2016 has been an interesting year in country music, enough to where it might arguably even be considered polarizing. On the bad side we had WAY too many country legends pass away (well, celebrities in general), and there are some critics out there who would even argue it’s been a weak year for country music.
On the other hand, you have people who are optimistic about the future of mainstream country music, as it seems that room is being made for more traditional sounding country music as well as just substance in general. Moreover I’ve seen people argue that this has been a great year for country music’s quality overall.
I’m somewhere in the middle, but I lean a lot more towards the latter stance. Nowhere have I seen more proof that Country and Americana have thrived this year than in the nine albums I have chosen for that “album of the year” position. Again, I know I’ve already spoiled it, but let’s at least pretend I didn’t.
Now, I take this coveted position VERY seriously, mostly because I think a true “album of the year” nominee is one that stirs you as a music listener and inspires creativity and nuance rather than enjoyment. That’s what I believe the following nine albums have done. I regret not being able to cover them this year, but there’s always next year. So without further ado, here are my candidates for “Album Of The Year”
(Presented in alphabetical order by artist name)
You know, there’s a running theme to a lot of the candidates on this list. I’d say most of them are coming from someplace raw and personal, and nowhere is that more evident than on the latest album from Courtney Marie Andres titled Honest Life. With this album, Courtney states that she’s ready to be the artist she wants to be. That statement is expressed directly in certain songs here sure, but it’s also expressed overall in the artistic expression on this album. The production is simply gorgeous, and as a vocalist, Courtney is pouring so much emotion into these tracks that you can’t help but feel a connection the material yourself. Honesty is a hard trait to master, but Courtney has done it and more on Honest Life.
In all honesty, I’m not a huge American Aquarium fan, and for the life of me I can’t explain why. I can however explain why I love BJ Barham’s solo effort Rockingham. It’s an album that draws upon BJ’s childhood, showcasing small town life in a way that feels somewhat nostalgic. The poetic justice however comes through on the darker side of the album with stories of robbing a gas station just to feed your family, or feeling hopeless because you failed to take care of your family’s farm. Combine all of this with the sparse production and BJ’s knack for specific lyrical detail and you have an album that will knock you dead on your tracks. It’s arguably the best album here in terms of songwriting.
This is quite simply a masterpiece in my eyes. Sure, there was a lot of excitement going into a Dave Cobb album that featured some high ranking talent, but to actually exceed my expectations is something I couldn’t have imagined. Like BJ Barham’s Rockingham, this is an album reflecting on family and small town values. Perhaps not as dark, but there’s a sense of cohesion to this, not just in the narrative of the album, but in the vocals and the production as well. This is an album that I could merely nitpick instead of voice any outright criticisms for. As I said before too, the talent recruited here wasn’t wasted in the slightest, as everyone is giving 110% on this album. It’s certainly a front runner for this award, and a huge reason as to why I can proudly call this a great year for country music.
Yes, certainly Americana than outright Country, however I advertise myself as a blogger who covers both Country and Americana. I might as well try to live up to that promise. Anyway, Robert Ellis’ self-titled album is quite simply his magnum opus up to this point. Where past Ellis albums lacked a sense of cohesiveness or any sort of grand vision, this album finds Robert wiping those criticisms away. Through this album he explores the darkness that comes with love, finding himself in a battle that pits the external factors of love against the internal darkness within him. The production is quite simply haunting and alluring, and it really cements Robert as one of the finest out there in the land of Americana.
You know, a couple years ago I would have been happy to hear an album that had any connections to country music at all. Steel guitar, fiddle, mandolin, anything…please! But it’s a new day in country music, and traditional country is now everywhere. With that said, it’s not enough to be country anymore, you have to have some sort of artistic vision or possess something that makes you stand out from the crowd. Cody Jinks does that with I’m Not The Devil. Sure, there’s many tracks that harbor on the cliche ‘outlaw’ image in country, but Cody Jinks’ knack for nuanced, subtle writing leaves these songs as intricate rather than forced. In other words, the consequences are here ALONG with the trials and tribulations.
Again, just as I warned with Robert Ellis, not all of these are strict country. Anyway, Bloodshot Records boasts not just one, but two candidates on this little list. We’ll get to the other in just a second, but for now, let’s talk about Lydia Loveless. Now, I’ve always been a fan of her honest, explosive writing, and here it seems like that writing has been sharpened, having more of a bite than ever before. She’s always flirted with contemporary sounds before, and here she embraces that sound head on, erasing any past sloppiness that came in the production on her last album, Somewhere Else. Here, it seems like Lydia Loveless finally has a handle on who she wants to be as an artist, and if Real is just the starting point of that, I think Lydia Loveless will be making this list more than once
In all honesty, I’m not quite sure I connect with this as much as New Home In The Old World or Stay Reckless, but look it’s still an Austin Lucas album at the end of the day. The songwriting is as poignant as ever, and the overall sound finds Austin pushing in a more spacious direction, one that blends well with the traditional country sound and furthermore enhances the sound overall. There’s still a grand vision to this album with the sound, and if anything, the fact that Austin has been able to make as many excellent albums as he has is a testament to him as an artist.
Inspired by grief, heartache, and surprisingly enough, optimism, Don’t Be Afraid finds Tami Neilson creating something of an emotional journey. It begins with the darkness and ragged edges that come with saying goodbye to a loved one, and across the duration of the album explores the effects that can have on a soul. But hey, in the end, it’s going to be alright, because the person who left wishes you to be happy rather than dwell in darkness. It’s a brilliant album, and when you take in the fact that Tami Neilson is essentially the best vocalist out right now, this is an album that quite literally gives you chills every time you hear it
The other Bloodshot candidate! From a pure instrumental standpoint, this album takes the award for album of the year running away. As someone who advertises himself as someone who covers country, Americana AND bluegrass, this is admittedly the closest I’ve some to covering that last one, but but late than never right? Anyway, Al Scorch is a master at the banjo, and that’s what drives this album throughout alongside some excellent fiddle lines, complex songwriting and an overall colorful, vibrant feel. In terms of the music here, I find little to fault if anything. There’s not enough space here to accurately describe how awesome this album is, but if you haven’t heard it, take the time to do so, because I don’t think you’ll regret it.