2016 was a fantastic year for albums in country music. Some of the genre’s biggest superstars delivered fantastic sets of new music while newcomers offered excellent introductions to them as artists. Here are the ten albums I considered to be the cream of the crop.
#10. Maren Morris, Hero
Maren Morris has taken country music by storm this year. From the get-go she has proven to be a unique artistic force to be reckoned with. Hero serves as her introduction to the world as somewhat of a female outlaw. Just like some of her male counterparts, Morris could care less about what people think of her. That attitude is evident on songs like “Rich” and “Sugar” where she’s not afraid to drop a cuss word or two. The singer-songwriter (who has a writing credit on every song) is ambitious in the way she blends forward thinking country sounds with those of the past. That ambition isn’t more evident then it is on the debut single, “My Church,” where she honors country’s past and describes the radio as a church where Cash and Hank lead the choir and sermon. Hero is an outstanding debut album and it’ll be exciting to see where Morris goes from here.
Top Tracks: “My Church,” “Rich,” “80s Mercedes,” “Sugar”
#9. Various Artists, Southern Family
Legendary producer Dave Cobb is the mastermind behind this fantastic set that’s more Americana than it is country. Cobb recruits artists from both the country and Americana realms of music to collaborate on a set of songs that honors southern living. The album’s highlight include a the stellar “God Is a Working Man” by Jason Isbell as well as “I Cried,” a stunning song delivered by Brandy Clark. The album also features a haunting recreation of “You Are My Sunshine” by Morgane and Chris Stapleton that serves as the album’s highlight. Southern Family is an ambitious venture that Cobb pulls off flawlessly.
Top Tracks: “God is a Working Man” by Jason Isbell, “Sweet By and By” by Miranda Lambert, “I Cried” by Brandy Clark,” “You Are My Sunshine” by Morgane and Chris Stapleton
#8. Lori McKenna, The Bird & The Rifle
What makes Lori McKenna one of Music Row’s most heralded songwriters is the fact that she pays so much detail in each and every song she writes. On “Girl Crush” she (along with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey) created a devastatingly painful yet beautiful song of love and jealousy. Meanwhile she turned a simple prayer for her kids into a powerful song about humility and gratitude with this year’s “Humble and Kind.” On The Bird & The Rifle, she offers stories of women in troubled relationships (“Wreck You”), an incredible cinematic view of her hometown (“Giving Up on Your Hometown”), and a even throws in a nostalgic look at her teenage years with “We Were Cool.” Producer Dave Cobb does a stellar job in ensuring the simplistic productions remain in the background to allow McKenna to do what she does best: tell a story. This is just another fantastic addition to a catalog that already features 9 other brilliant albums.
Top Tracks: “Wreck You,” “Halfway Home,” “Humble and Kind,” “If Whiskey Were a Woman”
#7. Loretta Lynn, Full Circle
In her first album since 2004’s Van Lear Rose, Loretta Lynn offers a look back at her illustrious career as she rerecords some of her biggest hits and some familiar folk songs. Though this album offers very little new material, the 84 year old country music treasure still manages to make all her hits sounds just as fresh as they did upon their initial releases. “Whispering Sea” and “Fist City” both sound just as brilliant as they did back in the day, meanwhile her take on “Always on My Mind” offers us a unique version different from that of Elvis and Willie Nelson. The album closes with a haunting song of mortality in “Lay Me Down,” a duet featuring Nelson. Not only has Loretta Lynn been able to stand the test of time, but over fifty years into her career, her voice remains just as biting and brilliant as ever.
Top Tracks: “Whispering Sea,” “Who’s Gonna Miss Me?,” “Black Jack David,” “Lay Me Down” featuring Willie Nelson
#6. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
My first introduction to Sturgill Simpson was when I listened to his previous album, the psychedelic Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and I wasn’t quite sure what I had listened to, but whatever it was, I wanted more. On A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Simpson takes the psychedelic atmosphere down a couple notches to deliver an album that, at its core, is simply a father offering life advice to his infant son. Sonically, this album is all over the map. Case in point, “Welcome to Earth (Pollywag)” begins as a sweet welcome letter to his son but midway through turns into a loud, raucous soul jam that catches you off guard. That same rollercoaster is evident as the production switches from alt-country to r&b to soul, but one thing remains constant throughout, Simpson’s distinctively country baritone. He easily delivers the soulful, upbeat ditty “Keep It Between the Lines” just as well as he delivers his offering of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” The beauty of this album is how it seamlessly blends unique production choices with incredible lyrics of metaphoric story telling. Sailor’s Guide is an ambitious concept album that Sturgill Simpson pulls off brilliantly, proving once more that he is an artistic genius.
Top Tracks: “Call to Arms,” “Keep It Between the Lines,” “Welcome to Earth (Pollywag)”
#5. Joey + Rory, Hymns That Are Important To Us
One of the most emotional albums of 2016 is this stunningly beautiful collection of hymns from the husband-and-wife duo, Joey + Rory. Their epic love story is one that has touched the hearts of millions of country music fans. Hymns That Are Important To Us was an album that serves as the final chapter of that magical love story as Joey lost her long time battle with cervical cancer in April of last year. Knowing this would be the duo’s final album, Joey wished for it to be a collection of her favorite hymns she enjoyed performing in her hometown church in Indiana. Her beautiful voice breathes life into some of the most well-known hymns including “Jesus Loves Me,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” The album closes with an emotional remake of “When I’m Gone,” a beautiful song about dealing with loss that’ll bring tears to the eyes of even the strongest of men. Joey + Rory’s story will never be forgotten and their music will forever live on in the hearts of their fans.
