Photo Illustration: Jackie Lay/NPR
S.G. Goodman's Teeth Marks is one of NPR Music's favorite roots albums of the year.
Photo Illustration: Jackie Lay/NPR
S.G. Goodman's Teeth Marks is one of NPR Music's favorite roots albums of the year.
Photo Illustration: Jackie Lay/NPR
In 2022, artists working within the orbit of the unstable category "roots music" got personal even as they explored complex cultural lineages and continued to challenge the rules of established scenes and forms. Before any tradition is solidified, it travels from hand to hand, heart to heart. Whether pushing the boundaries of mainstream country, demanding an expanded vision of traditional styles like bluegrass or folk, or adding their voices to the lineage of Laurel Canyon-esque singer-songwriters, the brightest lights in these realms often started with their own predilections and personal histories first.
Below, you'll find 20 albums and 20 songs that stood out for us, unranked and presented in rough order of release. They are united by their makers' fearlessness as they follow their own routes. —Ann Powers
Hailey Whitters, Raised
Whitters' unfussy third album comes across as designed to be comfortingly familiar, pitched at the exact tone of a long afternoon in a backyard or on a back road. Unlike, say, the next album on this list, there are no rough edges or sharp limbs — Raised is built from premium milled mainstream country lumber, filled with matter-of-fact tales of big families and small hometowns. It could all amount to a shrug if not for Whitters' windows-perpetually-rolled-down voice, which can make even the lyrics that seem cribbed from a second-hand t-shirt go down easy. At its best, Raised feels like a familiar arm around your shoulder. —Jacob Ganz
Molly Tuttle, Crooked Tree
"A crooked tree won't fall into the mill machine," Molly Tuttle sings on an album that offers hot licks and strong songs. In the patriarchal world of American roots music, women aren't supposed to be guitar virtuosos, and they're not supposed to be bald. Tuttle is proudly both. She's twice been named Guitar Player of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association and she's been open about her alopecia, a hair loss condition. Tuttle is her own Crooked Tree, a female flat picker extraordinaire with agility, speed and elegance who distinctively brings American roots music into the spotlight with an album that marries the improvisatory solos of traditional bluegrass with singer-songwriter sophistication. —Tom Huizenga
Kaitlin Butts, What Else Can She Do
Every year needs its honky tonk queen. Seven years after her excellent debut album Same Hell, Different Devil, red-haired Oklahoman Kaitlin Butts dons that sequined cowboy hat. As a songwriter, Butts enjoys a classic turn of phrase — the mournful "Jackson" turns Johnny and June's hot romance into a disappointed heartache — but excels in getting inside the heads of those ordinary people other writers often overly romanticize. The album's title track is like a Robert Altman movie come to life, its waitress protagonist a dignified dreamer worn out by her limited options. "She's Using" blends Butts' wit and her blunt insight into one stark tale of addiction. Butts delivers these hard-knock stories in a keening voice that would devastate on much cornier material, the human equivalent of the high lonesome pedal steel Justin Schipper plays throughout. —Ann Powers
Leyla McCalla, Breaking the Thermometer
Don't let the words "multidisciplinary performance" scare you. This vital work began its life in Duke University's archives and on its theater stage, as composer and multi-instrumentalist McCalla (known to many as part of the banjo quartet Our Native Daughters) told the story of Haiti's first independent radio station and the resistance movement behind it. Transformed into an album, however, it becomes a work unto itself — a highly danceable, gorgeous, impeccably lit outing for the liquid-voiced McCalla and her nimble band, great to dance to whether or not you're interested in the story it tells. But pay attention as you move, because its tale of hope, challenge and survival is a deep one. —Ann Powers
S.G. Goodman, Teeth Marks
A proud Kentuckian, Goodman pulls no punches in a searing set of songs that questions Southern identity while probing the complexity of love and the scars it leaves. The farmer's daughter makes her points without pretense, aided by a quivering voice, paper thin yet able to slice through the gritty folk rock with urgency and expression. A back-to-back pair of songs devoted to the opioid crisis haunts the album — one, a rocker that wails in anger, the other sung a cappella, tender as a mountain lullaby. These songs will leave their mark on you — like being tattooed with a wood burner. —Tom Huizenga
Angel Olsen, Big Time
The reverb that buoys Angel Olsen's already hugely resonant voice throughout Big Time forms a golden tunnel through which these songs of high romance, grief and resilience flow as they reach back to both the Countrypolitan 1960s and the psychedelic confessions of Los Angeles experimenters like Judee Sill. The stylistic flourishes could distract, but Olsen's disarmingly forthright lyrics and hug-shaped singing turn the album's time travel into a journey aimed straight for the heart. —Ann Powers
Fern Maddie, Ghost Story
