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The 25 Best Country and Americana Albums of 2021

From Morgan Wade’s invigorating debut and Sturgill Simpson’s concept record to Allison Russell’s musical memoir and Eric Church’s magnum opus, these are the best from Nashville and beyond

Sturgill Simpson: Rogelio Esparza for Rolling Stone; Allison Russell: Marc Baptiste; Eric Church: Joe Pugliese; Morgan Wade: David McClister

Songwriting and production defined country music and its Americana cousin in 2021. Artists like Mickey Guyton, Carly Pearce, and Joshua Ray Walker weren’t afraid to get personal, writing about their respective experiences with discrimination, divorce, and dads. Sturgill Simpson, meanwhile, came up with a revenge narrative for a concept LP set during the Civil War. And James McMurtry made the case for being America’s best living songwriter with a record of detail-rich character studies.

Behind the console, mainstream stars like Dan + Shay and Old Dominion created lush soundscapes. Eric Church challenged his longtime producer and band by asking them to record in a shuttered restaurant in North Carolina. Miranda Lambert pushed the needle too, cutting an entire album with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall outside on the West Texas plains.

Finally, stellar debuts by Guyton, Allison Russell, Elvie Shane, Lainey Wilson, and Morgan Wade introduced new writing voices and studio sonics — providing reassuring proof that country music is evolving and making room for more diverse voices.

From Rolling Stone US


Joshua Ray Walker, ‘See You Next Time’

The Dallas troubadour comes into his own as an adult songwriter on this superb collection of songs addressing topics as diverse as honky-tonk mishaps (“Three Strikes”) and climate-crisis dystopia (“Fossil Fuel).” Over a mix of classic R&B (“Sexy After Dark”), plaintive fingerpicking (“Flash Paper”), and surging country-rock (“Three Strikes”), Walker chronicles his fellow friends in low places with humor, empathy, and grace. In his rendering of a modern U.S. with a social safety net that’s broken beyond repair (see “Dumpster Diving” and “Welfare Chet”), the road goes on forever — but the party can end at any minute. —J.B.


Carly Pearce, ’29’

Carly Pearce had her 30s all planned out, then her life imploded with a high-profile divorce and the death of a dear collaborator. The Kentucky singer could’ve hidden from the spotlight, but she turned her grief and emotion into the instant-classic EP 29 (and the expanded version 29: Written in Stone), chronicling that transitional age with courage, empathy, and humor. She acidly warns the “Next Girl” about a playboy ex, allows herself to be really “Messy,” and mourns her dashed dreams in the devastating title track. “The year that I got married and divorced/Held on for dear life but still fell off the horse,” Pearce sings with a sigh. Here’s to being OK with not being OK. —J.F.


James McMurtry, ‘The Horses & the Hounds’

Staring down 60, the Austin singer-songwriter continued on his recent streak of stunners by delivering a career high point with this collection of sharply told tales of wrinkled equestrians, ashamed murderers, disenchanted Iraq War veterans, and long-stewing flirts set to a West Coast, Petty-inspired roots rock from longtime collaborator Ross Hogarth. “Cashing in on a 30-year crush,” McMurtry sings, most memorably, on the instant-classic opener, “Canola Fields.” “You can’t be young and do that.” Nor can you be young and write an album as wise, witty, and emotionally generous as McMurtry’s latest. —J.B.


Eric Church, ‘Heart & Soul’

The Nashville upsetter may have released Heart & Soul as three separate albums, but there’s really no splitting apart Church’s magnum opus. (It’d be like listening to Adele’s 30 on shuffle.) Heart, Soul and the fan-club-only release & are a complete journey, all of it recorded in a mountainside restaurant-turned-makeshift-studio in Church’s native North Carolina. In big and bright Heart tracks like “Heart of the Night” and “Stick That in Your Country Song,” he indulges his arena-rock side, while Soul songs like “Break It Kind of Guy” and “Jenny” are made for the darkest corners of the bar. Throw in the wildcard & and Church’s anything-goes vocal stylings on songs like “Do Side” and “Lone Wolf,” and Heart & Soul reveals itself to be the sound of a performer determined to stress-test all sides of their artistry. —J.H.


Allison Russell, ‘Outside Child’

For her solo debut Outside Child, Allison Russell turned her brutally tough childhood into stunning art. The singer-banjoist, a member of the duo Birds of Chicago with her partner J.T. Nero and the folk collective Our Native Daughters, expands on the musical foundations of those groups to incorporate smooth R&B, country, jagged art-rock, and even hints of jazz as she documents her escape from an abusive home. There’s truly harrowing stuff, like “4th Day Prayer,” in which Russell sees her trauma as a loop stretching back to the scourges of colonialism and slavery. There are also fleeting moments of joy and beauty: Singing in English and French, Russell dreams under the Montreal stars and experiences her first glimpses of love and safety with a young woman named Persephone. By the end of the album, it’s clear that Outside Child is not exclusively about trauma so much as resilience and healing from it. “Oh my father, you were the thief of nothing,” Russell sings in the closing song “Joyful Motherfuckers.” “I’ll be a child in the garden, ten thousand years and counting.” It will shatter you and put you back together stronger than before. —J.F.


Morgan Wade, ‘Reckless’

Morgan Wade’s brand of twangy, rangy, ringing rock used to attract labels like “alt-country.” But mainstream Nashville moved to scoop the singer up not long after she released Reckless — Wade inked a major-label deal with Arista earlier this year. Wade is so deft at conjuring the head-over-heels feeling of plunging into a relationship and the subsequent heartbreak that she sometimes seems to be pinpointing the exact moment where one blurs into the other. “Wilder Days,” sturdy and driving, has become the most popular track on Reckless, but stay for the follow-up, “Matches and Metaphors,” which is full of blunt, bleary-eyed come-ons and exquisite failures of communication. “I’m not gonna tell you how I feel,” Wade decides at one point. “It’s overrated, but damn, it’s real.” —E.L.