The Listpocalypse of 2016 is almost over. You’ve probably been thoroughly beat over the head by year-end lists and awards by now and have grown sick of them. But I can tell you that this is the last one for 2016 from Country Perspective. The year of country music and Americana has come to an end, so it’s now time to take a look back at the very best albums that both country and Americana gave us. It was certainly an interesting year to say the least. We got a wide variety of great music along the way and I certainly had enough to make a top albums list. Originally I had this set at 20 albums long months ago before expanding to 25. As of a couple of days ago, it was still 25. Then I had trouble deliberating over the last few in and decided to expand it again to 30. I’m pretty happy with it at 30 and I feel this list is a nice snapshot of 2016 for country and Americana.
One last thing: You’re welcome to disagree with this list as much as you want and I encourage you to do so. However keep in mind this is my list, therefore you can’t tell me I’m wrong because we’re entitled to our own opinions. You are welcome to make your own top 30 (or whatever number) list in the comments below. In fact I encourage this too. Share your favorite music, as we can all benefit from this.
So without further ado, here are Country Perspective’s Top 30 Country/Americana Albums of 2016:
There’s a perfect symmetry with the artist topping this list helping make the album at the bottom of this list happen in the first place. Sturgill Simpson told fellow Kentuckian Ben Hoffman to follow a crazy idea, introducing him to super producer Dave Cobb. Simpson told him to go “full Kauffman” or he never wants to see him again. Wheeler Walker Jr. was born and the world has never been the same. Walker’s debut album is full of filthy, raunchy country goodness. Once you get past the heavy swearing, dick sucking and jerking off though, you get some pretty fine country music. There’s plenty of steel guitar and some surprisingly deeper songs than meet the eye dealing with heartbreak, losing your job and of course sex.
Best Songs: Can’t Fuck You off My Mind, Fuck You Bitch, Eatin’ Pussy/Kickin’ Ass, Better off Beatin’ Off
Randy Rogers came off one hell of a year in 2015. He teamed up with buddy Wade Bowen and they released one of the best albums of the year. They won both Country Perspective’s 2015 Duo/Group of the Year award and Country Perspective’s 2015 Song of the Year with “Standards.” This year Rogers returned with a new album with his own band, a return also to Texas after trying their hand on Music Row. The result is an album full of plenty fiddle and steel guitar and some of the sharpest writing we’ve heard from the band. It has me excited to see what comes next from the band, as this album puts them on a great path going forward.
Best Songs: Old Moon New, Look Out Yonder (feat. Alison Krauss & Dan Tyminski), Tequila Eyes, Neon Blues
Brent Cobb is a name that I’ve come across a lot in country music the last few years. But we had yet to hear an album from Cobb himself. That changed in 2016. Cobb released his debut album Shine on Rainy Day, the type of album you can throw on any time and enjoy. It’s all-around solid and doesn’t have any filler on it. The relatable themes and the southern rock meets country sound is going to win him more and more fans. Cobb reinforces with this album why I’ve kept my eye on him because his talent and artistry is quite high. Shine On Rainy Day is the beginning of what I believe is the start of a bright and fruitful career.
Best Songs: Country Bound, The World, Shine On Rainy Day, Diggin’ Holes
Nobody predicted new music coming from Mark Chesnutt in 2016. And it was probably one of my favorite surprises of 2016. The 90s country star delivers one hell of a “comeback” album in Tradition Lives. It took years for this album to come together, but it was well worth the wait. The steel guitar and fiddle are thick and will bring a smile to the most jaded of country fans. Chesnutt still sounds as great now as he did in his prime and is another shining example of why writing off older artists is just plain dumb. Chesnutt more than still has “it” and if he’s up for it, I imagine this isn’t the last music we’ve heard from the Texan.
Best Songs: Lonely Ain’t the Only Game in Town, Is It Still Cheating, So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore, Oughta Miss By Now
Like I said, don’t write off older artists. The ageless and timeless Dolly Parton returned with yet another new album at the ripe age of 70, despite solidifying years ago she’s a legend. From the very listen of this album I was immediately hooked and couldn’t stop listening. She wrote, arranged and produced this entire album (co-producers are Richard Dennison & Tom Rutledge). That’s incredible. While radio and the greater mainstream at-large mostly write-off older artists, they’re missing out. There’s not much else to say. It’s Dolly Parton and its great music. It doesn’t get anymore pure and simple than this.
