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25 Best Country & Americana Albums of 2016 So Far

From Maren to Loretta, Dierks to Vince, the best LPs of the year’s first half

25, Best, Country, Americana, Albums, 2016, So Far, Rolling Stone

Nino Muñoz, Red Light Management, Reto Sterchi

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.

Derek Hoke

Derek Hoke, ‘Southern Moon’

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.

Dori Freeman

Dori Freeman, ‘Dori Freeman’

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.

Luke Bell

Luke Bell, ‘Luke Bell’

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.

California Sunrise

Jon Pardi, ‘California Sunrise’

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.

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