This year saw country music dominate charts and headlines, for reasons both positive and negative, with a number of country albums residing in the upper echelons of the year-end Billboard charts. Morgan Wallen’s One Thing at a Time album led the 2023 Year-End Billboard 200 consumption rankings, as well as the Year-End Top Country Albums list. Meanwhile, Luke Combs’s Gettin’ Old project reached No. 20 on the all-genre Year-End Billboard 200, and Zach Bryan’s self-titled project was also included in the top 50.
But even beyond consumption rankings, this year has seen country music artists issue a sterling slate of projects, from established stars to promising newcomers. Sonically, these albums run the gamut from Texas country to pared-back, acoustic-leaning projects, as well as sleek pop constructions, singer-songwriter fare and rugged, rock-infused sets. These albums contain rowdy barnburners, uplifting anthems and plenty of songs that could inspire tears. Though women country artists seldom reach the top of the country charts these days (unless you’re Taylor Swift with a re-record of one of your country albums), women are consistently putting out some of the best music, year in and year out.
Here are Billboard‘s picks for our 10 favorite country albums from 2023 — a mix of chart-leading albums alongside some quieter (but no less-stunning) releases. Some top albums are intensely personal missives, while others largely spotlight the talents of many of Nashville’s top songcrafters. This list follows Billboard’s ranking of 10 of our top country songs of the year.
Charles Wesley Godwin, Family Ties
The title of West Virginia native Godwin’s third album is a self-explanatory summation of the 19 songs that proliferate the project — songs that center on familial bonds.
“Miner Imperfections” is a standout ode to Godwin’s father and the relentless work ethic his father distilled in him. Meanwhile, the refined details in “The Flood” document a harrowing story of family survival. Elsewhere, he reiterates his devotion to his son on “Gabriel” and instills the lessons he hopes his daughter keeps with her on “Dance in the Rain.” Of course, the album’s isn’t all slow-burns; songs such as “Two Weeks Gone” “Cue Country Roads” kick up the tempo. He also pays homage to his homestate with a cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Godwin’s rough-hewn textured voice, along with pedal steel, mandolin, guitars, fiddles and more instrumentation from his band The Allegheny High, mingle to create his signature brand of country-folk — one that feels excavated from the Appalachian hills, and frequently visits rose-colored notions of home and hearth, even as he depicts the necessity of leaving home in order to chase dreams. — JESSICA NICHOLSON
Cody Johnson, Leather
With each of his albums, Texas native Johnson has deeply entrenched himself as an artist who places a premium on top-shelf songcraft–and in the process, with songs like “‘Til You Can’t” and “The Painter” (a song from his new album), he’s helped redefine the past year or so in country music, pushing thoughtful lyricism and a more traditional-leaning sound to the forefront. He continues building on that brand with this dozen-track outing. Though Johnson doesn’t contribute to writing any of the songs here, he’s curated a cohesive project that draws upon a range of topics, including Lone Star state pride (“That’s Texas”), redemption (the stellar Jelly Roll collab “Whiskey Bent”), angry retribution (“Jesus Loves You”) odes to country music and cowboys (the superb title track, as well as the Brooks & Dunn collab “Long Live Country Music”) and placing the priority on relationships (“Dirt Cheap,” “The Painter”) — with some good-time barnburners thrown in (“People in the Back”). Tying them all together is Johnson’s refined, twangy vocal and a thousand-watt energy that shines, whether he’s on record or onstage. — J.N.
Luke Combs, Gettin’ Old
The companion set to 2022’s Growin’ Up finds Combs looking at his stage in life where hangovers hit harder than they used to, hanging at home has more and more appeal and adventures are still relished, but harder to come by. Combs’ amiable, everyman appeal permeates every track, as does his stellar, expressive voice. In addition to “Fast Car,” his gorgeous remake of Tracy Chapman’s 1988 classic; highlights include “Where the Wild Things Are” (a story song and rare album track not written by Combs) and “Love You Anyway,” a ballad about enduring love, even if he ends up with a heartache, that Combs took straight to No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. — MELINDA NEWMAN
Megan Moroney, Lucky
Moroney’s debut album may be named Lucky, but over the past year, she’s proven that it takes so much more than simply luck to achieve the career milestones she’s earned. Much like country music icon Dolly Parton, Moroney’s debut album showcases that underneath the sparkly dresses, voluminous hair and mega-watt personality is a studious songwriter dedicated to mastering the craft. Her clever humor is highlighted on songs including “I’m Not Pretty” and the acerbic wit of “Sleep on My Side,” while she contemplates the loving relationship between country music luminaries Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash on “Why Johnny.” Elsewhere, she offers the turn-on-its-head hook of Moroney’s breakthrough hit “Tennessee Orange” and a party anthem sendup with the title track.
