Similar to the Song of the Year category in 2023, the top finalists for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year were so close, it only seems fitting to count them down from #4 to #1 just to take another opportunity to reinforce the best stuff once again. But there is a #1, and it’s one for the ages, while all of the 2023 Album of the Year nominees deserve top props for making it a great year in country music.
#4 – Ian Noe – River Fools and Mountain Saints
If you’re looking for that most devastating and superbly-written singer/songwriter country/Americana album released in the last year, Ian Noe came out on top on a year when there was incredible competition. Once again the State of Kentucky has turned in another artist and songwriter who far surpasses our expectations, and stuns with the level of songcraft, while River Fools and Mountain Saints also steps up its game musically from Ian Noe’s debut, making it a well-rounded release.
Ian Noe has unfortunately had to cancel out of numerous tours over the last few years, most recently saying he was dealing with some mental health issues and is putting his well being first as he should. Ian Noe may not be headlining any major festivals in 2023 or get played on commercial radio. But unquestionably, we’ve got a keeper in our midst with Ian Noe, and all the more reason as a community to keep him healthy and supported for years to come.
(read album review)
#3 – The Broken Spokes – Where I Went Wrong
Bar none, the album that was just the best to listen to, that was one of the most authentic country releases all year, and that was the greatest specimen of everything country music should be was Where I Went Wrong by the The Broken Spokes out of Houston, TX. The Broken Spokes were also arguably 2022’s greatest discovery, facilitated through the greatness of Where I Went Wrong.
Many of the albums, songs, and artists featured in Saving Country Music’s end-of-year lists were also seen in the end-year tabulations by other outlets and individuals. But along with fellow Texas band Rattlesnake Milk, The Broken Spokes slid scandalously under-the-radar this year. But as we’ve seen in previous years and with previous albums of this caliber, eventually greatness can’t be overlooked forever. The Broken Spokes are ripe for discovery, just ask anyone who listened to Where I Went Wrong this year.
(read album review)
#2 – Kaitlin Butts – What Else Can She Do
What Else Can She Do by Kaitlin Butts was the best of all worlds in 2022 when it comes to what distinguishing country music listeners want from an album. It was decidedly country in its approach, while also not feeling stuffy or routine. The songwriting in it matched any other album released in 2022, and delivered it in a thematic approach about the struggles many women face. It was fiercely personal in the way Butts unburdened elements of her own story in the songs.
And unlike some or many of the most superbly-written albums in the country/Americana space, Kaitlin Butts also happens to be a world-class country singer with incredible range, emotion, and soul in her voice, delivering lines with conviction. Kaitlin Butts is an old school country singer with a new school coolness and approach. Savvy in the social media age, but substantive and mature in her music, she’s like a force of nature that was finally unleashed in 2022.
Saving Country Music’s 2022 Album of the Year
Zach Bryan – American Heartbreak
Is Zach Bryan’s American Heartbreak a masterpiece or a magnum opus from a critical standpoint? No, it is not. Was it the best written album of 2022? It’s definitely has its moments, but that distinction would be heavily debatable. Was it the best-produced album, or the one that illustrates superior instrumental or compositional prowess? Probably not. Is it innovative in any way? Not really. Is it even comfortably presented well within the “country music” genre where it displays a proud example of what country music can be or should be in the modern era? Again, that’s a hard conclusion to come to.
But without question and unequivocally, Zach Bryan’s American Heartbreak has so demonstrably distinguished itself as one of those albums that future generations will look back upon as a landmark moment in country music, it absolutely defined what happened in the genre in 2022, which was the ushering in of independent voices and the return to poetic virtues in country music.
Not dissimilar to the release of Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music in 2014, or Purgatory by Tyler Childers in 2017, Zach Bryan and American Heartbreak have rewritten what we thought was possible for an artist not supported by Music Row, mainstream radio, and big awards shows. But even more so than those previous releases, American Heartbreak isn’t just “disrupting” or “challenging” that power dynamic. It’s downright dominating country music, beating the mainstream at its own game, and forging a legacy that is only fair to characterize as a “phenomenon,” with crowds erupting with enthusiasm for this music in a manner we haven’t seen since Beatlemania, and perhaps ever in the history of country music. Anyone who saw Zach Bryan perform live in 2022 will agree.
And despite American Heartbreak not being especially country, it’s still more country than it is anything else, and fits well within the singer/songwriter legacy of the genre. Despite the 32-song track list invariably including some soft patches and repeated words and melodies, the amount of remarkable songs it does includes still constitutes more than any other artist released in 2022, not to mention Bryan’s 9-song EP Summertimes Blues that includes some more.
There is a major rift within the country/Americana community when it comes to Zach Bryan, and it’s one where age is a significant factor. Either you get him and have taken the time to listen intently to his music to discover those one liners in so many of his songs that are the impetus for the wild loyalty and popularity he enjoys among his fan base, or you haven’t. This is not smoke and mirrors. It’s the sincerity behind Zach Bryan’s music that has lent to its success.
Simply put, there is independent country music before American Heartbreak, and there is independent country music after American Heartbreak. The album has rewritten the rules, opened doors, and ushered in a new era where artists who don’t give a shit about the industry norms and are even willing to curse entities like Ticketmaster in open rebellion are becoming the mainstream.
2022 began a new era in country music where the power shifted away from Music Row and back into the hands of the fans and artists themselves. Helped by technology and Zach Bryan’s predecessors who built the bridges he crossed over and the communities he enjoyed, an artist not supported on mainstream radio and Music Row finally ascended the mountaintop, and that action has helped raise awareness of all independent country artists, from Tyler Childers, to the Turnpike Troubadours, to the other Saving Country Music Album of the Year nominees like Ian Noe, The Broken Spokes, and Kaitlin Butts, as Zach Bryan fans search for similar artists, and the entirety of the listening public wakes up to the fact that there is an entire other world of country music out there that the mainstream industry has been hiding from them.
There are still so many artists not named Zach Bryan worthy of attention and struggling to find support for their careers. Our work is not finished. But at the same time, the challenges moving forward for so many of independent country’s top artists will not be finding gigs or fans, it will be facilitating all the fans that want to see them as they transition from vans to buses, clubs the theaters, and theaters to arenas.
Is Zach Bryan and American Heartbreak solely responsible for this phenomenon? Absolutely not. We all are—the supporters of independent country music who’ve been soldering for years for the cause, buying T-shirts, telling friends about our favorite artists, frustrated that they can’t find traction. But now they finally are, and in numbers we thought we would never see. And no, these are not fans that are just here for the party—interlopers who will leave when the party is over. These are people who know every single word to every single song Zach Bryan has ever released, despite his insane amount of output. And in 2022, American Heartbreak was their rallying cry.