The 20 Best Country Albums Of 2016
Like most of America, I spent the evening of 11/8 watching the returns and waiting for my country to redeem itself. Thoroughly unqualified both professionally and morally for the job, Trump nevertheless took an early lead, but surely, I thought, one of the swing states would swing blue and avert the nightmare. Long before the winner had been declared, I went to bed feeling sick to my stomach.
I woke up in an even worse state, and over the next few days and weeks my internal monologue became a persistent rant, a spray of invective impossible to stop. I turned off the news, quit Facebook, screamed inside, and wondered at my naiveté. I had placed too much faith in my country that it wouldn’t possibly vote for a man who boasted about sexually assaulting women, who spouted nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric quickly and openly embraced by white supremacists, who refused to release his tax returns, who insinuated that not paying taxes made him “smart,” who reneged on deals with small businesses and independent contractors.
The election shook my faith in the American people, which means it shook my faith in the music of the American people. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to convince editors and readers and listeners and friends and random people I’ve met in clubs or on the street to give roots and country music a chance. It’s sophisticated and valid, I’ve argued, even if it isn’t made on the coasts or in deep blue states. It speaks for an audience that is too often omitted from larger conversations about American culture. Whenever someone referred to rural Americans as “dumb hicks” — which was more frequent than you might think — my hackles went up.
But it’s hard to ignore the fact that the swath of red running down the middle of America — the string of states that determined the election — neatly overlaps with my mental map of country music. On 11/9 country music sounded foreign and grotesque to me, promoting values and ideals that suddenly seemed flimsy and disposable. Before you flood the comments section, let me say this: I realize this reaction has more to do with the gut than the brain or even the ears, but my brain was busy ranting and left the important responsibility of processing music to my gut. It was an intensely visceral reaction, and I spent weeks trying to make sense of it.
Exacerbating this crisis was the fact that just days before the election the Country Music Awards ceremony had caused an uproar by daring to feature a performance by Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks, a mash-up of her surprise country hit “Daddy Lessons” with their “Long Time Gone.” It was one of the finest live sets of the show: Besides being an amazing performance by four remarkable women, it showed just how malleable country could be, both musically and lyrically, overlapping with R&B and soul in its depiction of poverty and family and in its extolling of determination and independence as fundamental virtues.
The response was, unsurprisingly, not heartening. A tidal wave of tweets and comments — the preferred medium of knee-jerk trolling and received wisdom — decried the mixing of genres in language similar to that used by white supremacists denouncing the mixing of races. Political purists want their music just as pure, and suddenly it seemed like we had regressed to some pre-civil rights moment when white and black musicians could be punished for simply making music together.
It’s easy to point out that Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake had done a similar mash-up the year before, grafting country and R&B to little but praise and congratulations. So it had to be either a race thing or a gender thing. Maybe both. It certainly was a political thing: The Dixie Chicks, despite being one of the biggest country acts of the last 20 years, were still in exile 15 years after criticizing Bush in public. And conservatives have been hating on Beyoncé long before she voiced support for Black Lives Matter. So some viewers were prepared to head for the comments section even before these women took the stage.
The New York Times quoted two representative comments from social media: “Why are you showing Beyoncé & Dixie Chicks? One doesn’t believe in America & our police force while the other didn’t support our President & veterans during war.” “Neither are country, and Beyoncé could not be bothered to put some clothes on for the occasion.” You can find far worse out there, if you want your faith in humanity shaken, but these are crucial examples because they reveal the degree to which country and conservatism remain intertwined, at least in the minds of many listeners. The same purism infecting politics also afflicts country music, but only in a situational application: Dixie Chicks aren’t country, but Florida-Georgia Line are? Beyoncé doesn’t belong, but these hat acts who adopt hip-hop vocals and beats are considered down-home? If it quacks like a duck, it must be a double standard.
Perhaps that’s a severe oversimplification of an incredibly complicated issue, but it touches on some of the emotions I was feeling toward country music after the election. I didn’t want to defend or celebrate or even hear the music identified with Trump voters and double standard bearers, which again is completely illogical and in some ways thoroughly unprofessional. This is, after all, how I make my living, such as it is. Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to a new appreciation of these knotted issues as even more revealing, useful, and even subversive, which has allowed me to ease back into the genre, hopefully with a deeper understanding of the way that artists are upending its conventions.
