As we near the end of 2016, it’s only fitting that One Country shares a few of those classic, end of the year lists. Like you, we are kind of bored with the typical end of the year lists, so we’re putting our own spin on a few!
In 2016, mainstream country music was packed with plenty of chewy material on which to clomp. From Miranda Lambert’s massive double-album to Sturgill Simpson’s experimental project, the market hit new creative highs. Fans were treated to more diversity and strains of country than ever before; breakout stars Brothers Osborne and Maren Morris pushed the pop/rock envelope with their debuts, Pawn Shop and Hero, respectively. Meanwhile, Dierks Bentley returned with Black, a concept record centered on the goods and the bads of a relationship. Elsewhere, veteran Loretta Lynn, Brandy Clark, Margo Price and David Nail defied the odds with new releases.
But what about this albums lying on the outskirts of the country music circle, those collections which sit heavy on the heart and lead to countless sleepless nights? One Country takes a look at 12 of the best albums that you should’ve been listening to this year, if you haven’t already.
12 Albums You Should’ve Listened To In 2016:
1. I’ve Got a Way // Kelsey Waldon
“It’s my exploration of all the things that really matter in this world, staying true to who I am and to the things that I actually care about,” Waldon has said of her sophomore effort, a staunch collection of strength (“You Can Have It,” “All by Myself”) and resilience which follows her 2014 debut The Goldmine. When she’s not plucking the heartstrings (“The Heartbreak”), she is saluting the greats which came before her. Her versions of Vern and Rex Gosdin’s “There Must Be a Someone” and Bill Monroe’s “Traveling Down This Lonesome Road” are welcome additions to not only her catalog but the country pantheon; her musical instincts are right on the money. She always uses her smokey timbre to her advantage, whenever she’s feeling a bit assertive (“Dirty Old Town”) or in the mood for a two-step (“False King”). You just know she’ll pack a punch, regardless.
Highlights: “All By Myself,” “Don’t Hurt the Ones (Who’ve Loved You the Most),” “You Can Have It,” “The Heartbreak”
2. Heart of a Flatland Boy // Erik Dylan
Dylan, who has scored major label cuts on Kip Moore, Justin Moore and Eric Palsay records, loses himself in remarkable storytelling on his long-awaited debut album. 10 tracks and one powerful, gravelly voice later, the album reads as an unearthed time capsule, flittering between alt-country and classic rock rather seamlessly. Small-town living is a well-worn theme in country music, but Dylan’s perspective is enticing. He tells us tales of heartache (“Willie Nelson T-Shirt,” “Girl That Got Away”), the blue-collar struggle (“Astronaut,” “Flatland Boy”) and tragedy (“Fishing Alone”). The production is suitably grainy and entrenched in the ghosts of the past–fortunately, for him, the impact of Chris Stapleton’s breakthrough has turned the tides in favor of this kind of gritty realism.
Highlights: “Pink Flamingos,” “Fishing Alone,” “Girl That Got Away,” “Map Dot Town”
3. Country Songs // Karen Jonas
If you love your country music a bit more on the honky-tonk side of life, Jonas has you covered. Her sophomore album builds on the precedent she laid down on 2014’s bow, Oklahoma Lottery. Here, she crafts some truly timeless work, pushing her heart to the brink before pulling it back at just the right moments. The tender purr of her voice counterbalances the rustle of guitar on songs like “The Garden,” while the deeply-anguished tear in “Why Don’t You Stay” and “Wasting Time” is breathtaking.
Highlights: “Country Songs,” “The Garden,” “Wasting Time,” “Whiskey and Dandelions”
4. The Heartland // Rabbit Wilde
Building on where their debut album, 2014’s The Wild North, left off, the Washington-based string band–comprised of lead singer Miranda Zickler, brothers Nathan (ukulele, vocals, mandolin) and Zach Hamer (lead guitar, vocals, percussion, harmonica) and Jillian Walker (cello, vocals)–inhabit rock, folk and rollicking country with the might and aptitude of the Avett Brothers and Devil Makes Three. Instead of seeking outside musicians and songwriters to contribute, the four-piece turned inward to summon up the darkest and most powerful of stories to tell. They allowed themselves to feel the burn and exhilaration of the open road and of every throbbing life experience, which led them to challenge expectations and resurface with songs like “Ghosts of the Heartland,” “Jackson, WY” and “Daughter of the Sun.”
Highlights: “Gold,” “Codeine, No. 7,” “The Long Way Down,” “Ghosts in the Heartland,” “Howl”
5. This Old Thing // Kree Harrison
Probably the most underrated album of 2016, Harrison’s long-awaited debut was well worth the agonizing 3 years since her “American Idol” runner-up finish. The 13-track project is built from the ground up on her smooth-as-velvet vocal, which she shows off on extraordinary cuts like “Something Else” and “Outta My Mind.” Throughout the entire record, the arrangements are luscious and full, with plenty of space to live and breathe. “Dead Man’s House” and “Something in the Middle” conjure up the groove and funk of the rhythm and blues, while “Drinking for Two” shows her at her most sorrowful, crying into her glass. This Old Thing does a stunning job of walking the line between classic and contemporary, raw and polished, intimate and sweeping.
