Country music finally broke free of the bro stranglehold in 2016, with a demonstrative return to more thoughtful lyrics and a U-turn away from sound-alike production. Though, regrettably, country radio could still use a lesson in equality, artists like Margo Price, Miranda Lambert, Aubrie Sellers and Maren Morris continued to prove that some of the most insightful songwriting is coming from women. Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan found the sweet spot between contemporary polish and traditional instruments; Brothers Osborne displayed a blue-collar heart and affinity for the Band; and Keith Urban pushed the envelope by collaborating with Nile Rodgers and Pitbull. Here's the best of the year.
Thirty years after Dwight Yoakam set out on a cowpunk adventure with his debut album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., the honky-tonk-meets-everything-else troubadour throws the establishment another curveball with the bluegrass-based Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars…. Boasting string-forward reinventions of his back catalog, Yoakam digs deep on the majority of the album's 12 tracks – "Guitars, Cadillacs" and "Please, Please Baby" are the only Top Ten hits in the set. Backed by high-energy pickers like guitarist Bryan Sutton, fiddler Stuart Duncan and mandolinist Adam Steffey, Yoakam comes off as reenergized, delivering his lines with extra gusto. But it's actually a song that he didn't write that stands as Swimmin' Pools' high-water mark: a spontaneous cover of Prince's "Purple Rain," with Yoakam's croon wrought with emotion. W.H.
As the title suggests, there's nothing fancy or fussy about Dolly Partons's first Number One country album in a quarter century. Its charms rest in the way she flaunts a robust voice that hasn't aged a day in decades, and in the little instrumental touches, often acoustic, like the fiddle answering her call on "Say Forever You'll Be Mine." This 70-year-old legend isn't afraid to look back – she revisits two songs she'd recorded as duets with Porter Wagoner in the Seventies, and tweaks another song she'd recorded more than 30 years ago ("Can't Be That Wrong"). But she's focused enough on the future, looking forward with "Tomorrow Is Forever" or boasting about how young she feels on "I'm Sixteen," to make all of us wonder what she'll do next. K.H.
This year's Blindfaller – Mandolin Orange's third album since signing with Yep Roc and their fifth overall – continues the evolution of vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin as they approach traditional roots music from a fresh, modern perspective. The musical tapestry of Blindfaller is delicately woven with lush threads of acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin and pedal steel, all ever-present without ever overplaying. However, it's the vocal interplay of Frantz and Marlin that is the band's most distinctive calling card. Opening track "Hey Stranger" crystallizes all of Mandolin Orange's unique qualities into one three-and-a-half minute heart punch that both soothes and aches. W.H.
Where the classic stereotype of country music is grounded and earthy, guitarist William Tyler's Modern Country is soaring and airy. Yet for all the beauty of these seven evocative instrumentals, it's trauma that is at their candy-coated core. The music's inspiration dates back a few years, to a crippling anxiety attack that Tyler suffered while on tour – an agoraphobia brought on by driving on interstate highways. So Tyler took to the back roads and stumbled onto a new invisible republic, the bypassed and dying small towns whose hopeless denizens went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in this year's presidential election. Tyler's twangy, quietly ruminative melodies are set atop mechanized European rhythms (think Kraftwerk's 1974 classic "Autobahn"), creating soundtracks for dreamy twilight road trips. Modern Country is perfect driving music for today's America, whether the passing scenery is amber waves of grain or boarded-up storefronts. D.M.
On her sixth album Honest Life, Courtney Marie Andrews, a songwriter and touring musician since her teenage years, is interested in the subtleties of human emotion that only appear offline. Joni Mitchell is the logical comparison to the soft howl and deep-Canyon vibrato of her vocals, but there are echoes of the Indigo Girls and even Ryan Adams' Gold too since her songs are anchored by smart lyricism that seems more like an intimate conversation than a fiery confessional. "Sometimes it just ain't easy to live an honest life," she admits on the title track, delivered with the conviction of someone who seems to really try. M.M.
To the Cadillac Three, not giving a fuck is a virtue. Which is why the grunge-country trio's debut album boots nearly every Nashville norm in the ass. While the record does include the requisite paeans to six-packs, hot girls and getting buzzed, singer and chief songwriter Jaren Johnston approaches the topics with a fresh, if bloodshot, eye. The true triumphs, though, are when the band digs deeper – ruminating on mortality in the title track, recalling spray-painted memories in "Graffiti" and exalting the funny way they talk in the magnificent "This Accent." Johnston sneers like a hillbilly Liam Gallagher and plays guitar with reckless abandon throughout, backed by the tightest yet most unconventional rhythm section in town: drummer Neil Mason and lap-steel player Kelby Ray. J.H.
