These albums may have slipped by many country and Americana fans in 2016, but Rolling Stone Country's editors and contributors think they are worth another listen.
No one apparently bothered to tell Mark Chesnutt that the Nineties ended some time ago, because the Texas native's 2016 album Tradition Lives sounds remarkably like something he might have released during his commercial peak in the Clinton years. There are no loop-adorned concessions to country radio here, only dancehall-ready honky-tonk played fast or slow, like the lively she's-moving-on two-stepper "Lonely Ain't the Only Game in Town" or the double infidelity drama of "Is It Still Cheating?" Chesnutt still sounds fantastic, able to finesse the complicated emotional territory of "Losing You All Over Again" and the winking humor of "Neither Did I" in equal measure. For fans wondering what happened to the sound of classic country, Chesnutt put it right in the album title: Tradition Lives was a statement of truth from a honky-tonk evangelist. J.F.
The Rhode Island native may have gotten her start on The Voice, but the roots rock and R&B of Monster proves she has way more depth than any superficial reality-TV show. The title track is an unflinchingly honest and vulnerable look at body shaming – and acceptance – with Potenza wearing her plus-size like a badass badge of honor. "Up on the Third Floor" recalls her character-building years living in a rough Chicago neighborhood with husband and guitarist Ian Crossman. And the homespun "Granddad" is full of redneck platitudes – "always carry your gun" and never buy a car "you can't sleep in," which elicited whoops at a recent Opry performance. In the standout "My Turn," Potenza asks, "When's it gonna be my turn?" The answer, it seems, is right now. J.H.
Seventeen years ago, after a battle with throat cancer, John Prine rested his voice just a bit by recording In Spite of Ourselves, an extraordinary collection of duets with Connie Smith, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Melba Montgomery and more. In addition to a wryly placed comma that speaks volumes, this year's For Better, or Worse revisits the duet format and includes two of the singers who graced the 1999 set: Iris DeMent and Prine's wife, Fiona. A younger coalition of prime Prine fans, including Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Morgane Stapleton, is spotlighted, along with superb contributions from Alison Krauss, Kathy Mattea and Lee Ann Womack, but it's tough to beat Mr. and Mrs. Prine and the swirling, dreamy "My Happiness." Who says romance is dead? S.B.
Courtney Granger's previous solo release came out nearly 20 years ago, when the Louisiana native was still a teenager, and focused mainly on his fiddle playing and traditional French-language Cajun tunes. On Beneath Still Waters, he makes a case for himself as a skillful country interpreter, resurrecting old hits like "Back in My Baby's Arms Again" and "Lovin' on Backstreets," and flaunting an elastic, George Jones-style croon. Alongside these better known tunes are obscure offerings from the pens of Dallas Frazier, Bill Anderson and Hank Cochran, appropriately sounding like an old-timey playlist for a barroom-medicated heartbreak. Let's just hope Granger doesn't wait another 20 years for the follow-up. J.F.
Michaela Anne – who originally attended Manhattan's New School to study jazz before gravitating to country and moving to Nashville – reveals a manifesto about two-thirds of the way through Bright Lights and the Fame. "I'm a dreamer, my heart's on the line," she sings on "Won't Go Down." As her band pounds out dogged country-rock behind her, she delivers her declaration of independence: "Some sell out for that dollar sign / But you can keep your money cause I'm doing just fine." Accordingly, this fine record shows no interest in recent developments in country music, preferring instead to focus on elements from the genre's storied history: reams of pedal-steel guitar, honky-tonk basslines, and twinkly pianos punching through perilously slow ballads. Michaela Anne knows her away around the dancehalls, too: "Liquor Up," a pie-eyed, sub-three-minute wonder, is sure to compel movement from even the stiffest of listeners. E.L.
One of the year's best Americana releases came, shockingly enough, from an artist who cut his teeth as a glam rocker. Formerly of the band Semi Precious Weapons, Nashville's Aaron Lee Tasjan is a virtuosic guitarist and gifted vocalist. His sophomore full-length Silver Tears came just a year after his debut In the Blazes caught the ears of fans and critics alike. It's no half-baked collection, though, full of thoughtful songwriting and unexpected melodies. The vocal harmonies on the chorus to "Memphis Rain" alone are enough to warrant a listen, but Silver Tears is a stellar start-to-finish project, showcasing an artist who is just as skilled at story songs as he is at slinging guitar solos. B.M.
From the time the teenaged Wynonna Judd made her debut beside her harmonizing mom Naomi, there was no question that Appalachian-influenced country music was a natural fit for their honey-sweet vocals. But as the years progressed, Wynonna perfected the devilish, Elvis-influenced snarl and the glorious Mahalia Jackson-like rumble from deep within. Winding through slippery blues and stone-cold country, this LP, produced by Wynonna's husband and Big Noise drummer Cactus Moser, is more than a solo showcase. Guest shots from Jason Isbell and fellow blues belter Susan Tedeschi, and songs from Chris Stapleton and Travis Meadows are cool touches, but it's the perfectly imperfect approach that sets this full-band album apart. S.B.
At first listen, Exodus in Venus may be a mighty dark road to travel for Cook, a charming yet bawdy conversationalist who has brightened SiriusXM's Outlaw Country channel as a DJ with her sparkling wit and populated her records with spunky slices of traditional country. Here, there's a surplus of grief and frayed confessionals, borne of murky encounters with death and rehab. And the swamp-heavy blues guitars tell as much of the story as Cook's often-visceral lyrics. But instead of whistling past the graveyard of a turbulent few years, the singer-songwriter invites those ghosts to join her in song, and never lets them – or herself – completely off the hook. S.B.
