When you consider the veritable dumpster fire that the past few years in country music have really been — perhaps Nashville was just preparing us for the horror show that was 2016 — there’s a whole lot that fans have to be thankful for at the end of this year. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that Florida-Georgia Line busted up, and Luke Bryan is definitely still polluting the airwaves, but there were so many rays of sunshine this year that it’s impossible to not feel a little more optimistic about country’s future than we did last year.
Releases from exciting newcomers, folks long gone from the airwaves, and a few country legends were a salve for the pain we all felt after losing Merle Haggard back in April. The ascent of artists like Sturgill Simpson, Cody Jinks, and Margo Price helped shift the country conversation so dramatically that most of us didn’t even think about the hell of bro-country this year. In fact, this year was so musically strong that it was a truly daunting task to narrow it all down to ten albums, but fortunately we did.
Here’s hoping that 2017 brings a whole lot more of what 2016 had to offer, at least in a country-music sense. Pretty much everything else about this year can go, as Brandy Clark would say, to hell.
CODY JINKS, I'm Not the Devil
In a lot of respects, Cody Jinks managed to fly under the radar in Texas, and that’s a real shame. Outside of the state, though, he’s earned incredible success with I’m Not the Devil, and that’s because it is a truly killer album filled with a hell of a lot of great writing, outstanding instrumentation, and Jinks’ own impeccable baritone. Jinks also brings a unique blend of traditional, Texas, and his heavy-metal past to the table, and we really can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next.
STURGILL SIMPSON, A Sailor's Guide to Earth
Not to get into any pedantic arguments about whether or not Sturgill Simpson’s follow-up to Metamodern Sounds In Country Music is quantifiably a country album, but there’s really no disputing that A Sailor’s Guide To Earth features a decidedly different aesthetic than his previous work. Still, it’s a fine piece of work, one that is fully indicative of Simpson’s diversity as an artist. Whether or not you were pining for more hard country for Simpson, you can’t deny that the addition of a little funk and ‘60s soul to the mix is awesome.
MARGO PRICE, Midwest Farmer's Daughter
It’s been a massive year for Miss Margo Price, and for good reason. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is as solid a debut as we’ve seen from any new artist in recent years thanks to solid lyrics and Price’s own emotive voice, which has this uncanny knack of making you feel just as heartbroken, pissed off, or lonesome as she does herself. It also doesn’t hurt that “Hurtin’ On The Bottle,” the album’s breakout track, immediately became one of the all-time great drinking songs upon its release.
BRANDY CLARK, Big Day In a Small Town
We’ve long lamented the way that Nashville (country radio in particular) has treated Brandy Clark, but this year’s Grammy nod and the incredible critical success of Big Day In a Small Town has sort of set all that injustice right. With this album, Clark has turned her ability to write hit songs for other artists into this incredible vehicle for her sullen, smoky alto, which is one of the most exciting developments in country music in a long time. Maybe 2017 will be the year that Brandy Clark finally gets her due.
RANDY ROGERS BAND, Nothing Shines Like Neon
As Texans, we really should be grateful for the Randy Rogers Band, because they’re a treasure. There’s been no act in the state, perhaps with the exception of Rogers’ frequent collaborator Wade Bowen, that puts out as much consistently great, authentically Texan music that sounds as good on the turntable as it does in the honky-tonk. And, collaborations with Jamey Johnson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Alison Krauss continue to prove that Randy Rogers can more than hang with the best artists in Nashville.
DOLLY PARTON, EMMYLOU HARRIS & LINDA RONSTADT, The Complete Trio Collection
If there was such a thing as a country music holy trinity, Dolly, Linda, and Emmylou would certainly be it. This three-disc compilation of rare recordings, favorite hits, and deep cuts from this killer trio, and it all sounds as relevant and beautiful as it did back in the ‘70s. There are no three greater voices in country music history, and when they get together, it sounds like what we pray is the actual soundtrack in Heaven.
LORETTA LYNN, Full Circle
Loretta Lynn really hasn’t ever been able to do any wrong, but it sure is a joy that she continues to release excellent albums well into her golden years. As sharp a writer as she was back in the ‘60s, Lynn continues to enshrine her place as one of country’s most influential artists, not like that was ever really up for debate.
HAYES CARLL, Lovers & Leavers
With his darkest and most brooding release to date, native Texan Hayes Carll’s Lovers & Leavers is also his strongest. Carll continues to evolve into this brooding troubadour, adding depth and dimension to his sound and lyricism with every new release. “Sake Of the Song” is perhaps the track most indicative of this growth on the album, and it’s arguably one of the best country songs of the year in what feels like a remarkably crowded field.
JACK INGRAM, Midnight Motel
Jack Ingram’s done a whole lot of changing since his flirtation with pop-country success in the 1990s. Now he’s gritty, grimy, and arguably one of country music’s most talented storytellers. Channeling Ryan Adams with “Old Motel” and good ol’ honky-tonk honesty on “I feel Like Drinking Tonight,” Ingram is authentically at his best on this album. More than anything, though, he’s really and truly owned his identity as one of country’s modern outlaws. His new life motto — don’t write a song that you wouldn’t sing — is one that more artists in the genre should consider adopting.
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WYNONNA & THE BIG NOISE, Wynonna & the Big Noise
If you thought that Wynonna Judd peaked back in the ‘90s when she was singing with her mama, you sure thought wrong. Now that Judd has embraced the stripped-down, Americana-tinged side of her musical identity, she’s making the best music of her career. She’s maintained her signature edge and that voice is as growly as ever, but Judd feels as relevant as ever in 2016.
- The Brothers Osborne, Pawn Shop
- Maren Morris, Hero
- Dolly Parton, Pure & Simple