Pinegrove’s Cardinal was one of a few country albums that pleasantly surprised me this year. While some other records in the genre ended up being pushed outside my top 20 as the year progressed, Cardinal earned its place here because I found myself coming back to it time and time again. The album is a breezy and intimate blend of alt-country and indie rock with a slight sprinkling of emo, but the tone here is never heavy or bogged down. Cardinal is always an inviting listen, with clean production that accentuates the warm guitar chords and bass in the mix. Evan Stephens Hall’s vocals are passionate throughout the album and have a lovely twang to them, while the choice to leave them often untreated against the lush production creates a nice contrast. His confessional lyrics, too, are always relatable. ‘Aphasia’ is a beautiful, sweeping ode to coming out the other side of social anxiety, while other tracks like ‘Old Friends’ and ‘Size of the Moon’ deal with personal relationships in a tactful and often quite poetic way. Cardinal might not do anything particularly innovative across its 8 tracks or in the way it blends indie rock with country music, but it remains a collection of fantastic rustic rock tunes that rank among the best of the year.