Music

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.

13. Jennifer Nettles, Playing With Fire
Jennifer Nettles has a voice like an electric fence. At first it seems like a regular old device, serving its function, but if you get close enough it will send a jolt through your whole body out of nowhere. Her wide throated, brazen vocals are part of what made Nettles’ initial group Sugartown break out in a big way, but her solo work since has been decidedly more interesting. 2014’s title track off her debut solo album That Girl flipped the table on a cheating guy, and 2016’s Playing With Fire builds on strange, sideroad narratives that you won’t hear on any other records this year. For instance, “Stupid Girl” reclaims self-deprecation, and “Drunk In Heels” eviscerates double standards with a lighthearted dose of misandry (It’s so sad that my husband went blind and can’t see the dishes sittin there in the sink”). Nettles has thought far outside the confines of country music for a long time, as evidenced by her role as Dolly Parton’s mother in that series of films, and Playing With Fire only increases her territory. These are strong-hearted anthems for a girl who places little value in a veneer, and would rather get down to the heart of the matter.

12. Dolly Parton, Pure & Simple
This year Dolly Parton turned 70. She put out a new album called Pure & Simple and executive produced and guest starred in an original film. She launched a foundation to support the family’s devastated by wildfires in Tennessee. She went on world tour and managed to perform both “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” at every single date. The woman is 70 years old. Her stamina and grace remain an alarmingly sweet spot in a year marked by a focus on trauma and selfishness, so when you need an escape from the dark clouds of 2016, throw on Pure & Simple for a blissful, fiddle-laden escape. Despite her age, Parton’s focus on the record is almost exclusively on love songs, and considering she’s been married to her very-limelight-shy husband Carl Thomas Dean for fifty years, sounds like she knows a thing about that, too. Maybe it won’t blow you away, but this is one of the strongest albums Dolly has released in years.

11. John Prine, For Better, Or Worse
John Prine is one of the best g*ddamn songwriters of all time. I love to imagine all the kids who had him as their mailman, and got to know him, then watched his eventual rise as one of the most beloved cult country singers in the nation. Have you ever been to a John Prine show? It can literally be a dangerous place if you get in the way of a fan — they are diehard supporters of their guy. And a couple listens to his songs will always reveal why, his writing is so personally twisted and poetically charged that he can make taking the garbage out into a careful rejoinder against a breakup. That’d be on the lead track off his new album, For Better, Or Worse, which is a series of new duets that features a different female country singer on almost every single one. His longtime duet partner Iris DeMent shows up twice, as does Kathy Mattea. But Prine is not one of those old guard pros who scorns the younger generation, not only are Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert on here, but so is Chris Stapleton’s wife Morgane, who is so great she honestly still needs to put out her own solo album. Per the marriage joke in the album title, most of the songs here are wisecracks about the way relationships drag and warp us into our worst, cold selves, but they’re delivered with such humor and warmth that there ends up being something hopeful about the naked truth. Final question: Do you know any other male country singers who gave up half the real estate on their album to let women of all ages and levels of recognition shine? No, you don’t, because there aren’t any. Prine is a true gem because, for all his blustering, he’s one of the few men in this industry who understands the power and value of a female creator, and continually honors it. Of course, this understanding is part of what makes his own musical contributions surpass those of his peers. Long live John Prine.

10. Big Smoke, Time Is Golden
I was turned onto the story of Big Smoke by this incredibly expansive feature that one of my favorite sites, Vinyl Me, Please, ran on them earlier this fall. Read it to get the full backstory on these guys, who were rushing like mad to finish their debut record before frontman Adrian Slattery succumbed to terminal cancer. Slattery passed in May, so he never got to see the Melbourne alt-rock band rack up acclaim for Time Is Golden, an album title that is even more poignant given the circumstances. Big Smoke’s sound is more The Band than Tim McGraw, and they bring a welcome rush of Americana and lush folk into a genre that is expansive enough to include all sorts of strange influences, old and new. There’s a touch of zydeco on this record, and plenty of gospel, which allows it to encompass all the feelings of a man facing down death, and his fierce determination to leave something that lasts before the final moment comes. Time Is Golden will last long past 2016, a fitting legacy for an extremely brave and creative soul. If you have any penchant for funk, soul, alt-rock and power pop, then there is something for you here.

9. Miguel Mendez, Love Is For The Rich
Some people believe that country music should have strict boundaries, and relegate the genre to songs about trucks, beer, girls, and fried chicken that prominent feature steel guitar and banjos. Full disclosure, I love songs that have all those things, I think they’re unequivocally Good and I enjoy hearing them. But I also enjoy the offshoots that a genre like country can easily produce, strictly based on the fact that it’s not rock or pop. Miguel Mendez counts as one of those offshoots, his particular style of psych-country leans into the working class underpinning of the genre, and throws a lush sheen of experimental noise into the mix. Love Is For The Rich interrogates the borders between country and folk, emerging with a cowpunk take on topics like losing your drug dealer and trying to find love. This is a great one to pull out on late, warm nights. It’s a helpful reminder that country music is exactly what you decide it should be, that there’s more power in extending borders than drawing lines in the sand.

