It’s been a weird 13 months for country music, ever since Chris Stapleton stormed the CMA’s and won a bunch of awards for an album that—keep this between us—wasn’t as good as its advertising. But still, it signaled a sea change; songs about boning in pickup trucks would no longer cut it. Country stars and DJs and label heads all bent over backwards to blame the proliferation of “bro-country” on each other, ignoring the fact that rank and file country music fans didn’t care either way if it was Jake Owen or Thomas Rhett or Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan singing them songs on their roadtrip to Talladega. But, country music had agreed: the Bros’ stranglehold on the industry needed to be loosened.
So, the CMA’s gave Eric Church the Album of the Year award this year, and had Beyonce perform, and Stapleton’s Traveller spent almost half the year at Number One on the country album charts, ceding time to Sturgill, and, unbelievably, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. The Bros’ dominance certainly faltered this year; the best country albums this year bear no resemblance to anything in the Canaan Smith oeuvre. That said, if my skepticism up there wasn’t enough, the only thing I think really needed changing was for women to have a chance to get the label push, and the public performances, and the radio play that the guys have these last four-ish years. And that happened big time in 2016: this year’s best country album was made by a woman who not only charted multiple singles off radio play, also hit number one on the album charts.
Country music’s industry in 2016 might have had moments of self-hatred and self-flagellation, but the music this year was as strong as ever. You had comeback albums, and indie upstarts signed to major labels, and the Bros still lingering, and double albums about divorce that aren’t about divorce and an album length cover of Giorgio Moroder songs. So then, here are the 10 Best Country Albums of 2016:
Ah yes, the heels of the industry, the Big Bads at the end of the “Let’s Take Country Back From the Bros!” videogame. But that narrative ignores Dig Your Roots, the album that posits that Florida Georgia Line could pivot to “authentic” country if that’s what people in the industry really want. Sure, they do a song here with frogs as percussion, and a song featuring the Backstreet Boys (which actually rules), but “H.O.L.Y.” and “May We All” are the deepest songs these “Cruise”-ers have ever done. This didn’t do as well on the charts as their last two, so a course correction back to “This Is How We Roll” might be in store, but this album will stand as the most “real” album they’ve ever made.
9. Dierks Bentley: Black
The man with the most country name in the history of an industry that includes Waylon Jennings has secretly been one of the sturdiest workers in country music, delivering albums you can count on every 2-3 years. Black came with one genuine hit—“Somewhere on a Beach”—but was buoyed by a narrative arc about hookups, breakups, and if you followed the music videos, a murder. Black was the salve to many breakups in 2016, and will probably serve in that capacity till the next Dierks Bentley album.
Brent, cousin of Dave Cobb, the impresario producer behind Sturgill, Jason Isbell and Stapleton, dropped this record in October, the absolute perfect month for a small, measured, heart-on-sleeve album that sounds like some middle point between the singer songwriters of the ‘70s like James Taylor and Jackson Browne and ‘90s roots rock. It’s reserved and quiet, but it’s the perfect album for looking out a window and wondering where your life went.
If you’re a long time country fan, explaining Keith Urban has never been easy: he’s a delicate Australian man who makes country music that sometimes tips over into being southern fried hair metal. He’s spent most of this decade entrenched in a swivel chair for American Idol, making music that goes Gold, but which you’d be hard pressed to remember 18 months later. I’m not sure if Ripcord is going to be the album of his I’ll remember in 10 years—that’s probably still be Be Here—but when I want to remember what the summer of 2016 sounded like, I’ll remember the hours I spent driving around the Upper Midwest listening to “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” and “Wasted Time” and “Blue Ain’t Your Color” and “Worry ‘Bout Nothin’.”
The whole country world has been waiting all of 2016 for Miranda to come out of hiding to drop her own version of Lemonade, an album that would read the now-shacking-up-with-Gwen-Stefani Blake Shelton for trash, and instead, she dropped this, a sprawling double album that is about running away, living messily, and breakups, but in the abstract, not in specifics. It’s her best album, and it comes with her best song yet, “Vice,” a song comparing the heartbreak of meaningless hookups to having a drinking problem. It’s devastating, and heartbreaking, and mouth-dropping, like all of the best Miranda songs, and like the whole of The Weight of These Wings.