Highlights: “Dead Man’s House,” “Drinking for Two,” “Wanted It That Way,” “The Time I’ve Wasted,” “Your Whiskey”
6. Rockingham // BJ Barham
American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham is not messing around. On his solo debut, he doesn’t waste time with some half-baked, pop-country sell-out project–instead, he digs his boots further into the North Carolina dirt. Standing at only eight songs (rather slim for a full-length), there is no room for filler. Rockingham is one of the year’s most emotional albums, and much like its polaroid cover art, songs like “Madeline” and “Road to Nowhere” are unrefined, coarse and devastating. Barham’s voice reaches into your chest and crushes your heart, forcing you to go down one dark, sluggish road to recovery just like he did.
Highlights: “Rockingham,” “Unfortunate Kind,” “Madeline,” “Road to Nowhere”
7. I’m Not the Devil // Cody Jinks
You’d never know Jinks was once the frontman of a thrash metal band (called Unchecked Aggression, to top it off), unless you asked. He fits country music so snuggly you get caught up believing he’s been here the whole time. He recast himself as a husky troubadour in 2010 with Less Wise, and it was evident even then he would become one of Texas’ biggest touring forces. After hitting what was then his commercial and creative peak with 2015’s Adobe Sessions, I’m Not the Devil proved he had much more story to tell (jumping to a career-high, No. 4 on Billboard’ Top Country Albums earlier this year). The title cut–in which he laments, “there’s 10,000 reasons for you not to stay, and no one would blame you if you want it that way”–“Church at Gaylor Creek” and “Vampires” are the kind of immovable fixtures which define legacies. The arrangements and musical choices are thoughtful, nodding to Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard with nothing but reverence.
Highlights: “I’m Not the Devil,” “Church at Gaylor Creek,” “Heavy Load,” “Vampires”
8. I am the Rain // Chely Wright
Wright doesn’t have much of a broken heart these days, but she allows her self to revisit those emotions: the sorrow, the anger, the longing. I am The Rain, her first album since 2010’s Lifted Off the Ground, is brawny and rattles down to the core. With the bass clarinet needling throughout the arrangements, which wield their own kind of vitality, Wright is transformative. She has never sounded so grounded, broken and utterly affecting as she does on “Where Will You Be,” “Blood and Bones and Skin” and “Holy War”–a collection of her most exquisite recordings of her lengthy career. For purposes here, Rain is a raw and gutting concept record centered on her ability to find the beauty in every lyric and melody and Wright’s boldness to be a purveyor of suffering.
Highlights: “Holy War,” “Blood and Bones and Skin,” “See Me Home,” “Where Will You Be,” “You are the River”
9. Broken People // Muddy Magnolias
Jessy Wilson and Kallie North bind together every tattered and splintered fray of country music with their impressive debut album. Wilson (who hails from Brooklyn) and North (born in Texas before moving to Mississippi and finally Nashville) summon Delta-blues roots–the kind of sweltering and sticky tunes Bessie Smith and Charlie Patton relished in–on most of the album’s 11 tracks. Songs like “Broken People” and “It Ain’t Easy” slither in and out of the swampy heat of the South; they pay appropriate homage to the past, dissecting the intertwined roots of soul, blues and honky-tonk. Southern-rock and Jimmie Rodgers-style country are also common threads woven throughout the album’s backdrop, which accentuates the more intimate, vulnerable moments–including “Take Me Home” and “Train,” adorned with delicate and tight harmonies.
Highlights: “Brother, What Happened?,” “Shine On!,” “Train,” “It Ain’t Easy,” “Take Me Home”
10. My Piece of Land // Amanda Shires
The lightness of the album’s production refocuses Shires’ intent on building, destroying and rebuilding a striking and deliberate country storyline through her vocals. As her sixth studio record, she is well-versed in storytelling and what it takes to embody deeply-rooted, alternative-leaning work. There is a hushed uneasiness which whispers behind her like a ghost unable to pass from this world to the next–“Pale Fire” and “Harmless” are among her best compositions ever. Elsewhere, she documents impending motherhood with “Nursery Rhyme” and reflects on what a home means on the closer “You are My Home.”
Highlights: “Harmless,” “Nursery Rhyme,” “My Love (the Storm),” “Pale Fire,” “You Are My Home”
11. Fairground // Todd Lewis Kramer
Kramer is not your typical country performer. While he wouldn’t call himself that, exactly, storytelling does run in his blood. He walks a fine line between soft-rock, folk and Americana with a tremendous calm, often delivering the kind of undeniable tear which defined the work of Keith Whitley. His songwriting is best on such songs as “Anna,” “Give My Love Away” and the lonesome closer “Workin’ on Me.”
Highlights: “Anna,” “Tennessee,” “Give My Love Away,” “Counting Down the Days,” “Workin’ on Me”