Chris Young's fans had to wait a bit longer than usual for his new album, but he thinks the wait will be more than worth it. Collaborations with Kane Brown, Lauren Alaina and Mitchell Tenpenny dot the 14 songs on Famous Friends, each showing the singer's versatility, as well as his willingness to stand alongside vocalists as strong as he is.

The dynamic hitmaker has previously shared songs with icons including Vince Gill ("Sober Saturday Night") and vocal gymnasts like Cassadee Pope ("Think of You"). After his work with Brown on the new album's title track, he's three-for-three in running duets up to the top of country airplay charts.

A music video with Tenpenny for "At the End of a Bar" could tip where he's headed next, but one senses that the challenge is as enjoyable as the commercial success that could come with a fine pairing.

"I love singing next to someone who can sing. The whole time I’m like, ‘You better not mess this up,'" Young says, laughing during a recent media Q&A. "Even if I got one of those days where I’m on the road and you’ve been out for months … it’s like ‘Why did I do this to myself again?’ Who cares? Because they’re fun to sing and I do like standing on a stage next to someone that’s as vocally talented as somebody like Lauren and getting to sing with her."

Alaina joins the Middle Tennessee native on "Town Ain't Big Enough," a driving power ballad that finds two ex-lovers wishing they could do more to quit running into one another. Young wrote the track with Dan + Shay's Shay Mooney, Cary Barlowe and Corey Crowder. Both singers take a verse before coming together at the chorus; it's a personal performance on an album (available on RCA Nashville Aug. 6) that Young says is layers deeper than he's gone with his seven previous studio albums. That's more a result of personal growth than time spent alone during the pandemic, he says, but he's happy with the results either way.

Tenpenny and Young teamed with Chris DeStefano to write "At the End of the Bar," another driving power ballad that favors progressive production techniques and a tremendous vocal catharsis at the very end. The "Drunk Me" singer is a still an unheralded power vocalist, but one who can keep up with Young — and maybe even offer the challenge the more seasoned hitmaker craves.

"This record is definitely different," Young says, pointing to the mix of producers he worked with on Famous Friends (DeStefano, Crowder, Mark Holman). Part of what makes it dynamic is that it was written and recorded over several years — remember, "Raised on Country" was to be the title track when it dropped in January 2019, but because a follow-up single ("Drowning") stalled just outside the Top 20 and because of the interruptions caused by the pandemic, plans changed. Instead of 11 songs originally intended for his eighth album, fans get 14 with the Tenpenny song and the album's moody piano closer, "Tonight We're Dancing."

RCA Records Nashville

If Young was ever upset by the delays, he's not showing it. The 36-year-old was as jovial and energetic as you'll ever see him during the roughly 30-minute conversation with country music media. The pandemic, he admits, taught him something about keeping things in perspective, and the result is a very engaged Chris Young — one still seeking his next great vocal challenge.

"Carrie Underwood," he snaps when asked who's on his bucket list. "I've gotten that question before. It's the same question every time ... she can sing. You better not mess up standing next to her."

Look for Young to tour many of the new songs on Famous Friends when he begins the Famous Friends Tour in October. Tenpenny and newcomer Callista Clark will join him for the majority of the 13-date trek.

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.