Here’s a look at what the writers of Country Universe believe are the twenty best albums of 2016.
Swimming Pools, Movie Stars…
#14 – LMW | #16 – KJC
Listening to Dwight Yoakam do an all-out bluegrass album feels like hearing his voice in its natural habitat for a great length of time. He’s always incorporated elements of the genre into his work, most effectively on his cover of “Train in Vain” back in the day. He spends more time covering himself on Swimming Pools, Movie Stars… than anyone else, but stick around for an interesting take on Prince’s “Purple Rain,” which closes out the set.
Recommended Tracks: “Listen,” “These Arms,” “Gone (That’ll Be Me)”
#11 – SG | #17 – KJC
Dave Cobb has quickly become an Americana producer of choice, thanks to his work with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Bonnie Bishop and many others. Southern Family is his take on Southern life and Southern pride, with an all-star cast of talent, from Miranda Lambert and Zac Brown to newcomer Anderson East and a truly transcendent Morgane Stapleton. Not surprisingly, it’s a far cry removed from the chest-thumping, farm-living, flag-waving braggadocio adopted by mainstream country. There are some louder moments, but for the most part, the album is a quiet, heartfelt reflection on faith and family. – Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “You are My Sunshine” (Morgane Stapleton with Chris Stapleton), “God is a Working Man” (Jason Isbell), “Grandma’s Garden” (Zac Brown)
#4 – JK
Historically, Drive-By Truckers’ albums have been the least compelling when the band trades in broad archetypes about the South, with The Dirty South and Go-Go Boots playing like travelogues for musical tourists rather than capitalizing on principal songwriters Patterson Hood’s and Mike Cooley’s unique gifts for observation and commentary. American Band, the Truckers’ most explicitly and ferociously political album, reverses that trend, in that the songwriting tells stories that trade in what the band refers to as “the Southern thing” but those stories never once suggest that the troubles they describe are the exclusive domain of the South, nor do they imply that the South somehow has answers to the difficult questions they’ve raised. – Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Surrender Under Protest,” “What It Means,” “Kinky Hypocrite”
The Very Last Day
#3 – JK
An album that was already plenty dense upon its initial release but that seems maybe just a more dire now, Parker Millsap’s extraordinary third album, The Very Last Day, wrestles with matters of faith in the face of certain destruction. Millsap’s Pentecostal upbringing informs his perspective on both the appeal and the dangers of fundamentalist religion, and his powerful songwriting reckons with what faith has to offer when imminent doom is global (“The Very Last Day”) or individual (“Heaven Sent,” “Tribulation Hymn”). – JK
Recommended Tracks: “Heaven Sent,” “Pining,” “Hades Please”
Exodus of Venus
#2 – LMW
While 2010’s Welder started to slide Cook away from the more hard core country for which we once knew her, Exodus of Venus propelled her the rest of the way to the very edges of the genre. After taking some time off for stress and exhaustion from life circumstances and the toll from a grueling schedule, Cook came back with reckless abandon with this engaging, forceful album. – Leeann Morrow Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Exodus of Venus,” “Dyin’,” “Straight Jacket Love”
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
#10 – SG | #13 – JK
Brand new singers with one album on an indie label don’t show up as musical guests on “Saturday Night Live” — much less country singers — but Margo Price brought a dose of hard-core honky-tonk to the show that hardly ever recognizes country music. It was a well-deserved moment. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is pure country, with nary a trace of Top 40 pop to be heard. The country genre is losing its standard bearers at a frightening pace, but Price is one of the reasons that its traditions won’t be consigned to a dusty display case in the Country Music Hall of Fame just yet. – SG
Recommended Tracks: “Hurtin’ on the Bottle,” “Hands of Time,” “This Town Gets Around”
#9 – KJC | #10 – LMW
The Undercurrent here is indecisiveness, having great uncertainty in where you’re going, even if you’re taking action anyway. Sarah Jarosz masters the internal monologue on this album, with some of the best songs being thoughts strung together that could only come from one person’s stream of consciousness. Even when she’s having a full blown conversation with someone else, like on “Everything to Hide,” it’s all still going on in her head. It’s a fascinating listen. – KJC
Recommended Tracks: “Back of My Mind,” “Everything to Hide,” “Early Morning Light”
The Ghosts of Highway 20
#4 – KJC | #16 – JK
It’s a common trope in American folklore that ghosts are forever bound to a specific location— where they died, most often, or where they have unfinished business to resolve. But the spirits that haunt Lucinda Williams’ The Ghosts of Highway 20, the most emotionally intense album of the singer-songwriter’s storied career, are transitory, in that their stories and their pain follow Williams’ narrators wherever they travel. The wistful reminiscence that opens “Louisiana” gives way to domestic horrors, while “Door to Heaven” embraces death as a welcome reprieve. – JK