Here’s what I wrote about this album when it came out, which is still the best thing I can say about this album: “Brandy Clark, one of country’s best songwriters (she’s written for a murderer’s row of current hitmakers) devotes the entirety of her sophomore album Big Day in a Small Town—following up 2013’s 12 Stories—to chronicling small town living, from poor people drinking generic Coke (“Broke”) and the high school diva whose life comes at her fast (“Homecoming Queen”) to the single mom fighting against the crush of obligations (“Three Kids No Husband”) to all the minutiae that feels important when you’re in a small town that doesn’t even have a Waffle House (the title track). Clark fills this record out with stories of small town life that feel like the real deal; like she knows exactly who every song and lyric is about.”
Gaze in fear upon that cover, the runaway winner for best album cover of 2016. And the music only gets weirder from there. Shooter, son of Waylon, delivers a full length LP of covers of Giorgio Moroder songs in tribute to one of the artists he says most influenced him. You’d be hard pressed to find it in his music before this, and shit, in the music on this very album, which recasts Moroder jams into southern fried freakouts. On paper, it makes no damn sense. In practice, it makes no damn sense. But it was the loosest, jammiest country album of 2016, by a wide, vast margin. The cover of the theme song to Neverending Story is sublime.
Sturgill Simpson was one Justin Timberlake co-sign from becoming Chris Stapleton, but as he’s shown this year, he doesn’t endeavor for the crown of country; he’d rather be its ombudsman. He was speaking his mind all over Nashville this year, telling people the establishment was disrespectful to Merle Haggard, amongst other offenses. He’d have been in the news for his statements regardless, but he was also all over 2016 after his superlative, now Grammy-nominated album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, blew the hell up without much help from mainstream Nashville. It would be easy to write this off as “country for people who hate country”—more people bought this and Weezer records in 2016 than bought this and Thomas Rhett records—if you don’t pay attention to the nuance on display in Sturgill’s arrangements and songwriting; he’s channeling early ‘70s Elvis, and Waylon, and Merle, and Stax and sometimes all in the same song. Who would have thought a concept album about sailing delivered to a son would be this enriching? Sturgill will probably never write his crossover album, but he can make albums like this every 18 months till the end of time and a lot of people would be happy.
The Brothers Osborne’s debut album was delivered to the major label dumping ground of January, where labels try out new artists or drop records by prestige artists that probably won’t win any Grammys. January was a bad time for this record, which sounds like driving a car into endless cornfields with a sweat-dripping 40oz of domestic beer in the console. It’s the album that rang out most at Country USA, the giant festival I went to this summer, and it felt like it finally found its ideal context. It’s since become a huge hit, and for good reason; the Brothers’ songwriting is as sturdy as their voices, and their guitar playing lends itself well to music festival heroics. “21 Summer” and “Stay A Little Longer” were the strongest back-to-back singles in all of country this year.
Maren Morris’ ascent in country music was not inevitable: this time last year, she was gaining some airplay on a country satellite radio channel, and pushing an EP of original songs. Today, she’s being feted by every major songwriter in Nashville—she at least co-wrote all the songs here—she tore it up at the CMA’s, and she got nominated for a Best Country Album Grammy. And that’s on the back of this 11 song delight, which packs small detail songwriting, big radio anthems, emotionally vulnerable breakup songs, and songs about cars into the best album of 2016—that’s right, I said it, it’s the best regardless of genre. I didn’t listen to anything more than I listened to this in 2016, finding new parts to dissect and enjoy, from the way Morris lets her voice float off the end of the word “once” on “Once,” and the way the back half of this album sounds like the Bonnie Raitt albums my parents made me listen to in the back of the van as a kid. Morris is going to be the biggest star in country, and for once, you can guarantee that the music is the best too.