8. Lydia Loveless, Real
Lydia Loveless has been keeping real the whole time, but by naming her fourth record Real, she makes her intentions clear. The Ohio singer/songwriter has been hanging out on the edges of Americana and punk for a while now, and her bleat-or-die alto would always be most at home in country music. The emphasis on Real, more than ever, is on relationships and the way they shape everything around us. “Longer” begs the universe for more time to heal from a past lover, “Bilbao” — one of the most beautiful songs of the year — imagines a future for two with such strong undercurrents of sadness that it suggest it will never come to pass. Most of these songs don’t have happy endings, but there are few better than Loveless at making heartbreak sound beautiful. It is, in a way, right? The majority of this genre is built on the shards of love gone wrong, and Real is one of the strongest entries into that canon this year has seen. If it all gets too sad, put on “Heaven” and samba by yourself, and remember, loneliness doesn’t always have to be equated with loss.

7. Brandy Clark, Big Day In A Small Town
Sometimes I find it discouraging that men in their mid to late thirties can easily break out late in life, and that’s not necessarily the same for women. Brandy Clark put out one of the better country records of the year when the long-time songwriter finally released her debut 12 Stories in 2013. Then, she followed that up with year with the fantastic Big Day In A Small Town, and though both releases sparked some attention, it’s nothing near the overwhelming fawning that the likes of Sturgill Simpson or someone like Chris Stapleton receive. Hell, I love Maren Morris as much as the next girl, but Clark’s album was easily on par with Hero and remained quietly overlooked. The fact that Clark is also openly queer in a genre that is marred by its unwelcoming barricades against marginalized people is just another reason to praise her consistent, graceful work. The best part about Big Day In A Small Town is the way it skillfully paints the inner lives of the overlooked and underloved housewives and middle aged women throughout America. Clark is an empathetic and hilarious writer, giving single moms and broke or disorganized country girls the loving tributes they deserve.

6. Dori Freeman, Dori Freeman
At just 24, Dori Freeman has already figured out exactly who she is. Though she may deny that if confronted with it, the Virginian singer’s self-titled debut is an unending string of silvery, Appalachian-influenced songs about knowing yourself. On the opening track “You Say” she challenges a lover who claims to know her better than herself, shooting down his savior complex in hopes of an actual partnership. Freeman has a pristine, pearly voice that makes anything she sings sound like a plaintive call for help, but plenty of these songs take down useless men without any venom, like on the swinging “Fine Fine Fine.” There’s a hint of late ’30s and ‘40s lounge singer in Freeman’s delivery, like she could almost be sprawled across a piano on “Lullaby,” and she doubles down on that throwback potential with the a cappella chain gang tribute “Ain’t Nobody.” Dori Freeman was the result of a successful crowdfunding campaign, and that financial independence is how a work this diverse emerges from such a young artist. This is moon-eyed throwback country that never loses its razor sharp modern commentary.

5. Vince Gill, Down To My Last Bad Habit
This record is a real heartbreaker. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to see Vince Gill perform at the Grand Ole Opry — he had penned an original song to honor Merle Haggard, who had recently passed — and it is one of my favorite memories of the year. Down To My Last Bad Habit’s title track is a hangdog tearjerker about the one that got away, and trying to make yourself good enough to get them back. Gill pulls no punches later on, writing about how to love a woman with an abusive father on “Like My Daddy Did,” or comparing watching a lover existence to the joy of seeing a good film on “My Favorite Movie.” Features from Little Big Town and Cam later on prove that Gill is both still connected to the country music community, and happy to share his enormous platform with smaller artists. His tributes to the older generation aren’t just a flash in the pan, either, this record ends with “Sad One Comin’ On (A Song For George Jones)” that honors that legendary country star with an old honky tonk vibe. Down To My Last Bad Habit is the perfect synthesis of country in 2016: Looking back toward those who we’ve lost without dwelling so long we forget to honor the new blood that’s chomping at the bit to make their own mark. Gill is somewhere between these two, building his legacy one track, and one habit, at a time.

4. Brothers Osborne, Pawn Shop
Bro country jokes aside, Pawn Shop is proof that masculinity does not have to be toxic. It does not! These two IRL brothers, T.J. and John, use their drawl and redneck roots to celebrate the determination, humor, and other parts of middle America that are worth keeping on songs like “Dirt Rich” and “Pawn Shop.” Elsewhere, the record expands into the infatuation earworm “Stay A Little Longer” and addiction-defeating, Lee Ann Womack-featuring duet “Loving Me Back.” But I really love the nostalgia-laced look back on a first love for “21 Summer” and very present drunk-happy “Rum,” which urges the listener to take a f*cking break when life gets insanely bad. “American Crazy” is another attempt to find solidarity in the weird, wild landscape of our country. Though this record came out much earlier in the year, it’s a bit of a comfort to listen to these songs now, and hope for a time when our country can leave behind hate and come back together. And hell, if it does’t, then “Greener Pastures” is an excellent flip-the-bird back home jam.