Recommended Tracks: “Dust,” “Place in My Heart,” “Louisiana”
New City Blues
#5 – SG | #9 – LMW
An album so good it was released twice in 2016, first independently and later by Warner Music. Sellers has called her style “garage country,” and it becomes pretty clear what that means within the first few songs: loud guitars and gritty, raucous songs featuring Sellers’ pure country vocals. It’s quite an amalgam, but Sellers makes the combination work. She wrote every song on the album, either solo or with talented collaborators like Brandy Clark, Adam Wright and Mando Saenz. It remains to be seen if mainstream country will take to Sellers’ rock stylings like it has to country-pop singers, but she deserves her “Chris Stapleton” moment. – SG
Recommended Tracks: “Paper Doll,” “Sit Here and Cry,” “Loveless Rolling Stone”
#3 – LMW | #14 – KJC
At 84 years old, Loretta Lynn’s voice is impressively vibrant and still so easy to listen to. Although Full Circle is mostly a mix of her own older material, including the first song that she ever wrote (“Whispering Sea”), and old songs of others, it is still a delightfully fresh album. – LMW
Recommended Tracks: “Who’s Gonna Miss Me,” “Black Jack David,” “In the Pines”
Don’t Be Afraid
#5 – JK | #6 – LMW
After an international release late last year, Tami Neilson’s Don’t Be Afraid roared onto U.S. shores in 2016 like a landfalling hurricane, with the powerhouse singer-songwriter belting and growling her way through her finest set of songs to date. Neilson invites and then fully lives up to favorable comparisons to all-time country greats— for her power and control, she recalls Connie Smith, while her swagger and verve would do Wanda Jackson proud— and to contemporary artists like Robert Ellis and the late Sharon Jones who bring a decisively modern POV to their throwback aesthetic. Whether she’s lamenting what she has lost on the exquisite “Lonely” or cutting loose and turning into a “Loco Mama,” Neilson has established herself as a once-in-a-generation talent who deserves a following as massive as her incomparable voice. – JK
Recommended Tracks: “Holy Moses,” “Bury My Body,” “The First Man”
The Time Jumpers
#7 – LMW | #12 – KJC | #17 – JK
The Time Jumpers’ beloved kid sister, Dawn Sears, passed away from cancer before the completion of this album that was named for her. However, she is not missing from the album. Not only can some of her vocals be heard, some of Kid Sister‘s best tracks are inspired by her influence in the band member’s lives, including her husband, Kenny Sears, and her former boss, Vince Gill. This album is both joyful and achingly sad, which happens to be the stuff of the best country music. – LMW
Recommended Tracks: “My San Antonio Rose,” “Table for Two,” “Kid Sister”
For Better, or Worse
#3 – KJC | #8 – LMW
John Prine’s voice is anything but sugar and spice and everything nice, so the contrast always works well when he does a duet with a female singer. He pairs up with plenty of them on For Better, or Worse, which is a concept album about the highs and lows of marriage. There’s a lot of humor, and a lot of sentiment, and more than a little sadness, as Prine and his partners turn in quality renditions of country music classics.- KJC
Recommended Tracks: “Look at Us” (with Morgane Stapleton), “Dreaming My Dreams With You” (with Kathy Mattea), “Color of the Blues” (with Susan Tedeschi)
Lovers and Leavers
#1 – SG | #14 – JK
While not a divorce album per se, Lovers & Leavers is the most grounded, serious album that Carll has recorded. The smartass stoner persona from “She Left Me for Jesus” and “KMAG YOYO” is largely absent, replaced by serious topics like fatherhood and the death of a relationship. As a result, Lovers & Leavers is more understated than his previous albums, but Carll’s sharp songwriting skills make it a quiet gem. “The Love That We Need” is a sobering look at a relationship that only appears healthy on the surface, and “The Magic Kid” is as sweet an ode to a child that you’re likely to hear.- SG
Recommended Tracks: “The Love That We Need,” “My Friends,” “Good While it Lasted”
Young in All the Wrong Ways
#1 – LMW | #13 – KJC
Watching Sara Watkins’ evolution since the beginning of her solo music career has been fascinating, and it turns out that I will follow her wherever she goes. With only three solo albums so far, she has grown in different ways, with each album being vastly different from the other. While there are some quiet, reflective moments, the production and Watkins’ voice are figuratively and physically the strongest and most aggressive that they’ve ever been on this album. – LMW
Recommended Tracks: “Young in All The Wrong Ways,” “Move Me,” “Without a Word”
Wynonna & The Big Noise
Wynonna & The Big Noise
#5 – KJC | #6 – SG | #15 – LMW