Finding her own footing on the path forged by millennial folk interpreters like Jake Xerxes Fussell and Sam Lee, this Vermonter enters fully into dialogue with the songs she's selected for her full-length debut, claiming a woman's perspective on the old English ballad "Hares on the Mountain" and adding subtle, sick synth beats to her take on Scotland's "Ca' the Yowes." She's also an assured and inventive clawhammer banjoist. Her originals, some dedicated to the father she lost too young, are as haunting as those songbag favorites she's gathered from the misty English or Appalachian hills. —Ann Powers
Joan Shelley, The Spur
With a voice of pure beauty and warmth, Joan Shelley guides us through an album of songs — perhaps her most poetic — that entwine the human condition and the natural world, like a growing season of emotions, toils and ambitions. Here, sap is "settling into the roots," renewing the spirit, while "dried vines" signal a time for introspection. Even the arrangements are fecund, with intricately arranged strings, brass and (husband) Nathan Salsburg's perceptive guitar work, filling in spaces and finishing Shelley's sublimely delivered sentences. —Tom Huizenga
Amanda Shires, Take It Like a Man
Have you ever noticed that, even in an era with more prominent, non-male filmmakers, cinematic sex scenes are hardly ever shot from a woman's perspective? That's not just because only men go to the movies — women (and non cisgender, heterosexual people in general) have to unlearn the habitual privileging of the male gaze to really see things their way. On her seventh solo album, the ever-evolving singer-songwriter, fiddler and The Highwomen founder Amanda Shires fiercely inhabits her own point of view as she explores desire, heartbreak and growth in this epic set. Working with indie-pop engineer/producer Lawrence Rothman (Girlpool, Girl in Red) she's polished and reinforced her sound, but never compromises the intimacy of her declarations, even when things get uncomfortable. This album demands that listeners look Shires in the eye. —Ann Powers
Anna Tivel, Outsiders
One of the most striking things about this quiet masterwork structured around the theme its title suggests is that the marginalized or self-exiled characters Anna Tivel portrays in its songs include herself. Rarely can a songwriter modulate between compassionate character studies and confession the way Tivel does here; some of the songs are political, others paint timeless portraits of lost souls and still others examine her own inner conflicts with surgical precision. Like her gentle, human-scaled voice, the sound of this album (it's produced by multi-instrumentalist Shane Leonard, who's helped shape similarly open environments for Mipso and Courtney Hartman) enlightens without forcing anything. The interconnectedness of Tivel's outsiders becomes clearer with each listen. —Ann Powers
Tommy McLain, I Ran Down Every Dream
As a legend of Louisiana's swamp pop scene, Tommy McLain has spent his 82 years making people swoon — and he can still do it, as this memoir-in-song aptly proves. The cracks in the singer's voice only enhance his tales of sweetness and heartbreak, told with a gentleman's grace. ("I'd never cry out loud, but confidentially," he croons on "My Hidden Heart.") McLain's natural melancholy never gets morbid, producer C.C. Adcock ensures, letting fais-do-do rhythms and a few well-placed covers (two of the songs are by the great Bobby Charles) illustrate McLain's story in bright ink. An album as sweet and rich as a praline. —Ann Powers
Ingrid Andress, Good Person
In country music, human imperfections are often painted in broad strokes: fall-down drunkism, chronic infidelity, even the urge to murder. (That thunder does roll!) Ingrid Andress is a more subtle thinker than that. Her sophisticated songs dwell in that space where people make decisions — to love, to leave — or don't, or in an aftermath full of rumination, regret, resolve. On her second album, the pop-wise Nashville songwriter-singer-pianist cultivates a musical intelligence that cements her role as the Alicia Keys of country: emotional and elegant, a class act with an open, inquisitive mind. —Ann Powers
Jake Blount, The New Faith
Afrofuturism is part of America's root structure, devised first by enslaved and fugitive people who enacted freedom within their dreams of different timelines and universes. Roots virtuoso and speculative fiction head Jake Blount shapes an epic from the strains of Afrofuturism running through American spirituals and gospel music, exploding the Christianized confines of this music and tapping into its deep liberationist spirit. Blount's ideas go sky-high, but the music, realized in community with bright lights like Kaia Kater, Rissi Palmer and the rapper Demeanor, grounds his sonic storytelling in the communion of instruments skillfully deployed and voices raised. —Ann Powers
Ashley McBryde, Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville
It's rare for a project to work both as a high concept and an earthy expression of everyday life, but somehow this collaborative effort led by one of Nashville's brightest innovators succeeds that way. Inspired by the legendary "Goodbye Earl" songwriter Dennis Linde, whose catalog formed an epic narrative composed over decades, McBryde and her all-star team of co-writers and singers (Brothers Osborne, Brandy Clark and more) bring a small town to life in these tracks, full of hilarious folks who work basic jobs, get drunk at bonfires, love hard and live, sometimes reluctantly, for each other. —Ann Powers
