The 15 best albums of 2021

Here are our thoughts on the best albums of the year!

Written by SLN Staff Writer
The 15 best albums of 2021
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 21: Zac Brown Band performs onstage during the 2019 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on September 21, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images for iHeartMedia) Parker McCollum; Cover art courtesy of MCA Nashville Carly Pearce; Album Cover Courtesy of Big Machine Records Mickey Guyton; Photo credit: Phylicia J.L. Munn
Carly Pearce; Album Cover Courtesy of Big Machine Records

Carly Pearce29: Written in Stone

When Carly Pearce released 29 in early 2021, it quickly became a frontrunner as one of the year’s best projects. The seven-song EP was so acclaimed that it earned Pearce a nomination for Album of the Year at the 2021 CMA Awards. She managed to build upon this incredible feat with 29: Written in Stone, adding seven new songs that further solidified it as one of the best country albums of 2021. What makes Written in Stone so noteworthy is the raw vulnerability Pearce showcases throughout, which can be heard in heartbreaking numbers ranging from “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” featuring Ashley McBryde, along with the title track where Pearce, who divorced ex-husband Michael Ray in June 2020, bravely professes “from a Miss to a Mrs./Then the other way around/The year I was gonna live it up/Now I’m never gonna live it down.” You can feel the pain in her voice, yet she combats it with an underlying sense of resiliency that proves Pearce is coming out the other side a stronger, wiser woman. 29: Written in Stone is bound to stand the test of time not only as one of Pearce’s most accomplished albums, but one of the best in modern country music. – Cillea Houghton

Mickey Guyton; Photo credit: Bonnie Nichoalds

Mickey GuytonRemember Her Name

Mickey Guyton released one of the most highly anticipated albums of 2021 with her long awaited debut album, Remember Her Name. Across 16 songs, Guyton tackles her experience as a Black woman in America, conveying her perceptive of what it means to be “All American” while proudly professing “Love My Hair.” Guyton masterfully addresses both the darkness and light of life, balancing the heavy subject matters with moments of playfulness like the flirty “Rosè,” all told through an earth-shattering voice that sends chills down one’s spine. Remember Her Name is a powerful demonstration of self-expression, as Guyton proves that she is the future of country music — and the genre is better for it. – CH

Sam Williams; Photo Credit: Alexa King; Graphics: Claire Joyce

Sam WilliamsGlasshouse Children

There has never been a country artist with bigger boots to fill than Sam Williams. Not only did his grandfather, Hank Williams, come to be known as the first country superstar, but Sam’s father Hank Williams Jr. shook off his dad’s shadow to create in indelible creative legacy of his own. Apparently, there really is something in the family tree, because with Glasshouse Children it all begins again. Flashing an instinctive knack for turning daily-life drama into timeless truth with a poetic spark, it finds Sam beginning a new chapter in a generational saga – and making it worth country fans’ time. Peppering his alt-country meets indie rock style with gritty details of his royal upbringing, tracks like “Can’t Fool Your Own Blood” explore destiny and self-determination. “Wild Girl” and “10-4” look at teenage rebellion with edgy pop hooks. “Happy All the Time” features Dolly Parton and “Kids” welcomes Keith Urban, each with themes that challenge our basic preconceptions of life. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to grow up with famous family, Williams offers his perspective with bold openness and intriguing insight – plus a vocal that echos through time. – Chris Parton

Kacey Musgravesstar-crossed

With Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves proved herself to be a superstar level talent with a heart of pure gold. On the 2021 follow up, star-crossed, Musgraves continues to live this statement while experimenting with her sound alongside producers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian. Here, the Grammy winner remains true to her deep and honest songwriting, from mournful numbers like “camera roll” and the title track to the clever wit demonstrated in “breadwinner.” With star-crossed, Musgraves demonstrates why she’s one of the best artists in music with her brilliant mind and pure spirit, offering one of the best albums to come out of Nashville in 2021.   – CH

Fancy Hagood – Southern Curiosity

Since launching his career as a pop star under the name Who Is Fancy, the mysterious man with a beautiful voice behind the pseudonym, Fancy Hagood, has come a long way to find his true identity. His debut LP, Southern Curiosity, reflects this evolution through 11 songs that chronicle his journey growing up gay in Arkansas, to finding genuine love as a man and artist coming into his own in Nashville. With a vintage sound and captivating lyrics that possess the ability to bring tears to one’s eye with the heartbreaking “The Answer,” and in the same breath make you cry happy tears on “Good Man,” Southern Curiosity is authentically Fancy – an intriguing record created by an equally compelling artist who gives himself room to grow. – CH