Equal parts Nineties grunge-rock angst and sneering outlaw defiance, Cody Jinks' I'm Not the Devil gets at a growing undercurrent of working class disaffection without sacrificing hooks or fun in the process. The former thrash-metal singer writes about living an outlaw musician's life – always on the go in the barn-burning "Chase that Song" and bleeding for a dream in the revved-up "No Guarantees." He acknowledges his place in the lineage with covers of Sonny Throckmorton's "The Way I Am" and Billy Don Burns' "Church at Gaylor Creek," using his warm baritone to agitate and caress at will. But Jinks crawls into deeper, darker places to brood about the world his kids will have to inherit, playing Holden Caulfield on "Vampires" and quoting from Revelation in the apocalyptic "Heavy Load," easily country's most metal song of 2016. "Train jumped track a long time ago," he sings in the chorus, more prescient than anyone could have imagined. J.F.
Country legend Ray Price boasted a smooth baritone equally well suited to a hot honky-tonk shuffle or a plush countrypolitan arrangement. On this tribute, his old pal Willie, who cut his teeth in Price's Cherokee Cowboys and invited the aging legend to record an album of country standards in 2007, prefers Price's rougher side. He enlists the Vince Gill-anchored Western swing luminaries the Time Jumpers on half the tracks, kicking off "Heartaches by the Number" with a truly ferocious twin-fiddle attack. But Nelson also honors the Price who found a second career by embracing the honeyed Nashville Sound – on "Make the World Go Away" Willie even brings in a full chorale. The 83-year-old Nelson's timeworn voice allows him to discover unexpected nuances in these country classics. K.H.
There's no one better to sidle up to as the apocalypse approaches than Oklahoma's Parker Millsap – on his third LP, The Very Last Day, he makes the end of times sound downright joyous. "When I see that cloud, gonna sing out loud," he wails on the title track, talking about clouds of the mushroom variety, not soft fluffy ones. Raised in the Pentecostal Church, Millsap's as unafraid to broach subjects like a gay son coming out to his pastor father ("Heaven Sent") as he is the rapture ("Tribulation Hymn"), sliding along from one lanky fiddle cry to the next with a gospel strut and a stack of Southern-gothic lyrics. M.M.
"Do you hate me, honey, as much as I hate myself?" asks Hiss Golden Messenger main man Michael "M.C." Taylor on the title track to Heart Like a Levee, a stunning country-soul treatise on the hardness of the world. This collection of songs began as a university commission for music to accompany a showing of old black-and-white photographs of a Kentucky coal-mining camp. But Taylor wound up turning his focus inward, to the self-loathing guilt that comes from trying to balance art, responsibility and conscience. While he sounds at war with himself as the album commences, Taylor conveys a sense of stoic joy over the course of Levee's 11 songs – an evocation of faith not in the almighty, but in what makes people keep on keepin' on. D.M.
The debut album by L.A. blues trio the Record Company delivers a third-rail shock, zapping new life into a genre that often lumbers along on the same shopworn chord progressions. Not so on Give It Back to You, where the Record Company channel the distorted feedback of the White Stripes and Led Zeppelin at their most thumping. It's modern blues – "Contemporary," according to the Grammy category in which the album was just nominated – for a new era, where maligning mean-eyed women for your heartache doesn't resonate like it used to. In dynamic lead single "Off the Ground," singer Chris Vos lays the blame for his troubles squarely at his own feet, howling to "let the truth be told." J.H.
Darrell Scott's been a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to Nashville songwriting: a solo artist, a hitmaker (Dixie Chicks' "Long Time Gone"), a session guy and a collaborator to folks like Guy Clark. For nearly 30 years, he's been making Americana before it turned trendy and watched as country went from the Quonset Hut soundboard to the Pizza Hut speakers. Much of Couchville Sessions – which sat for over a decade and a half before being reinvigorated and released – is a reflection on the freedom that comes with worrying more about making music than where it might belong. "We won't give a damn if it's folk, rock, country or blues" he sings on the opening track, "Down to the River," an anthem in the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me" made for anyone looking to relieve the pressure of online music discovery algorithms. M.M.
Ellis uses traditional credentials – a light nasal croon, co-writers like Jonny Fritz and Angaleena Presley – as cover on an album that quietly pushes a wildly open-minded view of what country music can be. In interviews, Ellis cites Duke Ellington as an influence, and several tracks are bathed in dramatic, Nelson Riddle-like string arrangements. "Screw" is wordless, ambient and electronic, while the easy grace of Seventies singer songwriters is everywhere. On "The High Road," Ellis mourns that "the high road is closed for repairs/And nobody cares about songs anymore," but don't count him among those who have lost faith in music's power. E.L.