Charley Crockett, The Man from Waco
You have to hear Charley Crockett's voice to believe a thing like it could exist. Low and lonesome, syrupy rich, stretched and worn but filled with youthful snap, Crockett wraps it around songs — covers and his own compositions, six full albums in the last three years alone — that seem issued out of eras before the existence of vape pens, or four-wheel drive, or possibly even artificial refrigeration. The Man from Waco is all originals apart from one unfinished Bob Dylan tune, and it's as singular a calling card as a modern country singer could hope for. Unsurprisingly for someone with his combination of natural gifts and work ethic, Crockett's been winning over crowds via constant touring. The Man from Waco should make believers of plenty more. —Jacob Ganz
Kelsea Ballerini, Subject To Change
The country radio staple returned this fall with her best album since that sparkling debut back in 2015. On Subject To Change, Ballerini teamed up with Nashville songwriter Shane McAnally (who helped Kacey Musgraves hone her first LP) and pop producer Julian Bunetta (whose name is all over One Direction's albums), and these 15 songs fit nicely into that Venn diagram. Just about any one of them would sound great as a single, especially the BFF anthem "If You Go Down (I'm Goin' Down Too)." —Otis Hart
Angeline Morrison, The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience
Traditional folk music from the British Isles has rarely incorporated the voices or stories of some of the land's longest inhabitants, the Africans who settled there 2,000 or so years ago. Angeline Morrison, a Black folk musician based in Cornwall, England, has spent the last couple years attempting to rectify that. The Sorrow Songs sound akin to "Barbara Allen" and "John Barleycorn," and that was Morrison's intent, in the hopes that some day "Black John" and "The Hand of Fanny Johnson" might join them as oral heirlooms, or at the very least, open mic standards. —Otis Hart
Hermanos Gutiérrez, El Bueno Y El Malo
In one of the most evocative albums of the year, a pair of electric guitar-wielding brothers create a soundtrack for drifting cowboys and dusty plains. Like the spaghetti Western scores of Ennio Morricone that have influenced them, Alejandro and Estavan Gutiérrez, create images of the old west from a European perch — in this case Switzerland. The repeating chuffs of one guitar, like a horse in slow trot, lay the base for another's lonesome melodies above, notes spread wide like the endless prairie. —Tom Huizenga
Mali Obomsawin, Sweet Tooth
First Nations and Indigenous musicians are redefining roots music for the 21st century in ways that connect to myriad sources while pointing toward the future. This debut as a bandleader by ex-Lula Wiles member Mali Obomsawin, a member of the Abenaki First Nation, qualifies as jazz, as new music and as historical excavation of both terrible wrongs and beautiful resistance. It also enacts a profound understanding of the links between the multilingual complexity of pre-colonial America and the diverse journeys of musical adventurers in the realms of experimental art and free jazz. In a way, Sweet Tooth enacts one long creation story — or an ongoing recreation story — grounded in both the voices of elders like the late Odanak storyteller Théophile Panadis and the inquisitive musicianship of collaborators from both the jazz and the folk worlds, including cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and guitarist/singer/folklorist Miriam Elhajli. Obomsawin's elemental bass playing, dancing with Savannah Harris' drums, maps the music's ground. This album points the way toward long-hidden horizons. —Ann Powers
Adeem the Artist, White Trash Revelry
There's far too much talk about authenticity in roots music circles — or rather, not enough talk about how that loaded, abstract idea solidifies around assumptions about what kind of artist or person is more "real." This dynamic slice of country rock full of songs about one Southerner's rural upbringing intervenes in that, um, discourse with detail-rich stories of a queer pansexual conceived by their parents in the back room of a Texaco station, who works two jobs and still has to pawn stuff to get by but plans to intervene in the city council, "brunch with fascists" and change the tenor of their town. This is America! Adeem declares, and thousands of authentic Southerners from Tallahassee to Texarkana say YES. —Ann Powers
(All capsules written by Ann Powers)
Aoife O'Donovan, "B61"
Folk Alley's Henry Carrigan called this atmospheric, gently swinging meditation on the lure of memory and the inevitable ambiguity of the present "a little apocalypse of the heart." It shows how O'Donovan has grown from her string-band beginnings into one of America's most meticulous and ambitious songmakers.
Priscilla Block, "My Bar"
Priscilla Block is a country star for the rest of us. For the women who gave up on painted-on jeans, drive their own trucks, own the bars where old boyfriends show up only to be shown the door. And for the men who appreciate that.
