We’re just about past the halfway point of 2016, and I thought it’d be a great time to share some of my favorite albums I’ve heard so far this year.
Please note that this is not intended to be a “Best of 2016” list, because that would imply an in-depth knowledge of 2016 new releases that I currently lack. The fact that I only joined CMM in April and didn’t decide to do a midyear/endyear list until May has resulted in me being a little behind in new releases. There are several acclaimed releases I fully intend to listen to but haven’t yet, as well as some I listened to and enjoyed but haven’t yet spent enough time with to feel comfortable writing about. In other words, if you don’t see an album here, it is almost certainly not intended as a slight. I will have a more conventional, ranked “best of” list at the end of the year when I’m all caught up!
I also decided to exclude Gene Watson’s and Loretta Lynn’s albums from this list, because I already reviewed them and didn’t want to repeat myself. They will however be eligible for my year-end list.
Now that that’s out of the way, here are eleven albums in alphabetical order I’ve heard this year and really enjoyed, and if your taste is similar to mine, I think you will too. Why eleven? I had already selected and wrote about ten albums before I realized I had forgotten about Sturgill. Therefore, my top 10 suddenly became a top 11. Oops!
Doug Bruce was an artist that was completely new to me, and I sure as heck am glad I found him. Bruce’s late uncle was a songwriter (and an excellent one, at that), and Bruce decided to cut an album entirely of his songs as a tribute. The songs are absolutely top-shelf and seem like they could be lost country classics from the golden era, in the same league as anything Harlan Howard or Hank Cochran wrote. If you’re on the lookout for some straight-up country music that is smart and original, this is where to find it.
Clark’s breakout album, 2013’s 12 Stories, was a revelation, but mostly an acoustic, understated affair. This can be great for artistry, but rarely translates to commercial success. The album struggled to crack 50,000 copies sold despite Clark being nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys and even getting a performance slot on the live broadcast. As a result, go-to Nashville producer Jay Joyce was brought in to produce the follow-up. The results are what you’d expect: the production of Big Day in a Small Town is more mainstream-friendly and amenable to the current preferences of country radio, but is nowhere near as bad as I had feared, and in some ways the more muscular production represents an improvement . And of course, the songwriting is as smart and insightful as ever. Clark continues to prove she is one of the most promising artists in country today.
Women may be hard to find on the country radio dial, but that’s no indication of the amount of quality country music made by women today, which is vast. Dori Freeman is another new artist to watch, as her debut album has her effortlessly weaving through traditional country, Southern gospel, and Appalachian folk, all to great effect. A must-listen!
As uncomfortable as it is to admit, all of us have inner demons and baser instincts that we must work to resist. Chris King’s Animal is a splendidly conceived and executed examination of man’s ability to fail others, but also to acknowledge our own shortcomings and try to move forward. Musically, Animal doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre, but is an extremely raw and uncompromising work of art about frustration, disappointment, and loneliness. This is a terrific record that will almost certainly not be as widely heard as it should be, and that’s a shame.
The annual Cayamo Festival Cruise is basically a music festival that takes place aboard an ocean liner. Who wouldn’t like to relax with a couple of thousand fellow music fans and experience some great live music on a cruise? Buddy Miller is a regular at the festival, and recorded many live performances over the years at Cayamo for this album with other artists. Although nominally a Buddy Miller record, in practice this is more of a multi-artist album, as Miller mostly stays in the background and lets the guest partners shine. Cayamao Sessions at Sea has artists like Kacey Musgraves, Lee Ann Womack, and Brandi Carlile covering classics from the country, folk, bluegrass and even classic rock canons. It’s an amazingly good time, and not to be missed.
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter initially struck me as great, and has only gotten better with subsequent listens. Margo combines the sounds of Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris with the songwriting smarts of artists like Lucinda Williams and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Not a bad combination! This is an extremely compelling record from an artist with great potential.
Last year’s delightful duet album Hold My Beer: Volume 1 with Wade Bowen was my first exposure to Randy Rogers, and this was my first record by the Randy Rogers Band. Nothing Shines Like Neon is a solid set of eleven tunes that are contemporary and accessible yet respect the roots of country music. The well-chosen guest stars (Jamey Johnson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Allison Krauss and Dan Tyminski) certainly don’t hurt the proceedings. In truth, there’s not really one song on this album I would describe as an absolute knockout, but the whole thing is more than the sum of its parts and adds up to a really satisfying record.
Sturgill Simpson’s sophomore record was completely different from his debut, and this third album is completely different from either. A genre-bending semi-concept album dedicated to his newborn son, this is easily Simpson’s meatiest, deepest album yet, and will undoubtedly take many listens to grasp. The effort, however, is easily worth it, as this album serves as further evidence that Simpson is one of the defining country artists of our time, lack of radio support notwithstanding.
As Louis astutely observed in his review, the main theme of Southern Family is family, not the south. Exquisitely produced by the always-reliable Dave Cobb, Southern Family offers some great songs about the one thing that matters most, performed by a veritable who’s who of currently hot country and Americana artists. I’ll be honest that some of the musical styles proffered by Southern Family are more my cup of tea than others, but all of it is well-worth hearing.
While I like to think of myself as fairly knowledgeable of the more folk/singer-songwriter side of alt-country, my knowledge of the more rock-leaning side is next to nonexistent. Going Down in History was my introduction to the Waco Brothers, and I’m kicking myself for not listening to them sooner. My initial reaction to this album was lukewarm at best, but it gradually grew on me with every listen, and I came to really enjoy the band’s punk rock influences, tight musicianship, and clever songwriting. And with a running time of 29 minutes, Going Down in History doesn’t have time to drag or wear out its welcome.
Since Cledus T. Judd retired from music, country music has been in need of a new funnyman. Well, it seems that “Wheeler Walker Jr.”, the foul-mouthed alter ego of comedian Ben Hoffman, has assumed the mantle. Redneck Shit contains eleven songs that are obscene, offensive, vulgar, crude, crass, gross, unspeakable… and mostly very, very funny. Unlike a lot of joke-y albums, the songs here don’t feel low-budget or hastily thrown together, but rather sound and feel like actual country songs you might have heard on the radio a decade or two ago (if it weren’t for their lyrics, that is). Redneck Shit is not perfect: some tracks aren’t as funny as they think they are, and the whole things goes on a for a bit too long, despite barely clocking in at a half hour. That being said, I’d be lying if I said this album doesn’t exhibit a great deal of ingeniousness and didn’t have me bust a gut laughing a time or two. You already know if an X-rated album like this appeals to you or not. If it does, be sure to check it out.