Big wheels keep on turning. Like any self-sustaining music ecosystem, the country music industry continues to churn out hits all year round, and occasionally this column checks in on that world — particularly when it intersects with the world of top-40 pop, like when Little Big Town recruited Pharrell to produce their new album. But outside of that curious experiment, I haven’t paid much attention to country music this year, a fact I realized while perusing my former colleague Caitlin White’s list of the best albums of 2016 so far.
Time to rectify that. This week’s column is dedicated to exploring 2016’s bestselling country albums to date, poking around Nashville’s assembly line in search of something truly inspired. In the name of quality over quantity, we’ll also throw in a handful of records big-upped by trusted country correspondents White and The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla.
Before we begin, please know that in terms of sales, Chris Stapleton’s runaway success Traveller is far and away the biggest country album of 2016. It’s just that Traveller came out way back in the spring of 2015, so despite its pervasive stature on the charts, I’m going to assume you know about that one by now. I’m also assuming you’re already familiar with Sturgill Simpson’s great A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, given that we dubbed it Album Of The Week and ranked it highly on our list of the year’s best albums so far. Instead, consider this a primer on other major releases. Let’s begin.
Dierks Bentley – Black
Like any radio-supported pop music format, mainstream country has always been built on the back of assembly-line songwriting. The formula tends to evolve, as it does in rap and pop, but it’s usually formulaic nonetheless. One of today’s leading products is sad-eyed twilight balladry engineered to elicit an emotional downpour. Bentley is really good at this particular form, so Black is stacked with tracks that could accompany falling in or out of love late night at some small-town bar. Most are decent but few stand out besides “Different For Girls,” an Elle King duet that attempts to combat gender stereotypes but maybe reinforces them instead. The album crosses back over into daylight occasionally, most pleasingly on the Trombone Shorty-featuring party grind “Mardi Gras,” but mostly it exists in the shadows, brooding. And you thought Sam Hunt was country’s fiercest Drake disciple.
Brothers Osborne – Pawn Shop
Siblings T.J. and John Osborne operate in that classic Brooks & Dunn/Hall & Oates mode, with T.J. handling lead vocals and John holding down the guitar and backup vox. But their sound leans closer to a modern iteration of barroom balladry, albeit with a traditionalist tilt largely thanks to T.J.’s baritone drawl. Mostly, though, Pawn Shop is proof that you can still wring powerful songwriting out of played-out country tropes. “21 Summer,” “Stay A Little Longer,” and especially the Lee Ann Womack duet “Loving Me Back” will keep me coming back to this one for the foreseeable future.
Kane Brown – Chapter 1 EP
In a country landscape where every song sounds like a swooning, soft-focus power ballad with, like, one banjo thrown in, there is absolutely nothing to distinguish sentimental cow-bro Kane Brown from the rest. After one listen I remember nothing besides the phrase “I used to love you sober.” Chapter 1 is not bad, it’s just completely average, from its title down to its marrow.
Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town
Longtime industry songwriter Clark’s debut 12 Stories rocketed her to critical acclaim but no real presence at country radio. Big Day In A Small Town aims to solve that problem by applying bigger, bolder production to songs as sharp as ever. The likes of “Broke” and “Three Kids No Husband” could pass for standard Nashville story-songs — partially because Clark is one of the scribes keeping that particular machine in business — but they’re so rich with detail and believable emotion that you’ll remember why these tropes became tropes in the first place. You won’t find a much better mourning song than “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven,” and there’s nary a better fuck-you than “Girl Next Door.” And the guitars! Check out the title track if you’re looking to cruise through small-town America feeling as falsely confident as Donald Trump himself.
Dan + Shay – Obsessed
Scooter Braun backs this well-coifed duo, which might explain why they’re the teeny-boppingest outfit on this whole gosh-dang list. If they make you feel anything at all, it will be a deep longing for Florida Georgia Line you never thought possible.
