In a musical landscape that can be unwelcoming at best to young artists, newcomers have more than held their own in country music. Maren Morris earned her wings with a sassy, pop-country LP that breaks all sorts of molds. The buzz on Margo Price's magnificent debut earned her a rare SNL musical guest invitation. And, with Pawn Shop, Brothers Osborne delivered the most vibrant mix of country and rock since Eric Church became the Chief. Meanwhile, legends like Loretta Lynn and Vince Gill kept pace with the youngsters, delivering some of their best, most introspective work to date. Here, in no particular order, are our picks for the best country and Americana albums so far this year.
It's music tooled alternately for stadiums and songwriting circles, commercial and public radio, line-dance bars and coffee shops. . . Clark is good at bending country boilerplate: On "Drinkin', Smokin', Cheatin'," she teetotals while listing a downward spiral of coping fantasies. She also spikes the comic with the grim; in the cheerfully deadpan "Big Day in a Small Town," a high-schooler passes out in class when her water breaks, and a dude drunkenly flips his pickup en route to his son's football game.
Recorded alongside the Rio Grande with a band that included Bob Seger's touring guitarist, Frankie Ballard's third album packs plenty of country-rock punch, with lyrics that reference Guns N' Roses and songs that evoke the rootsy sweep of the American heartland. The highlights: "Cigarette," a lean, Eighties-leaning anthem co-written by the Nashville dream team of Kip Moore, Chris Stapleton and Jaren Johnston; and "L.A. Woman," a Ballard original built on a trio of electric guitar riffs.
It's one thing to sing about being an outlaw — about jailbreaks and drug use and cheatin' hearts — or to artfully dress the part in vintage denim, tattered boots and tattooed arms, but it's another thing altogether to capture the rebel spirit in the music itself. And that's what Aubrie Sellers, the daughter of Lee Ann Womack, does on her debut full-length LP New City Blues. While her voice is the stuff of classic country dreams, her taste in composition often favors riffs and distortion more commonly heard in subterranean rock clubs than Nashville honky-tonks. Heavy twang and fuzzy feedback might seem like strange bedfellows, but Sellers shows how sweet it sounds to break the rules.
For Loretta Lynn's first album since 2004's Van Lear Rose, the iconic queen of no-bullshit country music, now 83, looks more backwards than forwards. Culled from a decade's worth of sessions and co-produced by John Carter Cash – Johnny's son, whose diapers Lynn changed back in the day – Full Circle is a homey set. There are well-travelled traditional numbers — "Black Jack David," popularized by the Carter Family, and Kurt Cobain's beloved "In the Pines" — that one could imagine being sung in a sitting room down in Butcher Holler.
One problem with breakup albums is how they focus mainly on the feels of the sensitive songwriter — wounded souls they tend to be — but offer little in terms of introspection over what role he or she may have played in the relationship's demise. Texas singer-songwriter Robert Ellis' self-titled fourth album does both, examining the unfortunate collapse of his marriage with a series of pop and jazz-influenced tunes that don't make him look like a victim or hero. In the mellow "California," he depicts a woman packing her dishes and contemplating her next move, and in "Drivin'" he imagines just aimlessly wandering in the car, anything to avoid having to confront the gulf that's opened up between him and his partner. It certainly isn't pretty, which somehow makes it all the more beautifully potent.
At 58 years old, Vince Gill couldn't care less about resurrecting the country-pop hit streak that launched his career more than two dozen years ago. Instead, he fills Down to My Last Bad Habit with songs that explore a wider range of influences, from bluesy jazz to smooth-whipped R&B. Everything is impeccably played, with Gill dishing out plenty of tasteful Telecaster twang throughout. The highlight, though, is his voice, an instrument that sounds as honeyed and heartwarming today as it did in 1989.
Price is a 30-something East Nashvillian originally from Illinois; the vocal style is restrained yet mighty, her songcraft amazingly vivid, and the arranging instinct spot on, with a taste for retro styling that never tilts into Gramma's attic dress-up. The set opener "Hands of Time" comes close, a six-minute memoir-style wrapped in lush strings that channel late Sixties Bobbie Gentry-style country soul. But by the time Price sings about losing a first-born and crying out to God, bruised stoicism muting the sound of her knees hitting the floorboards, you're reminded of the incredible power that lies in tradition well-used.
Leave it to two brothers from the blue-collar docks of Maryland to come up with one of the genre's most unique offerings. The Jay Joyce-produced Pawn Shop is a record several years in the making, one that melds a rock & roll groove (often via John Osborne's killer guitar riffs) with a buttery country soul (often via TJ Osborne's deliciously deep vocals), all anchored around whip-smart lyricism that proves nothing is stronger than blood, especially when it comes to the writing room. At a pawn shop, you can find all sorts of odds and ends, strangely mingling with each other: on Pawn Shop, there are songs about drinking and toking, songs about love and songs about blowing up the kiddie pool when the heat is high but bank accounts are low. Except here, it's a perfect story, not a mishmash — one-stop shopping at its best.
