If 90% of mainstream country music is garbage, then it stands to reason that 10% of it is at least decent, if not good or great. That calculus hasn’t really changed much recently, even as mainstream country has improved. What has changed is that 10% is actually finding traction on radio, at awards shows, and is making fierce inroads into the 90%’s monopoly on the mainstream. Some of it, including some of the albums and songs on this list have hit #1.
Things are changing, and those who think the mainstream can’t birth anything worth listening to are missing out on some good music, while mainstream listeners are finally starting to get a dose of the good stuff independent fans have been enjoying for years, and are finding they like it.
Mainstream country is just as eligible for Saving Country Music’s end-of-year lists as any other music. But on certain years when there is an excess of good mainstream stuff that just misses the major lists, we’ll make sure it doesn’t get overlooked by giving it a list of its own.
Here are some of the best mainstream albums and songs released in 2016.
BEST MAINSTREAM ALBUMS
HONORABLE MENTION: Drake White – Spark
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#6: Craig Morgan – A Whole Lot More to Me
While most of mainstream country edifies small towns as wonderlands full of endless summers and cornfield bonfire parties, and conversely songwriters like Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark try to counterbalance that with disillusioned odes of melancholic apathy about rampant judgementalism, Craig Morgan has always been the master at illustrating what makes country life so special from a more balanced and loving perspective. This is what he built his career upon in the early and mid 2000’s after retiring from the military, and in the beginning Morgan was independent label Broken Bow’s primary cash cow before Jason Aldean came along. Morgan pretty much built that label that now boasts four solid divisions, and challenges Big Machine for the biggest indie in the country industry.
These days Morgan is at home in the much more scaled environment of Black River Entertainment, and getting back to what he does best. If you’re wondering where all the fiddle, steel guitar, waltz-timed tunes, and quality songwriting has gone, this is a good place to look. And that’s not just a euphemistic statement. Since there are only a small handful of mainstream Nashville performers who are willing and able to cut songs that are germane to adults and listeners with true country leanings, an artist like Craig Morgan has his pick of the litter. (read full review)
#5: Jon Pardi – California Sunrise
Just the cover of California Sunrise is like a provocation to the norms of today’s country with it’s retro fonts and horizon hues, and Jon Pardi looking like some reincarnation of Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman. Then the album starts out with a song called “Out of Style” that’s about how the truest things in life never bow to trends, and you find yourself right at home as a true country listener.
Unlike most major label releases these days where you have to go searching for things to be positive about, Jon Pardi makes them easy to find. Right off the bat it’s obvious this album is going to be presented with traditional country instrumentation throughout.
California Sunrise is not going to fundamentally change anything about today’s mainstream country music on its own. It’s not groundbreaking, or so genuinely authentic that we’ll be pointing back at it years from now as where the tide turned. But it’s a step in the right direction for the mainstream, a footsoldier in the fight to return the music back to the roots, and a fairly enjoyable listen.
#4: Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings
You can’t help but not appreciate this effort. Invariably 24 song projects are going to have some filler, and The Weight of These Wings is no exception. And they’re going to have some good songs and some not so good songs. It’s also worth saying that there is a lot to dissect here, and this record has the potential of getting better with subsequent listens, especially as your mind pierces through the fog of the production on certain songs to latch onto the message or story. And as is true with all of Miranda Lambert’s records, there will be a greater resonance with female listeners because that’s who Miranda Lambert is most attempting to speak to, and that’s okay.
But most important to note, The Weight of These Wings is the symbolic entry of Miranda Lambert—the biggest female country star for the last six or so years—into the Americana/independent/east Nashville mindset, or perhaps an entire segment of the mainstream doing so with Miranda Lambert as the spearhead. This is why the success of Sturgill Simpson was so significant. This is why Chris Stapleton’s CMA Awards mattered. There is a shifting paradigm in country music, and Miranda Lambert is not going to be behind the curve, she’s going to pull the levers of change herself. (read full review)
#3: Mo Pitney – Behind this Guitar
Mo Pitney is music for a simpler time and a decidedly rural and laid back sentiment. He’s an old soul who used songwriters like Dean Dillon and Don Sampson to bounce ideas off of instead of the usual Music Row songwriting crowd. Though this makes Behind This Guitar undoubtedly country, some of the songs could come across as corny to younger country fans, especially if they’re converts from the punk and rock worlds. The Cheerios reference in “Clean Up On Aisle Five” will stimulate more than a few sets of eyes to rolling, and the ending number “Give Me Jesus” may be too rich for secular listeners.