New music from Wynonna is always a good thing, particularly when it comes in the form of a righteous, rocking album like this. Surrounded by a tight four-piece band (led by her husband/drummer Cactus Moser) and special guests like Jason Isbell and Susan Tedeschi), Wynonna demonstrates her superiority on bluesy rockers as well as tender ballads. Some singers have struggled their way through mixing country with R&B, but Wynonna does it with ease on songs like “Cool Ya” and “I Can See Everything.” After stepping back from the music injury to help Moser recover from a devastating car accident, it’s great to hear Wy return with such a vengeance. – SG
Recommended Tracks: “Ain’t No Thing,” “Jesus and a Jukebox,” “Things That I Lean On”
Joey + Rory
Hymns That are Important to Us
#4 – LMW | #7 – KJC | #8 – JK
This tender album of beloved hymns stands on its own, even without the difficult back story of Joey’s eventual death from cancer. It is made even more precious, however, when you know that Joey already knew of her diagnosis. She made it one of her last musical wishes to record this album for her parents before it might be too late. Thanks to Joey’s still strong and sweet voice and the couple’s vulnerable conviction, Hymns That Are Important to Us is a lovely album that both inspires and breaks your heart all in one fell swoop. – LMW
Recommended Tracks: “It is Well With My Soul,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Suppertime”
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
#1 – JK | #2 – SG | #8 – KJC
Throughout 2016, Sturgill Simpson sounded off about his perceived place within the country music industry, ranting about Music Row politics one minute and boasting of his aspirations to be music’s biggest star in the next. While not all of his remarks landed well— the word “crotchety” is usually reserved to describe people several decades’ his senior, but let’s just say Simpson’s an old soul— they expanded upon his carefully crafted persona as an artist of vision, however idiosyncratic or prone to grandiose notions of ideological purity that vision might sometimes be.
Simpson’s ability to cast himself as country’s least reliable, most shit-talking narrator serves him well on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, an album rife with lush imagery and protracted metaphors that reward a level of scrutiny uncommon in most contemporary popular music. Deliberate and controlled in its ambition, the album pushes hard against genre boundaries with its prog-rock electric guitars and Stax-style brass sections while remaining grounded in Simpson’s masterful grasp of country idioms. Traditionalists who want Simpson to keep re-recording High Top Mountain every couple of years hated the album on principle, and a not insubstantial portion of Simpson’s existing fanbase dismissed the album as pretentious.
But for all the bluster he works up in the album’s aesthetic choices, for each reference he makes to polliwogs or nautical lore, and for every hornet’s nest he kicked in an interview or on social media, Simpson’s aim with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is simple: The album stands as a moving tribute by a father to his young son. – JK
Recommended Tracks: “Keep it Between the Lines,” “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” “Call to Arms.”
Big Day in a Small Town
#1 – KJC | #4 – SG | #6 – JK | #13 – LMW
Brandy Clark’s sophomore set further solidifies her status as the decade’s strongest new singer-songwriter. As much as I appreciate her attention to craft – you know, songs that have a beginning, middle, and an end, along with a discernible melody – those are just the skills that service her talent.
That talent? An empathy for humanity, an understanding of how people feel, and an ability to make them think about how they and other feel. There are big ideas in her small stories, the biggest one being that we might just understand each other a lot better if we spent more time watching and listening, and a little less time looking and judging. – KJC
Recommended Tracks: “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven,” “Three Kids No Husband,” “Love Can Go to Hell”
The Weight of These Wings
#2 – KJC, JK | #3 – SG | #5 – LMW
The Weight of These Wings reveals a new Miranda Lambert, one who has seen her bravado and self-assurance replaced with uncertainty and self-doubt, and who has decided that the only way to deal with the change is to stay in motion and keep working.
Hence, a double album that is a little rambling, a little unfocused, and a lot more interesting and revealing than anything she’s ever recorded before. It’s like she’s slowed down while still moving forward, and is seeing her surroundings and experiences through an entirely different lens.
She’s chosen inner reflection over outward anger, and is sometimes uncomfortably hard on herself. But the flickers of hope are there, even if the innocence that believed happiness could come without pain is now gone. There’s a great line on “Pushin’ Time” that sums it all up, as she’s making the choice to love again after being hurt so badly the last time around: “If it has to end in tears, I hope it’s in sixty years.”
Recommended Tracks: “I’ve Got Wheels,” “Vice,” “Pushin’ Time”
Only got the Brandy Clark album. Bummed Cody Jinks’ I’m Not the Devil wasn’t on this list. That was my favorite album this year.
