Margo Price and Maren Morris made their names known, the Brothers Osborne broke through, and Loretta Lynn proved she’s still got it. These are the best country albums of 2016.
10. Lori McKenna, The Bird & the Rifle
Lori McKenna has been weaving filigree tales of love lost and found for the better part of a decade — songs like Faith Hill’s “Stealing Kisses,” Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” and Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” all boast her byline. But she’s also released nine solo LPs, and her latest seems poised to be her most memorable yet. Across 10 stunning, stripped-down tracks, Rifle exudes wisdom and hope and lends poetry to even the most mundane of occurrences. (“Never visit your daddy’s grave,” she sings on “Giving Up On Your Hometown,” “But we go by the house/He’d be working on a car in the driveway if he was with us now.”) The result is catharsis so intimate you’ll hesitate to hear to it anywhere other than in the safety of your headphones.
9. Various, Southern Family
The year’s biggest country music blowout didn’t take place in a stadium or on a festival lawn. Instead, it was in the Nashville studio of hit producer Dave Cobb. There, he brought in familiar cohorts — Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson — as well as new collaborators — Miranda Lambert and Zac Brown — to craft a truly striking country concept record. Offering his visitors the prompt to write about family life in the American South, Cobb collected delicate memories of mothers (Jamey Johnson’s “Mama’s Table”), fathers (Lambert’s “Sweet By and By”), grandmothers (Brown’s “Grandma’s Garden”), and grandfathers (Isbell’s “God Is A Working Man”). And in the middle of them all, he slid in one epic, six-minute interpretation of Jimmie Davis’ 1939 standard “You Are My Sunshine” from Stapleton and his wife Morgane.
8. Brandy Clark, Big Day In A Small Town
“If you want the girl next door, then go next door,” Brandy Clark spits out early on her second studio LP, an extraordinary effort that is, at times, hilarious (“Daughter,” “Broke”), occasionally profound (“Homecoming Queen”), and, on more than one occasion, heart-wrenching (“You Can Come Over,” “Three Kids No Husband”). But above all, Town rocks plenty. Clark enlisted Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Cage the Elephant) for production and the results crackle. Give Clark an arena, these tunes will fill it.
7. Brothers Osborne, Pawn Shop
Maryland-born brothers TJ and John Osborne first gained buzz back in 2014 when two songs off their debut EP (“Let’s Go There,” “Rum”) cracked the Top 40 on the country airplay charts. The wait for their first full-length was long, but as listeners learned in January, worth it. With ferocious guitars, stomping drum lines, and plenty of blue-collar fire, Pawn Shop positively sizzles.
6. Dierks Bentley, Black
After a terrifying, half-decade reign of bro country, there’s no breeze more refreshing than hearing one of the genre’s heavyweights sing about matters of the heart in fully-realized, fully-lived, fully-complicated ways. Named after Cassidy Black, Bentley’s wife of 10 years, the singer’s eighth LP explores the furthest corners of love in moments like a little, insecure hook on “Why Do I Feel?” There, Bentley sings, “How much reassurance does a man need?/Why can’t I just let a good thing be?” Bentley has long refused to play by Nashville’s rules, but here’s to hoping people start playing by his.
5. Maren Morris, Hero
At the end of 2015, the now 26-year-old self-released an EP on Spotify and thanks to some key playlist-placement, the title track, “My Church,” took off. A soul- and pop-infused ditty about a religion where church is an FM radio, Morris’ song eventually found success on the airwaves. And in a twist all too rare, the full-length that followed surpassed her ubiquitous hit in both song craft and spunk. Across Hero, Morris is funny (“Drunk Girls Don’t Cry”), sassy (“Rich”), self-aware (“80s Mercedes”), and meditative (“I Could Use A Love Song”). Her storytelling reveals her reverence for Music City’s legendary history; her hip-hop and R&B-influenced wordplay and glossy production say she’s acutely aware of the Top 40 of today. Heady, indeed.
4. Loretta Lynn, Full Circle
Eighty-four years and six decades into her recording career, the coal miner’s daughter is finally looking back. On Full Circle, her first album since her 2004 team-up with Jack White, Van Lear Rose, Lynn revisits her back catalog (“Whispering Sea”) as well as the songs she grew up singing in Appalachia (“In The Pines”), plus two Carter Family tunes — fitting, since Johnny Cash and June Carter’s son, John Carter Cash, produced the set — to craft one of her warmest, most memorable collections ever. That her gorgeous, distinctive vocal has lost none of its shine is just the cherry on top.
3. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
Did you hear that Miranda Lambert released a record about her divorce from Blake Shelton this year? With all due respect, you better check your facts. Country music’s most brazen female voice dropped a stunning double album, sure, but the set is about just one person — herself. Over 24 tracks — she’s a writer on 20 — Lambert offers listeners a front row seat to her undoing and her healing. It’s remarkable, not just in sprawl, but also in shamelessness. She loses count of shots of Jack and men named Jack over wonderfully messy, raw backings. As she sings on the resplendent album-opener, “I don’t mind having’ scars/Happiness ain’t prison but there’s freedom in a broken heart.” Amen.
2. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter kicks off with a sprawling, near six-minute reckoning of grief. From her family falling on hard times to the death of her first child, it’s all there — and it’s all true. The album ends with tales from a tour from hell where the clubs are all empty, the motels are cheap, and everyone she meets is fake. In between, outlaw country’s new heroine lays down an intoxicating blend of honky tonk, swing, and rock, as well as some of the most devastating lyrics of this decade.
1. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Simpson arrived in 2014 with the release of his groundbreaking second studio album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. But being heralded as the genre’s new keeper of the flame hasn’t made Simpson careful. Instead, the Kentucky-native went weirder on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the best country album of the year and Simpson’s finest creative statement yet. Roy Orbison-style balladry, Disney-esque orchestral strings, and even Sharon Jones’ famed backing band the Dap Kings bring welcome heft to Earth‘s nine tracks. And while the music might be bigger, Simpson’s subject is strikingly intimate, as the album serves as a letter of apology to his wife and the couple’s first child, a son, for a life on the road. “I’ve been told you measure a man by how much he loves,” Simpson croons on the expansive opener “Welcome to Earth (Polywog).” Here, he proves, he’s at the top of the heap.