The Best Country Albums of 2016 So Far

best-of-2016-so-far

With no disrespect meant to the albums highlighted below, which represent the exception and not the rule, 2016 has begun where the second half of 2015 left off, where it feels like country and roots music across the board is out of ideas, and the search for music that truly enlivens the spirit is becoming harder.

Late 2015, and early 2016 are also remarkable for the amount of independent country artists that just like in the mainstream, are succumbing to the allure of influences outside the genre, especially the whole Stax sound, with horns and R&B rhythms permeating a majority of projects, especially the ones emanating from east Nashville. The second half of 2016 could be where the turnaround is lurking. But for now, it’s fairly slim picking for groundbreaking projects in this calendar year.

Further complicating matters has been all the high profile deaths in music in 2016, casting a pall on the listening experience, and forcing our attention on the music and lives of passing greats as opposed to the newest records coming out.

All that said, there are still some excellent albums out there worth highlighting.

Disclaimers:

The first albums highlighted should be considered early candidates for Saving Country Music’s “Album of the Year,” while everything else highlighted should be considered coming highly recommended.

PLEASE NOTE: This only includes albums that have been reviewed by Saving Country Music so far. Just because an album is not included here doesn’t mean it’s not good, or won’t be reviewed in the future.

Recommendations and opinions on albums is encouraged, including leaving your own list of favorite albums in the comments sections below. However, please understand that nothing is “forgotten,” and nobody’s list is “illegitimate” just because one particular album is left off, or a certain album is included. The point of this exercise is to expand the awareness of great music, and that is how it should be approached by all parties.

Also, the albums are presented in no particular order.


Austin Lucas – Between The Moon and the Midwest

austin-lucas-between-moon-and-the-midwestWhat has never left Austin Lucas is the dedication and hunger that drives his music, and has kept his career skirting above disaster for so long. The fact that he was able to get folks like John Moreland and Lydia Loveless to appear on his record shows the respect he receives among his artist peers. The fact that he was ever signed to New West, or shared a stage with Willie Nelson shows that he has the material and acumen to make it at the next level. And Between The Moon & the Midwest proves that his best days, and best material aren’t behind him, but are happening in the here and now.

No review, no endorsement, no label deal or radio promotion or touring opportunity makes any artist. There are performers who’ve been given twice the opportunities and support of Austin Lucas, and they are waiting tables right now, or working at The Home Depot. Nobody knows the formula, or how to navigate the whims of music to steady and sustainable employment, or God-forbid a modicum of stardom. But what we do know is Austin Lucas is an artist worthy of being heard, whether the music industry agrees or not. (read full review)

Dori Freeman – Self-Titled

dori-freeman-self-titledSometimes the artists that are the best at tapping into those little currents of nerve tingling turns of phrases are not the ones that aspire to be the beneficiaries of mass media. And if it happens, it happens by accident. Dori Freeman was “discovered” by Teddy Thompson, who happens to be the son of British guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson. Next thing you know she’s recording in the studio with a set of hand-selected musicians and Teddy at the helm. If Dori Freeman’s debut album doesn’t accomplish anything else, it should go down as one of the best produced efforts in recent memory.

For the love of God just let the songs speak out and choose their own path, and that’s what happens in this self-titled release. The sentiments are so naked and pure, and as potent to stirring the spirit as the smell of a baby’s head that it awakens more than just an appreciation for music, it awakens an appreciation for life. (read full review)

Doug Bruce – Unsung

doug-bruce-unsung-buddy-bruceUnsung is no vanity project meant as something to be passed out at the next family gathering; far from it. Think of this album more like a time capsule that has been unearthed with some of the best music written during the golden age of country that never saw the light of day, so it’s still fresh and new to your ears. And by going through his uncle’s entire song catalog to find the best selections, it’s like a Greatest Hits collection from some long lost legend at the same time. Put an absolutely stellar band and perfect arrangements behind all of this, and all of a sudden you have an astounding country music album that is both incredibly fresh, yet entirely classic.

