I would like to personally nominate alt country 2022 as one of the recent best for a catalogue of moving and profound music.
This list won’t be authoritative for many reasons, not the least of which is that I’m not an authority. Another disadvantage, I’m writing this on a plane and can’t see everything I’ve listened to this year. Also the smell of the lavatory is making me woozy and the flight attendants are drunk with power.
A couple of caveats. First, I struggle at times with the “alt country” moniker, but for the most part that’s the canon I’m writing about here. I think most people get the broad genre. Second, a reminder that one man’s country is another man’s bucolic folk. Are these all definitively country? It’s my damn website, so I’ll call them whatever I want. They’re just labels, and lines are blurred.
Just enjoy the music, by whatever name you call it.
1. Angel Olsen – Big Time
Whenever someone asks me where I grew up, I always answer in the same way, “I’m from West Virginia of all places.” I don’t know exactly why I say that. I guess I like being the subject of curiosity. But I’m proud of my home. It was a great place to be a kid.* Last fall I returned to the land of my peoples for the first time in 20 years.
I was swooning over Angel Olsen’s sixth album, Big Time, while driving through the woods and neighborhoods where I was raised. There is NO BETTER WAY to listen to Angel Olsen than when accompanied by forest scenery and melancholy memories of childhood.
Olsen’s dewy voice and the rich production make Big Time not just a great listen but an immersive, emotional experience. She wrote Big Time in the shadow of the death of both parents, literally three weeks after her mother’s funeral. You hear the tragedy throughout.
The way Olsen hints at the triumphant chorus in the first seconds of “Go Home” is a marvel. She seems to write of her loss and a new identity as a gay and bereaving daughter:
“I wanna go home
Go back to small things.
I don’t belong here.
Nobody knows me.
How can I go on
With all those old dreams?
I am the ghost now,
Living those old scenes”
You can buy Big Time from just about any streaming service however I recommend Bandcamp.
HINT HINT – Angel Olsen played a big role in my Top 20 albums of 2022. Do you agree where I ranked her?!
The 20 best alternative albums of 2022. This is the music you’ve been looking for!
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2. Sharon Van Etten – We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong
Last year Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten collaborated on a tremendous song after circling around each other for many years. I personally think the video is pretentious and goofy but the song itself, “Like I Used To,” is an epic duo. These two need to record an entire album STAT! The collaboration also serves as a perfect transition to Van Etten’s 2022 album We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong.
Van Etten ranges through quite a bit of stylistic territory on this release, as I noted previously. She moves easily in and out of rural soundscapes: But guitars grind and dancing happens on We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. Many of the songs start simply enough but they build into mini-epics that are incredibly rewarding. Just today, Van Etten released “Never Gonna Change,” the first of two new tracks that will appear November 11 on a deluxe edition of this year’s album.
Add the deluxe edition of We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong to your list of alt country 2022 favorites.
3. Arlo Mckinley – This Mess We’re In
Arlo Mckinley is a more traditional country performer, a little honk in his tonk. He is unapologetically country, rather distinctly not alternative. DO NOT LET THIS FOOL YOU.
This Mess We’re In, Mckinley’s third album, is an unadorned, roaring locomotive of country jam. He is at the very top of the list of singers I want to scream my lungs out with in person in 2022. And wouldn’t you know it, he plays October 26 at SLC’s Urban Lounge. Mark the date on your calendar.
Until October 26, here is album closer “Here’s to the Dying.” Country artists seem to specialize in album closers AMIRIGHT?! I encourage you to scream your lungs out along with Arlo at home.
I’m not crazy, there’s a little Lynyrd Skynyrd in there, right? But in the best and most un-ironic way. Billy Powell back there pounding the keyboard accompaniment like it’s 1973. I can’t believe I typed the words Lynyrd Skynrd. Woah there, I did it again. Buy This Mess We’re In before Mckinley arrives!
Arlo Mckinley was my TOP SHOW in 2022, by not a little. Check out my review!
4. Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
Okay, on now to a couple of heavy hitters. I’m not doing this in any kind of perfect order; just trying to stay organized drinking bad airplane coffee.
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You will be many people’s #1 album of the year. Country is just a starting place for Adrianne Lenker and Big Thief. Their fifth album is at once wildly broad and yet perfectly comfortable in every arrangement of bluegrass, 70’s folk, psychedelia and straight ahead indie. It is hard to believe Big Thief can maintain it across 20 tracks. But they do, and without misstep.
Here’s an example of that kind of mashup of psych folk, country and a little funky blues guitar (or is it bluesy funk?)…all in the span of 4 minutes and 12 seconds on “Simulation Swan.”
Buy Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You from Big Thief.
