The Best Country Albums Of 2016

Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. So, despite the rap-specific list — where ranking is still next to godliness — we’ve opted to leave the albums that appeared on the overall best list off the genre-specific lists. But even for rap, some albums made the cut for their impact on the that sphere without cracking the best of list. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it is meant to highlight the best work in this genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.

20. Keith Urban, Ripcord
Australia’s foremost country musician has become an international powerhouse over the course of ten albums. Aside from his gorgeous, golden tenor — and badass superstar wife Nicole Kidman, natch — Urban’s ability to blend pop, country, and electronic production has been unsurpassed, and Ripcord is another fantastic example of that. Turns out the synthesizers on “Wasted Time” blend right in when there’s a banjo riff laid over the top. I was aghast when I saw that Nile Rodgers and Pitbull both appeared on a single song, but incredibly this optimistic trifecta is actually enjoyable — complete with whistle-laden hook. But Urban has always shined brightest on rainy day ballads (check out “Think Of Me” if you never have), and “Blue Ain’t Your Color” is a slow-waltz barroom flirt that is definitely worth your time, as is the car-window fogged “Getting’ In The Way.” When Urban sings “I said 30 more minutes 30 minutes ago” to talk about how hard it is to stop hooking up, it is more romantic than any flowery declaration that comes elsewhere. Sometimes the simplest description is the best one. God bless country music.

19. Ronnie Dunn, Tattooed Heart
As one half of the iconic country duo Brooks and Dunn, Ronnie Dunn probably never needs to record another song in his life. Seriously, those guys had 20 No. 1 hits and sold over 30 million records when they disbanded in 2010. But something drove Dunn to keep working, and he released his debut solo self-titled in 2011. After that, he put out Peace, Love and Country Music in 2014, and followed that up this year with his third record Tattooed Heart. No complaints here, Dunn has a voice that sounds like honeyed rawhide, or a rope made of brown sugar, or a wheat field gently swaying while you walk through it holding hands with your lover. I realized while writing our best rock albums list, that Ronnie Dunn’s indie rock equivalent is Hamilton Leithauser, if that means anything to newer country fans who might be reading this list. The best part about Ronnie Dunn’s third album though? It was named after an Ariana Grande song! And he covers that track on here, too! It seriously touches my heart when rich old guys with their own cultural cachet and power honor the craft of young women. Plus, the cover is like a doo-wop country fantasy. I want to slow dance with someone in a shitty bar so badly. It’s good to have goals.

18. Kenny Chesney, Cosmic Hallelujah
When I listen to Kenny Chesney’s voice, I don’t think of a sonic comparison. I think of the feeling of kissing someone with a beard, or at least some stubble, and the way that beard feels rough but also gentle. It’s unexpected but familiar, the intimacy and happiness that feeling gives me, and that’s exactly what a new Kenny Chesney record feels like at this point, twenty two years and sixteen albums into his career. Chesney has a longevity that might outlast us all, an effortless appeal that easily overcomes hurdles like that ill-advised, extremely short term marriage to Renée Zellweger (See? You didn’t even remember right?) and moves in and out of Caribbean-flecked country music and more traditional southern fare. This new record is called Cosmic Hallelujah, and it includes a duet with Pink that’s weirdly great, a flip-the-bird to ranked accomplishments on “Bucket List,” an a wide-eyed ode to the “Bar At The End Of The World.” Individual songs aside, it’s the smooth and sandpapery feel of Kenny Chesney album that makes this record one of the best of the year. Genres become defined by their best and brightest stars, when it comes to country, Kenny Chesney continues to expand, broaden, and dominate this world. That’s praise-worthy on earth and beyond.

17. Jon Pardi, California Sunrise
Jon Pardi is still a newcomer here, but he’s made himself right at home. His 2014 debut Write You A Song debuted at No. 3, and for this year’s California Sunrise he’s continued to do just what his first album promised. Pardi loves to cash in on the classic old country music trope of writing a song about writing a song, and the lead track on Sunrise “Out Of Style” is one of the best entries in that subgenre that I’ve heard this year. Pardi is a traditionalist in many ways, and his songs hew close to the small town and dirt road narratives, but he’s a good enough that they don’t feel like retreads. Still, he’s a far cry from the bro country cohort, even when he’s singing about booze and sex. There’s classic Garth Brooks and Toby Keith vibes here that are an absolutely fabulous break from crossover pop influences. For instance “Night Shift” is a cute tribute to the peaceful work of evenings with a lover after the exhaustion of the work week. Then there’s “Dirt On My Boots,” Pardi’s assertion that there’s some parts of the country you simply — and literally — can’t take out of the country boy. Overall, is an excellent sophomore effort from a star-in-the-making, keep an eye on this one, he’s about ready for the arena circuit.

16. Loretta Lynn, Full Circle
Loretta Lynn made her name off encouraging women to pursue birth control (“The Pill”). Well, that’s not entirely true; her first number one hit, the first No. 1 ever for a female artist in country music, was a tell-off to her drunk husband who came home wanting to f*ck (“Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind”). Where these feminist heroes in country music any more? I want a whole host of songs about the times when men have sex on their minds full of clever female put downs (think Shania Twain “That Don’t Impress Me Much”), I want an entire album devoted to the joy of choosing when, where, and with who a woman stars a family — full of pop hooks of course. Anyway, Lynn has already put in her time on the front lines, so it’s fine that Full Circle sticks to silvery country imagery like one of her oldest compositions “Whispering Sea,” and a somewhat morbid meditation on death “Who’s Gonna Miss Me.” She’s got an Elvis Costello feature on here, just for fun, a version of the heart wrenching ballad Willie Nelson made famous“Always On My Mind,” and then a final duet with him to boot. That’ ones called “Lay Me Down,” and it’s a song about living a long, full life and feeling ready to enter the spiritual realm. Loretta never pulls any punches, which is why even at 84, she’s putting out an album like Full Circle, which is one of the best country albums of the year.

15. Aubrie Sellers, New City Blues
Yes, Aubrie Sellers is the daughter of Lee Ann Womack, but that’s not the reason New City Blues is one of the best albums of the year. Sellers has carved out her own gritty, garage sound in the country realm, dovetailing pop hooks and her honeyed sandpaper alto (Well yes, she can thank her mom for that one) with gospel, rock and Americana influences. There’s nothing pop country about Sellers, even when she tackles pop culture head on, like the “Magazines,” and the album’s lead off track “Light Of Day” immediately establishes her alt-country vibe. Considering her dad is the gospel/bluegrass musician Jason Sellers, it’s his influence that seems more apparent across her debut, which deserves just as much shine as her mom got back in 2000. And I definitely won’t make a joke about how I hope Aubrie dances, I’m much too clever a critic for that.

14. Luke Bell, Luke Bell
It takes a lot of talent to make a completely throwback record hit, and luckily for Luke Bell he’s got bucketfuls of the stuff. His 2016 self-titled release isn’t a debut album, but it put his name on the map in a big way, including a co-sign from Zane Lowe’s oh-so-cool Beats 1 Radio show. Hey, can you even name another country artist that Lowe has played this year? I’m sure he has, but his affinity for Bell seems to have come as a surprise for the long-laboring Wyoming musician, who now makes his home in Nashville. Luke Bell is a honky-tonk album in the fullest sense of the phrase, incorporating Bell’s gravelly baritone alongside brass, tongue-in-cheek hooks, and the ever-present, winking sadness of that corner of country. If you’re one of those people who thinks country stopped being good after the ‘70s (Although if so, dang you should really educate yourself), then this album is for you.