Country music in 2016 experienced a bit of a personality crisis — on the Nashville side, opening its borders to collaborations with pop stars like Pink, Demi Lovato, Elle King, Gwen Stefani and Pitbull; on the Americana side, expanding on a long-tailed business plan that often meant out-selling the Nashville hits it ostensibly served as an alternative to. Artists like Miranda Lambert and the unexpectedly durable chart fixture Chris Stapleton, meanwhile, managed to straddle both camps. However you slice it, these 10 albums were the year’s highlights.
Maren Morris, Hero
On her debut — one of 2016’s most irresistible and infectious albums, period — the 26 year old Texas live wire incorporates hip-hop vocal cadences and sassily chopped R&B inflections so naturally you barely notice she’s doing it, except maybe when she casually lets slip her favorite swear word in four different songs.
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
Over two dozen songs totaling an hour and a half and ostensibly inspired by her split-up with Blake Shelton, the decade’s most accomplished country singer explores the verities of escape on the road — uproariously in the first half, and like the best Sheryl Crow album in years, in the second.
Charles Kelley, The Driver
The Lady Antebellum man’s first solo album revolves around a scrumptiously blue-eyed-souled ‘70s-style yacht-rock shuffler called “Lonely Girl,” and the finale “Leaving Nashville,” the most depressive song about working in Music City we heard all year. The rest fills in the blanks.
Brothers Osborne, Pawn Shop
This pair of central Maryland siblings make a shoestring budget sound like the good life, enjoy sundry inebriants and exploratory guitar solos (the one climaxing “Stay a Little Longer” is a standout) and have a loose sense of humor sometimes recalling the crazed early days of Big & Rich.
Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town
Where her 2013 debut felt a bit too much like a bare-bones demo tape, the follow-up by Nashville’s smartest and most successful openly lesbian songwriter finally bolsters her boondock character sketches with the production they deserve. Bartenders, hairdressers, single-mom waitresses waiting for their child support all come to life.
Shooter Jennings, Countach (for Giorgio)
In country’s current electro-beat sweepstakes, nobody has gone farther or done it weirder than Waylon’s outlaw son with this tribute to, of all people, Euro disco deity Giorgio Moroder. Robot vocoders crash into Southern boogie and rockabilly riffs, even in tunes originally sung by Freddie Mercury and David Bowie.
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Channeling The Band, honky-tonk history and the sound of Sun Studios, Price recorded these songs from the point of view of a tough woman from northwest Illinois singing about her hard-knock life: From her dad losing the farm and taking a prison job to her years as a struggling, often broke, and once-jailed traveling busker.
Kenny Chesney, Cosmic Hallelujah
While often considered a flip flop-wearing sort of modern day Jimmy Buffett beachcomber, over the years Chesney has developed a melancholy philosophical side on display here. The centerpiece “Noise,” a neurotic primal scream about inescapable 21 st century technological and political distractions, even has him losing it a little.
Frankie Ballard, El Rio
The Bob Seger-ish bent of this Michigan hitmaker’s third album proves country is where old-time heartland rock ‘n’ roll now thrives — and not just because he covers “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.” Ballard’s prone to fat, wobbling Midwestern backbeats and catchy songs about fast cars and his “L.A. Woman” even updates Seger’s “Hollywood Nights.”
Jennifer Nettles, Playing With Fire
On leave from Sugarland, Nettles stands up for tired, but sexy wives everywhere, takes a Paris vacation with a French stranger, winks at Def Leppard and Warrant’s old cherry pie, gets her disco on and winds things up with a bilingual Jennifer Lopez duet about building bridges instead of walls.