I second Cody Jinks as best album of the year. No other has gotten as many repeat plays from me.
Confession — I don’t listen to nearly as much NEW music as I used to. Why? Probably laziness more than anything. I didn’t even compile an album’s list this year.
No love for Lori McKenna?! I know she’s a CU favorite, so I’m surprised she didn’t make the cut. I thought her album was one of the strongest she’s released in a long time. I’d rank her neck-in-neck with Brandy Clark in the songwriting department.
Good call on Sara Watkins, Leeann! She fell far too far under the radar this year, which was a shame. She’s truly coming into her own as a writer defining her voice.
Mary Chapin Carpenter would’ve made my list as well. Her album is too introspective and insightful to ignore. Some of her strongest post-commercial work. I adore how she’s fully embracing her perspective as a woman about to embark on her sixth decade of life.
It’s so awesome to see all the women who made your list this year. Go female artists!
Re. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter: I would agree with almost everything said in the review. But having heard the album a number of times now, I would point out the influences of the Memphis/Muscle Shoals R&B style of the late 1960s and 1970s in there, as well as the California country-rock of the same time frame. Margo, like a lot of newer artists coming into the business, has her roots quite firmly in traditional country, but she doesn’t stop there.
Hmmm? Great list as usual. I am just wondering what do you think about Carrie’s Storyteller. I think it wasn’t in the list last year so I thought it’ll be here this time. Blown Away made it here when it was released.
Storyteller was #5 on my ballot last year, but I’m the only one who included it:
I can’t speak for the other writers, but I have a feeling it would’ve done better on this year’s ballot. From my perspective, 2015 just had an overall better batch of albums. Storyteller would’ve come in at #2 or #3 this year for me.
^ Speaking of, Storyteller even ever get a review on this site?? I remember it being said a few times that it was coming. But I don’t recall ever seeing it
Love Brandy Clark’s Big Day in a Small Time. DBT’s American Band I like a lot more for the lyrics than the vocals.
I would have included Kree Harrison’s This Old Thing, Playing with Fire from Jennifer Nettles and David Nail’s Fighter.
1. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Sturgill Simpson)
2. The Weight of These Wings (Miranda Lambert)
3. American Band (Drive-By Truckers)
4. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Margo Price)
5. Little Seeds (Shovels & Rope)
6. True Sadness (The Avett Brothers)
7. Southern Family (Various Artists)
8. Ghosts of Highway 20 (Lucinda Williams)
9. Signs of Light (The Head and the Heart)
10. The Bird and the Rifle (Lori McKenna)
11. Big Day in a Small Town (Brandy Clark)
12. Hero (Maren Morris)
13. Cleopatria (The Lumineers)
14. The Very Last (Parker Milsap)
15. Nothing Shines Like Neon (Randy Rogers Band)
16. Cosmic Hallelujah (Kenny Chesney)
17. Ripcord (Keith Urban)
18. Full Circle (Loretta Lynn)
19. Black (Dierks Bentley)
20. Swimming Pools, Movie Stars (Dwight Yoakam)
Miranda Lambert really has a formula. Some examples: “Pushin’ Time” reminds me of “Makin’ Plans,” and “Pink Sunglasses” reminds me of “Fine Tune.”
The albums by Cody Jinks, Lori McKenna, and Mary Chapin Carpenter mentioned upthread all scored a vote on one of our four ballots this year; I had both McKenna and Carpenter in my 21 – 40 range when I ran out my personal (read: longer) list. The Carpenter album is my favorite thing she’s released in more than a decade, for what it’s worth.
I can’t tell if you intend for that to be viewed as a positive or a negative thing; I’d say that she has a distinct point-of-view and some themes she revisits from album to album. I can hear the similarities in the production on “Pink Sunglasses” vs “Fine Tune,” but the lyrics don’t strike me as an example of her adhering to a formula. Or do you mean that they fill a similar “role” (for lack of a better word at the moment) on their respective albums in terms of their style? Because that I could get on board with, though I think it’s less a matter of formula than a matter of the production being well-matched to the songs themselves in each case.
@Jonathan – I wouldn’t say I mean it in a positive or a negative way, just an observation. To answer your question, I mean if more that they fill a similar “role” on their respective albums. In general I find Lambert’s recent albums to have a certain ‘formula’ where you have a traditional track or two that sound alike, a track that feels more modern, a track with a real alt/garage influence, and so on. It then becomes about whether there’s a distinctive theme to the album that holds them together (as on Platinum) or whether the songs sort of fall apart on inspection (as many on Four the Record do). Right now I’m leaning toward the latter for this newest release.