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The Best Country Music Albums of 2016

There’s no question that country music is changing by leaps and bounds. Every area of the format, from commercial country to the independent realm, pushed the boundaries of country music to new heights in 2016. While the world outside of music often seemed bleak, country music thrived. This year, artists who are becoming the best of their generation released what very well may be defining albums of their careers. From Nashville to Texas and everywhere in between, here are the country music albums we had on heavy rotation.

Pawn Shop, Brothers Osborne

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It feels really nice when the good guys get it right. And anybody who saw TJ and John accept their surprise CMA Award for Country Duo knows they’re good guys, and debut album Pawn Shop definitely got it right. A fine balance between contemporary and old school, outlaw and pop, the record managed to capture a playful yet sincere voice without seeming too flippant. And breakout single “Stay A Little Longer” was one of the best songs of the year. Not to mention John’s guitar playing took center stage on the record. Somewhere between roots rock and mainstream country, Pawn Shop doesn’t change the rules so much as use them to its advantage. And the duet with Lee Ann Womack, “Loving Me Back,” is just downright refreshingly country. — Jeremy Burchard

Behind This Guitar, Mo Pitney

Curb Records
Curb Records

Country music needs more artists like Mo Pitney. The 23-year-old singer has a humble maturity and warmth that beams through his music. Pitney has been on the scene for a few years, but only recently released a full-length album, and it was well worth the wait. Behind This Guitar captures what the ethos of country music really is: a way of life, not just a style of music. Rather than focus on viable radio-ready hooks, Pitney is all about making songs like his country heroes would have. In a way, the songs on this record sound like a modern extension of Merle Haggard, Keith Whitley and George Strait. They stories of love, down-home values and the dreams of a young man. Watch out for Pitney in 2017; he’s one of country music’s most promising young artists. — Matt Alpert 

I’m Not the Devil, Cody Jinks

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There’s a reason Cody Jinks is turning critics’ heads and selling out Nashville clubs three nights in a row. I’m Not The Devil is as much a singular album by a singular artist as you’ll find in country this year. And given how interesting Jinks’ take on life, love and dancing with the devil is, that’s a very good thing. So many records nowadays take on too many different flavors. In the follow-up to his Texas breakthrough Adobe Sessions, Jinks captures his voice and philosophy in songs that are equal parts catchy and dark, and yet somehow altogether comforting. His voice is unmistakable, in every sense of the word. — Jeremy Burchard

The Weight of These Wings, Miranda Lambert

HIghway Vagabond single
Miranda Lambert

Country’s most ambitious record this year came in the form of a post-divorce double album from one of the most important voices in country music. Expectations always seem higher for the Texan, and she delivered with a crushingly personal album that reads like a “journal” of her days after leaving Blake Shelton. But it’s nowhere near the “woe is me” record you may expect, either. Instead, The Weight of These Wings carries listeners through the ups and downs of her life, from the brilliant confidence of cheap sunglasses to the heart-crushing warning to the Tin Man to think twice about wanting a heart. Simply put, in a career full of knock-outs, The Weight of These Wings is Lambert’s best. — Jeremy Burchard

Big Day in a Small Town, Brandy Clark

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Brandy Clark is one of the best songwriters in country, but she delivered a huge Grammy-nominated debut effort in 12 Stories. In follow-up Big Day in a Small Town, Clark gets much more personal. Her first record may have been twelve different stories, but her second is much more her story. She moves to the heavier spectrum in rocking songs like “Girl Next Door” while she reminds you just how quickly she can wrap her hands around your heartstrings in tunes like “Three Kids No Husband.” And guess what? She notched two more Grammy nominations for this one too, including Best Country Album and Best Country Solo Performance for “Love Can Go To Hell.” — Jeremy Burchard

Southern Family, Various Artists

Low Country Sound
Low Country Sound

Concept albums are rarely seen these days, especially now that streaming has made singles accessible with just one click. But visionary producer Dave Cobb wasn’t letting anything stand in his way from creating a project inspired by Paul Kennerley’s 1978 concept record White Mansions. Before he became a household name for his work with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, he started recruiting his musical friends in Nashville to help create a musical tribute to life in the South. The result is Southern Family, a 12-track masterpiece that showcases some of the best and brightest talent in country today. Each piece has a personal connection to the artist and speaks to the direct influence of Southern culture in each of their lives. From Miranda Lambert’s sparkling “Sweet By and By” to Isbell’s cuttingly honest “God is a Working Man,” each track features a unique, singular story connected by the thread sewed through the fabric of Southern life. — Lorie Liebig

