Home Music Music Lists

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


Yola, ‘Stand for Myself’

On Stand for Myself, Yola built on the stylistic range of 2019’s Walk Through Fire, sprinkling in hints of disco and humid Memphis soul to complement her folk-rock leanings. Her second album with collaborator Dan Auerbach, Stand for Myself, sees Yola taking hold of her agency as a writer. “A coward in the shadows, no view from above,” she sings in the scorching title track. But no more: Yola also rails against divisive governments and tokenism, while celebrating her sexuality and cherished friendships. It’s top-level stuff from one of contemporary pop’s greatest singers, who just so happens to also be one of its sharpest songwriters. —J.F.


Lainey Wilson, ‘Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin”

Lainey Wilson has had a gig as a Hannah Montana impersonator, lived for several years in a camper trailer, and put out a handful of independent releases. What the 29-year-old hadn’t done until recently was score a hit. That changed with “Things a Man Oughta Know,” a slice of roots-folk tenderness that starts off as a boast of shotgun-shooting and tire-changing proficiency and swerves into a statement on emotional intelligence. The song is less rowdy than most of her major label-debut, Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’, which rocks confidently while Nashville superproducer Jay Joyce works his wide-screen magic. The songs feel clever and lived-in; Wilson keeps bars in business and chronicles a doomed relationship on the quiet gut-punch of a title track. Elsewhere she sticks up for her LA (as in: her native Louisiana) and asks “WWDD” (as in: What Would Dolly Do). Mostly, she shows off a hell of a voice, full of range and several colors as well as fire. —C.H.


Valerie June, ‘The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers’

If the Memphis mystic Valerie June is a direct inheritor of the astral spiritualism of Van Morrison, then this is her Into the Music: An open-hearted celebration of earthly pleasures and grounded physicality that finds June crossing the dark side of the street to the bright side of the road. Over an innovative blend of banjo, strings, and pop drum loops, June blesses the electromagnetic spectrum on “Colors,” cries away heartbreak on “Fallin,” invites Carla Thomas to her soul-revival party on “Call Me a Fool,” and prays equally for sunshine and starry nights on “Why the Bright Stars Glow.” “Look how far we’ve come,” she sings, “Dancing in the sun.” —J.B.


Sturgill Simpson, ‘The Ballad of Dood & Juanita’

Sturgill Simpson loaded up his rifle and aimed for his version of Red Headed Stranger with this Civil War-era concept album. It succeeds because of its simplicity — Simpson wrote straightforward lyrics that tell an archetypal tale of a hero on a revenge journey. The music is equally accessible, with Simpson leaning into the bluegrass sounds he rediscovered during the pandemic. “Go in Peace” is a barnburner, barreling along on banjo and high-lonesome vocals, while “Played Out” is a too-long-in-the-saddle lament. “Juanita” has vibes of Old Mexico and a guest shot from the OG stranger, Willie Nelson. It’s Simpson’s voice that binds the whole narrative together: gruff one moment, tender the next. This Dood abides. —J.H.


Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall & Jack Ingram, ‘The Marfa Tapes’

Miranda Lambert’s back-to-nature record with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram — they cut it all outside — is the most relaxed country album of the year. But that’s not to say it lacks energy. Rather, The Marfa Tapes crackles with the electricity of true camaraderie. Over 15 tracks, the three Texans strum their guitars, harmonize, and break out into laughter (listen to the reaction when Lambert flubs a line in “Tequila Does”). There’s classic-country heartbreak here too: “Am I Right or Amarillo” and “In His Arms” both long for a romance that’ll never be. During a time in human history that’s best spent outdoors, Lambert and Co. gave us the perfect campfire record. —J.H.


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.