On Lucky, Moroney has cemented her position in the sonic landscape as a creative force with genre-traversing mainstream appeal, while simultaneously staking her claim as an artist whose heart-on-her-sleeve songs are aimed squarely at country music’s firmament. — J.N.
Brandy Clark, Brandy Clark
It’s been a good year for Clark, who also co-wrote the songs for the Tony-nominated Broadway musical, Shucked. In addition to her beautiful voice, Clark imbues the songs on this set with a simple honesty. Whether it’s the bracing truthfulness of the string-laden “Dear Insecurity” (featuring Brandi Carlile), where Clark pleads with her self-doubts to give her a break for once or “She Smoked in the House,” that paints a vivid, beautifully specific picture of her grandmother, or the Grammy-nominated “Buried,” a gentle song about an unrequited love, these songs feel like old friends even upon first listen. — M.N.
Ashley McBryde, The Devil I Know
Since issuing her breakthrough debut album Girl Going Nowhere in 2018, McBryde has steadily built a reputation as one of Nashville’s most masterful tunesmiths, one capable of eagle-eyed observations, self-aware musings and hard-charging, empowering anthems.
McBryde follows her collaborative project Lindeville with this incisive set — co-writing each of the album’s 11 tracks, from the heartbreaking “Learned to Lie” to the unvarnished look at life on the road in “Made for This.” She enlists many of her longtime musical cohorts in the effort, like producer Jay Joyce and several of her collaborators from Lindeville, including Aaron Raitiere and Connie Harrington.
One moment she’s offering up the best of the life lessons she’s gleaned on her journey in the tender “Light On in the Kitchen,” the next, she’s offering up the bluesy, rollicking “Blackout Betty” and the timeless-sounding “Whiskey and Country Music.” It’s all grounded by McBryde’s earthy vocals and fine-tuned songwriting. — J.N.
Zach Bryan, Zach Bryan
Bryan’s follow-up to last year’s breakthrough set, American Heartbreak, is a reflective, often somber affair that highlights his unflinchingly honest brand of rock, country and folk. His solo tunes all resonate, but the standouts here are the collaborations, including Hot 100 No. 1 “I Remember Everything,” an understated, yet aching tale of destroyed love featuring Kacey Musgraves; “Hey Driver,” his pairing with The War and Treaty (which will make you long for a full album featuring the trio) and “Holy Roller,” his lilting duet with Sierra Ferrell — M.N.
Jelly Roll, Whitsitt Chapel
Jelly Roll’s breakthrough country album feels authentic and raw, from the first note of opening track “Halfway to Hell” through the last chord of closer “Hungover in a Church Pew.” Named after the Antioch, Tennessee-church he was baptized in when he was 14, the album focuses on a sinner’s search for redemption in a world that offers more temptation than salvation. Highlights include the plaintive “Need a Favor,” the gospel-tinged “Save Me” (featuring Lainey Wilson) and “Nail Me,” where Jelly takes on the hypocrites he shares church pews with. — M.N.
Kelsea Ballerini, Rolling Up the Welcome Mat
2023 may have been filled with sad songs, but with her succinct, six-song set, Ballerini released a true salve for the brokenhearted as she chronicled her own complex emotions swirling around the dissolution of her previous marriage. “Just Married” recognized emotional disconnection, while the piercing “Interlude” took aim at intense public scrutiny that comes with celebrity divorces, the truth-searing banter of “Blindsided” had fans rallying around it and the album’s closer, “Leave Me Again,” offered up clear-eyed, soul-mending reconnection to self. Working with co-producer Alysa Vanderheym, Ballerini has refined her glossy, sparkly pop sound with this collection of songs, which proved that her songwriting prowess — much like her industrial-strength bond with her fans — only expands and deepens. — J.N.
Chris Stapleton, Higher
Country’s most distinctive and emotional voice churns out another album that feels full of instant classics, from its first single, the western, expansive rocker “White Horse,” to the opening track, “What Am I Gonna Do,” where he contemplates how he’ll move on from a lost love. A little deeper, you’ll also fall for the romantic “It Takes a Woman” and the swampy “South Dakota.” Like Stapleton’s previous sets, Higher feels at once both timeless and of the moment. — M.N.