Considering the past couple of years in country music, 2016 has already been a massive improvement. As the bro-fueled popularity of tailgate tunes winds down, what has come in its place has been a remarkable thing. With the arrival of artists like Margo Price, Chris Stapleton and super producer Dave Cobb, it feels safe to say that country music is on the upswing for the first time in a long time. Just over halfway through the year, we’ve already seen some incredible releases from country stalwarts and newcomers alike. It’s been a year of comebacks, coming outs and comeuppance for a genre that was looking mighty stagnant toward the end of last year. Bizarrely, much of this greatly needed freshness comes from artists who were at their peak (or so we thought!) nearly 20 years ago.
As much criticism as ‘90s country takes from critics and fans alike who saw it as the beginning of the end, the artists who made it listenable are making noise in 2016. They’re teaming up with Dave Cobb while drawing on old formulas, and the results are truly stunning. Unlike 2015, which felt like quite the drought with a few notable exceptions, this year has already brought a slew of excellent country releases. These ten, presented in no particular order, sit at the top of the pile.
BRANDY CLARK, Big Day In a Small Town
With the edge of the Dixie Chicks and pipes like Martina's, Brandy Clark has long been country music’s lady in waiting. With the follow-up to her much-acclaimed 2014 release 12 Stories, Clark brings a Southern noir feel and plenty of fire to a genre drowning in hokey, flat storytelling. The album winds through the decades – “Daughter” could be at home in ’63, “Three Kids And No Husband” in ’93 – to produce a smart, strong-headed sophomore effort.
MARGO PRICE, Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter
Last year, the release of Margo Price’s debut single, “Hurtin’ On the Bottle,” set the tone for what would inevitably be one of country’s best albums of 2016. With a Bobbie Gentry aesthetic and the voice to match, Price is making killer traditional country that both the NPR crowd and honky-tonk types alike can fall in love with. It’s music free of any gimmicks – just good songwriting and good pickin’ – with one hell of a chanteuse behind it.
DAVE COBB, Southern Family
It’s technically more of an Americana album, but Southern Family is chock-full of the kind of Dave Cobb-produced country that traditionalists have been dying for. Appearances from Miranda Lambert, Jamey Johnson and Shooter Jennings lend a hefty dose of credibility (though not entirely necessary) while paving the way for newcomers like Anderson East, Brent Cobb and Chris & Morgane Stapleton to create a patchwork quilt that represents the best of country’s past performed by the artists who will make its future worth a damn.
AUBRIE SELLERS, New City Blues
Bringing a bona fide country royalty pedigree and outsider’s heart, Aubrie Sellers may well be country music’s breakout star in 2016. Sellers undoubtedly inherited her honey-coated pipes from her mom, Lee Ann Womack, but this fiery newcomer’s debut is harder, heavier and grittier than anything her mama ever did. As a result, New City Blues is both fiercely unique (think smarter, edgier Maren Morris) and an effort well wiser than Sellers’s 25 years.
RANDY ROGERS BAND, Nothing Shines Like Neon
At this point, there’s not really much anyone could do to dethrone the Randy Rogers Band as the reigning kings of Texas Country. It would have been easy for these guys to stick to the honky-tonk sound that’s helped them sell a hell of a lot of beer since 2000, but updated tracks like “Rain and the Radio” blend seamlessly with nouveau classics like “San Antone” to produce an album Texas Country fans should sure be proud of.
WYNONNA, Wynonna & the Big Noise
If there was something that country radio has sure been missing, it was the distinct growl of one Ms. Wynonna Judd. In an incredible, long-overdue comeback with a new band and cameos from Susan Tedeschi and Jason Isbell, Wynonna proved that she is a timeless country gem worthy of all praise. From the lonesome wail of “Keeps Me Alive” to the rollicking vibe of “Ain’t No Thing,” Wynonna delivers a solid country record that feels both uniquely timely and classic all at once. If anything, the patina of time has only made that vampy growl even more likely to make you say “have mercy.”