Wheeler may have blasted the Grammys on Twitter for snubbing him this year, but the smack-talking, dick-whacking outlaw-country singer should focus his energy on the Academy Awards – because Ben Hoffman's commitment deserves an Oscar. It's the comic's all-in devotion to the character that makes Wheeler's debut album Redneck Shit such a rewarding listen. Yes, there are lyrics about beating off, face-sitting and all manners of deviance, but it's that rare musical comedy record you find yourself going back to, thanks to catchy songs, honest country playing (steel guitar!) and the rough-and-ready production of Dave Cobb. To be sure, Wheeler's the dude you'll go home with when the ugly lights come on, but he's far from a one-night stand. J.H.
The folk music of today is so often preoccupied with capturing a sort of earnest, ramshackle joy – one ho! hey! at a time – that it's often easy to forget the sense of melancholy that artists like Elliott Smith, or even Leonard Cohen, used to evoke with the emotive rumble of an acoustic guitar. Luke Roberts, an East Nashville native, uses country's tools – like pedal steel, courtesy of Drive-By Truckers' John Neff, and Kurt Vile, bringing the lo-fi banjo – to take things to a more ghostly, cerebral place on his third LP, Sunlit Cross. Conjuring everything from Smog's Kicking a Couple Around to John Paul Jones' mandolin on Led Zeppelin's "Going to California," this meditation on farce and faith feels far more urgent than anything dripping in fiddle-forced jubilation. M.M.
"One day I won't be insane," sings Dylan LeBlanc on "Look How Far We've Come," a minor key, moody shuffle off his third album Cautionary Tale. If this is madness, then lock us up. Cautionary Tale, produced by Alabama Shakes' Ben Tanner and John Paul White, is a gorgeous 10-track journey about going through hell and surviving with a broken halo. LeBlanc has been compared to Neil Young – and if how "Easy Way Out" echoes the main two-bar vamp of "Ohio" isn't proof enough, just look at the biting lyrics of "Beyond the Veil" – but he melds a Seventies sensibility with a taste for the soothing, locomotive Southern blues. Other artists who record in Muscle Shoals, where Cautionary Tale was made, get preoccupied with sounding "swampy": LeBlanc, however, would rather surrender to the flow of the river than get stuck in the mud. M.M.
Morgan allowed himself to age gracefully on his seventh studio album, and the payoff is readily apparent. A Whole Lot More to Me is a mature record that, while not afraid to have a little fun ("I'm That Country"), values poignancy over pop country. Songs like "Hearts I Leave Behind," "Country Side of Heaven" and "When I'm Gone" sting with emotion – and take on more weight in light of the accidental death of Morgan's teenage son shortly after the album's release. But it's the title track in which the vocalist, a country Renaissance man who hosts his own outdoors show, works as a law-enforcement officer and gives motivational speeches, reveals the glorious dichotomy of his being. Crooning "I like caviar and a tall glass of champagne" without a hint of baller bravado, Morgan shows that even the captain of the "Redneck Yacht Club" can appreciate the finer things in life. J.H.
Scan the song titles on Waldon's second album, I've Got a Way, and you might preemptively reach for the nearest liquor bottle: "All By Myself," "Travelin' Down This Lonesome Road" (a Bill Monroe cover) and "The Heartbreak." But Waldon doesn't wallow; rather, the retro-minded Kentucky singer is irrepressible. At every turn on I've Got a Way, she throws out self-help precepts like breadcrumbs for pigeons. "You don't need anybody to tell you that you can't live the way you want to," she reminds listeners on "You Can Have It." A few songs later, on "I'd Rather Go On," she's playing the part of patient relationship therapist: "All the petty things that make up our mind ain't nothing in the long run at all." And on "False King" – which echoes fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson's savory, roaring "You Can Have the Crown" – Waldon even offers musical advice: "I believe in doing it right, taking your time, staying true to who are / Fight the good fight, keep those harmonies tight, and maybe tuning your guitar." E.L.
Country neo-traditionalists really had a moment this year, from the widespread critical success of newcomer Margo Price's debut album Midwest Farmer's Daughter to the well-received returns of veterans Loretta Lynn (Full Circle) and Dwight Yoakam (Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars…). Luke Bell is one of the more exciting new entries into the canon, with his self-titled debut a deftly assembled collection of songs harkening back to the days of Ernest Tubb and Roger Miller. Opening track "Sometimes" is a honky-tonk shuffle worthy of the dancefloor, while "Where Ya Been?" showcases the raw emotion behind Bell's baritone. The Wyoming-born artist manages to pay homage to an earlier age without ever sounding like he's merely imitating it – never an easy feat. B.M.
Rorey Carroll is a hobo, a convict, a former drug trafficker, an Appalachian-trail hiker and a train stowaway, but none of that quite compares to how bravely she talks about love. "It is as awkward as a teenage boy who just came in his pants," she sings on "Love Is an Outlaw," the title track off her sophomore LP. Well, damn. If you're in the market for easy moonlight metaphors, don't look here: Carroll, who so captivated Todd Snider that he signed on to release her album himself, mixes that daring discomfort with a casual, rasp-whisper delivery and chugging guitars, coming out like Gillian Welch's long-lost, more devilish little sister. It takes a real outlaw to be as arresting as this. M.M.