But once you get Mo, his simplicity of approach and undeniable authenticity become quite endearing, while his sense of performance, even when it’s just him and an acoustic guitar, can go as far as jerking tears. “It’s Just a Dog” might seem like sappiness to some, or many. But damn if Mo’s delivery and sense of timing don’t suck you in, or at least they did when he released the song acoustically.
Mo did a great job sticking to who he is on Behind This Guitar, and even if some find it cheesy, it’s still a major sign of hope that songs with meaning and artists with authenticity are on the rise in the mainstream. (read full review)
#2: William Michael Morgan – Vinyl
This is it folks. Without qualifiers, caveats, or commercial dalliances outside of his tightly-knit traditional-leaning comfort zone, William Michael Morgan has released a mainstream country record that is quality cover to cover, true country at every turn, and most importantly, one that might actually pique the interest of the masses as its lead single eyes a top spot in the charts and people are actually paying attention.
This isn’t Hank Williams or Waylon Jennings country mind you. But it’s not Garth Brooks or Brooks & Dunn either. It’s not even Chris Stapleton, who despite his singular talents and true country treatments, still leaves a bit to be desired if you’re looking for country music straight down the middle. There’s no wiggle room here, no play in the action, no latency in the line. Like a pearl snap Western-patterned Wrangler shirt and starched jeans, you can count on William Michael Morgan. There’s no compromise, no pandering or pop-related material. If the heyday of the George Strait / Alan Jackson era is what you wish country music would hearken back to, then ladies and gentlemen, here it is embodied in a young and promising talent who will hopefully have years of similarly-minded music coming.
There is still much to be decided in the young career of William Michael Morgan, but Vinyl is decidedly country, definitely good, and a great start to what hopefully continues to be a successful traditional country career, if not a resurgence in that direction for the entirety of the genre. (read full review)
#1: Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town
After careful consideration of Big Day in a Small Town, it feels fair to say that this effort by Brandy Clark and producer Jay Joyce is worthy of being considered right up there with a very select few others as one of the best mainstream country music albums released in the last two or three years, and arguably trumps Clark’s previous effort that was also well-received, 12 Stories.
Here is the key to Big Day in a Small Town: Instead of solely looking down its nose at small town American life like Kacey Musgraves has made a career out of doing, Brandy Clark takes a perspective from behind the nose of an ordinary small town individual—still self-aware, but focused more on the everyday struggles themselves as opposed to who or what is to blame for them.
Brandy Clark needs to follow the Chris Stapleton model. Country radio doesn’t deserve Brandy Clark. She may ultimately fail to receive the recognition of the masses for Big Day in a Small Town, but it is nothing short of a victory for country music. (read full review)
BEST MAINSTREAM SONGS
- Eric Church (feat. Rhiannon Giddens) – “Kill A Word”
- Jon Pardi – “She Ain’t In It”
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#5: Tim McGraw – “Humble and Kind”
When I first heard “Humble and Kind,” I immediately thought of Don Williams. In the fast-paced environment today’s world, the music of Don Williams is like a compass to guide you to appreciating the value of slowing down and taking life in, and that’s what “Humble and Kind” does. Sure it’s quite dry, and maybe even kind of preachy. But “Humble and Kind” is full of lessons we all know, but must be reminded of on a daily basis in these turbo-charged times. And it tends to fall to the artists of an era to teach them.
Tim McGraw has made plenty of money, and enjoyed more than his fair share of success in his career. He doesn’t need anything else from the music to either validate his existence, or financially support his family for the future. But what Tim McGraw understands is that reaching millions through the power of country music comes with a responsibility. And not only is he willing to shoulder that responsibility, he’s committed to seeing it be effective. (read full review)
#4: Tim McGraw – “How I’ll Always Be”
If “Humble and Kind” had no business on country radio (yet it ended up at #1), then “How I’ll Always Be” is a downright coup d’état. It’s not the lyrics of the song that make it a marvel of modern American country radio. Aside from dropping the name of Hank Williams and referring to the current sound of country as “trendy crap,” the words are just rhyming affirmations of how country someone is, which is a tired approach to songwriting, even if this one is a bit more enhanced by the effervescent appreciation for all things rural instead of chest-thumping attitude-laden blowharding about how badass the country is.