Trixie Mattel feat. Shakey Graves, "This Town"
YouTuber and drag legend Mattel is also a gifted country balladeer, and this tender but tough ballad about small town life in the Wisconsin where she grew up as Brian Firkus proves that this musical career is no fluke.
Maren Morris, "Background Music"
From country's most passionately thoughtful superstar, a celestially graceful ballad that blends metaphors from the working songwriters' life with an existential view of romance, all set to the perfect slow-dance soundtrack.
Amy Ray, "Muscadine"
The legendary Indigo Girl's simple song about canine companionship unfolds to become so much more: a meditation on the nature of love, a plea for understanding, a pledge to try to live with a steady heart.
Ye Vagabonds, "Blue Is the Eye"
Migration and its effects are fundamental aspects of Irish culture, and an epic playlist of songs of exile has already been issued from the green isle. Yet this tender and spooky ballad, marked by Kate Ellis' cello line, makes the old subject immediate again.
Bonnie Raitt, "Just Like That"
Consummate blueswoman Bonnie Raitt is mostly an interpreter, but this account of a mother meeting the recipient of her son's donor heart is such an emotional ride that it puts her in the songwriting greats category. Her old pal John Prine is somewhere whispering, you got it.
Zach Bryan, "Something in the Orange"
After an explosive rise powered by viral clips filmed on a phone during leaves from the Navy, Bryan became a true phenomenon with this outpouring of emotion anchored by a metaphor — a setting sun, a blaze of pain — that took the country world by storm.
Nikki Lane, "First High"
Hell yeah, teenage kicks! This buoyant rocker, powered by Queens of the Stone Age bassist Michael Shuman's popping bass, has Nashville's fashion goddess Lane recalling her adolescent glory days in the parking lot with the punks, and fully recapturing that time's feral energy.
CAAMP, "The Otter"
Has there ever been a love song invoking the noble otter — aquarium favorite, sometime beaver-dam squatter, proud possessor of a thick blubber layer supporting its buoyancy? Thanks to Ohio shaggy folk-rockers CAAMP, there is now, and it's plain adorable.
In this instant-classic lament for a future lost, Jess Williamson's telling details ("no turning the garden, no toys on the floor") hit as hard as her harmonies with Katie Crutchfield heal.
Bella White, "The Way I Oughta Go"
Sometimes the minute you hear a voice, you know it's for the ages. That's how Canadian Bella White, the daughter of a Virginia bluegrasser, enters the picture. Making her second album now, at 22, White is poised for a major breakthrough. This is her origin story.
Tyler Childers, "Angel Band (Jubilee Version)"
The sprawling triple album Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven? saw beloved Kentucky singer-songwriter Childers exploring his Southern gospel music from many different angles; this rousing tune offers his vision of a heaven where people of every faith embrace in the glory of a merciful God.
Breland, "Alone At the Ranch"
Take notes, bros: this is how you meld country and R&B and make a genuine Southern slow jam — with plenty of swoons, immaculate vocal runs and twangy post-coital guitar.
Justin Hiltner, "1992"
Bluegrasser Hiltner's gorgeously earnest and masterful solo debut finds it fulcrum in this title track, in which he imagines himself as a baby being born in a hospital at the very moment when another gay man is on another floor dying of AIDS.
Lady Maisery, "bird I do not know"
The harmonies of this Sheffield folk trio really do circulate like a winged flock in flight. In this ethereal song, the bird is a symbol of the unknown and all the hesitant hope that surrounds it.
Miko Marks, "The Other Side"
This song is a bridge linking the old America, where spirituals arose as maps toward liberation, and the blues that came from those journeys — and the new kind of country music artists like Marks are creating today. The grit in her majestic voice speaks of those other journeys, lost and found.
Allison DeGroot & Nic Gareiss, "Banging Breakdown"
Dance is music, and this particularly jaunty track from banjoist DeGroot and step dancer Gareiss collaborative work in dialogue with the archive of old time musician Hobart Smith proves that with feet and fingers flying.
Brittney Spencer, "better as friends"
"If I ever dated you," rising country star Brittney Spencer murmurs at the beginning of this sublime kiss-off, "I didn't." A few seconds later, she giggles. This whole sweet, sassy song (co-written with fellow badass gal Hailey Whitters) spools out in the distance between the "maybe," the "no" and the "thank God."
Caitlin Rose, "Getting It Right"
So many sad girls in pop have no real experience to fuel their angst. Nashville cult heroine Rose has been around a few blocks, and this deceptively shiny pop gem shows how living a little makes a big difference.
Jewly Hight and Stephen Thompson also helped determine the selections on this list.