Jennifer Nettles' second post-Sugarland solo album is the all-too-rare country release that allows a grown-ass woman to actually behave like one, making space for clear-eyed depictions of struggles, joys and desires that don't feel like they were cooked up by three overgrown teenage boys in a writing room. Locating a comfortable middle ground that neither squelches nor capitulates to the brassy vocalist's traditional and theatrical tendencies, Playing With Fire also benefits from Dann Huff's bright, contemporary production and ace songwriting collaborators like Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. Nettles plays her characters with empathy: the overworked heroine in "Drunk in Heels" is exhausted but tough as nails, while the vulnerable narrator of "Starting Over" endures a crushing emotional setback every time she encounters her ex. Elsewhere there are sex-positive narratives ("Three Days in Bed") and riffs on self-image ("Sugar") as well as a Jennifer Lopez duet about cultural differences and similarities ("My House"). It's a complex and wide-ranging study, much like the fully-formed women it portrays.
"[C]ountry" is a limiting term for Simpson, who embodies the word in its most inclusive sense. That's him snarling "Sugar Daddy," the nasty blues-boogie theme song to HBO's Vinyl, a song that doesn't appear here. His cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom" does, however, and it's the album's most brilliant WTF moment. Sailor's Guide is classic album length – nine songs, 39 minutes – and best heard in one sitting; this is Nashville craft less as pop science than as rangy headphone storytelling. That's clearest on "Sea Stories," a cautionary tale that involves an enlisted man in Southeast Asia who gets booted from the Navy and ends up back home with a drug habit he regrets, but not completely. "Flying high beats dying for lies in a politician's war," he hollers. It's one of many powerfully defiant moments from an artist who's just getting started.
Millsap doesn't just sing. On his second release via Thirty Tigers, he hoots, howls and hiccups with all the fury of a sinner at Sunday mass, turning The Very Last Day into a showcase for one of the most show-stopping voices in Americana music. He launches himself into the stratosphere with a cover of Fred McDowell's "You Gotta Move," sung in an octave that's better suited to Merry Clayton's range than Mick Jagger's, and recasts himself as a gay churchgoer in "Heaven Sent," a gospel song that preaches equal parts twang and tolerance.
The sturdy Rogers will forever be joined at the belt loop with the Texas music scene. But viewing he and his gang only through that Lone Star lens is doing them a disservice. On the inextinguishable Neon, they're purveyors of all kinds of country music, whether it originates from Nashville or San Antonio. "Neon Blues" is a timeless drinking song, "Rain and the Radio" reverberates with roadhouse soul and "Actin' Crazy" is an L.A. kiss-off with duet partner Jamey Johnson. Rogers and his fiddle-heavy sound will never be mistaken for any of today's pop-country radio gods, but that's not what he's after. Instead, he's carving out a legacy that may one day be on par with that of another Texan: George Strait.
Bookended by a pair of songs from ace co-writer Abe Stoklasa — whose "Lie With Me" was one of the unsung highlights from Lady Antebellum's 747 — Kelley's solo debut finds the Lady A bandmate in the driver's seat, steering between the Hall & Oates-worthy funk of "Lonely Girl" and the heartbreaking balladry of "Leaving Nashville." The album stumbles slightly during an unnecessary cover of Tom Petty's "Southern Accents," featuring harmonies and credibility points from Stevie Nicks, but regains its footing with the Grammy-nominated title track, which may be Kelley's best vocal to date.
With blowsy, parched vocals, languorous tempos, straggly melodies and flyaway guitar lines, Lucinda Williams' 12th album feels a little like an alt-country picture of Dorian Gray. You could also call it a portrait of the artist as an older woman: time-scarred, unapologetic, but still potent. Its jazzy rawness represents a high point of emotional craft in a career defined by it.
Maren Morris' debut mixes Nashville's economical wordplay with a warm embrace of modern pop. At times she evokes Bonnie Raitt's soulful tone and at others borrows Rihanna's tough swagger — but does both with ease. By refusing to conform to genre expectations, Morris skillfully blends these disparate influences into a low-key triumph.
After Chris Stapleton's Traveller galvanized the Grammy, CMA and ACM Awards alike, suddenly its producer was the most wanted man in Nashville. Riding a crest of newfound (and deserved) acclaim, Cobb conceived and produced this compilation, which unites several of the artists with whom he's worked his magic. The roster is star-studded, from Jason Isbell and Miranda Lambert to Zac Brown and Chris and Morgane Stapleton, but the songs are homespun odes to relationships. Brandy Clark's sophisticated "I Cried," in particular, is a sucker punch to the gut, and the Stapletons recast "You Are My Sunshine" with high-lonesome devotion. Southern Family is a crowning achievement for Cobb in a year already full of them.
As he did on 2013's Fuse, Urban collaborated with a small army of producers, including, this time, Chic's Nile Rodgers. Amazingly, the finished product never feels disjointed or stitched together. From the sweaty club beats of opener "Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)" to the majestic Number One "Wasted Time," Ripcord is Urban's superstar album, making the case that he's the man to take country into the future. Even the Pitbull collaboration "Sun Don't Let Me Down," which could have been a disaster of Mr. Worldwide proportions, succeeds, thanks to the versatile Urban's commitment to creating music free of genres. Listen again to "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" on headphones and marvel at how the studio geek seamlessly marries country ethos with modernist beats to cut the most sonically satisfying single of the past two years.