Best Songs: Can’t Be That Wrong, Say Forever You’ll Be Mine, Head Over High Heels, Forever Love
If I had to describe Caleb Caudle’s Carolina Ghost in one word, it would be smooth. He makes everything on this album sound so smooth and easy. It’s full of quality songwriting and you couldn’t make it more country if you tried. Caudle’s style and approach to music is very unassuming and allows the music to really reach out and grab the listener. The songwriting is beautifully uncomplicated and the instrumentation elevates it in every way. Carolina Ghost is the real deal and shows he has a very bright future in country music.
Best Songs: White Doves Wing, Wasted Thursday, Borrowed Smiles, Steel & Stone
Addison Johnson is probably one of my favorite new artists I came across in country and Americana music this year. Johnson is an artist that was born to make country music.This album is full of traditional country goodness that will leave you wondering how the hell is this guy is not getting more attention. The talent is pretty clear and shows that the sky is the limit for Johnson’s future. His songwriting shows great maturity and should only get better with time. My only real complaint with this entire album is the length. Being only seven songs long left me wanting to hear even more, which I guess can be a good thing. But I hope on the next one we get to hear even more because the world needs to hear more music from Johnson.
Best Songs: My Last Song, Already Been Through, I’m Just A Song, High on the Mountain
It’s 2016 and we got new music from the legendary Loretta Lynn. How cool is that? Even cooler is this album is up for a Grammy for Best Country Album at the 2017 awards. This is the first album of new recordings from Lynn in over 10 years and features a collection of both covers and folk songs Lynn learned as a child. The album is pretty deep, as Lynn explores death and looks back at experiences in her life. It could very well be the last recording from Lynn and a reminder of how much we need to cherish this legend while we still have her. Lynn is one of the best ever in country music and this is yet another great album from the icon.
Best Songs: Who’s Gonna Miss Me?, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, Fist City, Lay Me Down
The daughter of Lee Ann Womack has certainly made her mark in 2016. Her brand of garage country on her debut album New City Blues captured critics and fans’ attentions everywhere when it was originally released back in January. It also captured the attention of major label Warner Bros. Nashville, signing Sellers and re-releasing the album under the label in the fall. The album’s unique sound is one you certainly won’t forget and when it comes to Sellers’ vocals you can say the apple didn’t fall too from the tree. Her introduction of garage country could prove to be important, as Miranda Lambert adopted it on her new album and I expect to hear it more going forward. Not bad for a debut, eh?
Best Songs: Dreaming in the Day, Light of Day, Sit Here and Cry, Something Special
One of the finest songwriters in country music returned with new music in 2016. Couchville Sessions was an album recorded several years ago, literally recorded on a couch in Nashville. Thank goodness Scott remembered and released it because music like this deserves to be heard. I knew this was an album worth my attention from the very first song, “Down to the River.” Scott in his trademark soulful voice croons, “and we won’t give a damn if it’s rock, folk, country or blues.” At the end we get to hear the voice of the late great Guy Clark telling us a short story. It’s a special moment, especially in the light of his not so distant passing. Just one great songwriter paying homage to another great songwriter, like the past greats of music intended.
Best Songs: Down to the River, It’s About Time, Waiting for the Clothes to Get Clean, Love Is The Reason
Brandy Clark absolutely nails the small town theme in this album. One of the best in country music today delivers blistering songwriting on rural living and the everyday struggles of the average person. Derek really summed it up well in his review: Big Day in a Small Town is a truly great example of country music evolving. With the help of Jay Joyce, the album has songs firmly planted in country’s traditional styles, yet they’re given room to explore and reach to different heights and areas. Big Day in a Small Town is the best example of a modern country album. With a great production and songs that standalone well, yet fit into a nice, cohesive theme.
