This is the time of year with a lot of lists: the all-important goals or resolutions, ideas for last minute gifts that our loved ones can order off online platforms offering next day delivery, annual listening data compiled by that streaming platform which tells where you sit in the overall percentage of Taylor Swift’s global audience, various NFL Power Rankings claiming that the Cowboys are now dead once more as we move towards the post season and of course the all-important ‘Naughty or Nice’ list kept by the big guy who travels the entire world to bring joy to one and all in a single night.
We also like lists so, it’s time for our countdown of the country and Americana albums which came out in 2023 and really hit the mark to finish up in this year’s top ten. 10) Donlands – Jerry Leger (Latent Recordings)
Released at the end of October, the fourteenth recording from Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger is a confessional and at times dark journey through life in Toronto’s east end where the album draws its title. The film noir style ambience and atmosphere of the album that results from working with legendary British-Canadian producer Mark Howard takes you to a dimension of poignant and reflective emotions delivered smoothly over classic raw Americana sounds which really highlights his reputation as one of Ontario’s finest songwriters.
9) The Devil I Know – Ashley McBryde (Warner Music Nashville)
Ashley McBryde’s fourth studio album dropped in September and is comfortably some of her finest work as both a vocalist and a songwriter where she co-wrote all eleven tracks. Like her first two records, the project was brought to life by the wonderful mind of Jay Joyce who once again sat in the producers chair. The melodies, hooks and choruses are branded with her distinct stamp that her fans have become accustomed to hearing but lyrically this really feels her most honest and open work to date that the power and soul in her voice conveys to perfection.
8) Lucky – Megan Moroney (Sony Music Nashville / Columbia Records)
One of if not the most talked about, if not the most talked about new artist in country music over the last twelve months, who began gaining attention with a song referencing the athletic colours of the University of Tennessee. Moroney herself is a Georgia Bulldog who received New Artist recognition with nominations from both the ACM and CMA this year. This debut album was produced by Kristian Bush of Sugarland fame where Moroney was a co-writer on each of the tracks which are filled with witty lines that show fun and feisty messages of empowerment combined with modern warmth and relatability whilst melodically brings incredibly contemporary vibes that also reinvigorate sounds of the past.
7) Far From Saints – Far From Saints (Ignition Records)
The transatlantic union between Stereophonics frontman Kelly Jones and The Wind + The Wave’s Patty Lynn and Dwight Baker who now collectively are known as Far From Saints has been evolving since performing nightly Tom Petty covers when the duo from Austin, Texas opened for Jones on his 2019 solo tour. The debut self-titled release from the trio which came out in June is a slick, smooth introduction from musicians who do not need one in their own right which catapulted them instantly to the heart of the UK Americana scene and become one of the most talked about acts across the entire festival circuit this summer. This record not only makes a strong statement for the trio but for Americana in the UK as a whole as it is dynamic, captivating and has a really edgy vibe that more and more people will begin talking about.
6) TWENTY SOMETHING – Alana Springsteen (Sony Music Nashville / Columbia Records NY)
Tales of heartache, triumph over adversity and transformation are the key themes in the fresh sounding debut full length album by a twenty three year old from Virginia Beach, who when her feet are not in the sand are more likely to be seen in High tops than cowboy boots. The three phase journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance through her early twenties which began with ‘Messing It Up’ before ‘Figuring It Out’ and finally ‘Getting It Right’ is as much about embracing the youthfulness of this period of our lives as it is as it is a period of growth as an individual which is balanced and portrayed incredibly well.
5) Hey Dawn – Fanny Lumsden (Cooking Vinyl Australia)
It had been over three years since the release of her last award winning album ‘Fallow’ and Lumsden followed this up and delivered her long awaited fourth studio album ‘Hey Dawn’ which was awarded ‘Best Country Album’ at this year’s ARIA Awards in her native Australia. This record was what she described as more observational rather from a place of raw emotion which was inspired by different parts of the vast beautiful land down under from losing caravan doors on the way to Darwin to being isolated out in Western Australia which had one of the world’s tightest borders during the COVID pandemic before recording the record in Tasmania. It is uplifting, full of stories, lyrically so smart and above all reflects the best part her own personality in that it is positive and a lot of fun.
4) Bigger Houses – Dan + Shay (Warner Music Nashville
The fifth studio album from Messrs Smyers and Mooney is just one of those records that makes you smile and it is exactly the record that their fans wanted. Shay Mooney is legitimately a candidate for owning the best male singing voice in all of country music, the pair harmonise so well, they have a real habit of putting out sing along belters followed by epic ballads and they bring mainstream pop and R’n’B elements to country music to make a beautiful marriage in a way that no one else can. ‘Bigger Houses’ is exactly what you expect from a Dan + Shay record but whilst all the ingredients of their winning formula remain, this feels a “grownup” album that still wants to embrace the fun elements of growing up and living that the duo portray so well.
3) Stand in the Joy – William Prince (Six Shooter Records)
A “love letter to love and time” that embraces acceptance of the new found positives of the joy in life is the synopsis of Prince’s fourth studio album. The Dave Cobb produced project is a reflective and relatable journey of optimism that emphasises when you embrace happiness that life has more good days than bad. This uplifting account of love, peace and strength is an absolute delight from one of the finest storytellers in Americana who has an ability like no other to capture the imagination of the listener and is an incandescent account of hope and experiencing euphoria.
2) High & Low – Caitlyn Smith (Monument Records)
Our extended review of this record (read HERE) begins by depicting life being about balance and opposing emotions which we supplemented with a quote from the great philosopher Dolly Parton about rainbows. Caitlyn Smith in a way that only she can with her breath-taking vocal range and incredibly distinct way with words, delivers a masterpiece that expresses the importance of embracing our difficulties as much as showcasing the positives. The rainbow analogy of only being present when the sun and rain blend together is the same as life having ups and downs concurrently which Smith demonstrates by intertwining the new chains of this project alongside the songs initially shared on last years ‘High’ EP to show that not all aspects of life are a definitive high or low point. From the ecstatic summit of the Miley Cyrus co-write ‘High’ to ‘Alaska’ which Smith herself described to us as a very low place for her emotionally, this record takes you on the journey of everything in between.
1) Rolling Up the Welcome Mat – Kelsea Ballerini (Black River Entertainment)
Kelsea Ballerini’s powerful CMA and Grammy nominated confessional journal to process her emotions, grief and acceptance following her divorce is one of the most open, vulnerable and honest projects that you will come across. Ballerini had said writing the project (which she wrote all of the songs herself or as a co-write with co-producer Alysa Vanderhym) allowed her to trust herself once more.
This introspective account of moving on that ‘Rolling Up the Welcome Mat’ along with its deluxe ‘(For Good)’ enhancement well and truly shows the world the depth of her craft as a songwriter that can deliver a reflective statement and share the transition to self-empowerment.
(JAMIE’S NOTE / SMALL PRINT) I resisted including my personal favourite release of the year, as while Lana Del Rey’s ‘Did You Know That There's a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd.’ is an absolute masterpiece which ventures into folk and Americana a lot more than she has ever done before (long may this continue further) but overall, it is a work of art that covers a lot more of the musical spectrum. I also had a long internal debate on including ‘Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)’ which is obviously Miss Swift’s greatest offering with some additions brought out of her locker but I decided that having heard versions of the majority of these songs for the first time thirteen years ago, I couldn’t really have this in contention for our number one country album of 2023.
True country music is honesty, sincerity, and real life to the hilt. Garth Brooks