Gone Country: The 10 best albums of 2016

Man, 2016 was a crazy year. But it did bring us some good country music, and it may have taken me until the day before New Year’s Eve to make my list, but here it is. Some albums have stayed from the list I made in the middle of the year; others have been moved off the list. But it was hard to narrow down to just 10 albums, so if you want to let me know what I missed, feel free to comment. Enjoy, and may we remember 2016 as “The Year Where Sturgill Covered Nirvana.

10. “The Weight of These Wings,” Miranda Lambert 

Miranda Lambert performs onstage during the 2016 iHeartCountry Festival held at The Frank Erwin Center on April 30, 2016 in Austin, Texas. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

Miranda Lambert performs onstage during the 2016 iHeartCountry Festival held at The Frank Erwin Center on April 30, 2016 in Austin, Texas. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

Miranda Lambert’s double-album stays true to her personality while expanding her sonic palate. It would’ve been easy for Lambert to lean further into her “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” persona. But this songbook finds Lambert tapping into the weight of every emotion, not just grief and loss.

9. “Big Day in a Small Town,” Brandy Clark

In this April 19, 2015, file photo, country singer Brandy Clark arrives at the 50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Arlington, Texas. Clark has also penned hits for Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP, File)

In this April 19, 2015, file photo, country singer Brandy Clark arrives at the 50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Arlington, Texas. Clark has also penned hits for Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP, File)

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.

8. “The Bird and the Rifle,” Lori McKenna

From Flickr user Thom C. Used with Creative Commons license.

From Flickr user Thom C. Used with Creative Commons license.

The “Humble and Kind” and “Girl Crush” songwriter is back with an album full of metaphors and personifications. And every song is a masterpiece.

7. “Midnight Motel,” Jack Ingram

Jack Ingram at Waterloo Records on Friday, Aug. 26, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

Jack Ingram at Waterloo Records on Friday, Aug. 26, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

Ingram told me while promoting this album that “Midnight Motel” was the embodiment of his new mantra: “Don’t write a song that you won’t play for your heroes.” He follows through on his promise here. “Midnight Motel,” his first album since splitting with big Machine seven years ago, is messy, unfiltered and wholly his.

6. “Lovers and Leavers,” Hayes Carll

Hayes Carll taping "Austin City Limits" on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, at ACL Live. Courtesy KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton

Hayes Carll taping “Austin City Limits” on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, at ACL Live. Courtesy KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton

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.

5. “I’m Not the Devil,” Cody Jinks

From Flickr user Brandon Florkey. Used with Creative Commons license.

From Flickr user Brandon Florkey. Used with Creative Commons license.

Jinks used to be the lead guitarist in a Fort Worth thrash metal band.”I’m Not the Devil,” which has enough apocalyptic metaphors to win over Jinks’ older fans but is also firmly rooted in country instrumentation, fuses the attitude of metal with the sound of outlaw country. And it’s perfect.

4. “Rockingham,” BJ Barham

American Aquarium performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Friday October 2, 2015.  JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

American Aquarium performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Friday October 2, 2015. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The American Aquarium frontman embarks on a solo journey here, written immediately after the November 2015 Paris attacks. The album deals with the notion of home and how that home has impacted Barham for better or worse. It’s a heartbreaking ode to small-town life.

3. “American Band,” Drive-By Truckers

Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers plays Hole in the Wall. Photo by Andy Tennille

Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers plays Hole in the Wall. Photo by Andy Tennille

The Drive-By Truckers have aways been political. But they’ve never been as political as they are on “American Band,” which is going to be remembered as a forerunner to much of the protest music that’s going to come out of the Trump administration.

2. “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” Sturgill Simpson

American Country Music Artist Sturgill Simpson performs on Night One at ACL-Live at The Moody Theater in Austin, Texas on May 5, 2016 - Photo Credit: Scott Moore/For American-Statesman

American Country Music Artist Sturgill Simpson performs on Night One at ACL-Live at The Moody Theater in Austin, Texas on May 5, 2016 – Photo Credit: Scott Moore/For American-Statesman

“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. Call it country, call it rock, call it whatever you want, but just know it’s one of the most honest country albums of the year.

1.“Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” Margo Price

Margo Price taping "Austin City Limits" on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. Courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits. Photo by Scott Newton

Margo Price taping “Austin City Limits” on Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. Courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits. Photo by Scott Newton

This was No. 2 on my mid-year list, and I went back and forth between this and “Sailor’s Guide” for a while. After repeated listens, this one grew on me more and more, and it’s a shame this album wasn’t rewarded at all from the Grammys or the CMAs.

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 among the melancholy moments of life. May it be remembered as a classic album from 2016.

Honorary Mentions (in no particular order):

“Hero,” Maren Morris; “Like An Arrow,” Blackberry Smoke; “Gotta Be Me,” Cody Johnson; “Full Circle,” Loretta Lynn; “Shine On Rainy Day,” Brent Cobb; “Southern Family,” prod. by Dave Cobb; “Nothing Shines Like Neon,” Randy Rogers Band; “Then Sings My Soul,” Wade Bowen; “California Sunshine,” Jon Pardi; “Country Songs,” Karen Jonas

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 jharris@statesman.com.


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