Best Songs: Love Can Go To Hell, Daughter, Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin’, Homecoming Queen
Parker Millsap proves once again he’s one of the best artists in Americana today. The Very Last Day seamlessly blends genres and tells intriguing stories with ease. Well upon the surface it seems so easy. If you listen to this album casually, you will miss out on some nice subtleties and details that really help make this album shine. It’s the little things on this album that help make the big parts standout so well. The Very Last Day gives you a little bit of everything, as it explores love, death and everything in-between. The standout of this album is “Heaven Sent,” one of the best songs you’ll hear all year and maybe the best song Millsap has ever written.
Best Songs: Heaven Sent, Hands Up, You Gotta Move, Tribulation Hymn
Daniel Meade & The Flying Mules firmly establish themselves as one of the best groups in country and Americana today with Let Me off at the Bottom. Meade & The Flying Mules are as talented as about any group in country and Americana today. I would best describe them as The Mavericks (the soulful, catchy lyrics) meet Old Crow Medicine Show (the folky, roots sound). The instrumentation is flawless throughout the album keeping it fun when they need to while also setting the tone perfectly on the more melancholy tunes. The songwriting is sharp, witty and even deeper than meets the eyes. Daniel Meade & The Flying Mules are the real deal.
Best Songs: Leave Me to Bleed, He Should’ve Been Mine, Count the Roses, There’s a Headstone Where Her Heart Used to Be
As that old line from Alabama goes, “if you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band.” Well Flatland Cavalry has the fiddle part well covered in their music. The Lubbock based band delivers a fiddle-filled debut album featuring a variety of themes and a great dose of both fun and more serious songs. As a country fan you’ll get a little bit of everything you want out of a country album when you listen to Humble Folks. Lead singer Cleto Cordero is one of the more promising vocalists I’ve heard out of Texas in sometime. What’s great is this band is just going to get even better with time and there’s strong reason to believe Humble Folks is the beginning of a really bright career for Flatland Cavalry. Don’t be surprised if some day this band releases an album that ends up near the very top of our year-end list.
Best Songs: Coyote (The Ballad of Roy Johnson) [feat. William Clark Green], Devil Off My Back, A Life Where We Work Out (feat. Kaitlin Butts), One I Want
While this wasn’t as good as Adobe Sessions, Cody Jinks delivers a really good album in I’m Not The Devil. He’s quickly establishing himself as one of the biggest fan favorites in the independent country scene, as I constantly have Jinks’ fans reminding me of him. He’s clearly got country fans’ attentions. On his new album Jinks does a lot of self-reflecting, exploring love, heartbreak and the struggles of life as a musician. The instrumentation really shines on the album, as it’s equally catchy and appropriate for the songs. The once metal singer fits like a glove in country music, as he’s quickly established himself as one of the best in the genre today.
Best Songs: Heavy Load, I’m Not The Devil, Vampires, Chase That Song
Jinks isn’t the only artist to quickly gain a loyal legion of fans. Margo Price has captured her own passionate fan base with the release of her debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter this year. It’s an album that is topping or going near the top of many critics’ lists. While it’s very good and places well on my list, I felt other artists delivered her style of country better this year. Still her impact has undoubtedly been felt and she’s set herself up to have her “Sturgill moment” on her sophomore album. Her debut album shows she can deliver that throwback country sound with aplomb and that it’s just the beginning of a very promising career.
Best Songs: Hands of Time, Hurtin’ on the Bottle, Four Years of Chances, This Town Gets Around
Undoubtedly one of the most promising new artists to break onto the country scene this year was Dori Freeman. Her debut album blew me away upon the very first listen. Freeman’s vocals are crisp, pure and undeniably Appalachian. She was born to sing and very few possess her talent. The songwriting is top-notch and I couldn’t pick out a flaw in the instrumentation and production choices. This album excels and thrives in every area. You can pretty much call it flawless. It’s an album that every true country and Americana fan needs to hear and Dori Freeman is a name you need to know.
Best Songs: Ain’t Nobody, Fine Fine Fine, Tell Me, Still A Child, Go On Lovin’
The album I’ve always wanted from Miranda Lambert finally came in the form of The Weight of These Wings. Not just an album, but a double album! The amount of pure, raw energy Lambert channeled into the music on this album cannot be understated. Her talent is on full display and truly feels like the birth of an even greater artist. It feels like Lambert is taking the next step up in her artistry. She’s shown an amazing amount of growth and this is an album country fans certainly won’t forget and should savor for years to come.