5. Black Country, New Road – Ants From Up There
Black Country, New Road will also top many people’s favorite albums this year. Their second release, Ants From Up There, bends the genre more than any of the others catalogued on this list. Country freakout and jazz are standard parts of Black Country’s presentation. They can be a challenging listen but well worth your time.
I do not have Black Country’s first album to compare Ants to, however more than one person has marveled that the group only improved after their breakout debut. I personally find Black Country, New Road similar in their raw aesthetic to New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus. Is that a strange comparison?
Decide on this alt country 2022 yourself. Here is the wild country noise of “Snow Globes.”
Black Country, New Road can be beautiful and terrifying at the same time and that’s okay. Try Ants From Up There yourself.
2022 was a great year, I admit it. BUT DUDE 2023 is starting out great! Check out these tunes!
6. Maggie Rogers – Surrender
If Black Country pushes the edges of authentic country on the experimental end, Maggie Rogers does it on the pop end. Rogers is the girl who smells colors. Vogue Magazine also released a video of her skin care routine. LOOK I DON’T MAKE THE RULES. I only listen to the music. And Surrender is 100% top-shelf artistry; the songs are not pop candy.
Surrender rocks at times, and at other times has the lilt of the sweetest folk harmonies. But there is a country through line for the album’s duration, even if Rogers’ vocals are at times affected. On early single “That’s Where I Am,” Rogers sounds very Sheryl Crow-y, in a way that is not representative of the rest of the album. For instance, “Want Want” could be a Grace Jones track.
Before you get all judgy, treat yourself to the marvelous “Begging for Rain.” Sit through the full four minutes for the angelic harmonies that are the song’s walkaway.
You can buy the entirety of Surrender here. For added yuks, spend a few minutes with Rogers call-in line at 844-WANT-WANT.
7. Wilco – Cruel Country
Did you know that Columbia, Missouri fancies itself the adopted home of alternative country? It’s true.
Wilco forbears Uncle Tupelo had to put some miles on their van to get out of the shadow of Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois to find fans. They played frequently 140 miles west in Columbia and found airplay on Mizzou radio station KCOU. This was a few years before I lived in Columbia in the late 90’s. Nevertheless Jeff Tweedy continued to play Columbia’s Blue Note after achieving fame in Wilco, which is when I saw them. One of my fondest rock memories is Tweedy fearlessly crowd-surfing while shrieking Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” in the richest irony. Just goofing with the crowd and having fun.
Wilco was always more alt than country. But they bring all the feels with album #12 Cruel Country. The most country our alt country favorites have ever recorded. Many Wilco listeners from the last ten years have been drawn to the delicate slow burn of “Many Worlds.” But here I encourage you to listen to Wilco exploring its roots a bit more on “Hints.”
It’s difficult for me to imagine Adrianne Lenker NOT listening to Wilco (or maybe a better guess, Son Volt) among her other stated early influences. It’s also hard not to hear the breadth of Cruel Country as a reflection of Big Thief, whom Tweedy has gushed over.
The first physical media of Cruel Country becomes available in 30 days. Order yours from Wilco’s website.
2022 blew me away with amazing indie songs and groundbreaking albums. Check out my fave songs here!
Year in alt country 2022: Three more names to watch
Most of my favorites are not super obscure, or may already be on your To Buy list. The last three may not be. I’m still exploring them myself. One was just recommended to me last weekend!
Orville Peck – Bronco
The masked crusader Orville Peck has released a new album. On Bronco, Peck sounds like some cross-pollination of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Dick Dale.
Peck’s high camp has graduated from cult status as he starts to cut through to the mainstream. Shania Twain appears on album #2. Check out “Daytona Sand.”
Ian Noe – River Fools & Mountain Saints
Ian Noe released his second album, River Fools & Mountain Saints, in March. Sometimes sounding like John Prine and other times like Dylan, the Kentuckian hits all the right notes for me. He is a fast up-and-comer and is already on my shopping list. Unfortunately he is only touring the Southeast U.S. at this time.
Here is the sublime “River Fool.”
Alt country 2022 live: Anthony D’Amato
I had the pleasure of seeing Anthony D’Amato perform a couple of numbers at West Virginia’s Empty Glass after playing on Mountain Stage last Sunday. Little did I know I’d travelled 1,845 miles to see D’Amato play, though he recorded with Joshua James in American Fork, Utah! The joyful hootenanny “Long Haul” is the first single from his upcoming album.
At First There Was Nothing releases October 21 but you can preorder now.
*If I need to demonstrate my bona fides as a child of the country, the top photo in this post is an image of the creek and west entrance to my childhood subdivision in West Virginia.
Photo courtesy: Me