Joey + Rory – Hymns That Are Important To Us
Grab your tissues: This one features married couple Joey Martin Feek (the wife, on vocals) and Rory Lee Feek (the husband, on guitar and harmonies), who first came to prominence on the CMT reality competition Can You Duet, recording traditional Christian songs as a sort of goodbye during the final stages of Joey’s losing battle with cancer. Less than a month after the album came out, she was dead. The knowledge of Joey’s looming mortality lends a sober heaviness to tracks like “It Is Well With My Soul,” a song written by a man grieving the death of his children. But the staid performances and straightforward arrangements don’t exactly jump out of the speakers. If old church songs are in your wheelhouse, at least some of these tracks will cut you to the heart; if hymns aren’t your thing, even the backstory might not be enough to sell you on this album.
Charles Kelley – The Driver
Kelley is a member of superstar trio Lady Antebellum, but The Driver has not sold nearly as well; whereas Lady A’s albums typically debut at or near #1, Kelley’s solo LP peaked at #35. That is (a) weird, especially because The Driver features a duet with Stevie freaking Nicks (plus appearances from Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert, and Eric Paslay), and (b) too bad because it’s another example of the guy’s mastery of Nashville craft. The Lambert collab “I Wish You Were Here” expertly conjures romantic yearning from afar, while “Dancing Around It” captures that spark between two people drawing ever nearer. And “Leaving Nashville” joins the pantheon of great songs about what a cruel mistress Music City can be. Highly recommend this one.
Maren Morris – Hero
This one will grab you from the jump. Morris saunters into “Sugar” and doesn’t let up from there. It’s as if she’s waging an internal war to see whether she can pile up more catchy hooks or clever lyrical turns — my two favorites at the moment are “I’m a ’90s baby in my ’80s Mercedes” and “If I had a dime every time that you crossed my mind/ Well, I’d basically be sittin’ on a big-ass pile of dimes.” Morris is insanely adept at punchy pop-country driven by her winsome personality rather than trends or gimmicks. She knows how to slow it down, too, be it on the Bonnie Raitt-reminiscent blues-rock ballad “I Wish I Was,” the somber “I Could Use A Love Song,” or the heartbroken closer “Once.” The headliner here is “My Church,” her anthem about pulling onto the highway, cranking up the volume, and finding God in the music.
Jennifer Nettles – Playing With Fire
Sugarland show no signs of re-forming, but thankfully Nettles’ second solo album borrows more of her old band’s playful spirit. That’s not to say Playing With Fire matches the joyous goofs of Sugarland’s reggae-tinged “Stuck Like Glue,” though the anti-catcall rave-up “Sugar” comes close. But the songs here do indulge their singer’s theatrical tendencies, be it comedy (“Drunk In Heels”) or drama (“Three Days In Bed”). There’s also a Jennifer Lopez duet for some reason, a preposterous country/city solidarity anthem (with mariachi horns!) that somehow feels like a respite tacked onto the end of the album after too many ballads in a row. Nettles isn’t making essential music these days, but she’s still a welcome figure in this world.
Blake Shelton – If I’m Honest
If I’m Honest is Shelton’s divorce album, so like Gwen Stefani’s This Is What The Truth Feels Like, it includes a few wistful ballads about the end of his marriage, including consecutive tracks that essentially boil down to “I still think about you,” which are fine. And as with Stefani’s album, there are quite a few songs about the Voice co-stars’ blooming romance and even a collaboration with Stefani, which are also fine. But this being a Blake Shelton album, it’s also padded out with good ol’ boy celebrations of Country Living™ and doofus-level wordplay attempts including “Doing It To Country Songs” (no explanation required), “Green” (“I was green before green was a thing”), and “She’s Got A Way With Words,” which goes a little like this: “She put the ex in sex/ She put the low in blow/ She put a big F.U. in my future.” There’s also a gospel song at the end because why not. Basically every 2016 country cliché is in play here, but Shelton is enough of a professional to pull it off with a straight face.
Cole Swindell – You Should Be Here
You shouldn’t be here.
Keith Urban – Ripcord
Is Ripcord even a country album? Song titles like “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16″ aside, Urban’s latest feels more like a big-budget New Wave release from some dystopian ’80s of the future, dominated not by twang but beats, synths, and, uh, Pitbull. “Wasted Time” is basically bro-country’s answer to LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great,” at least until it turns into Avicii and Aloe Blacc’s cover of “Teenage Wasteland.” “Boy Gets A Truck” rewrites “Where The Streets Have No Name” as one of country’s boilerplate life-story narratives. “Your Body” is Taylor Swift’s “Style” with banjos. Even the Carrie Underwood duet is a Target commercial in waiting. To Urban’s credit, much of this is more interesting than it is ugly. Better this than the late-career autopilot befalling most of his peers.