You come for the music, which is lavished with steel guitar and twang and traditional country tones in a perfect representation of the material, but you stay for the songwriting. It’s unreal how songs like “The Tears” and “Greatest Expert” were never super hits back in their day, and quite frankly I’m not sure songs like these could be written by modern songwriters even if they tried. It takes the perspective of the 50’s and 60’s to pen such authentic country sentiments, yet I can’t stress enough the magic in this music since you’ve never heard it before. It’s like hearing Hank Williams again for the first time. (read full review)

Dave Cobb – Southern Family (Compilation)

southern-familyToday you make fun of somebody’s religion, creed, sexual preference, race, wealth, or social status, and you could lose your job and be blacklisted from society. But when it comes to the South and Southerners, it remains open season. The South has always been a favorite whipping boy for popular culture, and instead of shying away from stereotyping its residents in the new era of political correctness, it’s considered a sign of open mindedness and an intellectual exercise to blanket criticize the South at large, many times for trespasses perpetrated many generations ago.

When Dave Cobb announced this Southern Family concept album, it looked almost too good to be true on paper. Putting all of this talent in one place, even if one or two names may not suit your specific fancy, you still knew that joining them all together for one purpose and putting Dave Cobb in charge could only mean good things. It would bring out the best in all of the artists. It may even give a moment for some of the more commercially-oriented stars like Zac Brown and Miranda Lambert to cut material they normally may not.

Concept records aren’t supposed to just be elevated forms of creative expression. They hopefully say something about life that for whatever reason, words cannot convey, or if they can, few tend to listen to without the aid of melody. What it means to be “Southern” is something that is so difficult to express, but Southern Family makes great strides in that direction. And in a time of such turmoil and divisiveness, the need to understand that not just Southerners, but all people can identify with each other through their universal sense of home and family is a lesson needing to be heard. (read full review)

Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day

parker-millsap-the-very-last-dayThe Purcell, Oklahoma native has that rich, songwriting blood of the central plains we’ve seen in artists like John Moreland, John Fullbright, Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours, and so many more. And growing up in an evangelical community also imparts that indelible country gospel foundation to his music. But more than anything else Parker Millsap is a blues singer, which may seem a bit of a strange label to stamp on the forehead of the bushy-haired and doe-eyed songwriter …  until he opens his mouth.

It’s hard to argue against On The Very Last Day as Parker Millsap’s defining moment, at least up to this point. Like Hank Williams did when he cut “Lovesick Blues,” Parker has identified his strengths, honed in on them, refined them, written or selected songs to favor them, and dedicatedly molded his craft until he’s become a master of his discipline. (read full review)

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

sturgill-simpson-a-sailors-guide-to-earthA Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a record Sturgill Simpson wrote for his young son who was born right as Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was entering its “release cycle” as they say in the business. You don’t need anyone to tell you what the songs are about on this album; Sturgill pretty much spells it right out for you. He uses the record to directly impart wisdom and knowledge to his young son, as well as delve into a bit of his own history as a former member of the Navy, and his perils with drugs.

The personal nature of this record is almost startling. Sturgill can be hard to understand when singing, but if you lay out the lyric sheets to the songs, they read like the most intimate poems from a father to his son, and are nearly fearless in how they bare Sturgill’s feelings of guilt when leaving home, and missing out on important milestones in his young son’s life. This theme is reinforced when Sturgill re-imagines a song from his first band Sunday Valley called “Sarah” about similar guilt, only towards his lover.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a valiant follow up to Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and is yet another solid offering in an impressive and growing musical career for one of America’s and roots music’s most unique, interesting, and diverse artists. (read full review)

Nick Dittmeier and the Sawdusters – Midwest Heart / Southern Blues

nick-dittmeier-midwest-heart-southern-bluesSongwriter and frontman Nick Dittmeier has seen the struggles from all sides. Living on the Indiana side of the Ohio River in the greater Louisville, KY area, he can pull inspiration from the evisceration of the coal economy, the dilapidation of the Southern small town, and the abandonment of the Midwest as the traditional American agrarian culture is replaced by the rise of urbanization and corporate farming.