Best Songs: Tin Man, To Learn Her, Ugly Lights, Runnin’ Just In Case, Use My Heart
Lydia Loveless has been one of the most promising up and comers in the country/Americana scene for a few years. But we had yet to really hear a complete album from her. Until now with her new album Real. The sonic changes and the album’s not immediate appeal may turn off some listeners. But for those who are patient, willing to give it a chance and don’t fuss over genre labels, they’re rewarded with an album that deeply explores love and heartbreak. The songwriting is quite sharp and I think the production is really solid on each song, a credit to producer Joe Viers and Loveless herself. I also applaud Loveless for refusing to play by “genre rules” and setting out to make the album she wants to make because the honesty of this album really shines through.
Best Songs: Real, Heaven, Out on Love, Longer, Same To You
2016 was a long time coming for songwriter Lori McKenna, as she really broke out in many’s eyes with the success of “Humble and Kind.” In addition she released a great album in The Bird & The Rifle. It was simply her year and why she was rewarded Country Perspective’s 2016 Female Artist of the Year award. Featuring her own recording of her hit song, the album also contains some other sharply written phenomenal songs on life, love and small towns. There’s the pointed, but well-intended lesson of “Old Men Young Women.” She reminisces of old times and old plans on “We Were Cool.” “Giving Up on Your Hometown” sees her illustrating the painful realization many come to about their small hometowns and that you can’t keep things the same forever. Then you have aching love song “Always Wants You,” which is about a woman being unable to shake the love of someone she thought she was over. McKenna takes you to songwriting class from start to finish.
Best Songs: Old Men Young Women, Wreck You, Humble & Kind, We Were Cool, Always Want You
Robert Ellis’ new self-titled album does an excellent job of crafting stories of love, heartbreak, redemption and life. It also does a great job of incorporating so many different genres together to create some really unique sounds and moments on the album, while elevating the lyrics in the process. This isn’t necessarily a country record and feels more like an Americana record. Country purists and fans of Ellis’ original work might be quick to dismiss this record because it goes so many different places sonically. But music fans will find a lot to love about this album and sink their teeth into because there’s plenty to digest. I enjoyed the journey both the lyrics and instrumentation took me on and it’s an album that I think gets better with more listens. Call it what you want. I’ll call it great.
Best Songs: California, Elephant, You’re Not The One, Couples Skate, It’s Not Ok
Luke Bell’s self-titled album is a traditional gem that shines from start to finish. It’s an album that couldn’t be more country if it tried. Bell is such a naturally gifted vocalist who makes it sound so easy when he sings. It can be easy to call Luke Bell a throwback, but really this is just how country music is supposed to sound. Bell is just someone who gets it. This is clear when you hear all of the steel guitar and fiddle throughout each song. It’s clear with the quality songwriting that draws from relatable and simple themes that the common man can connect with and understand through their own experiences. Bell could very well be the next big name to come from the independent country scene. He’s every bit as talented as the biggest names to come from the scene in recent years.
Best Songs: Bullfighter, Sometimes, Workin’ Man’s Dream, The Great Pretender, Loretta
I’ve mentioned many promising new artists on this list, but if you wanted me to name the very best new act to break onto the scenes in 2016 it would be Paul Cauthen. From beginning to end Cauthen blows me away with My Gospel. It’s hands down the best debut album I’ve heard this year and perfectly exemplifies the distinctiveness that every new artist should strive for in their music. Not to mention you can tell this comes straight from the heart and soul of Cauthen, as it shines through on every aspect of the album. This is the type of music the world needs more of today. With My Gospel Cauthen immediately establishes himself as one of the best in the genre. The sky is the limit for him and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Best Songs: I’ll Be The One, My Gospel, Still Drivin’, Saddle, Grand Central
After delivering a really good album in 2015 with Holding All The Roses, they surprised everyone by returning with another new album just a year later. The result: Like An Arrow, one of the best albums of the year and arguably the best of the group’s career, earning Country Perspective’s 2016 Group/Duo of the Year award. Blackberry Smoke continue to demonstrate why they’re amongst the best in both country and rock. What’s amazing is how flawless they make it look. But I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Blackberry Smoke isn’t your ordinary band that goes through slumps and bad albums. They consistently churn out some of the best music you’ll hear today.
