Each year, it’s nearly impossible to narrow a “best of” list down to 10 entries. It’s also clearly impractical to define what “best” even means. This year, though, it wouldn’t much matter what my list’s theme was, Brandi Carlile and Marlon Williams would be sitting next to each other at the top of it, as both made thoroughly stunning records that are, indeed, game-changers for them.
Brandi Carlile: By the Way, I Forgive You
This is the record so many of us have been waiting for from Brandi and the Hanseroth twins, one that delivers on the promise made by The Story… and then some. Partnering with producers Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings truly brought out the best in the band. But so did getting a bit more political than on albums past. What Carlile and company do with “The Joke” is a master class in heart-on-sleeve songwriting as resistance. Add on her truly incomparable vocal performances, as well as a captivating live presence, and there’s no way not to want Brandi Carlile to take over the world.
Marlon Williams: Make Way for Love
Even if you knew — and loved — Marlon Williams’ previous releases, there’s no way you saw this one coming. HE didn’t even see it coming. That’s the kind of lightning in a bottle he captured here. From the very first notes, Williams pulls you into a world like none you’ve ever known. It is an absolutely mesmerizing album. Clearly, impeccable attention was paid to each lyric and lick, every verse and vibe. To be absorbed completely, listen to this album with a really good pair of headphones. That way you can hear all the moving parts so effortlessly making their magic.
Amanda Shires: To the Sunset
Amanda Shires has always been a force to be reckoned with, in every possible way. With this set, she recognizes that and steps into her role as a rock ‘n roller. It’s a powerful — and power-filled — move that not everyone could pull off, but Shires does so with humor and grace. And though some might be quick to credit Dave Cobb with the album’s kick-assery, he is the first to admit that he followed her lead around every glorious twist and turn of this thing.
Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour
It was a huge relief when Kacey Musgraves decided to stretch her wings and not to make the same record for a third time. Man, did she ever stretch, essentially creating an entire genre unto herself. Disco beats and banjo rolls live in perfect harmony in the musical world she built with Golden Hour. (And oh what a world it is!) Musgraves was always destined for more than country music could give her. This album builds the bridge she needs to wander as far and wide as she wants.
Larkin Poe: Venom & Faith
Sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell are making some of the most thrilling music in the Americana world today. Equal parts rock, roll, blues, and badass, Venom & Faith is irresistible. No one comes close to exuding the kind of attitude these two do (though Amanda Shires comes pretty dang close). The swaggering style is so thick that the underlying substance almost doesn’t even matter. Thankfully, though, the Lovells fill it up in that department, as well.
Courtney Marie Andrews: May Your Kindness Remain
This set is the second installment in the game-changing album category for Andrews. Her last effort, the perfect Honest Life, made more than a few people sit up. This one has made them — and many others — take notice. It does so by leaning into her soul and letting her cut loose. Whereas Honest Life showcased the brilliance of Andrews’ songwriting, May Your Kindness Remain highlighted the power of her singing. Hers is a talent that is already exciting to watch unfold.
Erin Rae: Putting on Airs
One of Nashville’s most-beloved folkies, Erin Rae expands her sights and sounds on this exquisite song cycle. Rummaging through all kinds of emotional baggage, Rae lets her gentility lead, and producer Dan Knobler somehow both matches and enhances it, letting her silky voice glide over the top of it all. If this is a just world, Putting on Airs has helped make Rae a most-beloved folkie outside the Nashville city limits, as well.
Lucy Wainwright Roche: Little Beast
Lucy Wainwright Roche has long been a heartbreaker, writing the kind of sad songs that can bring even Bobby McFerrin down. With Little Beast, though, she upped the devastation quotient by a factor of at least 10. She, along with producer Jordan Brooke Hamlin, carve these songs into the listener’s bones with the loveliest of blades. And everyone left wounded by the undertaking is all the better for it.
John Prine: The Tree of Forgiveness
Everyone knows that John Prine has been writing great songs for decades now. But with The Tree of Forgiveness, he seems to have broken through to a whole new level… and a whole new generation. What a wonder to witness the 72-year-old master be so warmly embraced by critics and fans, alike, at this point in his life and career. And no one deserves the success more than Prine. As one critic put it, he says more in the first four lines of “Summer’s End” than most writers say in a whole four minutes.
Amy Ray: Holler
Having made a handful of exploratory solo albums, roaming through her various punk and country influences, Amy Ray found a way to pull all those sounds together on Holler. It’s soulful and willful, personal and political. One of the lyrical themes centers on how the internal interacts with the external, sometimes colliding, sometimes compromising, sometimes consoling, but always coexisting in interesting ways. Because of that, Holler feels like the first album to truly and fully represent the whole of the artist who made it.