It has once again come that time of year for reflecting back on some of the best albums released in the last 12 months or so, not to treat country music as competition per se, but as an exercise undertaken with the intent of expanding your musical knowledge in hopes the gaps that formed due to the busy lives we all live get filled in with joyous little music projects that will enhance your overall musical experience in the months and years ahead.
The way Saving Country Music performs this exercise is by first nominating the top albums in this website’s opinion for Album of the Year, and then turning it over to you, the sainted Saving Country Music readers, to leave your opinions. That’s right, your opinion voiced in the comment section below matters, though this is not an up and down vote. Ultimately the decision is Saving Country Music’s, but feedback is strongly encouraged to hopefully stringently vet the eventual victor.
This is not the end of Saving Country Music’s album accolades, just the beginning. All the nominees should be considered the cream of the crop. But following this list, and later in December as albums continue to be released and reviewed, as well as others brought up for discussion, including through the vehicle of this nomination process, an Essential Albums List will also be posted with a much more expanded participation.
At the top of the Essential Albums List will be efforts that were on the bubble of being considered Album of the Year nominees, but due to limited space, fell just short of the cut. There you will certainly find many of the albums some may see as glaring omissions here, including Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Brandy Clark’s A Big Day in a Small Town, Luke Bell’s self-titled effort, and others. Also be aware that very shortly, a similar nominations process will transpire for Saving Country Music’s Song of the Year, and may include folks like Justin Wells, Austin Lucas, and others who may also make it on the Essential Albums list, but did not appear here.
So do go whining about “you forgot.” This is not a Where’s Waldo exercise. This is an effort to expand your musical horizons. This list is not worthless just because one title is included, or one is excluded. It’s a exhibition; it’s sport. So come off your high horse and participate, including writing in your favorite record or records if they’re not included here, so others can share in your gift of musical knowledge.
It was a weird year for albums, and in some respects that’s reflected in the nominees. It was both a great and terrible year for releases, which has given rise to some dark horses. While the rest of country/Americana media regurgitates each other’s lists so they can stay popular, Saving Country Music attempts to look beyond borders, and include artists that may not have labels or publicists to find the truly best records. This list of nominees isn’t meant to represent the opinion of anyone but Saving Country Music, and this site was built under the spirit that everyone’s opinion matters. So don’t hate, participate.
Then let’s go.
Dori Freeman – Self-Titled
Sometimes 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)
Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil
Though Cody Jinks has been around for a good while and is reaching well into his 30’s, it just might be his time at the moment, for however long that time might last. His new album I’m Not The Devil is an ambitious, unwavering, slow and plodding volley of songwriting body blows that makes no apologies, incorporates no compromises, and gives no quarter to those with open hearts that love to listen to music that makes them swoon with one emotional onslaught after another, all served in a down home deep-fried unapologetically country style.
Where previous efforts from Cody Jinks would maybe have a few songs that were ready for regional radio acceptance with sanguine attitudes and sensible production, or were more distinctly rock than country, I’m Not The Devil is Cody Jinks leaving it all out there and burying his hands deep into his country roots, worrying more about how honest he’s being with himself and the inspiration of the song than if anyone wants to hear it. And aside from one track, it’s all expressed in half-time or waltz-time sludgy power punches, stringing out an underlying tension and sense of dusk throughout this record, except for the moments he decides to let a little bit of light shine through.
True country music fans right now don’t just want good music, they want reassurance that good country music will continue to remain a part of music moving forward. Too often have they had their heart broken. Too often they’ve seen worthy talent pushed aside or put out to pasture, or put their hope in an artist who ultimately lets them down. Cody Jinks started in rock, and we can’t rule out entirely that he won’t veer back in that direction in the future, even if for a moment. But for now, Cody Jinks and I’m Not The Devil is exact shot of country-infused goodness that real country fans need. (read full review)
Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives
Calling Tradition Lives a traditional country record stops short of telling the full story. What really defines Mark Chesnutt’s first record in six years is one song of heartbreak after another. Tradition Lives is a full blown breakup album the likes we haven’t heard in country music and beyond in many years, merciless in how it delves into the themes and moments of living alone, losing the love of your life, and the heartbreak that follows. If country music today is much too saccharine with all of the fun-loving party anthems, Tradition Lives is a massive, 800 lb. counterweight tethered to the other side of the spectrum, trying to wrench country music back to equilibrium.