Best Songs: Waiting For The Thunder, The Good Life, Running Through Time, Like An Arrow, Sunrise in Texas
Kelsey Waldon’s I’ve Got A Way is an amazing album that is 110% country goodness. You simply have to hear it for yourself. This album has no bells or whistles about it. It doesn’t rely on trends and clichés in its songwriting. This is three chords and the truth right here. The instrumentation and production couldn’t be more well-arranged on each song and Waldon just belts it on each track. The songwriting is forthright, honest and cutting. It’s one of the best albums I’ve listened to this year and Waldon has quickly established herself amongst the best.
Best Songs: All by Myself, False King, Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road, Don’t Hurt the Ones (Who’ve Loved You The Most), The Heartbreak
Country Songs is another fantastic album from Karen Jonas. She’s only two albums into her career and has already delivered better albums than many artists will release over a 20 year career. I know this is quite high praise, but when I listen to Jonas sing I hear something special. She has the potential to go down as a great if she continues to make more albums like the two she has released. All of the praise she gets is deserved and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be mentioned amongst the very best in country music today. You’re not going to find too many albums better than Country Songs.
Best Songs: Country Perspective’s 2016 Song of the Year – “The Garden”, Wasting Time, Country Songs, Wandering Heart, Why Don’t You Stay, Whiskey & Dandelions
Many are going to be surprised of how “low” I’m ranking this album and why it didn’t win album of the year. The main reason is simple: a compilation album with world-class talent is supposed to be great, therefore I hold it to a higher standard. It’s not fair to compare this album to your average great release because you can’t compare the work of one artist to a work of many artists. So I couldn’t in good faith give a compilation album top honors nor could I put it above the other album of the year candidates. The other main reason was the best song of this album is a cover and if you recall I penalized Whitey Morgan’s Sonic Ranch for the same reason last year. I must be consistent. Please don’t let this take away from the fact that this is a brilliant album that will hold up for years to come and is yet another shining example of Dave Cobb’s genius. It’s also the best several artists on this album have sounded in a while. Cobb brought out the very best in everyone involved. You can’t ask for more out of a producer.
Best Songs: I Cried, Grandma’s Garden, You Are My Sunshine, Sweet By and By, God Is A Working Man, Learning
BJ Barham’s Rockingham will flat-out knock you on your ass. It’s depressing as hell and it’s full of raw emotion. Don’t take this as bad as it’s quite the opposite. It’s a beautifully dark album that paints a poignant tale of the failed American dream, lost hope, the hells of small town living and the trials and tribulations of everyday life. The songwriting is absolutely flawless and couldn’t be any deeper if it tried. While I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the instrumentation on this album because the songwriting is so excellent, it also shines bright and does a good job of letting the lyrics do the heavy lifting. It doesn’t let up and hits you in the gut every step of the way.
Best Songs: Unfortunate Kind, The American Tobacco Company, Rockingham, Water in the Well, O’ Lover
You have no idea how close I came to naming this album of the year. A lot of albums came and went throughout the year. Most didn’t hold up quite as well as when I originally reviewed it. But Chris King’s Animal has held strong the entire year. This is an actual true album in every sense of the term. Everything on it connects and tells a greater story of a man who loses love, finds his way and regains it all once again. There’s pain and darkness every step of the way in the man’s journey, even he finally regains love because he knows he’s flawed and he’ll mess up again. But he also knows he’s where he belongs. When I say it’s a true album too, I mean it’s meant to be heard from beginning to end to get the true effect intended. Only one of two albums in 2016 could boast this and King should be proud of the art he created in Animal.
Best Songs: Take It Down, Animal, Borderland, Martinez Social Club, Deep End
As announced yesterday, this is our album of the year. It’s the second time Simpson has won it. Read the full write-up for Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year here.
Best Songs: Call to Arms, Sea Stories, In Bloom, Breaker’s Roar, Oh Sarah, All Around You