Stepping out of the long shadow cast by his highly successful duo the Civil Wars, John Paul White uses the deceptively sparse Beulah – his first solo album in eight years – as both a reset and reintroduction. The record's musicality is richly steeped in his Muscle Shoals roots, with swampy guitars, bluesy vocals and minimal percussive elements providing an unassuming underpinning for the intimate performances. And the strength of White's songwriting lies in the masterful balance he strikes between character and confession. While it may be tempting to view every lyrical "he" and "she" as an allusion to White's former partner in the Civil Wars, Joy Williams, such assignment squanders the chance to find one's own story in White's universal tales. From the acoustic, finger-picked slink of "Black Leaf" to the gritty electric stomp of "Fight for You," Beulah travels through White's musical stomping ground, but it's by no means a solitary journey. W.H.
A graceful and wholly unique supergroup record, this LP's anchor is provided by what each vocalist brings to the table: Neko Case's vocals soar with celebration and lament, K.D. Lang's croon sashays with seduction, and Laura Veirs' whimsical delivery offers an unpretentious cool throughout. But it's the impeccable union of their voices that makes this dusky alt-country album such a one-of-a-kind listen. While each member is given beautiful leading moments – Case's "Supermoon," Lang's "Honey and Smoke," Veirs' "Song for Judee" – it's the trio-led tracks "Atomic Number," "Blue Fires" and "I Want to Be Here" that make the album transcendent. W.H.
While arguments over the crossover-friendly direction of country radio raged in Nashville over the last few years, the tradition-minded Texas scene carried on without blinking an eye. So it's not surprising that Rogers' seventh studio LP featured an impressive cross-generational slice of country singers with classic bona fides: Jerry Jeff Walker, Alison Krauss and Jamey Johnson all make sterling guest appearances. Nothing Shines Like Neon dips into sensual groove on "Rain and the Radio" and ragged, laid-back boogie-woogie on "Taking It as It Comes." Best of all is "Tequila Eyes," which feels like Rogers' bid to create a new standard, a sozzled, tragic take on the Eagles' placid country-rock. E.L.
In 2014, heads swiveled when Cody Johnson's Cowboy Like Me debuted inside the Top 10 on the Billboard Country Albums chart – a Texas singer without a major label deal was suddenly pulling even with some of Nashville's power players. Some dismissed that as a fluke, but after Gotta Be Me arrived at Number Two, it was clear that Johnson is here to stay. Though he's an indie act, he's not afraid to record excellent songs from Nashville insiders like Chris Dubois and Jeffrey Steele; this is a singer at home with both Texas dance halls and Sam Hunt-like recitation. And radio programmers have taken note: "With You I Am" cracked the Country Airplay chart, another coup for the underdog. E.L.
While fronting Texas twosome Sons of Fathers, Paul Cauthen never quite let himself howl as deeply or profoundly as he does on his first solo LP, My Gospel, an amalgam of Shoals soul, the tearful grit of Tom Waits' Closing Time and the spirit of indie-rockabilly interpreters like Richard Hawley. Cauthen always slaps his songs with the double meanings: When he croons "be there soon" as the gospel choir kicks in on the track of the same name, is he talking about arriving at the altar with a bride, or in a wooden box? It doesn't matter much; most of the record exists equally in the spiritual and cerebral realms, constantly catapulted through the atmosphere by Cauthen's thunderous vocals. M.M.
Shovels & Rope's Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst continue their exploration of Americana's more experimental corners on Little Seeds, blending folk song traditions with fuzzed-out guitar noise and their inimitable vocal harmonies. Death is also in the neighborhood: On the droning, spoken word piece "BWYR," they address racially motivated violence, then turn deeply personal with the plaintive "Mourning Song" and frenzied "Invisible Man” – both inspired by Trent's father's battle with Alzheimer's. Hearst and Trent still find joy in unexpected places, whether it's a rainy New Orleans wedding in "St. Anne's Parade," or the unsung talents of the Band's Garth Hudson in "The Last Hawk." Album closer "This Ride" ties it all together, cursing the inevitable tragedies and straining to find the beauty that makes it all worthwhile. J.F.
Given Lucinda Williams' Americana icon status, it's easy to forget that she started out steeped in the blues. But she gets back to Robert Johnson's crossroads on The Ghosts of Highway 20, her second straight double album and an idiosyncratic swamp-blues masterpiece. A lot of credit goes to guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, who are at their atmospheric blue-toned best in punctuating these 14 musings of heaven, hell and all that lies between. At the mic, Williams plunges into the mystic with extravagantly passionate vocal performances that recall Van Morrison speaking in tongues. "I've seen the face of hell, I know that place pretty damn well," Williams coos on the penultimate track "If There's a Heaven" – which is followed by "Faith and Grace," a 13-minute epic where she turns the phrase "get right with God" into an obsessive, terrifying mantra. Clearly, getting to heaven requires raising a little hell. D.M.
