40 Best Country Albums of 2016 – Rolling Stone
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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.

Jon Pardi, California Sunrise
10

Jon Pardi, ‘California Sunrise’

California native Jon Pardi's second album California Sunrise is compelling proof that traditionalism doesn't have to sound old fashioned, stitching together electrified Bakersfield twang with modern production (even – gasp – loops!) and liberal fiddle and steel. It's a winning set of tracks that includes the groove-heavy, write-what-you-know album opener "Out of Style" and the breezy, sweet Number One hit "Head Over Boots." He also knows how to sling rowdy, good-timing bangers like "Paycheck" and "All Time High." But Pardi really turns up the heat with sexy, window-fogging jams like "Night Shift" and "Dirt on My Boots." Where many of his traditionalist peers looked backward for studied versions of the past, Jon Pardi kept his eyes firmly trained on the present. J.F.

Loretta Lynn, Full Circle
9

Loretta Lynn, ‘Full Circle’

Loretta Lynn recorded her first album in 12 years just a month prior to her 84th birthday, and her resonant voice is barely weathered, ringing out over subtle and understated accompaniment. Lynn casts a thoughtful glance backward here, relishing a pair of Carter Family tunes and revisiting her own catalog to exhume the first song she ever wrote, "Whispering Sea." She especially shines on two religious numbers: the jaunty "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" ("but nobody wants to die") and the heartfelt prayer for sobriety "Wine Into Water." If Lynn never records another album, Full Circle is strong enough to stand as a career capper – but it's lively enough to suggest that she's far from ready to quit. K.H.

Lori McKenna, The Bird and the Rifle
8

Lori McKenna, ‘The Bird & the Rifle’

A working Nashville songwriter for more than a decade, Lori McKenna popped on everyone's radar in 2015 when Little Big Town scored a hit with her song "Girl Crush." She makes the most of her newfound attention with the best album in a career that already boasts a bunch of great ones. She autopsies damaged relationships with a cool, precise eye on "Old Men Young Women" ("You want the lights off / He wants the lights on / So you can pretend / And he can hold on."). She reminisces about driving around a nowhere hometown listening to Duran Duran and Nirvana on one song, then wonders why she hasn't gotten around to leaving it on another. And she offers up her own modest and winning take on the timely ode to decency she wrote for Tim McGraw, "Humble and Kind." K.H.

Pawn Shop
7

Brothers Osborne, ‘Pawn Shop’

Leave it to a pair of hard-drinking, blue-collar siblings from Maryland to show Nashville that not all bros are boors. With the Jay Joyce-produced Pawn Shop, buttery-smooth singer TJ Osborne and guitar shaman John Osborne deliver a debut album that's full of greasy licks, back-porch arrangements and surprisingly vulnerable vocals. Hit single "Stay a Little Longer" is a hook-up song with heart, "21 Summer" smashes country's warm-weather tropes, and the gorgeous "Loving Me Back," a collaboration with Lee Ann Womack, is the must-hear deep cut of 2016. But it's album closer and rumored single "It Ain't My Fault" that is Pawn Shop's hidden treasure: a stomping country jam that blasts out of the gate with glam-rock swagger and gets us excited for what the Osbornes might do on Album Number Two. J.H.

Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town
6

Brandy Clark, ‘Big Day in a Small Town’

Country songwriter Brandy Clark's tremendous gift for wordplay and storytelling was never in question, but on her second album she unleashes her inner diva like never before. With help from the savvy production of Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town), Clark tries on a number of new looks – like the glammed-up country-disco queen in "Girl Next Door," chiding her man for wanting a "Virgin Mary metaphor" – to find they all suit her perfectly. Her upbeat songs are viciously funny, whether it's the priceless parting shot to an ex in "Daughter" ("Karma's a bitch, so I hope you have a daughter") or the wry observations of small town drama in the surprisingly funky title track. But Clark's slower, more measured numbers like "You Can Come Over" and "Three Kids No Husband" are truly stunning, her aching vocal performances and razor-sharp lyrics expertly articulating complicated, if all too common, human struggles. J.F.

Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor's Guide to Earth
5

Sturgill Simpson, ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’

Who would have thought the Kentucky singer-songwriter-badass would make the most dad-friendly country album of the year? With the outlaw bluster of his High Top Mountain debut and the trippy introspection of 2014's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music out of his system, Simpson targeted the heartstrings, laying his emotions bare in a concept album/welcome letter to his newborn son. "When I get home, it breaks my heart to see how much you've grown," he wails in "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)," enough to awaken the paternal urge in even the most kids-averse bachelor. While the cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom" garnered the lion's share of attention upon release, it's just one pearl in an elaborate yet entirely approachable album, all tied together by the Dap-Kings horn section and a seaworthy nautical theme. J.H.

Drive-By Truckers, American Band

Drive-By Truckers, American Band

4

Drive-By Truckers, ‘American Band’

To make their most rewarding album in eight years, Drive-By Truckers had to piss off a portion of their fan base. Over the 11 tracks on American Band, head Truckers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley tackle immigration ("Ramon Casiano"), mass shootings ("Guns of Umpqua") and police violence ("What It Means") – polarizing topics that, when coupled with the group's onstage support of Black Lives Matter, might not exactly sit well with many Red State country fans. But the Truckers gave zero fucks and created one of the most of-the-moment albums in any genre. American Band sinks its hooks all the way in with crunching riffs, Hood and Cooley's defiant lyricism and the reassurance that someone today actually gives a damn. J.H.

Margo Price, Midwest Farmer's Daughter
3

Margo Price, ‘Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’

The CMA ignored Margo Price at their 50th awards show in November, but they did so at their own peril. This Illinois troublemaker's debut album, released on Jack White's Third Man Records, is a marvel from a modern outlaw. Price lays it all bare, singing in her Loretta Lynn yodel about the death of a child in "Hands of Time," her skeevy experiences with Nashville music men in "This Town Gets Around" and, in "Weekender," even a stint in the can. In a town where "honest" and "authentic" are thrown around to suggest credibility, Price needn't even speak the words, she just lives them. J.H.

Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
2

Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings

Miranda Lambert went way beyond the call of duty with The Weight of These Wings, an ambitious, two-disc collection of 24 tracks that perfectly captures the complicated state of heartbreak without stooping to directly address her high-profile divorce. Instead, she's finding her footing while being adrift, outrunning the pain in "Highway Vagabond" or just taking her foot off the brake in "Vice." It's her most songwriting-focused album in some time, but rather than settle into some dull shade of Americana beige for production, she only gets weirder – distorting her voice along with the saturated guitar noise on "Ugly Lights" and scrambling bright pop melodies with heavy drums and splintering guitars as she armors herself on future anthem "Pink Sunglasses." She's ready to take on the world, and she's only out $9.99, a dazzling way with words that may have been the biggest F.U. of all. J.F.

Maren Morris, Hero
1

Maren Morris, ‘Hero’

The debut album by Maren Morris may not be immediately recognizable as country music – even by today's standards – but the Texas native's storytelling and homegrown drawl elevates Hero to the top of 2016's pop-country pack. Produced in part by Busbee (Shakira, Keith Urban), the record introduces Morris as the next great crossover artist, buoyed by Top 40 radio-ready jams like the sexy "Sugar," the swaggering "80s Mercedes" and her ubiquitous breakout hit "My Church." Hero also proves Morris to be a keen observer of both pop culture and everyday speak. In the baller anthem "Rich," she name-drops Diddy and sets up the chorus with an ad-libbed "shit." Neither sound calculated – the only thing Morris is adding up here are hooks. J.H.

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