If there was a trend this year in country music, it might be a gradual shift away from any kind of purism toward something more diverse, more celebratory, more worldly. Country in the new millennium has reluctantly embraced pop and hip-hop production techniques, sometimes gloriously (Taylor Swift) but more often ham-handedly (a thousand rapping cowboys). The best albums of 2016 found new ways forward, whether by combining twang with psychedelia or old-school R&B horns or even older-school gospel singing. With that musical adventurism comes a big-heartedness, as the following albums make convincing arguments for values that ought to cross the aisle: decency and compassion, selflessness and empathy, humility and kindness.
18 Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price (Sony)
16 Lucinda Williams – The Ghosts Of Highway 20 (Highway 20 Records)
14 Loretta Lynn -
13 Paul Cauthen – My Gospel
10 Elizabeth Cook – Exodus Of Venus (Agent Love Records)
Survived divorce and alcoholism and six long years between albums to return with this psych-country collection. More mystical than earthy, but she does provide a sequel of sorts to “My Heroine Addict Sister” and pens an utterly devastating ballad called “Tabitha Tuder’s Mama,” about a missing person cold case from 2003. Tabitha Tuder, then barely a teenager, went missing near her home in East Nashville, and Cook excoriates the media for not covering it the way they might cover the disappearance of a wealthy beauty queen. When she gets around to asking you to “please pray for Tabitha Tuder’s mama, even if you don’t pray at all,” it sounds like the very least you could do.
9 Yola Carter – Orphan Offering (Ear Trumpet Music)
The Americana Music Awards, held each September in Nashville, are becoming arguably more relevant and rewarding than the CMAs, not only acknowledging the accomplishments of established artists but showcasing new voices as well. Perhaps the biggest story at this year’s festival was Yola Carter, who does not resemble the typical country music star. For one thing she is black. For another, she is British. Carter grew up outside of Bristol, sang and toured with Massive Attack and Bugz In The Attic, even fronted a rock group called Phantom Limb. This year she went solo with a more country sound, one based in fiddles and acoustic guitars and songs that explore some of the genre’s most enduring themes: poverty, hardship, struggle, class. Her six-song debut EP, Orphan Offering, finds the midpoint between the Staple Singers’ Soul Folk In Action and Dolly Parton’s Coat Of Many Colors. That she’s one of the most unlikely country stars of the year makes her one of the most refreshing.
8 Various Artists – Southern Family (Elektra)
From one of the hottest producers in Nashville, a guy who might be doing more to change the way country music sounds than anyone else. He assembled a range of performers — some he has worked with, others who really need to hire him — for a concept album about family. You get Brandy Clark at her teariest (“I Cried”), John Paul White at his most direct (“Simple Song”), Jason Isbell at his most blue collar (“God Is A Working Man”), and Holly Williams at her most profound (“Settle Down”). Best of all is Miranda Lambert’s “Sweet By And By,” a convincing argument that she should make her next album with Cobb. Weirdest is Chris and Morgane Stapleton’s bluesily ominous “You Are My Sunshine,” which is essentially a too-faithful cover of Jamey Johnson’s version of the children’s classic.
7 Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man)
Margo Price embodied a Nashville narrative that is becoming more and more prevalent, especially for young women, in the country music industry. An undeniable songwriting and vocal talent, she spent years shopping songs to producers and record labels that either ignored them or wanted to change her sound so dramatically that she would be interchangeable with every other female artist out there. Fortunately, she took matters into her own hands: She assembled one of the finest backing bands around and took a chance on Jack White’s Third Man Records. Her solo debut turns the tragedies of her life into great honky-tonk songs like “Weekender” (about going to jail) and “Hands Of Time” (about losing the family farm, a baby, a career, and everything else); rather than self-pity, she conveys nothing but self-confidence, thanks to her deft smackdowns (“About To Find Out”) and that powerful voice, which she road-tested in a series of soul bands.
6 Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (Mama Bird Recording Co.)
Courtney Marie Andrews’ career traces a similar trajectory: She had no luck getting anybody else interested in her latest album, so she assembled a group of friends, booked some studio time, and essentially taught herself to produce her breakout album. The result is an expert marriage of gracefully confessional songwriting with country-folk arrangements that recall Joni Mitchell. Never quite as gritty as Price, Andrews writes convincingly about working hard not to lose ground. “All I’ve ever wanted is an honest life, to be the person that I really am inside,” she sings on the title track, which might sound like a platitude from any other singer but after this year has the weight of true wisdom.
