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40 Best Country Albums of 2016

Miranda Lambert, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and more of the year’s best

Miranda Lambert, Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price made some of 2016's best country albums.

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.

Darrell Scott, Couchville Sessions

Darrell Scott, ‘Couchville Sessions’

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.

Robert Ellis, Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis, ‘Robert Ellis’

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.

John Paul White, Beulah

John Paul White, ‘Beulah’

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.

Case/Lang/Veirs, Case/Lang/Veirs

Case/Lang/Veirs, ‘Case/Lang/Veirs’

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.

Randy Rogers Band, Nothing Shines Like Neon

Randy Rogers Band, ‘Nothing Shines Like Neon’

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.

Cody Johnson, Gotta Be Me

Cody Johnson, ‘Gotta Be Me’

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.

Paul Cauthen, My Gospel

Paul Cauthen, ‘My Gospel’

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 and Rope, Little Seeds

Shovels & Rope, ‘Little Seeds’

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.

Lucinda Williams – The Ghosts of Highway 20

Lucinda Williams, ‘The Ghosts of Highway 20’

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, Lola

Carrie Rodriguez, ‘Lola’

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.

Keith Urban, Ripcord

Keith Urban, ‘Ripcord’

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.

Vince Gill, Down to My Last Bad Habit

Vince Gill, ‘Down to My Last Bad Habit’

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.

William Michael Morgan, Vinyl

William Michael Morgan, ‘Vinyl’

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.

Hayes Carll, Lovers and Leavers

Hayes Carll, ‘Lovers and Leavers’

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, Upland Stories

Robbie Fulks, ‘Upland Stories’

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.

Lori McKenna, The Bird and the Rifle

Jonny Fritz, ‘Sweet Creep’

With his thrift-shop wardrobe and unkempt hair, Jonny Fritz may look like the perfect specimen of the irony-first hipster, but the songs on his fourth full-length are nothing if not sincere. And therein likes the sweetness of Sweet Creep, a collection of imagery-rich songs about resorts for dogs ("Chihuahua Rescue"), derelict Nashville motels ("Stadium Inn") and Fritz's penchant for skedaddling ("I Love Leaving"). For Fritz, his observational lyrics aren't gags – they're his way of making sense of an increasingly overstimulated America, where the mundane beauty of everyday life has been replaced by viral videos and memes. Produced by Jim James with warm, easygoing playing from Dawes' Goldsmith brothers as the core band, Sweet Creep is concrete proof that Americana music needn't always be hard to digest – or so damn serious. J.H.

Aubrie Sellers, New City Blues

Aubrie Sellers, ‘New City Blues’

"Sittin' at the corner of an old crossroad," sings Aubrie Sellers in the "Light of Day," the opening track from her debut album New City Blues, following several bars of ominous guitar rumbles and thunderous drums. It's an apt description for the album itself – a barbed tangle of guitar feedback, in-the-red drum sounds and crystalline country vocals from the talented daughter of Lee Ann Womack. Sellers wields this noise to her advantage, taking shots at vapid women in "Paper Doll," mass media in "Magazines" and a womanizer in "Liar Liar." But lurking beneath all that scuzz is a great country singer-songwriter, a fact that b