Brandi CarlileIn These Silent Days

For more than a decade, Brandi Carlile has operated as a critically acclaimed artist with a loyal fanbase. But In These Silent Days finds her reaching a broader audience more than ever before, as its lead single, “Right on Time” scored three 2022 Grammy nominations, including Best Pop Solo Performance. With Carlile’s growing popularity, Silent Days portrays her as a family woman with a voice as gripping and emotive as ever. It’s another compelling composition in her storied catalogue, balancing moments of sweetness such as a tribute to her wife Catherine on “You and Me on the Rock,” while providing comfort and healing in times of vulnerability on “Letter to the Past.” And if you want a lesson on how to live a truly fulfilling life, just listen to “Stay Gentle.” Silent Days is yet another stepping stone in Carlile’s vastly growing career, rightfully transforming her from a revered Americana icon into an arena-headlining superstar. – CH

Adia Victoria – A Southern Gothic

Adia Victoria was working as an Amazon warehouse employee when she was writing A Southern Gothic, a gripping 10-track body of work that tells her truth of being a Black woman in the south. There’s a gentleness to the album that doesn’t gloss over the pain, grit and fearlessness that lies beneath its surface, but rather illuminates it. With an intoxicating blend of blues and rock, coupled with her incomparable voice, Victoria weaves a true gothic narrative as an unflinchingly honest woman who owns every part of her story. A Southern Gothic demonstrates that Victoria is a crowned jewel not only in Americana, but the music world at large. – CH

Rory FeekGentle Man

Rory Feek made a welcomed return to music in 2021 with Gentle Man, his first solo project since his wife Joey Feek passed away from cancer in 2016, the husband and wife previously performing as the ACM Award winning duo, Joey + Rory. The appropriately titled Gentle Man portrays Feek as just that, a man and his guitar with no glitz and glamour (outside of a guest appearance by Dolly Parton). With Gentle Man, Feek puts his simple, yet extraordinary life on full display, sharing his faith through “One Angel” and “Met Him in a Motel Room,” while honoring his small town values with “Small Talk Cafe,” with a few life lessons posed in between such as “Are you gonna look inside yourself / And be as honest as you can / These choices that you’re making / They tell you who you are.” It’s an album of pure simplicity and humility that reflects the man who created it, making for one of the year’s best. – CH

Joy OladokunIn Defense of My Own Happiness

2021 was a banner year for Joy Oladokun. After her breakthrough song “Breathe Again” appeared on an episode of This is Us, she later gifted the world her third studio album, In Defense of My Own Happiness, The album is nothing short of exquisite, Oladokun placing her angelic voice and melodies to match on full display. It’s the type of album that will make you feel every emotion, whether Oladokun is pulling from a place of deep pain on “Breathe Again” or compelling you to “Look Up” at the awe-inspiring beauty of the world around you. Oladokun is present in the music and takes the listener on a spellbinding journey, using her songs to give a voice to her experience as a queer Black woman, proving her to be one of Nashville’s best new artists offering one of the year’s finest projects. – CH

Parker McCollumGold Chain Cowboy

In country’s Nashville-based mainstream, it sometimes feels like a paint-by-numbers approach is put to use – especially for emerging artists – but every now and then someone comes along who busts the mold. Parker McCollum is like that, and his major label debut, Gold Chain Cowboy, proves the point with refreshing style. Commercial enough to catch your ear while staying true to his Lone Star ethos, it’s shown McCollum to be a creative force who wrote every song himself – and there were no numbers involved. Built around complex emotions that ask fans to listen closer, think deeper and keep an open mind, tracks like “Pretty Heart” are obvious outliers on the still-dominant country radio. But even so, the mellow mix of ‘90s-country balladry and grunge apathy became a navel-gazing Number One with a Platinum certification, and others like the exasperated “To Be Loved By You” and fed up “Falling Apart” help Gold Chain Cowboy follow suit. Through organic, alt-country sounds and unpredictable storytelling (plus a haunting vocal), the whole album expects more from listeners, and trusts them to grow with the music. – CP