This week Nick Jonas becomes the latest artist to be denied a #1 album thanks to the continued popularity of Views. Drake’s latest album holds on for a seventh straight week atop the Billboard 200, with 121,000 equivalent units divided up like so: 74,000 SEA (streaming equivalent units), 27,000 traditional album sales, 21,000 TEA (track equivalent albums). Billboard reports that Drake is the first male artist to top the albums chart for seven consecutive weeks since Eminem did it with The Marshall Mathers LP in 2000. (Em was also the last male to land an album on top for seven nonconsecutive weeks, with Recovery in 2010.) As for Jonas, his Last Year Was Complicated earned 66,000 units on 47,000 traditional sales, career highs in terms of chart positioning and first-week sales figures.
At #3, the Hamilton soundtrack hits the top 10 for the first time thanks to the hip-hop musical’s dominating night at the Tony Awards. Its 62,000 units include 45,000 in sales, the largest for a cast recording since The Book Of Mormon moved 61,000 copies in a week back in 2011. And after Beyoncé’s Lemonade at #4 comes the week’s only other top-10 debut: Hit-making songwriter Jon Bellion’s The Human Condition tallied 40,000 units and 32,000 to enter the chart at #5.
Drake’s continued dominance extends to the Hot 100, where the WizKid and Kyla-featuring “One Dance” holds steady at #1 for a fifth straight week and sixth overall. Other notable feats on the singles chart include new peaks for Rihanna’s two current singles, #6 for the Calvin Harris collab “This Is What You Came For” and #7 for “Needed Me.” Sia and Sean Paul’s “Cheap Thrills” rises to #8, matching Sia’s highest chart position ever (for “Chandelier,” of course). And sing-songy rapper Kent Jones scores his first ever top-10 hit with the multilingual, Barry White-interpolating “Don’t Mind.”
MAGIC! – “Red Dress”
You didn’t really think this band was just going to go away, did you?
Hozier – “Better Love”
Hozier back too? Man, 2016 is really doing its best to remind me how shitty 2014 was.
Twenty One Pilots – “Heathens”
These guys built their voracious fan base with disjointed mutli-part anthems, but their biggest hits so far — “Stressed Out,” “Ride,” and now this — have been the ones that fuse all their influences into an understated groove. It’s a development I did not see coming back when “Ode To Sleep” was still their signature song.
Tiësto & John Legend – “Summer Nights”
Nobody told these guys EDM was over. And after listening to “Summer Nights,” maybe it’s not?
Christina Aguilera – “Change”
Aguilera’s tribute to the Orlando shooting victims is extremely straightforward, but clarity is paramount when the message is “Who you love or the color of your skin/ Or the place that you were born and grew up in/ Shouldn’t decide how you will be treated.”
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Lady Gaga is reportedly set to star in Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born remake. [Variety]
- Max Martin was awarded the Polar Music Prize by His Majesty King Carl XVI of Sweden. [Billboard]
- Kevin Hart rapped “Panda” in the voice of his The Secret Life Of Pets character Snowball the rabbit. [YouTube]
- Demi Lovato inserted herself into the long-running Mariah v. Ariana rivalry. [Billboard]
- At least 180 musicians — including Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, and U2 — have signed a petition advocating for a change to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act so that YouTube no longer has safe haven from copyright infringement lawsuits. [Recode]
- Selena Gomez did Carpool Karaoke. [Selena Gomez]
- Carrie Underwood will rework her Miranda Lambert duet “Something Bad” for this year’s Sunday Night Football theme. [Billboard]
- Katy Perry has a new fragrance called Mad Love (which is a phrase from Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” just sayin’.) [Facebook]
- Paramore hinted on social media that former drummer Zac Farro is back for the new album. [Alternative Press]
- Rihanna was overcome with emotion in Dublin and sobbed onstage during “Love The Way You Lie.” [TMZ]
- Daya will make her acting debut on an upcoming episode of Nickelodeon’s School Of Rock. [Billboard]
- Fitz And The Tantrums’ “HandClap” is popular with babies. [Reuters]