Here we are, right at the beginning of summer. The year is halfway over.
And that means country music fans have already been treated to six months worth of good music. Which also means it’s time for an entirely-too-early power ranking of the best country music albums of 2016.
This list isn’t definitive; after all, it’s only June. And there are several buzzworthy new albums coming up soon. “Humble and Kind” songwriter Lori McKenna, who just received the honor of penning the first solo-written song to hit No. 1 in four years, has a new album coming July 29th. Cody Jinks, Gary Allan, Joe Nichols and Josh Turner are all slotted for album releases at some point before December.
And who knows, the Dixie Chicks might decide to bless us with a live album of their first full-length American tour since “Taking the Long Way.”
But for now, these are the cream of the crop from the country genre in 2016.
10. “Nothing Shines Like Neon”— Randy Rogers Band
Randy Rogers has been in a collaborative mood for the past year or so. 2015 saw the release of “Hold My Beer, Vol. 1,” a duet album with longtime pal Wade Bowen. Last month, the live album of his tour with Bowen, “Watch This, Vol. 2,” was released as a celebration of the “Hold My Beer and Watch This” tour. And in “Nothing Shines Like Neon,” Rogers brings in some friends to make the band’s first album on the Thirty Tigers label a memorable one.
Alison Krauss, Jerry Jeff Walker and Jamey Johnson all lend their skills to songs like “Look Out Yonder,” “Takin’ It As It Comes” and “Actin’ Crazy.” The collaborations, as well as some interesting sonic choices by producer Buddy Cannon, make “Neon” shine. Plus, “San Antone,” the band’s ode to the land that made them, is sure to become a standard.
9. “California Sunrise”— Jon Pardi
I’ve mentioned before that if there is going to be a Country Music Savior, it needs to come from the middle ground, not just a staunch traditional figure. Pardi may not be the Savior, but he’s walking in that holy middle ground of traditional and new. His latest, “California Sunrise,” highlights his journey to Nashville and his determination to keep his roots with him. “She Ain’t In It” is the best George Strait heartbreak song that George Strait never recorded, and “Out of Style” pokes fun at the common tropes most Nashville songwriters have to employ on every song.
8. “Hero”— Maren Morris
I’ve already said this before, but Maren Morris is unapologetically pop-country, and that’s what makes her so refreshing. There’s room in the genre for artists like Morris and artists like Margo Price, who has been hailed as a return to staunch traditionalism. Not that this is an equal comparison, but Shania Twain and Reba McEntire both coexisted in the country format in the 90s and nobody got too upset about that, right?
Anyway, “Hero,” Morris’ breakthrough album, is full of pop-country singalongs like “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” and “Rich.” It also features more country-sounding songs like “My Church” and “I Could Use a Love Song.” She’s remarkably at ease with both, and she wrote every song on this album. She isn’t going away for a while.
7. “Lovers and Leavers”— Hayes Carll
The Hayes Carll singing on “Lovers and Leavers” is not the same Hayes Carll that penned “She Left Me For Jesus” or “KMAG YOYO.” This is a more grown-up, recently divorced Hayes Carll. And the songs show.
Some fans didn’t like the departure from his rough and rowdy ways, bur the songwriting on “Lovers and Leavers” is at least on par with, maybe better than, “Trouble in Mind” or “KMAG YOYO.” The album reveals a man wrestling with love in all its shapes and forms- parental, platonic, romantic and brotherly. Lots of country artists have sung about fatherhood and divorce. Cuts like “The Magic Kid” and “My Friends” get to the heart of what it’s like to grow into fatherhood in a way that only Carll could say.
6. “Then Sings My Soul…Songs For My Mother”— Wade Bowen
What started out as a thoughtful Christmas present to his mother quickly turned into something more for Wade Bowen.
“Then Sings My Soul” is a compilation of hymns from Bowen’s mother’s childhood. The album was never supposed to be released to the public.
“The songs were strictly for her,” Bowen told Taste of Country.
However, once Bowen’s mother heard the songs, she encouraged him to release the album to his fans.
“It’s been overwhelming to see the response. People love it. They sing along, and it’s just really cool. You’ve got standards like ‘I’ll Fly Away’ — people know the words. They’re not afraid, even in a bar,” Bowen said.
Standards like “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art” sit alongside more contemporary fare like “Saved,” the foot-stomping album closer. When so much of modern country is canned and pragmatic, it’s refreshing to hear personal material such as this. Hallelujah.
5. “Full Circle”— Loretta Lynn
Lynn’s first album since 2004 is a musical retelling of her entire legacy. There’s new versions of old songs here, as well as a lot of new ones that contemplate her legacy— but not in a sad way. Four songs into the album, she asks, “Who’s gonna miss me when I’m gone?” and follows that up two songs later with “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.” Mortality and legacy are clearly on her mind, but there’s not a dirge in sight on “Full Circle.”
4. “Southern Family”— Various artists, Produced by Dave Cobb
Known for producing acts such as Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Jamey Johnson, Cobb set out to create an anthology album with many of the above artists, plus a few others, about the feeling of family never leaving you, and all that entails.
“Southern Family” was the result. It’s an ambitious concept album, to be sure, but the songs live up to the lofty goals of the project. Each song teems with honesty about the experience of growing up in The South. Chris Stapleton and wife Morgane’s haunting “You Are My Sunshine” cover is uplifting and poignant at the same time, while “I Cried” might be the best song Brandy Clark has ever recorded. Speaking of Clark…
3. “Big Day in a Small Town”— Brandy Clark
Her second album is even better than her first. While “12 Stories” was an album full of ballads about normal, everyday people, “Big Day” imagines all those people in one town, and showcases more of Clark’s songwriting chops. The production is bigger and the scope is larger on “Big Day,” but Clark’s ability to tap into the milieu of southern life is second to none.
2. “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter”— Margo Price
Price made waves on “Saturday Night Live” this year when she performed during the Russel Crowe episode a month after her debut album arrived on the Billboard country charts at No. 10, selling 4,000 copies in its first week. That’s a modest debut, but for an independent female solo artist who had no previous chart history, it was a first-of-its-kind moment.
“Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” while not the answer to all of country music’s current woes, is a stellar debut. “Hurtin’ On the Bottle” is as good a drinking song as you’ll find anywhere, and “Weekender” showcases Price’s wry sense of humor in her songwriting.
1. “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”—Sturgill Simpson
“Sailor’s Guide” is Simpson’s first album without Dave Cobb at the controls, and that’s because this one is intensely personal. Just a scant nine songs and 43 minutes long,”Sailor’s Guide” packs a punch of fatherly advice, peppered with sea sounds, grunge-rock, horns from the Dap-Kings and a slow, dream-like Nirvana cover. This concept album is going to be remembered as one of the biggest highlights of Simpson’s career, but Simpson could care less about his legacy, which makes it better. He just wants to make music that he enjoys, and that’s all there is to it.
Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.
Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.