Below are the three Best Country Albums of 2016 as picked by Nash Country Daily managing editor Jim Casey.
2016 was a year ripe with country albums, including a scattering of stinkers (I won’t mention those) and a handful of great ones (Keith Urban’s Ripcord, Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, Loretta Lynn’s Full Circle, Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, Luke Bell’s self-titled). If you haven’t heard all of the aforementioned albums from start to finish, I suggest you do so. Each one brings a little something different to the table, but greatness is their uniting factor.
When it comes to the BEST albums of 2016, three jumped out at me right away when listening for the first time. To make sure I wasn’t delusional, I listened to them over and over again.
One of the perks of this job is having access to every country album that came out in 2016, not just what’s being played on country radio. And that’s fortunate, because the three best albums of 2016, in my humble opinion, weren’t played on country radio in a significant way—if in any way. That’s a shame, because there’s a lot more out there than what’s being disseminated into the FM ether.
Without further ado, here are my three picks for the Best Country Albums of 2016.
The Cedar Creek Sessions
Even at 80 years old, Kris Kristofferson is a more formidable singer/songwriter than anyone on country radio—and anyone who says differently hasn’t listened to The Cedar Creek Sessions. Recorded over three days in Austin, Texas, and tracked with a live band, the album features 25 songs from Kris’ venerable collection, including a stripped-down version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” an aching rendition of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and a stellar duet with Sheryl Crow on “The Loving Gift” that would make Johnny and June smile. But this is no greatest hits album. Kris has reinterpreted each song, thus reinventing the collection. His barrel-aged vocals—something that only comes with the help of Father Time—give these tunes a new flavor, and a new kick, after 40 years.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
If country music was an all-around competition like in gymnastics, Sturgill would be wearing a gold medal with the individual effort he put into A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Vocals? 10. Musicianship? 10. Lyrics? 10. Producing? 10. Sturgill is like Simone Biles, except much angrier. OK, bad analogy. He’s more like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld—he suffers for his soup.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a funkified departure from Sturgill’s previous two albums, but his depth of lyric (he solely wrote eight of the nine songs), vocal swagger and the ’60s soul of his own axe and backing band (and the addition of the horn-happy Dap-Kings on five of the nine tracks) showcase his true dexterity as a frontman, musician and producer. Sturgill, who has had his share of worldly adventures, designed the album as a navigational device for his 2-year-old son, but the real discovery is that the album’s journey is a treasure for open-minded listeners of every age, highlighted by the chart-coursing “Keep It Between the Lines” and the day-seizing “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).”
Big Day in a Small Town
While Brandy’s award-winning 2013 debut album, 12 Stories, was a passion project to let the world know she was more than a gifted songwriter, Big Day in a Small Town reaffirms—and secures—her spot among the elite singer/songwriter/storytellers in the country genre. Why this album didn’t get more—if any—airplay on country radio is beyond me.
If Sturgill gets the individual gold medal for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Brandy’s A Big Day in a Small Town gets the team gold: produced by Jay Joyce; songwriters that include Shane McAnally, Lori McKenna, Luke Laird and more; backing vocals from Kacey Musgraves, Morgane Stapleton and more; musicianship from Keith Gattis, Fred Eltringham and more. And, yes, Brandy, leading the way.
Big Day in a Small Town is a lyrical masterpiece that is brimming with characters Brandy and her co-songwriters created—some based on real people from her hometown in Morton, Wash. (pop. 1,126), some based on folks she’s met during her travels, some just figments of her incredible imagination and some who are composites of all of the above.
Brandy’s 11-song offering—of which she wrote or co-wrote every tune—plays out like a series of short films. There’s the long-past-her-reign “Homecoming Queen” who reminisces about her plastic crown and wonders where the last 10 years have gone; there’s the bold every-woman of “Girl Next Door” who refuses to fit her lover’s Marcia Brady-like expectations; there’s the couple in “Broke” who are living hand to mouth with their tattered jeans and empty cupboards; there’s the mom in the title track who, unbeknownst that her high schooler is pregnant, chides her for gaining weight, and eventually has to come down to the principal’s office when her water breaks.
How’s that for creating composite characters that leap out of the lyrics to become living, breathing entities?
It’s been three years since Brandy released 12 Stories, and in that time, she has logged a lot of miles on the road as a touring artist, as well as pushed her vocal and musical boundaries. All of her hard work is evident on Big Day in a Small Town. Now, if country radio would just support her, we’d have a bona fide superstar on our hands.