3. Charles Kelley, The Driver
This might be my favorite country album of the year. Charles Kelley has labored in Lady Antebellum as a mostly anonymous prong in a powerhouse trifecta, but his solo album proves that every member of that group could easily have a career all on their own. The Driver is only nine songs long, which is the perfect number for a record to contain, and it features some of the best in the business — Dierks Bentley, Eric Paslay, Stevie Nicks, Miranda Lambert — but honestly, it doesn’t even need them. Kelley has a pitch-perfect voice laced with endless empathy, an ideal tool for a country singer. He caresses every word as he sings, making songs like “Dancing Around It,” about potential infidelity, seem like sweet nothings.

My favorite here is the Chris Stapleton-penned “Lonely Girl,” another meta song that stakes a claim as the preferred soundtrack to dry a crying girl’s tears. The idea is that the singer loves the girl who is up in her room crying over a f*ckboy, and this song will be the thing that cheers her up, and reminds her of her worth. Stapleton is so great, right? Kelley totally sells the song, too, never veering into schmaltz but not attempting to make it into a tough outlaw number, either. Album closer “Leaving Nashville” is a searing tribute to the city and lifestyle that can take and take without ever seeming to give back, and the determination and love it takes to stick through all that.

But right before that, the Miranda Lambert duet “I Wish You Were Here” will speak to anyone who has loved across great distances; it’s a tangled sheet daydream for the touring and traveling heart, and one of the year’s best love songs. For another, check “The Only One Who Gets Me,” a slow-burning appreciation of the person who loves you through your flaws. There is not a single skippable track on The Driver, which is an ode to Kelley’s love for country music and his career, but also the love that holds him down while he pursues his dreams. If we could all have love like the one Kelley sings about, the world would be a better place. Love is a home, and here’s hoping everyone reading this has at least one person in their life that makes that feel true. If you don’t, this album is a good stand-in for the time being.

2. Ryan Beaver, Rx
Way before any of ya’ll were claiming Maren Morris as your new hip indie rock-approved country favorite (yeah, it is that obvious) Ryan Beaver knew she was a powerhouse. Morris is the sole guest on his incredibly strong third album Rx, a record that was anchored by my favorite country song of last year, the hopeful, blustery storm of “Dark.” Every once in a while, as a critic, you’ll encounter a record that should’ve been a massive blockbuster that just doesn’t hit. Rx was one of those — it’s chock full of wry lo-fi country gems like “Jesus Was A Capricorn,” or the devastating steel guitar-driven title track, but didn’t seem to connect on a commercial or mainstream level. That’s okay, but listen to the funky, slow-burning “Rum & Roses” and observe Beaver squashing bro country bros at their own game while using the same ingredients. A liquor bottle in the right songwriter’s hands is a thing of beauty, never forget that.

1. Miranda Lambert, The Weight Of These Wings
It is sickening to consider what happened to a woman after divorce even fifty years ago. The idea has long persisted that the primary way women in the world receive value is through the attention and affirmation of men, and as much as we’ve fought against the idea that the fairer sex are male accessories first, people second, so much of that sexism still lingers in our society, like a smoking jacket that won’t lose the scent of nicotine. Consider Miranda Lambert’s The Weight Of These Wings a bucket of hot water and plenty of big, opaque suds, ready to scrub that line of thinking out of existence for good.

After splitting from fellow superstar husband Blake Shelton, Lambert has only soared upward, and the quality of her latest studio album is a good reminder that leaving the safe, mediocre relationship you’re in will almost always push you toward greatness you never could’ve achieved without that loss. 2014’s Platinum was a panicky pop-leaning record about beauty standards, not living up, and trying to stay together — it all makes sense now. Wings, though, is a far-reaching commentary on everything from traveling the world anonymously to leaving behind the preconceptions old friends have about who you are, to finding friendship in otherwise imperfect, broken people around you, to the endless circle of people that connects you to an ex. It is the summary of a woman living her life how she wants it, looking far beyond the confines of a single partnership, and taking stock of her entire world.

Though she has never shied away from a hook or a fiery streak of pop-ready melodies, on Wings Lambert tones it down, pursuing more traditional sounds even as she writes her most rebellious and groundbreaking songs to date. Across the double album, there are 24 tracks about what it means to be a divorced woman in her thirties, and also, how that demographic hasn’t changed who she really is a single iota. The most devastating track of all, the lead single “Vice” is a heartbreaking assessment of her own flaws, but I actually prefer the follow-up, “Smoking Jacket.” Here, she daydreams of a man outfitted to suit her needs, slyly implying what qualities were lacking before now. It’s a revenge anthem disguised as a love song, indicating that this crazy ex girlfriend has learned a thing or two about how to drive the narrative since her tire-slashing days. All in all, Wings is the best argument for divorce I’ve ever heard. Or maybe it’s just proof that Lambert has always had everything on her own — men are just the accessory.

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