"What else are there / But the treasures in your heart?/ Something tamed, something wild." Those are some of the first lines you hear on Carpenter's 14th studio album. Burrowing into the vagaries of love and the roads not taken, these songs glow with spectral elegance and sage wisdom that comes only from experience. Working with producer Dave Cobb, he of the Midas touch of late, Carpenter strips her ruminations to their skeletal core, but make no mistake, they're still made of flesh and blood.
It took Hayes Carll five years after 2011's KMAG YOYO to release his most personal and poignant record yet, Lovers and Leavers. And not only was it well worth the wait, but the resulting album became stronger for it. After going through a divorce, the witty Carll turned some of his more sarcastic observations inward, using his keen attention to detail and honest wordplay to bring light to his own struggles and heartbreak. Anchored by more subtle, less barn-burning instrumentals, songs like "The Love That We Need" and "Good While It Lasted" might be about Carll, but they manage to touch more deeply on the shared human condition than he's ever done before.
If Ryan Beaver's Rx began and ended only with its opening track "Dark," it would still have achieved its goal: to be a stark, meditative prescription for modern country that doesn't lose power or potency in the quest to cover more serious material than just pickup trucks and tan lines. Beaver doesn't shy away from the anthemic on songs like "Dark" or "Rum & Roses," nor does he rely on raw production to produce raw emotions. Well-crafted and nicely balanced between moments of introspection and pure levity, Rx is the kind of album that is timeless without being time-warped.
If there's a baby-making LP this year, it's Dierks Bentley's captivating Black, a concept album that covers all the twists and turns of a relationship. With intense, often sexy lyrics made even more potent by the singer's intoxicating, gravelly voice, Black takes listeners on a journey through love lost and found — a trip that includes infidelity, rebounds, self realization and, ultimately, redemption. Foreplay — provided most notably by the seriously sensual title track, along with mesmerizing Maren Morris duet, "I'll Be the Moon" — is balanced with just a touch of play, as Bentley doesn't completely stray from his party-guy past. (See the cheeky "Somewhere on a Beach.") But the serious, introspective moments are the standouts here, whether he's offering a sympathetic shoulder to women post-breakup in the clever Elle King duet "Different for Girls," or waxing poetic on soul-saving love in the poignant, album-closing "Light It Up."
The founder and longtime host of East Nashville's "$2 Tuesdays" concert series, Hoke played a role in launching the careers of songwriters like Margo Price, giving them a stage long before record labels began calling. He reclaims the spotlight for himself with Southern Moon, his third LP of country shuffles, Bible Belt ballads and honky-tonk home-runs. The guest list may be large — including heavyweights like Elizabeth Cook, Robyn Hitchcock and Mickey Raphael — but Hoke's star shines the brightest, thanks to a smooth, grit-free voice and a set of elastic guitar chops.
Typically, when the accomplished singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson gets sent unsolicited music, he says it's "almost always awful and often funny." But when Virginia native Dori Freeman sent him a track called "Lullaby," it "took maybe 10 to 12 seconds" to hook Thompson, he admits. He quickly agreed to produce the 25-year-old's self-titled debut album, as well as lend harmonies to some of its strongest songs. Freeman's voice is pure, languid and dreamy, but it's not without the occasional burst of spunk, such as when she produces a triple-hitch yodel on the doo-woppy "Tell Me." There are touches of Appalachia, Patty Griffin and even Norah Jones, the type of album that's apt to make a grinning listener close her eyes, tilt her face toward the sun and spin around barefoot in a meadow.
One of the year's most welcome surprises comes from a former Wyoming ranch hand and recalls a time when the phrase "& western" was frequently appended to the country designation. With his deep, resonant baritone, Bell conjures up towering figures from the country canon but has the songs as well, veering nimbly from the honky-tonk shuffle of "Sometimes" and "Hold Me" to the wistful balladry of "Loretta." He also recalls the tumbleweed sadness of Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" with gorgeous spirals of 12-string on "Where Ya Been?" Whether he's kicking up dust on a word-twisting dance number or singing the moving story of "The Bullfighter," Bell's the kind of tough cowboy country needs every so often.
Traditionalism isn't dead — artists are just finding ways to incorporate old tricks into modern settings. California native Jon Pardi's second album is a fine example, mixing a pronounced California twang and George Strait's easy swing with some meaty guitar riffs and the occasional programmed beat. Lead single "Head Over Boots" is a starry-eyed love song destined to be one of the year's highlights, but Pardi charms on all fronts: cutting loose after a hard day's work in the slinky "Dirt on My Boots" and feeling Pacific-sized waves of longing in the epic title track. Sometimes honoring the past isn't about constantly reliving it — it's about finding a way forward that sagely incorporates its lessons.