In a year that’s seen the return of live music, Taylor Swift mark a new chapter in artist rights and the Grammys fuel the debate on what country really is, we look back on 20 records that became stand-out classics - as voted for by Holler staff and contributors.
More than a decade after industry racism cut her mainstream country career short, Miko Marks made a triumphant return this year with Our Country, an album that fuses country, blues, soul and gospel influences to luminous effect. Perhaps no song better captured the national mood this year than 'Goodnight America', the lullaby and elegy at its center.
- Will Groff
Eric Church gloved up for three more rounds of fighting the good fight for country music with this sprawling and gloriously ambitious triple-album. A tour de force of heartland rock, sassy R&B and driving country soul, it more than held up under the weight of its own ambition and influences.
- Jof Owen
Riddy Arman's debut record is everything a great country record should be: raw, emotive and descriptive. It’s a journey of great proportions, addressing the turmoil in her life with heartbreaking honesty whilst finding beauty and hope in the mundane. It’s so perfectly crafted that it gives all her more seasoned contemporaries a run for their money.
- Nathan McLaren Stewart
Rhiannon Giddens shares arcane Americana sown from a traditional tapestry. Indeed, these field songs, gospel hymns and archival offerings delve deep into a rich folk firmament. Giddens’ emotive vocals combine with sparse yet sensitive arrangements, resulting in a celebratory sound ringing with spirit, soul, reverence and grace.
- Lee Zimmerman
Be it the rich gospel choruses, warm Southern soul or cinematic vastness that hearkens back to the rolling Texan hills, there’s something special about Topaz that totally envelops you on every listen. Produced by Black Pumas' Adrian Quesada, the record is yet another glowing entry in Israel Nash’s proud discography.
- Ciara Bains
This debut album from Mickey Guyton is packed with spitfire and bravery. Through tracks including 'Black Like Me', 'Higher' and 'Love My Hair', Guyton cultivates a celebration of life, love, and Black womanhood in a way that’s moving and transcendent.
- Jason Scott
Cody Johnson's second major-label outing is the sort of record people say you won't find in country anymore.
Old school with a modern sheen, Human's tracks about family are absolute standouts: the carpe diem of 'Til You Can’t', the rueful father surveying his daughter’s beaux in 'God Bless The Boy (Cori’s Song)' and the 95-year-old reflecting on life in 'I Always Wanted To'.
- Mark Hagen
From the depths of the Shenandoah Valley, a new folk legend rises. John R. Miller traces his winding lineage across 11 tracks enveloped within his deceptively titled debut LP, Depreciated. Masterfully, Miller employs his eclectic musical background to reshape the sound of Appalachia.
- Madeline Crone
On First Time Feeling, Kentucky-native Leah Blevins’ startling debut, a Texas riverbed is the source of spiritual renewal and a Mexican restaurant the site of romantic devastation. Much attention has been paid to Blevins’ voice - and rightly so - but it’s the song-craft that makes this record an Americana tour de force.
- Will Groff
With a voice that swaggers like a jagged outlaw, Lainey Wilson shines brightly throughout Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’. Fueled by her authentic and raw point of view, she leaves nothing on the table - except, perhaps, the hope that we’ll have plenty more to come from this soon-to-be-legendary entertainer.
- Michael 'Soda' Canter
Curated over three months' writing and four days' recording, Allison Russell pours her very personal story into one richly rewarding, immersive album. From her survivor’s tale, ‘4th Day Prayer’, to her duet with chosen sister Yola on ‘The Runner’, Outside Child is an unforgettable solo debut from the Canadian artist.
- Helen M Jerome
Following Wish You Were Here (2019) and Glad You Made It (2020), Joshua Ray Walker completed his trio of conceptual records with this poignant finale. Set in a dive bar destined for demolition, he crafts a devastatingly familiar story arc across all three albums, his artistic genius evident as he introduces reflections of his own pain within his fictional characters.
- Madeline Crone
In a world where it feels like everyone is shouting and no one is listening, the most precious moments are those when you can just get away from it all. Sometimes all it takes is a couple of acoustic guitars, a desert campfire and three of country music’s greatest living songwriters to take you there.
- Jof Owen
Sierra Ferrell wasn’t being sarcastic when she entitled her first album Long Time Coming. 10 years in the making, the Virginia-native has poured everything into this stunning debut. Her trademark weaving of country, bluegrass, calypso and jazz marries wondrously with profound and poetic narratives. A treasure.
- Ross Jones
Long regarded as a guitar virtuoso, Strings' less regarded but equally as spectacular songwriting was elevated to new heights on Renewal, easily his most personal collection to date. The 16-song effort exemplifies his eclectic influences, ranging from bluegrass to rock, metal, jam, punk and more.
- Matt Wickstrom
Carlile's years of hard yards have seen her blossom into the patron saint of Americana and acquire her beloved status in music at large. The sheer scope and scale at play in this seventh solo album shows an artist crossing the boundaries with almost Gaga-esque daring and ease, reaching new peaks with every release.
- Paul Sexton
Capturing M.C Taylor in all his inquisitive glory, Quietly Blowing It is a meditation on unrest, isolation and a spirit worn. Written and recorded in his tiny North Carolina home studio, the tracks reflect on deeper issues at large - inequality, the climate crisis, political corruption - with an earnest and relatable intimacy.
- Ciara Bains
The clarion call of the intense ‘Black Myself’ was the tip of the spear on Kiah’s potent and unrelenting Wary + Strange.
The collaboration with veteran producer Tony Berg - who molded the husky-voiced songwriter’s folk into a commanding, sometimes disturbing and brutally honest combination of indie rock, blues and soul - surpassed already high expectations.
Defiant, swaggering and wincingly personal (“Sometimes when I wake up, I feel like I’m dying”), Kiah’s return revealed a mature artist whose best work might even lie ahead.
- Hal Horowitz
It requires a particular level of skill to craft album after album of undoubtable quality and not peak too soon. It takes even more to be prolific enough to release two a year and achieve the same feat. With Music City USA - perhaps his most highly-acclaimed record yet - Charley Crockett solidified his standing as one of the most important modern voices in country.
From the tender soul of ‘Need Your Love', the honky tonk yearning of ‘Are We Lonesome Yet’ and the drunken tribute to Henson Cargill on ‘Skip A Rope’, throughout, the Texan songwriter delivers reflections of emotional grit and sageness that you can't help but keep on repeat.
- Ross Jones
In a year when the “divorce” album made an unlikely return to the top of the charts, Carly Pearce captured her own heartbreak and pain perhaps more poignantly than anyone else.
29: Written In Stone is a perfectly formed modern country music masterpiece. A truly remarkable collection of soul-searching and emotional songs, it picks apart the sadness and humiliation of heartbreak with breathtaking honesty, humour and candour. Pearce proved that however tragic a break-up might be, it will still always allow for a rebirth of sorts.
Records like this don’t come along that often anymore, but when they do, they remind us why we’re here.
- Jof Owen