It’s the music of “How I’ll Always Be” that makes it so unique and welcome for mainstream country radio. It’s brushes on snare drum, steel guitar, acoustic guitar, a tasteful guitar solo 3/4’s of the way through (remember those?), and a little melodic run presented at the beginning of the song that’s recalled again at the end like a memory. Now that’s composition. Parts of “How I’ll Always Be” are just snare brushes and the ringing of a bass guitar tone.
Who would have thought years ago that Tim McGraw would be a piece, however minor, in the effort to return country music to how it’s always been, and how it always should be? (read full review)
#3: Chris Janson – “Holdin’ Her”
“Holdin’ Her” is not just a good song by today’s country music standards, it’s a good song, period. Written specifically from Chris Janson’s own life experience, with a little help from one co-writer, James Otto, it chronicles Janson meeting his wife, falling in love, getting married, and finding the sense of home we all search for in our youth while the promises of “freedom” look to lead us off that path.
“Holdin’ Her” makes absolutely no compromises to radio or anyone else. It starts on the acoustic guitar in waltz time, then the steel guitar comes in, a little Telecaster and keys, and as the old saying goes, it’s three chords and the truth. No drum loops, no electronic doo dads, no superfluous buzzwords thrown in there to lure in your garden variety corporate country radio fan. The song is delightfully simple and straightforward, and they even left the 60-cycle hum of the tube amp on the master to give it that extra organic feel.
Most every songwriter comes to Nashville wanting to express themselves in the purest, most honest manner possible, just like “Holdin’ Her” does. And then the priorities of life like rent, bills, and the pit in their stomachs asking themselves if songwriting is even a worthy pursuit, force their hands into scribbling out commercial rotgut to keep a inkling of the dream alive that one day they can record and release a song like “Holdin’ Her,” and actually have people hear it. (read full review)
#2: Ronnie Dunn – “Only Broken Heart in San Antone” & “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More”
Ronnie Dunn’s latest record Tattooed Heart is pretty forgettable. But the final two tracks on the album are nothing short of excellent, and unfortunately are getting overlooked by many of the traditional country fans who they would appeal to because of the mediocrity at the first of the record.
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One thing few have ever questioned is the power of Ronnie Dunn’s voice, and Tattooed Heart makes sure you get flourishes of that talent throughout the track list. Dunn comes from the era of country music when you actually had to be able to sing to land a singing career, and insiders know he carried Brooks & Dunn through most of those marquee years. His voice, quality song selection, and once again good calls in the studio result in two solid tracks to end the record, “Only Broken Heart in San Antone,” and the super traditional “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More.” The latter even goes as far as to keep the crackle of a dirty pot on the vintage tube amp on the masters. If nothing else, these two songs are worth cherry picking off this record and moving on. They might be two of the best traditional country songs released by a mainstream artist all year. (from the Tattooed Heart review)
#1: William Michael Morgan – “Missing”
Hell I thought that George Strait had retired. Maybe a new day is dawning in country, because listening to William Michael Morgan’s “Missing” immediately gets you swaying, singing along, and settling into a good mood whether you can go missing yourself, or you’re stuck at work or in traffic and wish you could.
Fiddle, steel guitar, a genuine country voice, it’s all here. And for the folks that say that not all music needs to be dark and deep to be good, touche. A song like this is perfect for easing back to on a Saturday out by the lake, but not making you feel stupid for doing so. It’s just good, and the lyrics work like all those great classic country songs do.
Songwriters love to write songs like this and see them get cut, and singers love to sing them. It’s just rare anybody every gets a chance to. But things are continuing to open up for artists like William Michael Morgan. With the success of Chris Stapleton, Jon Pardi and others, all of a sudden there’s an avenue for music like “Missing.” (read full review)