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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.

lucinda williams

Lucinda Williams, ‘The Ghosts of Highway 20’

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 hero

Maren Morris, ‘Hero’

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.

dave cobb southern family

Dave Cobb, ‘Southern Family’

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.

Keith urban Ripcord

Keith Urban, ‘Ripcord’

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.

mary chapin carpenter the things that we are made of

Mary Chapin Carpenter, ‘The Things That We Are Made Of’

"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.

Hayes Carll Lovers and Leavers

Hayes Carll, ‘Lovers and Leavers’

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.

ryan beaver rx

Ryan Beaver, ‘Rx’

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.

Dierks Bentley Black

Dierks Bentley, ‘Black’

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."

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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