Top Tracks: “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” “I Surrender All,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “When I’m Gone”
#4. Aubrie Sellers, New City Blues
Aubrie Sellers refers to her style of country music in the most unique of ways: “garage country.” The term is evident in the first few lines of the singer’s debut album, New City Blues. Distorted guitars, loud and gritty vocals, and some of the most ‘in-your-face’ lyrics become the focal points on nearly every song present on the album. Sellers uses her country twang (a probable gift from mother, Lee Ann Womack) to deliver the darkest of songs in the most blunt of ways. From the angst and emotion she pours out in “Sit Here and Cry” to the attitude and edginess she delivers on “Paper Doll,” it’s clear that every note, lyric, and melody is sung the way Sellers intended it to be. That said, one of Sellers’ many talents is the fact that she can deliver even the most cutthroat songs, like “Liar, Liar,” with a sense of jagged tenderness that force you to listen to the underlying subtleties in her vocal delivery to know that she’s pissed. It’s that attitude and vocal delivery that find Aubrie Sellers delivering one of the finest moments of rebellion in 2016.
Top Tracks: “Sit Here and Cry,” “Paper Doll,” “Loveless Rolling Stone,” “Liar, Liar,” “Dreaming in the Day”
#3. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Hallelujah, amen!!! Country music has finally found its newest honky-tonk queen and it’s Margo Price. Price’s debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, is a traditional country lover’s dream come true. Her throwback style resembles that of the country music from the 60s and 70s and also that of country icon, Loretta Lynn. Just like Lynn, Price isn’t afraid to deliver a kiss off song with a biting vocal delivery like you find on “About to Find Out.” That quiet, straightforward vocal delivery avoids any grandiose moments, but instead is used to tell stories from her imagination. The songwriting on the album finds Margo Price relying heavily on tales of real life experiences mixed with some fictional touches here and there. The seemingly autobiographical “Hands of Time” describes times of hardships, setbacks, and nearly giving up, something the singer knows all too well from her experience in trying to release this album. Other songwriting highlights include the fantastic “Tennessee Song” as well as the honky-tonk, whiskey drinking anthem “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle).” Overall, this is a stellar introduction to a woman who could very well become the new torchbearer for traditional country music.
Top Tracks: “Four Years of Chances,” “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle),” “Weekender,” “About to Find Out”
#2. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
The year 2016 seemed to be filled with artists taking on ambitious concepts when it comes to new music. None of those were more ambitious than the 24 track, double album from Miranda Lambert. Often viewed as a “breakup” album (its the first one she’s released post divorce), The Weight of These Wings is more of an album of reflection than it is one revolving around a breakup. Yes, there are songs here where it’s clear she’s using emotions from her publicized divorce, but rather than offering an angry, bitter tone, she instead uses that breakup to reflect more on her life and her choices. It’s within that reflection that we get a sense of where Lambert is in her life at the moment.
The 24 tracks combine to create an overall album that is scattered, cloudy in clarity, and a bit unfocused. Could this be an ode to Miranda’s current mental state? We can only draw conclusions based on the songs we’re offered. Nevertheless, Lambert is talented enough to go from the subtle opener “Runnin’ Just in Case” to the grungy garage sound on “Ugly Lights” with pure ease and confidence. The album is filled with plenty of experimentation that finds Lambert dabbling in several different realms of country music. That experimentation results in two of the album’s highlights. “To Learn Her” finds the singer delivering a hardcore traditional country song that sounds like a track from an old George Jones album. Meanwhile, “Tin Man” is a devastating letter to the fictional character that finds the narrator stating “if you ever felt one breaking, you’d never want a heart.”
Miranda Lambert has always known who she is as an artist. Her confidence and ‘take-no-shit’ attitude is what helped make her a country superstar. However, in the past, she’s often dumbed down her music to fit that persona. The Weight of These Wings finds the singer uncertain about who she is and where she’s going. The loss of identity has resulted in her delivering her most believable material in years. Let’s hope her highway vagabond mentality stays around for a while.
Top Tracks: “Tin Man,” “Vice,” “Ugly Lights,” “To Learn Her,” “Pushin’ Time”
#1. Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town
Brandy Clark is a country music genius and visionary. I could basically end my review there because there’s not much more to say about her as an artist or about how brilliant her second album is. Big Day in a Small Town is a commanding set of songs that offer a breathtakingly honest, beautiful, and painful cinematic look into the characters and lives of those living in small towns across America.
The album can be viewed as a movie where its star is a small town. The characters we meet are all forcibly intertwined in each other’s lives solely because they all choose to live in the same town. In the album’s opener, “Soap Opera,” we’re introduced to Sherry at the salon who acts like a “shrink to every head of hair” and Jimmy the bartender who often hears the drama from those “bearing their souls to the bottom of the glass.” In “Homecoming Queen,” we meet the queen whose plastic tiara has since lost its shine ten years later. Meanwhile, in “Broke” we meet the family that has fallen on financial hardships that they can only drink “generic Coke.” It’s details found in each of those and the rest of the album’s songs that give this album its cinematic feel because we can visually picture each and every character in our minds.
Brandy Clark’s exquisite attention to detail is what puts her in a class all her own when it comes to singer-songwriters. Her ability to turn figments of her imagination into relatable characters that we often sympathize with or understand is a true gift. Big Day in a Small Town is a lyrical masterpiece that will go down as one of the greatest albums in country music history.
Top Tracks: “Three Kids and No Husband,” “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven,” “Daughter,” “Love Can Go to Hell,” “You Can Come Over”