Glory, glory, hallelujah — this year’s brought some incredible music! In the first six months of the year, we’ve lost a lot of legends, but we’ve also heard some excellent fresh music from rising and established artists. Here are the best albums of 2016, so far, from the constantly evolving country genre.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson
The man many hailed as the savior of country music returned in April with Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a follow-up to his critically-acclaimed sophomore album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Instead of crafting a purely country album — which many expected Simpson would do — he anchored the project in soul, funk and psych rock. Thematically, the album is a letter to his newborn son about how to navigate life from childhood to adulthood. Sonically, it sounds like a voyage across an ocean. There are calm, symphonic textures, choppy and blistering rock riffs, sunny and reflective tones and sounds that feel like uncharted territory. Did I mention there’s a sea shanty, too?
Lovers and Leavers, Hayes Carll
After a four-year hiatus, Hayes Carll returned with an introspective portrait of his failed marriage and tribulations as a professional musician. The songs are deeply personal and so emotionally poignant that, at times, they can be personally challenging for the listener, but that’s when you know you’re onto the good stuff. This is powerful songwriting that makes you reflect on the dreams and relationships of your own life in the way that only masterful songwriting can.
Southern Family, Various Artists
When we heard rockstar producer Dave Cobb was putting together an all-star album we were intrigued. When we heard who was onboard for the project we were downright thrilled. Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, Jason Isbell, Jamey Johnson, Brandy Clark and more lend their talents to this collaborative concept album about growing up in the American South. Standouts include Chris and Morgane Stapleton’s cover of “You Are My Sunshine,” Jamey Johnson’s “Mama’s Table,” and Brent Cobb’s “Down Home.”
Big Day in a Small Town, Brandy Clark
Brandy Clark’s portraits of small town characters feel so real that they play like short films in your head. On her sophomore release, Clark explores the lives of everyday people in blue-collar America, from the unsung heroes to the dirtbags. Clark is a master songwriter, and the country genre needs more artists that share her ability to craft songs about authentic country experiences.
Ain’t Who I Once Was, Bonnie Bishop
Bonnie Bishop spent nearly 14 years toiling in obscurity as a country singer before she answered her true calling as a soul singer. On her new album Ain’t Who I was, produced by Dave Cobb, Bishop plumbs the depths of her soul and finds a renewed sense of purpose as an artist and singer. Cobb dials up his signature touch of old-school class with modern cool, keeping the focus solely on Bishop’s powerful and deeply affecting voice. This is easily one of the best albums of the year.
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, Margo Price
Although Margo Price has been a staple of alt-country greatness in the local Nashville scene for years, she’s finally gotten the national exposure she deserves with Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Thanks to the support from Jack White’s Third Man Records and a new widespread interest in the throwback style of traditional country, Price’s incredibly confident and powerful story-songs are earning widespread acclaim. From the pointed “Four Years of Chances” to the autobiographical “Hands of Time,” Price is truly a force to be reckoned with.
Pawn Shop, Brothers Osborne
Although Brothers Osborne previously found success on the charts with their track “Rum,” they became a household name with the breakthrough single “Stay a Little Longer.” Their edgy take on electric guitar-driven country balances perfectly alongside the more polished mainstream sound that’s recently taken over the charts. Well-crafted nostalgic tracks like “21 Summer” sit harmoniously beside the more tongue-in-cheek cuts like “Greener Pastures,” which showcase the duo’s ability to never take themselves too seriously.
New City Blues, Aubrie Sellers
It can be incredibly difficult to stand on your own as the offspring of a famous musician, but Aubrie Sellers has accomplished just that. With her distinctive debut New City Blues, she was able to create a sound that represents her wide range of influences, from traditional country to classic rock. As a songwriter, Sellers brings the ability to infuse a confident and strength that usually takes years to hone. From the sassy “Sit Here and Cry” to the romantic “Something Special,” each song on New City Blues encompasses the ups and downs that we all experience in our young adult years.