5 Lydia Loveless – Real (Bloodshot)
This may be the last year Lydia Loveless makes this list — not because she won’t make another great album, but because she may very soon reach a point where she’s not considered country. Like her previous releases — Indestructible Machine and especially Somewhere Else — Real draws from ’90s alt-country songwriters like Rhett Miller and Ryan Adams, with all the sophisticated wordplay and gloriously messy emotions those comparisons might imply. But gradually she has been edging away from country into the kind of moody Midwestern rock that sounds best around 2AM. She still sings like a house on fire, her Buckeye drawl flooding “Midwestern Guys” and “European” with extreme sarcasm. “Heaven” could have been a Heartbreakers hit (Tom Petty or Johnny Thunders, you choose) from the late 1970s, but the scar-tissue heart of this album is the nearly a cappella “Out On Love,” a soul-scoring number about letting a good man get away.
4 Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town (Warner Bros.)
Small-town life is such a convention in country music that it’s almost a cliché, but Brandy Clark breathes some new life into the milieu. Big Day In A Small Town, the follow-up to her 2014 breakout 12 Stories, digs deep into the dirt of rural life to locate some new twists and some new consequences. Every song sounds like it takes place in the same community where “there ain’t no mall, no Waffle House, but there’s always something to talk about,” and Clark has nothing but bemused sympathy for the homecoming queen who grew up to a less-than-royal life and the woman with three kids and no husband. There is a darkness on the edge of town: “There’s signs in every store front, seems like everything’s for sale,” she sings on “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven.” “They say the market’s bouncing back, but it’s sure hard to tell.”
3 Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth (Atlantic)
Sturgill Simpson married a long-time country theme — the responsibility of parents to children, which has been sung about by literally everyone in Nashville — to a globe-trotting concept album that blends country with rock and old-school R&B, courtesy of the Dap-Kings horn section and one of the tightest touring bands around. Even more remarkably, it also discloses a deeply conflicted attitude toward the military culture that defined him as a young man but routinely sends its young men off to die. As musically fearless as it is scared shitless about the state of the world, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth earned a surprise Grammy nod for Album Of The Year.
2 Lori McKenna – The Bird & The Rifle (CN Records)
This veteran songwriter had a huge year with her song “Humble & Kind,” which set parental advice to an aching, uncertain melody. It was a huge hit for Tim McGraw earlier in the year, winning McKenna a CMA for Song of the Year and a Grammy nom for Country Song of the Year. It also inspired a charity web site and one of those books that people give as graduation gifts that nobody actually reads. But that’s just one great song on an album full of them, as McKenna’s 10th studio effort nudged her even closer to the mainstream. With Dave Cobb at the knobs, she writes about soured relationships and the small freedoms women scavenge for themselves. “We Were Cool” is a reckless teenager anthem worthy of early Springsteen, “Halfway Home” a sharp rebuke of hook-up culture. Tying everything together is McKenna’s ragged, world-weary voice, which infuses these songs with a sense of overwhelming melancholy.
1 Miranda Lambert – The Weight Of These Wings (Vanner/RCA Nashville)
I have Miranda Lambert to thank for returning me to my senses. Just a few weeks after the election, she released her fifth studio album, The Weight Of These Wings, which in retrospect may be the most perfectly timed album of the year. I had to listen for professional reasons, but I found myself wanting to re-listen for personal reasons. Forget all the tabloid rumors about her recent split with Blake Shelton, his shacking up with Gwen Stefani, or the offense they took at some of the songs on this double album — because who really gives a shit about either of them? Lambert has proven herself again to be one of the most imaginative and adventurous performers in any genre, and Weight is a kaleidoscopic collection of songs that draw from country history while pushing the form forward. “Vice” and “Ugly Lights” and “For The Birds” and even “Pink Sunglasses” are rooted in the feminism of Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, conceiving country as a space where a woman can discuss sex and commitment and freedom and heartache openly and honestly — on her own terms rather than those assigned to her. Eluding the label of “political,” she manages to smuggle some truly progressive issues onto the country charts.