This is one of those records that can make grown ass men weep, so if you don’t want to expose your teddy bear side to the public, perhaps you should listen alone, and put a handkerchief on your knee. One of the symptoms of so many bad songs being cut by today’s country artists is that ample material is out there just waiting to be discovered and cut. One argument people levy against artists like Chesnutt is they tend to not write their own stuff. But picking the right songs and making them your own is an art to itself, and one that Chesnutt has excelled at throughout his career.
The biggest days of fame for artists like Mark Chesnutt are more behind than they are ahead, and that’s just the way of things. But that’s in no way a commentary on the quality of music Chesnutt can still create. He’s not slipped a bit in his understanding of why people listen to country music. There’s plenty of options for those looking for a bit of escapism on the morning commute, or to blast at the bonfire party. But we all hurt. None of us have been spared from the touch of heartbreak. And at certain times when you’re at your most lonely or broken, you need someone or something to remind you that you’re not alone in that heartbreak, but that millions have suffered through and persevered as well, and are doing so at this very moment. That’s what the music of Mark Chesnutt is for. (read full review)
Nick Dittmeier and the Sawdusters – Midwest Heart / Southern Blues
Songwriter 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)
Blackberry Smoke – Like An Arrow
Blackberry Smoke isn’t just saving country music, they’re rehabilitating the status of all American music by baptizing it in the muddy waters of the all-immersive guitar riff delivered unencumbered and fully amplified, flying in the face of all notions of present-day style or trend that acquiesce to eepish tones and textures, shedding no tears if it leaves some of their previous mainstream fans or frail lightweights grasping their ears and heading for the exits as fire comes roaring out PA speakers like a primal country rock yawp.
Some extend their fandom to Blackberry Smoke from a love of country music. To others the Georgia-based outfit evidences a formidable expression of Southern rock. Still others hear more of a classic rock style to their music. But as pointy-nosed music types quibble about what to call it and where to draw the delineation lines, Blackberry Smoke is trucking right on by, sensing they’ve just now hit their stride by letting the inspiration of the music designate their path, and after taking multi-year pauses between recorded projects to evaluate and asses, they’re now laying on the gas and not looking back. (read full review)
Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life
Life has a way of selling us on lies that seem so promising and resolute when we embrace them, but ultimately reveal themselves as the antithesis of discovering our true selves. Music in some cases stokes these fanciful ideas and pursuits, nudging us into parts unknown in search of something that in many cases is just not there, or at least not there for most of us.
It’s the “Ramblin’ Man” of classic rock and Outlaw country, and the free spirit of folk that inspires us to take like a bird to flight and follow wherever the Universe takes us. It’s these romantic Kerouac notions that set the young American adult in tumultuous motion. Sooner or later youthful indiscretion and wanderings usually give way to the wisdom of life, and usually, the understanding that love and family is the underlying nucleus of everyone’s human experience, and the essential ingredient to happiness.
Our favorite albums and songs many times go on to define the important eras in our lives because it’s what we’re listening to at that time. This album defines an era in life in a similar manner, but it a way that resonates whether you’re heading into, currently living through, or recalling the time in life when you truly become yourself, slough off the youthful pride and fanciful notions that freedom at all costs isn’t its own form of prison, and are ready to love the people who will always love you back, whether you’re coming or going. (read full review)
Jack Ingram – Midnight Motel
Jack Ingram wanted to let everyone know as soon as they turn this record on that he doesn’t give a damn anymore about “making” it in music, or making tons of money from it. That’s all in the past. Finito. If he does make money henceforth, it will be on his terms. And just in case you question his resolve about this after hearing some of the stuff he released on Big Machine, Jack’s gonna yammer a bunch in between songs to show you he’s serious that he doesn’t want anything more than regional radio touching this stuff.
