Like any other year, 2021 proved to be a year with many great albums and, at times, an overwhelming number of them that seemed to come from everywhere. While the Pandemic of 2020 certainly changed the way we, especially country music fans, consumed our music, it was 2021 where things like TikTok and viral videos truly changed the world of country music. We saw classic hits return in videos, a rise in the love and respect for 90s country, and perhaps the biggest thing: artists becoming stars outside of mainstream radio playlists (though those playlists certainly help build a star as they always have). Below is a list of mostly mainstream artists but some of the artists listed on our Best Country Albums of 2021 made records which subvert the mainstream or, better yet, brought the mainstream to them, even if for only a moment. Please note that the 10 albums below aren't placed in any particular order as what is "the best album" of any given day often changes the next day or week so these are just the 10 albums we felt represented country music's best of 2021.
- Eric Church - Heart & Soul (EMI Records Nashville)
Selected here as a complete body of work, Heart & Soul is the work of a man who knows who he is and who he wants to be and is uncompromising in those views. These three records were released individually but the total body of work is represented here. It stands out as a consistent, cohesive trilogy and something that is sure to stand out amongst his already stellar body of work.
- Lauren Alaina - Sitting Pretty On Top Of The World (19/Mercury Nashville)
Her third album is also her best. Featuring a trio of collaborations (including the hits “Getting Good” and “Getting Over Him”), Alaina may be the best duet / featured vocalist in country music at the moment but this album shows that she’s also firmly in command of her own solo songs with a record featuring 14 of her own compositions.
- Elvie Shane - Backslider (Wheelhouse/BBR)
There are moments when you wonder how this record was allowed to be recorded as is. A kindred spirit of the Eric Church “take me as I am” model, Elvie Shane’s “My Boy” was just the start of a stellar collection of songs which touch on so many familiar themes yet sound completely fresh when doing it.
- Carly Pearce - 29: Written In Stone (Big Machine Records)
Making a public break-up record seemed to be a trend in 2021 (on the ladies side alone there were also records from the likes of Adele and Kacey Musgraves, et al) but perhaps the best of the lot — certainly in country music — was Carly Pearce’s 29: Written in Stone. This is what country music is. It’s about life’s real and honest moments. That she bore her soul on this record and had it become her true breakout moment (leading to her CMA Female Vocalist of the Year win).
- Lainey Wilson - Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ (BBR Music Group)
It’s hard for any artist to break out in country music for any artists and nearly impossible for female artists. So, to say Lainey’s 2021 was a successful year would be an understatement. Releasing this gem of an album, her big label debut, showcased Lainey not only as a top shelf singer with few peers but also a singular songwriter with an edge. The title track is a particular showcase for both her vocals and honest, edgy lyrics. Working with Jay Joyce helped expose her edges while keeping her country twang front and center.
- James McMurtry - The Horses and the Hounds (New West Records)
The best Americana record comes from the best storyteller you’ve probably never heard of. The son of the iconic western writer Larry McMurtry, James has been making stellar records for over 30 years and it’s always a treat when he releases a new recording but The Horses and the Hounds may be the best one he’s released. It’s only his fifth in 20 years (and first in 6) but there’s nary a record with the kind of melody and story songs that prove that his medium of storytelling is just as viable as different medium his father chose. This album takes a look at a life well lived while also coming to terms with the fact that there’s more years in the rearview than there are in the road ahead. If you only listen to one Americana record in 2021, this is the one you should absolutely take a listen to.
- Morgan Wade - Reckless (Ladylike Records/ThirtyTigers/Sony Nashville)
She’s lived a life in her couple decades of life and she’s come through some trials to sing about them on this stellar debut, which was originally self-released through Thirty Tigers before Sony Nashville signed on to break her out into the mainstream starting with the stunning “Wilder Days” single. “Last Cigarette,” “Mend,” and “Matches and Metaphors” are all highlights as well.
- Mickey Guyton - Remember Her Name (Capitol/UMG Nashville)
It’s been a while since Mickey Guyton first had a chance to break out in country music. When her first single stalled, her label home at Caiptol Nashville let her be her. Following a path not unlike Chris Stapleton — that is without traditional radio support, though the programmers do love her music — Mickey Guyton found who she is and delivered a stunning collection of songs which touched on stuff country music hasn’t always been good at discussing. Songs about being strong women (“Remember Her Name”) songs about being the same even if we look different (“All-American”) songs about accepting what makes you unique (“Love My Hair”) to social songs about modern times (“Black Like Me”) Add in other stellar moments (“Higher,” “Rose” and “If I Were A Boy”) and it all adds up to one of this (or any year’s) best records.
- Sam Williams - Glasshouse Children (Mercury Nashville/UMG)
Hank Williams, Jr’s son delivered an unexpected collection of songs with standout songwriting, melodies and a voice which is definitely uniquely different from Sam’s father’s own music. But like his family, he knows how to write a song and tell stories, especially stories from his own life. The title track, “Glasshouse Children,” “Kids” and “Can’t Fool Your Own Blood” showcase those types of songs while “The World: Alone” is emotionally captivating as it explores the hurt of the loss of his sister before they could see the world together.
- Larry Fleet - Stack Of Records (Big Loud Records)
There’s a movement of sorts to “reset” country music — or at least bring it back a little bit — to the favored mainstream sounds of the 90s and 2000s and Larry Fleet’s “Stack Of Records” is perhaps the best example of an album doing just that — all the while still sounding of the moment — and blending whats great about those eras while also being modern “Where I Find God” is a brilliant piece of songwriting and “Three Chords and A :Lie,” “Lifetime Guarantee,” “Stack of Records” and “One For The Road” standout in a record of standouts.
Other albums of note: Old Dominion - Time, Tequila & Therapy; Dan + Shay - Good Things; Aaron Burdett - Dream Rich, Dirt Poor; Cody Jinks - Mercy, Jon Randall, Miranda Lambert & Jack Ingram - The Marfa Tapes; Joy Oladokun - In Defense of My Own Happiness; Hayes Carll - You Get It All; Jordan Davis - Buy Dirt; Charles Wesley Godwin - How The Mighty Fall; Yola - Stand For Myself.