Carrie Rodriguez is a Berklee-trained, Mexican-American fiddle player and singer whose fifth studio album was partially inspired by her great aunt, ranchera singer Eva Garza. Lola is Rodriguez's first bilingual record and includes a cover of the traditional Mexican song "Perfidia" next to breathtaking originals like "I Dreamed I Was Lola Beltrán," which imagines the life of another famous ranchera singer. But beneath the lovely melodies and effortless mutability on this crowd-funded, self-released album, there's also pointed critique: In "Z," Rodriguez sings about all the venues that have misspelled her name over the years. "Doors are gonna open if you want them to," she sings, "but you might have to knock 'em down." Her mission? "Tell country music where to put a 'z.'" E.L.
Experimental and ambitious, Keith Urban's ninth studio album crosses way over from country, but never at the risk of trying too hard. Rather, the progressively minded singer-guitarist challenges his fans, introducing sounds and genres that don't typically appear on a Nashville album but nonetheless feel right at home. There's the surprisingly sturdy party-pop collaboration with Pitbull and disco-funk legend Nile Rodgers "Sun Don't Let Me Down"; the modern-day doo-wop of "Blue Ain't Your Color"; and the dance-floor rave of the Carrie Underwood duet "The Fighter." But it's the Number One single "Wasted Time" that best embodies Ripcord's visionary spirit, simultaneously recalling Urban country-radio jams "Days Go By" and "Better Life" and demonstrating how successful country music experimentation can be in the right hands. W.H.
With 20 Grammy Awards and a career spanning three decades, Vince Gill has nothing left to prove. But Down to My Last Bad Habit, his first album since 2011, is a welcome return from a master of the form. Gill is cheerfully oblivious to current trends on country radio, returning to old standbys: heartbroken acoustic ballads ("I'll Be Waiting for You"), innuendo-laden blues rock ("Make You Feel Real Good") and George Jones-homage ("Sad One Comin' On"). The title track is slick blue-eyed soul, full of pointed guitar and backing vocals that approximate long, lovelorn sighs, while "Reasons for the Tears I Cry" finds Gill slipping into a more forceful register, asserting his right to weep with help from a firm backbeat and rugged riffs. This singer knows his strengths – immaculate production, tender expressions of feeling – and deploys them expertly. E.L.
Vicksburg, Mississippi, native William Michael Morgan had yet to be born when the famed class of '89 (Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson) arrived on the scene, but his debut album Vinyl could place him squarely at the center of that Nashville revolution. With nods to the crooning vocal style of all-seasons hero George Strait, Morgan effortlessly relates his stories: a crush in Number One hit "I Met a Girl," class affinity in "People Like Me" and infidelity in the Rhodes-flecked "Cheap Cologne." In the title track, he sings of a love so perfect that it should be issued in the modern hipster's preferred format. Though it works even on an iPhone. J.F.
Miranda Lambert's divorce album made headlines this year, but Hayes Carll also released an essential meditation on love, both enduring and ephemeral. It took five years after the fire of KMAG YOYO for Carll to release Lovers and Leavers, a period when he saw his marriage crumble but his connection with his son fortify. And Carll, who has always been one of the sharpest wits in the room, let the music reflect this sentimental split with heartbreaking results – often because he's so adept at capturing the most unglamorous, relatable snapshots of humanity. "We never go to bed angry, 'cause we never fight," he sings on "The Love That We Need," a track with a little Bruce Hornsby flourish that highlights how most relationships end with a slow burn, not a giant explosion. It's truth, not tabloid. M.M.
Robbie Fulks has always had a way with a punchline, going back to "She Took a Lot of Pills and Died" from his 1996 debut, and there are definitely some laughs to be had on his 13th album. But the smart-ass is more subdued on Upland Stories, easily Fulks' best and most heartfelt work to date. Inspiration came from James Agee's 1941 poverty portrait "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," as well as Fulks' own misbegotten New South youth, with Steve Albini recording old-timey and bluegrass arrangements that are understated enough to where you won't miss a word. They're great words, too, back-pages ruminations drawn from growing up in a place and time where "kindness is a show for strangers." The best moment is "Never Come Home," in which a dying man tries to go back one last time only to be "welcomed like a guilty prisoner." You can't go home again is one of this album's many hard lessons. D.M.