Shine on Rainy Day, Brent Cobb

Low Country Sound
Low Country Sound

An artist featured on the aforementioned Southern Family concept record, Brent Cobb has become one of the most buzzed-about songwriters of 2016. He’s been working as a writer for years, penning stellar tracks for artists like Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert. With Shine on Rainy Day, Cobb shows off his incredible ability to transport a listener into his narrative. Each track feels like a torn page from a journal or an overheard conversation from your neighbor’s front porch. With the help of distant cousin Dave Cobb, each tale of life, love and every experience in between is told with ease, wisdom and honesty. If you’re looking for the closest thing to a modern Kris Kristofferson, Brent Cobb is it. — Lorie Liebig

Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, Margo Price

Third Man Records
Third Man Records

This year marked a turning point for Nashville-based country artist Margo Price. After years of making music with band Buffalo Clover and her own solo project Margo and the Pricetags, she snagged the attention of alt-rock wonder Jack White. Price became the first country artist signed to his label Third Man Records after being rejected from nearly every label in town. Proving there’s a place for honky tonkin’ country outside of trendy East Nashville, Price lays it all out on the line with Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. From the jailhouse regret of “Weekender” to the heartbreaking “Hands of Time,” every line burns with fearless strength, courage and truth. It’s everything we’ve needing in a great country record, and a welcome nod to the genre’s authentic, rollocking roots. — Lorie Liebig

You’re Dreaming, The Cactus Blossoms
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Sibling harmonies naturally have a rich quality and depth that comes from sharing the same blood. The Cactus Blossoms, a pair of Minnesota brothers, may have some of the most vibrant harmonies of any working country group today. Inspired heavily by the Everly Brothers and the Louvins, brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum created a record that is both a nod to a bygone era and a fresh take on country music. The production masterfully brings their lush harmonies to life. At its most lively moments, the record is still soothing. The greatest magic trick of You’re Dreaming is that it sounds and feels timeless.  Matt Alpert

The Bird & The Rifle, Lori McKenna

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The songstress who brought us some of Little Big Town’s best songs (“Girl Crush,” “Your Side Of The Bed”) has been a solo artist for more than 16 years. In her ninth record The Bird & The Rifle, McKenna soars in every way. Most people will know it for “Humble & Kind,” the reigning CMA Song of the Year. And yes, her version is better than McGraw’s. But truthfully, it’s not even the strongest song on the record. Look at songs like “The Bird and The Rifle” and “Always Want You” for that. But really, you can’t go wrong in any way. She earned four Grammy nominations, including Best Americana Album, and even in a stacked category, don’t be surprised if she wins. — Jeremy Burchard

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson

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Atlantic

This week (Dec. 7), Sturgill Simpson’s intricately crafted third album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, picked up a surprise nomination for the Album of the Year Grammy. An outsider in mainstream country music, Simpson has flourished as an artist and developed a vibrant career through other channels. This record is the testament to how far he’s come in both of those aspects. Written as a letter to Simpson’s newborn son, each song offers advice on how to navigate the challenges of life. From start to finish, it plays like a journey through youth to adulthood. In technical terms, Simpson’s songwriting and vocal abilities are on full display here. His voice is perhaps his strongest asset, and Sailor’s Guide shows how much it has developed. He can go from the timbre of a gentle lullaby (“Breakers Roar”) to a blistering battle cry (“Call To Arms”), always firing with a power straight from the heart. Defying expectations, Simpson chose not to release an album of country songs, but rather an experiment with American music. He tries on the soul man suit, backed at times by a brass section and funk guitars. There’s balls-to-the-wall with rock and roll, country you’d hear at your local V.A. post, and psychedelic textures that linger like an acid trip. All of it remains grounded in the stylings and spirit of country music, which has made the record a hit with fans who typically wouldn’t listen to country music. At a time when country music is dramatically evolving to reach a wider audience, Simpson made the most impactful crossover album of the year and did so without trying. — Matt Alpert 

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The Best Country Music Albums of 2016