Not listed in any particular order, our Top 11 country albums of 2016 list features a nice collection of albums that run the gamut of sounds from big to small.
Kelsey Waldon - I've Got A Way (Independent)
Other artists may have gotten more buzz but for my money Kelsey Waldon made the best indie traditional country record that crossed my desk this year. It also bested the fine album (Full Circle) from Kelsey's obvious influences: Loretta Lynn. "All By Myself" is a tour de force in songwriting while "False King" fuses a punk rock attitude with honky tonk with lyrics which are just biting.
Sean McConnell - Sean McConnell (Rounder)
Quick, go out and buy this record. It came this summer and it remains the best record I've heard this year. "One Acre Of Land" places McConnell on a lyrical path which recalls classic 70s songwriters while "Queen of Saint Mary's Choir" is downright Springsteen-like. Throw in some Guy Clark like melodies and lyric on "Beautiful Rose" and downright a level vocals throughout (McConnell possesses a versatile voice and he knows when to power and when to be quiet). Production on the record is fantastic and contemporary.
Lori McKenna - The Bird and the Rifle (CN Records/Thirty Tigers)
Now a Grammy-nominated body of work, this is the best record in a fantastic body of work from The Grammy and Two time CMA award winning songwriter. Her version of the CMA winning "Humble and Kind" is here as is the bluntly honest story song "Wreck You." "Giving Up On Your Hometown" is about the strongest song about coming to terms with age as I've heard in the past five years or so while the title track is lyrical imagery at its finest. There are too many lyrical gems and it's best to just send you to our review here for a full rundown.
Miranda Lambert The Weight Of These Wings (Vanner/RCA Nashville)
Miranda Lambert didn't have to release a collection of 24 songs for her return yet that's what she did. It's possible the album would've benefitted from a little editing to make a robust 12 or 14 song collection but that's a wee bit of a nit pick. Instead, what Miranda Lambert gave us was the most introspective, honest record of her career. It's about falling out of love, divorce, new love and everything in between. It's raw, it's real and it's obviously what she needed to release at this point in her award-winning career.
Keith Urban - Ripcord (Capitol)
A completely mainstream record, this album nonetheless finds Keith Urban taking chances few superstars take with the kind of lyrics and melodies (and guest artists) would 16 years into their career. Quite simply, the always creative Urban is inspired so much by different sounds that he's made perhaps the finest record of his career. There were three #1 hit singles before the album hit stores and the fourth one, the understated power ballad "Blue Ain't Your Color," is primed to be the album's biggest hit and maybe the biggest hit of Keith's massive career. But this record isn't just about commercial hits. "Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)," "Habit Of You" "Your Body," and acoustic ballad "That Could Still Be Us" make the record complete (as does "The Fighter" with Carrie Underwood).
Sturgill Simpson A Sailor's Guide To Earth (Atlantic Records)
A concept album meant to guide his infant son on this mortal coil, this is the third transcendent album from an artist who never settles on "just" making classic sounding country records. Instead Sturgill has crafted a fantastic major label debut. "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)," "Sea Stories" and "Brace For Impact (Live A Little)" stand out while his recording of Nirvana's "In Bloom" reinvents the song.
Brothers Osborne - Pawn Shop (EMI Nashville)
This duo makes musically interesting songs (each single has sounded different) and that earned them the surprise CMA Duo of the Year award but it was well worth it. 11 tracks make up their Jay Joyce-produced record and the balance between TJ Osborne's rich, honey-soaked baritone vocal with guitarist John Osborne's inspired string bending is certainly unique to country.
Alyssa Bonagura - Road Less Traveled (independent)
As mainstream sounding as an indie record could get in 2016, Road Less Traveled is a 10 track showcase of an artist, a second generation one at that, coming into her own. "Rebel" is one of the year's best singles while plenty of other tracks recall the bite and sensibility of Bonnie Raitt, Wynonna, Martina McBride , Faith Hill and Sheryl Crow. Bonagura produced this record and often played most of the instruments. Truly ,asking her a versatile artist (and obviously one of our ones to war games for 2017).
Maren Morris - Hero (Columbia Records)
It’d have been easy to dismiss that is simply a glossy pop record from yet another country tart but to do so would be to grossly misjudge what Maren Morris and co-producer busbee did with her major label debut album. Once passed-over by American Idol, Morris has grown into her artistry as she’s built her career from the ground up. Hero is a brash, youthful and confident collection from country’s newly-minted Grammy-nominaded star.
Mark Chesnutt - Tradition Lives (Row Entertainment)
There wasn’t a better made honky tonk record released in 2016 than Tradition Lives, Mark Chesnutt’s first all-new collection of songs in eight years (2008’s Rollin’ With The Flow). The choices of songs here (“Is It Still Cheating,” “Oughta Miss Me By Now,” “So You Can’t Hurt Anymore”) showcase why Chesnutt is as vibrant (if not better than) he’s ever been. This is a traditional country record for all traditional country fans.
High Valley - Dear Life (Atlantic Nashville)
This one might surprise some our readers but the long-gestating record snuck into our list at the last minute (as best of lists tend to have happen) with Dear Life. The project showcases the brotherly duo (Brad and Curtis Rempel)’s harmonies over an upbeat, tightly produced set of songs like “She’s With Me,” Avicii-like “I Be You Be” and “Soldier” and hit single “Make You Mine.” Brad Rempel is an engaging lead vocalist and with this album he and his brother have found a sound that is uniquely their own within country music and a sound which made Dear Life our last-minute entry to this list.
Honorable Mentions (Records we loved but didn't make the cut here):
- Levi Parham "These American Blues" (Music Road Records)
- Kenny Chesney "Trip Around The Sun" (Blue Chair/Columbia)
- Trent Tomlinson “That’s What’s Working Right Now” (Independent)
- John McEuen “Made In Brooklyn” (Chesky Records)
- Jennifer Nettles “Playing With Fire" (Big Machine)
- Confederate Railroad “Lucky To Be Alive” (D&B/BFD)
- Brandy Clark “Big Day In A Small Town” (Warner Bros. Records)
- Aubrie Sellers “New City Blues” (Carnival/Atlantic Nashville)
- Brent Cobb “Come Some Rainy Day” (Low Country Sounds/Elektra)
- Charles Kelley “The Driver” (Capitol)
- Dierks Bentley “Black” (Capitol)
- Locash “The Fighters” (Reviver)
- Loretta Lynn "Full Circle" (Legacy Recordings)
- Chris Lane “Girl Problems” (Big Loud Records)
- Cole Swindell “You Should Be Here” (Warner Bros)
- Kristin Scott Benson “Stringworks” (Mountain Home)
- The Honeycutters “On The Ropes” (Organic Records)
- Charlie Farley “All I’ve Been Through (BackRoad/Average Joes)
- The Boxcars “Familiar With The Ground”
- Frankie Ballard “El Rio” (Warner Bros.)
- Cody Johnson “Gotta Be Me” (CoJo Records)
- William Michael Morgan “William Michael Morgan” (Warner Bros.)
- Dan+Shay "Obsessed" (Warner Bros)
- Granger Smith "Remington" (Wheelhouse)
- Jason Aldean “They Don’t Know” (Macon/Broken Bow)
- FGL “Dig Your Roots” (BMLG Records)
- Aaron Lewis “Sinner” (Dot Records)
- Dolly Parton “Pure And Simple” (Dolly Records/Sony Nashville)
- Trio: The Complete Trio Collection (Warner/Asylum/Rhino)