Where does the time go?
I swear I was looking for my Obama-era bottle of sunscreen and making plans for July 4th about three weeks ago. Yet here we are, about a week away from clinking glasses and making hollow New Year’s resolutions.
Naturally, there was an avalanche of quality new music that arrived at our fingertips this year. Since it’s not July 4th and is allegedly December 23rd, I thought it appropriate to produce a list of the top albums to emerge out of Nashville this year in my humble opinion.
With a mix of some well-known cats and some who had their debut albums drop this year, we had some real humdingers come down the pipe in a variety of genres.
So here we go. This is my list. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
15. The Rock House Sessions – Nalani Rothrock
Despite the New Year being ten days away, the catch here is that this album isn’t out yet. Yes, The Rock House Sessions drops December 30th, and damn is it good. The new album from the Tampa Bay native features the dynamic singer-songwriter’s singles, “Hold On” and “Fool For You” among other smooth groovin’ originals that touch on the ups and downs of relationships. Sign me up for soulful earth-quaking vocals anytime, and that’s what Rothrock delivers in spades with stellar backing instrumentation to match.
14. Make Myself Me Again – Cristina Vane
Talk about skyrocketing onto the scene. Coming from an Italian/European background, Vane is one of the most distinguished pickers in Nashville. Yes, that’s right. Vane’s Make Myself Me Again offers sticky and steady rollin’ country and bluegrass feels throughout. Whether it’s a banjo, resonator guitar, acoustic guitar, some driftwood with chicken wire on it, or whatever instrument is put in her hands, Vane picks and sings her way into the hearts of the listener on this album. Standout tracks include the bluegrass-fueled “River Roll,” the cheeky finger snappin’ “How You Doin’,” and the self-reflective feel-good ditty that is the title track.
13. The Parthenon Sessions – Kyshona
This 4-song EP dropped earlier this month, and to say it’s full of gut-wrenching soul would be the understatement of the year. Kyshona is an artist I had the pleasure of seeing at the Paramount Theater at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival this past September, and it was simply captivating. Flanked by two “background singers,” the trio of women sung to the heavens, eliciting goosebumps and a standing ovation from the crowd. And when listening to The Parthenon Sessions, a feeling of unworthiness sweeps over me, and I feel like Wayne and Garth when meeting Aerosmith. Angelic and hypnotic vocals are the divine driving force behind these soulful and gospel-influenced songs that touch on current societal turmoil, and call for unity and understanding among each other.
12. Feel Like Going Home – Miko Marks
We also had the pleasure of catching this radiant songstress at the aforementioned Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion this year, and she put on a very feel-good yet emotional performance. I recall tearful expressions during a song or two as she put it all out there discussing recent hardships she’d been facing. Feel Like Going Home is chock full of soul and roots-oriented grooves courtesy of her band The Resurrectors, who lift the singer to incredible heights. Marks’ vocals are a mountain-quaking force to be reckoned with, and her songwriting taps into the complexities of the human condition in most resonating fashion.
11. Neon Blue – Joshua Hedley
In the spring of this year, this modern day honky tonk hero released this revved up traditional country rocker via New West Records. From track one, the listener immediately gets swept up in the all-night rodeo that is “Broke Again.” It’s a blue-collar anthem that has a quality blend of traditional country and 90s country music akin to say a Dwight Yoakam and the lot. Neon Blue offers catchy and energetic country-fried bangers with heartfelt ballads to match. It’s got all the fiddle and steel guitar gloriousness one would hope for. The Naples, Florida, native slugs it out of the park with Neon Blue.
10. Teddy and The Rough Riders – Teddy and The Rough Riders
This July album produced by none other than Margo Price is for every single solitary Flying Burrito Brothers or New Riders of the Purple Sage fan out there. Teddy and The Rough Riders possess that cosmic American music sound, with some rootin’ tootin’ country rockers mixed with mellow country ballad-type tracks that never fail to hit that sweet spot. From “Go Lucky Kind,” to “Rhinestone Salute,” to “Bad Spot,” that honky tonk juke-joint-feel permeates through the album like a thick barroom smoke hovering above the billiards table. If you want that vintage cosmic country feel in a modern package, put the needle down on Teddy and the Rough Riders and light up a smoke.
9. Passion Fruit Boys – Passion Fruit Boys
Conor Belcher and Duncan Shea – aka Passion Fruit Boys – may be new to the scene as this musical unit, but the two have been enmeshed in the Nashville scene for over a decade. This two-person motorcycle club delivers some of the most buoyant and sparkling indie pop grooves I’ve heard in quite some time. From their driving synth-powered debut single “Easy” to their charming island-like groove in “Sex Swing” featuring Liz Cooper, the band harnesses a magnetic sound that sticks like a humane glue trap. This Telefono Records release is one of the top band debuts of the year, and we hope to see more from these talented two-wheelin’ buds.
8. Westwood Avenue – Westwood Avenue
Westwood Avenue is what happens when fun and down to earth buds who grew up together in Nashville make music. Ryan Jennings (of Teddy and The Rough Riders) and Carter Brallier have seen the change that has happened in their hometown, and they’re rightfully less than thrilled about it. This is a common theme in the largely upbeat country and bluegrass-tinged album. Songs like “Cranes on Broadway” and “Bachelorette Screams” (watch the video) touch on this, as they watch their city get overrun with parasites and developers. (same thing) If you love you some Flying Burrito Brothers and/or New Riders of the Purple Sage (read: #10), and appreciate quality down-home country and bluegrass with cheeky nostalgic lyrics, you’ll joyfully cruise with Westwood Avenue.