Chapel Hart – The Girls Are Back in Town

Chapel Hart come out firing on all cylinders with their sophomore album, The Girls Are Back in Town. From the opening notes of “Nearly Over You,” it’s clear that the trio of sisters Danica Hart and Devynn Hart and their cousin Trea Swindle is poised to cement themselves in the country music cannon. They are just as playful as they are sentimental, as demonstrated by the tongue-in-cheek “You Can Have Him Jolene” where they toss a cheating lover out on the street as opposed to longing for his loyalty, and are unapologetic spitfires on the rowdy “Grown Ass Woman.” And just as naturally as they assert that they are three women who can handle themselves on the title track, they show off their tender songwriting skills on a heartfelt tribute to a late friend, “Jacqui’s Song.” With traditional instrumentation and power-packed three-part harmonies, The Girls Are Back in Town finds Chapel Hart solidifying their undeniable place in country music. – CH

Zac Brown BandThe Comeback

The Comeback isn’t just the title of Zac Brown Band’s latest album, it’s a statement on how they’re re-introducing themselves to country music. After playing with a pop sound on 2019’s The Owl, the beloved band returns to their roots on The Comeback. Here, their elite musicianship takes center stage alongside a message of unity with their hit, “Same Boat,” capturing feelings of love and home throughout the project. The effort is a noble one, and The Comeback is a proud return to form for ZBB, serving as one of the best country albums of the year. – CH

Connie Smith The Cry of the Heart
Connie Smith The Cry of the Heart

Connie SmithThe Cry of the Heart

With The Cry of the Heart, Connie Smith proves that she still has the ability to record a classic country record more than 50 years after she stepped onto the scene in 1963 with an undeniable voice that helped break down the barriers for women in country music. With a whopping 54 albums to her name, The Cry of the Heart, produced by her husband and new Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Marty Stuart, finds Smith showcasing her enduring vocals over a mix of originals and covers of classics by Merle Haggard, Carl Jackson and other country greats. The project demonstrates Smith’s staying power and ability to grab one’s attention with her passionate voice and quality songs that makes you feel as though you’ve been transported back in time, making for one of 2021’s best projects. – CH

Taylor Swift – Fearless (Taylor’s Version)
This year, Taylor Swift delivered some hard-hitting nostalgia with a “Taylor’s Version” re-release of two of her trademark albums, with the first being Fearless (Taylor’s Version). Swift’s re-recorded record arrived at a time when the world was reeling from the year-long pandemic, and it proved to be the comforting gift many didn’t know they needed. Throwback hits like “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” “Fifteen,” and “White Horse” transport listeners back to 2008, a simpler time period when most were likely considerably younger and still in elementary, middle, or high school, without a care in the world about adulting or present-day issues. The expansive 26-song set also features six brand-new tracks, dubbed “from the vault,” that Swift had originally written for its initial release. This includes two superb collaborations with country superstars Maren Morris (“You All Over Me”) and Keith Urban (“That’s When”). With Fearless (Taylor’s Version), Swift has demonstrated her dedication to not changing the sonic elements of her repertoire. Instead, she is showcasing her deeper and warmer vocal tone over a largely identical production. The now 32-year-old has undeniably matured since her head-over-heels adolescent days, but she isn’t afraid to return to the roots that catapulted her to fame – and fans get a front-row seat to that. – Jeremy Chua

Taylor Swift – Red (Taylor’s Version)As if one re-released album wasn’t enough, Swift also gifted her fans (and frankly, the world) with Red (Taylor’s Version). The re-recorded collection, initially released in 2012, was monumental for Swift as it marked her final country album before officially segueing fully into pop. Once again, nostalgia is evoked on songs like “Red,” “22,” “I Knew You Were Trouble” and the charming country love ballad, “Begin Again.” Swift also went the extra mile by sharing her emotionally-packed renditions of “Better Man” and “Babe,” the former originally recorded by Little Big Town in 2017 and the latter by Sugarland in 2018. Just like Fearless (Taylor’s Version), this revised record also features several till-now-unheard “from the vault” tracks, such as the Chris Stapleton-featured bonafide standout, “I Bet You Think About Me.” Penned by Swift and hit songwriter Lori McKenna, the euphoric tune is the LP’s most country-folk selection with its vivid tongue-in-cheek lyrics and a prominent steel guitar, acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica-driven production. Additionally, on the loaded 30-track set, Swifties are treated to a 10-minute recording of the fan-favorite pensive tune, “All Too Well,” complete with its titular short film for an enhanced audiovisual experience. Could one have asked for more from Miss Swift in 2021? – JC