The best songs on Mickey Guyton’s debut album Remember Her Name speak to a specific experience, with lyrics backed by her personal journey. Great country music is, above all else, honest, and on this long overdue album, there's no whiff of something cut only for radio.

In that sense, it’s a very non-Nashville record.

Guyton and her baseball team of producers have created an album that challenges the country fan on every level. She is a co-writer on all but the Beyoncé cover, and her stark lyrics and relentless delivery hold up headlines that the callow participant might otherwise run from. The title track is dedicated to Breonna Taylor, a Black ER technician who was shot and killed by police who stormed into her Louisville, Ky., apartment in March 2020. “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” recalls the many stories told during the #MeToo movement. Both songs are meant to rattle an ambivalent’s sense of comfort, and neither one flinches. In fact, not until track No. 14, "Indigo," does she let up a little bit.

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"We might not look the same / And it’s caused a lot of pain / Maybe that can change," she sings over Jimmy Robbins' soft production.

Critical to creating a timeless country album is speaking one's truth and trusting it will find the right audience. That’s something Guyton does again and again on this record. Less confrontational tracks like “Love My Hair” (“The weight of your hand / Could never make you understand” she says to someone asking to touch hers), and the celebratory “Different” (“I love my hips / I love my thighs / The way they move and they shake when the beat’s just right") are as effective as “Black Like Me,” because they’re more easily repeated.

Sprinkled throughout are sexy love songs like “Dancing in the Living Room,” and moments of levity (“Rosé”), but the heart of this album — that is to say, what it will be remembered for — is her willingness to come back to social issues.

Remember Her Name shouldn't be remembered as a social justice record or an equality record, however. All Guyton is asking for is a little human empathy.

Capitol Records Nashville

If there is criticism to be shared, it's in the sheer size of this project and the Crayola box of sounds and styles. A single producer’s steady hand would have served the album better. Karen Kosowski leads nine of the 16 songs, but at times her themes are either repeated (“Lay It on Me” to “Higher”) or stretched too far by someone else.

Nathan Chapman and Forest Glen Whitehead are associated with the most traditional songs — "Smoke" and "Rosé" are Miranda Lambert-kind-of nasty jams. Andy Skib aims younger with the pop-friendly "Do You Really Wanna Know?" David Kalmusky's video game effect early on in the first chorus of "Words" taints an otherwise powerful moment. Someone dedicated could have snuffed out these moments of repetition.

Guyton herself might have also been smart to kill a few darlings, but when you finally get a chance to release an album after a decade trying, you don’t leave anything left unsaid. With Remember Her Name, Guyton — once only viewed as a premier vocalist — proves she's a powerful artist and an essential social provocateur.

Best Country Albums of 2021 - Critic's Pick

There have been many creative country albums in 2021, but not all have hit the mark. Artists are more than ever toying with distribution methods and packaging as much as they are new sounds, so you get double and triple albums, Part 1 and Part 2, and digital EPs in lieu of a traditional 10 or 11-song release.

The bar for an EP on this list of the best country albums of 2021 is higher than an LP, but one project did crack the Top 10. Too much music proved to dampen other artist's efforts, although Alan Jackson's first album in years was filled with country music we couldn't turn away from. Where Have You Gone has 21 songs, but somehow no filler.

More than ever, this relied on staff opinion and artistic merit to allow for some parity among major label artists and independents. The 10 albums listed below are not ranked, although the year-end list published in the fall will crown a true best album of 2021.