Turnpike Troubadours over the years.
A Cat In The Rain captures the essence of their signature sound yet builds on their storied past in a way that only strengthens their mystique and lays the foundation for something bigger than any of us could have ever expected for these Okies. These guys are superstars, and A Cat in the Rain is the highly anticipated, and long awaited, rebirth that proves it.
2. Teenage Dixie – Muscadine Bloodline
With honky tonk heaters that play right into Muncaster’s ’90s country influences, and lyrically masterful ballads that tell stories in the same vein as Stanton’s songwriting hero Chris Knight, Teenage Dixie has it all.
These guys have outdone themselves with this one, and as one of the most successful independent acts of the last several years, there seems to be plenty more where that came from.
1. Family Ties – Charles Wesley Godwin
The album is a masterclass in storytelling, with lyrics that are often more like poetry than songwriting. But underlying the vivid pictures that he paints are those common themes of family, of lessons learned, and of the struggles it took to get there.
It’s an album that seems more personal to Charles than any he’s written so far. But the beauty of his songwriting is that, despite the fact that not everybody has a career that keeps them on the road for weeks at a time, everybody can find themselves relating to the words of songs like “Two Weeks Gone,” that find Charles longing to get back home to his family after being away.
And although your father or grandfather might not have been a coal miner, chances are you can relate to “Miner Imperfections,” with lessons like “how to pair a diamond to a girl” and the experience of watching even the toughest of dads tear up when their grandchildren are born. Family Ties may be Charles’ most personal work, but it paradoxically may be the album that folks are able to relate to the most.
Album of the Year 2 times in 3 years…. Charles Wesley Godwin is THAT guy.
Country Albums of the Year 2023 Playlist
It’s only right that you have a playlist of the best country albums of this year… so we made one for you. After all, what good is a list of albums if you can’t listen to the music on the list, right?