7. No Regular Dog – Kelsey Waldon
We’ve caught Waldon – the pride of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky – a few times around Nashville, one being at the Oh Boy 40th Anniversary Celebration event at Mercy Lounge during AmericanaFest last year. Her down-home twangy country voice is most endearing, her lyrics speak to the everyday person but in poetic fashion, and this August album further boosts her into the consciousness of country fans world wide. One of the last singer-songwriters to be brought on Oh Boy Records from John Prine himself, Waldon has quickly made a name for herself the past several years. “It’s gonna be a long ride,” she sings in the opening title track, and No Regular Dog is a damn good ride.
6. Game Changer – Jim Lauderdale
From the jump, Lauderdale comes rolling in like an outlaw through saloon doors on the opening track, “That Kind of Life (That Kind of Day).” The follow up to his 2021 album, Hope, his latest creation lies more on the traditional country and country rocker side of things. Lively tracks that get the blood flowing and the feet a movin,’ namely in the aforementioned track along with the infinitely catchy single “Friends Again” and “I’ve Heard of That,” are standout tracks on the album. But Lauderdale keeps the pace even-keeled with plenty of slow and soulful country tunes like “Our Happy Hour” and “Wishbone.” Game Changer is Lauderdale’s 35th(!) album, and his first on his label Sky Crunch Records- and he ain’t slowin’ down any time soon.
5. Me / And / Dad – Billy Strings
We were lucky enough to catch Strings for an interview in the summer of 2018 when he was in the thick of a Midwest run and fairly fresh off his breakthrough 2017 album, Turmoil and Tinfoil. And since then, he’s done nothing but ascend to the cosmos: headlining festivals, performing countless sold-out shows, winning awards, and virtually just doing the damn thing. And this November, he released an homage to his biggest inspiration of all: his dear old dad. Yes, Strings dropped his newest album, Me/And/Dad, featuring his stepdad Terry Barber, who showed him the ropes (strings) back in 1990s Michigan. The two rip through 14 tracks of pure bluegrass bliss, charming roots music fans both new and old. The back and forth between Strings and his biggest mentor is as heartwarming as it is epic.
4. Crooked Tree – Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway
It seemed like in the blink of an eye Molly Tuttle became a mainstay in our consciousness. The multi-IBMA award-winner dropped this April Fools Day’ bluegrass banger with a stellar supporting cast that includes Dan Tyminski, Gillian Welch, Billy Strings, Margo Price, and more. And her band – Golden Highway – flawlessly execute, lifting Tuttle’s songs to new heights. We had the opportunity to catch her at DelFest earlier this year and Blue Ox Music Festival last year, and to say she had the crowds wrapped around her finger would be an understatement. Her masterful flat-picking, poignant lyrics, and resonating delivery is in full force throughout Crooked Tree. Tuttle was nominated for Best Bluegrass Album and Best New Artist for the 65th Grammy Awards this coming February.
3. Young Blood – Marcus King
Kicking things off with a riff that sounds like it could’ve been on Black Sabbath’s Volume 4, the modern blues rock prince (king) delivers all the heaviness with his August release, starting with “It’s Too Late.” King takes the listener on a gritty rock n’ roll bender that rips and dips and makes you thirst for a cigarette and a cold one. The record possesses unbridled confidence, soul, and pure unadulterated electric guitar gnar. At just 26-years-old, King has already earned a Grammy-nomination for his 2020 album El Dorado, and the Greenville, South Carolina-bred shredder is just getting rolling. All hail one of the 21st Century’s most riveting rockers.
2. Lighten Up – Erin Rae
This is precisely the message many of us could use these days. Take a step back, try to see the big picture, and just chill out. And if Rae’s opening track, “Candy & Curry” doesn’t do just that, well perhaps you’re a lost cause. The lava lamp-like flow calms the nerves, and makes the listener think of two vastly different objects of consumption you likely never thought of together before. Rae’s vocals soothe and serenade throughout the 12-track record, notably on the following track, “Can’t See Stars” which features Kevin Morby, “Cosmic Sigh” and virtually every other track. Lighten Up is an introspective kaleidoscope of country, Laurel Canyon-era folk pop, and modern indie pop-rock that hits just right.
1. Live Forever: A Tribute To Billy Joe Shaver – Various Artists
I know this may be somewhat controversial due to the artist variety and Texas-bred nature, but deal with it. Released last month via New West Records, this compilation features both classic and modern legends alike covering the late great Billy Joe Shaver’s songs. With a star-studded lineup including Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Allison Russell, Margo Price, and many more, this record is a cherished ode from start to finish. Kicking things off is Nelson and Williams singing the album title, “Live Forever.” The bright acoustic guitar and lyrical nostalgia weave together and create a sense of somber reflection on one of American’s greatest to transcribe feelings of love and loss in country western fashion. Every track has its merit, but standouts include Rodney Crowell’s tender version of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” Amanda Shires’ piano-led version of “Honky Tonk Heroes,” Earle’s “Ain’t No God in Mexico,” and “Ragged Old Truck” by Price featuring Joshua Hedley. Pour one out for old Billy while you’re listening.