The struggles of the people left in these areas who are clinging to life in the only homes they’ve ever known, this is the inspiration that goes into Midwest Heart / Southern Blues, marking a nexus for the heartbreak that criss crossses all of America’s forgotten corners. Similarly, the inspiration for the music is drawn from true country, Southern rock, Heartland sounds, and riverside blues. The struggling people of American may have been forgotten by many, but most all are represented on this album. (read full review)

The Cactus Blossoms – You’re Dreaming

the-cactus-blossoms-youre-dreamingUnder the wide shadow being cast by Dave Cobb and his recent producership efforts, throwback rock and roll musician and songwriter JD McPherson has been putting together one fierce run of excellent albums himself. The Cactus Blossoms were flattered when McPherson called them and wanted to make an album, and the result was magic.

It feels like almost an insult, or at least a fruitless enterprise to entertain the idea that one could express in words what the harmonies of The Cactus Blossoms do for stirring the soul, so I won’t even try. But upon all the other accolades You’re Dreaming deserves, the tops might be the quality of singing evidenced, and not just in the close harmony style indicative of the Everlys and Louvins before them. Even in individual moments, both Jack Torrey and Page Burkum give such purity to the words and sounds, you have no choice but to go back 50 years to find comparisons.

A band like The Cactus Blossoms is still a niche enterprise for sure, and so the appeal won’t be felt by everyone. But the artistry is virtually unmatched, and the result is near perfection. (read full review)


Other Albums Highly Recommended:

michaela-anne-bright-lights-and-the-fameMichaela Anne – Bright Lights and the Fame (read review)

Bonnie Bishop – Ain’t Who I Was (read interview)

Nathan Kalish – Continental Breakfast of Champions (read review)

Al Scorch – Circle Round The Signs (read review) Blazing banjo and songs from the heart.

Cheryl Desere’e – Self-Titled (read review) Smoky, jazzy, sultry traditional country.

Randy Rogers Band – Nothing Shines Like Neon (read review) One of the best in Texas country so far.

jack-klatt-shadows-in-the-sunsetJack Klatt – Shadows in the Sunset (read review) For fans of Pokey LaFarge and Wayne Hancock.

The Lumineers – Cleopatra (red review)

Jeff Shepherd and the Jailhouse Poets – Self-Titled (read review) Evolved underground country.

The Hackensaw Boys – Charismo (read review)

Robbie Fulks – Upland Stories (read review)

Rachel Brooke – The World’s Greatest Anchor (read review) Short, but very sweet.

margo-price-midwest-farmers-daughterMargo Price- Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (read review) True, neotraditional country from a rising star.

Flatland CavalryHumble Folks (read review) The future of Texas country.

Husky Burnette – Ain’t Nothin’ But a Revival (read review) Deep blues at its dirtiest.

Willie Nelson – Summertime (read review) Willie sings the classics of the Gershwin brothers.

Hayes-Carll-Lovers-LeaversHayes Carll – Lovers and Leavers (read review) New direction of stripped-down songwriting from Carll.

Ryan Scott Travis – The Guadalupe Breakdown (read review) Great songwriting and composition.

Wynonna Judd – Wynonna and the Big Noise (read review) The Big Noise is a big surprise. Fun album.

Wheeler Walker Jr. – Redneck Shit (read review) Not for children.

 

Other Albums On The Radar, But Not Reviewed Yet:

Note: Just because an album has not been reviewed yet (or is not included here) does not mean it won’t be in the future. So chill.

  • Darrell Scott – Couchville Sessions
  • Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen – Watch This (live)
  • Loretta Lynn – Full Circle
  • Gene Watson – Real Country Music
  • The Golden Ponies – Unstabled
  • Jackson Taylor & the Sinners – Which Way Is Up
  • Western Centuries – Weight of the World
  • Bo Outlaw – Lonestar State of Mind
  • Caleb Caudle – Carolina Ghost
  • Robert Ellis – Self-Titled
  • The Honeycutters – On The Ropes
  • Wade Bowen – Then Sings My Soul, Songs for My Mother
  • Derek Hoke – Southern Moon
  • Urban Pioneers – Feast or Famine
  • The Carolyn Sills Combo – Dime Stories, Vol. 2
  • McDougall – Reaching for Some Light
  • Sweet GA Brown – Weapons
  • Kirsty Lee Akers – Burn Baby Burn