Midnight Motel is not just an album, it is an experience. Many artists try this, but Jack Ingram, producer Jon Randall, and his Beat Up Ford Band pull it off. There are so many great songs, but there’s maybe even more better moments. There’s a song called “Blaine’s Ferris Wheel” about a concert promoter in San Angelo that starts off with Jack telling a long-winded story about Blaine and how he once booked Merle Haggard. To be frank, the story that Jack tells sort of meanders and is hard to keep up with. But when he sings the song right after you hear the story, it becomes this brilliantly unfurling masterpiece where every turn of the story is enrapturing and ripe with warmth and wisdom.
So many of these Texas country artists are saddled by past trespasses in the eyes of certain country purists who scoff when they simply see their names. But the loss is theirs. Jack Ingram has paid the dues, fought the battles, seen it all, and now can sing about it with authority. It’s easy for some to sit back and swear they’d never sell out when the truth is they never had the chance to because they’re either not talented enough or too lazy. Meanwhile Jack Ingram has seen both sides of the coin, is man enough to admit he went dancing with the devil, yet made it back in one piece and made a record that not only atones for any past transgressions, but is bred specifically from those lessons while being fearless in its approach and articulating things no ordinary 13-track record could ever convey. (read full review)
Kelsey Waldon – I’ve Got a Way
In 2016, most would never choose “classic country” as a job description; it’s only something that must be chosen for you by forces out of your control, with no option of wiggling out of your obligation. It’s just too debilitating of a life’s purpose, more than likely leaving you with heartache and disappointment as you try to eek out enough attention for your efforts to justify existence. Yet it can ultimately be incredibly rewarding in ways much richer than financial success.
Kelsey Waldon’s sophomore album I’ve Got A Way is a fiercely-classical, traditional country album through and through, cover to cover, with songs of heartbreak and healthy amounts of steel guitar slathered across the tracks generously, and her undeniable country roots grounded in the curiously-titled hometown of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky sticking up through the surface like the trip hazard veins of some great oak tree. And that’s most of what you’ll hear about Kelsey and this album. And though this is all true and a material asset to her effort in the minds to classic country’s often lampooned, but fiercely loyal fans, there’s something much more underlying going on in this record that many may miss.
I’ve Got A Way is not just classic country gold delivered in the modern realm, it is an allegorical voyage delivered in mutable, yet intertwined themes that delve deep into the material journey the soul must take when trying to navigate its path through life past all manner of travails, and pitfalls veiled as pots of gold. This album is about the test that life poses to see if one is strong enough to hold onto themselves. A classic country performer is going to know this journey all too well because nothing except the prodding from some diehard fans and an eternal drive inside is going to keep them soldiering forward. (read full review)
Lori McKenna- The Bird & The Rifle
The typical specimen of the ones we envision helping to save country music are usually young, angry, post-punk and thick-skinned honky tonkers with a penchant to swear in their music and wax aggressively about the ill’s of today’s country with a middle finger wagging at Music Row. But what if the effort to return country music to its past glory is just as much, if not more in the hands of 30-something and middle-aged songwriting women, who on the surface may not strike one as having the fortitude for a fight, but through their words and songs can find an important way to contribute to the cause of returning country to its high water mark, not through cussing and demagoguery, but through setting an example of the type of substantive efforts that make folks proud to count themselves among the ranks of country fans again?
Who would place the burden of trying to inch forward the entrenched and oligarchical ways of mainstream country’s stodgy iron works in the hands of a mother of five living in Massachusetts like Lori McKenna? Not many, including probably themselves. Yet in 2016, they are some of the most responsible for forward progress. These women are not trying to save country music. They’re just trying to put what they feel into words in a way most of the rest of us can’t. They possesses the virtue of insight and the talent to articulate it in a way that compels you to listen intently.
Lori McKenna’s The Bird & The Rifle is not going to become some major blockbuster because despite all the efforts, country women continue to be ignored. But to the listeners that matter, it will loom large, and possibly larger than any other release. It’s also an excellent bridge between independent Americana and the radio mainstream because McKenna can exist in both those worlds. And most importantly, it is exquisitely written, with one insightful turn of phrase after another. It’s a songwriter’s album in every sense, and a joyful experience. (read full review)
Doug Bruce – Unsung
Unsung 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)
The Cactus Blossoms – You’re Dreaming
Under 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)